9.30.2012

The Terrible Truths of Parenting

Parenting a human baby is a nightmare. A deer is spawned and, within minutes, is walking. But a human baby is born raw, a wad of cookie dough that can barely breathe on its own. It's all because of our freakishly enormous heads: they're so big, and ladies' hips so small, that we spit the kid out half baked, its head still mushy so it can squeeze down the birth canal. 

A newborn deer is walking within minutes. A newborn human is a helpless wad of cookie dough.
(My kid got stuck at the gate. So they vacuumed him out, suction seizing his yet-formed crown and, with a more or less gentle suck, cajoling him from the warm embrace of his mother's, uh, canal. When he finally made his grand entrée, his head was elongated, a bluish Modigliani, an azure Conehead. It was, needless to say, an odd moment. Fortunately, heads are more elastic than plastic.)

As a result, human spawn are needy little runts. They require relentless tending. And, as they're still so utterly helpless, everything — everything — is an issue. Which makes them screech and whine and cry with abandon and without end. Oh, yes, they are demanding. And not with the kinds of demands one can ignore. Their demands are often a matter of life and death, a gentle slap on the back reinvigorating a nascent respiratory system.

Which is why human child rearing was never meant to be done by an isolated individual. Our birthing requires a team, a pack. We are wolves, not mountain lions. The human mother is literally drained of her vitality — the child, a vampire at her teet. To survive, not to mention to flourish, she needs the assistance of her community. 

This is simply the inherent state of things: human child rearing is difficult, demanding a community of support. But the conditions of contemporary parenting, rather than seeking to alleviate these burdens — rather than working towards the vitalization of the parent — only exacerbate the issue. 

Somewhere along the line, the family became a discrete unit set up in their own house, separated from the support of extended family. When my kid was born, we were purposefully thousands of miles from our respective families. We're independent, dammit! This isolation is the birth of the Oedipal nightmare as mommy-daddy-baby enact — nay, create — the neurotic drama we know so well. 

As a culture, we are so sick such things have become the fodder of pop comedies. Isn't it hilarious that kids are spoiled? That, as parents, we have no lives? That we are desexualized? And are so tired we're almost dead?  Ha ha ha ha!



It's not funny.

When I was a kid, I loved the affect of adulthood. I loved the rare occasions when there were other adults in the house as food and booze and stories flowed. The horror of our familial politics and its perverse, all-too-familiar politics were temporarily put aside. The adults would drink and talk and laugh and discuss and argue — about politics, films, ideas, anything. And we kids could either sit there and listen or absent ourselves to play elsewhere.  In those days, neither parents nor children thought kids were the center of attention. 

Me, I sat there amongst the adult. And even when I did excuse myself, I relished the sounds and smells reverberating throughout the house — the rumbling resonance of men holding forth, the clank of glasses, the whiff of whiskey and wine. It never occurred to me, to any of the kids, to run into the middle of the grown ups and be cutesy or whine or beg or demand.

We were humbled by adult culture. We could participate, sure, but on their terms. I knew that if I was to say something, it better be something thoughtful. 

Today, a kid walks into the middle of an adult conversation and proclaims loudly to all, I'm bored. I don't care, you little fuck stick. Go play with any number of the ten thousand toys and gadgets in your room.

Just look at the lines of sight at any such gathering: the adults will be looking at the kids. And their voices will be in this this horrific, seemingly patient tone: You're bored, Jasper? Why don't you tell everyone about your soccer game. I'm sure they'd love to hear! No, no we wouldn't. Please, for god's sake, send that little runt away.   

Look at any gathering of families today. What sounds do you hear? What odors do you smell? It's all the whine and chatter of kids, the inane baby talking of parents, as the smell of over-priced organic mac & cheese wafts through the room. There is no adult conversation, no sustained discussions of books or life or love. There is no rumbling resonance of adult males holding forth. It's all been replaced with the cloying tones of child placation. Some little shit head kid wants something different to eat and three adults a) discuss the child's wants with exaggerated care; and b) jump from the table to prepare something else.

Somewhere along the line, we decided kids rule the roost. That the best way to parent is to negate our adulthood, hide our personal wants and needs. Kids, we believe, should be shielded from adulthood.

But then how are they supposed to learn to be adults?

And who says this is what they want, anyway? Sure, give the little beasts free reign and they'll take it. But I know as a kid I loved — loved — being humbled before adults, knowing that I was less interesting and longing and training and aspiring for the day when I would have interesting things to say, funny observations to make, when I could be a raconteur, whiskey in hand.

