12.31.2012

Synchronicity

You're in the middle of of a break up with your girlfriend. It's Friday night, you're out alone feeling strange, sad, reflective, buzzed. Hungry, you contemplate food. There are a million restaurants — good restaurants — within throwing distance. But for some reason you decide to get in your car — not your brightest idea — and drive to some sushi restaurant you've never been to across town. According to a compelling private logic, you persuade yourself that if you find a parking space, that's where you'll go, a sign that it's where you're meant to be. (Alone, we entertain stranger logics than we do culturally.)

Sure enough, you find a spot right in front of the restaurant. You park, turn off the engine, and with a sudden flood of emotion brought on by your good parking fortune, you decide to email your almost-once-beloved right then and there.

A bit more than buzzed, you spend some time, craft your sentences, try to articulate the 1073 things you're feeling at the moment. Finally, you edit as best you can on that stupid little screen and, as you hit send, wonder if that was your wisest move. And then you walk into the restaurant.

You realize you're more loaded than you thought. You start to scan the place for mood and availability. As your eyes move across the room, processing all this new data, you suddenly happen upon a familiar face — a very familiar face. But as it's out of place, it can't actually be there. That would make no sense. You do a double take (I like to imagine all experiences directed by Chuck Jones). But, no, there it is. There she is. On a date.

What the proverbial fuck? Not that she's on a date — power to her — but that you happen to end up here, now, like this.

Maybe it's just a coincidence. You're doing whatever it is you do and she's doing whatever it is she does and if you rolled the dice a trillion times, one of those times you'd end up at the same time in the same place. It doesn't mean anything. Sure, the two events — the two of you going to the same restaurant at the same time and place — have created a powerful, new event. But it's the same as two asteroids colliding in space. A big event doesn't necessitate meaning.

Or maybe it does mean something  — something really, really important. Like you're supposed to be together! What else propelled you through all these elaborate mechanics, all these decisions conspiring to bring you two together!

Now, no events are discrete. The things that happen to us are related to other things that happen to us. The most familiar of these connections is linear cause and effect which makes the connections between events obvious. My friend called me because I'd called him. Or my parents came to visit because they wanted to see their grandson. (If I were walking through the Mission one day and there, at a coffee shop with her AirBook open, was my mother I'd probably drop dead.)

And yet things happen to us all the time that are connected in ways we can't discern. Indeed, all things are connected in some way to all other things, a billion butterfly wings and such. These connections can be more or less resonant, more or less obvious, but they're always there. All events are part of ever fluctuating constellations, at once creating and being created. 

Sometimes, things happen to us that seem discontinuous — there is no discernible cause and effect — and yet are so intimately related we feel there must be some connection. Or at least a connection we should know. I mean when someone rolls a ball down the street towards me, it is so obvious how the ball came to me that I don't ask what the connection is. But when something happens like you find your should-be girlfriend in a random restaurant on a date, you find yourself looking around for the cause  — for surely there must be!

In our so-called scientific culture, your first thoughts concern the cause and effect. Did she tell me she was coming here and I forgot? Or vice versa? Is this restaurant close to something that connects it to us?

An obvious, linear, causal connection can't be found. And yet there she is! Here I am! Somehow, despite the 10,000 restaurants in this city, despite all the different times people come to eat, we came to the same restaurant — one neither of us had ever been to! And at the same time! My god, it must mean something! 

The uninteresting answer is that it is the work of some master plan, some divine providence, some inscrutable knowing that exists above these two events, connecting them in ways your eyes and human intelligence cannot possibly know. This is what we do when we can't explain things empirically: If I can't see it, it can't be! And so we look over the head of the event and appeal to some "higher" source.

And we are left with a thoroughly unsatisfying, and I dare say false, dichotomy.  On the one hand, god and a meaning that is exterior to the events, a sure meaning that guides — a soul to the body that is experience. On the other hand, we have "pure" chance and meaninglessness — shit happens, no big deal.

But it seems to me that both of these options are silly, that there are connections between events that happen in all sorts of ways beyond cause and effect and that these connections are not part of some divine plan. While we tend to focus on things that move linearly — our life trajectory, career, stories, movies, our laws of physics —the fact is things connect laterally, diagonally, and discontiguously, that is, skipping time and place to forge a connection. Indeed, some events skip across the surface of time, like a comet coming into view now and again. There are forces that exceed us such as, say, gravity. But there are all sorts of forces as we are not actors on the stage of the earth but constitutive and constituent of this cosmos.

