12.31.2017

In Search of Grace

Often, when I'm walking the 10 minutes from my house to the train, I find myself moving with a sense of urgency. It's not that I'm late; I'm not going faster in order to catch a train. No, the pace of my feet may or may not be accelerated. But my mind is reeling. Which makes me feel like I'm walking quickly, my frame leaning forward to keep abreast of my thoughts. I clench my teeth a bit; my heart races a little faster.

When I catch myself doing this, I take a deep breath, exhale excessively loud, look at the sky, and slump my body — as if suddenly breaking as I notice I'm going well over the speed limit. I'm slouched, my back hunched, my gaze too focused on the sky, searching for a respite. It's like I'm putting on a show for the karma police. See?! I'm not speeding. I'm, like, so chill. It's a grotesque charade.

Like the would-be highway cop, karma isn't fooled. In the span of mere moments, I've moved from leaning too far forward to leaning too far back. While the affect may differ, the effect does not: I am off balance. Despite the volume of my exhalation, the universe knows, just as I do, that I am not chill.

One summer in high school, I spent six weeks in the French Alps with a family, a long time friend of my mother's. Along with my Jew fro-ed, skinny as a pubic hair 15 year old self, there were the two parents and their two tween daughters (that's another story for another time). We'd climb high, snow encrusted mountains which we'd then descend. The ground was either loose gravel, chunky rocks, or ice. My instinct, like many people's, was to lean back in order to counter gravity's forward pull.

But le père, to whom I was often tethered with a rope, told me to do just the opposite: lean forward to be perpendicular with the ground. Sure, this put us in a near run. But it meant I was no longer fighting the event, fighting to stay on my feet, expending unnecessary energy just to get from point A to B. By leaning forward, I was moving with the mountain. And, just like that, my descent became more sure footed, more efficient, and dare I say, almost graceful — not to mention plain old more fun. Oh, man, running down those mountains, sliding down those glaciers, is an experience that still runs through my body, a memory of grace.

Too far forward, too far back, careening to one side or the other: I have a tendency to move around the event as it transpires. I expend all this energy avoiding, ducking, parrying the event right in front of me. Walking to the train, I think about whether I'll have to pee during my meeting or, worse, shit; or whether I'll get too hungry and feel faint; or if the train might be late. My body is tense, making me burn all kinds of energy simply walking to the train. I feel the furrow in my brow, the tightness in my shoulders, the anxiety in my blood. As I walk, I am teetering. It's not graceful.

But how to find this grace? Is there a center I can occupy as the world spins around me? Is there a wave I can ride, be swept up in its tumult, freed from having to occupy any position at all — a surrender to the torrent?

Like everyone I've ever met,  I have a drive to get lost in the event. I want to feel the centrifugal force of the cyclone, to be handled by the event, taken up in its swirls and eddies. This, I like to imagine, is a kind of going with the world. And how best to be swept up? Well, by imbibing this or that, of course! Pop a pill to feel life! Caffeine, tequila, kratom, all the different strains of pot, Ativan...the list goes on and on: all these ways to feel the event by, uh, not feeling the event. It's a powering through (caffeiene, tequila) or a lazy, hazy avoidance (Ativan, bourbon).

There are other ways of riding the wave other than drugs, of course. There is the mania of the samurai; there is the ecstasy of the sky and the way it can turn me inside out, stretching me unto the infinite. 

In any case, in popping pills, swigging cocktails, maniacally entering battle with sword drawn, there is not only a desire to take leave of this world, a desire to avoid: there is also a desire to embrace, to live fully and vitally with the world. And, yes, there is a concerted avoidance of the event, of life, as we ride the highs and lows of our swills and pills and local surges of energy.

How, then, to move with the event? How to move with grace? What does leaning forward as you hike down the mountain look like in everyday life? Is it a fixed position? Or, as I suppose, does this center move so as not to be a center per se but an ever moving, elusive sweet spot?

But first: why seek this grace? From the perspective of energy expenditure — which is not to evoke efficiency in the capitalist sense — grace is optimal. After all, life is a continuous flow of energy, a giving and taking. Give too much without receiving — say, running marathons without eating, drinking, or sleeping — and you'll feel pretty shitty. Spend all your time with a selfish friend who loves drama and you'll feel like our deprived marathoner. Grace is an optimal energy exchange that fuels health and vitality while contributing energy, like a beautiful swing in baseball. This affords an aesthetic appeal for both the watcher and the doer. We see it in dancers, in writers, in flirts, in baseball swings.