Because I knew at age 6, at age 8, at age 12, that I was a moron. That adults knew more, were funnier, sharper, had interests and needs, an intellect and a life, that exceeded mine. And this was welcomed, enjoyed, a pedagogy and a delight: it was as assuring as it was inspiring.

This is what I try to teach my son. That he is interesting and smart but that adults know more, have thought more, and that if he just shuts the fuck up and listens, he might learn something. After all, he's in third grade.

Alas, this is not the culture of parenting we, uh, enjoy today.  My friends with kids are intellectuals, artists, poets. They are not what we might imagine typical bourgeois, suburban parents. And yet family gatherings with them are awful. There are no parents getting lit while the kids play. That is a fantasy. In reality, there is relentless interruption and tending to these entitled jackasses (and I mean that most affectionately, of course). 

Sure, we all think we'll be different. When I'm a parent, we proclaim defiantly in our deluded 20s, I'm gonna be different. I'm gonna make my spouse as important as my child. We'll spend time with friends, drink, talk, fuck — and our kids will be the coolest! That's great. But the reality is you are up against a powerful culture, a discourse of parenting that is not only all encompassing but has a psycho-juridical apparatus as its disposal — the Law of Judge Oprah. 

You take your kid to the playground and every parent there starts talking about their kid. It is a truly ghastly experience:  Chloe still wets her bed. And I care....why? Maximillian still sleeps with us. Jesus! Really? When do you fuck?

Of course, in the absence of extended family, some of this is welcome. The playground is where and how we can learn to parent. But try to talk about anything else — say, a film or idea — and you will be shunned. Show a lack of "proper" attention to your kid, and you actually risk the intervention of Social Services (pace Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom).  A friend of mine posted a picture of his six year old son, shot from behind, peeing at a urinal. A so-called friend of his wrote him to take it down due to the "sickos and pervs" out there. But who, I ask, is the sicko here?

With a certain irony, the human condition, with these big alien heads of ours, makes child rearing a life draining task. It sucks the vitality from us with merciless vigor, leaving mere husks in its wake. The much hallybooed zombie apocalypse is here. It's called parenting. 

Coda
I am insanely in love with my son. The fact that I feel any need to say that is exactly my point: as I question the ruling discourse of parenting, I feel a need to defend myself. The thing is, I don't want him to be like the spoiled little fucksticks I see everywhere. I want him to be thoughtful, passionate, humble, engaged, kind, polite, aware, articulate, generous. I want him to sense that there is a wider world out there filled with exquisite complexity, mystery, wonder — a world of ideas, art, films, books, relationships that he can't yet understand. But that, one day, he will. 

9.23.2012

Hedging the Flows: On Marc Lafia's "An Anatomy of Pictures"

An image from Lafia's Anatomy of Pictures. See more >

The conceit seems at once clear and strange. Images of art from books  overlaid with found stuffs from nature — twigs, seaweed, shells, leaves — and then photographed. But what's happening here? 

At first glance, there is something funny and disconcerting — and perhaps funny because disconcerting. These works of art that are so elaborate, brimming with history, sentiment, labor, love, and desire. And they're not even works of art — they are pictures of works of art, monumentalized in a book. It's all-too-human. And then there is this detritus, these scraps of nature — a dead fish, a sea shell — lying there stupid. This deadpan fish seems to be mocking our human shenanigans. And yet, at the same time, the stupidity of the fish elevates the toils of human being.





From one angle, then, these images draw a distinction between the human and the natural — and specifically between art and nature.  After all, art comes from artifice and what's less natural than that?

But by placing these things in such juxtaposition, we are invited to find commonalities of flow between art and nature. We can see this in the purely formal aspects of the works. Put aside the subject matter, the history, the accumulation of cultural signs and knowledge and we are left with forms, lines of varying intensity. Suddenly, art and nature are not opposed. On the contrary, we are invited to see it all as flows, as shapes, as motions, as gestures.


The curves of a woman's body, the curves of the carved stone, the curves of the found rocks: they are of an ilk, all flowing together in a mysterious cosmic calculus, different modulations of a common source.

As the diverse of art images — they traverse time, space, culture — commingle with the stuffs of oceans and brush, we suddenly see the tectonics of art practice, all those movements and styles marking shifts in the very constitution of the earth. "Works of art," Lafia writes, "have genealogies and material form and like living forms continually change over time. The processes that produce art works, the materials and techniques, its raison d'etre in a culture, as these things change, art works and the activity of art and what we see as the art work also change and adapt." Just as the movements of the earth — its plates, its rocks, its flora, fauna, animals — shift, together, with the cosmic winds, so does art.  Looking at Lafia's images, we see thousands of years of non-linear history (pace Manuel Delanda). 

