12.30.2013

On Childhood & Parenting, or In Defense of the Kids' Table


I am, indeed, a parent. And the love I have for my beast borders on the sublime, threatening to tear me asunder at every thought, cuddle, kiss, giggle, Nerf gun battle. This is a beautiful thing but it's not necessarily pleasant. Like romantic love, albeit in very different ways, parental love is trying, exhausting, fraught with guilt and fear and anxiety and a devastating pathos. O, the heart shattering innocence!

But this pathos is strange. To say that a child is innocent is to view that child from the perspective of a knowing social body. What makes that kid innocent is that he is, precisely, oblivious to this knowing, not yet versed in the social demands of self-consciousness.

Let's say a child's mother dies. Just thinking about this, we are overcome with grief. O, the poor little one growing up with no mother!  But that sentiment can only be had by someone who is not innocent, not a child. The child can't possibly know about growing up without a mother because he knows no other way. This is all he knows! We feel this incredible sadness for his loss but that is the sadness of an adult life pining for a lost childhood, an adult who mourns for innocence lost.

Meanwhile, the kid is experiencing all sorts of things — fear, confusion, sadness, annoyance, indifference — but not that devastating pathos. In fact, I can say with some certainty that the one thing that kid is not experiencing is the incredible pathos of a "motherless child." That is a distinctly post-lapsarian sentiment, a concept that could only be created by someone who can look back and see a childhood after the fact. A kid living his life doesn't see that — that's why we call him innocent! To be absolutely clear, this is not to dismiss or diminish that child's experience. On the contrary, this is to respect his pain, his mayhem, his sense of loss.

This is what Lyotard calls the différend, an infinite gap between the two positions in which the grasping of one side by the other is, by definition, self-effacing. In order for the "motherless child" to feel like a motherless child, he has to already have lost his innocence, already not be a child. He must be grown up, look back on his life, and say: "Oh, I grew up without a mother." Meanwhile, from his perspective, this is all there is: life without mom — horrible, sad, scary, devastating, but of its own sort.

This is by no means to diminish the pain of losing a parent. On the contrary, I'm trying to point out that there is a child's experience that we cannot possibly know, even if we were once children. We look at our spawn and feel this rich, seething pathos of loss, of regret — of time! Time: that is the one thing that a child, by definition, cannot understand. Our dominant sentiments towards children ignore children!

The defining characteristic of childhood innocence is that it's oblivious to the social (more or less). Which is why kids are so casually cruel. You have a big nose! That lady is fat! You smell funny! They don't think they're being mean. They're just saying what they see and feel without regard for social repercussions they couldn't possibly imagine. And that, in its way, is as cruel as the world comes. To be childlike is to be outside the moral; few people are as cruel, greedy, and possessive as children. But this same lack of social training makes children beautiful, hilarious, brilliant, strange.

But that's not my point. My point (do I have to have a point? Can I have many points? And, come to think of it, do they have to be points at all? Can I not come anywhere, as it were? Can I just go, just keep moving with some local zones of sense? Hmn)— anyway, my point is that there is an infinite gap between adulthood and childhood. And — here it comes! — the dominant culture of parenting ignores this fact to the detriment of, well, everyone who has to live through this nonsense —  witnesses in restaurants, on the street, in parks and museums, not to mention the kids and their parents.

When my beast was small — he's 10 now — we'd be pushing him in his stroller and he seemed so far away. And no doubt close to the grotesque urban detritus. And probably bored. But how could he be bored? He has nothing to compare the experience to. And, well, an ass eye view of San Francisco may be disgusting but my guess is it's not that boring. And yet parents relentlessly stop the stroll(er), lean down into the face of their necessarily demented progeny, and coo and ahh and make faces — as if that wasn't completely insane!

To imagine the little idiots as bored is to project our adult perspective onto an eight month old bag of babbling, bubbling flesh. Parents project their own sentiments onto the experience of the kid. The kid, meanwhile, knows nothing else. Just sitting in that stroller watching the world go by is as good, or bad, as it gets. I say just let them be. Let them be kids. We're bored, not them. Why would they ever be bored? Wow! Cement! Cars! Clouds! Sky! Crack vials! Nose rings! It's all interesting because kids can't be jaded; it's all so new and strange. They don't know any other world. They never read Moby Dick or The Book of Job. They don't think that guy painting on the street is talentless and pretentious. They don't know human beings can anguish for years. All they know is, man, this life thing is off the hook!

