12.27.2016

On Solitude: Balancing the Human & Inhuman



This is a bit more of a personal podcast as I take a quick break from talking about my book. This one was inspired by Christmas and my will to solitude — and the limits of this will.

I've long enjoyed the romance of the solitary man who takes joy in clouds and the sky. And, no doubt, these things bring me a certain ecstasy. But I run into the limits of my inhumanity as I feel lonely, as I grieve, as I desire. To shed my humanity is a false dream, a dangerous dream. There is much that is beautiful in the human experience, even when ugly. But, more than beauty, there is the inevitability of that human tug of childhood memory, of romantic desire, of a will to be loved.

I mention:

- What this hebe does on Christmas
- Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham and Isaac in "Fear and Trembling"
- Deleuze and Guattari's inhuman becoming

12.19.2016

Reading the Way of The Way (podcast)



Here is the second moment in the title of my book, The Way (Reading the Way of Things). I've been attracted to this notion of the way since reading Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai which I came to through Mishima who I came to through TC Boyle's East is East. I love that path because it shows that the way of something is fundamentally multiple and surprising.

A way is a trajectory, a verb, a becoming — but a becoming that goes like this. It is particular even though it is unknowable once and for all and is multivocal. I think of the number Pi: it is at once absolutely determined and yet surprising and unknown.

I could have called the book Reading the Ways of Things. But I like the tension in the singular "the" that is nonetheless always and already multiple.

In this episode, I discuss:

- Hagakure
- Calculus
- The reality cooking TV show, Chopped
- Epictetus
- Deleuze's breakdown of the distinction between the one and the many

Enjoy! Thank you!

12.18.2016

Redefining Literacy: Towards Creative & Critical Reading


How we define what it is to read — how we define literacy — is how we define the happening of the world and our role in it. Nothing is more politically, ethically, & ideologically charged.

When we teach kids to read, we teach them to decode — what sound each letter makes, what each word means. No doubt, this is necessary. But once a kid can decode some words, we say that the kid can read. Literacy, then, becomes defined as the ability to decode an already existing message.

After all, that's what decoding is — the unscrambling of a meaning that already exists. Reading-as-decoding assumes that meaning awaits us and it's the reader's job to find it. This means — ha! — that the world has already delivered its message. And our only job is to figure out what that message is.

Implicit in such a configuration is that the reader — you, me, our kids — is not herself part of the meaning. Meaning is something that already happened and is expressed over there. Readers — which is to say, you and me — happen after meaning happens. This is literacy for, and of, the dead.

This is life lived backwards. We might call it Socratic as Socrates asks how we can come to know anything. How could we even ask a question about something we know nothing about? It's an epistemological dilemma: in order to know, Socrates claims, we have to already know. Learning, he tells us, is a matter of memory, of remembering what we've forgotten.

This of course means the reader doesn't create meaning. Meaning is delivered from on high. To decode is to be at the mercy of the meaning creator; we're looking for his — and, yes, it's usually his — meaning. This is why biography is considered one of the great decoder rings: know the man and you'll know his meaning. The key is probably lodged in his childhood or, more likely, in his duodenum (pace Nietzsche who says all prejudices come from the intestines).

This is great for the powers that be. It is not the reader's job to question the message — and it's certainly not the reader's job to question the code itself. Of course, when we think we're being generous, we teach that readers have the option not to like a message. They can even replace it with another. Don't like Adam Smith? Ok, then who do you like? Marx? Great! And then we believe that the reader has been critical, replacing the dead text with a different dead text. In this world, critique is a kind of discerning necrophilia.

And it demands a posture of witness and recline. In this version of literacy, the reader is not implicated in the process of reading. The reader is not constitutive of the meaning-event, of meaning creation. The reader waits for the word and then tries to decipher it and is told if she's right or wrong. This is called a spelling test — one of the more absurd, egregious pedagogic go-to's — Mom! Dad! I got a 100% on my spelling test! I followed all the rules perfectly! Holy shit! Who invented this nonsense?! Who ever thought that the best way to teach reading was to teach an absolute right and wrong? The spelling test becomes the essay becomes the degree becomes the job becomes what already was and the reader, along with the world, dies in the process.

I want to suggest a different definition of what it means to read. I want to suggest that meaning is made in between — in between letters, in between words, in between people and things, in between reader and text. A text does not just sit there and await decoding; it comes to you who are yourself a text. And the you-text and the text-text resonate, collide, pass each other by in a more or less elaborate calculus — like the San Francisco fog pouring over the hills, a champagne flute shattering as it hits floor, like the warmth that comes the first time she takes your hand, like rain on pavement, rain on dirt, rain on face.

This shifts the posture of the reader. Rather than leaning back and awaiting the text, the reader is in the mix, in the thick of it, in and of and with the event. The reader is leaning a tad forward. But not too much; lean too far forward and you miss the text all together (most ideology critique does just this: it leans so far forward because it's already read the text). The reader is poised, ready, in motion while still, anticipatory without being determinative. Text and reader — neither of which are singular — engage each other in a kind of dance, wrestle, flirtation, fucking, friendship. They become a hybrid within a hybrid world. (The world is hybrid all the way down.)

And literacy becomes something other than decoding: it becomes an engaged, critical, and creative act. Literacy is participatory; it demands all of you, not just your decoder ring. Imagine that. Imagine literacy programs for which decoding was necessary but never sufficient for reading. Imagine how different classrooms would look. Imagine how different we'd all look to each other. We are not things to be decoded. We are things to create and be created.

12.14.2016

Reading Reading



Here I talk about why I use this word "reading" in the title of my book, Reading the Way of Things.

I purposefully want reading to be something different than the decoding of letters or images, as if the world were already written and we decipher it. I want reading to be a creative act, an inaugural act. I want reading to entail a different posture of standing towards the world: a leaning in and an opening up, a going with so that reader and text create each other.

I talk about why, when I taught comp, I taught reading. To write critically is to read critically. I never understood how one could separate the two.

I also talk about the materiality of literature, the way Deleuze crawls into the skin of texts, and why I haven't read his book on Bergson.


12.12.2016

Zero Books Workshop/Talk on My Book

This was a blast — talking with these people about my book, rhetoric, kairos, intersubjectivity, harmonic resonance, the political and such. I think it's worth the listen, or view, and jumping around as need dictates.



And buy my book! Please. Thank you. 



11.29.2016

Vulnerability



My son, now 13, is dyslexic. I knew it when he was quite young. He'd do incredible things like write everything backwards, even the letters, from right to left  — as if to be read in a mirror. But it became obvious to everyone else, including himself, in second grade that he made a different sense of the world. (For those who care, dyslexia is incredibly interesting and is not just a "dys"; it's a nonlinear mode of making sense, of seeing the world, and hence has incredible advantages — it's a pro- or metalexia or some such prefix.)

His class was learning how to read. And, suddenly, he went from being a socially comfortable, charming, happy, bright little boy to being utterly confused and alone and, worse, filled with a deep distrust, even loathing, of himself. He had no idea what the other kids were doing, what they were seeing, how they were behaving with these books. The look on his face, which lasted months, devastates me to this day.

This: The world giving way around you. The structures and tethers fraying, collapsing, breaking. And there you are, presumably part of it all — but an all that doesn't want you, where you don't fit, where you don't belong. But you're still there. What do you do?

Well, he does what most people do: he defers, deflects, lashes out defensively: "I know how to read! I just don't want to!" Which isn't untrue per se; he can read, it's just a huge drag for him — it's a lot of work to put all those letters in the proper order word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page.

But it's the tone that betrays him, belies his claim. The anger, the distress: it's aggressive. When I approach him softly with "Everyone feels weird about some things" or "Imagine if film were the dominant language — everyone else would be dyslexic!" But this only makes him bristle more, become more defensive, more aggressive.

He is afraid to be left standing there as the world gives way and he doesn't know what to do. He can't just say to me, "Dad, this is scary and weird and makes me feel bad even though part of me knows it's irrelevant." Which is to say, he is afraid to be vulnerable.

We experience this with drivers — not to mention bosses, coworkers, parents, friends, lovers — all the time. Someone does something dangerous and stupid — runs a red light, turns into a lane without looking — you honk in terror and what does that driver do? He flips you the bird! This is not just a question of culpability — although it's that, too. But I'm not talking about ethics; I'm talking about a human posture of standing in the world, with others, when it feels like the world won't have you. Part of that driver is scared — for his life, for his humiliation, for leaving the social contract so blatantly and being seen. But rather than risk exposure, rather than risk fear and the horror of operating outside the social contract, he lashes out. As a culture, we defer to violence over vulnerability.

I, for one, fear vulnerability. This comes to light in romance more than anywhere else. A woman leaves me for another man and my first reaction is: Fuck you! Good! I'm happy! I'll get a better girlfriend! A better one! You did me a favor! That initial reaction is like a lion found sleeping belly up who, upon waking, growls menacingly at the shapes in the dark. It's to put up structures of defense and strength rather than just slumping and quivering and abandoning oneself to the world. I'm in control here! I'm the winner! my petty soul declares.

