6.30.2013

Don't Transcend

In general, we assume transcendence to be a good thing. It's a goal, an ideal. To take leave of the world's pettiness, if not of the world itself, is something to which we should aspire. We might not take this goal very seriously as we obsess over work, fashion, gossip, and other quotidian quibbles. But, if asked, we'd surely say, Oh, yeah, that transcendence stuff is gooood. I gotta get me some of that. 

For Nietzsche, however, this desire for transcendence is a hatred of life. To wish life other than it is, to want out of this teeming, swarming complexity, is nihilism. The task, he maintains, is to embrace this life, not some other life, some ideal life, some better life. The task — not the goal for it is not an end state but an ongoing practice — is to love all of this life. Of your life. Every bump, burp, and bruise. Every ache, twitch, dream, stubbed toe, and heart palpitating love. Not just accept it or tolerate it but love it. 

Now that's a difficult task! To wallow in the shit of the world and want to leave it makes sense. It's the easy way out. Calgon, take me away. But to be stewing in shit and say my life is great is a truly difficult task. (Isn't this what Voltaire's Candide mocks, even if it's Leibniz's affirmation rather than Nietzsche's?) Mind you, for Nietzsche, the goal is not to wallow in one's misery and say it's great. That would be masochism, another kind of nihilism. But nor is it to wish life away. The task is to train one's instincts to be healthy, vital, surging; to take up this life more vigorously, not flee it. 

I am not suggesting that we are purely physical beings and should ignore the spiritual or metaphysical. I am saying that the invisible forces — moods, affects, spirits — are part of this life. They swirl in and through visible bodies just as visible bodies flourish in and with and through and of invisible forces. The spirit is not out there. It's right here. So it's not that transcendence is bad; it's that there's nowhere to transcend to. All there is is this life and this life is infinite.

I do not mean to belittle transcendence. It is not a frivolous undertaking. It demands extreme dedication and attentiveness, a rigorous disciplining of oneself. And the experience is no doubt incredible. Just think of it: to move beyond this life and its many tethers, to taste the tasteless ether, to move among the metaphysical. 

This is the goal of ascetic monks: to shed this mortal coil as much as possible in order to maximize their contact with pure spirit — no talking, little food, certainly no jerking off. They seek to transcend the body, transcend this world, taking as much leave of it as possible without quite dying. To Nietzsche, this discipline is as impressive as it is grotesque. For Kierkegaard, this asceticism is a great gesture, what he calls infinite resignation. But, for Kierkegaard, the even greater gesture is to be worldly and transcend at the same time — to talk, eat, fuck and still have a direct relationship with God.

Transcendence is seductive. You can hear it whisper Just let go of your body, of your worldly possessions, of your fears, anxieties, and pains. Become as the wind, the spirit, and float free without all the encumbrances of human being.  Oh, man, that sure sounds good.

Transcendence even has rainbows!
Transcendence has been a great temptation to philosophers for millennia. Rather than develop a philosophy within and of a world in flux, they seek to ground the world in something outside the world, to put a stop to the relentless teem with something outside the fray, something sure and certain — an ideal, an a priori truth, a morality, a self, a soul, a logic. Deleuze discovers a different history of philosophy that runs through the one we tell: a history that affirms this life rather than transcends. He finds it in Nietzsche, of course, but also in Leibniz, in Spinoza and Bergson: philosophers who reckon this world in its infinite complexity without turning to transcendence.

Bergson wanted a philosophy that didn't reduce time to space, movement to fixity, four-dimensions to three. So he developed a philosophy of time and change, of what he calls duration and creative evolution. 


While transcending no doubt demands great discipline, so does affirming one's worldliness. You have to let the world inundate you, even when it hurts. When I experience pain, my instinct is to flee. I close my eyes, clench my body, turn away from the pain. That is not the way to go. The thing to do, I've discovered, is to move into the pain, to focus on it, to send my breath and energy and mind to the pain, to take it up and experience it. You have to be saturated in life.  

Now, metaphysical transcendence is only one mode of transcendence. Transcendence can involve overcoming any limit, not just physical ones. Sometimes, to transcend one's limits is liberating, creative, affirmative — to transcend cliché, bathos, bourgeois propriety, the insane demands of work, one's own petty limitations.

And then there is the experience of mania that seemingly breaks all limits, tearing them asunder in a terrible and beautiful frenzy. But this is not an overcoming of the limits of the human but a realization of the limits of the human: a becoming-manic is becoming-human.

It's silly to define the human as the neo-liberal bourgeois self (which is certainly a self that needs to be transcended). But human being, like all being, is a cosmic becoming. From this perspective, you should never need to transcend any limits because you are always becoming your own limits, the limits that you are, even if it means overcoming the limits of the human. What it is to be human, Deleuze argues, is to be becoming-animal, becoming-earth, becoming-wind, becoming-rock, becoming-machine. We don't have to transcend our limits to experience ourselves. On the contrary, we have to become ourselves by experiencing ourselves. And vice versa.

Of course, in our culture, limits are considered bad things, interdictions: we believe limits say no. But limits don't only say no. Limits say yes. I am this way of going in the world; you are that way; this gin goes as it goes; tequila goes differently; and so on. These ways of going are at once bound and infinite, a limit that is always in the process of forging itself.