And yet parenting culture today is premised on the relentless entertainment of the child — including the denial of access to adult culture. We all know this too well. Any time you're sitting around somewhere with kids, the kids are the center of attention. Their noise, their toys, their meals, their needs dominate the event.

Adults think they're being naughty when they have a drink while the kids play. Gimme another glass o' wine, honey, I need it! But that's neither naughty nor funny. Parents shouldn't need to feel naughty for having a drink — not to mention ignoring their kids to discuss ideas, life, films, books, sex. I've lived 44 years. I don't have to apologize for pouring myself a 5:00 cocktail or two. I'm the fucking grown up! I can do what I want! And, no, I don't want to chase you, wrestle you, play legos. I want to drink my gin and discuss Nietzsche with another grown up. Now go play.

The problem is that, today, there is such rampant sanctimony surrounding parenthood. To claim one's adulthood amidst children is to be either naughty or negligent. But I ardently feel that the best way to parent is to perform adulthood for kids. Watch, little dude. This is how it's done. Otherwise, how the heck are they suppose to know what to do?

Now, my parents were by no means ideal parents. But I like that they they never played with me, that they left me to play with my siblings or friends. And I really liked when they had friends over — a rare event for my misanthropic 'rents. I loved the smell of all those adult foods stuffs that suddenly appeared — cheeses and scotch and port and such. I loved the resounding growl of male voices holding forth, laughing, pontificating. I loved listening to the rhythm of conversations, the occasional arguments, profanity, sexual joke.

Sometimes, I'd sit right there at the table and soak it in. Other times, I'd be in my room and let the rumbling permeate my space, the ambience of adulthood. I knew that I was a kid, safe in my world. And they were adults with their different lives and interests and tastes and smells and rhythms. And one day I'd be like them. And, in the meantime, it never occurred to me to interrupt them to show them my stupid drawing or to ask for help finding something on TV.

Making children the center of the world — hiding adulthood — is no good for anyone. It sure as shit makes parents miserable. But it hurts the kids, too, as they are denied the beauty and, more importantly, the performative education of what it means to be an adult.

Listen, sometimes I like to play with my kid. We have some excellent Nerf gun battles; some excellent catches with a baseball; we play pool; we have cocktails on verandas (he's a fan of cranberry soda; the ever-delectable Shirley Temple; root beer). To be honest, I dig it mostly because he's cool, funny, sweet, insightful. He's not a spoiled little shitbird like lots of kids. But, that said, after a while, I want to do my own thing  — write, read, watch a Cassavetes movie, whatever.


And, thanks to modern parenting culture, this is not so readily come by. My demand for my own time, my own needs, runs against the grain of his experience and expectations. He may not be spoiled by contemporary standards but he still expects his pop to play with him — because that's what adults do. And so I usually feel like an asshole for wanting to do my own thing and not have another race, another wrestling match, another game of war.

This culture of parenting — which may be limited to my San Francisco and New York upper middle class culture — makes everyone suffer. The kids may seem like they're prospering as they get what they want. But nothing makes me cringe more than sitting in a restaurant and watching all the adults tend to the burbling demands and imminent tantrums of the kids. The kids sure as shit aren't happy. I was happy to sit quiet and soak in the glorious din of grown up culture. Kids, knowing no better, demand more and more not because it makes them happier but because that's what they expect.  Needless to say, neither the parents nor their childless friends are enjoying themselves.

Why such misery? Well, my theory is it's because these middle class couples don't really want kids but feel like they're supposed to have them. So they spawn in their late 30s or early 40s only to have what remains of their life literally sucked out of them. And begin to resent the tiny bundles of joy that whine and take and take and take. Which, in turn, makes these new parents feel guilty. And, oy, that pathos! So they subjugate their own desires all the more by raining attention down upon their kids in the quest to quash their resentment. The child-centric culture of parenting is an absurd attempt to absolve the parental guilt for feeling so hateful towards their kids — and to fill the void of their own, vapid lives of being a brand manager at Google.

If only they claimed that ambivalence! If only they claimed their adulthood! If only they let their kids be kids! Everyone would be happier — parents, kids, everyone who doesn't breed but has to bear witness. Imagine a world of kids who don't dare throw tantrums or demand to be played with because they know they're kids and so safe and loved! Imagine a world of parents who still watch real movies, read books, enjoy cocktails, have conversations  — and sex!