But I'm no lion about to be killed by a hunter or hyena. So why wouldn't I, why couldn't I, just say to the woman who's left me, "Oh, no, I feel terrible and sad and unloved"? Why not just be exposed? The will to be in control, to be the winner, is strong. We love winners — even if we root for the underdog. We still want the underdog to win! Nietzsche knew this all too well. It's a symptom of ressentiment.

What is vulnerability? Well, let's begin with what vulnerability is not. To be vulnerable is not to be sad. When my sister was dying, I was sad. I cried everywhere, in front of anyone and everyone. I was flying back and forth between San Francisco and New York for six months and dealt with cabbies and stewardesses and barristas and waiters and, well, I wept to and in front of most of them.

But I wasn't vulnerable. I was sad. I was located — socially and existentially. In  a very real way, my sadness even had a power — a power to influence, to inspire (guilt, mostly, but also affection and kind words). In reality, my sadness in that instance made me socially strong — a winner.

Vulnerability has no such structures. By definition, it is to be exposed. To be at risk. To not have a place within the discursive, existential, and material structures of society. To be vulnerable is to be  naked before the elements, both visible and invisible. Sadness is not necessarily exposed; sadness has a sure place, a buttress of the social edifice. Vulnerability, however, is without buttress. It is to stand within the social without structures of support.

In fact, vulnerability need not be sad at all. It is to be exposed, bared. It is to be open to assault, physical and/or existential.

But to be vulnerable is not just to be open. I've been open to all kinds of things from a position of great power and control: Bring it on, says master me. Openness is a necessary but not sufficient condition of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be open but, to paraphrase Nietzsche, not to be equal to the events. To be vulnerable is to not have a ready remedy — claws or witticisms — to handle the events, to be incapable of parrying or possessing them. The event tears you asunder.

Recently, someone I've known for 15 years — but, for the sake of context, is considerably younger than I am — asked me if I've ever ached for a lover. I was flabbergasted by this question. My only reply was, Of course. I don't blame her for asking me. I was flabbergasted because I realized that I use my social resources to cultivate the stance of a winner — someone so detached and cool (well, in the jewish sense) that she actually believed that I've never been gutted, never been so at the mercy of someone else's mere glance, that I've been a stammering, desperate mess. Which of course I have. Of course I've felt useless, at the mercy of the world without tools or shelter. Of course I've felt helpless, exposed, desperate, evacuated.

Oh, but what I've missed in trying to be so detached! I now see that vulnerability is the only way to joy, the only way to affirm this life here and now. Because vulnerability is not just to be open, not just to be exposed: it is to sit before the world without ego, without position, and still be part of the world! To be vulnerable is the ultimate strength — perhaps the only strength — in that it needs no defense, needs no place, needs no ground other than its own quivering. To stand there quaking and mute is still to be alive, still be part of the world, still to be the world happening. There is nowhere else to go. And so to stand there utterly naked, without ego or language, without the trappings of strength, is to be all powerful.

And yet I see the fear of vulnerability everywhere. I see it in my exchanges with women — her refusal to stand there exposed and weak, choosing to lie and cry and yell and posture instead. I see it in my refusal to lose — to lose ego, to lose face, to lose words, to lose control, to lose my grounding. And, worst of all, I see it in my son, in his desperate clinging to the language of winner as the words and world refuse to align. If only he would let go. If only I could help him let go.

11.18.2016

The Delirium of Eye Contact


Vision really is a strange sense. (Sense! I love that we use the same word for the neutrality of perception as we use for the processing of data. There's a dissertation there — to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty paraphrasing Malraux, all perception is already stylized.) Often, we see vision as somehow removed from the fray of it all. After all, seeing seemingly happens at a remove: we are just seeing it, as if that somehow absents us from the event — as if seeing something is not an intimate, sensual experience. But everyone from Heisenberg to Merleau-Ponty to Bracha Ettinger — for that matter, anyone who's ever been moved looking at a person or mountain or work of art —knows otherwise.

Merleau-Ponty says to see something is to palpate it. I love that: to see is a form of touching. Touching we know is sensual; it is so explicit. Why? Because we can see the two things touching! It's a matter of proximity. But when we see something, there doesn't seem to be any touching at all. I'm here; you're there. You could be hundreds of feet away (a funny thing about aging: these days, if I'm to see you at all, that distance shrinks to the point where we might as well be touching). But, for Merleau-Ponty, seeing is touching! It erases distance. Or, better, overcomes it, eyes reaching with their extended grasp to take in the sun and moon and horizon and couple screwing in their window across the street.

And, of course, vice-versa: the sun and moon and horizon and couple screwing in their window across the street reach to us, come to us, entwine with us. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as the chiasmus in which seer and seen intertwine.

To see, then, is never a neutral act. There is no seeing that is not implicated, not involved, not constituent and constitutive of the event. To see is to touch another thing, is to entwine with another thing. And yet it is not that the two things — at least two, probably more; well, at least three or what Burroughs and Gysin call the Third Mind, the mind that exists between the two — anyway, it is not that the two things unify and become one. They inflect each other, nudge each other, caress each other, repel each other. It is a creative event in which multiple bodies co-create each other and the world.

This is not a radical claim. We all know it — whether it's in the form of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (or, perhaps, the observer affect) or pornography or just being aroused by seeing someone or something. We see and we affect and are affected in ways that are quite similar to touching and being touched.

The play of passive and active is always confused in all perception. After all, when you touch my face, is my face touching you? Sure, there are important legal differences. But ontologically speaking, when you touch my face, my face is not just the object that is touched; it, too, touches. With vision, this ambiguity is amplified. Am I seeing the cup? Where is my agency in this seeing? Is it something I do? Well, no, not really. The cup seems to just insinuate itself into my eyes, my body, my thinking, my being. To say "we see the world" suggests that seeing is active when, in fact, all there is is seeing, a co-poietic event in which all parties mingle.

This is not to say that there is no differentiation of power or intensity within the perceptive act. We draw clear boundaries — that may get blurred now and again — between active and passive touching. This is essential to our, or any, civility.

But we know it in seeing, as well. We all know — I would think women in particular are well aware — that there is an aggressive mode of seeing, a seeing that seeks to dominate the seen, subjugate the seen, molest the seen. This mode of what we might call the phallic gaze is not restricted to men looking at women (although that is no doubt its most common and egregious expression). We know it in the workplace from bosses who look without seeing, whose gaze dismisses us before we've even locked eyes.

And we all know the supreme oddity, discomfort, power, and eroticism that comes from making eye contact. Holy moly, it's an odd experience. Making sustained eye contact with a stranger — really, with everyone but with people we know, we don't usually see them as much as we act blindly through habit — but making eyes with a stranger initiates a downright delirious feedback loop that threatens and teases and entices and ravels and unravels our identities.

As I tried arguing, we don't see per se. There is no clear agency; seeing is always already a co-seeing with the seen. I don't see my own eye. Where my eye is, you are — or this screen, these scraps of paper, my cocktail glass. My eye is a no-place that is always already filled with the world (like a womb, perhaps —pace Ettinger). Seeing will always already have taken me outside myself, had me constituted by other things that are not in fact other things at all precisely because they constitute me and my eye — and my seeing, not to mention my very comportment in this world. Seeing is fundamentally in-between and turns all being into an in-between place of mutual becoming.

So when I make eye contact with a stranger — it's great that we call it eye contact — a strange event is initiated in which two non-I's are co-creating each other in an endless ever morphing loop. All identity is suspended in the swirling ether. This is what makes eye contact so dangerous, so alluring, so essential: it initiates an explicit, palpable event of co-mingling.

It's often terrifying when it happens on the train or the street — and nearly impossible to sustain. What are the terms of exchange with a stranger as you co-mingle, both of you swept beyond your meta-narrative of clothes and class, swept into a smear of a field, this slurring of identities? What do you express as you heed the expressions? Are you thrown back on yourself, to your known self, to a phallic come hither gaze? Do you enter that place of unspeakable vulnerability in which you don't know what you want or who you are? Eye contact is a volatile, indeterminate space.

What happens when you make eye contact with an animal? In Jaws, we hear of the dead black eyes of the shark. Why does it fill us with such fear and loathing? Because that blackness, that utterly alien mode, enters us, commingles with us.

Dogs have almost human eyes. We see, we experience, we touch their pathos. And yet they are distinctly not human. Making eyes with a dog is truly delirious. In some sense, it feels safer than with a human stranger as you have permission to look away from a dog's eyes. There is no judgment or shame implicit in our social contract with animals (although many claim there should be). On the other hand, making eyes with a dog can be the most challenging, a gaze that so thoroughly unravels our all-too-human selves and egos, our narratives of identity.


