3.26.2015

We Make Sense Together


Think about the wide cast of characters who go into making a movie. There's the screenwriter — or, more likely, screenwriters, who not only write the words but craft the story (if there is a story). The screenplay itself can play diverse roles. The Coen brothers live by their exact words as much in their films moves to the rhythm of words. Imagine Miller's Crossing, one of the most articulate movies, without words: it'd be a very strange affair (even if quite beautiful).

There's the cinematographer who oversees the very look of the film — although not necessarily the look of the movie, if that makes any sense. There is often an art director who helps construct the look of the movie — the colors, the visual concepts, perhaps the mood, the matte browns of Miller's Crossing, the cold blue greys David Fincher likes so much these days. The cinematographer, who may be art directing, decides the best technology — lens, film stock, camera, lighting — to achieve the desired look.

There are the actors who, in many ways, are the strangest technology on the set. They are defined by the limits of not just their bodies but their capacity to emotionally inflect their bodies. Colin Farrell always looks vapid. He may or may not be as a person but that's how he presents to the camera. Tom Cruise can't underplay: he's all cocky grin. These are not criticisms; they are realities that play their role in configuring this thing that is many things that we call a movie. Harvey Keitel, Vincent Gallo, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Gena Rowlands: these are all actors who have the ability to generate meaning and sense often despite the words they're forced to say.

There are so many other players — the crew, the set designers, the make up and costumes, the location scouts, the editor (who I secretly feel controls the film), the freakin' producers who, in Hollywood, probably dictate the most.

And then there's the director. With the rise of auteur theory, we came to imagine one person who's really in control — the director. But consider that title for a moment as it tells us all we need to know: the director doesn't create per se as much as she directs bodies — you there, that here, and so on. 

While movies make this distributed effort explicit, it's there in writing, too. Sure, there aren't as many bodies bearing down on the writer day to day. But there are probably even more echoes and tropes, temptations of cliché, the cacophonous chorus of history, of all things said and written, of voices and possibilities streaming through our writer. He may look all alone in the chair in the cabin, but he's haunted by a universe of ghosts.

And this doesn't even get to the materiality of language itself, all the rules and words with their odd timings and meanings which always have a way of getting away from us. A writer is written by the limits of his language as much as he writes. After all, we can't just write any old thing. Well, we can. But not if we are writing to an audience and want anyone to make any kind of sense of what we're writing. Subject-verb agreement, all those inflections of time and orientation, the weight and connotations of every word: they steer the writer whether he likes it or not.

The audience, too, plays its role. Which is to say, the writer will never have been the author — the authority — over his writing (pace Barthes). Once I write, it's left me and anyone out there can and will do what he or she will. All writing is detached from its origin, always and already, only to be taken up, repurposed, cut up, spun by anyone and everyone (pace Derrida).

Sense and meaning — these are not the same thing; meaning is tethered to a concept or thing, sense to a shape or affect — do not emanate from a point. They are always and already cooperative events. We don't just create together; we make sense together.

Sense and meaning are distributed throughout an event. Sometimes, especially in films, music plays an instrumental role in defining the sense of a scene. Other times, it's the dialogue or the actor, the shot or the lighting. In any case, all those components work together in an ever differing calculus to create a sense event: this experience rather than that. Shift one element and it sends ripples through the whole shebang, creating a different event.

There is no single point determining sense or even meaning. Both sense and meaning are distributed in their creation and their consumption (the line between the two blurs, of course). There is never, ever, one point of meaning. It's not only all in flux: it's distributed amongst different bodies and forces. We make sense together but the sense we create is never one but always — always — many.

3.19.2015

The Energy Problem is You


There's some stupid ad on tv for oatmeal that shows a series of people of different ages nodding off (not on junk, you naughty kids, but presumably because they're so tired) while the voiceover says lightly and knowingly says: "There's an energy crisis happening, all right: a human one."  There is profound wisdom in this, even if the treatment and proffered remedy repeat the very problem it nominally seeks to solve.

As a society, we burn shit — or, rather, death — to make our machines go. There's something so beautifully and insanely anachronistic about this. Cars, lights, factories, planes, computers, servers: to make them go, we burn shit, blow it up. It's the same energy we've been using for hundreds of thousands of years. Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels as we do is destroying life on the planet and making the weather decidedly odd.

There are plenty of well intentioned folks out there who want to change this. I often see them on the corners in San Francisco's Noe Valley and Mission, asking me for a donation and a signature to help limit the burning of dead shit. When I read their brochures or hear them talk, I see that they focus on oil and gas and fracking and how it hurts us.

