Re-reading two texts recently, I have stumbled on an idea that at once eludes and titillates me. The texts are Clarice Lispector's Stream of Life (Agua Viva) and Velasquez's Las Meninas. Both works proffer a peculiar rhetorical strategy that gives way to an equally odd architecture of the perceptual event: dual vanishing points that are neither temporally successive nor spatially conflictual.
Lispector's sprawling text of fluctuating affects and intensities speaks in what seems to be a direct voice addressed at the reader: "you," the text declares again and again. Due to the way of language and its indexicals, the "you" is necessarily the reader. And yet this "you" is never quite the reader; or this "you" is both the reader and someone or something else — “after all, this "you" has qualities and memories that are rarely those of the reader. The text, then, hits it marks, if you will, twice: once upon the body of the reader, once directly over this reader's shoulder.
This strategy of the dual vanishing point is deceptively complex. It is not a matter of speaking to two audiences, directly or indirectly: this text is not Janus-faced. While the text sprawls this way and that, it nevertheless enjoys a rather pointed mode of address. The text, in a sense, gives itself over twice but not in succession, nor in conflict, nor in a strict parallelism. The text happens twice, instantaneously.
Las Meninas performs a similar strategy as the painting's perceptive horizon vanishes twice: once at the point of the viewer, once at the point of the royal couple. These two spatializations are mutually incompatible — the painting cannot vanish here and there. And it is certainly not a matter of the painting simply addressing two audiences simultaneously. And unlike Wittgenstein's rabbit/duck, there is no temporal succession as in, "now I see it this way, now I see it that way." Both vanishing points happen at the same time.
The ensuing architecture is quite odd: two equally possible worlds, the one excluding the other in a gesture of pure indifference. This is therefore not Leibniz's baroque world; here, God has chosen both worlds. And yet this is not the modern in which two equally viable spatio-temporal events collide in dissonance. Here, there can be no dissonance because the two worlds in fact share nothing. (Clearly, then, there is no harmony either.)
What is this space? I imagine something out of Borges, an impossibly intricate architecture in which two worlds are intimately intertwined and yet do not know, or care, anything of the other. Like Mr. Magoo, there are almost-collisions every moment. But collision, alas, is impossible.
This is something I wrote nine years ago and a friend just found online. Reading it, I barely recognized myself but then I remembered thinking it and writing it. And, frankly, I think it's pretty smart.
Usually, come weekend nights, I enjoy the solitude of my house. As a result, I don't usually see the gussied up throngs poised to part-ay. This weekend, however, I found myself in North Beach on Saturday night — a mecca for all sorts of folks. At some point, a bus-thingy filled with drunken, imbibing 20-somethings drove by me. The girls were in these short skirts doing some kind of dance and hooting and gyrating. What struck me was how familiar and contrived the dancing was. I'd seen it before. I'd seen it on the screen.
It felt like a staged event in which the young 'uns were play acting the images of young people we see in movies and TV and such. They were on some open aired bus-a-mabob, quite literally a roving stage. I was watching a spectacle of a spectacle.
Now, I have no desire to belittle their experience. I am not suggesting that their fun was not real or that me, in my flannel and glasses, is somehow more real. That is not my point at all. What popped to me, what stopped me dead in my tracks and has had me thinking for days, was the palpable presence of what was conspicuously absent: eyes. They were performing for eyes that were not present.
But whose eyes? In some sense, sure, there were my eyes along with the eyes of everyone on the street. But they weren't dancing for me. Even if they actually saw me, no 20-something girl in a short skirt on a party bus is doing her best jiggy for my big nosed, skinny, nerdy jew ass. This was not a dance of seduction for me or for the crowd. No, they were dancing for another set of eyes, eye more mysterious and strange than my bespectacled ones.
Living for ubiquitous, invisible eyes is not a new thing. We used to call it God. God sees all, they say. It's not that God knows all; not that God judges all. No, those come after an initial claim upon which the others turn: God sees all. You are being watched at all times. And, yes, by a dude who knows shit and is super judgmental. Presumably, this is why we don't do certain things even if no one, or no one who matters, is watching. My mother might not see me sneaking an extra Oreo but God does so, well, I better not. My actions, when alone, are still seen.
These party girls — party women? I don't mean to sound condescending, truly — were not dancing for God. And they weren't dancing for me or other people on the street. And I feel pretty confident when I say there were not dancing for themselves. What's the line — Dance like no one is watching? We've all seen people do that, people lost in a private ecstasy as they feel the universe, or the Dead, flow through them. These party women were not that.
They were dancing for the always on camera of the world. They were dancing for the might-be snap of smart phones, for the future Facebook posts, for the Instagram hashtag #partyallnightSF (ok, I made that up). And, in its way, the interweb is more judgmental and merciless than God. God will put you in Hell for all eternity but the right Facebook pic ensures your place in the social hierarchy here and now, confirming with clear evidence that you are not a loser.
What's amazing about this is the way virtual eyes are internalized. There doesn't need to be a camera there because the world has become a camera. As Bergson wrote 100 years ago, we all have a little camera and processing studio in our heads. But Foucault noted that this camera is not just in our heads but in the world. In Discipline and Punish, he points out the way this internalization of an all seeing eye becomes a disciplining and control of our bodies (the panopticon). Who needs the Gestapo when we'll police ourselves? Media so thoroughly infiltrates us in this very odd way. Not only are we seen: we are always already broadcast wide and far. And so we always act for the eyes of the world.