Of course, it's easy to lay a narrative over that canine gaze. It's easy to make it human. In a great episode of the HBO series, "High Maintenance," we see a dog seeing life and, in particular, seeing one woman. We see his love of her and we imagine it much as we might imagine our own love. But this dog's love is different and the episode does a nice job at the end of making this clear — there is a limit to a dog's sentimentality. Or, rather, a limit term between human and canine sentimentality. They are not the same. And yet, for those moments when we lock eyes, we do partake of each other in a way that is palpably powerful and transformative. We partake of the flux of all becoming and it's beautiful.

11.12.2016

Momentum, Mood, the SF Giants, Bracha Ettinger, and Interpersonal Becoming



Many people in my world dismiss sports. Not me. Sports offer much — infinite variation within stipulated bounds (the rules stay the same and yet every game is different), extraordinary feats (how often do you see someone do that?!), expressions of intelligence that we rarely encounter (a well placed pass in basketball rivals the best of Kant), disturbing socio-racial labor issues (rich white owners making their money on predominantly black men who, often, destroy their bodies in the process). And a surprising vocabulary of concepts absent in our everyday lives. One such concept is momentum.

Oh, sport casters love to talk about momentum! This or that team now has the momentum, they declare. They even talk about a good loss — a team rebounds at the end of a losing effort (which is interesting. Are all losses the same? Are all foul balls the same? Quantitatively, yes; qualitatively, no. The best of sports live in the latter). The direction of momentum is discussed with much seriousness.

And I find this beautiful. How often do we witness public discussions of things as esoteric as momentum? What is momentum?

From one perspective, it makes no sense. Take baseball's San Francisco Giants this past year. The first half of the season, they were the best team in baseball; the second half of the season, they were the second worst team in baseball. This shows that it's not enough to point to talent or a lack thereof. These were the same players playing very differently.

And, in baseball, there's the team and then there's the players. That may sound obvious but in, say, football, the quarterback is really at the mercy of his linemen who protect him and the receivers who have to get open to catch the ball. Football is an intricate engine. In baseball, each at bat is individual: it's just the pitcher and the hitter. It shouldn't matter much who else is hitting (yes, it matters but I don't want to get too pedantic; this is not a discussion of baseball).

So how do we explain how it comes to be that an entire team, more or less, suddenly sucks — or, for that matter, is suddenly great?

Well, perhaps it's the wrong question. To even ask it is to assume that we are in fact individuals; that we are isolated and can control, of our own volition solely, how we go in the world (I'm talking ontology here, not ethics; the relationship between the two deserves more time and space). But that's a lot to assume. And after seeing a team do what the Giants did this year, it's hard to avoid the empirical evidence — namely, that we go together.

How could it be otherwise? Think about planets for a second. We accept without thinking that they act together — they orbit each other, they push and pull each other, they heat each other up, cool each other down; they speed up and slow down together.  The very way a thing goes in the world is enmeshed in the ways of other things.

And that's only focusing on the material aspects of bodies. Once we take into consideration the invisible world of affect and ideas and emotion, things get even more elaborately entwined with each other. Consider how a mood of your friend, lover, even a stranger can overtake you. You were feeling one way and, suddenly, you feel melancholy, depressed, happy, excited, anxious.

Mood — or, better, affect — exceeds us and entwines us. It is a series of flows, like sound or gravity perhaps, which run through us, as us, in us, with us. We partake of that mood together. And that mood is not an adornment of who we are; there is not first us and then our moods. No, moods and affect — I am using the two more or less interchangeably even though they are not the same — are constitutive of our very being, our becoming.

Mood is not ornament or adornment; mood is constitutional. After all, how can there be a body without mood? There is always already mood; we are all made of skin and bone and liver and ideas and ideology and blood and, yes, mood. Perhaps our blood is our "own" (this is debatable). But our moods are not. Moods are interpersonal; they run through the world, live in ideas, in bodies, in space; they are a force and a presence that make us and exceed us in the same gesture, forging an identity that is always an in-between, a not-I.

This I that mood makes is an interpersonal I. It happens between me and the world, me and you, making a me that is never finally a me. We all participate in this mood without becoming one; we become variations of these moods that run through us.


I am currently reading Bracha Ettinger's The Matrixial Borderspace — a sometimes difficult (due to psychoanalytic jargon) but exquisite, beautiful book (I thank the charming, brilliant Kat Mandeville for recommending it). In it, Ettinger proffers a shift from the phallus-castration complex to the womb (or matrixial)-borderline complex. That is, where Freud and Lacan construct desire as a lack that the phallus always seeks to fill — fucking the empty space, as it were — Ettinger gives us the womb, the matrix, as a different economy and distribution of presence, absence, identity, and desire.

The womb is an empty place that is not lacking but is a place where identities — mother and child — are always blurred: a borderline place. A place of co-creation. Ettinger posits a matrixial gaze as distinct from a phallic gaze. We all know that phallaic gaze: it's the gaze that owns with its look, that consumes, that fills, that possesses, that fucks. It's the gaze of domination as a way to compensate (for a castration anxiety). It's creepy.

Ah, but the matrixial gaze is another thing entirely. It's a looking in which the eye, like the womb, is a no-place that is always already filled with other things. After all, I can't see my own eye. The eye is akin to the womb in that way; it is a borderline place of what she calls the co-emerging I. I don't see as much as there is seeing, a seeing that is always and necessarily an in-between, creating "non-I prior to the I versus others" (as she writes).

The Taoists, and Douglas Harding, understand this: in place of our heads, there is the world. Where our heads should be, there's the world. But this is not to say that we become one with the world, that we are unified. It is that the world is here with me, as me, in me. I am a differentiated flow of the world's becoming that happens with the world, creating a non-I.

The very space of seeing is a space of interpersonal becoming. The very possibility of seeing, of perceiving in general, always already turns me inside out, in-between, an I that is a site of co-creation. It's not that I see the world and now I'm me. It's that I am always seeing the world and this very act of seeing makes me a non-I, a process of co-creation.

So back to the Giants and momentum. Of course teams become together. Of course their identities are co-mingled, co-created. How could it be otherwise?

Now, momentum is different than co-creation. It is a mode of co-creation, a physics of co-creation. After all, the scopic or percpetive field is not uniform. It has bends, turns, folds, shapes, speeds, intensities. As we are all co-making ourselves, we are carried along the trajectory of these fields that propel us this way or that. If we understand identity as an always-already co-emergent process, and the invisible world as shaped and tempered, then of course sports teams experience momentum.

11.03.2016

All These Infinite Things: On Naama Kates' film, "Sorceress"




From one perspective, there's not a lot of action in Naama Kates' new film, Sorceress (she wrote, directed, and stars in it). Nina, an American young woman, is living with her aunt and uncle in Russia; we learn she's reckoning a family trauma — her mother's suicide. She works in a library where there seem to be no patrons except one young woman who becomes her lover. They talk of some things (in some very sweet scenes; what a treat to see two smart, engaged women just talking and, perhaps, falling in love!). Nina gives a concert — but that's the ending and you'll have to wait for that.

And yet that is the point. For it is here in the everyday drab, in the human hum of it all, that other forces are always lurking, making their presence felt. Our history, our memories, the stars, the cosmos: they all come to bear upon us — if we're receptive — threatening to undo our very identities, at once a liberation and a horror. What could be more dramatic?

This drama is played out in the very fabric of the film. There are very few locations — a claustrophobic apartment, like something out of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love; a library with no patrons and one co-worker who loves Harry Potter; a friend-turned-lover's apartment; some empty, snow draped streets. In all the locales, there is a persistently muted tone, all these very quiet pinks, browns, and greys, which make the film almost seem black and white.

But then, as if from nowhere, the scene will suddenly shift to the night sky — a locale of a fundamentally different sort. Only it's not darkness we see. No, it's a night sky teeming with color, the screen suddenly ablaze with it — greens and blues and purples and millions of stars, some shooting. These shots are ecstatic, wondrous, abundant (every time these scenes happened, my heart started pounding). And we come to see the muted hues not as an absence of color but as a presence, the cosmic making itself felt in the everyday, the spectacular spectral vitality of life bleeding into a drab human world obsessed with Harry Potter.

And we see it in Kates' face. She has one of those great cinematic faces, somehow able to hold so many different feelings at once, like a millennial Gena Rowlands (I see Asia Argento, too, in Kates' face). And we are captivated (see her star in another great film, The 10 Commandments of Chloe, which I wrote about here). Throughout the film, the camera lingers on her face as she teeters between and among melancholy, introspection, desire, ecstasy, doubt, empowerment.

These are what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls affect shots. The hero close-ups of today's movie stars are not affective at all. They're too busy conveying the plot: we see Leo feeling happy or sad or determined. With Kates, we get something else entirely: we get the great complexity of life itself played across her face. Her face is cinema — multiple, engaging, exquisite, and always moving. It doesn't explain the plot to us; it confronts us with the world happening. If the color of the film plays out the presence of the past and the cosmos on the present, her face does the same thing: we see it move between this world and that, between the human and the cosmic — and occupy every space in between. It's extraordinary to witness.

