4.26.2013

Against All Hope


I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. — Friedrich Nietzsche


Between Hollywood and its counterpart, politics, hope has to be the most insidious trope. Apparently, without it we're lost. We sink into an abyss of depression, drugs, amorality, violence, and other nasty things. 

But it's hope that's nihilistic. Hope refuses to embrace this life, what's happening here in this world. It's not that hope wishes things other than as they are. It's that hope doesn't do anything about it. Hope clings to some ideal state over and against this life. And ideals are violent and propagate more violence by trying to force the flux of life into the rigid container of abstract ideas. People murder and maim for ideals.

Of course, a lot of things in this world stink. Mayhem, idiocy, douchebaggery, and cruelty abound.  So what's wrong with wanting things to change? 

The answer is nothing. It's how we approach change that matters; everything is in the how. Hope pines but does nothing. And pining is not productive. Pining is petty. Pining is whining and whining is weak. 

The trick, as Nietzsche says, is not to turn away from life — even if your life is filled with suffering! Because there is no other life out there; life is what happens here. All this stuff, all these feelings, all the douchebags and sunsets and dog shit, all this sickness and war, all the schizo homeless guys left to rot in the streets and fuckstick academics and idiotic testing of second graders along with the impossible intoxicating scent wafting from her nape: this is all there is. 

There is no out there. There is no transcendence. There is no special place outside of this life. This is Nietzsche's great reversal, his upending of Judeo-Christianity: appealing to transcendence, to god or God and its promise of heaven and its commandments delivered from afar is nihilistic. Those who profess hope and God and self and ego are anti-life (or anti-Life). They do not affirm the messy complexity of it all, this great seething teem of existence. They wish it all to go away, to give way to a magical kingdom or certainty or a bedrock of truth. This is not even a death wish as death is integral to life. No, it's an appeal to no-life, an appeal to nothing: it's nihilism.

Nietzsche is of course often considered the nihilist. Isn't he the one who proclaims the death of God? Well, actually, he's not the one; it's a character within a story he's telling who proclaims god to be dead. But, more importantly, Nietzsche affirms this life, what we do and say and feel and think. He doesn't look elsewhere, to a nowhere. It is belief in God that is, for Nietzsche, nihilistic.  

But still what's wrong with wanting things to be otherwise? If I'm sick or suffering, why can't I wish it to go away? How does that make me a nihilist?

Changing things doesn't make one a nihilist. If you're sick and being beaten by life, of course you should change things. Unless you're a masochist. But you shouldn't hope for things to get better; you should will them to be better. You should do things. 

When you're sick or unhappy, there is no one to blame, not even yourself. Everything that happens happens — not for a reason; that's religious silliness. It just happens and such is life. There is no bad luck. Oh, I just can't meet the right guy. Or: I met the right guy but he's married. I have bad luck. That's bullshit. You are your luck; you are this life you're leading. There is no other life, no other you. My formula for greatness in a human being, writes Nietzcshe, is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

The world doesn't do things to you. You go with this world, necessarily, and so what happens to you, happens with you. You may get sick, get dumped, get fired, get the shit kicked out of you, get your legs blown off. You are everything that happens to you. Embrace it. To hope for things to be otherwise or claim bad luck is to be self-loathing. Don't hope for things to be otherwise. Will them so.

4.23.2013

Podcast on Deleuze & Guattari's "What is Philosophy?"

After participating in a podcast discussion about this book with the folks at The Partially Examined Life (to be published in a few weeks), I was inspired to give my rant on my own about this tome that changed my life.  Hopefully, it makes sense.

Philosophy, for D&G, is not thinking about the so-called big issues. It is, rather, the creation of concepts. Each philosopher — each philosophy — asks different questions, poses different problems, and creates concepts as solutions that make sense within that particular field (what they call a "field of immanence").

Philosophers have no need to argue and even less need to discuss — they run away from discussions. Concepts and philosophies create immanent fields, zones that enjoy an internal logic that is idiosyncratic, strange, particular and, at the same time, overlaps and participates with other zones.

What we're left with is this vision of philosophy, this image of thought, that is generous and multiple. Each philosophy is the center of philosophy, posing and resolving problems of its own intuition, its own thinking, its own perspective ("own," here, is qualified by the fact that everything is networked; network and immanence are not opposed; on the contrary.....).

