I had a friend who had risen the ranks of a niche educational software company — from engineer to executive. She was comfortable, had all the power she wanted and needed, made excellent money. But the boom was happening around her and her friends were rising the ranks of the Googles and Genentechs. So she figured she should change jobs. After all, no one had heard of her little software company. She was tired of explaining what her company did to people. When asked what she did — that insidious American query — she wanted the answer to resound for the asker. She wanted prestige.
Now, I understand if she wanted a new challenge or new co-workers. But to change jobs to get recognition from....I don't know who...well, I thought she was nuts. What matters, it seemed to me, was everyday life. Who cared whether her company bestowed prestige upon her?
And yet, when I considered my own experience, I realized that I believed that there were such things as good colleges. We all know their names. I went to one, I imagined. It wasn't the best, I knew, because it was one of the so-called lesser Ivies. Still, it was Ivy League and that in and of itself was meaningful.
But what, exactly, makes a good school? I got my PhD at UC Berkeley, another so called good school. And while I had one or two great teachers, it seemed like a terrible place for undergraduates. Classes were enormous and students had close to no contact with the much touted esteemed faculty; students interacted with graduate student instructors like me. As for my own experience, all the so-called "big names" — the reason the school was called good — were unbearable, unapproachable human beings.
My advisor and mentor, no doubt one of the coolest, smartest people in the world, was never even tenured. No one has heard of him. And yet, over seven years, he dramatically changed my life by consistently expanding, inflecting, opening how I think. And my biggest influence at the University of Pennsylvania? A graduate student instructor.
I began to realize that there are smart, good teachers at every school and there are idiot douche bags at every school. And yet we are tethered to these notions of good — notions that are based in institutional aegis and the collective belief in this aegis. That is, we believe an institution is good because we are told so by institutions and so we all come to believe it. This collective belief propels the idea that this or that place is good and so, in turn, prestigious.
Harvard is a good school, we say. But based on what? Student test scores? So if you did well on your SATs you're smart and so I want to go to school with you? That's insane. Google is a cool place to work, we say. But why? Because lots of people know its name? Because some people at the company have good gigs where they get to come up with cool ideas? Does that mean you, as some lowly product manager, are cool, too?
Who the fuck cares where you went to school or where you work? The question is: Is everyday experience good, healthy, beautiful? Because I have to tell you, while it might be cool to work for a company like Google, Apple, or The New Yorker, if your job is stupid, stressful and your boss is an asshole, there is nothing good or prestigious about that. While it might seem right to go to a school like Berkeley, if classes are overcrowded and students are nervous, anxious, religious zealots from Orange County, are you sure you want to go there? What's good about that?
Of course, we live in a culture that values prestige. In this essay, I dropped the name of two (quasi) prestigious institutions which I suppose I believe gives me some validity. Which is absurd. There are plenty of morons with PhDs from renowned universities (I may very well be one) just as there are plenty of geniuses who never went to any school or worked anywhere cool.
To believe in prestige is to privilege abstract, collective impression over palpable, daily experience. To which I say: fuck prestige. Do what serves your everyday vitality.
We tend to image the writer as someone with a seething internal life for whom writing serves as a kind of vent, a way to let the demons out. We imagine, perhaps, that the will to write comes from a desire to express oneself, to be heard, to be seen, to let all that is in, out.
We know the architecture all too well. Inside we have ideas, feelings, memories; outside is the world. And writing is the go between, the vehicle of expression.
But I enjoy a different architecture of writing with a different configuration of self, language, and world. For me, it's not the movement from inside to outside, from self to world. Language is not a vehicle, a means to and end, but is a force — and a domain — in and of itself.
Absurd as it may sound, I don't write to express myself — at least not primarily — even if that is an inevitable outcome. No, I write for the pleasure of composing, of putting together the fragments of ideas, feelings, concepts, observations, words, speeds. It's like arts and crafts. I sit down and start throwing things together and, frankly, I'm not always sure what will come. It's a matter of my mood, the mood of the world, the will of ideas, the way of words.