Meanwhile, we hear her voiceover. But like Godard before her, the voiceover doesn't explain — not the plot or what she's feeling. If voiceover is a short cut directors use to say rather than show, Kates uses it to add layers of complexity. Rather than internal monologue, we hear her quote different passages from a book she's reading by the 16th century friar, poet, philosopher, mathematician, astrologer Giordano Bruno who, as the voiceover tells us, "was a master. A mystic...They killed him for speaking the truth, Momma says."

Throughout the movie, Nina has the TV on. We never see the TV but we hear it. The manufactured, controlled sound of the TV — itself a kind of specter — grounds her in this world, shuts down the ghosts of the past and the seething of the stars.

But then comes the astounding end of the film in which Nina gives a concert. And, as with the shots of the night sky, the screen suddenly goes rich with colors, with reds, with visual intensity. It's a kind of possession from somewhere else as we hear the words she sings: “What are you afraid of losing? Just myself." If the sound of TV is a false possession — all manufactured dreams, dreams without delirium, the maudlin crap of capitalism — her music delivers the delirium of the infinite. And so we witness Nina losing herself in the starry haunting beauty of it all — leaving her lover who is human-all-too-human with nothing left to do but look on with concern and horror, assuming Nina is insane. "It's important to learn all these infinite things," she tells us as at one point as the film cuts to her face, at once doubled and obscured, color haunting the frame.

This is one of those rare films that actually respects its audience. Perhaps Nina is insane. Or perhaps she really is frolicking with the stars. What's the difference? Sorceress never spoon feeds us the plot; characters never feel just one thing. Sorceress performs its subject matter as the film itself plays in this space between the human and the inhuman, between past and present, between the drab and the ecstatic. It's never just one or the other; it's always both/and. This is not a film that explains this movement. As the title declares, this film is itself sorceress, summoning the glorious, delirious, and infinite powers of a world that's always present whether we realize it or not. And isn't that the promise of cinema?

11.01.2016

Tracking Numbers: On Mail, Cash, and the End of Organizing



I mailed something today. I paid with the cash. The lady at the post office was insistent on handing me a receipt that had a tracking number on it and a QR code — I could go to my computer and type in the tracking number or take a picture of the QR code with my phone. Nominally, this is so I can track my package. But that's of course not what it is. It's a tracking number, yes, but not for my package: it's a tracking number for, and of, me.

Mail and cash: these have been cornerstones of freedom from a certain gaze thanks to their anonymity. They allow us to exchange, organize, and communicate without the prying eyes of government or corporations.

Obviously, the move to eliminate cash form the world serves a two-fold ends: corporations get a way to make money on you spending money — which is insane. And the government gets to track every penny spent, who's buying what from whom.

Now it's the mail — which is, of course, being phased out, all in the name of efficiency. We prefer UPS and FedEx and Amazon drop shipping because they're more efficient than the public postal system. So we pay more than we used to in order to have ourselves tracked —as well as our stuff and who's receiving it from us. The corporations make money where they couldn't before as the post office was public. And the government gets to track the movement of every thing in this country: who's sending what to whom, everywhere and always.

There's no way to send something without people, whose interests are not mine, knowing about it. And not only do they not share my interests, they have an interest in me in a way I don't want people to have an interest in me: they want to track everything I do so they can a) figure out how to sell me more stuff, to make more money on my transactions; and b) to ensure I'm not organizing a revolt against the State. These are not healthy relationships!

Tracking numbers, sold to us as a convenience: it's hilarious — what Burroughs and PK Dick and Debord saw and knew so long ago, I just realized in its sublime clarity. I feel like a moron.

How can people organize modes of being that counter, or bypass, corporate and government interests? If every channel is monitored; if goods can't be exchanged; if all communication is tracked, then everything is always already controlled.

Oy vey ist mir!

10.30.2016

NASCAR is Life: On Deleuze, Repetition, & Copying



I enjoy watching sports — some sports, sometimes. But like most people I know, including sports fans, I was always confused by NASCAR. What, where, and how exactly is the sport? The cars just go round and around, round and around. And that's when it dawned on me: NASCAR is the exemplary sport, the exemplary event. NASCAR is life.

Yes, the cars go round and round. But that is precisely the challenge! To repeat each turn, each lap, anew! The Daytona 500 involves 200 laps. 200 laps! Holy shit! The demand on the drivers seems excruciating to me, even sublime — to heed this track, to be absolutely focused on each moment right here, right now, 200 times, all while going 200 miles per hour. My god!

Think about it for a second. You're hurtling around the track, dozens of other cars all around you, also going 200 miles an hour. Think how easy it'd be to lapse into a kind of daze, to go on autopilot, to just go through the motions as you go through lap 57, lap 94, lap 153. We all know that feeling.

But the demand of NASCAR is that you never go on autopilot. The demand is that that you take each turn — each acceleration, each downshift — as a live event, here and now, everything on the line. Your attention never wavers. You heed the moment as if for the first time with all the knowledge and experience of someone who's driven this lap thousands of times. In the words of the Buddhists of our American times, NASCAR demands mindfulness. Anything less and you lose.

Recently, I've been keenly aware of my aging. I see, sense, and feel the past everywhere I turn. The ghosts, which is to say the presence, of past selves are rearing their heads — and more. At times, I find myself stymied by it all. I'm overwhelmed with images and sensations of the past. And the gap between there and here seems grotesque, a dark and abysmal chasm. How did I get here? Where am I? What do I do with all this?

This is to say, as I go through the laps of my life, doing this and that, I am overcome with all the past laps and feel I can't go on. I can feel the existential plight of the NASCAR driver. I can see him just stopping, his car slowly coming to a halt mid-lap, the driver either weeping or staring off into space as cars veer and fly around him. Or perhaps confounded by his predicament of having to repeat another lap, he accelerates as fast as he can until he hits another car, loses control, runs into the railing, explodes and incinerates — anything to make this all feel fucking alive!!

Most of us experience this at some point amid the drone of the everyday and the harassment of modernity. Cooking, dishes, shopping, paying bills, dating, working, traffic, vacuuming: it's all so many laps, many more than 200. The only finish line is death. And many of us, myself included, imagine getting to that finish line a little faster, dreaming of the big sleep. Or, more commonly, we seek distraction — shopping, porn, Facebook, Tinder, Ambien, cocktails, "Game of Thrones".  Were we NASCAR drivers, we wouldn't last one season, not to mention one race.

And yet the NASCAR driver has a luxury we don't: the finish line is imminent and not absolute. He — with one exception, as far as I know, it is always he — only has to be absolutely mindful for those 200 laps. On the other hand, we have to me mindful 24/7; our finish line is unknown and could be decades away. We have to heed the now with no end in sight.

Deleuze, or at least my reading of Deleuze, distinguishes between copying and repeating. To repeat something is to initiate, discover, and inaugurate difference. To repeat is to differentiate, to forge this moment anew, even if if looks like every other moment. It's to drive the 14th, the 76th, the 152nd lap as if it were the first. It's to do the dishes again and anew, as if for the first time, to be present to the dish washing, to not just go through the motions as your mind wanders but to become dish washing as you dish wash.

To copy, meanwhile, is to go through the motions. It's to ape the gestures we know, even if trying to make them look and feel and seem new, to seem "authentic." It's to wash the dishes while we curse dish washing and think of all the TV we could be watching. (Note that this is often when we break a dish, stub a toe, bang our heads.) To copy is to drive lap 74 doing all the things that look and seem right but, somehow, aren't. You're not present, not aware, not actively creating that moment anew.

This happens with opinions all the time. We repeat things we believe we believe even when, sometimes, we're not even sure anymore if we believe them (pace Nicholson Baker). I know that there are plenty of ideas I've taken on from doing philosophy — the plenum, difference, calculus vs. geometry, rhizomes vs. trees — that I often regurgitate on reflex. I proffer them unthinkingly — or based on thinking I did ages ago. Sometimes, I even summon the gestures of fresh excitement, adding emphatics and gesticulations. This is copying.

But what complicates this neat distinction between repetition and copying is that often I do feel the idea anew — only it's not my belief in the idea that animates me but the mechanics of it. In explaining, say, rhizomes, the movements of the concept animate and choreograph my gestures. Is this copying? Or repeating? Or, more likely, is this the point at which the two can't be differentiated from each other?

Copying, often, is living death. It's to go through the gestures of living without actually living. On the other hand, copying is a survival mode, a version of what Nietzsche calls Russian fatalism — not moving so as to conserve energy. I, for one, have gone through long stretches of time when I try to keep still — socially and intellectually. Life becomes too much, the sublimity of time and death more than I can bear. The only way to survive is to stay still and copy, pretend I'm living, do the minimal to get through the day.

But this is what it is to be human! We copy! We don't just repeat ourselves, differentiating each moment anew; we copy ourselves. We say things we believe we believe; we do things we've always done. And we do it all without reckoning. This is not bad per se. This is to be alive, as well. At some point, as we drive our 78,653rd lap, we tune out, go on autopilot, call it in, glide, live without living. But this is living, too! Sometimes, it's the only way to live, to let life happen without being drowned.

