9.26.2013

Architectures of Pedagogy, or Thinking Teaching Thinking

I took a great class in college on Russian history. It was taught by an esteemed faculty member who gave these fantastic lectures, drawing vividly dramatic images of key moments in Russian history. He was an old guy, funny, learned, and charismatic in that old school professorial way. The class was enormously popular for good reason: it was fun to listen.

This is the model of the professor: literally, of one who professes. It is a priestly pyramid. The one with special knowledge acts a gatekeeper to the heaven of knowledge. He stands before the masses and, by telling us what we need to know, shepherds us through. It is a model of efficiency, to boot, thereby serving the capitalist goal of academia: one man at the podium showers it upon the many in the crowd.

His subject matter — Russian history — lent itself well to this model. He knew things we did not know; he told us; we wrote it down.  He loved telling stories that were filled with facts and dates and motives. But he made this dry process a joy. Isn't this the image of the great professor we love — the patient expert who bestows his knowledge with passion?

When I became a teacher, I did not have this option as I had no facts to relay. In fact, I had no knowledge per se to bestow. Which afforded me the perverse pleasure of telling my students, I will teach you nothing. But it was true. There were no dates to memorize, no multiple choice quizzes I could give.

According to Roland Barthes, the author is 
a) in a coma!
b) dying!
c) dead!
d) alive and well!

I was teaching rhetoric which, alas, is the theory and art of reckoning the particular particularly: before this crowd, this painting, this book what do you say? I didn't have the option of instructing my students about generalities— Never end a sentence in a preposition! — as I was trying to teach them the logic of the particular. So we did a lot of particular readings of things, which is what sophists have been doing for millennia.

But, at some point well after the fact, I realized that I was doing something else entirely.  I never wrote lecture notes. I had a game plan but it was vague or, rather, it was nebulous. It could go any number of ways, all of which I was open to. I no longer saw the classroom as a pulpit (despite what many of my critics thought). No, I began to use the classroom as what Carlos Castaneda might call a site of power, a time and place to conjure live thought — to summon it, steer it, play with it.

The students and I would read the same small, potent passage from some book — Barthes, Nietzsche, Plato, Burroughs — and using my experience and the collective energy of that room, I'd try and stir the cosmos into a moment of confrontation and emergence. This could involve reading the text emphatically or launching off into some so-called real world example or playing music or a clip from a film. The goal was to engage these references to forge an emergent network of words and ideas, associations and references, all assembling themselves just so before our eyes and within our bodies. I was conjuring worlds both known and unknown in order to create a new world, a new way of going.

At the time, I believed I was trying to engineer that famous but elusive a ha! That is, I thought I was trying to help my students understand because isn't that what teachers do? But what, really, was there to understand?

I see now that it was less about understanding this or that than experiencing live thought, participating in the act of emergent ideas. I never cared if they commanded the content or understood anything (although that could be misinterpreted out of context!). I just wanted them to know that live thought was not only possible but delectable. And by moving through texts and people and experience, it was possible to think with the moment, to think lively rather than regurgitate the same old nonsense.

Oh, I'm not saying that I was always successful. There were plenty of times the experience fell flat, that I relied on my own stale thinking or that I ended up in an eddy of my own making, students looking on bewildered and nauseated. But there were sure times when the room was electric, as if in a séance when you feel the presence of ghosts and a chill runs up your spine. Only these spectral beings were not ghosts and were not, for that matter, beings. This was the very universe itself taking shape, realigning itself — as much for me as for them.

Why do this? What pedagogic purpose does this serve? No doubt, many people felt there was none, that I was drooling and babbling into the ether, that I liked to hear myself talk (a common comment). But my goal, I now understand, was to perform live thought, the actual act of thinking, with them rather than for them or at them (although I did plenty of that, too). I wanted to show them a certain life of the mind, a certain liveliness of mind, of mindful living and how they might achieve it on their own.

This is a different architecture of pedagogy, a different distribution of classroom, text, teacher, and students. The professorial mode, as I said, is pyramidal: a privileged singular point professes to the wide base.  Then there is the seminar, the students of the round table. The idea here, I think, is that everyone is equal. But I never really had successful seminars. They mostly involved heated discussions in which everyone spoke past each other, albeit it with alternating condescension, anger, hostility. Seminars, for me, were inevitably odd and useless experiences.