Concepts are not true or false, right or wrong. They are either interesting, remarkable, and important — or they're not. There are many boring concepts. What makes a concept important is that it shifts the very manner in which we conceive of thinking, of what it means to think, of what it is to be one who thinks.

Listen below or follow this link >




4.21.2013

The Beautiful Blur of Being: On "The 10 Commandments of Chloe"


Naama Kates is Chloe in Princeton Holt's
The 10 Commandments of Chloe — an understated, smart little film about overcoming yourself. See more here >

At first, this seems like a familiar — if quite beautiful — indie film in the mumblecore vein. Young hip artist types drinking, smoking pot. Casual, realistic dialogue. And our heroine, overcoming obstacles, realizing things about herself.

But this will never have been that movie. All the familiar trappings swirl around Chloe, trying to bring her into that movie, into that life. But neither Princeton Holt, the director, nor Chloe, the character, are having any of it. They divert and toss aside cliché with a deft hand.

In many ways, this is a film about the temptation of cliché. Throughout the film, both Princeton Holt and Chloe ask: Is this a story of all too human interests — life, love, self discovery? Or is all that, as she suggests in one scene, irrelevant? Are there other forces — of music, of life, of the landscape — that are more interesting, vital, engaging? Just as Chloe can never remember anyone's name, Princeton Holt can't seem to focus on the banality of human beings for very long, his camera voraciously relishing the scenery. 

These may be the 10 commandments of Chloe, as if she were the one in control. And while she may well be a formidable force, there are forces that exceed her. Her troubles and relationships vie for the focus of this film just as they vie for her attention. But other forces keep pushing her — not out of the frame but into the intense, and intensive, landscape of Nashville's musical swirl. 

For this is a film, first and foremost, of the landscape. Indeed, it opens with an homage to Woody Allen's Manhattan, giving us monolithic, mostly black and white shots of Nashville. Chloe is nowhere to be found.  When these give way, we are greeted with the first commandment: Assimilate.  And that is what this film gives us: Chloe's overcoming of herself to assimilate into the landscape of Nashville, an assimilation that does not mean her oblivion but, on the contrary, her becoming herself.

After this tell tale commandment, we are confronted with a sumptuous blur of Nashville at night. Blur can be so powerful, so beautiful, effacing the strict borders of form; blur is the image of movement, of flow, effacing the strictures of form. Throughout this film, the image hovers between blur and focus, forms becoming flow, flow taking form before being torn asunder once again. Such is the tension of this film: the movement between form and flow, human concerns and indifferent landscape, focus and blur. 

As the image begins to come into focus, we hear an older woman addressing a younger one — yes, Chloe. But it's as if the camera is trying to focus on her but keeps being drawn to the surrounding city. When the frame finally comes into focus, we see Chloe at the periphery, her back to us, walking across the frame and out of sight, the city still holding the camera's attention.

The camera does not track her, not at first. We see her go in and out of clubs trying to get gigs as a musician. The camera does not follow her in but hovers at the door, eavesdropping on her conversations. She is part of something bigger, a system of gigs and musicians and audiences and histories and relationships and club owners that exceed her.  She is not the force that takes them by storm; she is trying to join the maelstrom of which they are a part.

And this, alas, is the tension for both the film and Chloe: Focus on the form of Chloe, be human, all too human and dally in the concerns of people — family, life, love, work, relationships. Or overcome human concerns, blur them into the landscape, and discover the affective force and flow of music and life. Just as the film itself moves between having Chloe and Nashville at the center of the film, Chloe herself moves between being a woman with the familiar trappings of a boyfriend and being a musical force that ruptures and breaks such bourgeois ties. 

Even in the most romantic, humanistic scenes between Chloe and Brandon, her would-be boyfriend, the landscape of Nashville looms large as if threatening to topple down on them, the Parthenon's columns less a support than a threat. He wants her to focus on him, on him and her, and talks of getting out of there. But she diverts his focus and insists on being in Nashville. She will not be clear with him. He is form and she, alas, is in the act of becoming blur — an image of flow, a force in motion seeking out the seething of Nashville. 