So how does one learn to live gracefully? How does one learn to move with the world rather than ducking, parrying, or finding home in the edge of the cyclone? How does one find this sweet spot that moves as you move, that moves as the world moves?

For me, if not for all, the movement into grace involves an attentiveness. As I've gotten older, a luxury I have is the ability to assess how I'm heading into an event. So this is my practice: as I begin doing this or that  — waking up, walking to the train, eating lunch, meeting a friend at the bar, talking to my parents, doing dishes, watching TV — I notice how I'm standing towards the event. Am I leaning too far forward as if trying to plow my way headfirst through it all, afraid that if I don't that I'll just collapse in a puddle of nothingness on the floor? Am I leaning back, feeling for the sleep of my childhood, for the sleep of the dead, for the sleep of a me that's never been? Am I overeager, drooling like a puppy who hears the jangle of the leash and comes barrelling into the room only to slam into the wall?

Mind you, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of these ways of going. Sometimes, I am actually excited to do something and so jump around like a puppy in heat. Other times, I'm kind of tired and just want to lay back. So it goes. It can be beautiful to be at the edge of the cyclone, taken up in the waves. It's ecstatic, Dionysian, liberating.

Then there is Osho's method of maintaining a non-moving center as the cyclone swirls. For me, this demands a steep learning curve. When I talk to someone, I tend to lean into their energy, into the conversation, as I seek the wave, the tug and pull of that centrifugal force. But Osho asks us to not do that but to remain unto ourselves, observing the conversation without becoming the conversation. He suggests beginning this practice as a sitting meditation: do nothing, he suggests, but sit there and remain unto yourself. And then, slowly, you begin doing more and more complex things — running errands, entering the social, making love. Throughout any and all experiences, Osho tells us we can learn to be still observers.

The problem with this is the problem with any practice — yoga, chanting, silent retreats, meditation: they become a way to judge the event. Oh, damn, I'm such a loser! I wasn't unto myself!

After all, the event is whatever transpires. I make it just as it makes me (more or less: there are aparallel becomings such as a tornado which moves me more than I move it.) The event is beyond good and evil; it is mercilessly neutral. It is that which happens. Moving in it without grace is not a fundamental flaw. Grace is a nice state but when you try bending all experiences to a notion of grace you are, alas, no longer graceful.

Here, then, is the catch: grace is not moral. It is not a should. We go as we go. But as we don't like or trust the way we go — due to self-loathing, due to the pervasive hegemony of the various "shoulds" we impose on ourselves — we expend all kinds of energy and resources to go differently in the event. We get loaded; we double guess what we say; we get bored and make a scene. The thing is: none of these are inherently not graceful. None of these are wrong in and of themselves.

Grace is a way not a law. It's the perpetual movement of acceptance — acceptance of the mountain's incline, acceptance of my taste for the wave, acceptance of the fastball hurtling my way at 96 miles an hour.  It's about feeling not as much for a center as for a sweet spot of the event, a way of operating within the multiple swirls and flows of experience. You can't know it beforehand. Grace, I think, is always to be found, again and again, from within the cyclone of the event.

12.20.2017

The Word Made Flesh: On Language, Rhetoric, Performativity, & Jesus






"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us..."

12.19.2017

On Practice (with Constant Reference to Nietzsche)



"My formula for human greatness," writes Nietzsche, "is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — , but to love it." This is at once the tallest order and the simplest thing in the world.

So I get amor fati, I get that life is necessarily perfect, that everything that happens is the best possible thing. I get this from more than Nietzsche — from  Epictetus, Leibniz, Whitman, Deleuze, and Ginsberg; from Bob, Osho, Lao Tzu, Alan Watts; I get it from teachers close to me, from my friends and lovers, from the people I respect. The question I have is this: What do I have to do to achieve such greatness? If I try to do something different in order to believe the world is perfect, then don't I believe the world isn't perfect? Hmn.

Well, amor fati  — love of fate — doesn't ask you to do anything different. There's no elaborate regime to follow; no chanting; no self mutilation; no 20 years of living in silence; no head stands required. Whatever happens happens; whatever you do, you do. That's the whole point! Everything is perfect so whatever I do is perfect. Right?

Yet when I go about my business as usual, I remain embroiled in my well heeled anxieties, guilt about my parenting, fear of my death, fear that my lover will stop loving me, fear that I'll shit my pants in a meeting. The list goes on.