This is not to say that nature and art are the same. What Lafia does is orchestrate this distinct flows so that they inflect each other, move in and around and with each other, at times flowing into a common river but more often flowing at different speeds, different tempos and temperatures and intensities.


Look at this image. The natural objects fit with the face of the sculpture. But the two realms do not unite. We see, we sense, we know the different trajectories as there are limits, at once clear and blurred. And in a perhaps surprising reversal, it's the art object that is slow, monumental, tectonic while the natural objects are accelerated, giddy, pleated with whimsy as if drawn with the hand of the street artist.

Here, neither art nor nature comes first. It's not a matter of origin but of flow — flows of ever different stuffs, ever different speeds, ever different trajectories. The difference between a dead fish and a painting is not that one's artificial; it's that each distributes time, space, and matter in different way. As Henri Bergson says, they are not different in kind. They are both images.

From this view, a fish — a shell, a leaf of grass — is a self-construing work of art. It gathers together diverse elements from its environs and transforms them into itself — kelp, water, ripple, bubble, pebble, rock become gills, tail, slime, teeth. Every fish construes itself differently. A species is a school of art, all the fish following the same basic premise and rules, a kind of Dogme 95 as the species, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, plants its placard. This is us! We flow like this!

So what of Lafia's art work? Well, the emergence of these works began with a very old fashioned exercise: he wanted to sketch. Which is to say, these works were born of the mimetic drive of art, to reproduce, to represent, the natural world.  But something happened along the way.

"in my desire to do some sketching i had gotten some books from the wellfleet [Cape Cod] library on anatomy, some works from the naturalists, haeckel and others, and some art history books. i wanted to make some drawings to bring these two things together, anatomies across forms including human, plants and animals. drawing takes a lot of time, and is very concentrated and i like that. so in the afternoon light, on the expansive woods and lawn in front of the bay, I put a small silver fish just found on a walk, on a book page with a drawing of an outline of a wolf on a lounge chair in front of me. i took out my hb pencil and looked down at the fish on the page and the outline and spent the next hour with eraser making markings on paper.

"then to record what i was doing, i took out my camera and took a simple picture. and then i could see that the camera draws a picture, sees what i can not see. the camera, and the photograph it takes, makes, is a plastic, has plasticity, has a language, the camera sees through its instrumentation something we do not see with our eyes. what i saw was that the fish was reading the wolf. it was a fish that showed me the wolf, a real fish on the drawing of a perfectly scaled and anatomically correct wolf. the scale of the fish with flies hovering about it was perfectly aligned with the scale of the wolf as it lay on this 9 x 12 page."


From mimesis to instrumentation and its framing, hedging, and stipulating of the cosmic flows: in this process, Lafia moves from the classic desire to represent the world to the modern practice of steering flows. The modern artist is not a master. He does not as much create as he does hedge: Pollock letting paint fall as it might; Duchamps putting a bicycle wheel in a museum; Goldsworthy making the tides his collaborator.

And Lafia, gatherhing these multi-layered genealogies of art and making them move, making them flow, with the elaborately pleated bodies of shells and fish to forge these...what? What are they? Photographs? Paintings? Sculptures?

No, none of these old world terms apply because Lafia is not using a medium to represent the world. His work — like all modern art — re-architects, re-engineers, the relationship between human and inhuman becoming, between nature and artifice. Lafia is not representing the world but putting on the world, putting images to work with images. Lafia, alas, is an imagist, an image maker, an agent of the image. Like our fish-artist, he gathers elements from his environs — books from the Wellfleet library, debris from the beach — and steers them, massages them, folds them into this placard, into this anatomy of pictures.



The Life of Things


There are three pillows on my bed. Each has its own way of taking me on, taking me up — my weight, odor, oils. Every night is an elaborate negotiation of my needs, my desires, my body with the respective body of my three pillows. One refuses my advances nightly: it tosses my head to the side, as if turning from my kiss. One seems like it wants me but is unsure, awkward, confused — with the right prodding, it has been known to acquiesce. And the other is a welcome bedfellow, generous and welcoming, even if becoming fatigued at this stage of its life. 

Some nights, comfort eludes me as my night becomes all turns and tussles. I know these pillows. Why, then, would I ever ignore their desires? Because, sometimes, I am so arrogant as to think: I am a human and they are mere pillows!