In a sly move, the film keeps us thinking that this might be a movie about Chloe and how she finds herself in this new city. But it keeps blurring that vision, literally and figuratively. When she meets new people, she can never remember anyone's name — and doesn't seem to care, as if she had no time for such nonsense, as if she were of another dimension, as if she were moving and they would always be static. She is elusive towards her new boyfriend who is constantly revealing himself and demanding that she do the same.

At first, perhaps, we are tempted to side with him. What's wrong with her? we wonder. She is so guarded and indifferent, as if hiding from love and life. But, in an incredible scene about two-thirds into the film, he confronts her and their dynamic shifts: I've told you things about myself, like about my family, my mom...I want you to know who I am...apparently you don't want me to know who you are because you hide every single thing. I mean, who is Chloe? I don't even know.

She responds with this amazing speech about the music that drives her, music that is infinite, limitless, than can be beautiful and ugly and soft and hard and erratic and unpredictable. She is driven by a force that is big and, at times, ugly and that doesn't give a shit about her petty dalliances.

But her boyfriend wants to know more and more — about her, her family, what makes her laugh and cry, conducting what becomes an uncomfortable interrogation. (Foucault taught us the horror of humanism and the relationship between the invention of the true self and psychological-police interrogation.)

Finally, annoyed, she comes back at him: What is this getting to know me thing? What do you need to know about me?....The shit you want to know is childish and it's boring, boring. It's irrelevant. Why do you need to know that shit....I don't care about it.

She is no mere person. She is not a form. She is a force; she is in motion. She is the blur that the camera loves so much, the blur that is the image of seething Nashville.  

It's important that this scene takes place inside, away from the Nashville cityscape. We don't need the city because, here, we see her becoming Nashville — the glorious, indifferent, glowing, vibrant landscape.

When she walks out on Brandon, I was relieved. Forget that cloying, bourgeois bullshit! I don't want to see that movie. As she leaves, he yells, I don't see why you're so afraid. But she is only afraid from his weak perspective, from the perspective of human, all too human being. She would be afraid if she were in that movie starring Jennifer Aniston. But she's not in that movie.

Naama Kates' Chloe is no mere woman, not even a person per se. She is a force eager to join the powerful torrent of Nashville music — music that is infinite and erratic, ugly and soft, music that flows and tears and creates all at the same time. Naama Kates is bewilderingly astute as we see all these forces, all this complexity, play in her face. 

At the end, when she performs her exquisitely deranged song and hears the audience clapping, we watch her become part of the landscape. The look she gives us, only for a moment, is devastating and gorgeous. It is a look at once fearful and brave, poised and terrified, a look of someone abandoning herself in order to become herself, to become a force amidst the storm. She has followed her first commandment. She has assimilated. She is becoming blur and it's beautiful. 



"The 10 Commandments of Chloe" Trailer
from OneWayTV on Vimeo.

4.18.2013

Engineering Life

In 1996, I visited the Louvre — and I'm still nauseated. It's not that there aren't great things to see there; of course there are. It's that the place is overrun with lots of shitty, cloying art, as well. And, my god, so many romantic rape scenes. It's odd. Even in the fucking Egyptian room, they hang more rape scenes just to fill the space. It's a horrendous experience; I felt like I was being choked to death. Godard understands: do the Louvre fast.



I remember my good friend reading for his doctoral exams. He had to read hundreds of books on intellectual history. And, being a careful reader, he read them all. Oh, man, he was a mess — he got in two car accidents, would lose his keys with some regularity, was generally spaced out. The books were filling him up and leaving no room to think and function.  Me, I only had around 30 books on my exams; I knew my limits — on that occasion, at least.

Every day, all day, we are taking in the world. Think about it for a moment. Think about all the things you see, all the things you're seeing right now, right in front of but in your periphery, as well. It's an infinitely dense mosaic — the screen, smudges, words, scraps of paper, pens, old receipts, clothes, leaves, stray pubes, Post-Its, pennies. Frankly, it can be nauseating — all this stuff coming into my eyes no matter what I do. Oh, I close them for a moment now and again and then for hours while I sleep. And it is a welcome relief from the barrage. But even with my eyes closed, I still see all sorts of things.

Now, as if composing an impossibly baroque symphony, picture all the other stuff that's coming at you in the course of the quotidian — sounds, so many fucking sounds — amidst them, words which are the craziest sounds overflowing with meaning, allusion, memory; odors of sundry sort; sensations — the sun, wind, clothes rubbing, wearing, moving; pho, coffee, granola, chocolate, pad see ew, the water running down your gullet. 

