7.28.2013

On Proselytizing, or Why Persuade Anyone of Anything?

Every few Saturday mornings, my doorbell rings. This, in and of itself, is a rare event. Despite my Penthouse Forum fantasies, it's inevitably the same pack of Latin, cross-generational, well dressed Jehovah's Witnesses there to persuade me of something.

My reaction, internal and external, varies as I'm sure does theirs. I don't think my pajama clad, skinny, big jew nosed white ass is what they were expecting to see. Anyway, I usually just politely say I'm not interested — although I have been known to point to my glasses and nose — for some jews, they come as a pair — and smilingly shut the door. Which of course means nothing to them as they didn't grow up in New York watching Woody Allen movies.

My conspicuously Jewish appearance means nothing to self-righteous believers. 
Sometimes, as I shoo them away, I seethe internally with a temporary, satisfying, and deranged anger: Who the fuck are you to invade my private space being so fucking goddamned sure you know the way? Fuck the fuck off you self-righteous, sanctimonious fuckwads! If you could see the sweet, little old lady who rings the bell as I silently scream these words, you'd laugh.

And yet I don't believe my anger is unjustified. Most of the world's illness stems from one or another group of douchebags believing they know better. America rules so we carpet bomb you! America is corrupt so we fly planes into you! And so on and so on: self-righteous jizzbombs killing in the name of knowing better. Just because you're sweet doesn't mean your sanctimony isn't dangerous. On the contrary.

Other times, I think: What generosity! They believe they have found the way to salvation and they want to share it with me! Of all people! From their perspective, why wouldn't they? Why shouldn't they? If you knew for certain that peace and beauty and good things would happen if people only did this or that, would you keep it to yourself? Why wouldn't you tell everyone?  You could dress to the nines and spend your weekends ringing strangers' bells telling them the way to be happy and true and free.

There's something hilarious about ringing people's bells and asking, Do you have a minute to talk about rhizomes?
After they've rung my bell, I sometimes think, ironically, Well, I'm gonna go ring their bell with Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and harangue them with a 45 minute lecture on ressentiment.  Or, even funnier, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus! I'll have one dogeared copy tucked under my arm and a bag of pristine copies in tow. May I speak to you about the rhizome and refrain, please?

When I think about it, why persuade anyone of anything? Really, who cares if you or anyone believes what I believe? Do I even care if I believe what I believe?

When I was much younger — late high school, early college — I had adamant and banal beliefs about capitalism, communism, and such. I'd get in heated arguments with classmates and dorm mates that, fueled by booze and hormones, often lasted way, way too long. Why?

Well, persuasion and its attending argumentation can be pleasurable, even erotic. When I picture it now, I blush and recoil at the pornography of it. I'd stand there and spew on someone else. Then he — usually, it was a he — would spew back or literally wipe the spit from his face while offering some kind of retort to my engorged rhetoric. It was an ugly pas de deux although, at times, I was known to take on a group, a kind of reverse bukkake as I turned and spewed on everyone. 

Clearly, I wasn't interested in actually persuading anyone of anything. I was interested in an expression of ego, much as a lily exudes its foul perfume. One of the great motivators of persuasion is, alas, ego — to extend one's will over someone else affords a certain, if unseemly, pleasure. We all know this from the cat and mouse game of seduction, a kind of persuasion. At times, we want someone else to like us even if we're not interested in returning their feelings, the thill of the conquer.

Persuasion of course need not be so sinister. Sometimes, we want someone to see the way we see, feel the way we feel, not because of a will to dominate but because it in and of itself is pleasurable. Co-feeling can be comforting and enjoys its own form of the erotic. Loving a band that your close friend or lover doesn't like can be alienating. Having them suddenly enjoy what you enjoy is a nuptial that can make us feel less alone in this universe.

Then again, there is something immensely pleasurable and profoundly affirming about loving something, believing something, no one else does — including your lover and friends. O, to be sure of yourself without any need or desire for confirmation from anyone else! What is more alive than that?