The kids' table is the way to go. The little beasts can do what they do — all those gross, beautiful things kids do while they eat (teaching humans to eat with bourgeois propriety is distinctly difficult; kids spill, drop, pick, play, and it's not pretty). Meanwhile, they can witness the adult table, the conversations and booze, the jokes and jibes, the resonance of time: the way to go once innocence is lost.

12.26.2013

Critique Creates the World


We have a tendency to imagine criticism as No saying, an articulation of what's wrong with something or someone. But that's not how I see it at all. Critique is generous, loving, life affirming.  In fact, I'd argue that the popular image of critique is driven by a certain No-saying ideology.

Consider a thing, anything. Let's say a chair. Well, what is that chair? We can say that chair is a chair long before that particular chair is made. There is an idea of chair, says a-hard-to-trust-because-he's-so-ironic Plato. It's an ideal chair and therefore formless. It is Form without form. And, from this idea, a chair maker creates a chair. That chair — like the one you're sitting in — is an example, a derivation, of the idea of chair that is eternal and universal.


Maybe. But Nietzsche comes along and says, Oy! That Plato is such a nihilist! He sees all of life as a pale replica of an ideal world in which there are no chairs, no people, no things. Just ideas, or Ideas, or Forms, but no forms. Life happens here, says Nietzsche. Life is embodied, even if it's also ideas, concepts, moods, notions, imagination. Life is historical; life is of time, in time, with time. The happening of life is time happening. Life happens at the speed of life. 

So let's consider that chair again. For Plato, a chair is only a chair in as much as it derives from a universal, eternal chair. But, for Nietzsche, the chair is the chair only in as much as it is embodied, as it has form, as it is seen and touched and decays. The chair, for Nietzsche, is not. The chair becomes.

This Nietzschean affirmation becomes phenomenology in the hands of Merleau-Ponty. As the name suggests, phenomenology begins with events, with things (that distinction may or may not be redundant), rather than with concepts, ideas, Forms. A thing, such as a chair, is a differential equation, an infinite trajectory through and of time, an infinite trajectory of becoming: it goes like this. This thing exists only as much as it happens — as it's seen, licked, loved, desired, eaten, sat in.

A thing is a differential equation, in motion along this or that trajectory. 

As embodied, a thing is not that which is seen from nowhere but that which is seen from an infinity of perspectives. A thing is run through, at every point, by perspectives of other embodied things. A thing is always already participating in the world; it knows no innocence.

There is no ideal form of chair. There are chairs. There is chair-becoming. When I sit on a log, it becomes a chair. When I burn that log, it becomes firewood. A thing is as it goes with other things. There is no one center of Chair; there are as many centers as there are chairs, more or less. Every chair redefines chair. Every chair is at the center.  The center, indeed, cannot hold — not across time and place. There are infinite centers.  Each chair takes up certain aspects of chair and recreates what chair can be. Deleuze calls this repetition (which he distinguishes from Platonic re-presentation). A thing exists within a network rather than a hierarchy.

Platonic representation is a hierarchy. Deleuzian/phenomenological repetition is a network. 

Every takes up chair but asks very different things of us, its sitters, as well as different things of chairs in general. Look:

Every chair recasts, repeats, chair. Every chair is the center of chair.
There is no ideal Form; there are only infinite repetitions. 

Often, a thing loses its power over time to inspire new uses. We get so used to a certain notion of a chair that we forget that a chair is not, that chair is only what we do with it, how we do with it. Once in a while, someone comes along and changes how we think about chairs. Some have even argued of late that the chair is murderous, killing human kind. Some make a chair something that should be lounged in; other chairs disallow slouching all together. Sit up straight! 

So, where was I? Oh, yeah, criticism. If a thing is in as much as it is run through perspectives, different perspectives extend that thing, repeat it, create it. This can take the form of an essay, photograph, speech, joke, design, production. Charlie Chaplin extends the way of the cane (I remember Deleuze talking about this but I can't remember where). Pollock reorganizes the body's relationship to art, beginning with the hand and letting the eye follow rather than the other way around.

To see something anew is not a luxury, an excess, and after the fact. A thing is as it goes in the world. When the world does something new with the thing, it finds new life. And this is what I consider critique: taking up some aspect of the world and seeing it anew, seeing it fresh. Van Gogh is a great critic of the sunflower. Foucault brought sex back to life — not to mention knowledge itself — by seeing repression as productive. Nietzsche turns Christianity into nihilism, a nifty move that splays the world. Mies van der Rohe made sitting luxurious while Herman Miller sought to make it productive again. All these moments are productive cogs within the engine of a thing's becoming, an inflection point within the trajectory, forging new tendrils and paths of possibility.

