1.31.2013

Romance, the Infinite Leap, and Why It Doesn't Really Matter Who You're With

Romantic relationships are strange. You become privy to another person's peculiar workings, the singular and inevitably bizarre ways they make sense of life — their body, family, time, health, sleep, money, the culture at large. Few things are as disconcerting as finding yourself intimate with someone so utterly, thoroughly different. In a flash, you move from impossible closeness to infinite distance.  Why is she breathing so weirdly? Who is this freak in my bed?

The first time one of you gets sick is a great revelation: the role of self-pity, the knowledge of medicine, the entire architecture of the body in the world comes to the fore, poignantly. For instance, as a jewish (little 'j,' if you know what I mean) hypochondriac, I'm always surprised that she doesn't know the difference between viruses and bacteria. Is she some kind of moron? Meanwhile, she's thinking: Who's this neurotic nutjob?  

And we're left staring at each other across an infinite abyss, heads cocked in equal parts befuddlement and horror. What do you do then?


You can, of course, cut your losses and get the hell out of there. I mean, if she doesn't understand the difference between a virus and bacteria, is she giving me all kinds of icky things?  And she's thinking: Wow, I gotta run before this lunatic explains me to death. 

Or you take a leap of faith across that infinite chasm and you accept everything she does, however demented.  This is not a one time gesture in which you leap and suddenly you're on the other side. Phew. No, it's a continual internal movement you have to make. After all, her oddities are gonna keep coming. You'll bristle, want to judge, mock, run. But you don't. Instead you pause and think: So she can't tell a cold from a sinus infection, so what? Surely there are greater sins.

Making this move is incredible. Doubt, anxiety, suspicion all have to be brushed aside. And with them, your ego, your deep down suspicion that only you understand the world, that the things you believe are true really are true — and that everyone else is a freak. Making this move is scary because your foundational beliefs go up for grabs. 

Relationships, then, begin with this confrontation with otherness. But they live and die by your willingness to make this move, this move that defies logic, this move that is scary and opens you up to all sorts of risks — disease (says the hypochondriac) and humiliation and everything else that comes from welcoming the radically alien into your innermost sanctum.

Which means who the actual person is doesn't really matter. I know, I know — it seems like a harsh thing to say. Especially after you've made that leap because then, wow, you see the absolute particularity of this person and it seems like you've waited your whole life for her — the way she gestures as she talks and swallows the ends of her phrases, the gap between her teeth, the curve of her shoulders.

But there is nothing special about her. Or, better, there is something special about any number of women. What makes this one different is that you — not her — made this impossible, incredible, internal movement towards infinite affirmation.  There is no one true love. That's an absurd, stupid, and dangerous myth. What there is is the leap — your leap.  Leap towards anyone and it's the same challenge, even if the particulars are always particular.  

She, or he, is going to be strange to you, inevitably and necessarily. We are all distinctive nodes within this vast network of forces, desires, bodies, and needs all distributing the world, thinking, believing, making sense in extraordinary ways. In other words, we are all freaks. And accepting another freak, utterly and thoroughly, runs against so much of our training.

Just look at dating sites and the nonsense they proffer to help people vet their would-be lover: Does he share my interests? Is he from my home town? Does he like rock climbing? Nature? Yoga? (Every single woman on Match.com loves nature and yoga. Every single one.)

These sites do everything they can to reinforce the ill conceived notion that the right person is out there — the one who fits all your stupid criteria: the right education, the right salary, the right hobbies. None of these things matter if you're not willing to make the leap across an infinite chasm. And, I gotta tell you, up close everyone is a fucking freak regardless of where they grew up or what they're interested in. You're gonna have to make that leap, even if he's from Berkeley and loves rock climbing. Or else you're gonna bail. 

Sometimes, you make this internal infinite move and still come across something that you just can't accept. It can be something crass and obvious — drug addiction, stank, vapidity, and such — but that's easy: you bail. You leap back whence you came.