The model I used involved a different architecture. I was neither expert nor equal; this was neither pyramid nor round table. I tried to position myself just to the side of the center, the texts within reach, experiences and students poised to join the mix. What I wanted to forge was a spiraling out, a wave of thinking that ran out of my interaction with the texts then swirled through the students, gaining momentum and changing shape as it wound through their minds and bodies and then back to the texts and me then out again to them forming a recursive feedback loop, a collective conjuring.




None of these architectures are inherently better than the others. Each is great in its own way. Each serves the function it needs to serve. My Russian history professor was incredible and that mode of teaching was right for that material, those students, that time and place. Seminars can probably be great but I've found that the ones that work best are the ones that are run through the teacher — not a round table at all.

But all of this has me thinking about online education and the MOOC in particular — the massive open online course.  Now, for me, without students in the same space as me, I found I just couldn't teach. I tried. I tried babbling into a microphone or camera, alone in my apartment. And while I was occasionally able to summon a live moment, these "lectures" just didn't work. Without the student nodes, without all these active minds working at the same time, it wasn't going to work. No conjuring was possible. I needed living flesh and active minds.

There is no doubt a kind of teaching and learning that the MOOC can do well — monumental teaching, the vast pyramid, the showering of information. But I wonder about the kind of occasional pedagogy that interests me and that drives a rhetorical education — that is, a reckoning of and in and with the occasion, with the now, a liveliness of this moment. It just doesn't seem possible online.

Perhaps I'm wrong and just haven't reckoned the possibilities thoroughly enough. Perhaps as interweb pipes get fatter and feeds get faster and interfaces develop, there can be a virtual presence in which energies fly across wires, even wider and more intensely than they do in the classroom. We can do it with love and sex so why not teaching and thinking?

9.22.2013

Talking About God

I didn't know what picture to use. So I used Jews because there's not a lot of us and it's good to shift people's expectations. And while I may respect the form of religiosity in this image, I am happy that it isn't the only form. This just doesn't look too, uh, enticing to me or for me. But whatever floats your boat. 

I really, really loathe the question, Do you believe in god? I have absolutely no idea what it means, what it wants, what the question is even asking. Is it asking if I go to synagogue? If I believe there's a Man who created all this and judges us? It's an idiotic question — not because there is no such thing as belief or god but because the question doesn't stipulate its terms. What does saying yes or no mean?

Part of the problem is that there is what Plato might call a natural definition and a conventional definition. That is, there is a God who derives His meaning from convention, from cultural institutions: to believe in God is to confess, to pray, to daven, to eat horseradish or little crackers or not eat at all for a month, to believe in an eternal Judge and a soul and all that business. I believe we often reply to the empty question of belief with the conventions in mind. Many people, for instance, grow up in strict, weird religious households or communities where onanism is verboten and queers are bashed and such, all in the name of God. For them, declaring themselves atheists is powerful, a release, an opening. I might even say it's a religious experience. 

But surely there's another question implied that has nothing to do with churches and synagogues, nothing to do with conventions: Forget all the churches and mosques and synagogues, all the dogmatic bullshit, and answer me this: Do you believe in something?

Kierkegaard claims that there are few Christians in Christendom. The challenge of believing that some skinny Hebe from Nazareth who poops and sweats and gets hard ons is the eternal god is, alas, too much for most to bear. Or so he says.  

Well, it seems to me, everyone believes in something, some kind of ideal or force. That something may or may not be named god but, from another perspective — from a natural perspective — it might as well be. All your actions have ideals and forces which run through them, animate them, explain them, justify them — even if it all happens behind your back. So I might say you believe in god or gods of one sort or another whether you believe it or not.

For example, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims that a belief in God is constitutive of an ideologic-philosophic-socio-cultural-existential regime. It is a belief in the unity of the subject. It is, moreover, a belief in the existence of a subject in the first place, that something called the subject exists, that there is an I and a you that comes from Him, whether you like it or not. That is, you can say my I doesn't come from God but, according to Nietzsche's genealogy, yes it does. Sorry, but the birth of your I and the birth of the One God go hand in hand.  