I had an exchange with a former student recently about my book. "You're clearly on the same shtick as when I took your class which was 2007?" she wrote. The answer, of course, is yes. But part of writing that book was to shed some of those ideas so I could stop copying and begin new lines of inquiry. But I've also devoted the last eight years since teaching to repeating many of the ideas I proclaimed. This blog is dedicated to thinking through things I've thought through before but now I want to think through them again from the inside out, to see if and how they resonate, to see if and how I can repeat them, to see what shapes they'll take today. When successful, these blog posts, like my book, are repetitions.

This is where life happens: between and among copying and repeating. This is how we make our way — gliding at times, eyes and senses closed at times, beaming and emanating and flowering at times, surging at times, drifting at times. Sure, vitally creating the world with every gesture is exciting, noble, a calling worth heeding. But to drift is heroic, too.

10.28.2016

The Sonic Unraveling of Identity



One night in college, I was sitting on the front porch of a West Philly house with a friend. It was late and we were, uh, experiencing life more intensely than usual. I kept hearing a baby cry. I ignored it at first, assuming a baby was indeed crying and soon it'd be comforted and the crying would stop. But it didn't stop. And then I wondered if only I was hearing it. With some hesitation, I mentioned it to my friend. She'd been having the same experience. So then it was all we could hear. It went on for hours.

We still talk about that night, she and I. It haunts us. But it's also somehow hilarious — hilarious precisely because it was, and remains, delirious. What was happening? How could neither of us be sure if was even happening? Or what it was? No doubt, it was a cat. But that "no doubt" is never quite in fact without doubt. Such is the nature of sound: it unsettles the very possibility of certainty — and, with it, the certainty of sanity, self, and identity.

Sound is so odd because it is always, inevitably, untethered from its source. That's what makes it a sound! Sound is what leaves a body, traveling out in all directions with different intensities and volume, traveling as waves without a body. Sound is waves, invisible and palpable, entering us and then participating in different semiotic economies — I know that! That's a drum! A cat! A car alarm! But place in those signifying economies is never sure. Is that a cat? Or is it a baby? The social, semiotic, ethical difference is enormous. And yet we can't know for sure. We don't know what to do or how to feel. Do we call someone? The police? Social services? Animal services?

Sound resists certainty because it can't be seen. And we believe what we see, not so much what we hear. I think about the movement from phone to FaceTime: we want to see the other person so badly, to know that person is really that person. With sound — with the phone — there is always some uncertainty. Who is this? This doesn't sound like you! Think about how unsettling that effect, that affect, is: the voice on the other end says it's your friend but are you really sure? So we added caller ID: words will fix in place what sound can't.


Avital Ronell wrote her great book on the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, she tells us, imagined the phone as a means to contact spirits, as séance, a conjuring. After all, the phone rips the voice from the body, turns identity into electronic and sonic transmissions: turns the body into waves, into spirit. The great film, The Ring, makes this terrifying: you watch a video, yes, but it's not until the phone rings that your death is heralded. It's the ring of the phone that marks your death, initiates your death, is your death. The phone is not just the presence of another in your ear; it is the absence of that person. All that remains is the sound.

We know this all too well with music. Music is associated with the Dionysian because it takes us out of ourselves. Think of the Grateful Dead throngs: no more individual identities. Just a mass of gyrating skeletons. Sound heralds a grateful, beautiful death. But even with cock rock and rap, we witness and experience the evacuation of identity. The kid who walks down the street with his head phones on, rapping out loud to Lamar, is no longer himself: he is becoming Lamar. The dude doing his best Ronnie Van Zant, belting out "Freebird," no longer sees himself qua himself: he is, for those moments, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sound occupies us, displaces us, replaces us.

I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, I rented a room in a flat with just a mattress on the floor. One night, going to sleep, I heard the distinct sound of a woman moaning and man, occasionally, grunting. I never saw this couple; I never knew their ages, what they looked like, or if they were even in fact a man and woman and not, say, two men or two women or two something else. And yet — or rather precisely because of this — I found it enormously erotic. The absence marked a possibility. But it's not that their visual absence let me imagine some beautiful, perfect sex act. The erotic is precisely that I can't, and don't, see anything. Sound proffers the erotic through its possibilities, through the way it enters and flows through us, occupies us, tickles and undoes us. It is not erotic despite being invisible; it is erotic precisely through its palpable invisibility, its spectral infiltration.

The visual, along with those stranger glyphs we call words, have a certain stupidity and, worse, conservatism. The State loves seeing and naming things. There are video recorders on cop cars now. When we go to record events, we pull out the camera on our phones, not the sound recorder. The visual, for sure, has many pleasures, erotic and otherwise. But it also has a tighter tether on identity which the State loves. It's the very basis of the panopticon. Can you imagine Jeremy Bentham's prison, or Foucault's reading of it, turning on a microphone in every cell?

And isn't this McLuhan's argument? The alphabetic privileging of the visual over sound created hierarchies, industries, the factory, the atomization of the social: everything in its proper place. Sound, he maintains, is allatonce. It's delirious. There is no directionality per se; it overtakes us, inundates us. The electronic age is a sonic age, an allatonce age. But what he underestimated was the will of the state to resist this, to mandate that each identity would have an image — a Facebook profile pic.

The horror of sound is the freedom of sound is the eroticism of sound. It is the human, along with all identity and the world itself, untethered, unmoored, body turned spirit yet still so palpable, so real, so poised to occupy and disorient and arouse, all at once. 

10.22.2016

On Research



Over the past few months, I've done something I rarely if ever did before: I attended a talk or two and even gave one or two ('a talk': what an odd, ominous, and beautiful noun). Through all my years of grad school (7) and adjunct teaching (9), I don't think I ever went to a talk. Maybe one or two but I've successfully repressed those memories.

The one thing that has struck me, no doubt in my narcissism, is the way people talk about things versus how I talk about things. People who give talks quote other people; they look up facts, even double check them; they drop names with seeming abandon — from Greek gods to esoteric philosophers to the usual litany of theorists to novelists, rock bands, and filmmakers. Which is to say, people who give talks do research. Me, not so much. (Of course, this is all relative. I realize I drop all kinds of names — and, yes, always the same names: Deleuze, Guattari, Burroughs, Nietzsche, Houellebecq, Cassavetes. But, holy moly, in these talks I've been to, people drop names every sentence! It was startling to me. I'm ignorant!)

I assume because of my big nose and glasses and know-it-all assertions, and because of the PhD, people assume I know things. But I don't. I know shockingly few things, in fact. Sometimes, I wear this with pride, a bit to my chagrin (not to mention the chagrin of those around me). The fact is: it's not a matter of judgement on me or them. It's a matter of taste: I don't enjoy knowing things. I don't enjoy research. That's just how I roll. Somewhere along the line, I missed the moral imperative I know opting for the much more luxurious I believe.

This is one reason I never felt at home, or could find a home, in academia. The whole university system is predicated on expertise in a field of knowledge — Medieval British Political Philosophy (pace Dr. Oliver, my favorite academic, truly), Dante, 19th Century British Literature, psychoanalysis (I don't know what happens in the sciences). I never had such a field; I have no domain of knowledge. I wrote a mess of a dissertation about tropes and rhetoric, reading and quoting about eight books very few of which ever mention tropes or rhetoric. I open the book talking about William Burroughs and aliens, talk about Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, then end taking about Alice in Wonderland.

But this issue precedes my run-ins with academia. Starting at a pretty young age — six, seven — I started collecting records — Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, Carole King. I knew a lot about the albums I owned, more than kids my own age. But my knowledge came strictly from the album — from the music itself and the liner notes. I was sated, satiated, by the knowledge I had just sitting on my bedroom floor listing to "Rumors." Why the hell would I leave my bar mitzvah hi-fi system, leave the spinning turntable, leave the music playing and the comfort of my room to learn more? It simply never occurred to me.

I thought I knew things. I thought I was what people today call a "music nerd." But then I got to college and then San Francisco and, whoa, I learned quickly that I knew nothing. It shifted my whole relationship to myself and to knowledge. Very, very quickly it became apparent that while I knew a few things, and had strong opinions (much to the chagrin and disdain to the tepid San Francisco sentiment and true music nerds), I didn't actually know shit.

But what is research? There is what we commonly refer to as research — reading what others have written, mining archives of unpublished material, interviewing people and then — then! — making sure that what those people said is true. Oy vey ist mir! That is a lot of energy expenditure that I can't imagine, well, spending.

I get why it's popular, why this notion of knowing things, has such currency. How would a publisher or an academic department chair distinguish between people? The process of vetting who gets published, who gets the job, who gets the talk has to turn on something. So why not knowledge? Whoever knows more gets the gig! It provides a neat, seemingly objective way to make sense of the world, to make sense of authority amidst the deafening din of voices.

This makes me sound disparaging of research. I am not. I am disparaging of the institutional reliance on research as a metric of who deserves money, a job, a contract. But I am not disparaging of research. How could I be? I love that people — other people — do research. Then, if I'm so inclined, I can read the back of their book cover and claim to know some things myself. That sounds like I'm being a douche but I mean it: I love that other people love doing research.