And the cosmos is neither meaningful nor meaningless.  The cosmos happens. And this very happening is meaning. Which is to say, meaning is not to be found outside of what happens. Nor is meaning to be evaded. Meaning is something that happens, not something that is.

Back to your incident in the restaurant. It is neither just a coincidence — which says nothing — nor the act of a divine order. It is meaningful precisely in that it happened. What connects your being there and her being there is that you're both there!There is no secret stitching these two disparate events together. The fact of these two disparate events happening at the same time is the meaning!

The meaning is in the event. You can both feel it.  Meaning is ricocheting all over your mind, belly, loins, flying around the restaurant, summoning your old selves, your future selves, your possible selves. This event is a nexus of meanings — that is, the meaning is plural. 

Like all events, meaning is multiple made up of millions of threads — all your moods and desires and experiences as well as the moods, desires, and forces of the cosmos. A coincidence is not a premeditated conspiracy; it is an emergent conspiracy. The fact that you happened into that restaurant at that time and place means something. But that something is multiple. 

Synchronicity is significant. It is an intersection of forces, of flows. Such is the universe: flows of affect, debris, rocks, sensations, light often all mixed up and moving faster than light, the speed of thought, infinitely swift. Events and things collide, sometimes poignantly. This makes such synchronous events something to reckon — not that there's some secret meaning but precisely because it happened. You may want it to signify one thing but no one gets off that easy. Like all reckoning, it is multiple and uncertain.

12.24.2012

Images are Real, too: A Brief Interjection



The conceit of this New Yorker cartoon is all too familiar. Our technology and in particular our relentless imaging of the world is not only redundant — the world is there there! Why photograph it?! — but fundamentally flawed. We are losing touch with what's real. We're choosing so-called virtual experience over presumed real experience. Such silly human beings! Such stupid human beings! And, worse, such immoral human beings!

But it seems to me that this argument — an argument that dates back at least to Plato and his cave — has a poor understanding of images, technology, the network, what's happening today, not to mention the nature of phenomenon itself.

Let's consider the situation in the cartoon. They are looking at the Statue of Liberty. Is this the first time they've seen it? Of course not. They may have never seen it with their eyes but they've seen it in words and movies. They come to it already knowing what it is, its place in the world, what it means. Like all monuments, the Statue of Liberty is always already seen, overdetermined, exhausted long before it's even been "seen."

So she takes a picture of it. Is this picture only a pale replica?  Is that really what this cartoonist believes images are? It seems to me that the image on the phone is another image, another thing — related, perhaps, to the image of the Statue of Liberty they see without the smartphone screen but nonetheless distinct. The smartphone image is literally something.  It's not even virtual. In fact, it's right here. Look.

The camera does not capture a moment. It creates a piece of the world by taking aspects of the moment — light, mist, the Statue — and assembling something new. I consider the photographer a sort of collagist, taking up pieces of the world and assembling them just so.

And the fact is I am sure her photograph of the Statue is better — more interesting, more engaging, more beautiful, more strange — than the Statue "itself."

Now, I am not saying they are the same thing. Or that everything about seeing the Statue without the screen is present in seeing the Statue in the screen. In fact, I am saying that they are two different things — intimately related, yes, but certainly distinct. The Statue, first of all, is much bigger than that little image on the screen. It has a grandeur, a visual weight, that the image doesn't have.

But the image is not simply a diminution of the real Statue. It is a perspective, a reckoning, an interpretation, an engagement. When I look at that tiny screen, I see more than the Statue. I see the impossibly complex act of making sense of the Statue. And that's a lot more interesting — hopefully! — than that big ol' Statue on its so-called own. (Nothing is ever on its own. All experience, all perception, is enmeshed in a vast trans-historical ever-shifting archive of ideology, memory, power, culture, desire.)

Of course, the image is not necessarily more interesting. Most people create lousy images, images less interesting than the images I see with my eyes sans screen.   (There's always a screen, in both senses of the word.) My point is this: there's seeing the the big statue and then there's seeing the little statue on the screen. These are two perceptive experiences of two more or less distinct things.