We are engines of consumption. We take in and distribute and, in so doing, make ourselves. We are productive machines that take in air, sound, nutrients, ideas, sensations in order to make this — this me. Here. This. Scientists call this metabolism and such is life or, rather, existence (rocks, wind, even plastic knick knacks — especially plastic knick knacks — take in the world, take up the world). 

As we get older, we hopefully begin to heed out diet, noting those things that make us feel good and, more often, those things that make us feel lousy. Usually, this comes to us despite ourselves. I get the runs every time I eat cheese. Maybe I shouldn't eat it. Duh. Or: Hmn. It seems beer makes me burp rather grotesquely. Perhaps I shouldn't drink it. 

But we tend to be less discerning when it comes to the rest of our lives — activities, people, books, art, TV, movies, newspaper. To consume these things haphazardly can be destructive. Why do you think you're so tired? Anxious? Depressed? In a malaise? Or, for that matter, exuberant, vital, joyful?

We are not closed, hermetic beings. We have holes; we take in the world all the time in multiple ways. And we expend, proffer, put ourselves back out in words, piss, shit, sweat, love, anxiety, semen, sex, saliva.

And so if we are indeed engines endlessly making ourselves, then it behooves us to engineer our experiences to optimize our vitality: to engineer our best selves. This demands approaching experience knowingly, reflectively, and asking: Does this suit me? What me does it create? Am I more vital doing this, reading that, going there? Or am I debilitated, drained, sapped?

I, for one, found going to an office every day literally unbearable. I may or may not have a moral or political problem with work but I certainly have a constitutional one: going to an office every day almost killed me. It sapped my vitality so thoroughly I was sure one morning I just wouldn't wake up. You, on the other hand, might thrive on such structure. It's not a question of certain things being inherently good or bad; it's a question of knowing how these things go with you, affect you, shape you. 

Sometimes, it means making difficult decisions — quitting a job, not eating spaghetti, blowing off so-called friends, getting divorced. I changed my marital status after 13 years as I found the familial dynamic not conducive to my well being. I don't blame anyone. I don't see this as a failure. I see it as a shift in system conditions. A good friend of mine, now 50, went a different direction: he's about to have his first kid and be married and I can tell just by looking at him that it suits him. He's radiant.  Neither marriage nor divorce is a good or bad in and of itself: it's a matter of circumstance, of what's right for these bodies in this situation. It's a matter of engineering. 

I'm 43 now and have just begun to engineer my life effectively. 43! This is not to say those 43 years were ill spent; it's to say that it's taken me this long to begin actively to engineer my life. To hone my instincts as to what I should eat; when to leave the movie theater; the kinds of work I will do; with whom I spend time doing what for how long; the kind of family I want to have. And, of course, when to shut my eyes in a museum.  

4.10.2013

Alien Love, or Let me Count the Ways "Spring Breakers" is Incredible


The set up is familiar: good girls flirt with bad, get in over their heads, learn a lesson — with some boobs and teen exploitation along the way. Think: Anne Hathaway in Havoc. But this is a shell and, finally, a dupe. For it will never have been such a tale. That was just a ruse to get in the front door of Hollywood: I'll look like them but I'll do something completely different. This is not your feel good, or even feel bad, movie. 

Spring Breakers is film as delirium, a relentless barrage of images precariously connected to the things we know too well such as dialogue, character, and story. Harmony Korine is not the only delirious filmmaker — Terence Malick, of course, but also Cassavetes and Gaspar Noé, among others. Here, Korine takes up the storyline and slurs it, sloshes it about, before making it bend in whole new ways. Delirium inflects narrative, flow, and viewer identification leaving us nearly bludgeoned with a nasty beautiful pop sugar coma. 

But it's not the sweet coma of girls in bikinis. This is not an exploitation film per se; you will not get a hard on. No, it's not the sweetness of flesh but the confection of the image. This movie is fall down gorgeous. 

The movie conspicuously folds time with flickers of foreshadow and snippets of conversation that repeat throughout. We hear words and see scenes but only sometimes are the two in sync. These moves let us know that this is not a linear story of character progression, not a tall tale or fairy tale. It is an experience.