We are differential equations. It's not a coincidence that Leibniz, the philosopher of affirmation that Voltaire mocks, invented the calculus. We are the very process of differentiation, of becoming this, this this. From such a perspective, there is no limit to overcome. There is no need to transcend, only to become. 

6.25.2013

We Are Smart Phones Processing Cosmic Calls

Today's phone is a peculiar thing. It is a perceptive appendage that knows how to send and read invisible signals. When my phone rings or buzzes or dings, it's not due to anything I can see or hear or touch. No, the phone has an ability to perceive invisible waves of energy. And what makes it truly amazing is that it not only reads invisible waves of energy, it not only processes and makes sense of them, it knows which ones are for me. Think about that for a moment. The air is inundated with information and this device tucked in my pocket parses it, filters it, and finds which signals are meant for me.

Of course, this is something we do all the time — we, me, this body, not my phone or computer or any gadget, widget, or gear. We make sense of an endless stream of information, data, signs, and signals that are invisible.

And, just as the phone processes invisible signals from across space, much of the data we process is not streaming from bodies directly in front of us. Throughout the course of any given day, I pick up signals from people — and sometimes things and places — across the world and, sometimes, across time (people who have died, places I lived long ago). I'll get a flash of a face, a sense of a person. This can be swift, there and gone. It can persist in my peripheral vision for days. Usually, it's a series of flashes, the same face appearing in bursts over several days, a rock skipped over the surface of my consciousness.

I rarely ignore these visits, these whispers through and of the ether. Please don't misunderstand me. I do not believe that they have a special meaning as if the universe were trying to tell me something: She was my lost love! That's silly. No, I believe that these flashes of communication are just that: flashes of communication. There is no meta-meaning, no secret kernel of knowledge. The universe is its happening, its becoming; it has no secrets per se. It goes as it goes and we go as we go. And when we experience communication from afar, it has no significance other than communication from afar. But that in and of itself is significant!

Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper tells us never to ignore a coincidence — not because it has some secret meaning but because the coincidence itself is significant. In Twin Peaks, Lynch gives us an alternate epistemology, ways of knowing the world based in dreams, intuition, synchronicity rather than linearity, logic, and physical evidence.

Look at it this way. We answer our phones when they ring due to invisible waves sent half way around the globe. Then why wouldn't we answer these signals which come to our bodies and minds?

This "answering" can take many forms. Usually, I just let that communication play across me. I lean into it to make sense of its intensity, its affect. This is a well known thing with parents when something bad happens to their child: they wake in the night startled and know something is wrong. In this case, the communication is quite intense and infiltrates the body, declaring itself clearly. More often, the communication is less resonant, less urgent: a more or less simple hello from over yonder. And so I reply with an invisible hello back. Sometimes, I'll call or send an email.

We've all had that experience of thinking of someone and just as we go to call them, they call us. Whoa! The first thing we say is: How weird! But there is nothing less weird. This is what's happening all the time, day and night, to everyone.

And, to be clear, little of this is what we might call "conscious." We emit despite ourselves. Such is life: it is fundamentally communicative. When I get a flash of some past lover, it's not because she's sending me lovey dovey juju from afar. These waves of communication are not as mired in the social politics of language and all too human relations. They are often inchoate even if pointed and are rarely, if ever, conscious the way a phone call is. 

We can pay more or less attention to this relentless stream of invisible communication. We can lean into it or not. Most of us ignore it. We tend to the barrage of shit that is daily life, the narcissism of modern neuroses. We tend to the perceived dings and rings of calls, texts, and emails. But we ignore the flashes of faces, the whispers in the wind, of those not here. We brush them off so casually that some of you don't know what the heck I'm talking about.

Meanwhile, other people spend time and energy leaning into the chatter of the cosmos. We might call some of these people psychics. I've never been to a psychic as I don't trust someone else reading the chatter coming my way. I like to read it for myself. (It's the same reason why I never read so-called secondary literature on an author: I don't trust some pedantic academic. Plus, it's usually boring. No, I want to make sense of it on my own.)

Certain drugs can be highly effective in amplifying our receptivity of these communications. These drugs are a technology, much as a smart phone is: it lets us perceive things we might not ordinarily perceive. Without my phone, I can't read your text. Without DMT, I might not be able to hear the breadth of cosmic whispers streaming my way.

I have a good friend who has engaged various technologies — mushrooms, DMT, breathing exercises — to open up his perceptive channels. And he's heard, seen, and felt communications not just from people he's known and places he's lived but from other dimensions, other life forms, other universes. You can doubt and scoff and mock but the fact is: the universe — the cosmos, not just the earth and human life — is relentlessly communicating. Everything is there to be perceived. Just as the phone lets us communicate in strange, mystical ways (however much we take it for granted), we are always communicating this way. And some people, and some drugs, amplify these voices.

As Marshall McLuhan says in The Medium is the Massage, technology is an extension of the human body. The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye; electric circuity, an extension of the central nervous system. The smart phone is an extension, a repetition, of our ability to reckon — to receive, process, and send — invisible whispers across the cosmos. If we only remember to answer the call. 