Images are not less real than things precisely because they are things, too.

So now the woman in the cartoon posts her picture on the Facebook — let's put aside the complexity of Instagram for the moment, of apps that inflect seeing in the process of seeing. And I re-photograph it in a new context using command-shift-4, being sure to include other items on my desktop.


Have we moved further away from the original? Has the presumed original experience paled in comparison to the clarity of that first experience, the one without a screen (that will never have been first because we've already seen it in books and such)? No, that's silly. There is no original image, no first image. What might that even be? Amniotic fluid? Light coming in through the vagina? It's an absurd question. It — life, perception — is all just images. More and more images. (But is it a photograph? The multimedia artist, Marc Lafia, asks this in all the images he makes.)

All the teenage girls with their phones out at the Justin Bieber concert recording the ambiguous tween as he saunters about may or may not be living in a virtual world (funny how the accusation changes from material to virtual — and somehow remains the same criticism!). But they are not (necessarily) avoiding life. On the contrary, with their smartphones in hand, they're making more of life.

And what of this image, re-imaged here, of people imaging an image (Bieber)?


Too many discussions of the image — and, in particular, of our lives commingling with them in this Connected Age — turn on the distinction between the real and the replica. But that is an ancient distinction not relevant to our hyperreal times. The question is not: Are we living the real? The question is: Are we living well?

12.21.2012

Reckoning Holidays

In my family, we don't ski. We talk; we whine; we argue. We do indoor activities.

My big brother, ever the rebel, defied this (despite talking, whining, and arguing more than any of us) and decided he'd learn to ski. After a few times, he told me he was theoretically capable of making his way down the mountain in one fell swoop.

But the idea of the whole mountain was too much. He could see, he could grasp, he could imagine part of the mountain. But not the whole thing. Not in one continuous gesture. The horizon of mountain's bottom was, to him, infinitely far away. The mere thought of it was sublime: too much to think, to process, to make sense of.

And so he chopped up this infinite horizon into discrete chunks he knew he could handle: as he navigated the incline, he'd throw himself to the snow now and again. He created an immediate horizon, a point he could reach — even if only with a crash.

I was in school for ages — with graduate school then teaching, I didn't finish school until I was 39. School time is punctuated with a bevy of meaningful milestones, one coming after the other. There's September and the beginning of the semester. The first week of classes — new students, new ideas. Then starting a new text — "Death of the Author," Ecce Homo, Cassavete's Faces. Papers — always papers. And then grading papers; then returning papers. Meanwhile, many small breaks — Columbus, Thanksgiving, MLK. And longer, more substantial breaks such as Winter and Summer.

A word on Fall break, those mysterious days in October where students and faculty alike are granted a respite for no apparent reason. When I was an undergrad, this was newly instituted and came about, it seems, because undergrads couldn't make it down the mountain that stretched from semester's start to Thanksgiving and so had a tendency to throw themselves to the ground, usually from high places.  Without some way of breaking up that span, some students preferred death.

Anyway, school afforded me many ways to make sense of time, all these little milestones marking achievement, time passed, new times to come. This made me indifferent to the more popular markers of time such as weekends, New Year's Eve, Christmas. Besides being a yid, what did I care about such brief breaks? I had Winter break which superseded both Christmas and New Year's Eve. Which meant I could ignore them and enjoy the distinctly academic punctuations of time.

And then I left the academy.  Suddenly, September has no particular meaning for me. There are no new texts to teach, no papers to assign or grade, no flow of new students. Just me amidst the abyss of time.

Now, people who work regular jobs have their well regulated ways of marking time. The most common one, of course, is the weekend. Work people love weekends, a brief break from soul death. And then there are the prescribed holidays — Thanksgiving, the week from Christmas to New Year's (for some), MLK day (for some). Man, it's depressing just writing it here. So work folks make their own little milestones — they'll take their vacation in June, a sick day in August, a personal day in October.

But I don't have a regular job. I work for myself (and, of course, for my clients). I don't have to be anywhere every day. Which also means I don't have weekends per se. In fact, I often get work done on the weekends when there are no clients to email or call me.