But what is research? I remember first reading Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels and being blown away. Here was research I understood! Of course, it was still research I would never actually do. I mean, c'mon, imagine me spending five minutes, not to mention a year, with the Angels. It's absurd. Still, it was research as living through. And this excited me. Gonzo journalism shifted how I thought and imagined my own — or any — relationship to knowledge. While I might not spend a year with the Angels, I certainly would spend years with "Rumors." And this gave me plenty to say.

Back when I was teaching the introduction to rhetoric at UC Berkeley, I'd always open my lectures with the same shtick, which I imagined as provocative — and, well, I believe still is. I'd say, "I'm not going to teach you anything. I'm going to teach you how to do things." (Alas, this is lost to posterity as the first 30 minutes of those lectures weren't recorded because, well, I don't know things such as how to turn on a mic.)  Sure, my class turned on texts. But the texts were common objects to reckon as much as they were fodder for how to reckon. I taught these essays and books as self-interpreting. Which is to say, I taught a certain tautology of experience and knowledge rather than knowledge being the ground for experience, the justification of and for experience. The text defined itself with us as readers. And that is a kind of research. (My great mentor and advisor, Charlie Altieri, told me he loved reading my dissertation but thought my argument was ridiculous because it was a tautology: a text goes as it goes? How idiotic! His objection, however, was my assertion and I doubled down — although I did add a footnote about tautology somewhere in there.)

For me, research doesn't involve going to the archives or reading a lot of books. For me, research involves getting into something, going with something, giving up my body to know its ways, its mechanics, its modes, its desires. For me, research is erotic.

10.14.2016

The Agony of Recollection, the Miracle of Repetition


 “But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!--so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.” — WG Sebald


I went home recently. But the moment I write that, I immediately start qualifying — in my head and for you. I went to New York City where I was born and lived the first six years of my life. Except I was in Brooklyn, mostly, which I never went to growing up. And I was in Manhattan, which I also briefly lived in as an adult, but it sure isn't my Manhattan. My Gramps is long dead; my brother moved to Thailand ages ago; my sister moved to Jersey (egad!) and then, well, she died. The Manhattan of my youth is no longer there.

How could it be? Life is flux and that includes place. (Over the past 25 years, I've watched San Francisco morph into a beast slouching towards Bethlehem.) And yet it wasn't as though I was visiting some place for the first time, all awe and confusion and curiosity. As I made my way about town, I was struck by the fact that I was not really there at all. I wasn't revisiting my past as that was long gone. But nor was I seeing the city for the first time. There was a filter over my eyes, over my experience, that refused to let me see what was happening right in front of me. I didn't have the openness of a tourist or the memories of a city I knew and loved. I had neither; I had nothing. Between my experience of New York and me was an impenetrable wall, or perhaps an abyss, a nothing, a no place. As I walked around, I was not just blind or even dead. I was zombie, neither alive nor dead, neither here nor there, the horror of purgatory.

This was, needless to say, disorienting. And so I headed 15 miles north, to the town and house in which I spent most of my childhood. It's a small town — a Hudson river town — green and lush and a mere 1.5 miles across with around 8,500 people. Here was where I came of age; here was where my great family dramas and violences and pleasures played out; here was where I discovered sex and drugs and love and rock and roll and radical politics.


But as the train huffed up the river, I felt myself disintegrating. I wasn't going home, finding myself, grounding myself. On the contrary, I was entering a world where this me now couldn't find footing at all. The ghosts kept accumulating, gathering, my visit a séance. But I was no medium, conjuring the dead with my gift. I was evacuated by them (pace Gus in "The Wire").

This was not just nostalgia. This was not just a longing for the past. This was the present of the past, the air itself thick with ghosts, with images and sounds of events gone by all swirling through each other. There were few particular memories. It was a flood, a flooding, a drowning.

But how can the past be present? On the other hand, how can the past not be present? Derrida might say, with Hamlet, that time is out of joint, unhinged. But that's to assume that time was hinged in the first place, that we proceed linearly through life. The past is always present, necessarily, to greater and lesser degrees of intensity. This intensity may be visual, affective, sonic, or some combination of all three.

After all, what are the limits of an event? How discrete could it possibly be? When I experience something, that something happens to me, with me, and as me. Which means the event continues to me, with me, and as me. I carry my experiences in my comportment, continuously.  “It seems to me," writes WG Sebald, "then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space....”

This is explicit when it comes to, say, scars. An event decades ago leaves an impression in my skin until I die. We also know the present of the past through taste and behavior — how we know how to tie our shoes, that we like chicken salad but never with raisins, that we know the train station is this way not that, that sunlight has a certain duration, that Kierkegaard wrote Repetition. The very possibility of knowledge is the presence of the past.

But things get murkier when we talk about other aspects of events other than knowledge. All those feelings, all those images, all those sounds: they ricochet and reverberate through out until we die, scars of greater or lesser depth. How could it be otherwise? Where else would these experiences, these images, these sounds reside other than in us and around us?

As I strolled about my hometown with an old friend, I was wading through the density of the past. Here, I wasn't blind but I certainly could not see. If in Manhattan I was no place, here I was someplace but that place was at once spectral and viscous. With each step, I was animated by forces and images and an intensity from long ago. The sensation was not joyous per se; I was not giddy. I wept nearly without stopping.

But why? Well, there was no doubt the sadness of my sister's death, the memories of our childhood, seeing and hearing her as a young girl galavanting around, so vital and beautiful, coupled with images of her decaying in her deathbed, that sickening sweet smell of cancer thick in the air.

Yet it was more than that. It was the pain of the past being gone — which is strange, as here I am saying the past was present. That pain is the fold, tearing my tissues, fracturing my bones. That pain is a certain weakness, an inability to stand strong, to be present to the folding of the here and now. But that pain is beautiful, too, letting it tear me asunder, flooding me, feeling too much: the sublimity of time, of life (which is to say the same thing).

This density I experienced owes something to the terrain. Those old trees, that lush vegetation, holds time more closely. This is why I loved The Blair Witch Project: it captured, and performed, the way old forest groves keep ghosts alive, memories caught on branches, the brown leaves so much deathly affect.


And yet it was the terrain that offered me a glimpse of a now. The sky and that Hudson river, both flowing, clear the cobwebs. They offer a now that is forever now — a strange and exhilarating affect. They erase the banality of the ego and its memories, its pains and weakness. They offer respite from the fray and fold of time.

But I don't want to be free of my past. I don't want the cleanliness of the now. I want that sky, yes; I want that river, for sure; but I want my sister alive, too; I want the Jewfro of my youth, my relentless hard ons, my drug induced euphorias, my epiphanies, my fucked up household. I want all that, too. That is so much of what makes us, what makes us interesting, what makes this whole thing difficult and beautiful.

I just don't want to be subsumed by it, devastated by it, blinded by it. I want to live with my past and be present. I want to take all that up — all those images, sounds, and affects — and roll them into me, with me, as me. And then hurl myself forward. This is what Kierkegaard calls repetition as distinct from recollection. If recollection lives backward, repetition lives forward.

And as Kierkegaard notes, this is impossible — and yet actual (to paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon, of all people). It is the call of life: to take all this and move it forward, into the new, as the new. I have yet to summon the strength to repeat in, with, as my hometown; to repeat my past with all its pleasures and pains. The backwards still dominates me. Or else I deflect and parry, wax nostalgic, make the past an object to be looked at, not something lived through. As Tony Soprano says, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." To make the past an object is to avoid it by trying to master it.

Repetition is something else entirely; it lives the past anew. For Kierkegaard, this is the promise of the modern, its miracle: to live again anew. Alas, repetition doesn't come easily.

10.04.2016

Metabolism

If I had to create a cosmology — well, I did actually create one a few years ago — so if I had to create a new cosmology — something, in a way, that I am always doing in some way to some degree — anyway, were I write a cosmology akin to, say, Leibniz's Monadology, I think I'd begin with this: Everything is a metabolism. What I mean by that is that everything is a function of taking in, taking up, pieces of the world, processing and distributing said pieces in more or less complex ways, and then making something of it all, namely, itself.

Everything makes itself. But this making doesn't begin from scratch. I'll listen to Lear on this one or, better, Lucretius — Nothing from nothing ever yet was born. There is only so much stuff in the world. There's a lot, sure, but there's only so much — so many atoms and particles, words, images, ideas, colors, bugs. Which is all to say: the amount of stuff in our world — and even in the cosmos — is enormous, yes, but it's still finite (even if if each thing, and the universe itself, is infinite). Which means that everything is made of some or other of this stuff. In other words, something else always comes from something else.

Yes, the difference between things comes from which things this or that takes up. I take up air, gin cocktails that are dry and spicy (just a hint of sweetness), baseball, blood, English words and, on a rare day, a few French and German ones, too. Meanwhile, this keyboard takes up plastic and electricity and some kinds of metal. I suppose I have some metals in me (my cavity fillings; some zinc; some colloidal silver). And I certainly have electricity, too, but it might be of a different sort than this keyboard. But the amount differs drastically, for sure.

