12.26.2014

How We See in Cities: Fear, Power, and Infinity


In a city, building become walls to block the infinite sky with finite structures.
I'm sitting this morning in a café in San Francisco. I look around and I'm struck that almost everything I see is not only man made but is either for sale or in the service of selling. Yes, I can see some trees on the street but they have a funny effect: they block the sky. Which is what I suddenly understand buildings are for: to block view of the infinite sky and keep us focused on human commerce in every sense. 

In his exquisite essay, The Intertwining, Merleau-Ponty argues that we don't see the world from afar: we don't stand here and see a world over there. On the contrary, the very fact that we can and do perceive the world is precisely because we are not at a remove. I am stuff and the world is stuff; perception is an interaction between stuffs. When I look at the chairs and people and croissants in the café, they come to me as I go to them. We interact; we intertwine. 

Think about it for a minute. Is vision active or passive? When you read these words are you seeing them — you as subject, the words as object? Or do the words go to you and have you see them — they become the subject and you become their object? Or is vision an act of a different nature all together, taking place between and among both subject and object, in fact effacing the very distinction between subject and object to make everything part of the same, continuous fabric? 

What we see enters us, literally. We are packed full of images. Everything we've ever seen is folded into us — into our blood and dreams, into our tissue and memory, into our sense and organs. This is why it's important to be careful what you witness. It becomes part of you. I was at the Louvre 15 years ago and I still can't shake all those awful Renaissance rape paintings. I feel the same way about the Kentucky Fried Chicken I ate three days in a row, 20 years ago. Both the paintings and that chicken are clogs in the flow of my metabolism, my thinking, my digestion. They both left me dyspeptic, perhaps permanently (or at least until a merciful death).

I find looking at the sky — at the clouds but also the open expanse that exceeds but includes the clouds — exhilarating. To participate in a line of sight that goes and goes and goes can't help but extend internally, as well. I feel my body, with its seeming skin limit, filling with the infinite universe. If when I see a chair, that chair folds into me, when I see the sky, the sky folds into me. Suddenly, I have the infinite blue and black and grey and glowing ether pulsing through my veins. Often, it is the only thing that can clear the dyspeptic onslaught of images that is my life, that is life today. 

Now, cities are complex mechanisms of control. Many have written about the gridded streets forming a gridded body politic, everyone and everything in its place, organized and numbered. What's your address? The city tags and hedges us, literally steering us this way and that. 

I am not saying this is bad per se. Everything is a mechanism of control, hedging the flows of desire and need, of capital and dreams. There is no neutral space. In this sense, a city is no different than a ranch. But a city and a ranch are quite different in that they hedge and steer bodies, desires, capital, dreams, and infinity in very different ways. I've not spent much time on ranches so I can't speak to them; cities are another matter.

Cities construct tall buildings which have an interesting double effect. They block the sky for pedestrians and those on the lower floors. Living in Manhattan, I often felt like I was living in a dome — no sky, no infinite horizon, just buildings densely looming. Even the views of the sky are bound by the buildings. And yet for those who get to live and work on the higher floors, the tall buildings offer the infinite horizon of space ('views' are a commodity, after all). 

But why block out the sky? There are, of course, ideological reasons. People who are looking into the infinite sky, folding it into their being, tend not to get caught up in the finite human-all-to-human work-mortgage-romance-anxiety complex. After all, if you understand yourself as continuous with the infinite cosmos, if you've swallowed the infinite horizon of deep space, the chances are you're not really going to be so eager to crawl out of bed every morning at 6:30, wrestle traffic, only to sit behind a desk for the next nine hours navigating fluctuating streams of idiocy, banality, and cruelty.  

Such is the way of capital. As William Burroughs points out, if money can be counted, summed up, it's not infinite (I realize mathematicians are bristling at that). Infinity doesn't breed more capital. Making sure people keep working and spending is what generates more capital. And to keep them doing that, you have to keep them looking down, literally, onto the human world. 

But to pin it on capital or capitalism is meaningless. Sure, there is a power structure and ideology at work when we build these walls just as there's always power and ideology at work. So whence this particular will to blot out the sky. Why build walls? 

Doesn't every stoner who's ever listened to Pink Floyd know the answer? Fear. We build walls because we're afraid. Fear of the infinite is fear of being out of control which is fear of death. To enclose the infinite within ourselves, we must abandon our egos and all the bullshit that supports it — a sense of self-worth that comes from the words of a boss, the eyes of others, from family and lovers both actual and would-be. We prefer the safety of endless anxiety to the joy of infinite becoming. The walls of fear keep us looking down, walking the city grid, sweating our asinine jobs and spouses.  We hinge our very selves along with our entire economic and cultural edifice to these fickle things as we ricochet between malaise, depression, boredom, and happiness. 

This fear exceeds material construction. It works diligently and relentlessly at the level of cultural production, as well. Consider the fear that drives the medical complex and Big Pharma in particular. Why is Abilify the number one selling drug? Because it keeps people from looking at the sky, keeps them functioning in their tiny, enclosed, idiotic bourgeois lives of rent, phone bills, work, vacations, dentists, health insurance, kids, homework, traffic. Keep people looking down and you keep them depressed, annoyed, dyspeptic, grumpy, deranged because you keep them searching the finite for a peace that will never come — but you keep them feeling safe. Needless to say, this is insane. But so it goes. 

This is not to say there aren't other opportunities for real life, for infinite life, within the city walls. Art, for one, offers these moments of infinity within finitude as entire universes flourish within discrete frames. Music, dance, humor: they all open up the finite closures of life to the infinite play of the cosmos.