This God-given I exists beyond the material, and invisible, earthly world. It is meta-physical. For Nietzsche, the invention of God — of the Judeo-Christain God — is a way to judge the strong and noble by giving them a soul that the weak can hold responsible. Suddenly, the bird of prey is guilty for eating the little lamb. The I, the bad conscience, moral judgement: these all stem from a belief in God. And who is more judgmental, who clings to the I, more than so-called atheists? Yep, self-proclaimed atheists tend to be the biggest believers of 'em all.

From this perspective, then, there are plenty of people who would never say they believe in god but most certainly do. Ask many would-be non-believers the same moronic question — Do you believe in god? — and you get a panoply of moronic replies.

No, I believe in science. Oy! Frankly, I have no idea what that means. I realize in some circles, faith and science are opposed. But those circles frame the discussion poorly and, well, stupidly. Sure, there are self-proclaimed religious folks who believe God really created the world in six days and evolution is a sham. And there are those non-religious folks who believe facts are facts and religion is silly and evolution is the Word on high. To say I believe in science, not God is not to say anything at all but to invoke an achingly banal dichotomy and straw man of both religion and science. 

And the hilarious reality is that many claims to science mimic the worst religious zealotry. This is the truth! Anything else is heresy! Acupuncture is heresy! Shamanism is heresy! It's gobbledygook! Facts! Only Facts! Das ist die Varheit! As if there were absolute subjects — a God given I — who could stand back and see the world from afar to assess its truths. Science and its truths are predicated on the same ideological assumptions of a certain belief in God: Man was created separately from the world in order to judge and know the world. A certain kind of science and a certain kind of God were, alas, born together. Twinsies. It's no surprise, then, that from the right distance the religious zealot and the scientific zealot look identical. Ideologues are ugly regardless of what they profess.  

Of course, just as there are different notions of belief in god — that is, uncertain, humble curious, generous believers — there are different sciences. There is, for instance, a beautiful science that practices empiricism, a reckoning of phenomena in all of their multihued splendor. This kind of empiricism stands not opposed to but separate from truth. What happens happens and, most likely, it's always changing and so it goes and ain't it cool? I call this science but there are clearly multiple sciences out there, some less receptive than others. 

Another idiotic answer to the meaningless question: I don't believe in God but I'm spiritual. Jesus. What does 'spiritual' even mean? Does it mean you talk and think about your spirit, whatever that is — for those who call themselves spiritual sure as shit talk about it non-stop? That you buy the books? Go to retreats? Is there such a thing as someone who's not spiritual, who's not of the spirit?  It's all very odd to me. I find many people who profess to be "spiritual" actually espouse many of the beliefs I associate with belief in God, namely, that there is an invisible soul that transcends the material world. 

So when someone says I don't believe in God but I'm spiritual, I believe they're saying that they do believe in God but not in the conventional sense of anti-abortion, gun toting patriot loons (what a shame that this is what we believe religious is!). They don't want the cultural or conventional associations that come with using the words God and religious. The word spiritual, to them, invokes a different set of literature and associations: Ekhardt Tolle, Ram Dass, and yin yangs rather than the Gospels, Torah, and crucifix.

If you put this sticker on your bumper, are you "religious"?

To me, however, it's all just literature and icons and words that might or might not stir my heart, my belly, my mind, my loins, my life. There are no doubt as many douchebags who profess allegiance to Tolle as there are who profess allegiance to the Gospels or, for that matter, to so-called science. No group is free from zealotry or douchebaggery. And, of course, there is such a clear complicity between these beliefs — which is neither good nor bad but certainly belies their own sense of themselves. 

From one perspective, atheists, church goers, ardent scientists, and the spiritual all believe the same thing, more or less: there is a truth that is distinct from our bodies and it's out there to be known. This is not a condemnation or criticism. It's an observation meant to help frame how we talk about god, God, and religion. Everyone has a god of some sort. For whom are you an agent? (pace WS Burroughs).  