And I don't get holidays or paid vacation. This is not a complaint. On the contrary, I have much more free time than my working friends. My point is this: I don't have any external tempering of time.  The only real recurring milestone I have is when my kid stays with me and when he doesn't. But marking my time solely around that seems, well, sad.

With no prescribed markers of time, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed, my brother at the mountain's zenith looking down. Can I make it all the way to the end without a break? I don't think so. It's not that I don't know how to fill my time. I'm very good at that. Indeed, leisure suits me. No, it's not that I don't know what to do without a schedule; it's that I can't see myself living through the entirety of my life without more immediate horizons in view. I can't just keep doing this!

Can I find what I seek in the holidays that everyone seems to enjoy so much?

I've always liked Christmas. As a hebe, I have no obligations: no one's buying me presents and I have no presents to buy. No one is inviting me over; no one is wondering where I am. And everything is weird on Christmas as everyone else is busy doing whatever it is the goyim do. They even shut down the stores! Which makes the streets eery and beautiful. The city is mine! I can't treat it as any other day. And so I am free to play, decadently and fervently.

And I love this about Christmas. But, for me, it lacks the resonance of a new semester, starting a new book, turning in grades. Sure, I like the frivolity of Christmas day, my utter lack of responsibility. But I don't look forward to it. It never really appears on my horizon. Which is to say, it is not a viable marker of time for me.

Then there's New Year's.  It seems like an ideal holiday, a ready made ritual of renewal. Only, as we all know, it's an ugly holiday filled with forced glee and poor drinkers.  Last year, I tried to claim New Year's by ingesting this and that and taking myself to the ocean. And there, for a good 20 minutes or so, I reckoned the infinite and my place in it, how I related both to the cosmos and the machinations of the quotidian. Yes, I thought, yes! This is my marker of time, my resounding, resonant reckoning!

But then the echoing hoots and hollers of the deranged masses drowned out my reverie and I was back in the commercialized nonsense of prescribed time. Because, you see, I don't just want — need — markers of time. I need them to resonate with me, to be profound and meaningful.

New Years is 10 days away. Do I try again?  Or do I abandon these rituals devoid of resonance and try instead to invent my own? It is easier said than done.

In the meantime, I remain a man in search of temporal punctuation. Because there is no way I'm making it down the mountain in one fell swoop. 

12.10.2012

To Know is Not to Know

At first, I found myself writing that every moment overflows with information. But that's not right. Every moment has the exact right amount of information. What overflows is my capacity — and my will — to note it all, make sense of it all. To know the world is not to experience certain aspects of it.

This ignoring is not willful. Well, that's not quite right: everything you do is your will.  So, yes, it's willful. But it's not necessarily conscious. We don't actively select to heed this, ignore that. I mean, we may be discerning about certain things, choosing to ignore a lover's passive aggressive comment or a child's incessant babbling. But we don't even know how to see the infinite data of the moment.

We come to the world already not knowing aspects of it. To be this person is to ignore this information while that person ignores that information: we are a metabolic function of selection and distribution. Think about meeting someone new, someone from your work or family out of context. What do they consider something to know that you also consider something to know? This can be as explicit as Justin Bieber, Burning Man, "Deadwood." Wait, who? What? In this age of fracture and network, we are all adrift — and at home — in the cultural diaspora. We all know different things.

The world teems. Consider any moment — reading this right now, for instance. There are the words you're reading, of course. And then there's all the stuff around this post — lists and numbers and such. And each of these is part of a vast network of information that makes this data legible. On its own, "12.10.12" doesn't mean anything. And then there's the screen you're reading on. Besides the screen itself, the affect of its glow, the manner in which it presents data and the entire history of data presentation and the rise of screen culture, there are even more symbols and marks. I, for one, have a dock filled to the brim with a variety of images all trying to declare meaning. The circle with the music notation in it says more than, "I am iTunes." It says it in a certain way. And then there's the dissonance that iTunes is not just about music. In fact, I use mine mostly for interfacing with my phone. I like the word interface — it seems like an appendage for a post ego age. Not sure I like it as a verb, however. And yet I do like that we turn nouns into verbs — it makes a mockery of Heidegger: the moon moons, the screen screens (which it does! what a nice moment!). Which leads me, in its way, to all the information I have about Apple, about interfaces in general, about how product naming works. Which has me think about all my work projects — the things I am presently naming, the interfaces I am creating, the brands I am forging. I hear a siren. What kind? Fire truck, I think. Fire trucks are the first responders to 911 health calls as firemen are all trained as medics. I hear so many dogs, clearly all different sizes but to me they're just dogs. Oh, there's MUNI. I have yet to get to the sensations in my stomach, the nuances of my mood, the varied smells that waft about me — not  to mention the gin I'm drinking right now: St. George Dry Rye. I am knowing this gin in many ways, if you know what I mean. If I were to catalog the information of this moment — not make sense of it, just catalog it — it would a) be infinite; b) ignore another infinity of information; c) qualify me as insane; and d) make me insane.