I want to say there's love, as well. But love is rare. After all, love is the embrace that accepts everything — that is to say, an embrace that's infinite, an embrace that says, And this, too, yes, yes, yes ad infinitum. Love doesn't run into the walls of judgment. Most people, because they're so enmeshed in the finite, can't do that. They relentlessly judge themselves and their lovers — too fat, too lazy, too stupid, too poor, too stinky, too horny. They open their arms to love but run into the walls of the city. In order to feel other than dependent or lustful, in order to love,  you have to contain infinity: you have to look at the sky.

12.21.2014

Thirteen Ways of Film as I Read Wong Kar Wai Reading Film in "Fallen Angels"


I found this essay I wrote ages ago....something I like about it.
 


1. The camera sees in camera vision (it’s not an ocular prosthetic).  The camera can distort, saturate, de-saturate, bend, juxtapose, speed up, slow down, shift color schemes.  But the camera does not come after the fact; it is not a view, a perspective onto the real, an inflection of what’s happening.  The camera is always and already present; this world is thoroughly cinematic.  This is quite different from the world of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 films in which the camera is present (we actually see the camera at one point of The Idiots, à la Bergman) but remains a tool that captures the real, which records events, albeit from a perspective. The camera comes after the fact. If for von Trier, the camera is representative (even if subjective), for Wai, the camera is creative. (See Way #11.)

2. Film necessarily indulges the actual (whereas literature is pure fabrication).  Banality permeates and pervades the camera’s gaze as all the world, down to its most mundane element, presents itself to be viewed.

3. The banal is beautiful: slow shots of a woman tidying a dingy apartment are absolutely exquisite, even riveting.  It’s all so god damn beautiful.

4. Contiguity ≠ continuity. In the realm of the visual, disparate things often find themselves side by side.  (Writing has a more difficult time accomplishing this; each thing in a scene has to wait its turn to be presented, described, brought to life.  Through the cut-up, William Burroughs attempts to approach film’s all-at-onceness.)  For instance, Wai will show a scene folded in on itself via reflection: we see the view outside the window, the views reflected in the light of the window, as well as characters in mirrors all sharing the same visual space.

5. There is no metadiscourse.  No setting of the scene, who’s who and how they all relate. After all, the whole thing is in motion (see Way #11).  The world emerges allatonce, without any voice of certainty other than all the voices, all certain in their own way, in their own time.  This does not give way to chaos but rather to a proliferation of internal limits.  See Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva.

6. Film strolls, an ambience in the making. We might say that film is ambience, a relationship forged between and among parts (see Way #13).  But we don’t want to fall into the temptation of thinking this spatially. The film can cut at its own beckoning (See Way #1).  And yet the film itself is necessarily contiguous, even as the gaze is disrupted: sense can’t help but emerge, perhaps despite itself.  Lars von Trier cuts to the rhythm of an idea; his films involve emergent sense, but it is a sense constrained by ideas, big ideas: Ideas.  In both The Idiots and Breaking the Waves, the film’s visuals are beholden to characters responding to idea-driven situations: morality, freedom, madness, the presence of community in general.  Dogme 95 films are akin to Cassavetes’ films in that they capture the emergent behavior of characters in certain situations: the visual remains beholden to these characters and their situations – situations which are themselves beholden to ideas of fear, loyalty, and morality.  In Fallen Angels, ideas are conspicuously – but neither stridently nor didactically – absent.

7. Reflection is a view.  The world is laid out, splayed; revelation is tempered by affect, not distance or depth.  Seeing a reflection is not the same thing as seeing it directly, but nor is it secondary: a reflection is simply another mode of revelation, a repetition of the thing without original.  A reflection is an image among images.

8. Film captures nothing; it puts things in motion.  Film is motion. In Wai’s world, things are on the move: city streets, people, the camera, the air.  There are no still shots; the camera is on the go along with the action. There is no distance between camera and world. Or rather the distance at once obliterated and maintained in the movement of the film (pace Merleau-Ponty’s elemental flesh and relentless chiasm).  

9. The film is the story. As the film goes, so goes the story.  Resolutions are temporary, characters pass each other, sometimes lingering, sometimes not.  In film, the story and human relations are touch and go (See Way #6).

10. Film characters live in film land; there is no such thing as acting. Everyone in the film not only looks good, they do everything cool, as if they know they’re being looked at.  And yet they’re never pandering. Wai’s characters live in a cinematic planet in which the visual reigns supreme, always and already beyond the pale of representation.  (See Way #1, #11.)  There is no wink nor is there acting. 

11. The film is the film; it endures. The film does not refer to action; it is itself the action, the event.  No symbols, no reality, just this here now. (See Way #1, #13.) Trust this stroll through the filmscape.  A place is a passing, a juncture.  In a world which flows such as Wai’s, in this film-event, we are nomads and moments are not spaces but durations.  As Bergson would say, film endures.

12. Truth lives on the edge of things.  Film may distort; characters may act as if being watched.  But this does not mean film isn’t truthful, that its characters are phony.  Wai’s films are pathos rich – and never schmaltzy. There may be deep truths; but the camera is indifferent to them. The camera follows the surface of truth, its affect and effects, am entire filmomenology.