Unfortunately, I can't help but think that they are part of the problem — as am I and, well, probably you, too. And not because we use, and indeed are wholly dependent on, all the machines that burn the dead things that scorch our earth. But because the energy crisis is less a crisis of the stuff out there — oil and gas and coal and such — than it is a crisis of me and you, of our energy. Quaker Oats got it right.

Nietzsche sees life as a matter of energy — its use, its preservation and expenditure and their effects on life, health, and vitality. To say No all day long to every sort of thing expends energy. To wake up too early to an obnoxious alarm clock; to fight traffic and douchebaggy entitled drivers; to find yourself in a cubicle or, just as bad, some hip industrial open space where you assume your position in front of a screen, surrounded by some mix of morons and friends all working to make someone you probably will never meet more money; then to wait on line at some half-assed food truck to eat over salted, if occasionally tasty, lunch at your desk; to find yourself gassy and needing to tend to business in a bathroom that affords no privacy; finally, to find the work day done only to navigate that demented traffic once again, get home, and deal with sullen, beaten down spouses and spawns: this drains our energy.

This is a crisis of energy in every sense of both words (crisis and energy, that is). We expend our vital energy — our full days, decade in and decade out — in order to fuel our economy that consumes dead fuels that are killing not just us but our future us. It's a lose-lose all around. Yes, they feed us Starfucks coffee to keep us awake pushing pixels. But the fact is: we're exhausted yet can't sleep so take Ambien which leaves us stupid and numb. We're anxious so popping Cymbalta; depressed, so Abilify (the #1 prescribed drug in America); Viagra, because we're impotent. We're so drained, we can barely function — all in order to serve a fossil fuel economy of consumption. So, well, standing on a corner asking for my money so some lobbyist can hedge the utter devastation of the planet seems misguided, if well intentioned (and even necessary).

I'm suggesting, along with Nietzsche, that we begin by focusing on our own energy expenditures. That we each put ourselves in a position, in an environment, where we can say Yes as much as possible. Oh, man, I love that! Picture it for a second. Picture a world in which everything that happens to you, all your encounters, your food, the weather, other people, all the asks and demands of you would leave you feeling and declaring a most emphatic Yes! Yes, this is the way to wake up! Yes, this is a breakfast I want to eat, that leaves me feeling strong and vital! Yes, here are people I want to talk to about these precise things! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Not only would we not be expending our energy fending off the asshole drivers and moron bosses of the world, we'd be generating energy. We'd be increasingly fueled by our encounters, by the food we eat, the people we meet, the environment around us. And then we'd feel less need to drive, flip on device after device, work for world dominating corporations. We'd be content — joyful, even.

In this sense, I am an environmentalist in that I believe that everything in my environment, including me, consumes or fuels my energy level. Nietzsche says that the great questions of philosophy are not What is truth? What is morality? They are: What do you eat? Where do you live? How do you recreate? Tend to these, he suggests, and you will maximize your energy conservation and, ideally, generate even more energy.

Now, imagine if our collective discourse on energy focused on this rather than on fossil fuels. It seems to me that talking about oil is what oil companies do. And so, in a way, those non-profits that talk about oil all day are oil companies. Sure, they might be necessary to help check the madness of ExxonMobil who, without thinking twice, would scorch the earth if there were a buck in it. But all these groups do is play into the very structures that propel the behaviors that are killing us. Yes, they keep the oil companies in check, more or less, because our collective body — that is, the government — serves the interest of Big Oil. So I thank the non-profits for doing what they're doing.

But I also want to suggest that there be a real environmental movement, a real energy movement, that considers and operates with the energy we consume and distribute every day. I mean, if everyone focused on preserving their own energy, focused on creating an environment in which they said Yes as much as possible rather than endlessly parrying with No, then perhaps we'd all stop burning so much dead shit that's tearing holes in the sky and in our souls. And maybe even be happy.

3.12.2015

The Temptation of Nothing


A man lies on his living room floor. His eyes are closed, arms by his side. His face is still, even, but occasionally furrowed. He continues to lie there and then, after several days, a smile begins to form. Suddenly, he feels free from the hassles and negotiations of the social — free of words and phone calls, of texts and emails and traffic, of PowerPoint and stomach aches, of all the worldly things that drag him down. In closing his eyes, he's shutting out his body and this crass, physical world. He's entering the pristine world of the spirit.