But when I am aware — when I am attentive, respectful, generous —  I forge the perfect harmony, an orgy of bodies and materials, of wants and needs, each of us in sync with the other as the night becomes an aria, a lullaby, a bed of contentment.

It's not just the pillows. My apartment is small. My office is at the foot of my bed — a small Ikea desk "made" from glue and crap; a monitor; a laptop blinking blue; papers and bills and notes in disarray. My work bags lay strewn about. There are books, clothes, scraps of all sorts everywhere. When I go to sleep, I am not alone: all these things whisper, scream, chatter as they will. It's a wonder I can get a wink of sleep. 

And then there are the walls, the floor, the ceiling: this is an older house and it has seen some things. Or so it tells me.

This is not a metaphor. I am not anthropomorphizing these things. Everything speaks, literally, even if not in words.

It is a terrible mistake to assume the world of things is inanimate; that it is there for our use; that things only have power in as much as we imbue them; that, because we are human beings, we should be able to overcome the influence of things.

Things have their ways. They speak to us. They nudge us. Things live amongst us. Or, more properly put, we live amongst them. 

When I look at something, at anything, that thing quite literally fills my body. To perceive is to be affected. It is silly to think that we have some soul, some being, that is free from the life of things, that is somehow better than, or disengaged with, the materiality of things. For god's sake, even Jesus pooped. As Henri Bergson might say, the distinction between human and thing is false. The brain is matter interacting with other matter. As a hand tenderly holds a ripe raspberry; as a thrown baseball shatters a window; as a flicker of fingers positions pixels, things move us — and we move them.  

Such is the cosmos: stuff going with stuff. And I am a thing amongst things. Human beings are complex objects — although some of us are more complex than others. (While this is, I believe, the claim of a certain academic trend called Object-oriented Ontology, it seems to me like it's the Deleuzian phenomenology I studied and professed in the 90s. This is not a nudge at OOO, just an observation free of judgment. I swear! I am a fan of anything or anyone who professes this understanding of things and being — or becoming, as the case may be.)

Peter Stallybrass, my undergraduate mentor, has written on the way clothes bear our bodies, our memories, our selves. In his great essay, "Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things," he tells the story of giving a lecture while wearing the old sports coat of his deceased best friend, Allon White, when he was suddenly overcome with emotion. At first, he didn't know why. And then he realized it was the coat, that his friend was there with him, literally:

"And then, as I began to read, I was inhabited by his presence, taken over. If I wore the jacket, Allon wore me. He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles which in the technical jargon of sewing are called 'memory'; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits. Above all, he was there in the smell."

We all have this experience in one form of another. Think of the first time you enter the room of a lover. All those things! All those clothes! It's intoxicating. They are not just clothes, just things. No, they are totems, talismans, amulets of love, of desire — of life! They glimmer, they gleam, they emanate. (I, for one, will admit that I have things — say, a certain shirt of a certain woman — tucked away in my drawer, occasionally taken out and sullied by my over sized shnoz, each whiff conjuring a breadth of sensations equally erotic and emotional — not that the two are opposed. I only do it occasionally out of fear I'll sniff up all the goodness.)

This is not say that clothes and things are barren to begin with, that their lives only come from the impressions we make on them. Like people, things assume their characters in the act of living. And as we all know, clothes make an impression on us. When I wear certain clothes, I am a certain self. Clothes literally frame and shape me, socially and physically — my everyday jeans, my work jeans, my work slacks, my wedding pants: each situates me within a semiotic system just as each drapes my hips just so. 

Everything is alive. Everything is animated. This is not say that everything participates in the same social contract or economy of money, desire, friendship. But everything endures in the Bergsonian sense of the word, distributing time and space in its own way.

Of course, the casual mass production of tchotchkes threatens the life of things. Think how different some enormous factory in China is than the artisan individually crafting your bowl, your furniture, your clothes, your food. A thing, like a person, is greatly constituted by its creation. But watching my eight year old son seize onto the cheapest, shittiest plastic toy, I know that the life of things is bigger than capitalism.  Any thing, every thing, is an assemblage point, a site of potential power.  

Watch (almost) any kid. There will be something in his hand, something she holds onto — a straw, a stick, a toy train. Certain things will suddenly be repelled, rejected, tossed aside. Others will assume a greater position of privilege. Kids are often attuned to the life of things.