13. Film is fundamentally aural.  Sound informs the visuals and vice-versa: the soundtrack functions as another element in the fray – there’s no love song during the romantic scenes, no telling opening song, no finale to sum things up.  In Fallen Angels, song functions architecturally, as a place where two characters meet in absentia as one character leaves a song for another on a bar jukebox.  The song does not sit above the film but is an inflected place within the visual landscape: it is the site of a relationship that will never be consummated.  The song becomes part of the filmscape.  The sonic is hence neither ornament nor strictly ambient but is another component within the cinematic vocabulary.  The film as a whole is the ambience, the relationship between and amongst parts, a symphony of elements (see Way  #5).

12.14.2014

Don't Try to Be Happy

I just met the greatest woman and she seemed to really like me! I gave this client presentation at work that went so well — afterwards, the CEO thanked me and told me, 'You're a smart guy." I put a bid on the coolest little house and they accepted it! Oh, I'm so happy!

Being happy is awesome. I mean, who doesn't want to be happy? On the other hand, to be happy is to be dependent on what's happening. Happiness is causedyou're happy because you met the guy or gal, got the job, the house, the fancy boots. This presumably means that when you don't experience any of those things, you're not happy. Which means that your emotional state of being is contingent on things you have no, or at best little, control over. So while I'm all for being happy, it seems to be that the goal to be happy necessitates that you will, in fact, not be happy.

A friend of mine has recently been feeling blue, lost, out of sorts — she quit her job of six years because of the awful office politics and finding a new gig is proving difficult, despite her impressive acumen. So she thought traveling might help clear her mind and took off on a whim that turned into a seven week tour of South East Asia. She was happy traveling — but then she came home. Traveling was fun, exciting, distracting, edifying in its way, perhaps. But, to state the obvious, wherever you go, there you are. If she's only happy traveling, she has to keep traveling — or else be unhappy.

Now that she's back and feels bad about herself because she doesn't have a job (how did capital ever achieve that — that we feel bad about ourselves for not working? It's genius!). So what does she do? She looks down, literally and metaphorically — at a screen but also down at the mundane, at the tangle of things that are causing her anxiety in the first place. If she's anxious that she's not 'good enough' for a job then mining LinkedIn and judging herself against other resumes is only going to accent her misery. I don't know Excel! I don't have good management principles! I need to emphasize my financial experience! All of these things may or may not be true but none of them will alleviate that anxiety. On the contrary, this scrutiny, this endless parsing of why why why of course only intensifies her anxiety.

You don't get out of shit by miring yourself deeper in it. You get out of shit by getting out of shit. And that begins by looking up, looking out of the mire, out of the entanglement of petty issues. This is what's wrong with most so-called therapists. You go to them and say, I'm sad and confused about my boyfriend or girlfriend. And how do they respond? They begin analyzing it with you. What did she say? How did you feel? Have you ever felt this way before? That is, the shrink is working to keep you mired in the nonsense, keep you anxious, keep you sweating the absurd minutia of life.

Now, of course there can be some value — or at least some pleasure — in understanding how or why or even that you keep doing the same things over and over. This is the dominant model of talk therapy: understand it and you'll stop doing it. 

But, for the most part, focusing on your problems intensifies your problem — precisely because your problem is that you focus on your problems. This same friend, knowing somewhere in her that LinkedIn will not be her existential savior, began saying daily affirmations that she found on the web.  And this is what I hear her saying, I shit you not: Amazing opportunities exist for me in every aspect of my life (See more nonsense here >).

OK, sure, that sounds good. But people already believe the world is filled with opportunities they've missed — I should have married him! I shouldn't have quit that job! I should have got my PhD in computer science, not rhetoric! This talk of opportunity once again focuses on the mundane — only with a rosy tint. It suggests there are these doors everywhere and it's our job to find them and then figure out how they open. So we're either filled with regret for missed opportunities or constantly anxious that we're missing the opportunities right in front of us. In both cases, we've missed life, looked right over its head, glanced sideways and backwards.

Fuck opportunity. This moment right now is beautiful and perfect. It's not an opportunity. It's already happening whether you like it or not — so you might as well like it. You don't need to search for anything out there, for opportunity, for doors, for love. Life is always already beautiful and perfect — necessarily. What is more depressing than someone saying she wants to be loved? To say that means she doesn't love herself, that she doesn't love life — and that's the only fucking thing in her control! She claims to want love but all she has to do is love herself and, voilà, she's found love.

This is the difference between joy and happiness. Joy is not contingent. Joy says, This world is perfect as it is precisely because there is no other world. This is all there is and I love it as it is! Happiness, meanwhile, says, There are good things and bad things. I only want to find those good things and shoo those bad things away. If I can do that, I'll be happy. How do I do that? What drugs do I take? What magic words do I say? Which girl or boy do I date?

But, once again, to judge and hierarchize your life events into good and bad is to hate life. It's nihilistic. It suggest that life is something that happens to you rather than happening with you, or better, as you: You are life! You are not an actor on a stage; you are part of the stage. There are rocks and bugs and gasses and dreams and ideas and fingers and whiskers and noses and blood and people in this world. It's all stuff going with stuff. This is not nihilism; this is joy. You are this piece of the world happening now! You're as special and irrelevant and essential as star dust, a gnat, that junkie puking there, a CEO, a fetching French poodle. 