To critique is to see the world anew and, in so doing, to (re)create it. Critique doesn't think or write about the world. Critique creates the world.

12.24.2013

Towards a Pedagogy of the Image

David Shrigley has such a complex rhetorical posture: Who is the 'you' here? And who the heck is speaking?
An image, like any text, creates and is created by an entire rhetorical milieu — just as I create my rhetorical milieu by using the absurd phrase 'rhetorical milieu.'
(I've written about Shrigley here.)

Go to a museum and the writing on the walls is always the same. It's filled with facts about the work and everything surrounding the work. You learn where the artists was when she painted the picture. You learn who her friends were, what her studio was like, perhaps some events that were happening at the same time — a war or two, another painting being painted, who was president.  The one thing conspicuously absent from the writing on the wall is the image itself. It's as if the writer looked over the head of the painting, next to it, underneath it — anywhere but at it.

Sure, there might be talk about technique, materials, craft. There's writing on technique and color; on composition and motif. But these tend to focus on the making of the object — interesting, sometimes.  But they don't take up the image as a site of knowledge, of world making. The image is not something that is itself knowledge.

Usually, we don't know what to say about images. And so we talk around them. We give the so-called context of their creation and who created them; how old the artists were; who their parents were; how they felt about their parents; what the political situation was; what the historical climate was. I remember being at a Philip Guston show at SFMoMA. I'm looking at a painting that, amongst other things, features a big ol' bulbous light bulb. And I'm laughing because the image is funny, this cartoony, delicious, round view of humanity amongst things. Some random guy is standing next to me and says, as if we were on the same page, "It's sad isn't it?" Confused, I turn to him with furrowed brow. "His father locked him a closet," said man continues, "and all he had was a light bulb."  This man didn't learn this from the image; he learned it from the wall. The image said something else entirely.  

What drives me crazy is that biographical information becomes psychological explanation becomes reading of the image. As if some reductive psychoanalytic reading of the facts of someone's life could explain the complexity of an image! We don't know what to do with the inchoate experience of looking at art so we look to facts and things that we already have mechanisms to explain — psychology and history and then, if we're all fancy pantsy experts, we can talk about the materials and art history.

But we don't talk about the image! The experience of looking at art, we like to believe, is subjective. If we can't measure it, then there's nothing to say about it. It doesn't count as knowledge. It might be a beautiful, powerful experience but it's not knowledge! After all, it's just my opinion!

Which is hogwash. An image is an empirical event just as a season, a storm, or black bear is. There's as much that's subjective about a tornado that's subjective about a painting but we still have plenty to say about tornadoes. A work of art is an event, something we can see, something that not only offers evidence but is evidence.  No, forget that: an image, like a storm or animal or rock formation, is the world happening right now. 

When I look back over my extensive years of so-called upper education — four years to earn an Ivy League BA (oooh! fancy!), seven and a half years to earn a doctorate at Berkeley, in rhetoric no less — I realize I've never been offered a class in how to make sense of images. Sure, I saw plenty of art. And while my knowledge was by no means extensive, I had clearly delineated opinions about this and that (I was a doctoral student, after all; we have to have opinions). But the fact is I was blind. Images were everywhere and I had no real way to make sense of them.

I took modern art history class in college and, perhaps oddly, that’s where I learned the least about images (even if I did learn some good things). The class was a survey in which we were shown image after image and given name after name, movement after movement, coupled with some historical reduction of that movement’s philosophy. We were taught a topology, a system of classification, that we were supposed to memorize. We did not spend one moment actually reckoning images, learning to see, to feel, to process what was happening directly in front of us.  The images themselves did not offer knowledge. Rather, knowledge about the images was laid over the images, keeping us from ever seeing them at all. 

And then, in grad school, there were plenty of film classes but they were not about images at all. They were about pornography, power, gender, psychoanalysis. Images were always seen as symptoms of something else, something nobler and more important: big ideas, ideology, patriarchy. The images were not knowledge; they were examples of more important things to know. 

Reading images as symptoms is important, no doubt. This is how we do ideology critique; it's how we can come to understand methods and modes of theory and power such as psychoanalysis, capitalism, homophobia. But it is not the only way to reckon images. In fact, it ignores images as sites of knowledge, as pieces of the world, as things to know and learn from in and of themselves. 