But sometimes what you come across is plain old annoying — she texts for too long, she chews salad grotesquely, she always interrupts your stories. I know many women in my past cringed at my social demeanor, the way I'd obnoxiously commandeer a conversation (in my own eyes, of course, I was just being charming). These things are why long time couples bicker non stop. It's a build up of resentments and annoyances.

What is our infinite affirmer to do?  He's cast his arms and body and spirit wide open, welcomed all the oddities but, fuck, that chewing! Well, humor is quite handy. Teasing and jokes are a way at once to accept without accepting and critique without critiquing. Humor is essential to romance and is part and parcel of the infinite leap, of infinite acceptance. (Avoidance, too, can work and should not be underestimated.)


But what about that infatuation, that intense desire you feel for someone, that magnetic, chemical draw that turns you inside out (this gets rarer as you get older)? It's a downright sublime experience, beautiful and intense. And it sure as shit helps you make that infinite leap — it's much easier to leap into the infinite abyss when the other side looks good and is calling your name emphatically.

But this intensity does not preclude the inevitable appearance of the chasm. Oh, it can stall it — maybe even for a while. But the radical difference of this other person will come forth and challenge who you are.  And then you'll have to decide: do I bail or do I leap?

In a way, that infatuation is easy, even if it tears your life apart. It pulls you, leaving little choice. But face to face with the abyss, there is nothing but you and your fear. You have to make this move on your own, even if it's a movement towards another. Bailing usually looks, and is, easier.

And maybe we don't need these insane commitments that demand so much, such leaps. They're not the only way to go. Serial relationships with one or many that ride the waves of desire have their own challenges, their own beauty and value. In fact, this serial mode may be a more flowing, more liberating and, finally, less tortuous way to go.

But there is something incredible  — something interesting and compelling — about opening yourself completely to another and letting the freak into your life. It demands discipline and surrender.

And it promises something more than the other person for it does not, in fact, promise that. She may not open herself to you. But because it is an internal movement, you will be different. You will be less tethered to your ego, less sure of what you believe, what you know. You will be more generous with the world. 

1.28.2013

Ideas, Beliefs, & Life

There are things I believe I believe. For instance, I like to believe that everything — yes, everything — is a text and should enjoy multiplicity, ambiguity, play. This is what I love about reading William Burroughs, Nabokov, Perec, Nietzsche. It's why I love complex films by PT Anderson, Cassavetes, Godard. It's why the few friends I have are chock full of oddities. And it's why I have trouble with professional networking: I relish complexity too much to stomach its single-mindedness. (Which is to say, it's not a moral issue but a digestive one.)

Yet when it comes to romantic fidelity, I demand absolute truth. I tell myself: Who cares? If I'm enjoying myself — and don't think my health is at risk — what difference does it make? But another part of me gets filled with fear, insecurity, and doubt as I find myself, Oedipus-like, conducting an interrogation that inevitably ends in my own demise. It's humiliating — my behavior, that is, not my cuckolding. 

What, then, is the relationship between belief and action? When do I bend my behavior to fit my beliefs and when do I adjust my beliefs to fit my behavior?

Well, the relationship between ideas and action need not be one-to-one (or even aspire to be). Take Kant's notion of the beautiful in The Critique of Judgment. His concept of the beautiful slays me. But not because I believe it or find it an ideal to aspire to. No, I love this concept for its elaborate architecture, its bizarre mechanics, its confounding logic (Kant's beautiful involves a free play that forever eludes concept but creates a proportionate agitation of the faculties in the process. It's a veritable Rube Goldberg machine).

Thinking about it affords me delight. And that act of thinking is my life — or at least part of it. Ideas don't have to be believed. They can be enjoyed. And that's not to reduce them. Enjoyment is not necessarily frivolous. In fact, to me, true enjoyment is thorough and resonant. (That's something I believe.)