There were plenty of times in my 20s when I'd head off to the woods and, alone with my thoughts, reckon my place in the universe. During a period of these episodes, I'd smoke a cigarette — Pall Mall, unfiltered (I liked the tobacco in my mouth and filters felt like a corporate nipple). While surely alone and feeling what I was feeling, I was also thoroughly enmeshed in the gaze of invisible eyes: I was performing a character before the audience of the world, even if no one was there. I was the contemplative loner. Staring out at the ocean, I felt tragically epic. Somewhere, somehow, there was a panning shot from a helicopter framing me just so.
|Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites was an inescapable image for the lone, male, would-be tragic philosopher.|
We lead our lives, always, before the eyes of others who might or might not be present. And they all ask something different of us. The eyes of God have us fearing sin. The eyes of the State have us fearing retribution. The eyes of Michael Bay have us fearing the banal. The eyes of the interweb have us fearing a certain kind of humiliation: anonymity, so-called loserdom.
Now, in some sense, I experience the humiliation of modern life all the time — the indignities of travel, of public bathrooms, of PowerPoint presentations. But I remember one experience that was different, more immediate and resonant: I was cuckolded. I went to see a woman I believed was my girlfriend only to find her with another man. I felt nauseated throughout my entire body; my heart was pounding; I screamed once alone. And while she was the transgressor, breaking our social contract, I'm the one who felt terrible, who felt this thing I wasn't used to. It took me a day before I could put a name to this horrible feeling. I felt humiliated.
Humiliation is strange in that it feels so private, so internal. But, in fact, it is the experience of being lowered in the eyes of others. It is a private sensation of a public event. This horrible feeling I had in my gut, in my whole body, didn't come from me. It came from the eyes of another. But why, in this case of my cuckolding, was I humiliated? I was hurt, sure, but why humiliated? Before whose eyes was my standing lowered? Hers? She'd transgressed so why was I humiliated?
I suppose I was humiliated by her in that she emasculated me. In a way, she castrated me, rendered my penis useless and insufficient. And I was humiliated, as well, by this one man, a man I do not know, will probably never see again, and could care less about. Which is strange. I was humiliated by the eyes of a truly irrelevant human being, someone I couldn't pick out of a line up, someone I didn't know, respect, or fear. And yet I experienced an excruciating private sensation that owed its potency to his eyes. Weird, right?
But this all turns on my letting myself stand naked before their judging eyes. Once I realized I could step to the side, slide into the shadows, the humiliation at their hands subsided. After all, why was I suffering anything above and beyond the suffering of loss? Somehow, for a moment there, I made something ugly and stupid my own and suffered the pangs of humiliation for it. I was only humiliated if I let my sense of self be lowered in the eyes of some horny, scruffy guy and some soon-to-be random chick. From another angle, before other eyes, he was just some random dude with a boner feeling up some woman he'd gone on a date with. Power to him. Power to her. Power to me. Power to all.
Because my humiliation came not as much from them qua them — who the fuck are they but horny irrelevancies — but from my internalizing the sexual economy in general. The world flows through us. Althusser writes that we are hailed by cultural ideology before we're even born. We are defined by terms that exceed us — boy, girl, straight, gay, gifted — and that we believe our own. I am a boy, I think and believe even though this concept was given to me from someone else. Our most internal sense of self is, in some sense, witnessed by others who may or may not be divine.
So my humiliation came because I felt like I lost my standing in an external sexual hierarchy, a hierarchy premised on a certain notion of male possession of women. With a smirk on his face, this guy had casually sullied what I imagined was a private place of intimacy. In what I took as some primal sense, he'd violated me — which not only sounds terribly sexist but is terribly sexist. This is why the media is so important and powerful: the circulation of images, of stories, become the images and stories of our most private selves.
So much of our a sense of self derives from where, and how, we imagine we are perceived within the psychosexual-social hierarchy (pace Michel Houellebecq). This is what The 40 Year Old Virgin captured so well and what Kevin Smith continues to wrestle. For me on that day, as this dude passed me leaving my girlfriend's apartment while she was half dressed, I wanted to pummel him senseless. But when I questioned my own reactions, I realized: Who cares? I was hurt and angry and justifiably so. An important contract had been broken between her and me. But whatever humiliation I felt stemmed, finally, from me.
All that happened was a woman slept with a guy. No doubt, somewhere, she's reading this and still protesting: I didn't sleep with him! So goes the new social order in which we bare our lives for all; we live our lives multiple times in the social sphere, as witnesses rather than participants. This post itself is an experiment in humiliation: Am I to be judged before your eyes? Anyway, sleeping or not sleeping with someone is her prerogative. We broke up, of course, but the experience of humiliation turned on me — not on her, not on you, and certainly not on him.
Before whose eyes do I stand? In whose eyes am I, I? In whose eyes are you? In whose eyes are we?
We are run through with eyes, some more visible, some more potent, some more merciful. We don't always have the luxury of choosing. As John Berger argues in Ways of Seeing, women are looked at more and in aggressive, possessive ways.
This is why critical thinking is so important. Eyes pervade our every fiber, our most private sense of self. To be able to note in whose eyes you act, and what those eyes ask of you, can be liberating. Because, sometimes, you can shift audiences. Sometimes, you can return the gaze. And, sometimes, you can disappear into shadow, obscuring the gaze of others.
|Dignity exists at the precise juncture of the private and the public. It's not enough to believe you're dignified: dignity comes from how you stand within the social. Quixote for instance imagines himself dignified but is, alas, a fool.|
Dignity is tricky. We say I am dignified (well, I don't say such things but one might) which makes dignity seem like something immanent to me, such as intelligence. I am smart (so I say!) regardless of what you think. But dignity speaks not to me per se but to how I stand within the social. Dignity is, at the same time, a question of my posture and my social perception.