In Borges' "Funes, the Memorious," Funes' memory is absolute: he retains everything that he sees, that he senses — every leaf, every shift of the clouds. He can't generalize — which is to say, he can't forget the differences between things. He becomes immobilized and dies at 19: "He seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures." 

This is Nietzsche's argument, as well: to know is to forget, to ignore all the details, the differences, the divergences. We squint away the teeming flux in order to see categories, to see truth (see the perfect essay, "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense"). Such is the very premise of our knowledge. The only way we can call a pit bull, a dachshund, and a german shepherd all dogs is that we ignore the differences between them.

I have had moments when I am overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of information that abounds. And I've seen others in this state and it's disconcerting, to say the least. I've seen friends out of their minds due to this or that and become muttering and drooling souls, their eyes as big as the sky, their cognition all too human. It's not a pretty sight but it is exquisite. And humbling.

And yet, even uglier, is the glaring blindness to difference, the all too human will to brush aside the details, to ignore the wealth of information that abounds. Between the ugliness of propriety and the madness of delirium, which do we pick?

Fortunately, that's a false dichotomy. It's not a matter of knowing more or less — after all, we're talking about infinite information — but a matter of how you know. What distinguishes one knowing from another is not the quantity but the quality of knowing. He who knows well knows differently, knows vitally, knows tastefully. Rather than subscribe to the known ways of forgetting, he invests new ways of forgetting, new modes of knowing and not knowing, elaborate, exquisite architectures that recast experience, concept, categories, difference. He makes poetry of his knowledge. Nietzsche calls this the gay science. 

12.07.2012

Knowing with Pleasure

There are certain facts that delight me. Starfish, for instance, are vicious predators that attack by inserting their stomachs into their prey —  mussels — and there and then digesting their catch. Or the etymology of the word doom (I thank the sophist and poet, Lohren Green, for this): what began as a way to signify justice became the annihilation of everything. Doom, alas, was doomed.

I love these facts. They're surprising. They open up worlds, generously giving a glimpse of a cosmos for which they are just one poignant moment. Suddenly, the oceans teem with a speed and madness I had not imagined as I see the history of the world in doom's demise.

But I want to talk about something else: I want to talk about how I know things. And I'm not talking about the sources of my knowing — documentaries on Netflix, books, articles on Yahoo. I am talking about the process I undergo as I come to know the world.

For the most part, I think it's safe to say that people don't usually consider how they know. They consider what they know (fly fishing! 18th century astrolabe makers! coffee varieties!). They might even consider the source of their knowing (Yahoo vs. "The New York Times" — as an aside, I'd take Yahoo). But they rarely consider their manner of knowing — what they consider as something to be known; how they distribute experience and category; their criteria for accepting something as true.

In college, I was a history major. This was partly because I had AP credit so placed out of some requirements (a good criterion for choosing a major — I'm serious). And because I'd had an excellent history teacher in high school (Robert Tucker —RIP, sadly).  But, holy moly, was history in college boring! Wars, treaties, presidents: who the hell cares?

I longed for something else, to know in a different way. What about everyday people? What were they thinking, experiencing, living? And then I read Michel Foucault and everything changed. He shifted the focus from official documents to the breadth of the archive — diaries, sketches, pamphlets, court hearings, architecture, etiquette manuals. Foucault considers things that were deemed irrelevant to knowledge, things that were not to be known.