In order to write, Burroughs said all he needed was his typewriter and a pair of scissors — you know, to cut up and (re)assemble. This is not a vision of writing as exhumation or expression but writing as creation, as assemblage.
This entails a fundamentally different distribution of bodies and words. There's no inside and outside and certainly no linear movement between the two. Like the kid at the arts and crafts table with a pile of magazines, some pens, some paper, some glue, it's all right there, splayed before you. Sure, some of it might be obscured by the flesh and fuzziness of feeling and thought. But it's still all part of the mix, waiting to be put here or there or tossed aside all together. Once it's all out there, the writer begins moving it around. And this is what I love about writing — this act of assembling.
But it's not just a free for all cut and paste. Because writing is way of moving with language — not using language to express but operating with language as a way of assembling. And language has all kinds of rules. And I'm not talking about dangling prepositions because we can dangle at will if we want to. No, I'm talking about the elaborate mechanics of language.
Consider, for instance, the particular weight and speed and intensity of words. Words are bodies that like to do certain things; you can try to make a word do your bidding but that word will always talk back.
I remember my first semester as a TA in a comp class (in 1992 — holy moly!). The assignment was to discuss the rhetorical tactics of some MLK speech (not my assignment, alas). The student, some bright but overconfident boy, used the world eclectic as in, "MLK uses eclectic sources to reach a wider audience." I critiqued his use of this word. Did he mean "a breadth" of sources? No, the kid insisted. And he wasn't wrong as much as he was, well, wrong. Eclectic conjures a world his essay did not support. But he kept quoting the definition (the denotation). He didn't yet have a feel for the words, only for their meanings.
Language is not just words but is a logic of assemblage. It has rules if you want to make any semblance of sense. Subjects, verbs, adverbs, spaces: all these relationships that can be endlessly tweaked. It's great to bend and push against the limits of sense, to see what will come in the juxtaposition — shocking silly revealing (non)sense.
But do any old thing and your writing is no longer anything at all.I remember when my kid began to distinguish a drawing from what he called scribble scrabble. So it is with all things: there is a line — tenuous, precarious, uncertain, and grey — between writing and scribble scrabble (Burroughs loves to operate in this space; and, in some sense, all great writing operates in this space, careening between sense and nonsense.)
ASSUME THAT THE WORST HAS HAPPENED EXPLICIT AND SUBJECT TO STRATEGY IS AT SOME POINT CLASSICAL PROSE. CUTTING AND REARRANGING FACTOR YOUR OPPONENT WILL GAIN INTRODUCES A NEW DIMENSION YOUR STRATEGY. HOW MANY DISCOVERIES SOUND TO KINESTHETIC? WE CAN NOW PRODUCE ACCIDENT TO HIS COLOR OF VOWELS. AND NEW DIMENSION TO FILMS CUT THE SENSES. THE PLACE OF SAND.
Grammar is not as much a set of rules as it the ethics of interaction. Put this and that together — junk, sick, dawn — and incredible things happen. But not any old combination creates events; some create nothing at all. Grammar is not a set of rules but the ethics of event creation, the terms of engagement between writer, reader, words, ideas, and sense.
Then there's punctuation. Oh, punctuation! How I could wax on about you (and have): from the understated comma to the compromising but ever accommodating semi-colon to the surprising discretion of parentheses — and let's not forget the ever generous m dash.
Language, then, is words and rules, things and logics, bodies and events. But it's more than that, too. Language is not an ideal system removed from the world. It's entrenched in our lives, our history, our culture. I may love a word for its awkward precision — such as, say, haecceity — but my enjoyment does not eclipse the resonance of the word beyond this screen. If I use a word and no one understands it, have I spoken?
The same goes for rhythm — of ideas, of explanation, of prose. What needs explanation? What can I point to and move on? What deserves the relish of detail and what the ellipsis? Rhythm is a choreography of bodies and ideas, literally moving the reader and the words together in a more or less elaborate pas de deux. Staccato, adagio, allegro: writing is a score of emotion and understanding.