6.22.2013

On "Zero Dark Thirty," "Point Break" & the Politics of Form


I know, I know. You're supposed to talk about movies right when they come out or not talk about them at all. What a strange rule!

I swore I'd never watch this film as it plays up the idiotic, dangerous fallacy that there is one man, a boogie man, to blame for the horrors. My own understanding of cause and effect sees networks and synchronicity and relationships rather than prime movers. But curiosity and boredom prevailed and I watched the movie.

What I find so odd about this film is that it operates so thoroughly within the context of a certain prescribed knowledge. That is, this movie is not discrete; it does not seek to define its own terms at all. It uses the general cultural knowledge, fear, and storyline to perpetuate its knowledge, fear, and storyline. Yes, the film opens with a reference to 9/11 but we never see the event; we never even hear it. We hear a 9-1-1 call that, out of context, is cryptic. Watching this film out of context makes it confusing and bizarre: they're chasing some villain named UBL and we have no idea why.  In fact, the dominant villainy in this film is perpetuated by the US military. Which may be Bigelow's point but I don't think so.

Now, all movies necessarily work within a cultural context, within a field of knowledge and experience. What makes ZDT different is that its plot relies so completely on the narrative plotted out by the media. It does not set up a villain. It does not explain its terms. It leans 100% on terms propagated by the government and media, on figures and events that are nowhere in the film because Bigelow assumes we assume them. Take away the accepted media story, take away 9/11, and ZDT collapses like a house of cards.

It's entire trajectory never inflects the pre-existing narrative. There is no interpretation of events, no critical read of the media or the government. Sure, there is the all too familiar figure of an individual — these days it tends to be a woman — who is undeniably fierce and committed and runs up against systematic walls of politics and bureaucracy.  (This figure in and of itself is interesting. At what point in our history did official bodies — the police, the government — become the bad guy? It's the premise of Dirty Harry. But I'm not an historian and don't know when this shift began — Watergate?)

Compare Zero Dark Thirty, for a moment, to a great film about 9/11, United 93 (which I've written about here >)United 93 of course operates within the context of American media and politics. But that film also operates on its own terms and delivers an incredibly complex critique of epistemology in the age of distributed communications: How do we know anything when events can't be perceived whole and everyone sees from his own perspective? United 93 plays without any knowledge of 9/11, of UBL, of Al-Qaeda. Everything the film goer needs is in the film. 

In ZDT, Mr. Bin Laden — not to mention 9/11 itself — is conspicuously absent. We never see his face precisely because he is so present in an unquestioned manner. He is assumed, a given backstory that never needs telling not to mention any explication. This film only plays if we know about 9/11, UBL, and Al-Qaeda — and assume the given story about them.

Now, at first, there are two critical points I'm making here: one is political, the other formal. Politically, this film continues the narrative of the official state apparatus. But, frankly, whatever — so do most films and TV shows and commercials and newspapers and, for that matter, people. We exchange clichés like they were air. That's nothing new.

My main critical point is that this film is peculiar formally in the way it relies on an unstated but (presumably) accepted and thoroughly penetrated storyline. We see this in sequels, of course. Watch The Dark Knight Rises without watching the earlier films and you are confused out the wazoo. But in ZDT, the prequel is the media story! It's almost as if it's a new genre of news or propaganda (which is the same thing) — formally speaking, not politically.

This, needless to say, raises the question: Can the formal and the political, medium and ideology, really be separated?  McLuhan and Foucault would argue no. The formal is always the political, always an expression of power in that it literally shapes information, sets boundaries, distributes possibilities.A technology is an ideology and an ideology, in turn, is a technology as it, too, distributes the world. 

Which means, as far as Ms. Bigelow and me, I still find Point Break a far superior film to either ZDT or that locker bomb one people liked so much. Point Break is a fantasy, an over the top romantic homage to excess, to passion. It is cinematic. It has an unabashed bravado and intensity (did she introduce the claustrophobic chase through apartments? In any case, she does it so well).

Point Break has a sense of danger as it pokes at the limits of being, of the so-called system, of the action film, of what is good and what is bad. The presidents in their masks holding up banks so they can surf are, well, cool. And righteous. The scenes of them in their masks wielding guns and fire are disconcerting as what we see and what we know are at odds. Bigelow plays with our sentiments and sympathies. The  narrative is not so linear. Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty plays as a seamless extension of a government press conference.

6.21.2013

In Defense of Watching Sports on TV, Especially Golf

Think what you will about Tiger Woods or golf in general but I find the relentless reading of the terrain, and one's own body in said terrain, inherently interesting.
First of all, let me say that many people I know, men and women alike, loathe sports — and really hate sports on TV. For them, it is a wash of banality, oddity, and ugliness. I understand this. This is especially true if you don't know the rules. Watching a game on TV without understanding its logic and motivations is an exercise in alienation and humility: people are making a sense I cannot possibly understand so either I'm stupid or an alien. In either case, I'm bored. And annoyed.