I do not mean to conflate ardent church goers with scientists with atheists. There are clearly important differences. But not in their belief per se; they all believe in the same God. But their sensibilities are so different. The way they speak, the things they read, the way they distribute the play of body, spirit, nature, order, and agency varies more or less. Is God vengeful? Or mysteriously capricious? Is nature indifferent? Or is there an implied teleology, a purpose, to nature's chaotic mechanics? The proper question, it seems, is not Do you believe in God? but Which God do you believe in?

All of this has me wonder would it mean to be godless. I'm not talking about atheists as atheists tend to be fervently devout. I'm wondering about the godless. I suppose that would entail someone so petty, so myopic, that all he cared about were his immediate, inane, physical needs — money, physical comfort, toilet paper. 

And yet this person is not an aesthete as an aesthete has a kind of ideal: pleasure, a relishing of the things of this world as if they were divine. No, I'm trying to imagine someone who is so absent to himself and to the world, so wrapped up in fear and anxiety, that whether he's eating sushi, drinking fine gin, listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations, making love, or davening to the kaddish he's still mired in his own worst bullshit.  

The godless are not indulgent. The godless are petty, boring, and banal, devoured by their own angst. As Kierkegaard writes, it's this and not physical disease that is the sickness unto death. Nothing is more awful, I believe, than to be godless. As the risk of invoking True Blood and suffering the humiliating consequences, to be godless is the true death, a blackness without resonance. 

Me, I hope I am not godless, even if I'm sure I have godless moments. I was depressed for several years, sensing and finding and exuding darkness — like the Great Evil in The Fifth Element, only less hegemonic. During this period, I had moments of grace when I could participate in the cosmic flow, feel the energy of life. Usually, this was when I walked in the classroom as the classroom became a most welcome respite from the pit I'd entered and become. At this time, the classroom was my church; my demented lectures, my prayers; my pacing, my davening. Those dark, dank Berkeley lecture halls became a place to summon and sense and experience the exquisite infinite flux of all things. 

How, then, might I reply when someone asks if I believe in god (or is it God? This is a field day for Derrida, the question itself hovering between speech and writing, spirit and flesh, as the very nature of truth and morality lingers in twilight)? Well, I'd probably avoid the question and slink away, back to my bat cave. Just because someone asks you a question doesn't mean you have to answer it.

But sometimes I like to throw people off, especially anyone who thinks they know who I am. Liberal middle class folks are the most insidious at suggesting "we" are all cut from the same cloth. Oh, that George W! What a ninny! they say with the most repulsive complicitous laugh. When such a person asks and assumes they know the answer, I say, Yes, of course I believe in god. 

For the most part, however, I do not believe in the One God — except when I'm feeling exceptionally guilty, something I've spent the majority of my adult life trying to shed. And I do not believe in a hierarchy of access to divinity. But I do believe there are some who live more thoroughly within a kind of grace (what is grace? That is a question for another time). We know these people when we meet them. They shine; they radiate; they shimmer. The cosmos itself moves through them harmoniously and poignantly, infusing them with wonder and wit and sundry wiles or, perhaps, radiant open naiveté. I think of my friend Francis Bossuyt, no longer with us, who just had that way — not wit or wile per se but unbounded wonder and generosity and a sweet, curious, palpable love of life.

For me, empiricism and belief in god are the same thing. Well, let me correct that. I'm not sure I believe in anything but I do believe with happening, with becoming, with the cosmos. I believe I am constitutive and constituent within the infinite flow of all things — stars, moods, winds, leaves, salamanders, art, the glow of this screen, the word "pumpernickel," and pastrami for that matter, not to mention russian dressing, affects of all and every sort, aliens of all and every sort, rye whiskey, Walt Whitman, my boy's locks of hair, theories of religion, the concept of god, the act of believing. There is nothing and everything out there because everything is right here and it includes me and this essay and my pathetic pubescent facial hair and the Torah on my shelf and what I believe and believe I believe and what I don't believe, too. It is all this. Always the procreant urge of the world (Whitman). 

We see a lot of it; we don't see even more of it. We don't necessarily feel all of it but we are party to its elaborate mechanics, its pulls and pushes, its magnetism and repulsions and even its indifferences. We are the surging, at least this inflection of it. 