And then there's tone. This is partially an issue of audience, of course. But it's not like there's an idea and then I just have to choose which tone to use to reach this or that audience — Slap some serious on there and it's good to go! Tone is the whole posture, the whole comportment, of the writing, how it sits in the world. When I would teach Nietzsche, students would often remark that his ideas were similar to Buddhism. But that's to reach behind the writing. In tone, Nietzsche and Buddhism are worlds apart. And nothing could be more relevant.
Tone is not just a matter of audience but of writer (not to mention of words and grammar). Sometimes, I begin writing in a pissed off mood, ranting, cursing, and careening. But then I'm stuck in that place — not just the essay but the whole event of composing, of assembling is all pissy. And maybe I don't want to be in that mood. Does the writing demand I remain there? Or, as my mood shifts, can I start to write more playfully?
Tone is so bewilderingly complex. It is an affective force that streams through the writer to become a principle of selection, an editorial force selecting words and rhythm. A tone can overtake the writer and suddenly he finds he's written something quite different than he'd intended. This is neither good nor bad, just a reality that the writer must reckon.
Writing is an encounter — between human flesh, words, grammar, ideas, affects, feelings. There is obviously no right way to write. And yet we know, as both readers and writers, that there are certain ways that work, ways that turn the world on, that take everyone and everything involved on a journey elsewhere — a way that makes writing less a matter of expression and understanding than a matter of discovery and creation.
Life today, if not life always, is a barrage of bullshit and such. It comes at us every which way — from vapid stares in rush hour traffic to asshole drivers who deem the road their own to the idiocy of American politics and news to the insane obligations of labor to our most private fears being invaded, owned, dictated, and undermined by maudlin TV ads. Sometimes, it comes at us from our lovers and friends, from co-workers and fellow drinkers at the bar in the form of a question, a nod, a high-five demanding complicity in matters and beliefs that disgust us. And, at times like that, all seems lost.
But there are tactics at our disposal, means of parrying those would-be knocks to decency and peace, ways of negotiating the morass of images, glances, words, ideas, ideologies, assaults that are heaped upon us at a dizzying clip. There are ways of jamming the circuits of nonsense, of disrupting the flow while claiming some dignity, grace, and power.
Indifference. At once overrated and underrated, indifference is exceedingly powerful. In movies, of course, we are consistently given the vision of vengeance: I was wronged and now I seek justice! Sometimes, this supposed justice comes in the form of an ass kicking; other times in comeuppance, aka schadenfreude, as the wrongdoer suffers some horrible, humiliating demise. You never see someone wronged and just shrug it off. You never see someone not be bothered by the ass hats and douchebags and shmohawks of the world. But what is more devastating than not being affected by another? Of course, indifference runs rather profound risks as few things are as disconcerting as not feeling the world around you happening. Used strategically, however, it delivers a wallop — not that you care, of course.
Melodrama. What never ceases to amaze me is the general decorum of everyone, at least in San Francisco. People are just so well behaved. It's rare to see or experience the kind of escalation of sentiment that you see in soap operas or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or, my favorite, John Cassavetes films. Rather than indifference or the expected reaction about this and that, you go haywire. Now, this may seem silly as over reaction abounds in our private, emotional lives. But it's usually when it's expected or to a controlled degree. Amplify the emotionality at different times and it throws people off.
Arhythmia (as distinct from arrhythmia). Unstated things are expected of us at all times. What we say, when we say it, how we say it is prescribed (more or less) by insidious, invisible, and pervasive mechanisms. You can look at a stranger, or a friend for that matter, for only so longer before you're expected to look away. You're only supposed to take so long doing this and that. But acting out of rhythm is powerful: it jams the discursive circuit — what's expected — but it also demands your rhythms be different, too. I think of movies once again and of the long take. Everything moves so quickly these days — 140 characters and out — that we're confused and annoyed by things that linger. See, for instance, Gus Van Sant's Last Days.