So while I "understand" that everything is perfect, I don't live as though everything is perfect. I want to love life even when it's kicking me in the teeth, even when my lover doesn't love me, even when I'm sick, even when my sister dies. And, hardest of all, I want to find perfection in the humdrum banality and hassles of the everyday — in traffic and dishes, in dust and rent, in yapping dogs and confused clients.

But this seems to demand that I do something other than what I am doing because whatever I'm doing has me often wishing things were other than they are. When my sister died, I screamed as loud as I could scream for hours every day for months. This was more than just pain. Pain may be, uh, painful but it is beautiful and perfect in its way. No, my scream was a scream of despair, a scream unto the void: How could this have happened?

It's true: amor fati doesn't ask for me to do anything different. But it does ask for me to do things differently. Which is to say, the demand is not in the what but in the how.

In the third book of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche compares two ascetics, a priest and an athlete. From the outside, they look alike as both refrain from excessive food and sex. And yet an abyss separates them. One says No to the things of this world, preferring the abstraction (and, to Nietzsche, the nihilism) of God. The other looks like he's saying No but, in fact, he's saying Yes — to himself, to his strength, his health, his vitality.

How do I become the athletic ascetic? If amor fati doesn't ask me to do different things, how do I come to love my life rather than regretting the past and fretting the future? Is it just an understanding I reach and, voilà, I love fate?  Or is there some relationship between my what and my how? Is there something I can do? Something I should be doing?

And there, alas, is the tension. If there's something I should be doing then aren't I not accepting fate, not accepting things as they are? What is the relationship between what I do and how I do?

For Nietzsche, life is always a practice, always a doing. We are metabolic systems. Which is to say, we have a will with appetites. This leads us to take in certain things — these foods, drinks, ideas, words, images, people, and not those. We then process these things according to our metabolic propensities and play it all back in our bodies, words, ideas, interactions, moods. To be alive, for Nietzsche, is to always already be inside out, already entwined with the world. There is no living that is not a practice.

And so he constantly urges us to tend to these practices. In Ecce Homo, he says the great questions of philosophy are: What do you eat? Where do you live? How do you recreate? The philosophic question is not what is true. Living is not a matter of knowing; it is a matter of doing.

Not all doing is equal. While everything is perfect in its way, Nietzsche nevertheless proffers criteria to assess life: What fuels the health and vitality of the system you are? This is a protean standard as what's vital for me may very well not be vital for you. How could it be otherwise? After all, we are such different systems. And, to make it more complex, the system that I am is always changing. What fueled me when I was 17 may not fuel me at 48 (which is why Nietzsche says we are becoming, not being; and why Nietzsche is a rhetorician rather than a philosopher, always reading the world rather than making truth claims).

So in the place of Judeo-Christian morality which posits absolute rules from on high, Nietzsche offers a revaluation of those values, a moving sui generis standard: "A few more hints from my morality. A hearty meal is easier to digest than one that is too small. That the stomach as a whole becomes active is the first presupposition of a good digestion. One has to know the size of one’s stomach… Everyone has his own measure, often between the narrowest and most delicate limits.”

A beautiful aspect of this this Nietzschean metabolic system is that it has no master term, no one thing dictating all the others. While our wills are our wills, they are not fixed once and for all; they don't determine everything.  Our wills change. We can discipline our bodies to want differently. The very birth of civilization, he argues, came from a pack of roaming humans who hunted and fed in the moment but got bored so trained their bodies to be continuous through time, trained their bodies to be able to make promises rather than live for immediate desire, trained their bodies by using their flesh as a canvas and beating themselves into submission.

There is, then, something to be done, a practice to heed. But just as simply understanding amor fati doesn't make you live an affirmative life, simply changing your diet, moving to the country, or beating yourself daily will not make you suddenly say Yes to life. We all know plenty of fit, flexible, well-housed depressives. The greatest yogi, alas, is not the one who can do all the super cool poses. In fact, there is no correlation between the will to affirmation and the ability to do Vrschikasana aka Scorpion.


While practice matters, there is still no correlation between Vrschikasana and the ability to say Yes to life while lying in the gutter, your teeth kicked in, and shit running down your pant leg.

If only it were so easy! If only all I had to do was study yoga for hours every day for decades! If only all I had to do was meditate for 10 hours every day for 40 years! Or beat myself with a stick every time I felt self-loathing! If only that's all it took to be blissful and love my fate! But while will and practice are intimately intertwined neither dictates the other. Stubbornly, they maintain their independence. Just shifting one aspect of the system — say, the inputs — rarely shifts the system as a whole.