Another man lies on his living room floor, eyes closed, arms by his side. And, like the other man, a smile begins to form after several days. But he's not smiling because he's distancing himself from the world. No, he's smiling because he's breaking out of the hypnotic trance of anxiety, fear, desire, and judgement that define our everyday. He shuts his eyes not so as to deny his body but so as to feel his body from the inside, as if for the very first time. He's smiling because he's alive, because he feels the cosmos flow through him. He's not smiling because he's not part of the world; he's smiling because he is part of the world. And just lying there is enough, is plenty, is everything. Why? Because life itself is beautiful and perfect.

From the outside, the two may look the same. But they couldn't be more different. Or at least that's the idea.

My shrink — who is of another order, another plane; he's not a therapist per se — has been encouraging me to be that second man, to cut out all intoxicants for 90 days, give or take. Do nothing, he says, just be. And then you can drink and what have you but not because it sates but because you want to. For him, there should be no difference between sitting on the floor doing nothing and getting lit.

Me, I'm not so sure. Isn't this world always inflected, always in motion? Certain doing feels and does good while some does not. I may be body and spirit but I am body, for sure, and right now a cocktail sounds mighty fine.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a seeker — and finder — of pleasures. From my high school daze to my present self-employment, I've never been one to suffer when there's another way. I'm a good drinker, a good consumer of this and that. It's a comfortable life, my life, for the most part.

But, alas, these pleasures are not always enough to keep the horrors of life at bay. I still have the demons of my fucked up childhood; I still wrangle loves lost and found; I still have to watch people I love die and, from time to time — too often — it leaves me dazed and demented, frazzled, depleted, anxious, and awash. At times like these, neither the booze and Ativan nor a kiss suffice. Which is why I found myself at the shrink's office in the first place.

His vision is that I should feel pleasure — joy — from just being alive, not from a Vicodin-scotch cocktail. It's not that he believes that this joy comes from doing nothing. In fact, he asserts over and over that it doesn't matter what I'm doing, as long as I embrace doing it. He believes I should do nothing for a while to break my dependence on the hypnotics of pleasure which leave me, finally, lacking. And then, perhaps, I may imbibe as I will but it won't be to put the demons away but to experience life just as I would lying on my floor, eyes closed: with joy.

But the thing is, I'm not so sure that's right. After all, aren't I body and shouldn't I feed it pleasure, even if that means sometimes experiencing harrowing sadness, pain, and anxiety? I love this world — I love words and ideas, chocolate and trees, smiles and dreams and gin. I don't want to do nothing; I don't feel I should have to do nothing. I want to be in and of this world, thoroughly and ecstatically.

Yet I don't want to be enmeshed in the horrific culture of despair that insists, that persists. And the image of calm amidst the storm that doing nothing dangles is certainly enticing — perhaps even more enticing than this tasty gin cocktail.

Nietzsche, I believe, would assert that both modes — pleasure and doing nothing — are nihilistic modes of avoiding life. They may be less egregious than Judeo-Christian sanctimony and ressentiment but they are still salves for the weak. They are premised on the belief that life needs remedy whereas, for Nietzsche, life is always already perfect. His version of joy is different than the Buddhist version in that his is lined with flesh and words while Buddhism defers to silence and spirit. Both seek to affirm this life. But the do-nothing way poo poos words and ideas and actions while Nietzsche affirms them as being as much of this life as anything else and therefore perfect. (I want to say that Buddhism seeks bliss — the transcending of the body — while Nietzsche seeks joy, a radical affirmation of the body.)

In any case, I am not that noble man Nietzsche writes of. Life, for me, is hard — I live the despair of death, the humiliations of the body, of guilt, of anxiety, self-loathing, and endless judgement. For many years, I've been able to negotiate all this with a cocktail of delights and life engineering. But lately I'm feeling this strategy might have run its course and that another kind of pleasure awaits: the supreme pleasure of life and nothing else.

3.05.2015

How I Know Birds Fly for Fun



Decades ago, I was visiting a friend in Maine on this incredible island called Isle Au Haut with almost no people, no electricity, no running water. I'd gone for a walk on my own and was sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean. A flock of birds was goofing around, zipping here and there, flying high then swooping down, weaving around each other. And it suddenly seemed so obvious: they were flying for fun — not for food or ritual, not out of instinct, but for the sheer delight of it.

But how could I know such a thing? Indeed, how do we ever know what's going in the minds and experience of another? This is a classic college stoner discussion: What if what I see as blue, you see as pink? How would we ever know, man?

Light can of course be quantified — which is odd. Color is such an affective experience; it's run through with associations, moods, histories, sensations. But it can also be understood as a wavelength that has a certain measurable frequency.