Might I call this god? It depends on to whom I'm talking and what I want to accomplish. Religion is a way of distributing and assembling and arranging all these factors. It's a way of making sense of things. God or gods, spirit or spirits, truth or truths may figure somewhere in there. Or may not. This is how and why I read philosophy: all these different modes of making sense of it all. All these ways of talking about it. I may say I'm a believer but that doesn't make me one; it only has me traverse the infinite space between the conventional and natural definitions of the word god.

My point, I suppose, is that it's silly to ask or say I believe in God or don't believe in God. We all, hopefully, believe something, believe with something that inspires and enthuses and infuses us. Rather than ask: Do you believe in God? a better question is: Who or what or how are your gods? 

9.15.2013

Say the Right Thing (Not the True Thing)



One of the great things about The Matrix is the Oracle's rhetorical strategy. She doesn't tell the truth. In fact, she outright lies. But, from another perspective, she neither lies nor tells the truth as she operates in a place beyond truth and lies (pace Nietzsche), in a place of action and affect. She tells Neo what he needs to hear. Which is to say, for the Oracle, language is not a conveyor of truths but is itself a mechanism, an agent, an actor. Words don't say as much as they do.

This is an aspect of language that I've believed and taught for over 20 years. I am well versed in the theory of the performative from JL Austin, having not only studied it but having taught it every semester for 17 years. My dissertation, for fuck's sake, fleshes out a perspective on communication that is post-representational, moving through Derrida, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty and a host of others. But to state the obvious, and stay with The Matrix, there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

And so I often find myself in conversations — with co-workers, family, friends, students, lovers — in which I instinctively reach for the word that is true, not for the word that is right. For instance, I'll be talking to my mother who'll say something about my son. Rather than just listening and affirming — Sure, Mom —I question, reject, negotiate. That's not the way he is at all! That's not a helpful suggestion! Which, needless to say, upsets her.

Why, then, do I do that? I know that words are less about conveying what I believe than they are creating effects. So why don't I just nod along? I don't have to do what she suggests; I can listen, acknowledge that perspective, and move on. A shrink might say, Well, clearly you want to rile her. But why? To what end? Or am I just an idiot, sticking to the false belief that what I say should reflect what I believe rather than what I want to happen? This is the point at which comedy and tragedy are indistinguishable: I stumble again and again, buffoon-like, over the same obstacle, namely, the obstacle of insisting that I articulate the truth.

Conversations are weird. When we talk to each other, we are not just exchanging information. Do you have the keys? Yes, I have the keys. In fact, the relaying of facts is often the least interesting, and least motivating, aspect of any conversation. We don't as much exchange facts as we proffer and parry affective stances and moves. A conversation is a push and pull, a relentless massaging, of postures, moods, and feelings. Someone says something silly when you're not feeling silly so you parry and return with something somber which, in turn, embarrasses the silly sayer so he self-deprecates in a different silly voice which you notice and, not wanting him to feel embarrassed, reply in your own silly voice. And on it goes. Conversation is an intricate politics of mood. 

Often, I misplay these politics by making my language express what I believe to be true rather than negotiating the play of mood politics. A woman who interests me might say, Did you see Life of Pi? and rather than continuing this conversation in a pleasant manner, I reply, You couldn't pay me to see that drivel. D'oh! Needless to say, our would-be flirtation comes to a screeching halt.

Now, I might have said what I said politically, that is, to repel someone whose taste I clearly cannot trust — and what is taste but a matter of character? Or else I'm once again an idiot who says what he believes rather than what's right in this situation to make good things happen. It's probably a mixture of the two.

My mother is fond of quoting some apocryphal rabbi who supposedly once said, Don't be right, be kind. This is beautiful and complex and speaks to the fundamental performativity of language, something priests and rabbis have always understood. Prayer, after all, is a practice, not a request. Anyway, this perhaps made up rabbi is saying: Forget what's true, what's right, what you believe. Consider how your words behave, how they affect others. See the event, not the facts. Consider this when talking with your mother or lover. Don't insist on what's right, on what you believe is true and proper. Say what you need to say to foment the outcome you want to happen. Fuck the facts. Heed the event.