La Perruque. This is a goody and something we all do to some extent but, done with knowing abandon, it becomes quite powerful. La perruque, which means "the wig" in French, is to appear to be working for the boss when you're in fact working for yourself — writing your novel, using materials to make your own goods, studying for and exam and so on. This phrase and idea comes from Michel de Certeau's brilliant book, The Practice of Everyday Life. As he writes, "It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary's writing a love letter on 'company time' or as complex as a cabinetmaker's 'borrowing' a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room." It is a simple but effective dissimulation.
Humor. Americans love to smile. It's a veneer that glosses over the awful. But we're generally not very funny. Humor is an incredibly effective way of literally transforming situations into something else. Humor is a way of folding things — experiences, ideas, emotions — into different patterns in order to be funny.This is not just a matter of being funny. Sarcasm can be funny, kind of, but it doesn't transform anything. On the contrary,at best, it recapitulates the same old shit; at worst, it drags everything down. Larry David is fantastic at this: his humor reorganizes our assumptions: "I'd rather have the thieves than the neighbors - the thieves don't impose. Thieves just want your things, neighbors want your time."
Generous eyes. Our generic social interactions are defined by so much suspicion, so much fear and loathing. Disrupt expectation with generosity. Consider your gaze as you sit in a bar or walk down the street. Rather than scanning with a will to judge, scan with a will to accept.
Some mornings I wake up feeling off — foggy, disoriented, stumbling. Perhaps it's a lingering dream. Or digestion doing what it does (or doesn't). Or deep rooted anxiety about the father who abandoned me as a child. It could be a lot of things.
But, in any case, I get into my car and drive like shit. I scrape against the garage door; I almost hit a pedestrian I simply didn't see; I pull into traffic too slowly and am greeted with the panicked honk of a swerving driver.
I ask you this: Am I sober?
Like most people, this fog usually disappears with some coffee. In fact, if I don't have coffee, I get agitated and a headache. Just ask my kid — every time I'm grumpy he suggests we get some coffee. It's humiliating. And that pang of humiliation, I believe, comes from how we define sobriety.
I am addicted to coffee, I suppose. But what does that mean? That I must have it? I must have lots of things — water, air, food. What is it about coffee that's different? When I'm wired on caffeine, am I sober? Is my foggy daze more sober because I didn't consume anything? If that's the case, the only way to be truly sober is to be dead.
Well, I suppose that unlike water, air, and food, I don't need coffee to survive (which is a false assumption: I maintain that we need delight as well water, air, and food). I just need coffee to be smart and not be an asshole to my kid.
My dependence on coffee sometimes makes me feel weak — ergo, my humiliation. I imagine I should be like Gary Cooper, the strong silent type (pace Tony Soprano). We say that coffee is a crutch which implies that the need to lean on something is wrong. Which implies that our vision of what's right is someone who's self-contained.
But what is self contained? If I eat a really heavy meal, I feel like shit. All the sickly puds who eat Doritos and McDonald's and find themselves sickly and depressed and stupid — are they sober? As I've gotten older, I spend more time trying to dial in the right food at the right time because I've learned how much it can affect my mood, my disposition, how I think about this life and my place in it.
What am I, what are we we, other than a collection of moods?
I sometimes imagine that underneath it all I am this. All the vicissitudes of mood are transient, surface, and in the end, irrelevant. I am me! Here! And so all the coffee and booze and drugs — whether prescribed or not — is a distortion of me. To be sober, I imagine, is to be the real me. Shouldn't I be able to feel the things I feel on coffee or drugs on my own?
The problem is there's always a mood in the way. We are mooded from the get go. And there's always stuff — food, air, bacteria, viruses, dreams, desires, drugs. We are fundamentally environmental beings: we are always already enmeshed in the world. Billions of bacteria live in us, letting digestion happen. Yes, we are hosts. We have holes in our faces and asses in and out of which the world passes. We will never have been self-contained units. We are ecological beings, even if we act like selfish pricks.