But it does not abandon a tale all together — this is not Gummo. Just as Malick uses delirium to have the story of Pocahontas drift sideways, Korine deploys delirium to send the story in a different direction, into different stories: from teen party to Scarface gangster to love.

For much of the first part of the movie, we are privy to Faith, the Selena Gomez character, a good girl who goes to church but also wants a different life elsewhere. She, it seems, is our point of identification, our safe harbor amidst the impending chaos and sin of her so-called friends. She is not cut in to the water gun armed robbery that pays for the trip.


And then, when things begin to get really weird and creepy — when the shining beacon of James Franco's Alien grill bails them out of jail and introduces them to his self-proclaimed gangsta world — Faith leaves. The scene in the bar between Faith and Alien is terrifying: Should she be scared? Should we be scared? Or is the party just beginning? Which is to say, it's not scary because Alien is scary: it's scary because we don't know how scary he is. Either way, she's sure as shit in over her head and you can feel her relief when she gets out of there. I've read reviewers that say they wish they'd left with her (they of little faith, alas). 

And that, of course, is Korine's point: he has our point of identification in the film literally leave the picture. She gets on a bus and we don't see her again. She was never the center of the film just as we, as viewers, were never the center.

Think of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas: Henry Hill is the relative good guy amidst the madness. He's our safe way into the sickness. Or take Jules (Sam Jackson) and Vincent (Travolta) in Pulp Fiction, or Django, for that matter. They are put ons. When Jules puts a bullet in Flock of Seagulls, we are not afraid — this is all a put on.

But Korine doesn't give us that safety. In fact, he takes it from us. This is delirium and we are swirling in it. How scary is Franco's Alien? Is he gonna rape these girls? The film and Franco do an incredible job of maintaining that tension without ever resolving it. And, as viewers, safety has disappeared — including our safety of knowing the limits of these characters and of this film. Most bullshit Hollywood movies set up the bad guys and broadcast to us when they're being evil. Not here. This film gives us a nastiness we are not used to in our movies. We are in the muck of an alien world in which we don't know the limits. Spring break forever, indeed. 

(Frankly, we should not be surprised that Faith was never the place for us. We hear her conversation with her grandmother over and over and, well, it's insane. I want to come here with you, Grandma, she says — here being a teeming bastion of collegiate breasts, beer, drugs, sex, dementia. This Faith is an odd bird.)

So Faith leaves and then things get interesting. The three remaining girls — Brit, Candy, and in a way, Cotty — fall in love with Alien. And Alien, in one of the more amazing psychosexual scenes you'll ever see, falls in love with them. This is not a morality tale but a fucking love story!

I kept waiting for this to be a story of good girls in over their heads. But that was never the case. In the beginning of the film, we see the girls rob a restaurant silently as we peer through the window — an exquisite scene, as if we're watching a video game. Later, the film flashes back and takes us inside the restaurant where we see, hear, and feel the nastiness, the power, the force of these young women as they threaten to kill the patrons. These were never good girls who got in over their heads. These girls are post-bourgeois American power embodied — greedy, horny, nasty, pop, living inside a video game and loving it. They don't struggle with whether to stay or not. To them, it's obvious: this world is their world and always was. 

Just as it is for Franco's Alien (that is his character's name) who, he tells us, was always bad. He never had time or taste for the square world. He shows us his shit with joy— his dope, his machine guns, his knives, his money — as he and the girls fall into the bed all lovey dovey. They are not using each other. No, they've found true love. I knew you girls was special...Let's cause some trouble...Spring break forever.

As the film fucks with our identification, as it has the story fold, drift, and turn from teen exploitation to gangster revenge with a love story thrown in, it teaches us to view films differently. Read reviews that hate the film and they all say the same thing: No character development, no story, nothing to identify with. But Korine doesn't want you to identify.  The film is not a story about something per se, (even if it takes up the contemporary American moment perfectly, even if documents the results of what the professor in the beginning of the film calls "the Second Reconstruction." Korine is, in a way, always making documentaries.) This film is an experience itself, a confrontation with the delirium of the image which is always other, always alien.  

Spring Breakers asks us not to leave the film with Faith but to welcome the Alien that enters because that is where and how love takes place. Just like Brit and Candy do, we are asked to abandon ourselves and leap into the fray, amplify the madness. The film asks — no, it demands — that we leave our false faith behind and abandon ourselves to the ambiguous, ever morphing, always unsure image.

