12.25.2015

Holy Cow, or Understanding Nietzsche and Deleuze & Guattari as I Stare at the Buffalo

For cows, their bed is their food is their home.
Such equanimity! I see why some consider it sacred.

It's Christmas, my favorite day of the year — no obligations, nowhere to be, no one wants anything of me. So, as I've done for decades, I went to Golden Gate Park and sat with the buffalo. Yes, there is a.... pack? a herd? a bunch of buffalo in a large pen in the middle of the park. So I sit down on a bench and just watch these buffalo sitting there. I wasn't the only one.

We think about viewing animals and nature as a way to know and learn. We study them. But there's always another way of looking that participates in the becoming of that thing, the way of that thing. To watch a buffalo is to take in this enormous, impossible equanimity, to entwine with it, to ride buffalo becoming, even if just a bit.

Man o man, these animals are cool. No sudden movements. No pacing. No hunting. They sit there, utterly content (more or less). Sometimes, they stand up and eat the very thing they're sitting on. No need to forage: their bed is their food is their home.

And it suddenly struck me why, to some, the cow is a sacred animal. Of course it is! What greater example of equanimity is there? What greater expression of absolute peace with the world? What a beautiful will: the will towards, with, of cow-becoming.



Above the buffalo, I watched two hawks hunt. They were clearly hunting together, moving together, surveying the fields, navigating the winds. Everything they did was in some kind of conjunction with each other as well as with the ground and wind. It was so clearly a machine, a system distributed along diverse and shifting lines (unlike, say, a factory, conveyor belt, or train).

Two systems — the buffalo and the birds of prey — sharing this space with such utterly distinct wills, distinct ways of operating. Buffalo are so terrestrial. They don't go with air and wind too much. Meanwhile, these hawks glide so effortlessly through space, just modulating their position to veer this way or that.

Of course, not all cultures consider the cow sacred. I think of the Ancient Egyptians, of whom I know nothing, and their worship of the cat. Oh, jeez, cats are clearly incredible — solitary, strong, poised, slick, quiet, stealth, content but in a way so different than the cow.

Two wills, then: one worshipping the cat, the other worshipping the cow. I suddenly understood both Nietzsche and Deleuze & Guattari in whole new ways. For Nietzsche, we are our wills to power — how we make sense of the world, the very modes of knowledge, the things we decide to study and how we study them, the ways we distribute ourselves socially, the way we make sense of the infinite, of power, of our desire. We are not doers; we are deeds. Will is not something extraneous to us, something added to the body. We are this or that will to power: the will to cat, the will to cow, the will to skinny Hebe saying all kinds of things.

Religion, then, as a desiring machine, a way of channeling, cutting, condensing, distributing desire, an entire schema of codes and art and truth all expressing — creating — this desire: this desire to be cat, to be cow, to be skinny Hebe.

I've always loved the mountain lion. I've yearned for its independence, its solitary contentment, its strength and poise. Which is to say, I've always leaned into cougar-becoming. But watching the buffalo today, I want that equanimity amidst it all. I feel a will to cow coming on.

12.18.2015

Teacher as Host, Teacher as Life of the Party

When I was teaching, if you looked out over the classroom, everyone was seated quietly. And there, at the front of the class, was this lunatic with a nose prancing, screeching, talking and talking and talking, yelling, banging the table, moving, laughing, telling stories, interrupting movies and conversations to add his two sense. I staged an environment in which I was the life of the party, goddammit!

It's what I did naturally but there was a method to the narcissism. It was a gangbusters approach: if only I'm ardent enough, insistent enough, I'll get this understanding into their heads, their bodies, their lives. There's at once a violence and a generosity implicit in the method just as there is always violence and generosity in any pedagogic situation — the generosity and violence of giving (it's there, more subtly, in gift giving, as well).

My son is at a new school — new for him as well as new in general, its first students started in 2011. It takes a different approach to pedagogy. They call their teachers "collaborators." The space itself is something to behold: 62 kids aged 5-18 broken into "bands" of around eight students, each inhabiting a cubby, a tree house, a loft amidst this warehouse. There are drills and saws and nails available; there's a computer lab; there's a small kitchen; there's a cork(ish) board floor with mats available for tumbling and such.

This is one angle of my son's incredible school, Brightworks. 

The school and its teachers — its collaborators — create an environment for learning. There is no set curriculum but there are themes (called "arcs"; this year's is Rocks, Seeds, and Humans). They learn how to work together on projects; to plan and distribute responsibilities; they have a lot of work they do alone but for which they usually submit proposals that are then critiqued by peers and collaborators. Which is all to say, the school plays host. 