My boy still sleeps with the same thermal blue blanket that's been in his bed since he was born. When we travel, it comes on the plane, ensconced in his grip as he concertedly but absent mindedly rubs the material between his fingers. That blanket is not just a blanket: it is alive, and not only with the sublime number of germs it holds. It has the extraordinary power to comfort, to appease, to lull.

You may retort that the power is not in the blanket but is in the power he gives the blanket — a sublimation, a transference. To which I'd reply: Of course. But aren't all relationships to all things some form of sublimation, of transference, a hedging and redirecting of flows of desire? Why this blanket and not any of the other shmatas that were in his crib? These desires don't just flow anywhere, after all. They flow where they can, where they are welcome, where this is a resonance — like an attraction between any two people. Or, for that matter, between any two things such as a vase and the concrete floor — or a little boy and a blue thermal blanket. 

I want to say that the cosmos swarms with life. But that's not right. The cosmos is life. Thinking otherwise only keeps me up all night.

_________________________________________

I've written about things before:
We Are Things Among Things
For the Love of Things

9.15.2012

Transparency in Hyperbolic Space

Hypercube #3 from Oilly Oowen on Vimeo.

A condition of transparency is the obscuring of light. Of course, what makes something transparent is that light passes through it. But if all light passed through it — if there was no deflection of light, no obscuring of sight — then the thing wouldn't be transparent: it wouldn't be at all. (Deleuze makes the same move with repetition: the condition of repetition is difference. Because if there were no difference, then it wouldn't be repetition: it'd be the same thing.)

While a seemingly obnoxious, pedantic gesture — sophistic, one might say were one not, himself, a sophist  — my point is this: everything, everywhere, is inflected. Transparency is premised on a Euclidian universe, a geometric universe: everything in its place, lines zipping along a flat empty space in which shapes sit.

But the universe is not a 3D geometry. I want to say it's a 4D calculus but that's not quite right, either. The world in which we live has god-knows how many dimensions.

And this same said world is not flat. It's folded, relentlessly. Some folds are big; some are small; some are severe; some, less so. Anyway, that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about what it means to look through something.

Every thing is an amalgamation of other things, visible and invisible. And it's not just an assemblage but a way of assembling, a style of gathering, poaching, stealing, adhering, cohering — of distributing this and that.

This thing that is many things, that takes up and distributes in a particular manner, is never done.  Which is to say, every thing is always changing, always moving. Every being is becoming.

So when I look at something, I am not just seeing that thing.  Because that thing is, in fact, other things. When I see, say, that glass sitting in front me, I see the glass, of course, but that glass is a taking up of sand, heat, the history of drinking vessels, refractions — amplifications and distortions — whatever that is — of what's spatially behind the glass (because, conceptually, the books behind my glass right now are historically in front of it). I see the world from the glass' perspective. 

This is the world as I see it, says the glass.  But that's not what I see. What I see is my seeing of the glass' seeing.  I don't as much look through the glass as I see with the glass. Metaphysics is all in the prepositions.

When I look at my son, at times, I see his mother. I see my eight year old self. All the while I see him. To see him is to see these other things — and to see him grasping for those things — for his friends, for me, for his mom, for Eminem and Groucho Marx, for dogs and soldiers and whatever other things he's taken up.  I want to be clear: I don't see Eminem when I see my son. I see my son trying to wear what he sees as Eminem. We all wear the world in our own way (pace JP Gaultier).

Of course, there is something to be said for distinguishing between, say, a window and a black couch. I can say that both are transparent in my sophistic definition but surely there is something productive about maintaining the more common understanding of transparency.  I think of people making battle gear and such: they would have little patience for my bullshit here.

Still, I wonder if we can retain some notion of transparency while shifting our understanding of it. 

Allison Holt, aka Oilly Oowen, gives us what she calls Hypercubes — translucent cubes made of resin in which we see flickering images as ambient sound mysteriously emanates. These are chunks of the world itself — the space directly in front of you.  Light passes through it and doesn't pass through it. Because the space directly in front of you is full — absolutely full, a plenum, in fact — and this means some light is getting through and some light is not getting through.

What is "light getting through," anyway? Do we ever see light per se? Or is light, like everything else, an amalgamation of other things?  Isn't white light the coexistence of all colors?  Light is not outside the fray. It surely has a critical role in the flow of things but light is not untouchable, as it were. If I had to say — in what situation could this possibly be the case? You can see Wittgenstein and Bergson's annoyance with philosophy's construction of ideal, false circumstances in which it tries to derive a truth — the vacuum being perhaps the most obvious but there's "language," too — as if language were something I could study — life and space are all about the em dash, the aside, the qualification, the whisper or scream or smile that punctuates the flow, always, because the flow is relentless but not steady — so, if I had to say, I'd say the fold precedes light as an essential ontological figure.  We fold before we see. Our seeing is a fold.