This is not to say that everything in life is rosy and grand! Of course it's not. It's often a veritable shit storm, moreso for some than others. But shit is not bad; it is beautiful, too. So shit storm is not a bad thing per se. Anyway, it seems to me that the trick when feeling anxious, blue, distracted, depressed by the mayhem of it all is not to look down at the screen of life with all its all-too-mundane bullshit but to look up — at the sky, the clouds, the infinite horizon of which we are all a part.
Amazing opportunities exist for me in every aspect of my life. - See more at: http://businessheroinemagazine.com/27-daily-affirmations-to-boost-self-esteem-and-develop-self-confidence/#sthash.WIC6XGiY

12.07.2014

There is No Background. There is No Foreground. All is Flux.




Sometimes, when I'm out and about in nature — on that rare occasion I'm hiking or in some spectacular place — I'll take a picture of myself. I know that if I take a picture of that scene on its own, it'll be boring. So I put myself in the foreground, the mountain or cactus or what have you in the background. There is nothing interesting about this. It's what we do, how we think. There's what's in the foreground and what's in the background. Duh.

But metaphors are tricky things. When they're extreme, we call them insane or poetry ("Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands."). But most of the time, we use metaphors — along with a variety of other tropes such as metonymy, irony, litotes, hyperbole, and so on — without thinking (even though tropes are an expression of thought, the person using them is often not thinking). Tropes distribute the world — this here, that there, with these terms of relation.

This is Nietzsche's great argument in his essay, "On Truth and Lies in Their Extramoral Sense." All thinking is tropic. To speak is to distribute bodies — linguistic, conceptual, physical, ideological. This is what knowledge is, what knowledge does: it creates tropic configurations that we forget are tropic. This is the point — what a sharp metaphor! — of Nietzsche's essay: 'truth' is what we assign to tropes we don't want to change (for psycho-ideological reasons). The things we call true are metaphors that we've forgotten are metaphors. For Nietzsche, science is poetry that's forgotten it's poetry.

The background is a metaphor that we've forgotten is a metaphor. When we assume there's a background, we assume there's a foreground. Our cameras proudly offer auto-focus as they search for faces to foreground.

While seemingly innocuous, the figure of the background is dangerous. For instance, we tend to feel that the planet is the background, the backdrop, for human life. We repress the fact that we live with the earth, not on the earth. Human beings are continuous, not to mention contiguous, with the stuff of the universe — dirt, trees, sky, air, flies. They may not always be front and center but they are not the background. 

This is one of the brilliant aspects of Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean series. The characters don't just play out their dramas with the boat as the backdrop — the boat itself is a character! And the boat is not just a character floating on the ocean — the ocean becomes a character, too! Soon, everything is in play, everything in flux. There's no background or foreground. There's just an ever shifting calculus of bodies all interacting in different ways, at different speeds and intensities. 

Reading John Searle in college drove me apeshit. What is this background he relies so much on? There's what we intend and then there's this background of desires and abilities, these so-called passive components, which set the stage for action. Huh? That just skips over the very complexity of the issue, of the social, of ideology, of how we stand towards each other.  To just dismiss things like desire and dispositions as background is to dismiss the very stuff of power, politics, dynamics, history, discourse, of life itself.

No, there's no background, Professor Searle. Action and perception are always chiasmatic, an intertwining with the world (pace Merleau-Ponty). I don't just stand here and view the world. I am part of the world! When I look at a tree, that is the world seeing the world. I see the tree, sure, but that tree sees me — and has me seeing it.

There is no background. There is no foreground. In fact, there's no ground at all. It's funny how we turn to this figure of the ground over and over again. We must ground ourselves to be strong! We must ground our arguments! We must stand our ground! But, as Emerson says, Gladly would we anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand.

The trick, then, is to inaugurate new conceptions of space (Merleau-Ponty's chiasmus does this), to invent new figures, metaphors, tropes. Or else to keep shifting our tropes, to constantly invent new ones, to abandon the very effort to construct anything once and for all and, instead, take to the swirling sea and frolic away.

12.01.2014

Creating Yourself with Television, Art, and the World


What is it we want from television, not to mention art, philosophy, poetry, literature, film, the world in general?

Well, I suppose we want many things depending on circumstance. I have Hulu Plus, mostly for the Criterion Collection, but the fact is I don't want to watch Cassavetes or Fassbinder most nights of the week. I want to redirect my mind from the insistent demands of the day — work, kid, dating, car troubles, a doctor's appointment, the diverse mayhem of my life. And so I'll watch some show on Netflix I've already seen many times — 30 Rock, Weeds, The X Files. I'm not looking to form new pathways, new thoughts, to have piercing insights into the human condition. Nor do I want to see the medium of film or TV anew. I just want to stop thinking about the bullshit I've been thinking about all day.

In many ways, this is fantastic. It's a kind of meditation as I move away from anxiety into calm. It's relaxing, comforting, even therapeutic. Of course, it's also mind numbing — which is part of the point. While it is some kind of meditation, it's not meditation per se: it's still so much noise, distraction, which in the end is more ego reinforcement than ego dissolution. It seems to me that meditation is about letting go of ego, letting the cosmos run through you, dissolve you whereas watching familiar TV appeases my ego. Again, this doesn't make watching Bored to Death reruns bad. It's just different than seeking enlightenment. 

We usually think that watching TV is somehow worse than reading a book. This is an odd, old prejudice that imagines books to be challenging while TV hand delivers you all the images. But this is of course absurd. Reading some book that confirms yourself is not better or worse than watching TV that confirms yourself. (If you read critiques of books from centuries ago, they read exactly like critiques of television, almost verbatim — both critiques argue that the medium is just that, a medium, hence not real life.) Anyway, books are made of images, too, and some images challenge us, provoke us, enlighten us while others quiet us, affirm us, mute us. 