There is a practical component to persuasion. If I'm the only one who loves Jethro Tull, then I'll never be able to play them for my friends and lovers. If my sweetie loathes Thick as a Brick, I'll never know the delight of fornicating to syncopated rhythms and careening flute. To have that pleasure, I must persuade her that Minstrel in the Gallery is not as goofyass as it seems. Persuasion is, in some sense, training: to be part of this community, this is the way we think, feel, and act. 



The sub-title to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is A Book for All and None. This succinctly states Nietzsche's great ambivalence about persuasion. Nietzsche doesn't encourage you to be like him but to be like you. This is a strange position because in order to follow him, you have to not follow him. You have to be worthy of being an enemy or friend, with lungs capable of breathing the frigid mountain air where you, as a radical individual, live alone. Unlike, say, me trying to convince a ladyfriend to enjoy Jethro Tull or the Jehovah's Witnesses trying to persuade me to join their church, Nietzsche doesn't want community. He doesn't even want conversation; ergo, a book for none. And yet everyone can be an individual; ergo, a book for all.


Despite being accused of demagoguery, when I taught I was never trying to persuade anyone of anything. It never mattered to me whether my students believed the things I taught. I was just trying to teach them a perspective; after that, it was up to them do with it what they will.  Which is why I never allowed arguing in the class. What was there to argue about? It was not a question of me being right — which, unfortunately, is how many students interpreted it. No, it was because there was no issue of agreement or disagreement, of right or wrong. There was only the matter of seeing a certain perspective.

Usually, when someone holds forth, it doesn't matter to me whether I agree or not. I don't even need to understand it. I just want to enjoy that perspective. I think of Kant: the world he proffers is not one I fiind compelling but it is a strange and beautiful world, nonetheless. Or Francois Laruelle: I can't really understand him but I enjoy my not understanding.  It's a pleasure to read something so esoteric and resistant to comprehension. It feels like a gift. I don't have to believe, agree with, or understand anything: I can just let the words and images flow.

Maybe, then, we can forego persuasion. Maybe we don't need to convince anyone of anything. Maybe we can just enjoy different world views. Or not.

7.24.2013

The Fallacies of Online Dating


I rarely trust artists talking about their own work. They're artists, after all, not critics or writers. Of course, they might also be critics and writers. But that is not their primary duty. A painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a printmaker prints: such is their expression and it's perfectly articulate in its way. Critique is its own art — the art of reading. Art and criticism are two different skill sets. So why would I trust a painter skilled in the ways of paint to be a critic? And why would I trust a critic to paint me a picture?

Which brings me to the state of online dating. The dreaded and ubiquitous profile asks individuals to describe themselves. And 99.99% of people respond by saying things like, I'm easygoing, funny, and a little shy. Now, for the moment, let's put aside the rampant mendacity. If all these people were actually so easygoing, the world would be a very different place. I've met women who have relentless anxiety attacks who have described themselves as easygoing. 

But that's not my point. Because the fact is identity is not something that can be described; it's something that is performed. We are what we do, not what we say. I wish it all were as easy as declaring it and it was so. God does it in Genesis, after all: Let there be light, he says to God knows whom and, voilà, there's light. So it'd be fanfuckingtastic if I could say, I'm a cool, laidback, groovy sex god muthafucka and make it so. But, alas, I'm a nebbishy, skinny, neurotic dork ass. What I say to the contrary does not change these facts.

Ah, but the fact that I would say such a thing is revealing. Which is to say, the description is not as revealing as the performance: what I say doesn't matter as much as the fact that I said it. Think of it this way: if a new bar declares in an ad, We're cool, would you really believe them and go? Or would you say, What shmohawks! and never go there just because they'd said that?  Identity is in the doing.

Even the profile pictures function like descriptions — all these dead, static visual declarations. Every profile I've ever looked at has at least one picture of the woman hiking or climbing or biking. The picture doesn't express character as much as it functions as evidence. I said I was a hiker, see?  I generally find profile pictures useless. Were these pictures honestly chosen, they might give me a general sense of the person's physiology. But people don't know how to choose pictures which peform their identity; they choose pictures like a DA chooses evidence: I said I'm easygoing and here I am being easygoing on the beach.