Look at Holt's Hypercubes. To see through something is to see a shape of the invisible world, a shape of light, and to hear your own voice, and the voices around you, constituting that "seeing through." All space is inflected with forces and drives and ideas and notions and smells. Nothing travels in a straight line. When we see the world, we see plenty. When we see a thing, we see many things — even when we see transparent things, we see plenty.

The defining figure of cosmic space is not the point or the line: it's the fold. Space, as Margaret Wertheim says, is hyperbolic.


The other day, my 8 year old asked the question every kid asks: What happens if the world is upside down? Would we fall off? Would our hair stand up (or fall down, as the case may be)?  I said to him, somewhat cryptically perhaps, What is up and down in space? His brow furrowed.

If we taught the logic of hyperbolic space, he'd never have asked that question. He'd know that everything is relative. That everything is inflected. That there is no norm, no standard, no certainty. That to see another face is to see the world. 

9.11.2012

Rethinking Relationships: On Distributed Intimacy

Sometimes, I think of all the modes of intimacy I have in my life — the banter with folks at my coffee shop, some of whom I've known for over 16 years, others I've just met; a run-in with a long lost childhood friend while visiting parents; a smile from the girl at the market which makes me weak in the knees; a Facebook post about Derrida and me from a former student; a Skype consummation with a woman I've never met in person that is so erotic I am laughing and giddy for days; a massage from the same masseuse I've seen for years and with whom I experience physical, exisential, and emotional nurturing; a texted image from my friend in Brooklyn, showing him floating on the Cape Cod ocean; my eight year old son climbing into my bed for some morning cuddles; conversations with my ex-wife about my son, discussing things that I could not possibly discuss with anyone else and that have the weight of eternity in them; cocktails with one of my best friends, gin fueling insights into Deleuze at a dizzying pace; this list is as infinite as life. 

I am a node within this vast, ever morphing dynamic of connections, these flows of touch and affect and knowledge, of profound resonance, dissonant irritation, misundertanding, orgasmic satiation, of longing, fear, hate and, yes, love — so many loves, so many kinds of love, so many modes of love.

And yet nearly every song, every moronic Hollywood movie — even Howard Stern's Private Parts —, every idiotic television show (this was Seinfeld's greatest contribution: breaking this model), my mother's prodding questions, even my own self assessment —that devil in my head — tells me the same thing: I gotta find that one person. Within the glorious teem of intimacies that is my life, I am supposed to be looking for one — one person who has to fill an insane number of roles — best friend, confidante, hang out buddy, lover, co-debt holder, cohabitator, co-sleeper, co-bathroom user, co-parent.

I known I'm not the first to say this — there is a chorus from Heraclitus to Leibniz to Guattari  — but I'll say it again: the one is a pervasive belief, insidiously permeating everything from our notions of the divine and the nation to identity and love itself. One god. One unifying theory of everything. One right answer. One me. One love.

This is our assumed goal: to find, and secure through whatever means necessary, that one person we can call our own. This is the story we tell ourselves over and over again. This is what we imagine is necessary to be happy. We even think it's sweet.

Now, I've had long term relationships with one person. I was even married for 13 years. But I'm thinking it's time to jettison this assumption and entertain a different model. I've done it with philosophy, literature, film, and art so why not with relationships? Just as I believe in distributed networks of identity, I will think of distributed networks of intimacy.

So rather than considering my life in terms of my proximity to this one — Are you seeing anyone? Is it serious? asks the narrative in the form of my mother, my friends, my own head — I now imagine something else entirely: an endlessly shifting distribution of intimacy.

Now, I am not talking about polyamory per se. Frankly, to me, that sounds so complicated. Which is not a moral or aesthetic judgment. The great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, tells us we should consider the strength of our shoulders before deciding whether to become a wrestler. This is how I feel about what people call polyamory: my shoulders aren't strong enough. I am not talking, then, about sex with different people — I, for one, believe sex gets better when done with the same person for a while.

No, what I am talking about here supersedes both marriage and polyamory. I am talking about a model that embraces all the different modes, all the possible architectures, of how we can relate and exchange intimacy. I am talking about a dynamic architecture where the intimacies of strangers, lovers, neighbors, and family flow. And, no, it is not a spectrum that runs from the casual conversation to the committed sexual relationship. It's not a spectrum but a network. 