Of course, this could quickly devolve into shameless manipulation in which you toss your beliefs in order to achieve your ends (which is what earned rhetoric its poor reputation). But that is not what I am saying, at least not totally. You should still speak according to your beliefs (if that matters to you). But that doesn't mean you need to state your beliefs. Let your actions reveal your beliefs. Express yourself in what your words do, not what your words mean. Does this mean that you should never articulate what you believe? Of course not. It just means that your expression should not be driven by a will to truth but by a will to affect — which may very well involve stating what you believe. Sometimes, if not often, riling others up is a good outcome.

To converse is to participate in an event that includes facts and states of things as well as feelings, moods, desires, needs. The question I should be asking is not: Do I believe this or that? Is that right or wrong? The question I should be asking is: What is a good outcome of this exchange? How is this event transpiring and how might I like it to transpire?  What do I want to happen?

This usually demands that I step back from the fray as well as form myself. Because my first instinct when someone says something I don't agree with, not to mention find idiotic or that rubs me the wrong way, is to interject myself with a certain smug aggression — even if I like this person, even if there is nothing to be gained from forcing my opinion on the situation. Which really just makes everything worse, especially for me.

I once had a job job where my co-workers would like to say, Oooo! We just got an interesting gig. To which I'd inevitably reply, Interesting? I'll show you interesting. Read any five pages of Kant. This gig? It ain't interesting. Now, I may have been correct. In fact, there's no doubt I was. But what was to be gained by such a retort? Not only did I succeed in alienating myself professionally, I made my coworkers — all fine people, for the most part — feel like dicks. A true no-win situation.

So now I am trying to train myself to say the right thing, not the thing I believe or the thing that is true. For now, this involves hesitating before I speak — a difficult chore for a Hebe know-it-all like me. But it's a worthwhile discipline. To speak in a language of the event rather than a language of truth forces me to abandon my ego. Rather than reaching for the words that will drive me into the heads of others and prove that I'm smart, interesting (in my own eyes), and an asshole (in theirs), I reach for the words that will fuel and foment the collectivity of the conversation as a whole.

This demands a rearchitecting of the relationship between me, language, and others. It demands I reorient my focus, to look away from the content to see the situation. Who cares if someone thinks this project is interesting or that it's worth talking about Life of Pi? I mean, in the greater scheme of things, these may be unforgivable offenses making the propagators complicit in an ideology of the mediocre. But what does my saying this do here and now, with these people and me? Why must my language always reflect my beliefs? Clearly, my delving into a diatribe that offends the present parties changes nothing — other than them thinking me an asshole. And they'd be right.

So rather than just operating with me, my words, and what I know, I am trying to reckon the social calculus of bodies, moods, needs, and desires. Sure, sometimes it's not only o.k. but good to articulate what I know, what I want, what I need. It's good sometimes to provoke and rile. But, other times, it's better to navigate and negotiate the collectivity and ask: How do I want to go with these people?  I will not lie: this is difficult. My sense of self and my sense of language are wound up together. Detangling them in order to reweave them is not easy.

Just to be clear: to say the right thing is not be proper. It's to be tactful. It's to negotiate the play of people, moods, feelings, facts, desires, and needs in order to forge the best possible outcome. What, you wonder, is the best possible outcome? Well, I don't know. That depends on the situation and you. Do you want to keep the girl? Do you want to make your mother happy? Then don't demand on articulating the most precise thing, the most true thing. Say what you need to say to help engineer a healthy, vital, beautiful moment.

9.10.2013

Pour for Yourself, But Pour Well



From a certain angle, the difference between people is negligible. Watching my kid grow up and then looking at the kids around him, well, suddenly so much of his uniqueness vanishes. His revelations, his nightmares, his interests, his style of drawing: all the kids his age go through the same things at the same time. Or look at any college campus: students are all dressed the same, more or less. We are all of an ilk, which is alternately comforting and eerie.

And yet, from a different angle, we are so different from each other, each of us a distinctive point amidst the teem of life. The way I make sense of the world — the things I choose to read, watch, eat, do; the speed at which I do them; the things I choose to say; the things I choose to hear: this way of going is absolutely singular.

