Distributed Grammar

Say you're reading a book. Say it's Moby Dick (why not make it a good one?). Where does meaning reside? Whence the meaning you experience with and from this whale of a book?

Surely, it comes from the words. But where do words get their meaning? After all, take them out of all context and they're just shapes on a page. Ah, but there is no such thing as "taken out of all context." Some context is always already present, making its present felt. There is no such thing as a vacuum; everything is inflected.

So many presences when we read — words, books, biographies, appetites, images of reading, associations of images of reading, the need to eat or pea or sleep, friends, your sense of yourself and all that that entails. So many forces and things come to bear as you, alone, read Moby Dick.

There's history, too. But history is itself multiple. There is the history of the word that brings it across time to sit on that page there and look back at you. Those travels across time and ink and minds are rich, fecund with nuance, connotations, denotations, permutations and such. And there's your history — of those words, of your various and diverse experiences, of reading, of what you believe it means to read. (For many of us, reading is an inherent good, a sign of a lively mind and refined spirit. These days, I'm not so sure of that. Books are just another technology and words just another set of stuff.)

There's the writer, as well, or what we sometimes call the author. Melville lived in a time and place, had certain associations with words and images and they traveled across time to his hand to his page to your eyes to your experience.

In this seemingly straightforward act of you reading a book, probably alone in your bedroom, there are so many forces at work coming together and not coming together but somehow creating a machine that produces meaning, understanding, sensations. Every moment is a conjuring, a séance of sorts.

Meaning is distributed across these various bodies. You, as the reader, don't invent the meaning. You inflect it, inevitably, but you don't invent it. Melville has a lot to say but, on the other hand, he has nothing to say as he's not there; in fact, he's dead. So let's say that rather than Melville, there is this arrangement of these words.

And that arrangement does a lot of work, with or without Melville. Subject-verb agreement; inflection of subjects and objects and indirect objects; adjectival and adverbial qualifications. The grammar of language, its written as well as unwritten rules of how words should go together, is a pronounced presence as you sit there in your room, seemingly alone, reading this book.

The event of meaning — all these diverse forces cohering into something you feel and think and, perhaps, articulate — is a conspiracy of forces both visible and invisible, both immediate (the need to pee!) and historical (the word "doom" bears its eschatological etymology).  And each party plays its role, to a greater or lesser degree. Which is to say, sometimes you — the reader — have to do a lot of work. Or maybe you don't have to but you want to. Sometimes, a word rings out so great it muffles most attempts to domesticate it — in which case, it's the word doing most of the work. Sometimes it's circumstance. Different things at different times in my life have different effects and affects, as if Melville and words and whole history of the novel, of language, of the world is put to work in the service of a dominant mood emerging from a set of particular circumstances. 

The responsibility of meaning — the grammar of the meaning event — is distributed. It doesn't exist in one place. It happens between lots of things. But this distribution is not equal. It is not a load split evenly among all parties. It is a distributing of duty, as well.

Charisma, for instance, has a way of determining meaning perhaps even despite the best intentions of those around. Such is charisma: it is that which seduces and coerces attraction. And what is meaning except a certain mode of attraction between words, bodies, desires, appetites, and concepts?

I saw a film a few years ago called Zero Dark Thirty about the USA's assassination of Osama bin Laden (oy! Now I know this blog is tagged by the NSA, some virtual spider crawling it looking for keywords, probably mining my unsavory browse history. But that is my point, if I have a point: there are so many forces at work determining the way this text goes). The oddest thing to me about this film is that its very meaning resides on a shared knowledge. That is to say, if you don't know about 9/11 and the presumed role of Mr. bin Laden (fuck! I feel like that rag, the NY Times), the film makes no sense. It doesn't tell you about the towers; it rests on a shared history for its semantic production. The distribution of grammatic duty lies in the shared history of the viewers. If you had never heard of 9/11 or this Osama character, the film would be insane. Which is to say, it would have the oddest of  meanings — for no apparent reason, an organized mafia/militia wants to kill one man hiding — which, I suppose, might make it more interesting. Or meaningless!

Now consider another film about 9/11, United 93, which I wrote about ages ago and is brilliant (the film but, well, my reading of it, too). The grammatic distribution in that film is quite different than it is in Zero Dark Thirty. In United 93, it doesn't matter if you already know the history of 9/11 (as if there were one history); in Zero Dark Thirty, the film is downright demented if you don't know and, finally, share its assumptions about what it is you know. It doesn't build its own argument about the event; it relies on common sense which, as someone I know recently tweeted, is an oxymoron. United 93, however, is about an event whose sense is distributed. No one ever quite knows what's happening; information spills across different screens and eyes and doesn't become the event we know it as for quite a while.