And by shifting the focus, Foucault does more than shift the content of inquiry — he shifts the very mode of inquiry.  These different things demand a different way of knowing. Knowing tends to work vertically — working down from a category to an example (deduction) or moving up from the instance to the category (induction). But Foucault moves sideways. That is, rather than looking at this or that domain of knowledge — politics, military, philosophy —, he lets his eyes wander across domains and finds that piano legs, architecture, and the rise of sociology were all obsessively articulating sex. Vertical knowing no longer applies. Here, a different architecture of knowing is required.

What excited me when I read Foucault was not that I found it true. It's that I found it pleasurable.  I was downright giddy — and still am.  Oh, to run one's eyes over the voluptuous body of the archives, to find associations, connections and divergences, to recast the world: this is nothing less than an erotics of knowledge.

Foucault taught me the pleasure of knowing. I shifted my attentions from what we usually consider as things to know to things we consider unknowable — moods, architectures of the invisible, the speed and intensity of ideas. Figuring out how to know such things is in and of itself a delight. To weigh a mood and consider how it affects a space, people, myself; to let it drift and find concepts, books, moments; to not just react to a mood but engage it in multiple ways: this is an experience of delicate and resounding sumptuosity. The dance of mood, concept, and language is exquisite.

To know such things, I can't just apply categories — That's an ox! That's an asteroid! That's neo-noir! I have to be willing to move about, to sprawl laterally, diagonally, vertically, to go every which way making connections, creating categories, making new kinds of sense. And as I am not beholden to maintaining the integrity of a category, I can indulge inconsistencies, divergences, differences. Indeed, rather than excusing them as most knowing does — official knowledge disdains difference and exception — I relish them. My knowing is filled with qualifications, whispers and asides, nuance, uncertainty, even doubt, not to mention passion, pleasure, anecdote, delirium. 

In this way of knowing, I rarely take anything at its word — I don't care what the person's authority is. Unless, of course, I like what they say. So when I read that the American Medical Association considers abstinence from alcohol a risk for heart disease, I smiled. Do I think it's true? No. Do I think it's not true? No. I don't care either way. I just like that they said it. My criteria for truth do not involve truth at all. Facts either delight me, empower me, or enliven me — or I pay them no heed.

Do I jettison all aspects of truth? Of course not. I do certain things because I believe them. In fact, I do a lot of wacky stuff — mostly involving my health — based on certain truths that I have assumed.  For god's sake, I pour colloidal silver up my schnoz by the bucket. But I take these truths less as truths than as temporary solutions, moments of efficacy and delight, of wonder and healing.

Knowing with pleasure is not frivolous. It demands work. After all, I can't just listen to the doctor, my mother, to scientific studies. This mode of knowing is a full time job. I might say that my knowing is less about knowing per se than it is about living well. Indeed, my knowing is my living. So why not enjoy it?

12.04.2012

Knowing Knowing

Every time I get sick, I have a theory as to how it happened. It was the disgusting woman on the bus sneezing. It was stress from work. It was the resurgence of some dormant malady. I've noticed this is true of people in general: they claim to know how they got this or that ailment.  And then everyone — and I mean everyone — has a remedy: Echinacea, zinc, colloidal silver, sweat, don't sweat, chicken soup, garlic.

How do we know these things?

Sometimes, our knowing comes from a doctor. After all, doctors are supposed to know about such things. Knowing means being told by someone else who claims to know — and who we believe for whatever reason. In some sense, we don't know; it's the doctor who knows.

Me, I rarely believe my doctor: she doesn't seem to understand very much about how the world works. And as for all the germ stuff, well, it seems like a conveniently belligerent model that recapitulates our state apparatus: kill the bad terrorist germs!  I see viruses and bacteria as a necessary but not sufficient condition of sickness.

How do I know this? Well, it's a complex process that's at once physical and reflective: I let the idea play through my body and mind, process it with what I know, my history, my experiences. And based on this elusive calculus, I tell myself: It's the stress! I go with the answer that just feels right.  But am I the best reader of my body? And does this count as general knowledge, as something that is true for anyone but me?

Sometimes, I read things on Yahoo! And while I may or may not enjoy the article, I rarely believe it. Who's Yahoo! anyway?  Once, I read an article claiming that men who masturbated often on their 20s were less likely to have prostate cancer later in life. Within weeks of that article, there was another one claiming that drinking alcohol was good for the heart. And I thought to myself: Now this is knowledge I can get behind!  Did I believe it? No. But nor do I not believe it. I do, however, like it.