Of course, we can say this about any number of attributes. Beauty, for example. To say I am beautiful is to say that I have a quality that simultaneously is in the eye of the beholder. We might even go so far as to say the eye of the beholder creates the beauty. I remember reading an interview with Uma Thurman in which she claimed she was always the ugly duckling as a kid. It wasn't until later, when others glommed on to her, that she became beautiful.
Now, we can say that's silly. That she just was beautiful whether anyone recognized it or not. And that might be true. But we can't say that about dignity. Dignity is not something you can have regardless of what others think for dignity is precisely how you hold yourself in their gaze.
Being a good man does not make one dignified. I may very well be a good man who, upon facing persecution, weeps uncontrollably and shits himself. Which is to say, you can be a good man — a serious man (pace the Coen Brothers) — but not be dignified. Dignity, in a way beauty and intelligence is not, is precisely your position within public standing. It makes no sense to say I'm dignified despite what everyone else says. Dignity is thoroughly dependent upon my stature within a community.
What, then, is dignity? Well, it certainly involves things as vague and meaningless as honor and integrity. But I think what dignity wants to articulate is a certain graceful stability amidst the social flux. It's a kind of composure, remaining oneself in the most dire of situations. Dignity suggests fixity but I think it's more complex than that: it's the grace of holding one's position amongst the social fray.
And yet it's not Don Quixote. The certain run the risk of becoming the foolish. But the dignified maintain a kind of control, an in-the-know, that Quixote conspicuously lacks. If the social can tear away a man, rip both his body and soul apart, the dignified are those who maintain their posture and lucidity despite social, or even natural, machinations.
We tend to use the word dignity for those under the most duress — the dying and the persecuted. When someone is publicly shamed, indicted, jailed, put in the hole, beaten but somehow maintains a sense of himself — he doesn't fight back; he doesn't lash out; he doesn't break down — we say he still has his dignity.
Dignity is not a word we use a lot anymore. We don't have a social cohesion, a unified cultural economy, in which dignity could figure: one man's dignity is another man's foolishness. We talk of integrity, perhaps, and usually without much conviction. More often, we privilege either the character — shock jocks, Kardashians — or the "normal". Tom Cruise gets a bit odd on Oprah and we collectively deem him nuts. We don't want dignity as much as we want people to be like us. Despite the relatively public persecution of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Eric Snowden, the possibility of dignity has not even entered the conversation. And as for our upper crust, well, they certainly don't aspire to dignity.
But when it comes to death, we still say I just want some dignity for her as she dies. I even noticed just yesterday that some horrendous corporate health conglomerate had just rebranded itself as Dignity Health. O, my soul shudders.
It seems death and disease remain a common cultural currency, perhaps the one place we still allow for, and aspire to, dignity. This is because in the face of disease and death, cultural values fall away and we face natural forces, something we can all get behind. This has been compounded by our ability to live longer as we all witness the many inevitable humiliations of age — incontinence, dementia, palsy. If dignity is maintaining some control and integrity in the face of external factors, disease and death are a grueling trial for the would-be dignified.
When we say we want some dignity in our demise, we're saying we don't want to be reduced to a body on an assembly line — of medicine or nature. We don't want just to bend over for the antibiotic shot: we want to be looked in the face. We don't want to have our limbs rendered useless and our minds a cruel prankster. We want to go with nature, not just have it sully us.
Which is why The Way of the Samurai famously declares: In a 50/50 life and death situation, always choose immediate death. The samurai insists on dignity all the way to the final moment. No samurai is going to let an anonymous nurse change his diaper. No samurai is going to have his family humor him as he babbles incoherently about the '69 Mets. The samurai chooses to control his own fate even as his control vanishes. He chooses his own death; he chooses dignity. In his way, this is what Jack Kevorkian sought to bring to modern medical thinking — not life at all costs but dignity at all costs, even death.
But recently I've come to wonder: Why do we ignore dignity and then demand it come death? Disease tears us up with tireless cruelty and yet that is the precise moment at which we demand, or at least ask for, dignity. In our daily lives, in our jobs and marriages, in the public spotlight when values, belief, and integrity are at stake, we say dignity shmignity. But come some horrendous disease that has us shitting our pants and babbling like babies, well, then we demand dignity! We don't care how we lead our life but, upon its finish, we're supposed to remain composed.
Why? Why then, of all times, do we demand our dignity? It's almost as if we see death not as an end but a beginning. Just like the fish in prison donning his best tough guy, the dying want to proffer some dignity as they enter the eternal.
Or is that we want to read the ending as somehow pervading the rest of one's life backwards? I just read a "New Yorker" critique of Sex and the City which argued that the show had a lousy ending — the girl is rescued by her prince — but that that doesn't eradicate the difficult questions the show raised along the way. So it seems to me with one's death: it can be an awful, ugly event without casting dispersions on the rest of one's life.
After all, death is only one moment. Why, as we ignore how we live, do we so presumptuously ask for a dignified way to die? Do we imagine a dignified death will wash away the sins of our lives? Do we believe peace found in death runs backwards, effacing all our neurotic, anxious, blasé days?
Part of me wants to say: Forget dignity in the face of death. Give the dying, who have so much to reckon, a break. Why not just let ourselves die, messy and ugly? Why not scream bloody hell as life slips away? The wisdom or lack thereof at the end doesn't mean we were never wise. We will all have had our moments.
Or is it something the survivors want for their dying loves? Is it that we don't want our final memories of our loved one to be of a wailing, babbling, shitting mess? In that case, the demand for a dignified death seems selfish. Let the dying wail and excrete. We survivors are strong enough to remember the beautiful, the composed, the funny and sweet. It's up to us not to let those final moments, even if it lasts years, define our loved one's life.