There is art that I have in my apartment, all of which is great. And there is art that I love but would never hang in my apartment. For instance, I've come to love Francis Bacon. But there's no way I'm hanging that crazy shit in my house. This may seem obvious but why not hang it over my bed? Isn't it just an image? And if I love the image, why not keep it close to me (forget about price for the moment)? 

Well, while I like reckoning Bacon's take on human flesh and its precarious tether to the bone, I don't want that way of going to pervade my body all day every day. For that is what art does (art here includes tv, film, and books): it proffers ways of going that our bodies take on (or don't).


Everything is a way of going, including you. You go like that, I go like this. This going changes in time (or that is what time is — the calculus of changing of bodies, visible and invisible). But we have our styles, our comportment, the way we metabolize the world. This includes what we like, what we want, what we believe we want, the ways we think and move and eat and shit and talk and sleep and love and fuck and flirt and dance and write and watch. 

But a way of going is not isolated from the world. It is fundamentally ecological, enmeshed in the trajectories of other ways of going. In some sense, a way of going exceeds a body. Or, rather, a body is an intersection of so many different ways of going. A comet, for instance, is made of dust, ice, methane, carbon dioxide and more as it at once flings itself and is flung through the cosmos, its path inflected in infinite ways by the push and pull of other bodies. 

You and I are no different in that sense: we are made of lots of different things — water, skin, toenail — and at once fling ourselves and are flung through the cosmos, our paths inflected in infinite ways by the push and pull of other bodies, visible and not — cultural and historical forces of sundry sort, love, appetite, pixels, dreams.

I went hiking in the Sierra's several months ago. As I walked, I had to navigate all these rocks embedded in a path that was created by federal employees whose decision to make this path was dictated as much by the slope of the earth as by budgetary constraints. Occasionally, I had to walk around a rock so big the federal employees chose not to demolish it. We call these boulders and, lord, they're as stubborn as they are stoic. There's something I could learn from these boulders, a way of going. 

Not all rocks go like that. Some are more timid and give way, their very constitution shedding beneath our feet. And, over time, they of course bend to the wind and rain and general wear of the world. But, in human terms, rocks offer a distinct way of going. 

I've always been a fan of saguaro cacti. They usually live longer than humans. And, like a rock, they move very slowly. But unlike a rock, the saguaro has distinctive flesh that stands before the punishing sun, unadorned, day in and day out. It basks in the relentlessness of the desert — bold and elegant and not afraid of occasional wit. Every time I go the Sonoran desert, I learn a little something from those cacti about how to go in the world. 


 Art in its many forms — tv, film, books, paintings, photographs, prints, dance — gives us ways of going. In the course of my life, I've taken on some loving, misanthropic absurdity from the Coen brothers, fuck you confrontation from Cassavetes, joyful complexity from Wes Anderson, nasty wit — with equal parts joy — from Jean-Luc Godard. I've learned to wind thoughts and figures with Pynchon, hyperbolize with TC Boyle, and tumble perversely with Philip Roth. I've taken on Nietzsche's way of reversing thought, Deleuze's instinct to proliferate, Derrida's pedantic distinctions. I could go on and on.

I remember the first time I saw The Wire. It was about eight years ago, an episode from what I now know was the fourth season. I remember so clearly watching Chris and Snoop drop another body in the vacants and my whole body recoiling. It was too much for me. My metabolism at the time couldn't stomach it. 

Many years later, prompted by god knows what, I tried watching it again from the beginning. And was immediately hooked. No, that's not fair as I wasn't just passive. I was taken, yes, but I in turn took it on. I loved its way of going, its sprawl of humanity that was at once so grandiose and lovingly small. It was — and remains — mythic. I've learned from its way of distributing humanity along with television itself (I wrote about that many years ago). I've learned about the mechanics of capitalism and learned as much about drinking, love, and passion from the characters within the show.

Now, often, when it's late and I'm tired and want to redirect my thinking, I'll pass over Tina Fey's indubitable charms and flip on The Wire for the umpteenth time. At this point, I'm not seeing new things, new angles, new moments. It's not carving new ways of going into my being. No, it's flowing down the grooves of my self that it has forged lo these many years.

11.27.2014

The Fascist Inside

In his exquisite introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Foucault suggests the book is an "Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life." This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, he writes, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles. He goes on to list these principles:
  • Free yourself from totalizing paranoia
  • Act and think multiplicity, proliferation, juxtaposition (as distinct from pyramidal hierarchy) 
  • Disavow all forms of the Negative
  • Remember that you don't need to be sad to be militant
  • Don't become enamored of power
  • And some others (read the whole intro)
As far as the social and political is concerned, I feel I have done well living as a non-fascist. I've avoided so many of the trappings of the American obsession with work and career. While teaching in the university system, I was never an academic — no journals, no conferences. I was adjunct and proud of it. And as for my other work, I've remained a freelancer for 16 years as I don't want my time to be beholden to someone else, especially not someone I love. As a father, I resist the overbearing, indulgent bullshit that plagues today's parents.

When it comes to what Americans call "politics," I keep to myself. I don't know see red states and blue states (I know they represent political parties but I don't know which is which). I see life as infinitely complex, winding, forces that include gravity, anxiety, fear, love, desire, pleasure. When I think about the so-called issues that come prepackaged to me via Facebook and other news sources, I actually think about them, see the things I think nowhere, and walk away. Life's too short, or too long, to be mired in the collective nonsense.  Which is not to say there isn't systematic exploitation and violence. On the contrary, it's to say: of course there is as people tend to be weak and afraid and anxious and do horrible things to each other.