Numbers — or, more specifically, measurement — are great as they provide the semblance of objectivity. We can all say different things, even see different things — I see blue! I see orange! — but the numbers don't lie. This is, of course, insane. Think about it for a moment: a number on a screen is true while the experience we have — our actual lives! — are not.  I actually find it beautiful in a way, this clarity of numbers. It's the madness of reason.

I do not mean to poo poo numbers or so-called objective measurement at all. It's quite handy and helps us in lots of different ways, especially in the admittedly demented field of medicine. But I do mean to point out the supreme oddity of it, the way we appeal to some abstract markings on a page or screen while ignoring, or denying, our experience. Nietzsche calls this a kind of nihilism, a self-effacement in the name of an abstract ideal.

What this reliance on abstract measurement assumes is that me, my senses, my experience are not trustworthy, that they don't have proper access to the world. I was walking in the Marin headlands a few years ago where there are these cement bunkers leftover from WWII. Presumably, soldiers would sit in there and scan the waters, looking to see if we were being attacked by Japan. This struck me as hilarious, quaint, sweet. But what's odd is my reaction, namely, that we find it absurd to think that actually seeing something is knowing when a radar so obviously knows better.

Our love of measurement also assumes that experience is discrete rather than ecological.  That is, it imagines that there is a subject, more or less isolated, and an object that, too, is more or less isolated. And then we try to imagine how things can possibly be transmitted across this seeming abyss.

But what if this is a faulty assumption and that, rather than subjects and objects being discrete, we are all both subjects and objects that are interconnected through a series of forces both measurable and not? Let's begin by saying I am a thing among things rather than a subject among objects. We are all things — me, you, this monitor and keyboard and screen, this phone, these ideas, these strange smells coming from my kitchen. And we are all connected in varied and complex ways. How, then, do we come to know anything?

Well, certainly not only through abstract, external, quantifiable measurement. That would be absurd. We know how people are feeling all the time even though we can't measure it. And it's not just through the explicit signs of smiles, tears, and words. In fact, often people say they're fine when they're anything but — and we know it! We can see, we can sense, that something is wrong.

How? Affect is transmitted in different ways: you beam your mood to me. This is something we've all experienced dealing with love and sex. You're talking to someone and you know, truly know, that he or she is, uh, into you. They've beamed their desire into you. You can't measure it but you know it.

But affect also exceeds us. It doesn't need to be transmitted per se because we're all participating in it, making it just as it's making us — or making our moods. You walk in a bar and say, Eeesh, this place has an odd mood! Mood is in the air. It's ambient.

And it's not subjective even if it is particular. Yes, you might find the mood delightful while I find it foul but we're both still reacting to the mood. Just as chopped chicken liver reacts differently with my body than it does with yours, the mood of the room interacts differently with my body than with yours. That doesn't make it subjective and unknowable. It makes it objective and perspectival.

Affect — invisible states of the world — exceeds us. And affect is not just for people. Rocks, lakes, chairs, and words are all affective. Everything is affective. Affect is strange in that it manifests particularly — differently in my body than in the rock's — but is not immanent to a particular body. It exceeds things. Affect is invisible, more or less discrete, and moving. It doesn't as much come from bodies as it is the very stuff of the world — along with dirt, oxygen, metal, skin, and whiskers. This life is as virtual as it is real, as physical as it is affective, as visible and it is invisible. And we sense it all; such is empiricism.

We know things not through the abstraction of fact — this quinoa ball has 14 grams of protein — but through lived experience: when I eat that quinoa ball, I'm full (or not)!  Facts are one way to make sense of things but they're not how we know. We know because we live through the world as part of the world. (We say so-called facts to position ourselves in the social and to ourselves.)

When asked how he knew the fish were happy as they swam, Chuang Tzu replied,

I know the joy of fishes
In the river
Through my own joy, as I go walking
Along the same river.

(Thomas Merton, "The Joy of Fishes" in The Way of Chuang Tzu — a book I highly recommend)

We know the world not because we're removed from it but because we're enmeshed with it, because it exceeds and envelops us. We literally share experiences, even with birds. 

3.02.2015

Breaking Good: "The Good Wife" Meets "Breaking Bad"



Like many people I know, I've become obsessed with "The Good Wife." And it struck me at some point that it follows an odd grammar for television, but a grammar I'd seen before — in "Breaking Bad." Both shows disrupt, indeed derail, the common formula for serial television. Rather than having characters relentlessly perform themselves — Ross is always Ross, Rachel is always Rachel (why do I always use "Friends" as my example? It's humiliating) — both "The Good Wife" and "Breaking Bad" give us something else: characters who are in flux. Alicia and Walt are in a state of becoming — not becoming anything per se, just becoming. The shows are propelled not by the sameness of the characters but by their change.