Ideas, then, can be experiences that do not determine one's life but go with one's life, like dark chocolate or a dog. The matter of discrepancy between belief and life is rendered moot as the idea becomes a kind of life itself that one can enjoy in different ways (or not). It's not a matter of hypocrisy or failure. It's a matter of a kind of friendship between the idea and me. And, like any good friend, this idea can instruct and inform without having to dictate. 

Certain events, certain decisions, certain actions push at my beliefs. I had a friend who did not believe in Western medicine, in antibiotics and such. She became seriously ill but didn't want to be hospitalized with tubes and drugs plugged into her. She died. Of course, she may have died with the antibiotics and surgeries, as well. Or she may have submitted to them and been miserable. Or she may have been cured and led a long, prosperous life. 

I do not enjoy much of Western medicine. They shot me so full of penicillin when I was a kid — back then, it was a needle in the ass — that now I'm allergic to all antibiotics. Which led me to traditional Chinese medicine, to acupuncture and herbs which have, for the most part, been very good to me.

And I feel like I get Chinese medicine and the whole energy thing. Believing, I believe, helps with the healing. Still, much of it eludes me.  I had one Chinese doctor perform a long, thorough diagnostic exam at the end of which he said two things: One, he knew I'd had some profound trauma as a child (for what it's worth, he was right). And, two, he told me my diagnosis in Chinese which, when translated, was a "mist over my liver."

I love that. I love its poetry. Of course, it's basically meaningless to me. But I like it and want to believe it. I'm sick. What do you have? Mist on my liver. Oh.

Utility and beauty are two modes of relating to ideas, neither of which involve belief. The interesting, however, is my favorite and my go to.

I sometimes wonder what will happen if I am diagnosed with some horrendous thing such as cancer. Will I avoid the horrors of chemo and radiation, opting for the relatively gentle poke of the acupuncturist's needle, a bundle of stinky herbs, and some obscure poetry? Or, quaking before death's imminent arrival, will I embrace Western medicine's sterile belligerence? (Between you and me, I assume the latter. Still, I'm not sure which response I want to believe I'll take. I see some kind of nobility in sticking with the needles and stanky herbs. But then I think: How is that noble?)

Or should I adjust my beliefs to be: I believe in what works until said working is more painful than it's worth?  I like the sound of that. It may not be the most committed of positions but perhaps that's just as beliefs should be: circumstantial, protean, local. Principles have a certain currency in our culture but I, for one, am not sure I believe in the principle of principles. 

I return to how I relate to Kant's concept of the beautiful. It's liberating to take belief and adherence off the table. To enjoy a more complex, and more generous, relationship to ideas — one that lets both the idea and my life go as they go rather than trying to make one fit the other.

Life and ideas are different. But they are not opposed. Nor do actions need the anchor and guide of ideas' wisdom. And ideas don't need the grounding of sweat to be vital and alive. Sometimes, action knows best. Sometimes, ideas know better. But usually it's not one or the other. We go with ideas and ideas go with us.

What's my point? I have many. But, mostly, it's this: Rather than believing in ideas and judging my life by them, I want to make friends with ideas. I want to replace belief with friendship. That way I get all the benefits of edification without all the nagging. 

1.16.2013

You're a Dialect

You're born into a world already in progress, an elaborate economy of words, food, clothes, medicine, behavior, knowledge. These are all languages that precede you and work to define you: You are a boy; you're a girl; you were born late and you, young lady, were born early.

The Marxist theorist Louis Althusser calls this hailing. I always loved this figure of the hail because it's so visceral and immediate. Someone calls your name — Daniel! — and you turn around. Isn't that the very definition of power?  You are spoken by all these existing languages telling you who you are, how to dress, how to learn, who to fuck. You are hailed before you're even born.

And yet all these languages that precede you were created by the very people who were constituted by them, just as you are. Fashion, for instance: You come to all these clothes and their elaborate semiotics and must make do with them. Khakis? Really? Fuck. And yet all these clothes were created by people who were, and are, in your exact situation — namely, being determined by the fashion economy. 