Images are these incredible, powerful events that have the power to transform how we feel, think, see, and experience the world. Shouldn't we look learn to learn from them rather than constantly looking around them? Every image is a metabolic engine: it takes in the world, makes sense of it in its own way, then produces affects and effects. An image is akin to a person in that sense: we take in food, books, ideas; process them in our own way and time; then play them back. This play back is called our life. Images, too, have a life: they take in, process, play back. The play back is the event of the image.  

An image is a mode of decision making — one offers chairs; another, pears; another, faces; another, an undulating plane of blue; another just splatters and drips; and another, nothing at all: just blackness or whiteness or a the trace of an image that's been erased, its ghost barely perceptible.  All images consume and produce affects, percepts, and usually a piece of a concept, sometimes an idea or just a notion. What does this image like to consume?

Rauschenberg erases a de Kooning. 

And, once selected, what does it do with the thing (or lack thereof)? An image processes the world, makes sense of it in its own way. Lucien Freud sees flesh as so much viscous ripples; Bacon sees it sliding off the body all together; Picasso splays the body's dimensions onto one plane, rearranging body parts in the process; Modigliani sees bodies as sensual, elongated line. Right there are four different ways of human going; four different philosophies; four different physiologies; four different architects. 






Making sense of art is really no different than making sense of anything — a weather pattern, a book, a human being. The critic — the reader — is empirical. What do you see? That is, you gather your evidence together. What kinds of things are in the image? What are the different relationships between the things? What are the different moods of these things and these relations? And then: How can it all fit together to become a little engine — an engine that makes this image with these affects, these effects?

Every image creates and participates within a rhetorical milieu. So how does this image stand towards the world? Just as we can analyze the rhetorical posture of a written text — the way Nietzsche attacks and provokes his audience; the way politicians use "we" to implicate their listeners; the way Burroughs leads readers (or not) into odd alien worlds. Or think about songs: some are sing alongs, inviting you; others push you away, screaming; some include you but not him or her. The same is true of images: they position viewers. I've written about the complexity of David Shrigley's rhetorical posture.

Image makers don't represent the world. They create the world. They offer us knowledge of how things go, just as the writer and scientist and doctor do.  Or as gods do. Art is the world happening like this or that. It confronts us as this way of going just as anything and everything does — people, dogs, ideas, books, chocolate, tequila. And while images offer subjective experiences, this subjectivity is no greater or lesser than it is in any experience. 

An image is out there, something to be seen, to be reckoned, to be known. Images teach.  It behooves us to look and learn. And to teach our students to see.

12.15.2013

What is an Argument?

Arguments have been given a bad rap. They're contentious, we say. They're hostile, oppositional. When we picture an argument, we see faces flush with anger, profanity, bile spewing. But this is all a silly prejudice that dates back millennia. An argument need not be contentious. In fact, everything — every thing — is an argument. Everything is a way of going.

A tulip, for instance, is an argument. Stand tall and alone, says the tulip, friends within distance but not too close. Bend a bit; sway; offer a hearty bloom. I'm not saying it's the only way to go; I'm saying it is a way to go. 



The eucalyptus, meanwhile, argues something else entirely. It is bold in an entirely different fashion. I stand in groves but will have noting else around; I will poison the earth beneath me so nothing else can take root. And then, once alone, I'll shed my skin and let my minty, cat pee stench reign over the air.  



Neither is good just as neither is bad. Each is a way of going or what Nietzsche would call their respective will to power.  The will of the eucalyptus is to spread and poison, a certain demanding, Napoleonic hegemony at work. The tulip, too, is bold, its thick green stem giving way to radiant, rich hues. But its bloom short lived, its boldness temporary.

There is no neutral ground. What would such a thing even look like? What might the foundation or basis look like? Plato argued that it didn't look like anything: it was pure Form, formless Form, untouchable, eternal idea. Everything we see, hear, and touch derives from this ideal form, this absolute Form. Everything, for Plato, is a derivation, a pale imitation of a truth we can never see, that remains elusive but nonetheless is.

The sophists, meanwhile, said that's all hogwash. All there is is this life and it keeps changing. We live in time, maintained the sophists. There is no eternal anything. All there is is change. Which means there is no foundation, no neutral space, nothing that can serve as a basis across time, that stays put amidst this flux. Everything is a position, a way of going, a spin. Everything is an argument. Even in deep outer space, light curves, inflected by the infinite play of attraction and repulsion of gravity, chemistry, collision.

And this is the history of the prejudice that disinclines us towards the argument. If there is indeed a truth — something fixed and stable and sure — then argument is so much extraneous noise. Truth needs no argument; it just is. But if there is no fixed truth, if all is flux, then nothing is certain and all there is is argument.