Online dating flourishes amidst an egregious fallacy, namely, that identity is descriptive, not performative. That identity is static rather than temporal. And, unfortunately, people have not been taught to read and write. As a result, they write these achingly, hilariously banal and sincere descriptions that are anything but sincere. No one says, Well, frankly, I can be a little needy; I hope you can indulge me. Or: I tend to be passive aggressive. Nope. Everyone on a dating site is easygoing, fun, loyal, smart, and interested in the world. They all like to travel, are equally comfortable in jeans or a little black dress, are a little bit city and a little bit country. Oh, and they all — all — do yoga. Or, rather, they say they do. 

What, I wonder, do they hope to accomplish in writing such a profile — a profile that is identical to every other woman's and reveals nothing about themselves?  It baffles me.

Now, if this were a normal world, I could learn a lot from these profiles. Namely, that I could safely avoid the 99.99% of women who write the same old descriptive drivel without any sense of language, wit, play, or delight. I'd know they were all silly squares and move on. And, for the most part, this is precisely what I do.

But, unfortunately, people in our culture aren't taught to write or, for that matter, to read. They believe that writing the most straightforward description is the way to write. They believe identity can be described just as they believe what artists say about their work matters. And so they look for profiles of people who say the "right" things. He loves to travel and, look, there's a picture of him in Barcelona so it must be true! As a result of this general illiteracy, I'm at a loss as how to best negotiate these awful, boring, soul draining sites.  (For the record, there is occasional wit, joy, and poetry on OKC that is conspicuously absent on the embarrassingly square Match.)

I have no problem with online dating. In fact, I kind of love it. I can sit at home in my toothpaste stained sweatshirt and underwear, smelling foul, and flirt unabashedly with a panoply of women across ages, sizes, colors, and proclaimed interests. For a solitary misanthrope like me, it's perfect. And I believe email is a great way to meet people. The more someone expresses herself without the pressure of immediate, physical judgment, the more you learn. 

Which is why I just wish the whole thing were done differently and done better. Or that people in general knew how to write and read, knew how to perform themselves rather than just declare themselves. Why not a dating community with feeds and posts such as Facebook? Why not reveal yourself over time, your taste and interests and style, à la Tumblr? Or everyday updates, short and pithy, re: Twitter?

It's as if online dating is, well, dated. A Match profile is basically a web site from 1998: a poorly presented static page with words and a few static images. New media continues to evolve, to offer new ways of expression in and of the virtual. But online dating remains firmly planted in an era of limited technology which, alas, perpetuates the descriptive fallacy — and makes finding a smart, funny sweetie that much harder. 

From another perspective, however, these sites are perfect. They let the square, descriptive, non-writers set the tone, let them sit there in their yoga pants and Yosemite porn shots and little black dresses, telling themselves despite all evidence to the contrary that they're easygoing. Which lets those playful gems who can perform with grace and aplomb shine that much brighter.

7.22.2013

The Thing About Things

The martini glass is not just a symbol of cool: it literally trains you to be cool.
Keep it together, son
, it whispers as you get increasingly lit. 

The thing about things is that they are rarely just things. Things coerce, often in the most unforgiving ways. A rock, for instance, blocking your path. Or my bed. All the movements I make in my bedroom are, in some way, defined by the presence of this large, heavy, imposing thing. I walk around it, crawl over it, stub my toe on it. (Give me a Murphy bed, please!) Then of course there is the experience of sleeping, or what have you, on the bed. It cushions or fails to cushion in specific ways affording comfort, respite, the occasional ache (I like my beds firm). I may believe I'm the ruler of my roost but my bed, and all these other things, would have it otherwise.

From one perspective, we spend our days negotiating things. All day long couches, chairs, phones, remotes, TVs, computers, pens, forks, cups, toothbrushes nudge you, poke you, demand things of you. Hold me like this! Move around me! Slouch and you'll slip! The din of it all can be maddening.