Then there is the terribleness of professional sport — the greed, phoniness, violence, machismo, rampant racism. Football, in particular, is difficult to watch for this reason, especially on TV. Television coverage insists on showing the rich, inevitably white owners in suits sitting in their luxury boxes as predominantly black men bludgeon each other on the field. And these white fucks fuck their players every chance they get. The average career of an NFL player is 3.3 years and, often, those 3.3 years leave the player hobbled for life without thorough health care. Meanwhile, NFL owners make gobs of money. The whole thing is grotesque. (Unlike in the NFL, the MLB — major league baseball — players' union is strong and takes relatively good care of its players.)

Still, I've been known to put this all aside and enjoy a football game. But only on TV. With dozens of camera angles that can zoom into the pack of action, with the ability to slow plays down and see them from seemingly every angle, I am suddenly privy to the miraculous. Huge, strong, fast, incredibly well trained men perform exquisite feats that make my head spin and my heart pound. A ball thrown on a dime, threading a fine needle between the outstretched hands of defenders, finding the enormous hands of a receiver running full speed. Cameras are able to parse the chaos of a football play with the rigor and precision of the most pedantic linguist parsing a poem. The elaborate mechanics and phenomenal prowess —from the linemen to the backs — spring forth in high definition.

I know some people insist that going to games is better than watching on TV. No doubt, it's a quite different experience. Live, there is the mania of the crowd. Which is why I hate going to live sporting events: crowds freak my shit. I find the collectivity of chants, moods, and behavior at once terrifying and, frankly, unpleasant. This is not to judge those who enjoy live sports; it is to declare my own paranoid sensibilities.

Now, I have been known to enjoy a live baseball game, despite the crowd. When I enter the stadium and get that first glimpse of the field, my heart quickens. The grandeur of it (it's huge!) and  the meaning inscribed in it (the diamond just so, the mound just so, the wall with its measurements written boldly) are lost on that tiny TV. And, as the game is big, TV can't possibly capture the subtle but relentless mechanics of the game — the infield and outfield shifts, the back up, the cut-off men.

But, to me, the most interesting thing about baseball is the pitching. And, live, you can't see squat. Ah, but TV shows you each pitch over and over, zooming in and out letting you see the spin, the cut, the speed. Live, baseball is mechanical (in the best sense). On TV, it's an incredibly tense and intense head game. Every pitch is an argument and the argument keeps changing depending on the batter, the score, the count. On TV, every at-bat becomes an elaborate rhetorical duel, a courtroom drama of epic proportion. 


And then there is golf.  Golf, especially on TV, has to be considered the most boring possible thing.  But I have to tell you: golf on TV is a lot more exciting than most NBA or NFL games. And this is thanks to television and how brilliantly the tournaments are produced.

A golf tournament takes place over four days with a full round being played each day. This creates a proliferation — an explosion — of narrative threads. A round of golf is itself a storyline as the player negotiates the terrain and par. Each day, that same player negotiates the same course (more or less: the cup moves around a bit on the green day to day) and must adjust accordingly. So what was once an 18 hole narrative becomes a 72 hole storyline. And this is true for every player at the tournament, giving us dozens of parallel storylines. But of course these lines are not parallel as these players are competing. Suddenly, this series of linear paths drift sideways into each other, creating complex network of stories that rise and fall with every hole. 

On TV, they don't follow one player through 18 holes. We don't watch a player hit then walk to the ball; consider it; hit again; walk to the ball. That would indeed be boring as fuck. No, on TV, they constantly cut to another player, another swing, which is at different points within different threads. The whole thing is like watching a Pynchon novel.

And it's exciting! Watching football, there is an incredible amount of downtime between plays; it can be soul crushingly boring. But watching golf on TV, everything is exciting because we are constantly seeing another negotiation, another reading of the terrain, each swing inflecting the individual and collective narrative, however slightly. It's constant action, I shit you not. In fact, as in a Pynchon novel, it can be dizzying. 

Are there things about seeing a live event — an aura, a mood, a collective joy? Of course. But me, I'm a recluse who finds crowds off putting, to say the least. I like to pee in peace and without a line; I like to lounge and fondle myself absentmindedly. I like to eat my food and drink my nice booze in the comfort of my livingroom. But that's not really my point.

My point is this: TV today, with all these fancy shmancy cameras, reveals a detail and wonder to sport that really was never evident to anyone, not even the players. This is not say there was not always wonder. It's to say that TV brings another dimension of wonder that did not exist before. The medium creates the event.

6.18.2013

Woody Allen & The Way of the Samurai, or Living Amidst the Horror of Life



Every day, everywhere, at every moment, the sublimity of life lurks. There's the proverbial bus that flattens you, of course, and the sundry horrors of the body that strike without warning — heart attacks, aneurisms, strokes, tumors that colonize with utter stealth.  Even without these particularities that you can try to parry — exercise; good genes; looking both ways before crossing the street — there is the still the ultimate horror awaiting us all. No one here gets out alive.

How are we to carry on? How do you lead your life — writing idiotic PowerPoint presentations, masturbating for hours, donning your Naked & Famous jeans, tending to your untruly nose hairs — when the horrors of life and death loom with vigor and vengeance?  If the universe is indeed expanding, why do your homework?

This is of course an obsession of Woody Allen's: Why, and how, carry on in a godless, meaningless universe in which we all die? I'm so frightened, I can't move, speak, breathe, says Woody Allen's character in Hannah and her Sisters. And once he's given good news — no brain tumor —, he leaves in joy, doing a jig on the street. And then it occurs to him: just because he's not dying right now doesn't mean he's not dying. The human condition is as much death as it is life.