At the same time, I try not to judge others for the decisions they've made. Love academia? Awesome! Like going to work? Lucky you! Consider yourself a liberal or conservative? Power to you — just don't talk to me about any of it. Which is to say, I am not didactic about the decisions I've made in my life (at least I try not to be). I've done what I've done, I do what I do, and I assume the same of you. 

None of this is always easy. The world expects certain things from us and when we don't do them, things can get awkward. The fact that I had a job outside of the university, made my professorial peers so nervous and confused. Meanwhile, my untraditional approach to work makes my temporary colleagues on a project — not to mention potential lovers — nervous. What do you do all day? How can you not know when you'll be paid, or if you'll have work? How??? I run into the parental fascists every day in various ways and have to be careful not to inspire them to call social services (fortunately, my son is so awesome — so shiny and sweet and generous and mature — that my parenting is, for the most part, unquestioned by others. Mind you, I take no credit for this; it's all him. I just get to enjoy the halo effect of his excellence.)

All of this self-indulgent nonsense I'm prattling on about is only to say that I am aware of the forces that coerce us this way and that and, for the most part, I feel pretty good about how I've managed to parry, evade, avoid, counter punch the would-be fascists that I've encountered along the way.

But there's one fascist that persists, that's been with me my whole life, that nudges, pokes, prods, and beats me senseless: the fascist inside me. When I step back and survey the world, I can see the great teem of forces, human and non-human, that propel this planet, this solar system, this cosmos. But, privately, I relentlessly judge, assess, and criticize myself. I don't see the beautifully indifferent cosmos doing what it does. I see a shitbird doing shitty things. You talk too much, shmucknuts! You're a lazy, masturbating, pervert! You're a shitty ass father! You're absurdly skinny with a nose the size of Rhode Island! It's as if all the fear and anxiety and petty ego bullshit that others feel and inflict on the world by hating, killing, bullying, judging, I do to myself.

Of course, the reason I am the things I think I am — lazy, a shitty father, ugly — is precisely (or mostly) because I'm judging myself as these things. That is to say, I get down on myself and, lo and behold, I get short tempered with my son, girlfriend, mother. I feel shitty about myself so I don't get off my ass to do things. Which is to say, a lack of self-love leads to a lack of other love — which leads to judgment, hatred, violence, control, to fascism.

11.16.2014

Philosophy and Life





What is philosophy? Or really the question I'm interested in is: What do we want from philosophy? Do we read it to find answers to questions? How does it stand in relation to life, whatever that is?

Most people think about philosophy as asking, and attempting to answer, big questions: What is self? What is mind? What is ethics? But these questions make all kinds of assumptions — that there even is such a thing as a self, as a mind, as ethics. I want to say these so-called philosophical questions seem disingenuous, not to mention specious, in that they leave the most interesting things off the table — that is, themselves. They sound deep and probing when, in fact, they seek to regurgitate the known. 

Deleuze and Guattari offer another definition: philosophy is the creation of concepts. That is, rather than trying to answer preordained questions, philosophy invents questions along with their concepts. In their conception, each philosophy births a different way of making sense of this life. Each philosophy is a different world that might or might not have points of intersection, zones of overlap, with other philosophies. 

I've always had two related attractions to philosophy. I like the intellectual acrobatics, the mechanics of it all, the practice of thinking through these different worlds — Kant's, Hegel's, Nietzsche's, Derrida's. Each one has an internal logic, its distinct terms of operation that might or might not turn me on. But that is irrelevant: I just like tinkering with them, like someone who loves cars. I simply enjoy seeing how they run.

But there has always been another element to my love of philosophy: the way this or that philosophy resonates with my life, with how I feel every day in every way. Which is to say, I've always wanted something from philosophy to go with me in this life, to move me, orient me, ground or unground me. It's not that I want to philosophy to answer my questions; I want it to move me, to sweep me along in its questions, its concepts, its machinations, its way of going. 

So while I enjoyed reading Kant and Hegel — tinkering with their mechanics was a pleasurable task — I've always been more drawn to those who make philosophy resonate with life — Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari. For them, philosophy reckons day to day life — the living through of this life. It's not as much a matter of answering those big questions — What's the good life? — as it is: What are the ways of going that fuel and incite me? That orient me? That inflect my life in a healthy, invigorating, beautiful way? 

For these philosophers, what's at stake is not an idea or ideology but a life — their lives. In this sense, philosophy is almost moral, only without the morality. It's about leading the good life and each defines what counts as good and as life differently. 

Now, what's always irritated me about academic philosophy was that it could discuss interesting things but the stakes were always absurd — who could win or own an argument. The way of life was not only not present, it was prohibited from being part of the conversation. In fact, bringing a life lived into the equation marked you as a bad thinker, even a non-thinker. Philosophy as an academic process is woefully non self-reflexive. It doesn't like to ask of itself: Why am I doing this? It assumes the questions are self-evident. 

Osho, the Taoist Buddhist, says that philosophy is — more or less — bullshit. It talks about some interesting things but leaves itself, its life, its peace, off the table. Philosophy is so blind that it asks questions assuming there will be answers. But, for Osho, there are no questions as there are no answers. All this is is all this.  Which, for those academics out there, sounds an awful lot like Laruelle's non-philosophy, only without the pedantic crap. (Now, before you snap back in disagreement, ask yourself why. Who cares?)