Sure, you can try to see it the other way, try to pretend you are the master and these things serve at your discretion. And to a point that's true. But, from another angle, all this stuff rules you — you flip its switch, lie on its seat, hold its handle. You might not like it but that toothbrush isn't growing finer bristles: you are at its mercy, at least until you put yourself at the mercy of a different one. If you think about it too much, think about how much your every move is defined by things, it will freak your shit.

Usually, we only notice when the thing doesn't work right. Damn this phone!  Or when the thing provokes us in other ways. Man, these sheets feel niiiiice! Most of the time, things rule us quietly, having their way without drawing too much attention to themselves. John Locke calls this passive power. But such a seemingly benign qualification does little to quash the undeniable influence of things on my behavior.

This is not to say that being coerced by things is necessarily bad. The best things make us better. The martini glass, for instance: it's not just a symbol of cool, it breeds a particular kind of cool. Why, after all, would such a strong drink come in such an odd, easy to spill glass? As you drink, it becomes increasingly difficult not to spill. It's not very user friendly. This glass demands a certain behavior from you: it demands you hold it together as you get more and more lit. Indeed, the more lit you get, the more the glass demands you remain steady. You can't just sloppily grab a martini; it'll spill. With each sip, the glass whispers to you, Stay cool, my friend, stay cool. The glass literally trains you to be cool.

Many today maintain that the chair is a killer. I shit you not. Chairs, it is argued, kill people by tantalizing us with the all too enticing prospect of sitting. And sitting rather than moving kills people in all sorts of ways. We can say that the chair is not to blame, that sitting is not even to blame, but people's decision to sit for so long. But an elaborate culture, an economy of action and finance, revolves around the chair — the desk, the laptop and desktop computer, the cubicle, the conference room, the 10 hour work day, salaries. Google Glass might offer a way out of the culture of the chair. 

Google Glass may offer an alternative to chair bound culture.

One of the most common figures in UI design is intuitive. Every freakin' client wants his app or site to be intuitive. But what about software could possibly be intuitive? What does this even mean? All software is learned. Indeed, all technology is learned. An infant doesn't automatically suckle at his mother's breast, despite his most ardent, base desires. The baby, and the mother, must together learn the technology of breastfeeding.

All things demand you learn them. Some play well on existing behaviors, on pre-existing learned knowledge. This, I believe, is what people mean by an intuitive interface: things are where you've learned they should be and do what you've learned they should do. 

The power of things is inherently neither good nor bad. Sure, there are times we want to shed our so-called materiality and be done with things. But that's silly. To be alive is to interact with things. Which, to me, just means we need to be attentive to the things things demand of us. What behavior does a thing engender? What culture does a thing spawn?

This introduces a certain ethics of things. I'm not saying anything absurd such as things should be considered persons (who could even conceive of such an absurdity?). But I am saying that we should consider things not as much as disposable servants but as participants in this nutty life of ours.

7.18.2013

O, To Be Born Again

Beautiful picture from Kyle Green Photography >

Recently, I've been spending a lot of time with my family. This has me reckoning time in new and poignant ways; I feel history bearing down upon me, surging through me, with vengeance. What's struck me more than anything else is how little changes despite great passages of time and what should be life altering events. I am the youngest of three siblings and I'm 43 — which is to say, we are all adults. And yet we play out the same dynamics we've been playing out for, well, in my case 43 years.

We are living in tracks laid decades ago. The momentum of history is fierce. It is bigger than any one of us. I may or may not have changed but the dynamics — the terms of exchange or, to sound like a pretentious douchebag, the discourse of our family — have not changed. It is times like these that I feel the futility of individuality; I am beholden to forces that exceed me. I can feel and be and think and say what I want but I can't control how my words are taken, how others feel, what they think, how they go. And this, in turn, inflects how I think and feel. 