This is not to say that all  relationships are, or should be, equal. That's silly. As in any network, such as the Inernet, there are multiple nodes of differing intensity. We don't just visit one website; we visit different sites for our different needs.

And I by no means want to belittle or dismiss that beautiful enchantment that comes when you first fall in love and all you want do is be with that one person, touch that one person, shower that one person with everything you have. That is one of the great gifts of being alive.

But that intensity relaxes and our attentions become more dispersed. And I'm suggesting that rather than think of this as a bad thing, let's consider it a beautiful thing: the beauty of ambivalence, of multivalence, of the great complexity of life. I want a more generous architecture, a more giving model: one that proliferates and enjoys all modes of intimacy rather than reducing and owning it.

In the graphic novel, Paying for It: A comic strip memoir about being a john, we see Chester Brown move from pyramid to network. In the beginning of the book, he's living with his girlfriend. But she falls in love with another man. Chester's not jealous. In fact, he's content with all the forms of intimacy he enjoys from friends — and even gets along better with his now ex-girlfriend.  Of course, all his friends assume he's repressing his hostility.  But he's not jaded or afraid or angry. On the contrary, he's brave — and simply content.


He decides he doesn't need another "relationship" in which both parties are owned by the other. But he does miss sex. And so he begins paying for it. Over time, he finds his way through being a john and, at the end of the story, he's been in a monogamous relationship with the same prostitute for six years. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. They do not live together. They have sex; he pays her.

But this doesn't mean they are not intimate. While they might not have the intimacy that comes from seeing someone shit and sleep for 20 years, they still have intimacy — not a greater or lesser intimacy. Money doesn't necessarily sully the relationship or make the intimacy fake. In fact, money can liberate both parties from the destructive mayhem of jealousy, judgment, and sentimentality.

The logic of the one love is the logic of ownership. Perhaps, ironically, paying for intimacy actually shifts this ownership dynamic.  I am not saying there are not ownership relationships in the sex trade. What I'm saying is that paying for sex does not necessitate ownership and, in fact, allows for a dynamic free of the ownership model that defines the one love model. (This is a discussion for another post at another time.)

At different times, different people account for more of my time, more of my thoughts, more of my desire, appetite, my longing and love. At different times, different people provide me with different kinds of intimacy — some that touch me deeply, some that grace the surface, exquisitely. There is not just one person who does it all for me. Why would I even want that? Just as I flow, I want my modes of intimacy to flow with me. 

I know this is not easy. That we can all be emotionally fragile, sensitive, needy. Basing relationships in flows rather than promises is risky, scary; people will get hurt, including me. 

But I want to be more ambitious. I want to be brave — so brave that I don't need the "ego boost" of having one woman who calls me her own (Chester Brown). Nor do I want to be so principled that I deny such a thing should it arise. I want to be so strong and effusive that I need no one but desire many. I want to be more generous, more romantic — so generous and romantic that I can embrace multiple kinds of relationships, different modalities of intimacy. I don't want to feel that need for the one that is so pervasive and eats away at people's well being. No, I want to make my way ecstatically through the ever-flowing, ever-fluctuating, intimacies of life. 

9.02.2012

Careening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Sensuality of Understanding

Socrates says the only way we can understand anything is by remembering it. After all, how could I possibly get my footing on a territory that I can't see and don't even know how to find?

Well, how do I understand this Platonic idea? Well, it's a clear architectural narrative, visually and logically. I literally see the steps. Which is not to say, I only see it. I also see it with different faculties, some kind of conceptual or sensical apparatus that works in conjunction with my more familiar senses. How else am I capable of ever discerning anything invisible such as someone else's mood (not to mention my own)?

So Socrates' remembrance just doesn't do it for me. I understand it but I don't believe it; it doesn't jibe with my experience. And, well, thinking about how we understand something new without remembering is more beautiful, strange, exotic. It conjures truly exquisite images.

There is something incredible — exhilarating, inspiring, erotic — about understanding something new: to learn a new way of going, a possible mode of becoming, a way of distributing the world. Whether I'm trying to understand Deleuze's notion of repetition or how to do a proper downward dog, I have to be trained in its ways, learn how it goes and what it wants from me.

I get to watch my son, now 8, grapple with all sorts of new things. I see him move from nonsense to sense, from befuddlement to understanding, often and it never ceases to amaze me. But what's even more amazing to me is watching him learn how to wrestle something he doesn't understand. It can be frustrating — for him and for me. Recently, we've been discussing division — as in math — and I see him catch glimpses of it but, more often than not, I see the blank stares, the miasma that encases him.