Spring Breakers is not a film that wants to confirm who you are. It wants to take you somewhere else, to a cinema of delirium where the image is a confrontation, not a representation. This film asks you to embrace this lack of certainty, this swirl, this madness: it asks you to love the alien. 


A great interview with Korine about the film:


4.06.2013

Against Abortion


It would be convenient if words really didn't matter, if there really were issues and ideas that stood strong and true and those ever fickle words were, at best, ornament and, at worst, fickle beasts. But, alas, words matter. They are inflection points turning confusion to clarity, indifference to passion, sadness to joy. A word is an architecture that distributes ideas, feelings, history, audience, speaker.  To wit, abortion.

I will say upfront that I am against abortion. Now, I'm not against the medical procedure a woman undergoes to begin her menstruation and save her and her spouse — or fellow parents, as the case may be — from the misery of child rearing.

But I am against this loaded word in this context: abortion, as if it were a matter of stopping something in progress. The minute we use that word, we've drafted the discussion in terms of a fetus rather than the terms of the voting, tax paying, living working breathing real air human being — a human being, that is, in both the absolute and civic sense of the word.

Our focus on the fetus — which we do the minute we call it abortion — makes for some strange arguments. There are, for instance, people who call themselves "pro-choice." It's an insane and incoherent position. Choice is not something citizens ever get to enjoy when it comes to life and death. For fuck's sake, suicide is illegal. Talk about keeping laws off my body!

But by calling it abortion, we've framed the discussion in terms of the fetus and hence, in some sense, obligated legal intervention. That is what the government does: it creates laws that move bodies, presumably to protect them (the draft is an obvious example of the opposite). Hence to say it is my choice whether I let this fetus live or not is, frankly, utterly insane.

I realize that people saying they're pro-choice believe they're saying the pregnant woman has the choice, not the government, presumably because this fetus she's choosing about is inside of her. But to say "keep your laws off my body" is insane because, well, that's what laws do: they nudge bodies. Red light, stop; green light, go. Young man, go kill overseas. You, don't go into that building — it's not allowed.  Laws move bodies; that's what they do. Try walking in the middle of the freeway and see what the law does to you (and, again, that's not even mentioning suicide). You don't get to choose if it's a good place to walk or not. To say "keep your laws off my body" is to say "get rid of law." Which may or may not be the right thing to do. But, in any case, it's not what I think these liberal pro-choicers want. 

Meanwhile, the nutty pro-lifers seem like the sane ones. If we're talking about stopping the fetus' growth, then screaming at the top of your lungs, Stop, it's a life! You're murdering a baby! seems like the only reasonable thing to do. And when they start blowing up abortion clinics it seems, again, sane — not just to them but sane in terms of the debate about abortion.

So I say: Let's call it something else! Let's call it a renaissance. It's a renaissance of a woman's menstruation cycle. It's a renaissance of a life, or lives, that would be thoroughly disrupted by the crying, shitting, expensive little beast. As any parent knows — and, yes, I am a parent — parenting is the stopping of a lot of things. So call it a renaissance and there's no longer any debate. The government is no longer involved because it's not charged with deciding to protect a fetus or not.

It's easy to be against abortion. But who's gonna be against renaissance? 

4.05.2013

Design vs. Art


First of all, it's never a question of design versus art. I just thought that title was more provocative. It's a question not of opposition but of the relationship between art and design: where and how they diverge, converge, where and how they run parallel, collide, sail on by each other.

When I first met my now ex-wife and still good friend, I was finishing my doctorate in rhetoric while she was finishing her MFA in printmaking. We both finished our degrees in 1998 just as the dot com boom exploded in the Bay Area. And, rather quickly, we both had jobs — me as a writer, she as a web designer.

We got jobs so easily as there was enormous demand created very quickly. But it was really because we had fancy degrees and, well, employers imagined that my PhD in rhetoric and her MFA in printmaking translated to the professional world.

But that, alas, is a mistake. The fact is writing about the weird shit I was writing about — Nietzsche, tropes, phenomenology, Deleuze — had very little to do with writing a snappy tagline or naming a product. To wit, my very first freelance gig was a brainstorm session at a famous branding firm to name what would become PlanetRx. I had some good ideas — "HouseCall," for instance — but I also had "Agamemnon's Pharmakon" — dot com, of course. I shit you not.