Life, then, is necessarily a negotiation of death — or, at least, the horror of death. Needless to say, many of you are reading this and saying, Death is not horror; it's part of life, man. To which I say, yes, of course. But that does help me practically with living every day. I'm with Woody here: why do my homework — brush my teeth, get out of bed, do my dishes — if the universe is expanding? The banalities of life become their own kind of terrible horror.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen overcomes his fear and dysfunction by accident. He wanders into a movie theater and there, on the screen, are the Marx Brothers. What if the worst is true? he says, don't you want to be part of the experience? It's not all a drag....just enjoy it while it lasts.  



This has always been my strategy, more or less. I do my dishes, usually; I do my laundry, brush my teeth, do my proverbial homework. But I do them by focusing on the practicalities of the here and now, on my pleasure, my enjoyment. Dirty dishes stink and I have to do them eventually and, well, I don't have the courage to kill myself so I gotta do them eventually.... And the fact is I enjoy much of life. I am indulgent, a decadent: I like my booze, my meds and herbs; I like writing and thinking; I like ladies and sex and love; I love my kid and the ocean and the sky.

But, recently, I have come face to face with the indifference, cruelty, and violence of the universe and I'm not sure just enjoying aspects of life suffices. The horrors are interfering with my pleasures, with my enjoyment. The Marx Brothers are great but they look silly and inane when the sublimity of the infinite abyss lurks. And then I remembered the Hagakure.

For years, I was fixated on this book, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. What transfixed me was that it never gelled into anything resembling coherence. I was reading Kant, Hegel, Deleuze and Nietzsche all of whom have a coherent world view. Nietzsche and Deleuze might disdain philosophical systems but both of them have a lucid, explicable world view. But the Hagakure does not. To wit, at one moment it says:  

I have found that the Way of the samurai is death. This means that when you are compelled to choose between life and death, you must quickly choose death.  

Ok. And then, elsewhere, it says:

It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one's sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge. 

A samurai, even when he has not eaten, uses his toothpick.

It gets a lot stranger than this, I assure you. But it wasn't until recent events in my life that I finally glimpsed what the Hagakure is all about. I think. We perform the banalities of life — we do the dishes, apply the rouge, use a toothpick — all in preparation for death. After all, you don't want to leave behind dirty dishes or an ugly corpse. Every day, in every way, we must live for our death.

The Hagakure is a practice, not a philosophy. It is a practice of living for death. Death is not something to avoid. It is to be embraced. We live in order to die — and to die well. This is not say we long for death.

No one longs for death. We can speculate on whatever we like. But if we live without having attaining that aim, we are cowards. This is an important point and the correct path of the Samurai. When we calmly think of death morning and evening and are in despair, We are able to gain freedom in the way of the Samurai. Only then can we fulfill our duty without making mistakes in life.

This is not the nihilism of Judeo-Christian asceticism that fears and loathes life. On the contrary, it is a practice that affirms the ever-presence of death.

This is, of course, hard. It's hard because it's hard. And it's hard because we live in a culture that abhors death, that puts the fact of being alive ahead of living well. We quote our life expectancy as a sign of progress and success. When the reality is, often, we live longer, more miserable lives. And we die poorly — medicated, tubed, antiseptic.

Now, I'll admit without hesitation that I am terrified of death. I don't wanna die. And the idea that there are people dedicated to keeping me alive at all costs makes me feel a little better. But I am coming to learn that this is my weakness. I wish we had a culture that reckoned death rather than avoided it as best it can. The Hagakure is so foreign to me because, amongst other reasons, death is its Way — and death, despite its ubiquity, does not figure into our discourse of self becoming. 

I cannot say I understand the Hagakure. It is odd and beautiful and much of it demands more of me than I am intellectually, existentially, and practically capable. And I cannot say I know how to live with the sublimity of life's horrors, at once actual and inevitable. But I can say that avoiding it is not right. Pushing it aside in favor of my pleasures now is not right — not because it's philosophically unsound but because it's not working for me. Not anymore. This is the passage from the Hagakure that has haunted me and continues to haunt me:

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

Jim Jarmusch has long been interested in death and the Way of the Samurai — Ghost Dog was about the Hagakure but Dead Man is really, to me, his truly great film. Johnny Depp as William Blake (not that William Blake and that William Blake) is already a dead man. As we all are. It's just a matter of how we die. 



6.13.2013

Tact: Negotiating Dinner Parties, Facebook, & Old Friends

 
William Burroughs and Brion Gysin."Brion Gysin was the only man I have ever respected.  One of the attributes that I respected was his unfailing and dazzling tact."

When I'm at a party or dinner party — let me say, I loathe dinner parties as food and conversation are mutually exclusive, both demanding the same apparatus and both being quite demanding: when I'm eating, I want to reckon my food, my digestion, chew and appreciate; ibid for conversing — anyway, when I'm at such a gathering — which, fortunately, is a rare thing for reasons that will soon be apparent — so when I'm there and some stranger asks, How do you know the host? my whole being recoils. 