What is true of fashion is true of all languages — words, gender, medicine, science, desire. All language is a Mobius creation: a hammer that builds itself so it can build itself. 

The linguist Roman Jakobson wrote of indexicals, words that have no referent outside of their use — I, here, now, this. I, for instance, always designates the speaker and is only activated when spoken (same as now, here, this). Linguistic language (is that redundant? I don't think so), then, is an elaborate system of words and relations that remains fundamentally open. The very terms of the linguistic system are such that there are these portals, these open spaces, into which the living actor slips.

As we slide into language through the portal of I, we don the skin of the world. It's not that we are taken up into its relentless mechanics as much as we are now operators of these systems in progress.  We wear the world, proffer its words as ours, its clothes as ours, its beliefs as ours. 

And from within we recreate. Think of Jean-Paul Gaultier who created clothes out of the very fabric of the world — blood and bones, animals, African art.  He (re)created the language of fashion by borrowing this and that from other parts of the world. 

Every speaker — of words, fashion, food, medicine — wields the system in a slightly different way. As you slip on these shoes, those pants, say these words, drive that car in that way to that job, you are operating different languages from the inside. You are speaking a dialect. You slip into the existing economies and, once there, make your way donning this, saying that. You are a this way of speaking all these language at once, a collection of dialects. 

All there are are dialects. We all speak the same tongue but in more or less different ways. 

1.15.2013

Confusion

I started grad school in 1992 so cocksure. I knew things and was sure everyone else was an idiot, more or less. I read the books I read and assumed the ones I didn't read were not worth reading.

I liked this feeling. I didn't yet have all the turmoil of aging, of marriage, a child, working, divorce, working some more. San Francisco was dirt cheap and all I had to do was teach one composition class, read some books, write some papers. Life was glorious. I knew what was what.

I was all set to write my dissertation on Kierkegaard and the ironic life. I'd come to grad school obsessed with Kierkegaard and now, four years later, I still was. And then my mentor had me read Deleuze. Suddenly, I had no idea what was what. I didn't know anything and, worse, I couldn't understand anything.

There were about 10 of us in a seminar with this same said mentor (the ever-cool, wise Felipe Gutterriez). And, for the first time (more or less), I was silent. Not just silent: muted. Shut down. People were talking about lightning and repetition and I couldn't understand a goddamn word.

I went into a spiral.  What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I understand anything? I was foggy, disoriented, a little depressed (I thought I was a lot depressed but, in retrospect, it was only a little.) I couldn't write because I couldn't even understand what I didn't understand. But I knew that my Kierkegaard was of no use. Nothing I had was of any use. I was in new territory and I couldn't for the life of me find a foot hole. I was confused.

And then, about a year later, I had a revelation. I'd call it sudden but it was anything but sudden — I'd been reading and re-reading and thinking and mulling and digesting for more than a year. But the move from confusion to understanding is an infinite leap that happens at the speed of thought, even if it takes years of preparation. 

Over the next few weeks, the layout of this strange terrain began to take shape. I was by no means its master — nor did I want to be — but I was its inhabitant, roaming its undulating hills and plains, breathing its foreign and exhilarating air.  I ended up writing a very different dissertation.

This may seem obvious after the fact but it is a lesson I am constantly trying to teach myself: confusion is a requisite for learning. The movement from here to there means letting go of familiarity, of mastery, to become an apprentice all over again.

But I have to tell you: it was scary. I thought I'd simply reached the end of my intelligence or that something was wrong with me — all those drugs had caught up with me and I was now stupid. But, no, I was learning. And one thing I was learning is that being stupid is necessary — to life, to intelligence, to wisdom, to joy (although not necessarily happiness). 

Years later, when I was done with my degree and teaching undergraduates, I would begin every semester with the same shtick. You will be confused, I'd tell my students. If you're not, you're doing something wrong.

