3.29.2016

The Tense of the Dead

Back when I was teaching, I instructed my students to always use the literary present in their papers (and to split infinitives, if they so desired) — to say Nietzsche writes, not Nietzsche wrote. The argument I gave is that their papers were not about the historical person of Nietzsche — who lived and died — but about his texts which exist in the present. In this case, the name, "Nietzsche," doesn't designate a person but a set of words and concepts.

These days, I've found that when I write, I no longer use the literary present. I usually say Nietzsche wrote. I didn't decide to do this; I just started doing it because it felt right. And what I realized is that, as I've gotten older and become more and more solitary, I have come to feel as though Nietzsche — and Burroughs, Deleuze, Foucault — are my companions. I want to picture their bodies, their lives; I want their historical person as much as I want their texts. I want to live in their company, not just with their pages.

What, then, of those people we know who have died? What tense do we use to talk about them?

My sister would have been 52 last week. I use the conditional here as she — her body — didn't turn 52; her body ceased to be at 49. And when I remember certain events, the past tense seems right — I remember when she said....

But I found myself conjuring multiple tenses when I thought of her birthday. While she would have been 52, the day is still her birthday. A birthday doesn't cease to be. So her birthday is, not would have been.

The tenses get more complicated when I think, or discuss, her. For instance, do I say: She was so sweet? Or she is so sweet? Did her sweetness end? Her actions of sweetness are no more but doesn't her sweetness persist?

If we use the literary present to discuss texts from writers who are dead, why wouldn't I use the present to discuss the qualities of my sister? Her text may not be written, may not always be visual, but it exists quite palpably. My sister per se didn't cease to exist 2.5 years ago; only her body and her actions did.

And, no, I'm not talking about her soul. At least, I don't think I'm talking about her soul as I don't know what the word soul designates. I am talking about the living text, the living impressions, she made on this world and, more specifically, on me and those who knew her. Or do I say those who know her? Our knowing of her certainly hasn't ceased. I don't think I would ever say I loved her. That sounds and feels all wrong as I love her here and now.

But if I only use the present tense, it has a funny double effect. On the one hand, as when academics use the literary present, it effaces her personhood, her living life by existing only with her trace, her ghost, her memory. On the other hand, it makes her persist above and beyond her physical life and conjures her personhood here and now — who she was and who she very much still is.

And so my sister lives in multiple tenses, as I suppose we all do. She lives here and now with me —  her unshakeable sweetness, her infinite smile, her always honest laugh. I see it; I feel it; I know it. And, at the same time, all these things are past — maddeningly, excruciatingly, deafeningly so.

3.28.2016

On Civility in Public Space, or On Ethics & Johnsons

I had an interesting encounter last week. It was Saturday morning and I'd just dropped my boy off at his hip hop dance class (yes, you heard me) and headed to this incredible coffee shop up the block to read while I waited for his class to end. What makes this coffee shop different than others in this ridiculous city by the bay, among other things, is that no one is on a laptop. People of various ages and ethnicities sit, eat pie (it's called Mission Pie), drink coffee and....wait for it...talk to each other. There are even communal tables where I usually find myself putting my book down to talk to a stranger. Egad!

Anyway, I was standing on the corner waiting to cross the street to go to the café when an older man with a walker, standing some distance away, called to me and asked if I could help him cross the street. Of course I would. He moved very, very slowly; there is no possible way he'd ever cross 25th and Mission without getting hit, yelled or honked at. I stood in the road, put up my hands, and held multiple lines of traffic while he crossed.

Now, this is not what's interesting. Hold on.

So he crosses the street and then heads to the very café I'm going to. I hold the door for him. It's rainy and the place is crowded. I ask if he needs help sitting; he does. I position a chair under him, hold his weight as he lowers himself; I then scoot his chair under the table. This is rather intimate. As the line is long, I ask if I can get him what he wants. Yes, he says, a glass of milk and a slice of banana cream pie.

Wait. This is not yet what's interesting.

The line is long but eventually I return to him and our section of the communal table, our goods in tow. There are two pretty women at the end of the table talking to each other. In fact, there are a lot of attractive women there. But this man wants to talk. He's not that old but he's clearly medicated and tells me as much. He repeats himself often. His voice is low and I have to lean in to hear him.

He asks, jokingly, if I'd been a boy scout. Then he asks if I'd like to come over some time (apparently, he lives in some kind of communal home). This is where things get interesting to me. Rather than explain to him the myriad reasons why I have no desire whatsoever to visit him at his home, I give him a phone number — not my number but a number.

The fact is, I always ask people who I think might need some help if they do, indeed, need said help. I ask blind people, old people, people in wheelchairs if they need help getting where they're going. I never sit on the train if others are standing. I never budge on line. But I don't do this because I'm a good person. I'm not. I'm not a bad person, either. It's just that I don't believe in good people and bad people — although I do believe in assholes, douchebags, and Johnsons.