This is an all too familiar reality for anyone trying to better a romantic, or for that matter, platonic relationship. The terms are so well set that they become exceedingly difficult to change, even if both parties have the best intentions. You say something you think supportive to your gal — Have fun! — and she thinks you're being passive aggressive because you used to be. We are not as much individuals as we are elements within complex systems that are worked out together, visible and invisibly, on the fly. And that system works us as much, and usually more, than we work it.

I am tempted to say we repeat ourselves, that we play the same record over and over again. But that is not repetition at all. We are, in fact, playing out the past, what's already happened. We're not repeating. In some sense, we're recalling, living through the past, living by history's given strictures rather than making history ourselves. When I talk to my parents, as a 43 year old man, the six year old boy speaks, too, sometimes too loudly and it's humiliating. 

Sure, some things change. Injuries and sickness slow some down. But resounding change to individuals and to systems is hard to come by. While it's comforting to imagine that face to face with one's mortality, one would change — you shed your bullshit, live more joyfully — the reality is often in the face of such sudden, radical change, one longs for the normalcy of what was before, for the comfort of familiar bourgeois anxiety. I don't want to fear death! I want the stress over a cranky child, the stress I know!

In the face of extreme injury and sickness, little changes. A death sentence or a maiming does not automatically evacuate one's life of its neuroses, its idiocies, its toxicity. Families don't suddenly put aside their well worn dynamics to love and support unconditionally. Tragedy throws a wrench into the existing system but it does not fix it and does not reset it.  Change, it seems, is more terrifying than death. And certainly harder to come by.

I've always secretly been envious of the reborn, that phrase and domain carved out by Christian evangelicals. What a treat! For most of us, we're shot out of the womb and onto tracks that guide us, steer us, determine us for the rest of our lives. How fantastic to say, I've had enough of this life! I want a new one! I want to be born again! And then, even better: I am going to be born again!

Jews have no language of being reborn (that I know of, at least). On the contrary, we take a peculiar pride in perpetuating our misery, our neuroses, our angst. It always felt like a jip to me. I dreamed of being submerged in water and emerging miraculously anew.  To have all my bullshit washed away, to be cleansed of the horrors and miseries of my history, of the self I'd forged to that point.



Kierkegaard claims that the ancients lived through the past, through recollection. How do we know anything? asks Socrates. We recollect, he answers. For Kierkegaard, Christianity — well, Jesus — offers a radical new approach to knowing and being: repetition rather than recollection.  Living forward rather than backwards. Socrates claimed to be a mid-wife, helping birth what is already inside you; the teacher's job is to act as a mnemonic. Jesus is not a mid-wife; he doesn't help you birth anything. He makes you anew so that you rebirth yourself.  (See Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, a small but potent book.)

Repetition, though, is not something that happens of its own accord. It is something you must do, you must will. You have to pick yourself up and hurl yourself into a future that's unknown and, indeed, unknowable. It is living as a creator of of one's own history rather than a follower of history. The oddity, of course, is that once you've hurled yourself into the future, you are a new you.  

How do you repeat? Honestly, fuck if I know.  Presumably for Kierkegaard, I have to confront the absurdity of Jesus, a man who is God, a temporal creature who is eternal, a finite body that is infinite. This skinny hebe stands before me and I can either say You're full of shit or I can say Yes, I believe. For Kierkegaard, there are no other options. Proving that Jesus is really God is insane. No, for Kierkegaard, faith begins where thinking ends. It demands a leap, not a series of reasoned steps. 

O, to take that leap! To hop from one mode of being into another! To be born again!

One of Nietzsche's great figures is the übermensch — the overman, sometimes oddly translated as superman. This overman overcomes himself, sheds his humanity, his guilt and ego and morality. And he does it over and over again, a relentless repeating. For Nietzsche, this doesn't happen in one great hop; there's very little jumping involved. To repeat is more of a dance, a constant moving that sloughs inherited beliefs like so much skin.