Don't get me wrong. I, too, want dignity in death — for me as well as for my friends and family. But I can't help but feel that this demand comes too late. After all, we're dying all the time. For the samurai, every moment is the moment of our death and hence every moment demands dignity. To ignore it throughout one's life and then suddenly demand it precisely when it's most difficult to conjure seems, well, unfair.
Like most people, most of my days are conspicuously unspectacular. I wake up, check emails, read "The New Yorker" over granola, do a few work calls, perhaps write some snappy copy in my jammies — a luxury of working for myself. The day trudges on. I'll eat my lunch while reading more "New Yorker" or might plop down in front of the TV and peruse my mid-day options. Ooh, Chopped! Come afternoon, I surf some porn, wash dishes, might prep dinner, do some more work, shower.
There's something banal about the whole affair. I'm not depressed or excited. Occasionally, I'm antsy with a general sense of discontent as if I should be doing something more engaging, something that enraptures me. More often, I just do what I do with neither malaise nor vim. I might say there is an understated contentment to my days but I'm afraid that would give the impression of resonant peace. It's not that. Nor is it that lack of that. It's all just rather blasé.
Although I will say that, unlike many, I don't have guilt about this lack of activity. It's a common refrain I hear: I was so unproductive today! I feel so guilty! Me, I have no desire to be productive and hence don't feel guilty about the lack thereof.
No, guilt is not my issue. I don't have a work ethic and, frankly, I don't respect this much heralded attribute. I know this will make my present and potential clients cringe. But it shouldn't. When someone's paying me, I do my work and I do it well. Which, now that I write it, sounds like a work ethic. But when I don't have work to do, I have no desire to do any. Which sounds like the absence of a work ethic.
My issue, then, is not guilt about not doing something. What bugs me is something else. It's not quite the banality of it all; I don't need something extraordinary to happen, certainly not every day. That would be exhausting! I think what bugs me, what makes me feel like these days are not quite right, is that I am somehow disengaged from them. I'm not co-present with the world. I'm drifting but not heroically or stoically. I'm just drifting, being nudged by everyday needs — hunger, work, dirt, sleep. I eat when I'm hungry; I answer emails when they come; I return phone calls. I feel used by the day.
Culturally, we talk about joy and we talk about suffering. But we don't talk much about the everyday, about the humdrum drone of it. Sure, we have a narrative of the discontent bourgeois who, fed up with it all, shed the shackles to tackle life head on. There's Albert Brooks in the hilarious Lost in America; there's Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo in The Matrix. And of course there's a whole literature of ecstatic living — Henry Miller and Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson and all that delirious life affirmation.
But was Henry Miller feeling that all day every day? Do you really think Hunter Thompson wasn't crashing half the time, sitting there doing nothing, feeling nothing? Where is the literature of the everyday?
Michel de Certeau wrote an incredible book called The Practice of Everyday Life. But it doesn't actually give us a practice; it tells us the political and philosophical implications of everyday actions such as shopping, reading the newspaper, and walking in the city. And, in its way, it infuses the everyday with a sense of power and possibility. But the fact that I defy Google maps to find a better route to pick up my kid from school, while politically more or less interesting, doesn't do shit to make me feel like I'm participating in my life fully and beautifully.
And then there's porn, one of the most insidious drugs: we get lost in the immediacy of that hard on, the utter banality of the day washed away — until we come and are evacuated, leaving us with a very special kind of horror.
Burning Man is upon us. It's rising popularity, its growing crowds and mainstream acceptance, is testament to the collective desire of individuals to experience a break from their everyday lives. Give me something extreme! Take away my home! My TV! My shower! Give me beautiful drugs and beautiful people and beautiful sentiment and beautiful art! Give me something that's not everyday! But still gimme the internet!
For most people, however, Burning Man articulates the distinction between the everyday and the extraordinary. People put their heads down 358 days a year to shepherd a brand for Google only to claim a week of naked desert release. There are many fantastic things about Burning Man but the ease in which it's found its place in Bay Area tech culture is testament to our sense that the everyday shouldn't be extraordinary. To me, the best thing about Burning Man is the too rare ways it extends into everyday life in whatever form.
I believe the rise of quality TV testifies to our desire for something to break the white noise of the everyday blasé. All day, all week, people eagerly await the moment when they can come home, stop checking emails and returning phone calls, stop talking to their equally bored significant other, and turn on Breaking Bad. And Vince Gilligan and crew give us something extraordinary — a strange, complex, pathos rich 57 minutes as we experience a respite, not from our suffering but from our banality.
I've been rereading The Way of the Samurai recently and I feel like I've had my first real understanding of what this phenomenally strange book wants. It loathes that sensation of lagging behind life, of being used by life. The samurai set their sites on death — and not just death but swift, brutal, absolute dying — and then put every moment at death's service. Apply your rouge — to leave a beautiful corpse. Always use a tooth pick — to leave a beautiful corpse. The surprising thing about the book is that it doesn't profess calm contentment. It professes mania: a will to madness that utterly, thoroughly, and violently dispels any wishywashy bullshit. For that is the one thing the samurai cannot stand: the everyday blasé. They transform the most banal actions into the service of manic death.
Me, I'm no samurai. I can't live for the mania of death, for that moment where, in a matter of seconds, I hurl myself into the fray, wielding my sword from their belly to my own. That just ain't me, not at this point.
So I find my everyday mania in other ways. I sometimes leverage that surge morning coffee affords and take to the day as a tepid, Hebraic samurai — writing what I imagine are poignant insights into Nietzsche in a deranged frenzy on this here blog, scrubbing my pee soaked bathroom floor (c'mon, a 43 and a 9 year old live here: he can't aim and I dribble, so gimme a break!), buying adventurous vegetables from Rainbow Grocery.