One result, as far as I can tell, is that there are many lives of the party. The school seems filled with characters, students and collaborators alike, each doing their own thing while interacting with everyone else. There is no center, no gatekeeper of knowledge or grades (there are no grades per se, of course).

Two approaches to pedagogy, then: life of the party and host. No doubt, there is a cultural heritage of the former and a cultural bias for the latter. Schools are generally architected to have one teacher in the middle running the show; one problem that arises is that that teacher is bored or insane or vapid or stupid. And then the whole things goes to shit. We've all had those classes; no doubt, I've been that insane, stupid teacher.

Today, we have less tolerance for the one who would hold forth. We live in a culture of "likes" in which very few are willing to take center stage. And those who do are, more often than not, attacked mercilessly. We like to think, not erroneously, that everyone is special, that every person learns differently, that kids should be empowered to learn as they wish and want and are so inclined.

I don't disagree with either position, either model. And at a certain point, these two blur just as all dichotomies blur. I like to imagine that in my narcissistic ramblings, my insistence on my own voice being heard, that I created a certain environment, that I hosted a certain kind of party where learning could (and hopefully did) happen. Yes, it revolved around me. But I wasn't the cool, kick back host who sat in the corner sipping his Rémy with sycophants gathered at his feet. I tried to be the life of the party who touches everyone, influences everyone, gets everyone engaged, laughing, learning. Frankly, it's exhausting.

The host model takes a different approach. It puts in its work behind the scenes, before everyone's arrived, putting everything in its place, making snacks and drinks readily available, putting cocktail tables in just the right place.

Now, were I ever to host a party (which would mean I'd have friends: see earlier post on the inhuman social), I'd buy a bunch of booze, put out cups, and set everyone loose. And then, no doubt, I'd parade about holding forth on this and that.

The host model seems more efficient. Most notably, it's replicable. It doesn't turn on the personality of one person. But it also relies on the motivation and energy of the student which might very well be absent or in short supply. Then again, that's always the case, always a possibility.

When we think about teachers, we imagine lives of the party, even if they're often a tad curmudgeonly. I'm thinking of John Houseman in The Paper Chase and of Socrates, of course. And even Jesus, who could be a bit cranky. Which is to say, we imagine the teacher as a kind of storm, a whirling dervish, a strong personality. Kierkegaard argues that the teacher is everything (for Kierkegaard, that is what makes Christianity Christianity: if Socrates was a mid-wife, bringing about what we already know, Jesus is the essential factor that makes rebirth — repetition — possible. See his Philosophical Fragments).

But Brightworks, my kid's school, enacts a different model all together. They architect then hang back a bit, steering here and there, nudging but not dictating. Which can be hard for me at times. Often, my boy reads me his homework and, well, I take to it with said whirling, hurling questions, giving lectures, offering different models, poking and prodding with a certain vehemence. Which my self deprecation tells me is wrong but all my pedagogic instincts tell me is good and right.

Alas, like most things, I suppose the best pedagogy takes place within a well hosted environment punctuated now and again with a life of the party: a welcoming environment accompanied by a host not unafraid to demand you try his cocktail (to extend the metaphor, however awkwardly).

And yet the two modes involve fundamentally different modes of training with different sets of expectations, different ways of assessing success. But what is success in education, anyway? For me, it was always a mind blown, a new life view inaugurated — which I believed I could bring about through a relentless show. But surely there are other metrics and other ways.

12.12.2015

The Inhuman Social

When I'm at the ocean, I don't feel asocial. On the contrary, I'm enmeshed in elaborate conversations of the best sort.

When I was younger, I had a group of friends, a whole crew, a bevy of boys and girls with whom I hung out constantly, drinking, goofing, doing what we did. In college, I had more or less of the same — except that I was living alone. Even in the dorms as a freshman, I had a single room. I remember that I was shocked that I got it — the single room, that is — as I knew there weren't many available. But it turns out most people, especially college freshman, don't want to live alone — which I found weird. This should have been a sign. That and my love for Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling which finds Abraham alone on the mountain top, alone in the world, alone except for god, except for his living in the infinite.

Anyway, as college progressed — or, rather, happened, progress being such a loaded word — I found myself more and more alone. I'd sit in my studio way off campus reading and writing. I had friends still but I became less and less part of a group per se. It was all too much for me; I'd short circuit when in groups.

And so I came West (relatively speaking). And as I happened — progressed being such a loaded term —, I found myself alone to a startling degree (startling for some, that is). I really spend most of my days and nights alone. Where am I gonna go? Shopping? To the gym? Nah. I just stay home. No roommates, no neighbors, a 12 year old boy twice a week (my son, you pervs!), an occasional client call, a date once in a while.