I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone tell me I prefer natural highs. That's a vapid, specious claim usually uttered by people who are afraid to let the cosmos overwhelm them. There is no such thing as a natural high (and that includes the famed jogger's high — every jogger will admit to you that their addiction to running is as destructive as an addiction to other things).
And people who tell me they prefer natural highs tend to be the precise people addicted to some ideology or another — bourgeois, new age, neoliberal. If someone is self-loathing and depressed because she hasn't found a husband, is that any less deranged than the junky without a fix? We are addicted, in a way, to the bullshit stories fed to us from the crib onwards. Why else do people work 60 hours a week at a job they loathe as their colon gives out and their cock goes limp? Is that sober?
Maybe, then, it's not that coffee is extraneous that makes it different from food and air as much as it's so efficient. One minute, I'm a fog brained dullard, the next I'm clever and insightful — and handsome, to boot! Everything's gonna turn out great! It seems like a cheat (this is the language we use to describe our greatest athletes — an odd turn for capitalism: efficiency of production is wrong when it comes to the body but not the accumulation of wealth or exploitation of workers).
Perhaps feeling good should take time, a lifetime of ascetic training. But Terence McKenna suggests that we can all bypass that lifelong labor, smoke DMT and, voilà, we can experience things usually reserved for shamans and such. To McKenna, this speed is a gift. But that rubs our Puritan work ethic the wrong way (delight — not to mention delirium, insight, and inspiration — rubs our work ethic the wrong way). If I told you there was this amazing salad you could have which makes you insightful and inspired in five minutes, why wouldn't you eat it?
Taking drugs is framed as a guilty pleasure (a phrase I loathe) — a short cut or perversion or both. I know people in their 40s who've partied their whole lives who still feel pangs of guilt when they get high — as if they are cheating or wronging their true selves. But why feel guilty for having a drink? Do you feel guilty for taking Paxil? Or Xanax? If I take a lavender tincture rather than Ambien, am I free of the guilt or perverting my true self? Is lavender a natural high?
Now, I have no desire to belittle the horrors of drugs. Peoples' lives are ruined. Any walk down any American city street makes this soul crushingly clear. There are clearly certain substances that get inside certain people and wreak havoc — a havoc all the worse for bringing pleasure, inspiration, delight, even if only temporarily.
But that doesn't mean all drugs — or even that all dependencies — are bad. Or that drugs should even be reduced in our eyes for being external, whatever that means.
It seems relevant that we use sobriety to mean both abstinence and a serious temperament. Apparently, to be sober is to be serious. Well, ok. But is being serious my true self? My ideal self? My better self? Or does sober simply denote being serious as distinct from being playful or delirious — in which case, sobriety is no longer privileged but is a state among states, a mood among moods, a serious mood?
I am not saying drugs are good in and themselves. I am saying that drugs are stuff like other stuff, only more potent. And hence the internal-external dichotomy that underpins our thoughts about sobriety is wrongheaded.
I suggest that rather than view our consumption in terms of internal vs. external, pure vs. cheat, we look at ourselves as the systems we are. We take in; we process; we produce. Some things spur the system on; some clog the cogs. The question we should always be asking ourselves is this: Is what I'm doing, is what I'm consuming, making me more vital?
This introduces a different approach to drugs. Rather than saying yes or not — being guilty or pure — you should look at the performance of the system you are. Did smoking that joint make me better? What is the payoff for a hangover? How about eating this or that? Doing this or that?
Sometimes, I do want to feel sober — serious, quiet, reserved. Sometimes, however, I want to be delirious. My system — my intellect, my mood, my health — demands it. As a system going with other systems, I try to be a discerning consumer of my world, with an eye not to sobriety but to surging vitality.
|There are many ways to wink. But the ironic wink is the one in which one eye sees the everyday world while the other, closed, sees the infinitely seething cosmos.|
Ok, so I get my concept of irony from Kierkegaard's Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. In this view, irony is not wearing mutton chops. It's a way of living in the finite and infinite at the same time, a way to enjoy the everyday while knowing that all this passes, gives way to new worlds, to forces that far exceed it, cosmic and meta-cosmic forces alike. Irony is a way of living that declares, in the same breath, in every gesture: Everything matters and nothing matters.