Perhaps comparing myself to a computer keyboard is silly. So I'll consider  friends of mine. All take up blood and air, electricity (in differing amounts), hair (in differing amounts), fingernails, food. But some take up wine (oy!) or beer (I don't take up either, or very rarely); Kate Atkinson; Burning Man; soccer. Different like things take up different like things, or at least in differing quantities.

But the difference between this and that or me and you is not only what we take up but how we take it up. After all, we are not three-dimensional figures, bodies with a list of ingredients. We are four dimensional (at least). That is to say, we are temporal; we extend across or, better, as time. You and I may take up the same things, even in the same quantities, but that doesn't make us the same precisely because we do different things with the same things. We are, each of us, a how. And not just a how but a particular how, a distinctive and adjusting algorithm of desire, fear, lust, love as well as Yo La Tengo, gin, and Nietzsche.

I remember in grad school, I was coming up with my bibliographies for my exams (before you start writing your dissertation, you have to take an oral and written exam in three fields you've determined with three different professors; together, or not, the books that define those fields are, uh, defined). One field of mine was called, 20th Century French Literary Theory; my examiner and advisor was the inimitable Charlie Altieri (I really liked, and miss seeing, Charlie). He suggested, among other things, one essay by someone I'd never read: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's great essay on Cézanne . So I read it and, well, it did something to me. I went on to read thousands of pages by Merleau-Ponty; it felt like necessity of the best kind.

Anyway, I go back to see Charlie a few weeks later (when I'd knock on his office door, he was inevitably asleep on the floor, behind his desk; he's wake up disheveled and grumpy. This enamored him of me enormously). I tell him: Whoa! Merleau-Ponty! I've read nearly everything now! He hesitated, furrowed his brow, leaned back in his chair and said, Really? That's not what I told you to do. Don't you find him....priestly? (or something to that effect).

A similar thing happened once when my good friend played me Broken Social Scene's "You Forgot It in People." I went nuts. I bought everything they made; I bought everything everyone in the band made. I did the same thing when my big brother played me Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" when I was, like, 10. I went on to buy every album and see the band live over 30 times.

Charlie Altieri, my friend, and my brother: we all shared certain things — Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, Jethro Tull. But what I did with those things and they did with those things was very different.


There are many ways to explain that difference. I like to think of it as a matter of vibration, of harmonic convergence. I vibrate at just the right speed and intensity as Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, and Jethro Tull; they turn the bridge I am to mush.


Which is to say, there are a series of other concepts, figures, and functions that come into play when we discuss style and differentiation — speed, shape, intensity, convergence, health. But there is another figure, another function, that in some sense supersedes them or, better, accompanies them: metabolism. The system I am knows how to make sense of those things; and, even more, wants to make sense of those things. They fuel this local system of input, process and distribution, and output (me!).

As a philosophic figure, if that makes sense, metabolism does a lot of things for me. It provides a function of differentiation, a way that this body differentiates itself from that body when they take up quite similar things. It provides a distinctive how within the uniformity of what.

But it also makes sense of the differences in the what. My metabolism doesn't like — can't process — very cheesy things (at least in food; it does enjoy some cheesy images such as Michael Bay's Armageddon; I cry every time when Bruce Willis says goodbye to his daughter, Liv Tyler).

Which is to say, metabolism is a great figure in that it is situated at the juncture of this and that, of inside and outside. To say everything is a metabolism is to say everything is a productive consumption: it is at once a taking in of other things and a mode of self creation. It always already breaks down any rigid distinction between self and other, between inside and outside, without erasing it all together. If a thing is a metabolism, it is a process of making itself by taking up these things, at once inside and out.

And it works at every level. Galaxies are a metabolism, taking up stars and gasses and asteroids and assembling them so. But a star is a metabolism, too, taking up heat and gas and whathaveyou (that's the scientific term for it, mind you). A cloud is a metabolism as is a single water droplet in that cloud as is the hydrogen in that water were you to extricate it. The universe, then, is a system of systems — all these systems operating at different scales, systems intermingling within other systems to greater and lesser degrees, all of them relentlessly, ceaselessly, making the world.

9.30.2016

What is Therapy? or, What if Nietzsche Were Your Therapist



I've been asked to participate in a symposium dedicated to Nietzsche and psychoanalysis which has me, alas, thinking about therapy. What does it want? What are its various and possible mechanisms? What are its goals? We bandy about this word — "I'm in therapy," "Have you considered therapy?," "He really needs therapy" — but what the heck do we mean? What are we asking for?

Presumably, one goes to therapy or into therapy — we are not clear on the proper preposition — because one is not feeling so good. But that not feeling so good is apparently not related to one's stomach, the pervasive radiant pain in one's neck, or that weird itch inside one's whatever. Those things are for other doctors. No, we go to therapy or into therapy because we feel blue. Or because we feel uncomfortable in our lives. Or because we have rushes of anxiety. Or because we just don't want to get out of bed, ever, and feel the universe is done with us and perhaps, just perhaps, we might simply be disappeared by the cosmic powers that be, disintegrated or crushed or somehow or other annihilated into extinction. Then we go to therapy.

This distinction between stomach pain and existential pain is already a bit unclear, even odd, as that pain or itch or digestive distress could very well leave one feeling blue or uncomfortable in one's skin or having rushes of anxiety. But never mind that as the causal relations will always be unclear: Does your stomach hurt because you're anxious or are you anxious because your stomach hurts? Or is there no direct causal link? There must be some correlation, necessarily, as it's all happening to or in or with or as you.

Anyway, the point is I get why we see someone else for that other kind of pain, that other kind of distress — that distinctive existential dyspepsia or malaise or ill constitution. Should this separation of professional duties exist? I get why it exists, even if it seems counterproductive all too often. But that's another question for another time.

So we seek some kind of professional help when we feel existentially ill. That makes sense. But whom do we see? What do we believe this person will do for us? To us? With us? What is our desired outcome? What is that professional's desired outcome?

We can view therapy as a little engine: it takes things in, processes them, produces a result. But what counts as input to this system? Is it your childhood? Your dreams? Your day to day experiences? How about your comportment? Your gait? Your smell? And what about your mood? And then: What does one do with that information? What is the role of this professional you've paid? Are they the wise one offering sage wisdom? A doctor offering a diagnosis? A fellow lunatic along for the ride with you? And, I suppose finally, what counts as success? What do you want to have happen in this therapy?

When we think of therapy, we usually think of words: the patient speaks, the analyst listens and, presumably, interprets. It seems almost silly to point out; of course therapy turns on words. But this reliance on words makes certain assumptions about words, for instance, that words convey internal meaning. Feelings and thoughts burble up inside us, invisible to the world. And so we give them words so this professional can use other words to calm or rearrange this internal teem. 

But that's not how I think words work. And it's not how Nietzsche thinks words work. In fact, I'm not sure there's an inside and an outside; as Nietzsche argues, we reveal ourselves in everything we do. How do we recognize a well turned out person? he asks. A well turned out person smells good! He walks well. And the problem with Socrates? He was ugly! And, for the Greeks, that was a refutation in and of itself. No need, then, to pour over someone's words. Everything we need to know about each other is right there on the surface for all to see. I believe one reason we rely on words in therapy is that it's not proper, in the bourgeois sense, to size someone up, to smell them, gaze at their tics and mannerisms. Words are so much cleaner.

And what of this analyst? What's his or her role in all this? Well, in the world of words, there are different possibilities. The most banal version has the therapist as doctor, mapping proclaimed symptom to predetermined diseases: Oh, you suffer from Anxiety Disorder or Depression — and then we get a script for some soul numbing med (hopefully!). Of course, this all assumes a) that patients say what they mean rather than performing their meaning in actions; and b) that psychological disorders are like viruses and bacteria and cancers — pre-known entities. Me, I believe we are more complex than that. But I could be crazy.

The Freudian model is no doubt more interesting as it has the analyst interpreting the words of the analysand. Here, words don't always mean what they say; it's the analyst's job to analyze, to interpret what those words mean. This tends to involve a kind of semiotic mapping, a set of metaphoric transferences in which one thing is said to mean another — the smell of burnt toast means you love your boss; a foot fetish means you spent time at your mother's feet as a child. The Freudian machine is too complex for me to reduce here. So I'll just say, at the very least, that it's an engine that relies on metaphor and interpretation. (Its reliance on childhood, for instance, also seems misguided and odd to me, relying too much on the metaphor of something being formed — the formative years — rather than something always becoming.)

Meanwhile, Nietzsche's engine relies on neither. His engine is metonymic: we are continuous, ourselves through and through. There is no need to jump from here to there, from inside to outside, from symptom to disease precisely because everything reveals itself. We are always already inside out; if your smell is keen enough, you can discern someone else's intestines, their metabolism, their constitution. Nietzsche's therapeutic model does not begin with words and does not involve interpretation; it begins with phenomena and involves discernment — taste — not interpretation.