Now, the minute I invoke Osho and Buddhism, the philosophers amongst you wince and turn away. What we call 'spirituality,' (I don't care for this word) has a bad rap amongst we so-called philosophers. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of it reeks of bullshit. So many people love to say and proffer profundities on the Facebook or bumber stickers when, in reality, saying it is usually a sign that you don't actually know it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; perhaps you're reminding yourself. But it still stinks like bullshit.

But this is the same issue with what we often think of as philosophy: there is an infinite gap between speaking the truth — whatever that is — and walking the truth (which is what I'd call knowing it — and pace Morpheus). The most conservative academic I ever met — the one who most ardently upheld the patriarchal structures of the institution — is perhaps the most revered 'radical' feminist of the past forty years. Go figure. 

From a certain angle, philosophy looks so absurd, so silly, so adolescent as it nobly wrestles the big questions of existence! Or that's how it imagines itself. Watching academics deliver 'papers' and then watching as other academics attack with pedantic drivel is one of the most repulsive things I've ever witnessed — unless it's all parody in which case it's hilarious. I mean, they can't be serious, right? In what world, in what life, can such things matter?

This, alas, is the question I ask more and more of everything, a question I learned from Nietzsche: What life does these things? And so I wonder: What if there are no questions because there are no answers? What if it's all a matter of going in the world, a matter of being congruent with circumstance, of experiencing peace, love, joy, delectation? What if having an answer not only is silly, what if it's the very thing that stands between you and said peace, love, joy, delectation?

No doubt, such an inclination can lead to a certain anti-intellectualism. Which, I have to say, is not necessarily a bad thing per se. Well, I take that back as being anti anything seems like a waste of energy (as Nietzsche would say). But there is certainly an a-intellectualism to those such as Osho who suggest there are no questions as there are no answers. 

And as so much of my identity is wrapped up in my understanding of myself as an intellectual. And so, sometimes, I want to punch Osho in the face. Or just tell him to bugger off. But perhaps that's because I don't want to put myself on the line. I want to be the smart guy, preach some psychedelic cool shit, and then go on home. 

But the philosophers I dig — Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Guattari, and, yes, Osho — refuse to let themselves off the hook. Their thinking and their lives may not always have been aligned but they sought that alignment, that harmonic resonance. To me, the best thinking is the best living. It demands all of me, not just my head, my mind, my ideas, and my words but also my belly, my ass, my peace, my life. 

I am not suggesting we not think, that we not question. I'm suggesting we question more ardently, that we question the role of the question to the point of exhaustion, until the question has thoroughly enfolded the asker, enfolded us all, until the only reply is: this. 

11.09.2014

Eating Books, Learning Food


[I wrote a version of this many years ago for a magazine called Satellite.]

Nietzsche tells us that the greatest question of philosophy is nutrition: What do you eat?  What makes you the healthiest, feeling the best?  What do you most desire in your mouth, in your belly? Are your desires and your health well aligned? Or does one undo the other, a malignant, all too human trait?  Nietzsche himself doesn't drink coffee: "Coffee spreads darkness."  "Tea," he continues, "is wholesome only in the morning.  A little, but strong: tea is very unwholesome and sicklies one o'er the whole day if it is too weak by a single degree."  Then again, he warns us, it all depends on the environment, on the weather. And on the size of your own stomach.  One's ideal diet—the only real concern of the philosopher—is a complex configuration of ever changing particularities. 
You are your metabolism.

And so I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves as if they were an enormous refrigerator. Hmn, what'll I have?  What am I in the mood for? What will sate me? Ew, Heidegger's Being and Time. Have you ever tried to read it? It's bereft of humor, joy, wit, elegance and eloquence. It's like eating sand. And so it remains on the shelf the same way that ancient bottle of mustard remains in the fridge —it's too big to just toss in the garbage and I'm too lazy to figure out what else to do with it.  And who knows? It might come in handy one day. (I can feel all the Heideggerians bristling, as they are wont to do.)

Look, there's Moby Dick. I've probably read the first 100 pages five or six times and each time I am absolutely mesmerized by the baroque prose, the wit and erudition, the unabashed joy. But I'm not going to finish it; it's too rich for my blood, a gustatory leviathan. Hmn, perhaps a sampling of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari's prolific buffet: a stimulant, it infuses my body with giddiness. Or a dram of ee cummings' delicate confections—nah, not filling enough. Maybe a fix of William Burroughs' complex body of work? 

Oh, Berryman's Dream Songs it'll be: light yet resonant, fast but lasting, tasty and easy to eat. Perfect.

If books nourish us, food teaches us. I've always considered Uni — raw sea urchin gonads — one of my great teachers.  With its oceanic pith, Uni questions the nature of knowledge itself. Murky yet vaguely coherent, skanky yet delectable, always subtly different, Uni is a way of knowing in and of itself. Uni teaches me, with the most intimate whispers, that something can be supremely confident without being the least bit rigid, that something can be at once self-possessed and flexible, that something can flirt with the fetid and retain its elegance.

Uni teaches me, through its steady insistence on itself as an experience—an experience that belies ready description, an experience that dissolves the ready distinction between solid and liquid, teeth and tongue, between ocean and food, between the delicious and the repulsive—that to know the world one must eat the world. And vice versa.

Not all food proffers knowledge worth knowing. The mindless reach for popcorn in a movie theater is not a learning experience—it's vacuous consumption. Habit impedes learning.  Often, it is not until one experiences something radically different, something unfamiliar, that one begins to experience experience, that one begins to know.