Just look at the people around you right now. Each person hangs in the world in his own way, moves at his own speed: he slouches, she twitches, he squirms, his eyes glimmer with attention, she wears an unspeakable sadness. And so it goes on and on to infinity, all these different ways of going through the world.

And the fact is, what suits you might kill me — or, to be less dramatic, sicken me, bore me, confuse me, annoy me. How, then, can I trust another to pour my drink? I don’t want a Jack and Coke — the sugar would make me convulse and retch. I don’t want Jose Cuervo — that shit’ll kill you. Gimme some El Tesoro Reposado, neat. Now consider books, films, people, jobs, activities. Not to be pissy about it but you don’t know how I go, what inspires me, what deranges me, excites me, sickens me, drives me, fills me, sustains me. How could you? Why would you?

So why would I want you to pour my drink? I’ll pour my own, thanks. Because, presumably, I know what I like.   

And yet knowing oneself is not readily done. It is an ongoing challenge as your body and circumstances are constantly changing. Sometimes, I like dim sum but I just had it yesterday and the thought of another dumpling nauseates me.  And while I used to really like Jethro Tull, these days I’d rather hear Alt-J.  Things change; I change. Meanwhile, we must all compete with the accepted knowledge at large. Just because science tells us kale is a wonder food, doesn’t mean it sits well with me.

In fact, very few people seem to know what the hell to pour themselves, what suits them, what amplifies their vitality. Look around. We are a sickly, grotesque, obese people, gorging ourselves on Cheez Doodles, Mountain Dew, and Budweiser. Bars and school parties are worse: it seems as if not one person actually should pour himself a drink for he has no idea what, or how much, to pour. 


When I was in college, living alone for the first time, I’d cook these enormous meals. I’d eat until, at some point, I’d become exhausted. So I’d nap, wake up and begin again. I had no idea how much to eat. When my friends and I cooked together, it was worse. We’d eat until each of us had literally collapsed on the floor, holding our stomachs, writhing in pain. We were 20 years old and had not yet learned to eat. 

We knew, perhaps, what we liked. But we didn’t know how much to eat or what speed.  Pouring your own drink is not just a matter of a what: it’s a matter of a how and when, too, an entire rhetorics, a calculus of consumption. 

Learning your limits is no easy task. In some sense, learning your limits is living, is what you’re doing every day in everything you do. You try this, then that, more of this, less of that, trying to dial in the right stuff at the right amount.  At least, hopefully you do. More often than not, you do the same old thing even though it makes you feel like shit.  This is what Nietzsche calls a decadent, an ill constituted person: someone who reaches over and over for the thing that sickens him. 

In his great book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche gives us “a few more indications as to my morality.” Most notably, he tells us:  “A man ought…to know the size of his stomach.” Which is to say, we may think matters of eating the right thing, in the right amount, at the right time are silly compared to more lofty matters. But, for Nietzsche, the health and vitality of one’s body is everything — all prejudices, he writes, stem from the intestines. Those who are hateful eat poorly, and vice versa. 

To pour your own drinks is a call of the highest order:  it’s a call to know yourself.  But not in the Socratic sense of knowing your true self. No, in the Nietzschean sense of knowing your body, knowing what drives your vitality and what saps it. For Nietzsche, know how you go best in this world. And then pour yourself that.

Coda
It is tempting to slip into habit, to do the same things, eat the same things, enjoy the same things: it is easy, at some point, always to pour your own drinks. Sometimes, you have to let someone else pour just to see what will come, to learn your limits, to learn what’s possible for yourself in the world.

Letting someone else pour your drink should not be a haphazard decision. It’s not something to be taken lightly. Few things are as intimate. So let someone else pour for you now and again. But tread softly and heed if it’s something you should be pouring yourself.

9.06.2013

Quality Shmality

Increasingly, we consume media from the interweb — from blogs and tweets, Facebook and YouTube. And yet there is still a dominant prejudice that social media is somehow silly. A so-called real book — a printed book — is inherently of greater quality than a mere tweet, post, or eBook. (It’s a refrain in HBO’s “Girls” that Hannah has a book deal — well, an eBook deal.)