Well, it might involve an interesting story — I met him one morning on the face of Everest, naked hugging a goat. But usually the answer is: We work together. Or, Our kids go to school together. What good does knowing that do anyone? Where is conversation — where is life! — supposed to go after such an exchange? What can I possibly say: Oh. How do you like working at Google? Or: What grade is your kid in? Jesus, it's life draining, life halting, soul stalling. It's a question that looks backwards, at the confirmed, the banal, the already happened, the socially pre-determined. It's an exchange whose very foundation is nihilistic, backwards looking, soul murdering.

I'm absolutely serious. Consider that question for a moment. What purpose does it possibly serve other than to place you in the class social order? OK, ok, I suppose people are socially nervous, don't know what to talk about and so cling to the most obvious, safe thing. But, c'mon, we're standing right in front of each other and the only thing in common you can find is that we both might know the host? What about this moment, right here, right now?

When I first saw Chatroulette, I was blown away. Go to the site and, voilà, you're face to face with a stranger who could be anywhere in the world. No names, no "likes," no friends, no education or job or wall of posts. Just a person, right in front of you. What do you want right now, right here? It was very intense. Suddenly, the social was stripped of all meta-narrative, all explanation, all orientation. There was no way to place people in the social order, to size them up according to the familiar markings of education, employment, taste, friends. It was just you and your desires at this moment.  

It made Facebook look like so much bourgeois, state apparatus nonsense. On Facebook, you declare your social status as if you'd been asked for your papers — where you grew up, went to school, where you work, the state of your romantic relationship (as if you have one and not many; such is the way of ideology: it works silently, as assumption rather than declaration).  Social interactions are mediated by the ideological trappings of bourgeois culture.

This is how I feel about interacting with old friends. I never want to "catch up." Life is not about accumulation or going some proverbial distance. There's no need to catch up. In fact, nothing is as boring as catching up (unless said friend is doing something wildly interesting — in which case, it's not catching up but moving forward). I don't give a shit what you do for a living. I want to live here and now. I want to live forwards, not backwards. I want this moment to glimmer, to surge forward, backwards, sideways, to seethe and moan. I want this moment to live and breathe.

I went over 10 years without talking to my best friend. One day, I called him. I didn't ask what he'd been up to; I didn't ask about his job or girlfriends. And he didn't ask me. We just started yapping away, laughing our asses off about this and that.  Then, when the conversation ceased to be interesting, we said bye and hung up.

When I do find myself at a party — a rare, rare event — I tend to refuse accepted party etiquette (which is the reason I am rarely at parties: no one invites me, and rightly so). If someone does indeed ask me how I know the host, I use a bevy of obnoxious replies: I don't — just heard the noise and wandered in.  Or: AA. 

My desire is not to be obnoxious but to shift the focus from the past to the present, from the irrelevant to the right here, from them to us, from the dead to the living. If my fellow party goer is game, he or she will quickly engage and we are done with soul numbing protocol. If said party goer is annoyed, our exchange quickly comes to an end and I am liberated from the toils of joyless conversation. In either case, everybody wins. 

Needless to say, not everyone sees my social vetting as generous. And, yes, is it selfish as I am just too bored and annoyed to have such banal conversations (mind you, not that I'm interesting to everyone; but I am, sometimes, interesting to myself — lucky for me!). But I am also trying to rescue the party goer from what he or she might see as protocol. I don't need that nonsense, I'm telling them, we can get on with it, with life. 

In his fantastic My Education, William Burroughs writes: "Brion Gysin was the only man I have ever respected.  One of the attributes that I respected was his unfailing and dazzling tact..."  Tact, Burroughs tells us, is often misunderstood by "the haute monde" as being a matter of determining "the stranger's 'social position'."  But "the source of tact" lies not in determining the situation according to pre-established rules; rather, the source of tact is "discernment and perception."  True social protocol, then, is not what's inherited or determined by others but through the skills of tact: reckoning the here and now by perceiving and discerning.

Tact is a matter of properly heeding a situation, not according to fixed laws or established protocols, but according to circumstances. Tact is a matter of doing what is appropriate to this situation, of heeding these bodies here. Tact demands attention — to oneself, the situation, to others. It is fundamentally ethical even if it brazenly breaks established rules of order.  

In his great book, The Process, Brion Gysin writes: What are we here for? We're here to go! Which is to say, we're not here to accumulate or catch up. We're not here to follow rules or show our papers. We're here to move; we're here to live, here and now. 

6.09.2013

You Have No Core and It's Good

Sometimes, something happens that seems to cut to the core. All your bullshit, your prattling and preening, your neuroses and needs become irrelevant as the sublimity of the occasion washes them all away like so much sand. It's as if all this — clothes, posturing, iPhones, email, "Game of Thrones" — were mere jelly protecting the vulnerable, sensitive inner core. And when something intense happens, it slices clear through that outer layer to hit the never center of being. 

Isn't this how we imagine the brain? It's "grey matter," not only different from everything else (so is my spleen, after all, not to mention my odd baby toe toenails) but it's different for a reason: it's the core of how we work and who we are, all mysterious and protected by skull and gunk.

But let's suppose, for a moment, that there is no core, co center to my being. I am a style of going, a way of distributing not only the world and people and ideas but this absurd frame of my mine: I am a posture, comportment, and gait at once visible and invisible.