What of this analyst, then? In the commonplace model, the analyst is a trained doctor of a sort, mapping symptom to disease, a cog in a medical establishment engine. In the Freudian model, the analyst is a keen interpreter who is not directly implicated within said interpretations. Thanks to Freud's metaphoric transference, the analyst often ends up functioning as an ideal ego or super ego.  In any case, it's the analyst's job to explain to the analysand what's wrong with him or her. And this explanation somehow does....what?

If we imagine Nietzsche as therapist, we can ask what makes him so wise and clever. Well, he's already dead as his father and growing old as his mother; he has suffered intense sickness while experiencing profound joy; he is his own doppelganger — in fact, there might even be a third. Which is all to say, the Nietzschean therapist is multiple (we might even say schizo).

And all this to what end? What are the end states of these different therapeutic engines? I'll go out on a limb and say most people want therapy to feel better in their everyday lives — feel confident in love, at work, with friends and family. And by better they mean what they used to feel or sometimes have felt. Therapy, then, functions as a return to a self — as if the self were one thing, not multiple, not schizo, not always becoming other to itself. We are "better," we think, when we feel o.k. about our jobs, our significant others, our place in this world. Which is to say, we believe better means being a productive member of bourgeois society.

But that's surely not Nietzsche's therapeutic goal. If we view his writing as his therapeutic intervention, the end state is not a return to bourgeois society but an overcoming of your very humanity — an absolute evacuation of your entire bourgeois being. He seeks to transform you, not return you. He doesn't seek better workers, husbands, and wives. He seeks ubermensch. And he does this not through explication but through engagement which may very well be confounding, not clarifying, which may very well be violent, not nurturing. After all, his therapy seeks to remake you, to have you overcome yourself, constantly.

I wrote a few years ago about my experiences with therapy. And so I'll send this a bit abruptly with how I ended that piece: In any case, what makes my shrink so awesome is that he doesn't offer me therapy per se. He refuses to engage me in the demented conversations in my head. He refuses to indulge my fear with more fear. Instead, he offers me a reminder that all my anxieties are based on nonsense, namely, a fear of death. How can you fear death when death is part of life?!? It's stupid! Rather than engage me in the sick mechanics of my mind, he points elsewhere, to something much more beautiful, much more powerful: a fearless life.

9.14.2016

Joy as Tactic: On the Art of Michael Gillette

One image from Michael Gillette's incredible series, Little Angels. I highly recommend his monograph, "Drawn in Stereo."

As Guy Debord argues, the contemporary has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. We are inundated with images that lay claim to our most intimate selves — how we cry, love, feel, interact. We are occupied by the myths and desires propagated by capitalism, by the corporate will to profit: we believe, deep down, that the new gadget will set us free, make us whole, bring us joy.

But within this occupation lie moments, opportunities, spaces of dissent. There are what Deleuze and Guattari might call lines of flight, passages out of the occupied spaces of identity, a deterritorialization of self and world. Rock & roll has played a particularly poignant role in the spectacle and the constitution of selves and society. It has forged and fomented a variety of postures and possibilities — not all lines of flight, mind you — from angry revolt to masculine and particularly phallic bravado to the cloying nostalgia of classic rock radio.

A conspicuous aspect to rock & roll is that it was never only a sonic movement. It was, from the beginning, a visual movement. We can literally picture rock & roll — from Elvis to Stanley "Mouse" Miller and beyond. We see The Beatles in that crosswalk, Mick Jagger gyrating, Stevie Nicks swirling. Like all kids from a certain era, I'd put the record on and then sit with the album cover, studying every last detail. Two in particular scared me with their promise and possibility. One was the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" which, with its idiotic sexual innuendo and complex psychosexual politics, titillated and confused me and let me know an entire universe awaited me with pain and pleasure (I was, like, seven).



The other was the back of The Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" with its pastoral scene of hippie families. Oh, man that one still haunts me! Were they free of the bourgeois world I lived in? What did that entail? Did they have beds and showers? Did they go to school? That image lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, a possibility of freedom and a possibility of stinky horror.


I am not saying much when I say that the intensity and affect of the music worked with the intensity and affect of the image to create many possible modes of self. To a lot of people, it was — and remains — a literal line of flight out of the mundanity, and often violence, of their closed worlds. Michael Gillette was one such person.

And while rock & roll was creating new — and reviving old — myths of self and society, the art world was playing a particular role in fomenting different kinds of lines of flight. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Marc Lafia, John Baldessari: all these artists grab images of the capitalist engine as they pass through the ether and ourselves and redistribute them, forging cracks, folds, and territories. They jam the system, revealing its mechanics — its environment, as Marshall McLuhan would say. But they do other things, as well, each in their own way. Warhol reveled in the freedom the endless imagistic production of self affords. Lichtenstein denuded the myths, allowing us a certain distance from their affect. Baldessari, Prince, and Lafia — each in their own distinctive manner — give us the engine of image production as a plaything.

Michael Gillette does something else entirely. He doesn't jam the system. Nor does he merely perpetuate it. While his work seems familiar — there is no doubt a whiff of nostalgia for the promise of punk — he breaks cliché through one of the most difficult tactics: joy. He takes up the images of rock & roll that surround us — the elaborate mythology of the psychedelic, of Woodstock, of "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" — and inhabits them, lending the mythology a pathos evacuated by the the profit motive and cock rock disc jockeys.

Look at his Little Angels series. Here, he paints portaits of dead rock and pop stars — Biggie, Amy Whinehouse, Whitney, Jimi and Janis, Kurt — but as children. The pathos is achingly poignant, almost unbearable. In these faces, painted with just their their name, we see and feel lives lived and lives lost, all at once. The fact that it's just their first name echoes twice: it is how children designate themselves — you can see Amy as child, "Hi, I'm Amy!" — and it's how they are mythologized by the spectacle: you hear Amy and you know to whom it refers (it's the title of her postmortem documentary: the one name suffices, amplifying the mythos). But by mixing these two — the innocence of youth with the spectacle of image — we live the life of the myth in its beauty, its pain, its horror, its exploitation, its longing, its aspiration, its villainy, its promise.


 

Gillette is in perhaps a unique position. While Warhol played at labor with his Factory — although I feel his best paintings were his corporate illustrations — Gillette's art is often literally labor, the product of a corporate commission, illustrating for the likes of Levi's and "Spin" and Penguin Books, (although not exclusively). While the art world proper might frown on such things, it is what gives Gillette's art its power, posture, and particular poignance. (And isn't all art a commodity? Isn't the distinction specious at best? Don't we all know this by now?) He is poised at the the very juncture where the spectacle is produced. And while some artists might ironically sneer, Gillette takes it as an opportunity to lend pathos where there is too often none.

There is no doubt an implicit critique that runs through Gillette's work. By taking up images of what we know, by taking up the myths of rock & roll as artifice, he is exposing the machinery of myth-making, revealing the environment of spectacle production. We create these myths, he tells us. And by revealing, and reveling in, the pathos cliché and nostalgia eliminate, he points to the dehumanization inherent in capitalist production.

But Gillette does this all through a surprising technique: through an abundance of love! An abundance of joy! He finds life where there was none! I see him closer to Jeff Koons than, say, Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince. If Lichtenstein affords us a certain critical remove and Prince a critique of art production both through a certain delirium of image appropriation, Koons loves the glitter and shine of the pop image. But he takes images of Michael Jackson and moves them into a posthuman affect: his Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not of this world, the pop image elevated to pure adorned glitter. There is no human pathos there, only a toothy sheen. Gillette, on the other hand, discovers a transcendence within the human-all-too-human, within the mythologies that we create. We feel the love but also the pain. And that, alas, is the affirmation of this life. That is joy.

We see it in his line which I want to call voluptuous, generous, adoring. Look at his illustrations for "American Hustle" (one of the great American movies of the past few decades). Look at the glimmering love. There is no irony. Nor is there capitulation to the spectacle, selling for the sake of profit. Rather, there is a love of it all, a generous eye and line, emanating pathos. His line, his gesture, is so effusive, so voluminous, so palpable that we feel the humanity within the myth.


At times, there is a wit that is joyous and affirmative, as well. Look at his Elvis. It's funny. It's true, somehow. There seems at first to be some snark, Elvis love as Americana. But take a second look. There is no snark. Yes, Elvis love embodies a certain Americana. And vice versa. And that is how we make myths, yes. And it's glorious and strange and fun and funny. Gillette sees and enjoys it all — and let's us do the same.


And then look: it's Michael Cera, all sweet nerdy innocence. How are we to stand towards this? How are we to feel? There is a nod of recognition, sure. But then something else happens. In its glaring analogness — an unseemly word but conceptually apropos as Gillette is relentlessly non-digital — a personal aside I happen to know: he doesn't have a cell phone —  in this human touch, we see so much: myth making but also the power of myth to forge possibilities, of Cera's distinctive promise of unpretentious humanity. What Gillette gives us is the most difficult mode of critique — critique not through alienation, not through No-saying, but through an abundance of love: through joy.