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.
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.
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.
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?
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!