Of course, it's nice to feel in the know. To feel sure and certain, to know what to say yes and no to. But we are creatures of time and things change. Conditions change. Our bodies change. Our desires change. New things come our way. Sometimes, we seek these new things. Other times, they are thrust upon us more or less vigorously.

Some years ago, I found myself constantly sick with the same recurring ailment. Something was clearly awry. I didn't know what's happening: Is something deeply wrong with me? Am I sick? I didn't even know where to begin understanding. At a loss and feeling terrible, I went to a keen acupuncturist who told me point blank that the life I was leading was unsustainable.

It was confusing because I wasn't doing anything different than I'd always done. But I had changed — my body, my desires, my appetite, my will. I had to jettison my assumptions and learn how to live again. Which is even more confusing because I knew what I liked so well that I didn't even consider myself knowing it. It's just the way it was. But suddenly everything was up for grabs — my diet, my sleep, my time, my, uh, sexual expenditures, my very desires.

But wouldn't it be absurd for me to make sense of my present life with what I knew when I was 23, 29, 31 (I was then 38)? My body had changed. And so had the world. And yet I was doing things I'd been doing for the past 15-20 years, things that were no longer applicable to this body at this time.

And this body will continue to change as will the world around it. And so confusion looms, always, as I find myself not knowing what to do, what I want, what's best — for me, for her, for him, in the long run, the short run, for the world. Getting older hasn't resolved my confusion; it's amplified it. When I was young, I knew things. Now that I'm old(er), I reel. And it's not a good feeling.

But it is necessary and hence to be embraced, even while it is to be overcome. Confusion, alas, is constitutive of human being (or human becoming, as the case may be). We change and the way we make sense of the world collapses until we adjust the system.

Some people might resort to principles, things they will believe to be true even if they don't believe them to be true. That might help — even if it's insane — but I've found that principles change, too. Maybe that means they're not really principles or maybe it means that everything really is in flux. Maybe some people have these strange, fixed principles. But I've never been one of them. My only principle at this point is uncertainty.  

Perhaps there is another way to stave off confusion. You stay ahead of it, being so alive to yourself in the moment that you're always adjusting your appetite, your desire, your diet, your will. You will never know anything so will never be confused; you'll always be heeding what's best for the moment.

But besides being its own absurd ideal, I believe this becomes its own kind of conservatism. It's the same will as the one that sticks to principles, a will always to feel right and in the know.

I believe it's better, then, to embrace confusion, even to foster it. Because when the way you make sense of the world collapses and you begin to careen — to flounder and whine and drift and drool — a new way of making sense often appears, taking form before your eyes, a miracle. And it's beautiful.  

1.06.2013

Seeing Seeing Today, or The Flesh of the Interweb



Vision sometimes seems like this magical act that somehow bypasses the world. Touch, smell, and taste are so dirty. And sound can be so, well, unsound. Ah, but vision is  pristine, the immaculate sense: it's a way to know the world without touching the world. 

The great French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a most euphonious name) messes this up. To see, he maintains, is to palpate the world. My vision doesn't go from me to you without getting messy in the process. When I see you, I bring you to me — and me, in a way, to you. You enter me and swish all about, marbling with my thoughts and tissues. 

Vision creates a chiasmus, an intertwining, of seer and seen. In the very act of seeing, I am taken up by the seen. For instance, when I read, the words occupy me, fill my eyes, my head, my fibers. I transport those words to me, into me, and there those words do what they will while I, in turn, do what I will.   

For Merleau-Ponty, the very condition of my seeing is that I am something that can be seen. In fact, I can only see the world — not to mention touch and know the world — because I am part of this world, continuous with its fabric. He calls this flesh. 

The flesh, he tells us, is an element like fire, water, earth, and air. All things are enmeshed in the flesh of the world. Between you and me is not nothing. Between you and me is the world. This flesh is at once physical and virtual, visible and invisible. It is made of gravity and history and concepts and breath and the scent of roses and the push and pull of all sorts of bodies. 