But I do go to the beach several times a week. It's the only place I feel at home. What might strike some as strange is that I don't feel alone there. On the contrary, I feel immersed, enmeshed. Only it's not in the living social: it's in the undulations of the clouds, of the atmospheric cosmos. I go there to socialize with the atmosphere which is, alas, quite plucky. Those clouds have a lot — a lot — to say. And yet they leave me my space, sorta (they do surround me, weigh down upon me).

The atmosphere is not static. It's in a state of constant flux, more or less agitated, fast, sedentary. When I sit and walk along the ocean's edge, I feel like I'm in the best possible conversations. There's no bullshit. Or, well, there might be but it's always from me and the ocean and the clouds call me on it in the most generous way. I fuckin' love those clouds! Those waves! When I'm there, I feel like I'm socializing. I'm going with them, leaning into their ecstasy, their melancholy, their weight, their flux.

Which just goes to show there are different registers of the social. I want to define the social as "going with" rather than as solely human. There are all kinds of things to go with as well as different registers of the human social. I've known people — always women, for some reason — who love going on date after date garnered from the world wide web. That's a kind of social for sure. I've also noted that most of those people burn out: reckoning a new person every day who might or might not want to touch you, fuck you, love you is downright exhausting (for most people — to each her own metabolism, always and of course).

In Year of the Dog, Mike White gives us a character who does not operate well with humans and knows something's wrong. She assumes that something is her. The people around her are not bad; they're just, well, human. But with dogs, she feels right and good; she feels alive. And so she abandons the human world for the world of animals.


I know many people who love plants. To them, a perfect day is meandering through some luscious place — Mt. Tam, China Basin, wherever. They feel good going with the vegetal, with its pace and demands. Others I know love the birds — the soaring and sounds and plumage. I get it; I get it all. But I'm sticking with the clouds for now. Im sticking with that view, every night, from my bedroom window of the greatest party imaginable. And, if I'm so inclined, I can sass it up with some Bibio or Bruce or Broken Social Scene or nothing at all but the hum of life.

Some people really prosper online, on the Facebook and Twitter and such. Social media has really stretched, complicated, and complemented what we think of as the human social. As catfishing and all that testify to, people want to feel connected, even to strangers, even strangely, even if all it is is a strange mix of texts and emails. It feels like life. It is a kind of life. (This is not to belittle social media at all; as one who spends most of his time physically alone, I've known a wide variety of so-called virtual experiences, from the friendly to the sexual, that have resounded for me in profound ways.)

For me, it all comes down to what Nietzsche taught me, perhaps his greatest lesson: be in an environment in which you, in which I, can say Yes as much as possible. For me, so much of the social is filled with No — Don't cut me off, douchebag driver; Does this meeting have a purpose?; Are you really playing this insane game to make me jealous?; and so on and so on and such. But the clouds and the ocean have me saying Yes over and over and over: a persistent hum of affirmation. Sure, sometimes I say No, especially to the wind. The wind can be so rude, after all. But then I just go inside and, voilà, I'm not saying No anymore.

I could of course change myself so I'm saying Yes to whatever comes my way. This is what religious practice would claim to offer. If I meditated and were grounded, I could change myself so as to welcome any and all, including traffic, the wind, manipulative would-be lovers.

But, then again, I am this engine. I am this body, this metabolism, this way of going. And, yes, I work to optimize my engine. But I also know how my engine likes to run — and that's with clouds.

12.07.2015

In the Seam of It All: On Reading "Short Flights" (A book of aphorisms)

 
This new book of aphorisms is an incredible, dizzying, disorienting experience.
 Like the form itself, this book leaves the reader in a strange, in-between state, immersed and enmeshed within the seams where words, sense, and concepts flow.
Check it out.


You might think that reading a book of aphorisms would be a quick, lighthearted affair while reading, say, Moby Dick demands a serious commitment. But I'm here to tell you that reading a book of aphorisms is dizzying (in the best sense — after all, who wants to read something that reassures? Shouldn't the best things dis- and re-orient?). 

Sure, one aphorism might be quick. (Of course, that one aphorism might linger, persist, resonate, alter, stymie, confound, grab, anger, frustrate enlighten, and/or liberate you over the course of your life.) But an entire book of them, from a breadth of writers — 32, to be precise — from an even greater breadth of perspectives and sensibilities is, well, a thing of another order. 

An aphorism is a strange beast. In the exquisite introduction to Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, James Lough gives us a learned and poetic survey of the form — a brief history (befitting the topic, no doubt) along with an attempt to define and develop a taxonomy for this oft-forgotten form. After all, is an aphorism only defined by its brevity? Well, obviously not. Must it contain wisdom? Perhaps. How about paradox? Often, it seems. 