Why this prejudice? Presumably because published media is vetted for quality. And yet this kind of publishing is dying a rapid, merciless death.  People are content, it seems, to find their content on their own, direct from the keyboard of the writers themselves, with no editorial vetting. They vet for themselves.

It’s a cultural refrain that the death of publishing is the death of quality is the death of culture. Look at reality TV! Look at the nonsense people post on Facebook! Look at the ridiculous number of cat videos! The implication is that if we still had experts who knew quality from shite, we’d avoid this demise. We’d all be reading quality books and watching quality television and, in turn, be quality people.

But why the success of bottom up media? Is it, as some suggest, that people are stupid and hence prefer nonsense to quality? Or is it something else entirely?

People are moved, or not, by the things they experience. One sees an Alt-J concert and swoons with delight; another finds it interminably boring; and still another likes this and that of it but finds certain moments excessively ponderous. By whose standard is Alt-J quality or not? And, more importantly, what difference does it make?

Quality is an appeal one makes to persuade somebody else. You should like this because it’s quality. No doubt, one can build standards and criteria of quality — a certain degree of complexity; of emotional resonance; of rhythmic grace. Still, that doesn’t mean the other person is going to enjoy it. 

Quality is a moral term meant to ground a rhetorical appeal. You should like this. Why? Because it’s quality. We could even substitute quality with good and see the moral component more conspicuously.  Quality is not just an observation; it’s implies a moral imperative. 

It is of course possible to feel something is quality and still not enjoy it — Frank Sinatra may be an inarguably great singer but that doesn’t mean I enjoy listening to him. In this instance, the appeal to quality allows me to let others listen to Frank Sinatra without my passing judgment.

But quality is not the only appeal to facilitate difference of opinion. In fact, quality as a moral imperative effaces difference of opinion, demanding that something is good in and of itself. I may or may not like Frank Sinatra. I may or may not feel it is quality. But what do I care if you listen to him? What do I care if you enjoy him?  What’s it to me? I can not only tolerate you enjoying Frank Sinatra, I can affirm your enjoyment and still feel Sinatra is shite.  How? Because I affirm the difference of people, of taste. I affirm that what motivates and inspires and moves me is different than what motivates, inspires, and moves you.  Who cares if it’s quality or not?

Now, as a creator, quality does matter. Artists — writers, painters, chefs — have to believe in quality. They have an ethical obligation not to introduce crap into the world. The artist stands before her work and must ask, tirelessly: Is this good for the world? Needless to say, what’s good for the world may be ugly, nasty, radical, mean.  Still, the artist stands in a different ethical position than the enjoyer.

And none of this is meant to disparage publishers. Presses and imprints — of music, books, whatever — need not be guardians of quality. They can be purveyors of taste. Think of the great music label 4AD or the book imprint, Semiotext(e). They don’t always publish quality material — whatever that is — but they proffer a taste, a spin, a perspective.



To me, what makes labels and presses such as Semiotexte and 4AD great is not that they publish quality.
It's that they publish a taste.

And taste, finally, is more interesting than quality. Taste is particular to a body. It is what serves and drives, what nourishes and inspires. I may believe your taste is terrible; you may feel the same of mine. I may even doubt your very character because you enjoy reading Heidegger or think "The King's Speech" was anything more than a steaming piece of shmaltz shit. But I can judge you without appealing to quality. After all, Heidegger may or may not be quality. What do I care? Quality shmality. I just can’t trust a person who enjoys reading that arid drivel. 

The question of taste is not a question of quality. It’s a question of resonance and health, of perspective and affirmation: I enjoy this because it propels me. To appeal to quality is to try and go over the head of particular taste, of the difference between bodies and say: This is good and so you must enjoy it.  That is just moral nonsense.

To be clear, I am not saying that everything is equal, that the stupidest cat video is equal to the greatest Cassavetes film. By privileging taste over quality, we are not leveling the cultural playing field. In fact, taste proliferates the differences between things, making the world more interesting, more complex, more resonant, of higher quality.

With the rise of interweb publishing, the filter of cultural authority has broken. There’s no one to rely on, no one to trust. The onus is now on all of us individually: What do you enjoy?