Occasionally — nay, rarely — I nibble on a special brownie and take myself to the movie theater to see the latest David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, or Harmony Korine film. And for those 100 minutes and the next few weeks, I feel vital, infused by the cosmos itself, as if I'd participated in the formation of a new galaxy. This can sometimes take a less dramatic, but still quite poignant, form as I watch an overlooked Godard or some other gem that makes my blood and soul and mind and loins surge.
Evenings are my favorite. As the sun sets, we get that exquisite gift of twilight which brings a wave of energy: the sun gives way to darkness, everything shifts, and the earth itself seethes. Don Juan says to be wary of this moment and often forbids Carlos from doing anything then. Me, I make myself an herbal concoction, pour myself a glass of gin on the rocks, and take to my computer to write what turns out to be this blog. This is my release, my Burning Man. It is a surging, a reckoning of ideas, of life, of memory and words, of the very stuff of the universe. At these moments, I do my darndest to catch a wave of cosmic surging, leaving all that humdrum noise in my wake.
Alas, my release is short lived. I am a sprinter and always have been; such is my metabolism. I burn hard and fast and then, once again, am face to face with the everyday blasé.
Now, sometimes, my everyday banality is infused. From afar, my behavior seems the same: checking emails, eating granola, making work calls, even surfing porn. But, from within, each event is not just done but lived through, enjoyed. At these times, I am not lagging behind my life; I'm not being used. On the contrary, I'm moving with the world, with my needs and desires, with the rings, pangs, and dings of life.
From the outside, everything seems the same. From the inside, it couldn't be more different. Which leads me to believe that the what is not as important as the how. Sure, an event such as a concert or camping trip invites the spectacular. But we can certainly do such things without really participating in them. They become part of the humdrum, which is even more depressing. Oh, look, the Grand Canyon. Ho hum.
So the question remains: What creates this difference? How do I summon this infusion even while performing the same banal tasks? Is that what a yogic or Buddhist practice promises — an engaged participation with the everyday? Should I smoke more dope? I assume the answer to both these questions is yes.
Still, the what should not be underestimated. After all, we are fundamentally doers in a world that does; we are in motion with a world in motion. There is no pure how for we are always, necessarily, doing something. Breaking routine to do something different, something exciting, something challenging can throw oneself into the world with a mighty hallelujah. As Félix Guattari writes, sometimes it's just a matter of turning the pillow over.
In the old days, whenever I would buy an album, I was distrustful if I liked it too much on first listen. The first few times through, I wanted to be confused and intrigued, not tapping my foot and singing along. If listening to it came too easy, I knew it wasn't a keeper. I wanted the album to push me into new emotions, new experiences, to show me different ways of going. Think of The Smiths, The Boredoms, Liz Phair, Animal Collective, Brian Eno: each gives us a different way of going that is odd and beautiful and distinctive and certainly not easy — even Eno's ambient pieces or, rather, especially Eno's ambient pieces. Easy shmeasy: I want my music to be great.
Philosophy foils most readers — and usually right from the get go. I remember the first time I picked up Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition and found a seemingly simple, straightforward sentence: "Repetition is not generality." Huh? Its simplicity, its brevity, made it all the more confounding. Why would I think repetition was generality? Why was he telling me this at all, not to mention beginning his book this way? What the fuck? I immediately put it down. Imagining myself a pretty smart guy, being so confused out of the gate was too much for me (silly me!). It took me years before I picked it back up only to have it thoroughly reorient my entire life.
Now, if Deleuze had begun as Hegel begins his Phenomenology of Spirit, post-preface, I'd have been more at peace: "It is natural to suppose that, before philosophy enters upon its subject proper — namely, the actual knowledge of what truly is — it is necessary to come first to an understanding concerning knowledge, which is looked upon as the instrument by which to take possession of the Absolute, or as the means through which to get a sight of it." That seems like a parody of the beginning of a philosophy book, no? Sure, it's difficult. But don't we assume philosophy is going to be difficult?
This is not to say that Hegel's introductory sentence puts anyone at ease. Yes, it seems like what we imagine philosophy should read like (even if it turns out there are as many philosophy writing styles as there are philosophers or, even more, as there are books of philosophy). But it's still freakin' difficult. One's instinct, in most instances, is to put it down. Why wrestle so much? Shouldn't reading be relaxing or at least engaging? Not understanding is neither, so why bother?
And then there's Nietzsche who plays such subtle, complex rhetorical games with his readers. Beyond Good and Evil greets the reader with, "Suppose truth were a woman — what then?" What do you do with a sentence like that? Am I supposed to answer what seems to be an insane, perhaps misogynistic, query? I hope not. Or On the Genealogy of Morals which opens with, "We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason." That damned we! Is he including me? Do I want to be included as a man of knowledge who doesn't, in fact, know? Or do I not want to be part of this we? Oy vey ist mir!
Yes, reading philosophy is not the easiest, most casual thing one can do. And, as the above examples show, there is no formula: each philosopher has his own style, his own set of issues, his own references and figures and odd words, his own jargon (in the best sense of that word — a specialized, outlandish dialect). You can't just buy one decoder ring and fly through Western metaphysics.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that we don't consider how to read these books. We come to them with certain assumptions about books and how to read them. We look for characters to identify with, plots to follow. And, most obviously, we assume we should begin at the beginning.
But, as you can see from the few introductory sentences above, beginning at the beginning of a philosophy book can be a trying experience. So what I learned is that the beginning usually makes more sense later on. The trick, I've discovered, is to read until you are confused and then skip that part until you find something that doesn't confuse you. I want to say look for a foothold but it's not as much a journey as it is an encounter. It's more like meeting a person than it is like following a path. Still, quite practically, scan the book looking for a moment that you understand — a sentence, a paragraph — and then work out from there.