The reason I do all these seemingly good deeds is not because I believe in the good but because I want the social order to run without invading my world. That is, if things collapse, my life becomes much more difficult. The whole damn thing seems so precarious, the social hung together with gossamer that's always on the brink of fraying. And then what'll I do?

No, I want the social to hum along and leave me the fuck alone. And so, yes, I help old and blind people; I respect line etiquette; I hold doors and let drivers into my lane. But that's because I don't want to go to their houses, because I don't want to be part of some bullshit community that, deep down, doesn't want me as a member.

And so I have no desire to help this man with his palpable, heart wrenching loneliness. I only want to help him cross the street and get his banana cream pie. Which is to say, I only want to help him in public. That is the realm of the ethical. Beyond that, we enter a different territory of the good (as distinct from the propitious). I am all for someone having this morality and visiting this old man, hugging him occasionally, maybe even sexually pleasuring him. But that is another realm, another imperative (pace Kant).

For me, I honor the code of the Johnson: mind my own fucking business but don't watch a drowning man drown. I don't want the intimacy of strangers — neither their kindness nor their wrath. I want their general indifference to me while respecting the common space. I don't need smiles or pleasantries, that American facade that masks fear and loathing. I just want everyone to recognize public space for what it is and not be a total douche if an old man needs a chair. Otherwise, I pretty much just want to be left the fuck alone. 

3.17.2016

Better Living Through the Critique of Everything (with Reference to Nietzsche)

I'm reading the review of AO Scott's new book, Better Living Through Criticism, in The New Yorker. The title of Scott's book obviously appealed to me; it's been my mantra for years. But his book, as with The New Yorker essay, comes at critique — and indeed the world — from a fundamentally different vantage point than I do.

To them, the arts are special, even essential to human existence. But they're extra. Art, for them, happens afterwards or elsewhere, to the side of things. There is life — social discourse, marriage, medicine, diet, factories, language — and then there is this special other thing they call art.

But what happens when, as Nietzsche argues, everything is constructed? When everything is some kind of artifice? This is the premise of Nietzsche's worldview: art, not truth or survival, comes first. Every word is a poem, a metaphor, an interpretation, a making of the world. You see the moon and think of cycles; the French see the moon and think of light. These are artistic choices.

We are all poets, all artists. Or, rather, we are all would-be artists, would-be poets. Too often, he tells us, we don't create. We imitate. We use metaphors as if they were literal; we deploy interpretation as if it were truth. Indeed, for Nietzsche (and for me!), science is poetry that's forgotten it's poetry. Science, along with the various intertwined edifices of knowledge, suffers from amnesia — and a certain will to power, a will to hierarchy, to the expert, to the one who knows and hence controls the world. Forgetting we're artists is constitutive of a certain will to power, to control, to knowledge (hence, Foucault's project).

Indeed, for Nietzsche, the very creation of humankind — not to mention the self — is a work of art. There were beasts of prey, he tells us, roaming and fighting and hunting. But some wanted a more interesting life and so began to work their own bodies as a sculptor works clay — molding, cutting, whipping their own bodies into a being capable of keeping a promise, that is, a being capable of being continuous over time, a being capable of repetition. For Nietzsche, this took unspeakable strength — a strength that is fundamentally artistic in search of a more interesting life (See On the Genealogy of Morals, if you're interested).

What, then, is the role and purview of criticism? AO Scott and The New Yorker like to believe that the critic is a professional role, assuming its rank and position alongside the other keepers of knowledge — scientists, politicians, and such. But that only serves to reinforce the anti-art structure of knowledge. It is a belief in the expert, in those who know more. The premise is: sure, you all have your silly opinions but it's the real critic, the learned, who knows how to critique.

I want to suggest a fundamentally different operation of critique, one that is radically democratic and hence anti-expert. This operation is available to all who want to live a life that's awake, that's aware, that's creative in the fundamental sense, whether you're making paintings, conversation, love, a meal, or kids.

To critique, I maintain, is to abolish cliché, to brush aside the hegemony of dominant discourse, and usher in a new, fresh, lively way of viewing the world — whether it's a painting, a film, a smile, a child's tears. It is to seek, to will, the interesting. Critic is not the title of the special, the expert, the revered. I want critic to be the title, the mantle, of all those who seek to live life amid the infinite becoming of the universe rather than exist in the closed, predetermined structures of what we call knowledge.

The critic is one who parries everyday nonsense with keen twists and turns armed with both an origami delicacy and a hammer. You assume you need to be in a couple to be happy? You assume a job, a house, a kid is what's called for? You think life and death are opposed? Silly, silly, says the critic who reveals assumptions to be creations, truths to be interpretations, life to be a constant creation rather than a track we're on. 

This is the kind of criticism we should be teaching — not how to master a text but how to open a text, revel in its manifold ways, reveal and steer its assumptions into more interesting possibilities. We shouldn't be limiting our purview to the sanctioned world of art — to books, films, paintings, and performances. Criticism should pervade every moment because every moment is a work of art, even if it's a pile of shit (such as marriage or careers). The critic's job is not to only notice the spectacular. On the contrary, the critic's job is to notice everything.