My critical writing wants to open up possibilities, ask weird questions of weird texts. My professional writing wants succinctly to create an impression and convey information. For me, moving from one to the other is easy because I like to shift registers, not because I have a doctorate. Most academics would make downright lousy copywriters. That's a not a criticism of them. On the contrary....

Watching my then-wife was incredibly interesting. As an artist, she relished the process of creation. She'd work a plate — as I said, she was a printmaker — over and over, cut it up, see what happened, fuck with it. Play was, and remains, essential to her practice.

While the design process has elements of play, it seeks to answer questions and solve problems. How do we get users from point A to point B? How does we make a chair that can become a bed? How do we convey sexy-funny-cool in a print ad?

Art, on the other hand, wants to ask questions and create problems. Art disrupts the cliché, rendering the familiar unfamiliar, a urinal in an art gallery, naked child mannequins welded together at odd angles.


Design wants to answer the question: What is this? Art wants to pose the question: What is this? 

Making the move from artist to designer (while remaining an artist), my then-wife was quite sensitive to derivation. While she looks at lots of art, she would never outright take another artist's work and incorporate it into her own, unless that were the point. Of course, there are artists who do do that. In fact, in many ways, it's what defines the (post)modern moment: Duchamp putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or Warhol using the soup can or Marilyn. But, for both Warhol and Duchamp, they're not borrowing someone's solution to a problem and then building on it. They're taking well known things and making them unknown: making a problem of them rather than solving a problem.


So when my then-wife would begin designing a website, she'd purposefully avoid looking at other sites. If she saw something great another designer was doing, she'd steer away. But design, as she would learn, is the collective solving of problems. If one designer has a nifty solution to, say, handle the display of images on the web, it's another designer's duty to use that solution. There is something very beautiful about this: designers working together to make life better, more comfortable, more elegant. Nevertheless, what's essential to design remains anathema to art.

Design always has a purpose. Usually, it works at the behest of capital: Make me a website, a chair, a computer mouse, a car seat, says capital. And the designer gets to work. Sometimes, a designer works for himself to create a new way to sit, browse the web, store information. In this case, the designer may not be indentured to capital but he still works with purpose.

Art never has a purpose. Or, if it does, it's what Kant calls purposeful purposelessness.  Which is to say, it doesn't have a pre-known end point. Francis Bacon would smear his canvas with a sponge or broom to see what would happen. Jackson Pollock dripped paint on a canvas strewn on the floor, letting matters fall where they might. William Burroughs not only cut up his writing, he used a shotgun to make his paintings. The point being: they all may have a purpose but that purpose is open ended play.

We could say that Warhol's Factory was art with a purpose working at the behest of capital. But that was his whole point: a Factory that produced familiar objects rendered unfamiliar. It was the production of the uncanny. The Factory was not solely a means; it, in and of itself, was art intent on jamming notions of art and product as it was a party palace as much as an art studio.


Designers and artists no doubt share certain skills — an understanding of composition and color, for instance. And what's strange is that the designer may not know much about manufacturing whereas the artist is always the manufacturer. That is, a design is not yet a thing; it is the outline of a thing, the possibility of a thing, the instructions for a thing. Art, meanwhile, makes things — even if that thing is a performance.

But the thingdom of art gives way to the affect of experience. The artist makes something, yes, but that thing is not what the artist makes. The artist produces percepts and affects: the artist produces experiences that belie, amplify, unground, reorient everyday experience.

Design, while remaining ethereal, is actually grounded in the material. Yes, design creates experience, too — the experience of the touch screen, of sitting in a chair, of using a fork. And these experiences are not devoid of affect as they necessarily create a feeling for the user.

But the role of affective experience in art and design is quite different. Art creates a thing in order to forge an experience that disrupts the everyday. Design creates the possibility of a thing that translates into a seamless experience of the everyday.  Some design may choose to be more present, more disruptive, less invisible than most. Nevertheless, if a design is too disruptive — the fork is too heavy, the chair won't let you sit, the website belies discovery — then it has failed as design. But, perhaps, succeeded as art.