Which all demands enormous, unspeakable, self-discipline. It demands a kind of self-cruelty that is not masochistic but joyful: the joy not of saying No to oneself but saying Yes to a new self. There is no monumental baptism, in fire or anything. There's only will and work, relentless and demanding. 



People say they don't like some psychedelics because they last too long. There is a desire to play, then be done. Me, I liked how acid lingered for days, even weeks, sometimes months. When I first tripped at 16 during a New York Fall, the trees shed of their leaves literally impressed me, impressed upon me, in me, of me. I could see and hear the hyper articulation of the world for months afterwards. One night and everything was different. I was born again! But, eventually, it became harder and harder to hear what I'd heard and then the world fell silent again and I was back to my old self.

Sometimes, I just want to scream, stop the train and reorient the terrain, lay down different tracks — or get rid of the tracks all together. Bullshit Hollywood movies have people changing all the time, usually in a day. Either something happens or they have a revelation and, voilà, they're acting and being differenlty. Now he's a good dad! A better husband! A moral man (eeesh!)! If only that were the way of change. 

7.10.2013

The Sense of Genes


My rotten, fuckin' putrid genes have infected my kid's soul. That's my gift to my son.

Sometimes, I look at my boy's face searching for traces of myself. I get glimmers of it in his root beer eyes, his unruly cowlicks, his quasi-swarthy skin. I see it in his skinny long legs and little skinny body. Usually, my search comes up empty. I see his mother's lips, her round cheek bones. Mostly, I don't see either of us. I see him.

My search is ambivalent. I want to see myself over there rather then here, expressed anew in this beautiful, lively youth, unsullied by 43 years of this all too human existence. I want a glimpse of my temporary immortality, this passing on of myself beyond my own demise and certain death. But at the same time I fear the contagion that I am, the idiocy and disease I necessarily bequest to him.

Genes are an odd, potent figure. They're primal yet with an intelligence that exceeds us, as if divine or advanced super alien. The body, we imagine, is stupid, always needing to be told what to do by our "selves" (there are of course proponents of body knowledge but those are the minority). Well, genes are even higher up the chain than these selves! They're extra extra super duper special real smart commanding thingies. And very secretive — hence the need to "decode" them rather than, say, interpret them? Read them? Look at them? No, genes are so special that they don't speak a normal language; they speak in alien code. 

Hundreds of billions of dollars have gone into decoding the human genome. The idea is that these things we call genes are special messages that hold our fates; if we can decode them, we will finally know our fates. We'll be face to face with the words of our maker! Of course, the same people who proffer such promises are precisely the ones who scoff at proponents of the Bible. The word of God! Ha! How silly! But these genes, well, they're real!

For $99, you can have some strangers look at your spit and tell you
whence you came and where — or, rather, how — you're going (to die, that is).
Genetics is scientifically sanctioned palm reading.



Don't misunderstand me. I am not discounting genes; I'm just trying to understand how we understand them — and really how I understand them as both a parent and the spawn of a father I never knew, now dead. I actually love this scientific obsession with genetic "decoding." For $99, you can send your spit to some folks and you'll "learn valuable health and ancestry information." It seems your genes hold the secret of where you came from and where you're going next — or, rather, how you're going to go. This is why Angelina did what she did: she has the BRCA gene. We call it a genetic predisposition which is a great existential, philosophical loosey-goosey figure tiptoeing around the fate-free will (false) dichotomy (it's your fate! and not your fate!).

What I love about genetics is how bizarre and esoteric it is. To me, it's in the same class as astrology and the reading of palms and tea leaves — practices for which I have enormous respect. After all, we are part and parcel of the cosmos. We flow along complex cosmic swirls (orbits being the most common one). We are constitutive of the great cosmic becoming, not actors on the stage of the universe. And so if you know how to read certain flows of other things, it makes sense you can discern certain things about yourself. It's a benefit of ecology, if you know to read it. Reading palms or tea leaves or stars (or words, for that matter) is as demanding as reading any genome, if not more so. There's no machine to plug a palm into; there's only the reader's eyes and experience and interpretive acumen.