What seems conspicuous is that both explore, to a greater or lesser degree, the conditions of becoming within the confines of culturally defined gender roles. Walt wants to be a man — but a man as he's been fed it his whole life. What sets the whole mayhem of the show in motion is not just his cancer but the way he's provoked by Hank. From the outside, Hank is a man's man. The show undoes this by revealing his anxiety attacks, his self-doubt, his fears. But his persona is all man, as it were, and he goads Walt, even acting as the surrogate father to Walt's son.

Walt feels emasculated — by the students in his class, by his former lover, by his former colleague who cuckolded him, by his boss at the car wash, by the medical profession, by his looming poverty, and it all comes to a head (ahem) in his castration by Hank. So what does Walt do? He sets out to dominate. If he just wanted the money, he could have had that. But he wants the masculine power as defined by our culture — the power to physically control: "Say my name!" He wants to be the one who knocks. And it's, of course, what kills him. Masculinity in our culture is a zero sum game. (This is not to say there aren't ways of being a man that are not violent or dominant. It's to say that those are the major modes, as it were.)

Just like "Breaking Bad, "The Good Wife" opens with its main character, Alicia, at a juncture. She's been the dutiful politician's wife — proper, respectful, doting while he philanders, bribes, scares, dominates, does what he wants. But now her husband is humiliated and in jail. So she tries to return to the work world and, as we learn in a flashback, her self-deprecating and insecurity will not suffice. But nor will fear and domination. And so she flirts. That is the device, the tool, culture has left her. Her intelligence, her capability, her knowledge are not enough, at least not at first. She has her sexuality and she uses it, subtly but knowingly.

Her sexuality moves into the background. But she maintains her tether to masculine power through her husband. She doesn't divorce him because she needs him — if I were still in college (and it was still 1988), I'd say she needs his phallus to wield her power. She can't just dominate and intimidate the power Walt does (or at least tries to do). The mechanisms of control and senses of self are different for her as a woman than they are for Walt. She is constantly assessing whether she's doing the right thing, if she's being proper whereas Walt heads into rampant amorality, if not downright cruelty, without a second's hesitation. His power lies in breaking bad; hers, in playing, and playing with being, the good wife.

In some sense, what drives both is survival. But the meaning of survival is quite different for them. Yes, Walt wants to survive cancer — or, rather, to survive by providing a future for his family (money and meth won't cure his disease). But that's mostly bullshit. He wants to dominate. As he says, he's not in the money making business; he's in the empire building business. Alicia needs to support her family as her husband is in jail. And this is a very real fear for women: financial destitution (I'm not making that up; that is a well researched sociological finding, whatever that means). But both Alicia and Walt are dead inside and need to survive as human beings within the cards dealt them, within the structure of identity, class, and gender that limit them. 

I had an interesting conversation with a female friend of mine who, like me, had recently become obsessed with "The Good Wife." She believes that what drives Alicia is care for her children. I countered that, like Walter White, she has an emerging will to empire. But, unlike Walt, she can't — nor would want to — dominate through physical violence. She uses what she knows — the law, just as Walt uses chemistry — but she also uses sexuality, misdirection, and her relationships to men. Different tools, different ways and means, not such a different will. 

Of course, the shows are quite different. "Breaking Bad" comes out swinging like gangbusters and doesn't relent. If all human relationships are chemical as the pilot of "Breaking Bad" suggests, then Walt is a highly reactive element. When he comes in contact with other elements, there are often explosions. Alicia is less immediately volatile but her reach is, in a way, greater for being more subtle. She sends ripples far and wide.

We see this in the grammar of the two shows. "The Good Wife" is looser — more characters come and go, more small reactions take place, ripples move from the social to the work place to the political. The show is brilliant in this fashion; it doesn't constrain itself very much, not even in its tone and style. "Breaking Bad" is highly focused, denser, more regimented, each shot and exchange something exquisite.

Of course, while we know what happens to Walt in the end, while he has his reckoning, we've yet to see how Alicia ends up (if there is such a thing as "end up"). We don't know quite what drives her. Or, rather, we know that it's not one thing. Yes, she cares for her children. Yes, she wants to feel alive. Yes, she has some will to empire. She is multiple. But both shows give us the pleasure, even if sometimes painful, of watching life become.