There is no one spot, not even my brain (and certainly not my soul). Now, I know that the brain is an essential component of keeping these bodies and cognition of ours working. But, as Henri Bergson says, this is not because the brain is made of mystical matter but because it's a switchboard. It's a central node, yes, but within a distributed field. It's not mystical but productive. In its way, the brain is rather banal.

This figuring of the brain shifts the very manner of how we constitute being in the world. The brain ( not even the pineal gland) is not the home of your most secret, special, divine self. That's because there is no home to this secret, special, divine self. You are — we all are — teeming, swirling, more or less undulating bodies. We ooze, marble, fold, pleat, thread, fray, condense. We are infinitely complex systems bound by limits at once visible and invisible. 

You are not somewhere in your body. You are of your body. Your self is everywhere — in your belly and butt, in your knees and nape, in your pubes and nostrils and teeth. You wear all of you. And without this, you're not naked. You're not even dead. You are nothing.

In his great essay on history, Foucault argues against the very notion of an historical origin, as if he beginning of an epoch could be singularly defined, as if an epoch were not itself made of multiple epochs across vastly different time periods. When you look to the origin, Foucault writes (more or less), you don't find a singular point: you find "the dissension of other things."

I love that figure — you reach for one thing and discover this whole complex, moving web of....stuff. In fact, I love this phrase — the dissension of other things — so much it was the title of my undergraduate thesis I wrote 23 years ago. And I still remember it vividly. But not because it penetrated my core but because it helped realign the system that I am.

Which is to say, just because there is no core, doesn't mean you don't get worked over by events in the world. Rather than penetrating per se, these events are thorough: they permeate multiple flows — of your appetite, sexuality, thought, vision.

And sometimes the very constitution of your system is worked over. That is, rather than simply different stuff flowing through the pipes — sushi rather than hamburgers — or even the pipes themselves changing, say, from steel to copper, the very means of movement change: things no longer flow but ooze. Sometimes, something happens that is so extreme that your very make up is fundamentally recast.

No doubt, this all seems rather pedantic. Who cares if I say something "cut to my core" vs. "my system was recast"?

Well, let's imagine that something terrible happens and someone close to you dies. This is not just someone you liked but someone who was essential to your very way of going; they were constitutive of the system that is you. Picture all your flows — your desires, needs, tics, thoughts, speeds, anxieties — streaming through you. Some of these streams don't just flow through you but flow through others — a lover, a friend, a sibling. When this person is gone, your whole system needs to realign, recalibrate, be reengineered.

Now, this terrible thing leaves you reeling. It's all you can think about. Still, you find there are moments when you're laughing at "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or lost in the delirium of a new flirtation at the bar. Suddenly, you get aware of yourself and feel a little guilty. Shouldn't I be sad? Didn't this event affect me so much that it cut to me core?

Or, alternately, you find it impossible to do anything. You are overwhelmed. How can I possibly brush my teeth, eat, joke, listen to music, do anything as frivolous as get loaded at the bar ever again? After all, I've been cut to my core!

Well, you haven't been cut to your core. You system has been sent awry. But, as you are a system that is a complex of intersecting threads, parts of you are not affected. This is neither good nor bad; it doesn't mean you're too sensitive or insensitive. Such is the very way of human becoming: we are made of different flows of different speeds and intensities. 

We are not selves with some deep inner core. We are systems that need tending to, alignment and realignment. We are not selves. We are ways of going, with an emphasis on the "s."

This is the only way I know of to make sense of living everyday with sublime tragedy. Of brushing my teeth, sleeping, and eating while, at the same time, someone close to me is suffering horribly. I don't want to ignore that suffering. Nor do I want to wither away from lack of food and sleep. And so I set about the arduous task of configuring my system so that these two things — the everyday and sublime horror — can flow simultaneously without effacing each other. 

The figures we use to make sense of this life matter. Forget the core. You have no core. Engineer your system. 

6.05.2013

Of Family and Love


Life can be a stinky piece of shit. And, more often than that, it’s just plain old boring (how many conversations about some idiotic movie or “the economy” can you have?) and humiliating (consider the number of PowerPoint presentations you’ve created — and then add yearly job reviews and hemorrhoids to the equation).  Yes, daily life hurls insults big and small with seeming abandon.

If you’re smart and not masochistic, you change some of these things. You quit your job with its yearly reviews in which some self-important shitbird condescends to judge you for things you couldn’t care less about. You get a job working in a public garden teaching kids how to harvest aloe. You drop your friend who thinks Spielberg is worth more than .000005 seconds of your time. You discover El Tesoro Reposado and, for a moment, what once stunk like shit is now coming up roses.  Hallelujah!

Ah, but then there’s your family. They are not so readily swapped out. What is one to do with them?

My own family, for instance, has a long and storied past, much of which smells a lot worse than rosy. What we’re left with is an infinitely complex morass of wills, wishes, and tics, of resentments and rages along with all the private dialects, references, jokes, and memories that make a family a family. We are a pack of strong willed, conspicuously articulate, Merck Manual memorizing, aggressively opinionated, emotionally charged know-it-all hebes and one step-goy father type, just to keep things interesting. I will spare you the details of how we all got here for as captivating as they may be, they’re a) none of your business and b) not relevant for this here screed.