To eat is literally to become something other than oneself, to become delighted, joyous, healthy, grumpy, smart. The consumer often thinks that the only thing to change is the thing consumed. But that's silly. The thing consumed transforms the consumer words, sushi, tequila, the love of another: they're all consuming us as we consume them. Power is rarely straightforward.


11.05.2014

Making Sense of Images


 The beginning of an introduction I wrote some time ago on the phenomenology of viewing art. Some of this is repeated here.
Foucault's reading of this painting that opens The Order of Things baffled and exhilarated me.
The image, for Foucault, was not a sign; it was itself a site of knowledge.

I remember looking through an art magazine years many ago. It was 1998 and I’d just finished my doctorate in rhetoric. So I’m flipping through the magazine and thinking, This is terrible! I can’t read a word of this. And when I can, it’s drivel. My friend  — a well heeled filmmaker and image maker — leans over and says, No, no, you’re looking at it all wrong. Let me show you. He grabs the magazine and starts flipping wildly through it. Ah, man, look at that! Gorgeous! Then, turning pages with flippant determination: Nah, whatever, blech, blech, hmm, O, there! Nasty!

I looked first and foremost for words and the things words are especially good at — concepts and ideas.  But he looked first and foremost at the images and the experience he had with them. Yes! Ahhhhh! Eeesh! No way. Dull. Dull. Eh.

And that’s when I learned, in a flash, that I didn’t know how to read images. Sure, I’d seen plenty of art. And while my knowledge was by no means extensive, I had clearly delineated opinions about this and that (I was a recent 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.

When I looked back over my extensive years of upper education, I had never been offered a class in how to make sense of images. There were film classes in rhetoric but they were not about images at all. They were about pornography, power, gender, psychoanalysis. Images were always considered symptoms of something else, something nobler and more important: big ideas, ideology, patriarchy. The images themselves, while no doubt enjoyed, were not themselves an event, were not themselves sites of power, were not themselves ways of going in the world. They were examples of more important ways of going.

I took a modern art history class in college in which 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 being taught a topology, a system of classification. We did not spend one moment actually reckoning images, learning to see, to feel, to process or articulate what was happening directly in front of us. Knowledge about the images was laid over the images, keeping us from ever seeing anything at all. 

There have been a few moments that stood out along the way. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a revelation. He taught me that seeing is not neutral, that an act we assume to be mechanical and neutral — the eyes just see — is in fact run through with ideology.

But I was taught the book in the context of Marxist-feminist critique. And while ideology critique is an important way to see the world, it has a tendency to look over the head of the image all together in order to see what’s behind it. The image once again becomes a symptom of a societal disease that’s out there.  You don’t really see the image; you see the system that produced the image.

Then there was the opening of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things in which he performs this incredible, acrobatic reading of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas.” At the time, I found it baffling and exhilarating. He maps an elaborate scene of seeing and being seen, an entire economy of social seeing. And while he sees the image in terms of a vaster episteme, this was not ideology critique. This mode of seeing he finds in the image is the very mode of seeing that Foucault finds operating elsewhere. The painting is not a symptom but is part and parcel; the politics do not happen elsewhere. They happen in, with, and of the painting. The image itself was a site of knowledge.

For me, the most important writing I encountered about seeing was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and, in particular, his essay, “Cézanne’s Doubt.” While the essay seems to be biographical — there are lots of quotes from the painter and his friends as well as lots of facts about his life — the biography does not determine the work.  The last paragraph of the essay begins, “Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work.” The painter doesn’t as much create the work as the work creates the painter. Or, rather, they are of the same engine, the same necessity. 

Merleau-Ponty has no desire to look over the head of the painting to find the meaning. He doesn’t need to understand the culture at large or the mind-set of Cézanne the man. He can find all those things in the paintings, not because the paintings are symptoms of something else but because they are worlds themselves — worlds we live in, worlds Cézanne lives in. Because, for Merleau-Ponty, image making is not mimetic but digestive: it's a way of processing the world, taking it in and shitting it out.

Looking at Cézanne’s paintings, Merleau-Ponty finds a way of seeing the world — as well as a way of knowing the world:

The composition of Cezanne's palette leads one to suppose that he had another aim. Instead of the seven colors of the spectrum, one finds eighteen colors—six reds, five yellows, three blues, three greens, and black. The use of warm colors and black shows that Cezanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. Likewise, he does not, break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object's form and to the light it receives.

Look at where Merleau-Ponty is looking: at the image. At the colors, the composition, the play of light and form and hue. He begins with the image and sees where it takes him, what it has to teach him.

And it is here that he discovers more than just ideas, more than just biography: this is where he discovers an entire onto-cosmology, the very manner in which things are and come into the world. Not behind the painting, not in biography, but in the paintings. Just as there is no outline to predetermine the form of Cézanne’s pears, there is no outline to pre-determine Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Cézanne’s paintings. Things appear as they will. Their limits emerge and flourish in the middle of a thing!

Doing away with exact contours in certain cases, giving color priority over the outline— these obviously mean different things for Cézanne and for the impressionists. The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects: it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance.

Merleau-Ponty sees Cézanne seeing.  And this seeing is literally a perspective, a point of view, as rich and articulate as any philosophy, ethics, cosmology.

And so I began to understand that images offered a way of making sense of things. An image is a distribution of the world, a way of taking up things, ideas, affect, color, mood, history, desire, metabolizing it and spewing it out. Every image declares: Here! This! See my seeing!