Another way to look at it is to consider philosophy a sculpture. Consider how you look at any material sculpture. You walk around it, take it in from different angles. You might crouch or step back. You climb higher to change perspectives; you move in dangerously close, the museum guards making their move (I've been reprimanded, even asked to leave, at museums too many times to count). So it should be with philosophy. Move around in it. Get different vantage points. Fuck what you believe integrity demands. Jump in, poke about, touch the damn thing. You're not gonna break it, I promise.
I mean this all literally. Don't begin at the beginning. Instead, flip through the book looking for something that grabs your eye — a word, phrase, picture. Read from there until it annoys or confuses you, then flip again.
And then sit with it. Let the one thing you understood sink in and then try the book again a few days or weeks or even months later. Who said a book has to read all at once? Philosophy is certainly not written to be read that way. Assume you'll read it over, say, a year and while reading other things. And that then you'll read it again years later.
To me, reading a book of philosophy is like Cézanne painting a pear. Cézanne doesn't begin with the outline and then fill in the rest. No, he dabs here then there, the pear taking shape from the inside out as if it emerging out of the ether. This is how I read a book of philosophy. I read here then there and let it take shape from the inside out at whatever pace it, and I, demand. I don't read Wikipedia first. Nor do I read some third party's intro. Sure, I might later on. But I don't want that outline. I don't want to the book preformed, to already be a pear. I want the book to emerge as if from the ether, right before my eyes.
What is that emerges? A world with its own logic, its own rules, its own knowledge, its own sensibilities. It's like walking into a bar or palace in a foreign country and your job is to figure out how everything works, more or less.
Still, what is it philosophy asks of us? Fundamentally, I believe the reading of philosophy is taken far too seriously. It should be a delight! It should be fun! Of course it will be some work. After all, it's asking you to think differently, to see the world differently — much as Cézanne, or any great painter, makes you see the world differently. An idea or phrase or concept may just strike you as beautiful or resonant or, for that matter, full of shit.
You don't have to agree or disagree. You can do that later, on your own time. While you're reading, whether you agree or not is irrelevant. This is my favorite aspect of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. He keeps telling the reader not to argue with him. This is easier said than done. I sure as shit kept finding myself taking point with his points — only to be greeted repeatedly with his request that I not argue.
Why not argue? Well, the better question is why argue? A book doesn't demand that you agree. It generously proffers its world view. I believe a good reader returns the favor and is generous in kind, letting the book do what it wants to do. Don't fight it or try to make it fit into pre-existing schemas — Oh, this is just that same old ordinary language crap! Or, It's just postmodern hogwash! Just let the book offer itself up. Let it frame the problem, ask the questions, proffer the solutions. Academics argue because they feel a need to defend their absurd lives. I've watched esteemed, so-called radical academics rake their peers over the coals publicly for not ascribing to this or that theory. It's embarrassing, not to mention ugly, to watch.
Philosophy, like all great literature, is not the jurisdiction of academia. So try reading a book of philosophy as if it were a comic book or pop song — only one's that's demanding but, in any case, one that is not the purview of experts. Fuck experts. Enjoy what you enjoy — its use of language (or not); its rhythm; its humor, or lack thereof (Heidegger is humorless and hence, for me, unreadable). Try to get a sense for what the book is up to. Don't read it as an explanation or confirmation. Read it as if it were poetry, science fiction, a work of art, and a potential lover all at once.
Recently, I've been reading Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will to my son at bedtime. He's nine — my son, that is, not Bergson. He doesn't understand very much of it but he seems to enjoy it nonetheless — the rhythm of words and argument, the intermingling of familiar and unfamiliar words. In a way, this is a beautiful way to read philosophy: to let it play over you without fussing, struggling, agreeing or disagreeing. Don't demand that it be easy. Let its complexity furl and then, as with any great art, see if you dig it.
Philosophical writing inhabits a strange space within what we call literature. I hear people say things like, I mostly read non-fiction while others proffer, I prefer fiction. But, as a reader of philosophy, I'm not sure where I stand in such a discussion — a discussion which, as a philosopher, I find misleading. Sure, there is a clear line between a history of Grecian urns and Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. But I'm not sure if it's a question of fictionality that distinguishes one from another but a question of convention and style.
Some believe philosophy should be rigorously bereft of style, as straight forward as possible, words declaring the logic of the universe unadorned, unencumbered, utterly naked. Some philosophers even use axioms and theorems as if ensuring readers that this is certainly non-fiction. What can be said at all, writes the early, cranky Wittgenstein, can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. I enjoy some of this philosophy — but because of it's odd non-style style. Which, no doubt, would infuriate its avid advocates. There's nothing quite like telling someone that their truth is beautiful.
Meanwhile, other philosophers believe their endeavor is fundamentally literary, a matter of style, believing that the language cannot be separated from what the words describe. Hence their writing must perform their ideas. Of course, the person who wrote about the performative ascribed to a principle of clarity (which is not to say that clarity and performativity are mutually exclusive). But to those for whom meaning is perpetually deferred, the writing performs said deferral which can, alas, make the writing seem less than clear. To wit, Derrida:
I will speak, therefore, of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writing whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly. One can always, de facto or de jure, erase or reduce this lapse in spelling, and find it (according to situations to be analyzed each time, although amounting to the same), grave or unseemly, that is, to follow the most ingenuous hypothesis, amusing. Thus, even if one seeks to pass over such an infraction in silence, the interest that one takes in it can be recognized and situated in advance as pre-scribed by the mute irony, the inaudible misplacement, of this literal permutation. One can always act as if it made no difference. And I must state here and now that today's discourse will be less a justification of, and even less an apology for, this silent lapse in spelling, than a kind of insistent intensification of its play.