The modern rhetorician, Chaim Perelman, argues that arguments are not premised on proof. In fact, arguments begin precisely where proof leaves off. Proof shuts down an argument; proof speaks for itself, proclaims the truth in a voice pure and sure. Arguments begin when there is no proof, when there is no certainty, when we don't know once and for all. As such, an argument can never be right or wrong; an argument does what it does. Which is why to argue over anything is boring.

There is no reason to get all worked up — unless that's your kink, as it were. And, for many people, that is indeed their kink. They like to get flush with anger, outrage, disdain. Such is their way of going; such is their argument. They are more eucalyptus seeking to poison the ground and dominate the field than the tulip who stands proud, bold, but self-content. I do not pass moral judgment; I pass aesthetic judgment. Heated argument is usually ugly.

But what about creating an argument? What does it mean to write an argument about a book, a work of art, a piece of music?  Well, a book is not a lock for which we seek the key; it is not a crime scene with one perp we must find. A book, like the world, is multiple and moving. It can be, and indeed is, many different things.

The brilliant poet and sophist Lohren Green wrote his dissertation on different interpretations of Nietzsche. Each chapter offers a different Nietzsche — Heidegger-Nietzsche, Derrida-Nietzsche, Deleuze-Nietzsche, Jaspers-Nietzsche. Each writer makes his way through Nietzsche in a different way. This way is an argument of an argument, a take on a take, a spin of a spin. Everything is hyphenated, a way of taking up the world.

When we write an argument, our task is to assemble the elements into a way of going. We take up this metaphor, this phrase, dial up this idea, dial down that reference. Meanwhile, someone else seizes upon a footnote, an aside, metaphoricity itself, dialing up something else entirely while dialing down the very thing someone else dialed up. It's not a matter of saying: This is how it is!  The rest of you be damned! It's a matter of saying: This sure is one way to go and ain't it interesting? 

Of course, it might not be interesting. When I taught rhetoric, this drove (some) students apeshit. If everything is an argument, why don't we all get As? Well, because not every argument is interesting, refreshing, beautiful, insightful, or smart. To argue that Nietzsche argues that metaphors are all there is is not yet to have argued; it's to point out something Nietzsche says in an essay. A good argument is acrobatic, deft, assembling elements together into a surprising fashion that teaches the reader something he might not have known. A good argument instructs and inspires. Just as some tables and chairs are uncomfortable, ugly, and boring some arguments about Nietzsche are uncomfortable, ugly, and boring. Just because there is no right and wrong doesn't mean there's no good and bad. The exile of truth is not the exile of judgement.

Consider musical cover songs. Every version of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" discovers a different possibility within the infinite becoming that is that song. Cat Power finds a quiet, intense melancholy — after all, she can't get no satisfaction. Meanwhile, Britney discovers celebratory dance pop, putting on the history of rock & roll. Devo, however, dials up the mockery within Jagger's claims. We might enjoy one or another more but none is right. And all are arguments.

The great poet-philosopher Lucretius argues that all life is made of atoms which, as they fall through the world, bend just so. They don't fall straight; they swerve. He calls this clinamen. The very make up of the world is this curvature, the way different things swerve through and in and of the world. Don't believe the argument against arguments. The world itself is made of arguments, infinite arguments. Arguments are not extraneous, something added on top of the world. You are an argument. So is your mother.





12.11.2013

Teaching Critical Writing

Consider, for a moment, this strange practice of writing. Consider how many different ways each sentence can be constructed. Consider all the possibilities of tone, mode of address, timbre and rhythm. And then consider the literal stuff of writing — words, ideas, evidence, citations, punctuation. There is a lot to reckon.

I taught undergrad comp for over 10 years and I loved it. There is an incredible intimacy to teaching someone how to write. It's not just a matter of teaching a series of grammatical rules, a few vocabulary words, and the structure of a topic sentence (unteaching the will to the topic sentence demands half a semester alone, not to mention unteaching arbitrary grammar. In my class, students were free to wantonly split their infinitives; to end in a preposition if they wanted to; and begin a sentence with and). To learn to write demands learning a mode of moving with the world. It's not a base of knowledge. It's a skill.