Vision takes place within this flesh, is of this flesh. Seeing is inscribed within the flesh of the world, eyes casting shadows and traces as they take in and take up the world (and, in turn, are taken. Seeing is neither active nor passive; it's both active and passive. It takes place in that beautiful middle voice of the event.) Seeing is a kind of origami, folding what's there and what's here into various configurations.

What happens when we introduce new eyes, disembodied eyes, into this fabric? 

In pre-digital photography, the photographer stood at a remove from his subject as the click of the camera closed this distance. Between subject and object there is what the photographer Cody Bratt calls a dance. And the film — or rather the image marks the juncture of seer and seen, of subject and object, of photographer and world.  

Indeed, within every photograph, we see more than the seen: the photograph presents  the seeing of the photographer. When you look at the postcard, you don’t just see Yosemite: you see Ansel Adams seeing Yosemite. We call this his style. 

But we don't just see Ansel Adams' seeing, as if we were all Laura Mars with Adam's eyes embedded in our skull. No, we see Ansel Adams-camera seeing. The photographic image is inscribed on and with a particular fabric: this camera, this lens, this film. We know the pictures of our childhood by their technological patina. We relish the photographic sunspot, an image we only see because of the technology.  (What is true of technology is true of people, too. I see with the technology that is me: these eyes, this vision, this culture, this perspective. I am dated film just as any Kodak or Fuji film is.)

The camera never captured what’s there. The camera has always created the image — an image that includes what’s there but is not exhausted by what's there. The photographic image is not simply a static image, an externalized rendering of what's been imprinted in our minds. The photographer is a cut up artist, a collagist, who takes a mountain, light, sun and gives us this impossibly odd object: Yosemite on a postcard. This photograph is not a replica. It’s a new thing, an object, something that is part of the world thanks to the camera.

Today, we enjoy a different relationship to the image. The camera is no longer a specialized tool we use to record special moments. The camera is now always on — Facebook, Instagram, surveillance, telemedicine, MRIs, Skype, Chatroulette, ATM cameras, credit card imprints. The relationship between body, self, technology, and world has shifted. The flesh of the world is lined with images forged from unblinking, disembodied eyes. 

If before the digital, the camera at once kept and closed the distance between photographer and world, in the digital network, the technology entwines us and entwines with us. In the networked imaging of the interweb, we inscribe and are inscribed in the same breath — every pixel, every key stroke, every click recording the world, writing the world, reading the world, forging constellations that immediately become the flesh of the world. My "liking" of an image becomes part of that image.  

At the risk of sounding like a douchebag, I'll say: Il n’y a pas de hors-image. There is no outside the image. 

The interweb is a literal encoding of the flesh of the world as the very terms of seeing and being seen become embodied by servers and code. It is the very site and condition of image consumption and creation, the very site and conditions of seeing. It is the fabric of experience, at once virtual and physical.  The interweb is a living, open system of the conditions of perception. 

To see in the new age of the image is always to be participating within this image-making-event, always making images, always becoming an image, always seeing seeing and, in turn, having one’s own seeing seen.  

From Marc Lafia's "Tumblr Room"

Marc Lafia has become a photographer of the new image landscape, his desktop no longer a view onto the world but the very site of the world. The interweb is not a replica of the so-called real world; it is continuous with this real world. It is the landscape. If for Robert Frank, America was out there on the streets and backroads, for Lafia it's on Tumblr, Facebook, Blogger.

But the desktop is more than the landscape: the desktop is at once landscape, camera, and screen: Command-Shift-4. The digital network has become the flesh of the world, a seeing engine that, like the human face, digests and plays back in the same breath.


Imaging before the interweb: For Robert Frank, the landscape was "out there."

From Lafia's "Tumblr Room." Note the "zoom" and user notes: the tools of engagement, of seeing, are now written directly into the image.