Think for a moment about images and captions — or, better, The New Yorker cartoons. Meaning is distributed between and among the image, words, and our shared assumptions and ideologies. Change the words and, well, the image changes dramatically. And yet the image can't just be pushed to mean this or that. The image has something to say. The meaning happens between them — and so much more.


The Form Writing Takes: Essays, Books, Notes

Recently, I find myself disinclined to write. Which is funny — and a bit disconcerting — as writing has been my go-to delight since I was 20 and writing my undergraduate honors thesis. I discovered then that I could churn out the pages and that it filled me not just with delight but with vitality. I never feel more alive and entwined with the universe than when I'm writing.

For me, writing has never been an expression of thoughts I've had. It is thought itself happening right now across the page (or screen, as the case may be — although I do continue to write on my tiny Rhodia pad). Writing, for me, is an experience rather than a recounting. I am at the edge of my seat, literally, but also at the edge of my thoughts and the edges of words and grammar — reaching, delving, exploring, seeking the right word, the right turn of phrase, as ideas take shape before my eyes. It is thrilling, life at the limit of its own becoming.

Recently, I've published a book with a press I love, Zero Books (the official release date is August 26th). It's a book I've written and re-written many times over the last 20 years. So it feels good that it's out there in this present form; it is a pretty good summation of thoughts I've had — and believed, I suppose — for decades.

But I think that its bookishness, its closed borders, has dampened my will to write. Books are so final. In the process of publishing, I had to sign off on the manuscript's finality along the way. And now it's bound and printed, an object in the world. I can't tweak a phrase, add an idea, qualify a claim. There it is, repeating itself over and over to anyone who will read it. It's done.

This is a beautiful thing in its way. Like the Oulipo writers, I enjoy constraints. If I hadn't published this book, I'd keep writing it over and over. Which is beautiful, too, but in a different way. With the thingness of a book demanding a finale, a form is birthed, perhaps a bit misshapen but a life unto itself nonetheless. It will now do what it does, have the effects and affects it does. (Plato and Derrida differ over how they feel about precisely this fact: Plato is a bit anxious that writing has no parent to defend it; Derrida loves this undoing of subjectivity; but both feel the power of this detachment from the person.)

I always enjoyed writing books (although this is my first one published). I loved writing my dissertation; as I've written in the past, writing a book is constructing a house from the inside out — while living in it! You can add whatever room you want, knock down walls as you go.

But after my son was born, my ability to have the kind of time and space — practically and intellectually — was, well, eliminated. And so, tentatively, I took up blogging. At first, all my posts were essays I'd write first in Word before cutting and pasting into blogware. Over time, however, I took to writing directly into the blog UI. I enjoy this liveliness, my writing sitting somewhere between me, my screen, and the internet. I like this plasticity, that I can change it, write over it, write it again as I wish, when I wish, with nearly no obstacles. If a book is solid, a blog is liquid.

Essays are an incredible form, so generous (I wrote about them here). They afford me a freedom, a space and form to improvise and play.

But recently I keep having thoughts, flickers of ideas. I jot them down or verbally record them on my phone. In the past, I've thought of these notes as seeds that might germinate and become essays. But now I am attracted to their brevity, to the fact that they don't go anywhere. I like the fragmented nature of the note.

If I published just one note on this blog, in this interface, it would look silly, look almost wrong. And readers would be confused or maybe bored (of course, they may be bored right now reading this essay about not writing essays). Where, then, does the note live? Twitter, perhaps. That's certainly how I use my Twitter (talk about an Oulipo-style constraint!).

But I don't always want that constraint, either. I want the note to go as it will, fork as it will, end as it will. I can do this in my pad and my voice memos. But how do I publish notes? Maybe they're not for publishing; maybe notes are too private to be of interest to anybody else. We'll see, I suppose.


Reading the Way of Things

So, in collaboration with the fine publisher of Zero Books — the writer, Doug Lain — I am creating a series of video/podcasts that seek to explicate my book (available on Amazon but ask your local bookstore, please).  In this first part, I try to explain what I mean by a technology and, specifically, the technology of what I call exemplary reading — readings things as examples of other things.

That is, we tend to read things by not reading them but rather by plugging them into a preexisting category such as genre, ideology, history, or biography. Just think about museums: people look at the painting and then, immediately, read the writing on the wall. Rather than reckoning what's in front of them, they read the history and category of the painting in order to understand it. To read the world — to understand, enjoy, and make sense of things — we turn away from them.

In the following videos, I'll proffer an alternate mode of critique, what I call immanent reading — which, obviously, draws from Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis but also from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. Immanent reading does not posit a thing in itself. On the contrary, immanent reading begins with the assumption of things are multiple, run through with other things. Immanent reading is not about discovering the truth of a thing but involves following, and (co)creating, the different ways a thing can go.