Now, as a child, my household was a not a peaceful place. Both of my older siblings graduated high school in three years. I taught college kids for 17 years and have never heard of anyone doing high school in three years.

This fact is relevant for it introduces a very important tactic for life survival: avoidance. It’s the old joke of the guy who walks in the doctor’s office and says, “Doc, whenever I spin my arm like this, it really hurts.” To which the doctor replies, “Well, then don’t spin your arm like that.” In other words, if there’s a situation that sucks ass, simply avoid it.  And family, up to a point, can be avoided — you don’t have to go home for holidays; you don’t have to make phone calls: you don’t have to spin your arm like that.

With both my brother and sister out of the house a year earlier than usual, I was left an only child from eighth grade on. I could have taken their tactical lead, graduated high school in three years, and avoided the whole mess as best I could. But I liked high school. I had a few great teachers; I took a lot of drugs; I had a lot of sex. I’d have stayed forever. So I learned a different tactic, a spin on avoidance: indifference.

Indifference is incredibly powerful. I could be in a flurry of mayhem but I discovered that if I just didn’t care, the whole thing passed me by. In fact, few gestures are as devastating as indifference. A girl says she loves you: Wow! She says she hates you: Oh no! She doesn’t care at all about you and, well, that inflicts a pain beyond words. I think of that beautiful Gotye song — Now you're just somebody that I used to know. Indifference parries — deflates — emotional assault with devastating deftness.



Recently, my family was brought together for a horrible tragedy (once again, I withhold the details as it’s none of your business).  It’s been 30 years, more or less, since we spent any time all together. That’s the effect of avoidance and indifference.

Now I want to be clear that it's not that avoidance and indifference have been our sole means of negotiation and communication. Not at all. In many ways, we are quite close. We all talk to each other (some more than others); we laugh, at times wildly; we fight; we love; we support.

But, through it all, avoidance and indifference have been the dominant modes to maintain sanity amidst the madness. These tactics have allowed us to turn away from the ugliness, oddity, annoyance, and anxiety. I don't imagine we're special in this way; these things run through all families. What distinguishes families is how they negotiate these issues.  

After 30 years of avoidance and indifference, my family has found itself hurled together. And, sure enough, the same nonsense, anxiety, annoyances are still there. Now, I suppose we could have amplified our indifference and avoidance and disavowed each other completely. But that was never us. For all our avoidance and indifference, there are very powerful and profound feelings of attachment, of loss, of love that flourish between us.

Now, I often imagine this thing called love as surging, as a burbling swell of sensation. It inhabits us, takes hold of us. There he is, a big beautiful stupid smile seared across his face. He lives for the sight of her, the waft of her scent, the melody of her laugh. I've known this love and it's resonant, to say the least.

And this lover is so glad because before this love he felt dethatched, precariously tethered to the planet. He watched too much TV, slept longer than he should have, drifted. And now, thanks to his love for her, he is smack dab at the center of the world.

But being with and watching my family together after all these years, I began to rethink my understanding of love. There we are — prattling on and on, subtly and not-so-subtly jabbing each other, acting out all the horror of the all too human, supporting each other, sure, but also undermining each other. And so much of me wanted to run away, to parry it all with my well heeled indifference.  I can be here, I said to myself, but be indifferent.

And, to be honest, this felt wise. I saw myself as trying to be some kind of wizened monk tending to the silliness from an emotional remove.

But the tragedy made that impossible. The tragedy is emotionally sublime. I am, we all are, being torn asunder by it. Indifference is not an option. And it doesn’t feel quite right, anyway. Not here. Not now. Not anymore.

And then it struck me. Rather than be indifferent, I could love. Not with a love that places me at the focal point of the world as it did when I loved my 16 year old Joy in high school. But with another kind of love: a love that doesn't demand anything of the beloved but just lets it be. I imagined a love that lets each member of my totally crazy, angst riddled, hilariously verbose, epic know-it-all family — myself included, of course — be who he or she is, however annoying, dysfunctional, or demanding.

This is a love that stands back just as my indifference always did but it doesn't do so to avoid. On the contrary, this love stands back in order to cast a wider embrace, to throw its arms around everyone equally and say, Ok. Sure. Yes.

Ok, ok, perhaps I'm drifting into the maudlin and the cliché. Perhaps I'm realizing things the goyim have known all along. So be it. But I feel like I'm just beginning to understand a different breed of love, a love that doesn't occupy the center but, instead, just lets everything be what it it. A love that says, So what? Let him prattle on about tropes. Let her feign expertise. Let him kvetch about the food. What's the problem? Who cares?

This doesn't mean that I can't or won't avoid certain situations. Even Jesus must have gotten annoyed at the disciples now and again and walked a little faster.  Or that I won't sometimes snap like the angry, snotty teenager still lurking within me.



But unlike the romantic love of my youth, this love wants truly to be selfless. This love doesn't need ratification, doesn't need old issues handled, answered, placated. Not because it doesn't care but because it doesn't care. From the outside, love and indifference can look alike. But, in practice, they are worlds apart: one stands back to avoid, the other to embrace.