Indeed, Lough argues that the aphorism is not a simple declaration or even platitude. In his words, it must twist — in word, in form, in sense, in expectation, in perspective. As he claims, "A strong aphorism seduces, surprises, and sinks in....It needs a reversal, or more generally, it needs to bear the double footprints of a thought retracing itself. A good aphorism's doubleness is what makes it pop. It undulates, airborne in two quick arcs — one up, one down — and snaps at the end with a wicked crack."

I want to say, yes, there's that doubleness but there might be even more twists, more directions than two — not just a doubling but a proliferation, a birth of trajectories, tangents, curves, an entire calculus of sense. The thing that, for me, makes this book so great is each contributor writes a pithy introduction to his or her take on the aphorism. That's 32 different perspectives on what the damn thing even is, creating a kind of meta-aphorism, a folded, twisting definition that contains multitudes (pace Whitman). 

The effect is origami-like. All these folds, pleats, twists! Some deploy the form to grasp at concepts and truths, picking up where the discipline of philosophy has proven inadequate. For others, it emerges from quiet, meditative exploration. Some need the brevity for the sake of quotidian convenience. Some question the prejudice of the aphorism's objectivity, pushing the aphorism towards the more familiar form of personal poetry and imagistic memoir.

And yet, even then, the familiarity will not stick. Aphorisms are nomadic all the way down. They refuse to stand still. They flourish in the seams of form, between and amongst and within philosophy, poetry, meditation, koan, joke. An aphorism is all those things and none. It may reach for wisdom, for truth, for empathy, for sympathy, for compassion. And yet again, it may persist right where it is, neither ascending nor burrowing but content in a kind of formal acrobatic sense making: This! Here! Now!

The effect of reading them is equally nebulous, multiple, and disorienting. Unlike, say, a philosophic tome — Kant's Critique of Moral Judgment or even Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals — the aphorism is on its own, adrift. It has no other context, no place to call home. It's not part of a system; it's not a stone within an edifice of one ideology or other. Sure, we readers may afford an aphorism a temporary resting site as the words seem to buttress some notion we already have. But that aphorism isn't there to confirm you or your beliefs; it's not a platitude or cliché. Despite its brevity, or precisely because of its brevity, its twist, its doubleness, its multiplicity disallow easy conforming to the ready-made world. 

It even resists authorship. No doubt, if we take the aphorisms of one writer together — as this book does for 32 different writers — we begin to see a style, a belief system, a world view emerge.  Ashleigh Brilliant (now that's a name!) has a taste for paradox — "There's only one everything"; Sharon Dolin evokes memoir and image — "Old woman on the road. Back bent. Nothing left to carry but her life"; HL Hix undoes final truths — "Our inability to entertain a multiplicity of ideas simultaneously, we call 'truth.'" 

But aphorisms don't necessarily want to be collected, to be taken together, to be unified. That is their power. They stand alone. But they're not hermetic. On the contrary, they find their very lifeblood in the seams of energy that flow between form, senses, truths, words, and disciplines. As such, they are generous, even if often quite dangerous. 

And this makes reading a book of aphorisms from different writers an incredible experience. Identities blur, even if great names are attached. Most conspicuously for me, it was my identity as a reader that blurred the most. As Lough points out, aphorisms play with perspectives. Who speaks in an aphorism? Who is the we? Who is the you? The I? From where does the aphorism usher its insight? In what tone is it scribbled? The aphorism is a rhetorical minefield (pun intended?). 

Take this one from James Richardson: "Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired." Who speaks? And what's the critique? Who does most of this admiring? Us? Him? You? People in general? The answer, it seems, is all and none. The aphorism hangs there, or better, flourishes there in the in-between, in the seam of perspectives.

Or this, from James Lough: "I'm anxiously awaiting the response to a text message I haven't sent yet." The I is Mr. Lough, perhaps, but it's also me just as it's not me but some other I, some I I don't want to be but often am. The phrase drifts among possible and actual I's, refusing to settle, claiming all and none as it own.

Then this one from Yahia Lababidi: "Envious of natural disasters, men create their own." In what voice is this delivered? Is envy good? Bad? Both? Neither? Is this wisdom? Observation? Something to be heeded? Known? Once again, the aphorism finds its power by claiming none and all, by drifting in the seams.

All these perspectives literally splay me. They disembody me, taking me out of myself, sending me adrift into a place of impersonal becoming, a place where knowledge is no longer mine — and is all the more resonant for it.

This is a book of folds, of multiplicities that in turn folds and multiplies you. To read this book is to be swept up in flows that exceed, surround, and ignite you. The sensation is uncanny, familiar and unfamiliar, as you take leave of yourself and join a kind of cosmic, inter- and intra-human becoming. To read this books of aphorisms is to flourish in the seam of it all.