Teaching Criticism

When I consider my formal education, I try to think of how and when I was taught critical thinking. I know it was never a topic in and of itself. When we teach kids, we tend to teach a subject matter. This is American History and these are the things you need to know. And then come the names and dates and events which are usually the names and dates of government (and military) actions — and, sometimes, the resistance to said actions. Critical thinking is not even considered a thing to teach (by most and certainly by the mass makers of curricula and testing).

This is not too surprising for several reasons. Most notably, I suppose, of course we learn about the state seeing as education is state mandated and, for the most part, state administered (even private schools are bound by state curricula and testing). So the state teaches about itself, its own history and operation — which is to say, we teach propaganda.

And, well, teaching subject matter — names dates, events — is easy to teach and easy to standardize. We can all learn the same facts; tests have the same questions with set answers. All a teacher needs to do is write a name and date on the board then give a test asking the name and date. This makes teaching absurdly simple, testing absurdly simple, and quantifying and measuring "education" absurdly simple. The rising obsession with quantification only reinforces this. After all, how can we put a number to a student's newfound ability to think, critique, process, create? And if we can't measure it, how do we assess it, make policy, judge, hire and fire? How do we justify budgets? (See this brilliant scene from The Wire which I can't embed here.)

There are no doubt other reasons we teach subject matters rather than critical thinking — economic, historical, ideological, practical, existential reasons. Critique demands a certain posture towards oneself, others, and the state apparatus — a posture of questioning that leads to personal and social alienation. Not taking things for granted, questioning and tracking and undoing the very terms of engagement with the world: this is existentially and politically demanding — and risky. It can be uncomfortable. So why do it? I don't blame anyone, I suppose. Life is hard enough without alienating yourself.

What is critical thinking? I'll say it's examining the very terms of making sense, not accepting the assumptions we make, questioning our questions and approach, not letting any matter stand outside the field of examination. Criticism demands examining the form of analysis and not just the analysis itself.  Yes, we sometimes teach alternate takes on state sanctioned versions of events. And that is no doubt a good and important thing. But we rarely, if ever, examine how we make sense of things, what we consider a subject, how we go about deciding what an event is, what counts as evidence, what counts as a truth claim.

Let's take this subject we call history. How do we define an historical field? An historical period? An historical event? Why do we call it the Renaissance or the American Revolution or the Middle Ages? What terms have we assumed to designate them as such? What counts as historical evidence? What kinds of things are we even looking for?

When I got to college, I thought I wanted to study history. That's because of my American History teacher, the brilliant, late Robert Tucker, who had us read Gabriel Kolko's critique of the USDA. Kolko argues that the USDA was created to defend a besieged, dirty, and corrupt meat industry. The assurance of the government about out meat was not for the good of the citizens but for the good of industry. Things I took for granted were suddenly reversed. I found this exhilarating. I wanted more.

I thought I wanted more history. And then I got to college and the history classes were so predictable, so achingly boring. It was all names, dates, and events sometimes weaved together with a more or less compelling narrative. So I went to my advisor and tried explaining, rather incoherently, what I wanted. I kept saying I wanted history without wars and treaties and dates and big names. Where was the architecture? I asked. Where is the literature and art? Where is the philosophy? Where is the geology and weather? Can't historical trajectories be drawn any number of ways? Why were the historical eras all taken for granted — the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, World War I? I mean, were there really two world wars? Wasn't there just one — and the Japanese and Germans won? And what are the Middle Ages in the middle of, anyway?

And then I read Foucault's History of Sexuality and everything changed. Foucault rearranges the archival facts into very different story lines. Wars and such are conspicuously absent. He uses architecture, literature, philosophy, art, court transcripts. His distribution of eras is surprising: he finds continuity between the Catholic confession and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Turns out if you track behaviors and ideas rather than predetermined events, the very ways we think about our history shift. I ended up writing my honors thesis on historiography, comparing the methodology of Foucault to that of Lawrence Stone — what they assume, what they consider evidence, how they view time and human subjectivity.

My point is not that Foucault is right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that looking at fundamentally different ways of constructing the subject matter — in this case, history — leads to fundamentally different conclusions. And the very act of doing that — of not taking one way for granted but looking at multiple ways and then even questioning that instinct — belies ready and smug assumptions. It teaches students — people — to think differently and for themselves, to not just accept the status quo. Criticism teaches a certain generosity towards life, a desire to seek multiplicity within the inherited monoliths. Criticism can be part of any course teaching students to be lively human beings. And isn't that the whole point of this thing?