There are of course many things I can't understand — not things I don't understand but things I can't understand. Newtonian physics, for instance — no matter how many times I am told what happens to a ball when dropped from a window of a moving train, I fail to digest it. At the moment someone is drawing the picture for me, it seems to make sense. For a moment, in my teacher's sketch, I can see the idea —which is strange for something invisible — and then, woosh, it's gone. 

This is pretty much how I feel when someone shows me certain yoga stretches: I can't bend like that. All my Socratic memory is of no use. My body just doesn't go like that. 

Understanding is not just about access to the realm of ideas. No, it's wound up, bound up, with my body — with my constitution, both physical and metaphysical, with my health, my age, my flexibility, my metabolism (some ideas are too rich for some people; gives them indigestion, or worse).  Coming to something new, whether it's a concept or a yoga pose, demands that I be able to move my body as it asks. And sometimes, this body just doesn't want to bend.

This may seem strange as concepts are invisible. They are of the ether and hence equally accessible to all, right? Well, no. I have a terrible sense of direction. I should be able to see the virtual map of where I am — I see others do it — but I just can't. Like my kid trying to understand division, when I try to orient myself, I draw a blank.

This is true of concepts, too: there are some I can grasp — bend to, bend with, hold, move with — and some I cannot. It took me years to understand Deleuze's book, Difference & Repetition. He was asking me to bend in odd ways. In order to be able to do it, I had to train with him for two very difficult years which entailed doing things, thinking things, seeing things that I'd never done, thought, or seen.

Back in grad school, when I couldn't understand something — say, Kant's Critique of Judgment — I'd plan an evening with the book. I'd make a date. This was pre-cell phone but I would've turned off the phone. I'd dim the lights (mood is everything), smoke a joint (to loosen up tired thinking), sit in my big ol' vintage cushy chair (comfort matters), place the book in my lap (as a mnemonic, a totem), and I'd set myself to understanding. I'd read some passages. I'd look up. I'd take a swig of whiskey. I'd walk around. And, by night's end (hopefully; sometimes, it took days, weeks months, even years), I could see what I didn't understand: I wasn't necessarily doing the most graceful Kantian pose but I knew what he was asking of me. After that, it was just a matter of practicing.

Here are some of the things I do when trying to understand something:
  • Drink coffee: This is probably the most important thing. Coffee is an incredible epistemological tool, opening up channels, speeding up flows that can flounder with languor.
  • Tap my foot: Gotta keep blood flowing to the extremities
  • Chew my pen: Salivation lubricates conceptual digestion without busying the metabolism with food.
  • Stroll outside: Changes in scenery —what I literally see — help me see new things
  • Close my eyes: Sometimes, the things I see with my eyes closed are more vivid than with my eyes open.
  • Repeat: I'll read the same passage over and over again but differently each time, imagining the italics.
  • Read aloud: Often, reading in different tenors and timbres — lending an air of drama — helps the ideas come to life.
  • Scan for a foothold: I flip through the book looking for some fragment — a sentence, a phrase — that I understand: a foothold in this new, strange land. And then I build out from there.  This is the most practical thing I'll tell you.
  • Use a totem: I keep a physical marker of whatever it is I'm trying to understand, whether it's a person, my own motives, or an idea. This marker helps me more easily conjure what I need to grasp. 
  • Write: The coercion of grammar can be a catalyst revealing logics that are not at first obvious. This is rarely effective. The blank page stymies as much as it liberates.
  • Draw: As in pictures and diagrams and such. Similar to writing, images have a logic that can coerce new pathways.
Sometimes, I have to lean into the idea, literally push my body — my comportment, my memory, my associations— into it. Other times, I need to lean back, let it come to me, wash over me.  Usually, it entails a moving back and forth, a davening, as in Jewish prayer, a rocking back and forth.

Consider Russell Crowe's Maximus before he heads into battle. He squats, takes the soil in his hands, runs it through his fingers, and smells it. This is a great model for understanding anything: hold it, consider its weight, let it run through your fingers — of your hand, your memory, your conceptual facility.

To understand is to feel and see and smell and hear how something goes — how it shapes the world. And how it shapes you. To understand is to be able to bend with whatever it is, jibe with it, resonate with it, play with it. Understanding is not solely an abstract endeavor. It is thoroughly sensual. To understand something is to get jiggy with it, in every sense.