In many ways, the teacher of writing has more in common in with the sports coach than with the drill sergeant. There is a mechanics to writing, yes, but then there's something else: the way all the elements hang together. There is no right way to write or swing the bat. There are possible ways. It's the teacher's job to instruct in the way of the domain, to convey what's possible, what the limits, dangers, risks, and rewards are. You can have technically precise form and suck just as you can have technically horrendous form and be great.

(For some reason, I'm thinking now of Gary Sheffield, the retired baseball player. His batting stance was a mess of so-called extraneous movement. And yet he was an incredible hitter.  I remember  hearing the great game caller, Jon Miller: "Sheffield stands in the box, waves his bat menacingly...." That menacingly is not something a batting instructor teaches his players.)

When I taught comp, there were certain exercises I used to instruct in the way of words — free writing, imitation, reading aloud to reckon the palpability of words. I wrote about this here. But in that piece, I glossed over the real difficulty in teaching someone to write, namely, how to construct an argument.

Writing is not just words and the conveying of information. Writing weaves together, makes connections. It picks up different things — feelings, citations, ideas, moods, beliefs — and pieces them together into some kind of a whole that remains multiple while still being cogent and coherent. It's not a list of discrepant elements; it's a weaving together of discrepant elements. Writing makes sense of the world, assembling it just so.

How do you teach someone to do this, to make sense? How do you teach people to connect different pieces of the world together in a way that works for them and for their audience?

Well, the first thing I always had to do was unteach them. As undergrads at Berkeley, they had all got As for ages on shitty papers. It was interesting to see the ideology implicit in their state run pedagogy. Their first papers would inevitably begin with some sweeping generalization: Man has long pondered the nature of being. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche gives his definition. That is to say, they always felt they needed to begin as widely as possible and then show how whatever they were talking about fit into that epic schema. Oy. When I crossed out every vast, general claim and gave them a C, they freaked out.

The first rule of writing arguments: be particular. After all, do you know that man has indeed long pondered the nature of being? Are you an historian? Or are you writing about Nietzsche's essay? Stick to what you know. As an historian of all mankind, you have no authority. But as a reader of this one essay, you are as expert as any other reader.

This meant teaching them a different architecture of argument, a different way of piecing elements together. Rather than this odd pyramid they were used to (they would even draw for me this pyramid they'd been taught), I wanted them to move with a text, to make their way through it in their own way: to tour it, to move through the text laterally, linking specific elements along the way.

An argument is a tour through a text, one possible way of moving through.
The writer tells readers: Look at this! Then that! See how it connects and why it's interesting! 

There are as many ways through a text as there are readers, and more. Your job as a writer is to make your way through and bring your reader along for the ride: Let's begin here. Notice this. Then see this. But don't think it's this. On the contrary, it's this other thing all together. And so rather than seeing that, see this.  Take your reader on a tour: There are lots of ways people might make their way through this text. But this is my way. Writing an essay is not arithmetic: x + y + z = a. It's calculus.

Where should an argument begin? Well, with whatever stood out to you, that you noticed. You say Nietzsche seems to contradict himself in this sentence? Then begin there and discover how such a contradiction functions within the rest of the essay.  Or he keeps using the metaphor of the bee hive? Well, so what? How does this inform his argument? Why should I care?  Follow the thing you notice and see where it takes you.

This is easier said than done. The main thing young writers would do is list things they notice: Nietzsche does this and this and also this. After a few semesters of this, I made a new rule: every use of the word "also" resulted in a full drop of grade (I added "in addition" to the forbidden words). I wanted them to use words of connection such as but, though, that is to say, on the contrary. I wanted their tours to move rather than just be a vertical checklist of greatest hits. I want all the different points to have a relationship. This is the second rule of writing: don't list. Make connections between things.  

Of course, in order to make an argument, you have to know how arguments behave. So, just as a shortstop in baseball learns through experience — by fielding a wide variety of hits and learning the ways the ball can go, its speed, its curvature through space, its calculus — I taught arguments by showing students arguments. Together, we'd read a text and then construct an argument, point by point.

The tool I used is what I call an Argument Map. This is different than an outline. An outline repeats the hierarchy and the list when an argument is a horizontal movement through. The Argument Map focuses on the transitions between points. I  never had students write rough drafts. Instead, I had them deliver their arguments to me in no more than five related points, each point written out as a sentence. In one quick glance, I could see their thinking, see the argument, note the holes, gaps, leaps.



Once a student had a concise, clearly delineated argument, their papers flowed. Indeed, I discovered that when someone doesn't know what they want to say, they meander. The language becomes vague; paragraphs prattle on and drift. But once students know precisely what they want to say, their language becomes pointed. The passive voice vanishes. Sentences become tight, focused — they lead the reader somewhere.  The third rule of writing: Know what you want to say (even if you discover it while writing).