I can't help but feel that this writing couldn't be clearer — as an argument about, and of, the role of play in language. In that sense, it's not vague or obtuse at all but is really quite succinct.
Classically, philosophy and poetry — not to mention mathematics — are intimately intertwined. I think of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (now that's a title!), an epic poem laying out, well, the nature of things. All nature, then, as self-sustained, consists/ Of twain of things: of bodies and of void/ In which they're set, and where they're moved around. This nature, among other things, involves what he calls clinamen, the swerve of atoms as they move through space. I might say a thing's clinamen is its style — which makes style not something added to a thing but constitutive of it.
In any case, from one perspective, philosophy and poetry engage the world with words. Regular language is too conventional; it does not articulate the complexity and profundity of experience. Poets make language an experience in and of itself. Poems do not merely describe the world but the very reading of them is an experience. Philosophy, as a reckoning of the lived world with words, can enjoy the same demand. I don't read Heidegger — not because he was a Nazi but because I find him a humorless phony — but methinks this was his shtick: poetry as the ultimate philosophic expression. It puts words closer to the becoming of the world, forging a certain intimacy with experience.
Does it matter that I find Heidegger soul killingly arid? The fact that I said such a thing in my dissertation — and hence conspicuously omitted Heidegger from my bibliography — enraged some faculty. Yes, I use the word enraged sans hyperbole. Somewhere, I have a letter in which an academic declares his repugnance at my declared repugnance of Heidegger. I will admit, I giggled when I read his letter. There's a reason I'm not an academic; academics make the terrible mistake of thinking they are truth seekers. Me, I love books and ideas for the experience, not the truth (is my experience my truth? Or a truth? If you say so).
And then there is Deleuze and Guattari who don't see their writing as poetry as much as they see it as science fiction. They don't reckon experience but proffer new, alien, possible worlds. Instead of a rigid line composed of well-determined segments, telegraphy now forms a supple flow marked by quanta that are like so many little segmentations-in-progress grasped at the moment of their birth, as on a moonbeam, or on an intensive scale. They perform their philosophy: A Thousand Plateaus is, indeed, a thousand plateaus (more or less but who's counting?). But it's not poetry they write even if much of it is, indeed, poetic. And it's certainly not scientific-descriptive as in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.
And yet it is, in their own words, empirical. But of a world you don't recognize. Hence the writing can often be quite difficult. How could it be otherwise? This is philosophy as science fiction, proffering worlds you didn't even know you could imagine. When you go to Turkey, do you expect to understand what everyone's saying to you? So of course their writing uses strange words and figures (haecceity, rhizome, territorialize). Of course it scrambles known distinctions between categories (ornithology, art, science, literature).
This can make their writing seem obtuse as you scream, What the heck are you talking about? Just be clear! But that's your fault, not theirs. They are asking you to think differently and, in order to do so, you must speak differently. From the perspective of this new world, their writing couldn't be more lucid! You just have to be willing to take leave of this world, to travel into space and through the cosmos, not quite sure where you'll end up.
If you go to the bookstore (there are still few of those in San Francisco), pick up a series of books that call themselves philosophy. You will in fact find a vast diversity of styles. Plato writes hilarious, bawdy little plays. Kant writes an elaborate, pedantic descriptive system. Nietzsche loves aphorisms, outbursts, and asides. Kierkegaard rarely uses his own name but writes as pseudonyms within ever different fictional contexts. Francois Laruelle writes nearly indecipherable prose. Wittgenstein started by writing strictly axiomatic tomes and ended by writing open ended thought vignettes. And what does Georges Bataille do?
If the philosophy becomes too didactic, prescriptive, or practical, it risks becoming something else entirely: the dreaded new age. This happened to Carol Castaneda, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He gets dismissed as fruitcake hippy shit or, on the other hand, taken too seriously, as if he were a guru (not that there's anything wrong with gurus; but there is something wrong with serious). But, to me, he's a philosopher offering the greatest pedagogy since Socrates and Jesus. And, like Plato, Castaneda works with characters and dialogue, offering a vision of the world and how to go in it. Does this exclude him from the hallowed halls of philosophy? Or is the problem that his philosophy demands scary, non-bourgeois experience?
What's hilarious to me is the debate about whether Castaneda was a true anthropologist or if he made up Don Juan Matus. It's the wrong question. Making something up doesn't make it less true. But the fact that the question plagues us is of interest: Something is either fiction or non-fiction, dammit! Accusing Castaneda of making Don Juan up is a way for academics to avoid reckoning the oddity, intensity, and severity of Castaneda's world.
To me, all great literature blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction by creating a truth within the very experience of reading. But, that aside, novels, poetry, and plays have a clear place within the conventions of our thinking: they are decidedly not non-fiction.
Philosophy, however, continues to trouble this cultural distinction as philosophers themselves are torn. In the US, most of those whom I call philosophers are not read in philosophy departments. I got my PhD in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley because, in 1991, that was one of the only places in the country to read Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Ricoeur, even Gadamer and Nietzsche. People ask me what I studied and I sometimes say philosophy but, just as often, critical theory or even literary theory.
Why is this? Because philosophy departments in the US are run and dominated by a certain belief about the role of style in philosophy — namely, that it doesn't belong there. If you are writing philosophy and the writing matters then you're not writing philosophy; you're writing literature. Or so the argument goes.
But all writing — even scientific writing, even mathematical formulas, even computer code — is stylized. There's no such thing as writing bereft of style. There is of course writing that is soul draining, pedantic, life negating (99% of academic writing). Such is its style.