How, then, do we know what we know?  And why don't we talk about how we know? We talk about what we know all the time. For instance, there is debate as to what students should be taught about Christopher Columbus: Is he a hero or a genocidal killer? And while these arguments focus on aspects of what we know, they never consider the way we know.

Knowing is not neutral or natural. We are taught how to know, albeit it unknowingly. Sure, we'll argue about Christopher Columbus but we never argue about how we know Christopher Columbus — or whether he's even worth knowing about. We know unknowingly.

Usually, those things we never consider as something to consider are the things ideology most wants to protect and should therefore be considered all the more. Indeed, one component of the way we know is that we don't consider the way we know, that we consider our way of knowing natural. Another way of knowing might know otherwise and consider the manner of knowing a critical component of a way of knowing: a self-reflexive knowing. 

Knowing demands a series of inter-related actions that are psycho-ideological. Which is a convoluted way of saying that how you know is constitutive of how you are in the world (psycho-) — and how the world wants you be (ideological). 

Knowing of course involves determining what counts as something to be known. This is different than the debate on Christopher Columbus in which the very premise of the debate is a common belief that Columbus is something even worth discussing. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Such is the insidious way of ideology: to think otherwise is to be insane, absurd, or criminal (pace Foucault). Before we begin knowing, then, we already know. We know, for instance, that scientific studies are something worth knowing. We know that wars are something we should study. We carefully heed and parse presidential proclamations — we even make our children memorize them.

But the fluctuation and operation of moods? Nope — that's not a subject we can ever know about, not really. A doodle by an unknown person from 1863? Might be cool but it won't tell us anything — nothing as important as the Gettysburg Address. Everyone knows that, right?

A way of knowing distributes experience and category in its own way. For instance, there is deduction and induction: We begin with a category and deduce how an experience fits it. Or we begin with experiences and see what kind of categories we might make.

But there are ways of knowing that might have no categories, neither deduction nor induction, that move laterally rather than vertically. I co-founded a website many years ago, ArtandCulture, in which we presented a hierarchy of artists alongside an artist cloud. Pinback, for instance, was in Music > Indie but was also in a nebulous cloud that included Alonzo King Lines Ballet and Picasso — that is, a lateral association formed by affective resonances — horizontal associations rather than vertical hierarchies.  

And then there is how we decide something is true. Usually, we lean on authority: the doctor told me, the scientist told me, the teacher told me. But the criteria for truth can be elusive  — and may not involve truth. When I try to figure how I got sick, I look for an answer that works for me, not an answer that's true. Is this a kind of truth? Perhaps. But I'm willing to abandon it for a better working answer — and I'm not sure truth is something one can jettison.

I like to imagine a protean mode of knowing — a manner of taking up the world that shifts according to circumstance. And that doesn't need to be true. And, in fact, doesn't need to know anything at all — a non-knowing knowing. 

12.02.2012

Teaching, Violence, Enticement, Performance

Teaching, at first glance, may seem simple: it's just a matter of moving the student from one state to another. Show the student a map, tell him how to get there, and voilĂ : the student is taught.

But, alas, the situation is much trickier — and much stranger — than that. Because it's not a matter of moving students from, say, San Francisco to Lima. It's matter of moving students from the very people and world they think they know to an alternate dimension of space-time that they not only never imagined but never could have imagined. And where what it means to be and the very ways of knowing the world are, well, different. There is no map teachers can give their students — at least not one that's legible. 

Learning is impossible and actual. It involves an infinite movement from one state of being to another. And yet this infinite space is traversed — maybe not all the time but often. I remember my son muttering nonsense and then, behind everyone's back, speaking words. It was a miracle of sorts — a miracle that happens for babbling human idiots, more or less, every day. Still, I am completely overwhelmed by this: how can "da da da da" become, "Dada"? One is a series of sounds; the other is a conjuring of concepts, history, human beings. (For the moment, I'll avoid the complexities of learning one's first language. I always found Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations smart on this subject.)