To teach writing is to teach students how to move with a text, with language, with the world. It's to teach them how to make connections between things, to link elements together without having to unify them. It's to teach students how to think.

12.06.2013

Writing With Art


Sometimes, we imagine words as efficient but clumsy. What's that saying? Oh, yeah: An image is worth a thousand words. Or, a related expression, albeit more ambivalent (attributed to many people including both Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa, amongst others): Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (When I see a Frank Gehry building, I often think it's architecture building about dance.)

Implicit in both expressions is the prejudice that words inevitably fall short of their mark. They're useful, sure, but they're removed from the truth of things. Words, we like to think, come between us and the world. This is an ancient Platonic notion: there is a truth and then a descending proximity to this truth. Experience is immediate. Words, those necessary evil, mediate experience. They get in the way, stand between me and my experience — as if words weren't real.

Which, of course, is silly. Words are real, too. In fact, words are images. What do you think you're looking at? And words are music. What do you think you hear? In fact, it seems to me that as extraordinary images (and sounds), words are well poised to play with more ordinary images such as, say, paintings.

But because we assume words can't articulate experience, writer writers content themselves with writing about art. This painting was created during the Blitzkrieg while the artist's mother wept gently in the other room. This painting was made while the artist lived in Berkeley and had had a very angry argument with another artist.  Which is to say, they write around art, missing it all together. They try to look behind it, over its head, to find facts and places and biographies. Such, alas, is what we find on museum walls: biography, history, scholarship, words that don't even try to engage the art, words that seek a person or place but not the experience of the image.

Or we get the viewer's personal experience of the art. This painting reminded me of my childhood and made me feel sad. This misses the mark, as well, avoiding the scene of the experience: it places it within the body of the viewer rather than at the site of the image. The way we understand words has us write over the head of the image or turn inward, away from the image to write biography or autobiography.

A work of art is an event. It's a scene of some happening. As such, it is multiple, ambiguous, multivalent. There are always different things happening all at once, different ways of configuring the event. And it happens out there as well as in here. 

The one thing art doesn't need is to be explained. Despite the popular conception of contemporary art as evasive, art by its very being is accessible to all. It's all right there! Where? There! Just look at it. You don't need some special decoder ring. You don't need degrees or pedigree. All you have to do is look, let the image wash over you. All you have to do is lean into the work, lean into your experience. 

Rather than decode it, unravel it, you can assemble it. Rather than ask: What does this mean? Ask: What are the rules of this universe? What strange new things are happening here? What seeing is this? What perspective is this? For all art is necessarily a seeing, a perspective, a seeing seeing, a seen on a scene.

This is not to say that biography and autobiography are uninteresting. They may be fascinating, beautiful, mind blowing. It's to say that those are not our sole modes of writing about art. We can write with art, let our words be motivated by the events of the image.

As Roland Barthes says, we don't need to explain; we need to follow. In his reading of Gerard Fromanger, Deleuze writes with the images:

Nothing is neutral or passive. Yet the painter means nothing, neither approval nor anger. The colours express nothing: green is not hope, neither is yellow the colour of sadness, nor red the colour of cheerfulness. Nothing but hot or cold, hot and cold. The material is art: Fromanger paints, that is to say, he gets a painting to work. The painting-machine of an artist-mechanic, the artist-mechanic of a civilization: how does he get the painting to work?

The writer with art, like Deleuze here, is an empiricist. He watches and, from what he sees, from what he gathers, he assembles the pieces. The temperatures Deleuze mentions are not personal experiences, not subjective experiences, but his perspective on the scene: his seeing of a seeing. 

In a way, this writing with art is itself an image of the painting, Deleuze's words a linguistic photograph of Fromanger's visual image. Writing with art is a kind of repetition, a continuation of one possible series that's burbling within, as part of, every image. Just as Hockney finds a possibility within Cézanne but in his own fashion, Deleuze finds a possibility within Fromanger. Just as there are an infinite number of possible paintings after Cézanne, there are an infinite number of possible linguistic images — essays — after Fromanger.  

Writing with art doesn't seek to explain the work once and for all. It is a way of having words and experiences move with the forms, colours, affects of the image. The art writer doesn't say: This means that. He says: This is one way this painting works, one way this thing can go. Such writing doesn't want to be definitive. On the contrary, it wants other possibilities.