None of these things — palms, stars, tea leaves, genes — are determinative. We'd like them to be a synecdoche, a part that speaks for the whole of us. That line on your palm is squiggly so you're sexy! Or else a metaphor: the chaos of the leaves is the chaos of your life. But all of these things are neither metaphors nor synecdoches but metonymies: they are continuous with the whole without determining the whole. They are part of us but are not our essence (whatever that might be).

Still, genes carry this radiant force, a waft of the essential. In the Christopher Guest HBO series, Family Tree, Chris O'Dowd goes in search of his lineage. And with each discovery about some ancestor, he believes he's discovered something about himself — even though each discovery turns out to be wrong or humiliating. He learns that his grandfather was a stage performer and so imagines his lineage arty and noble. But it turns out his grandfather was the back end of a two-person horse costume vaudeville act.  Later, he comes to believe that his great grandmother was Mojave Indian. "This makes such sense," he tells the camera and his friends as he notices all the ways he clearly has Native American blood in him — he can walk very quietly and can sense vibrations in the ground.  The sense of the genes carries through his sense of self. It turns out, she wasn't Mojave but Jewish — which makes a new kind of sense, albeit less exciting. And, yes, the very DNA of racism lies in our sense of genes (which the show nails with a deadpan, devastating effect). 



Our sense of our genes carries with it pride, shame, humiliation, fear, a great source of anxiety for parents. It's an ongoing thread in The Sopranos: are AJ's issues due to Tony's genes? My rotten, fuckin' putrid genes have infected my kid's soul. That's my gift to my son. Genes are not just building blocks of our bodies but a virus that infects us — and our spawn. I look at my kid all the time and wonder how I've infected him, what awful parts of me run through him, from his body to his demeanor. And I know my ex considers what infections I've given him just as I wonder how she's infected him. He gets ear infections; that's your fault! But he can't do math which is your fault! There is a profound guilt that runs through our so-called genetic gift, however absurd it sounds from afar.  

Genes are terrifying because they speak to the transhuman that runs through all of us. We are not individuals. We are not discrete units or autonomous creatures. The world quite literally runs through us. And genetics is one language of a great, collective, swarming transpersonality. Genes declare we are made of things that are not us, a language and intelligence that is ancient, alien, and powerful. We are neurotic little egos while all along incredible intelligences and forces, at once infinitely vast and mysterious, surge through us, telling us all kinds of things in languages we barely grasp. It's beautiful. And for $99, you can get a glimpse of them.  

7.02.2013

The Importance of Place


San Francisco is often perched in the clouds. Does this suit the system you are?
It’s nice to imagine ourselves as self-contained units immune to the environment.  I’m a human being, after all, a reasonable creature and I rule my own roost! Oh, if only we could put up our defense shields and repel the blaze of the sun; the pressure of the atmosphere bearing down up us; the sirens, horns, and engines of the city — not to mention sundry smells and faces; the moisture of the air; the insistence of the wind.

But, alas, we are fundamentally environmental beasts. Our very existence is based in a persistent taking up of the world around us — air, food, water, touch.  We exist in the world as physical and metaphysical creatures and, as such, are affected by the swirling mechanics of the universe. Like any software system, it’s Garbage In Garbage Out.  

I, for one, don’t like being in water. I know many people feel free and easy in water; they find it a temporary liberation from the hard demands of ground and gravity. But, for me, the pressure of the water on my skinny ass hebe body makes me queasy. Astronauts must train their bodies to go with a zero gravity environment; the first few times, they vomit. This is how I feel in water all the time.

Such is my body. Such is my system, my mode of becoming with the world. Each of us is more or less different, with different densities, different temperatures, different metabolisms, different speeds, rhythms, senses of texture and scent. My kid, like most kids, gags on mushrooms — the consistency repulses him. With time, his body will change and different things will turn him on and off.  

Places, like people, have ways of going. These fluctuate but usually within predictable limits. Certain people in certain places flourish while others diminish, deflate, wither, recoil. The great questions of philosophy, says Nietzsche, are not What is truth? What is morality? But What do you eat? How do you recreate? And Where do you live? 