3.08.2016

Peace Amidst the Teem with Reference to Kierkegaard



I like to go to the ocean. Not in the ocean, mind you. Its tumult terrifies me. Plus, I can't swim. So there's that. Being at the ocean's edge, however, is at once calming and exhilarating. (I want to say that being at the ocean's edge is what Kant would call beautiful; being in the ocean is what he'd call sublime. One enjoys free-form proportion; the other, absolute excess.)

It's not just the ocean and its sense — its whiff, its warp and woof — but solitude in general that gives me peace. The farther I am from the mayhem of the social, its noise and needs, the calmer I become. But it's not just calm I experience. It''s joy, an inundation with the thisness of the universe, its infinite becoming. It gets me high.

But then I have to return to the demands of the social — to jobs and women and rent and asshole cable companies and shitty drivers and phones that refuse to work— and my peace and exhilaration vanish in an impossibly swift woosh.

It's easy to say the fault is with people and our world. And there is no doubt we live in an unsustainable culture that demands nothing less than the evacuation of our souls, our vitality, our health, our very being.

Still, my lack of peace is not the culture's fault. It's not Comcast's fault or a woman's fault or the fault of the relentless San Francisco construction and traffic and tech buses and sky rocketing rent and greedy landlords. No, it's my fault. I have trouble holding my peace amid the torrent.

Kierkegaard proffers four stages on life's way. There's the aesthetic which lives in the immediate now of desire and whim (a version of the id, I suppose). There's the ethical in which life is mediated by the civic and its demands for propriety (the super ego of a sort). And then there's the religious which has two phases. The religious in general is the embracing of the infinite. Kierkegaard calls the first phase infinite resignation, those who commit their lives completely to the infinite. Picture monks who live in a remote monastery eating gruel and speaking little.

And then there's the final phase of the religious: the knight of faith. This person lives simultaneously in the finite and the infinite. He — or, yes, she — enjoys the peace and joy of infinite resignation but while living in the social — being married, having a job, negotiating assholes and traffic.

I can imagine my life of infinite resignation. I'd go to the ocean's edge and never return home, never take another client call, never fight with a girlfriend again, never whine and wail when my internet is down. I'd be at peace, exhilarated, all the freakin' time. I do have this persistent dream of awaying myself to the desert and living out my days in an Airstream, far from the madding crowd, until I succumb to death's gentle embrace.

It's seductive, this infinite resignation. It calls to me, beckons, whispers and winks with its come-hither. But I have a kid and I love him infinitely and I'm not leaving him as I absquatulate with my soul and, alas, money.

Plus, something feels insufficient about it. Weak. Like a fleeing rather than a reckoning. Which may be idiotic, my false consciousness based on a weird machismo: I must be wise and strong! Perhaps infinite resignation is the easy way out, relatively speaking. But I wouldn't mind an easy way out. Who wouldn't, right?

In any case, like it or not, here I am and here I remain, in 2016 San Francisco, a shit storm of civilization (he says from a position of white middle class privilege). But kvetching, while no doubt affording a certain pleasure, doesn't suffice. Wailing and whining is only destructive to me and those very few around me.

The trick, then, is to take that peace I find at the ocean and carry it with me always — in traffic, on hold with Comcast, negotiating the inane demands of this life. Life may be suffering but that's no reason to suffer. I just need to fortify my fortitude. Or perhaps rather than working on building my strength, I need to let go of all nonsense, surrender infinitely all day every day, the wu wei.

Or I can just wait until my kid graduates high school and then flee to the high lands or hinter lands or whatever lands will have me and resign myself, infinitely.

3.03.2016

Diet and Knowing in Time (verbal essay)

(I really need to ditch Podomatic as it's so clunky and refuses to embed; suggestions appreciated)


To be on a diet, we believe, is to submit one's body to an external regime. Which is telling in that diet is in fact neutral and based in practice: diet is what you eat. Which is to say, diet is not something that is external but is empirical and, alas, judgement free.

And yet we will to a diet that comes from outside, like a moral code on high. Our contemporary conception of diet is, indeed, based in morality when eating is not moral at all (excuse me, for now, vegans): eating is ethical. Which is to say, it marks a juncture of my body and these foods and how I go in the world.

This is tricky as this juncture is always moving. After all, we live in time. Our bodies are always changing. And we don't just eat for the now; we eat for the later based on what we've eaten in the past. Diet, then, is a temporal juncture that looks back, looks forward, all while negotiating the now. 

It seems to me basing a diet on knowledge learned in a lab is, well, insane. There is such little correlation between the extreme abstraction of elements isolated and experimented with in a lab and the living reality of my body in the world. Anecdote is a much more powerful and useful mode of knowledge when it comes to diet. Science is ill suited for such things. When it comes to diet, your body is the lab and your experience, your health, is the knowledge.


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