4.01.2013

Timothy Leary's Dead

A billboard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The mantra of youth and the mantra of capitalism are now completely aligned:
Live to produce shit we can sell.   

When I came to San Francisco in 1991, it was cheap and filled with young freaks and artists. I worked in a used bookstore three days a week and managed to survive. Then, as a grad student, I lived like a king — even making a $12,000 scholarship last me nearly 18 months. I roamed the streets, thinking and writing about Merleau-Ponty and, sometimes, thinking of nothing at all. I was 26 and I was tenuously tethered to the flow of capital.

All this changed. We know the narrative well. The internet came in the late 90s and suddenly there was money everywhere. At first, it was exciting. We all learned so much about technology and money and thought we'd change the world — and we did. I went from never being on the internet — I wrote my dissertation on a MacPlus with floppy disks — directly to working for a start up. It was an experimental arts site, an immersive map to all the arts — literature, painting, puppetry, film, design, television, performance, philosophy. I didn't make much money but it was a party of the highest order. And was the kind of site no one invests in anymore.

This change, of course, meant new people were coming to the city, people who didn't make art and live on food stamps and work in used bookstores. These people had high paying jobs. And so the artists and freaks began to leave, replaced by people who willingly, gladly, work 60 hour weeks.

When the Mission district began to change, I naively believed it was good. A few high end restaurants actually made the neighborhood more diverse. But I didn't yet understand the will of capital to replicate itself at all costs. And so soon all the not-high end restaurants and shops — the car body shops, the Latin bars — began to disappear.

Now, in their stead, are beautiful restaurants serving organic, local food — for $26 a plate. Between the restaurants — which open at an alarming clip — are shops selling precious paper goods and tchotchkes, all selling for absurd amounts of money.

What's disturbing about all this is that the age of the neighborhood has not gone up. Everyone is still 26.   Youth culture, once the bastion of anti-capitalism, has become capitalism's greatest stronghold. All the hip kids with their beards and jeans and tattoos are not just working for Google and Apple (and justifying it somehow — as if Google and Apple were somehow better than other so-called evil corporations), these kids are creating their own businesses.

I just spent a few days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The streets are lined with shops selling organic scones, exquisite coffee, birthing services, super mod furniture (for tens of thousands of dollars), dumplings, local food stuffs. There's a delirium of commodities. All the stuff is nice, enticing, winking and smiling at you as you walk by. The stores themselves are gorgeous — exposed wood, brick, metal.

In some sense, it's amazing, beautiful, welcome. Fuck Starbucks and corporate bullshit. I want local, lovingly prepared food, jeans made by someone I know, coffee roasted right in front of me before it's brewed.

In another sense, it's downright horrifying. The hip kids today are totally square. They are the petty bourgeoisie. They are commodity fetishists. They make and buy and collect little precious knick knacks. They go to this restaurant, then that restaurant, then that bar devouring deviled eggs with sea urchin and cocktails with homemade bitters. And then they talk about the restaurants they went to and their clothes and their bags.

Capitalism tirelessly works to eliminate anything outside the replication of itself. Anti-commodification is folded into the fray so it can become a commodity. It's not just Maya Angelou selling a bank during the Super Bowl (this caged bird ain't singing). And it's not just the commodity fetishism of Williamsburg and the Mission. All our social interactions are mediated by capital. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, GChat: social interactions of the kids today are the commodity of some of the largest corporations in the world. They literally sell our social life.

We live amidst the rise of design culture over art culture. Design is a practice of social and financial capital. It seeks to make things. Art, on the other hand, creates affect — experiences outside of capital. This doesn't mean art is not a commodity; it means the experience of art is not while the experience of design is, necessarily. It's not that design is bad; design is important, improving the quality of everyday life. But design is creativity put to work for capital. And it seems everyone today is a designer and no one is an artist.

Capitalism has thoroughly co-opted youth culture. And it freaks me out.

On the side of a building just off Bedford Ave in this Williamsburg, there's a large billboard that reads, "Live, Work, Create." Which pretty much sums it up. It is the mantra of capitalism: live, so we can use your body to work and create shit we can sell. The billboard reads like the propaganda it is. And the mindless hipster 20-somethings not only embrace it, they're the ones who created the damn thing.

Shouldn't the mantra of youth be Folic, Fuck, Think? Or Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out? Timothy Leary truly is dead.