When I was in college in Philadelphia, I had a friend who was a hilarious, relentless kvetch. Our on-running gag was we’d do a radio show called, “Another Thing I Hate.” Well, Ben hated Philadelphia. He claimed he couldn’t breathe there, that he was always suffocating. I thought he was just nuts — in a smart, funny way. And then, one spring break, he and I went camping in the Sonoran desert. Within hours, his entire disposition changed. He was lighter, happier, goofier. He looked different, as if a crushing force had been lifted.  After college, he moved to Israel and never came back. The desert suits him, suits his way of going.

I have a friend in San Francisco. When I first met her two years ago, she was recovering from hip surgery and so couldn’t leave the city to go to the Sierra mountains she claimed to love so much.  She was depressed and, like a fool, I refused to believe it was because she couldn’t go to where she felt best. I just thought she was constitutionally depressed. Recently, she’s recovered her mobility and has been spending more and more time in the mountains. And, just like that, her depression is conspicuously lifted. She knows her appetite for place, what suits her, where she goes best while I, the so-called Nietzschean, underestimated her need to be in the right place.  Silly me.  

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 22 years, over half my life.  This city has moderate extremes; it rarely gets very hot or very cold. But between that seeming moderation of 50 to 70 degrees, the day swings dramatically.  Now, when I first got here, the area was experiencing an extreme, multi-year draught. It was dry and warm and I loved it. The temperature and dryness was just right for my constitution. After around 10 years, this all changed.  The rains the fogs and winds started kicking up shit. So rather than a dryness tempered by ocean air, there is a fetid moistness that fosters mold, mildew, and decay — for me.  

To boot, the city is overrun with foliage from everywhere in the world. And as it’s always temperate here, something is always in bloom. The body — my body, at least — can’t acclimate to any one kind of greenery. There is no real seasonal explosion of pollen as there is in the deciduous east. No, San Francisco air is a wafting of exotic pollens all year round.  Everyone, it seems, at some point in his or her San Francisco tenure, experiences some kind of allergy.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about this distinctive San Francisco weather. The question is: How does it go with your way of going? The wind can be particularly abusive, especially at sunset. It does not do me well. I get agitated. This is not true of everyone here. I have a good friend who loves that feeling of wind pushing against her, blowing through and over her. Me, I loathe it. I feel like I’m getting pushed about by the rudest, most insistently indifferent mob.  So I’ve learned my place: come the wind’s witching hour, I stay indoors.

Going well in the world is not easy. It’s a persistent task of negotiating one’s environment — food, air, people, work, sleep, booze, movement. It’s a lot to tend to. I spend so much time and attention trying to figure out the right thing to eat for the system I am, I sometimes forget about other aspects of my environment. Living is like learning a golf swing: you spend so much time learning to hold your arm straight that you neglect to bend your knees; learn to bend your knees and you forget to swing through your hips.

Place matters. There’s a reason we can talk about regional cultures, why there are certain and clear propensities to certain places. There’s reason why Jews and Catholic Italians share a cultural affinity. Sure, we both have an intense sense of guilt and a love-hate relationship with our mothers — not to mention sizable shnozzes — but we also stem from a common place: the Mediterranean. To exclude this is insane. The religion and the physiology and the place walk together, are constituted together. There’s a reason we can talk about German philosophy vs. French philosophy vs. Anglo philosophy: place, weather, atmosphere shape how we go in this world including how we think, love, touch, smell, fuck. This is not to exclude cultural and socio-political histories. It’s to say, rather, that the cultural and the environmental cannot be separated once and for all.  

One can make sense of the world, distribute and understand the world, through atmospheric propensities. To imagine otherwise is to misconstrue the very nature of human becoming.  We are systems amidst systems — atmospheric, urban, digestive, financial, cosmic. We are once constitutive and constituent of the environment. It behooves us to reckon the world in which we find ourselves. And to find a place that suits our comportment.