To me, a book of philosophy proffers a life. It gives a body, affect, ideas, concepts, notions. I can't just strip away the voice, the mood, the language to reveal the ideas. Nietzsche is not Nietzsche without his exclamation points! Kierkegaard is, in fact, rarely Kierkegaard. And the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is perfectly stilted. This is not to say that I avoid or dismiss their respective concepts. That would be absurd. What I'm saying is that I don't — that I can't — separate the concepts from the style.
Style runs through every moment of the philosophy — from the words and rhythm to the reference and figures to the concepts and ideas. Style is what sutures a body, a book, a philosophy together. Take away style and you take away life.
Sometimes, I look around and the world seems so precariously hung together. Well, not the world, perhaps, but the social. The world of trees and clouds and bugs and wind has an infinitely complex internal logic, more or less impenetrable to us, that forges an order where it feels like there should be none. Sure, we try to decipher it all with what we call science and, with a peculiar hubris, the laws of nature. But the fact is the so-called natural world hangs together inevitably, even when all the so-called laws of nature are broken. The cosmos doesn't get fined or go to jail. It doesn't give a shit about our laws.
Is this true of the human social, as well? I see imminent chaos constantly. Is this my jewish angst? My eschatological enculturation? Or is the social beholden to different laws than nature?
Take driving. There are very simple rules: red light stop, green light go. Stay in your lane. Don't drive on the sidewalk. Don't hit other cars or people. And yet people feel as though they're the only ones who matter; everyone else is an asshole in the way. I, for one, often feel this. Just ask my kid: profanity flies as my general disdain for everyone else on the road is given torrid voice.
Which is nuts seeing as there is great incentive to adhere to the basic laws of the road. Put aside the legal and financial costs of tickets and such. I'm talking about what might be called common sense, the sense of the commons. If I knew I was the only driver who was going to ignore the laws then the risk of injury — to myself and, more likely, others — would be minimal. But what happens when everyone thinks he's the sole one entitled to ignore the law? Cars would be colliding, pedestrians would be squashed, mayhem would ensue. Indeed, in San Francisco, pedestrians are run over at an alarming clip.
This is the reason I find San Francisco bikers' disdain for the laws of the road egregious. They fly through stop signs with unabashed self-righteousness, cars screeching to a halt. These bikers might be justified in their loathing of cars but their disregard for basic social etiquette is dangerous, rude, and as selfish as a CEO who authorizes the dumping of toxic waste. I don't wanna kill some biker — even if his sanctimony is infuriating. And yet bikers put me in the position of almost killing them every day.
Kant considers this ethical drive a categorical imperative. If it's not ok for everyone to do it, it's not ok for you to do it. When it comes to driving, this makes sense to me as chaos looms dangerously close. But generally I find this ethical imperative to be dictatorial. Sure, if everyone peed behind trees, the city would be a foul, disgusting mess. But most people won't pee behind trees so, alas, I can without sullying the city too excessively (plus, it drives me nuts that dogs can do it but humans, who built the fucking city, can't).
In 1991, I found myself queued up early on a Prague summer morning waiting for the final tickets to go on sale for the Jethro Tull concert that night. I was approximately seventh in line. All day long, the line grew longer as the would-be concert goers grew increasingly drunk on liters of beer (their beer bottles are liters — liters!). When the ticket window finally opened, all semblance of order and decorum ended in one mad, insane rush of sweaty Czech men and one skinny American jew. Fists were thrown with abandon. I was literally off my feet being mashed by the crowd. Devoid of strength, I still managed to negotiate tickets with the international language of money.
Now, from my skinny weak ass perspective, order was broken. But from the perspective of some big, brawling-inclined Czech dude, my ethical imperative is bullshit, a law written by and for the weak. What I call chaos was just him getting his tickets to see Tull jam some "Locomotive Breath." Imperative shmimperative. Kant shmant.
This imminent chaos I see burbling amidst the social fray haunts my sense of self, as well. Too often, I feel as though I am precariously hung together, that the glue is giving and I'll forget my name, my son, my life as I drool indiscriminately, masturbating like a deranged dog in heat, mumbling the tongue of the mad.
But what is this glue? There are no doubt ardent cultural constructs that help fix me in place. I'm a man (despite crossing my legs funny and being skinny as an asparagus)! I'm a jew (despite, uh, hmn...well, I'm just a jew)!I I'm white (even if in France, the cops wanted to pound my ass for being Arabic)! But this support is precarious, at best. I am divorced, work from home, am alone an overwhelming amount of the time. Just like I like it. But it also means there are not many distractions or tethers to keep me connected, to define my social role. The ether of ego dissolution is a whiff away.
Even my body feels like it's ready to give way. I got a broken face, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. Piss leaks out of me along with flatulent air. My stomach spits into my mouth; muscles ache out of the blue. It's not even a rebellion, as if my body had an agenda. Nope — it just feels as though all the different elements want to go their own way, the whole be damned.
And yet here I am, hung together, a moderately coherent self. Like the cosmos, it's as if what holds me together persists despite flagrant disregard for the laws of nature and their cultural equivalents.
Yeat's "The Second Coming" famously declares Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. This is a prejudice that prevails: to hold to together, there needs to be some kind of center — a logic, a foundation, a core. The artist Sarah Sze created an elaborate sculpture at SF MoMA: an SUV splayed down the museum's atrium, the vehicle furling and unfurling with plants, windmills, waterfalls, styrofoam cities. She entitled it, "The Center Cannot Hold." What she discovered is that there are other orders of order, logics of connection and coherence that emerge to forge elaborate, impossible architectures. Anyone who's spent any time looking at the sky already knows this. Center shmenter.
I taught a seminar once on modes of order. I wanted to play the class a series of songs, each with a different mode of order one of which would be chaotic. I spent hours with the fine staff of Aquarius Records trying to identify chaotic music. But everything we played had some kind of order. I ended up buying some free jazz.