There are no clear steps that can lead the student from point A to point B. Sure, there are signposts along the way. But, at some point, signposts disappear and the student must take the leap — Carlos at the end of Tales of Power leaping off the cliff: "Then a strange urge, a force, made me run him to the northern edge of the mesa. I felt his arm holding me as we jumped and then I was alone."

And then I was alone: this is the requisite state of learning. It happens alone. You can only be lead so far before you have to make the jump on your own.  

What, then, is the teacher to do? What is his role? How does he have the student take this jump?

There is the so-called Socratic method. But Socrates had only one goal: to have everyone recognize that they know nothing. His method leads to zero. After all, his model is premised on a suspect assumption: that we already know everything and hence learning is just remembering. I, on the other hand, believe learning is overcoming oneself and one's knowledge to become — and know — differently. So let's put aside Socrates for the moment and look at teaching methods. 

Well, there is the common approach violence. That is, force students to jump. Give exams. Pop quizzes. Try to make students take that leap. Scare them into it with police action: Learn or be punished!

Of course, this often backfires as students learn how to master the test without making any leap at all.  Just because you can pass a test doesn't mean you've learned a thing — other than how to take the test. Which is not a completely irrelevent skill. Nevertheless.

At some point in my college career — mid-junior year — I refused to take any more exams. I'd write papers, gladly. But I would not take any tests. When I was given tests in required courses, I'd flip them over and write essays. And, because there is such a fear of failing students at Ivy League schools, I'd pass. (I tried to fail a couple of times but, uh, failed.)

And then, when I became a professor, I refused to give exams — at least exams that tested students' ability to memorize facts. My exams, when I had to give them, asked things like, "In Phaedrus, is Socrates serious or not?" This drove a certain kind of student crazy. "What do you want, Professor Coffeen?" I want you to think differently, to think as you've never thought before. And, in the process, try to teach me something I've never known.

But the question remains: How does a teacher get students to move from their present state to a state of being they never could have imagined?

Well, I think believe there is always a certain violence to pedagogy. For me, violence took the form of repetition: I'd say the same thing over and over again as if, through sheer force, I could drill the ideas into their minds and bodies. And, come to think if it now, I may have used a kind of intimidation, putting students on the spot, taking their comments and questions to task in front of the class — a whiny Jewish version of John Houseman in "The Paper Chase" (in my no doubt megalomaniacal imagination).



But I believe there is another technique:  to make this new world look and sound and feel so tempting that students want to take the leap, want to leave behind their tired old ways of doing things. That is, to seduce them, to entice them. Now, I know I'm opening myself up to all kind of jokes, criticisms, and, were I still teaching, law suits. Please note, however, that I'm not talking about physical coitus. I'm talking about enticing students to take a leap — a leap that is scary, unsure, and disorienting.

So why make this leap?  Because there is the promise of something better on the other side. John Houseman, in his way, tries to entice students with the promise of nobility. When you know as I know, he implies, you too will be wise and grand. His teaching is more than an imparting of knowledge; it is a call to become otherwise — in his case, wise and noble.

But while we tend to think of knowing — of learning — as a duty, pedagogic enticement need not promise nobility. We tend to neglect the sheer pleasure of knowing — and, even more, the pleasure of modes of knowing.  It's not just the knowledge that delights us but the very manner in which we know. We imagine that knowledge is something we have rather than something we are. This is Nietzsche's great lesson: the way we know, the very manner in which we make sense of the world, is who we are. Knowing is not something extraneous to our becoming; it is constitutive of it.

And so rather than say, Come hither and be wise, as Houseman does, the teacher might say, Come hither and play. It's so sumptuous over here — to know like this, to live like this. To know in this way is so alluring, so delicious, so delectable, so pleasurable that students are willing to be confused and risk getting a C on a paper.

This no doubt demands something strange of teachers. They are no longer gatekeepers to a certain knowledge but proxies for a certain way of living.  Which is to say, the teacher is no longer a conduit of knowledge but is himself a body that knows — and hence lives a certain way. And teaching becomes a matter of performance, of living through a mode of knowing.  

In some sense, teaching is impossible as it turns on students learning — and learning is something done alone. Which leaves the teacher is a strange position. Try to make students learn. Or entice them to learn. And enticing in turns, demands the teacher to teach more than data: it demands he put on the life he promises.