What do I mean? (A funny question as an ironist always means at least two things at once.)
Well, the finite world is all this stuff — jobs, rent, girls and boys and such, angst, cell phones, cocktails at the bar, presidents, children, nail fungus. All these things begin and end. And then there's the infinite — the seething of the cosmos, the expanse of all that I see and all that I don't, the great forces that tear this finitude asunder with merciless indifference.
I meet people who seem fixated on the finite: a safe job, a house, pilates, a good financial plan, children. These same people may have less seemingly self-indulgent interests — Bhutanese politics, the environment (a word that still confuses me), creating better urban bike paths. And all of these things are fine and good.
But there are other forces at work, all the time, teeming in and through and about us. Just look up. That sky cares nothing for Bhutan or pilates or whether you can afford a down payment on a condo. And that indifference, while scary, is so beautiful, so reassuring, letting me know in no uncertain terms that the banality of the quotidian, however powerful and hegemonic, is nothing compared to the infinite rumblings of the universe.
Most anxiety is anxiety over the day to day. My boss yelled at me! My co-worker is a back stabber! What will I eat for dinner? But this anxiety forgets that none of this crap matters, not really.
And yet, at the same time, these things must be tended to. Work takes up so much of our lives. Those politics are real with wide reaching implications. Thinking about them and tending to them is important, necessary, and good. Fixating on them and forgetting that there are other planes of existence is not so good: it leaves you trapped in the mechanics of the everyday.
Let's say you engineer your everyday life well — you navigate your asinine boss, you buy the house, get the husband, breed the kids. Suddenly, you're happy! Woohooo! The thing is, all finite things are, well, finite: they pass. If you pin your happiness to everyday things, your happiness will end.
Of course, to invest solely in the infinite has its own downfalls. It's to be oblivious to the necessities of everyday but also to the beauties and wonders of the everyday. Kierkegaard considers ascetic monks who disdain the things of this world and so take as much leave of it as possible without dying — they eat little, talk less. And while he finds a nobility in these monks, he can't help but feel that they're missing the other half of humanity — the physical body, the social, the ethical, the everyday.
Irony is that way of living that allows us to walk in the finite and the infinite at the same time, to be absolutely interested in the quotidian while being absolutely interested in the great indifferent cosmos. These things don't unite in some mysterious Hegelian dialectic. No, for Kierkegaard, it is our task to hold these two opposing forces — the finite and the infinite — together without uniting them. This is what he calls irony. (And, for those who care, this is the lesson of Jesus for Kierkegaard: a man who is finite and infinite without uniting the two.)
Irony allows me to care deeply and profoundly about this life while, at the same time, to know that what I believe now, what I think now, what's happening now will give way to Heraclitus' river. Such is life: it is not geometric. It is a calculus, four dimensional (at least, at least). Time — that is, change — is a condition of the everyday. And it is indifferent to the everyday.
So when I speak to other people, I speak with an ironic assumption. I opine, often emphatically. And, in the same breath, I could care less for my opinions — without diminishing the vehemence of said opinions. And this, in turn, is what I want — what I demand — from others: that whatever they may think or feel or believe, they are not so tethered to the everyday that they don't see the cosmos swirling about them.
This of course makes for some awkward social encounters. People really love their beliefs! And my ironic teasing and poking has a tendency to, uh, irritate. As does my ardent rejection of this or that — goofy cocktails, the will to travel, liberal righteousness — all of which I might reject but I don't insist that you reject them, too. Why? Because I'm not tethered to any of this nonsense.
Irony lets us negotiate an ever diverse social body. Rather than all being tethered to our own private ideologies (which, more often than not, are anything but private), we all affirm that each of us enjoys his beliefs and understands that none of them are relevant.
Except, of course, a belief in irony.