Too much of my life has been driven by anxiety — guilt and regret about the past, fear and anxiety about the future. This comes from 48 years of existence as much as from my will and metabolism. We live in a culture that celebrates anxiety. We are systematically taught to be judgemental and self-loathing — you're not smart enough, pretty enough, cool enough, man enough, rich enough, cool enough. We're taught that death is scary and to be avoided at all costs. We exercise — not to affirm life but to avoid death. We change what we eat — not to affirm life but to avoid death. So when death comes, we're actually surprised! How weird is that? The only thing we know to be inevitable surprises us.

And so we develop habits, a scaffolding of behavior to organize and maintain our anxieties. Such is the way of systems; they develop grooves, modes of operating that seem easier even though they're terribly inefficient. We continue to eat Cheez Doodles despite the intestinal mayhem because, well, that's what we do when we're hungry. We become possessive because we are so self-loathing that we assume ownership over another human being is the only way to secure love. Systems perpetuate themselves, even unto their own demise. Just listen to the sounds in a movie theater of empty minded, determined hands reaching over and over for popcorn smothered in fake butter. It's as telling as it is repulsive. Or look at America and see capitalism selling itself to the undertaker.

So there I am living this life of anxiety and I come across Nietzsche telling me about amor fati. And it speaks to me. I truly come to believe that life is perfect, that there is no alternative to life and hence everything that happens is as it should be: the is and the ought are one and the same. All there is is this life! And rather than that becoming nihilism — there's no heaven! oh no! — it becomes the greatest affirmation imaginable: All there is is this! Which means it's perfect! All is holy! Yes! Yes! Yes!

My understanding, then, is out of sync with the effects of my system — my moods and reactions, my words and thoughts. I need to re-engineer my metabolic system. This may involve changing the inputs — drinking less booze, eating more vegetables, drinking coffee at different times of the day. We should neither over- nor underestimate the power such inputs hold.

But my metabolic system is more than what I put in. It's also how I make sense of things. And these well worn ruts of sense making will tend towards the same sense whether I'm drinking tequila or kombucha. Sure, certain inputs can short circuit a system — LSD, DMT, psilocybin are all very powerful inputs that can radically alter the flow of a system. But those effects are often relatively short lived compared to metabolic momentum, even if an integral part of an affirmative practice. No, the trick is to shift the metabolic processes themselves.

And this demands breaking habits over and over, a steady practice. This is why meditation and yoga are great go-to practices: they demand a different flow of attention, a different way of taking in perceptions, processing them, and playing them back. For instance, in meditation, rather than looking for something interesting to watch, you perceive everything that happens. And rather than judging, categorizing, or reacting, you just let it all happen. This is quite different than a conversation with a friend or watching TV or your Facebook feed in which you're thinking and looking for the next thing to say or whether to like something or not. When you meditate, you are training yourself to be free of judgement: you are rebuilding the paths of perception, processing, and playback.

Of course, meditation and yoga are only ways of breaking habit. As they become habit, they become the new system: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. If you become anxious that you're missing your yoga class, then yoga is your new habit. (A discussion of the difference between a practice and a habit is for another time.)

 

As Osho suggests, meditation need not be a distinct practice of sitting. After all, you don't want to just be aware during your 30 minute meditation. A goal is to use sitting as a way to re-engineer the flow of sense making until it becomes a way of going everywhere you go, until you're embracing everything you experience — even your guilt, fear, and anxiety!

And so despite all these shifts in practice — your inputs and your metabolic process — you will still experience anxiety, guilt, regret, fear. So it goes. Such is life. Amor fati is not about eliminating these things; it's about standing towards them differently. All is holy.

12.12.2017

The Beautiful, Hilarious Way of Discussions



"Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, 'Let’s discuss this.'"— Gilles Deleuze

So I'm at a dinner party the other night, a small affair of three couples. I am rarely invited anywhere. I assume this is a for a variety of reasons but I believe this story will be the best explanation. But I was invited by people I love and have known a long time and whose company I always enjoy.

There are six of us, everyone smart and articulate. Somehow, probably my fault, we get on the subject of addiction. I suggest that addiction is a needy attachment to something — yoga, cigarettes, work, alcohol, admiration.

Over the years, I've heard people say: you have a drinking problem if and when said drinking begins to interfere with the rest of your life — if you're hungover, moody, sick and such from the booze. I think I can accept this criteria, in which case, I'd say most people really suffer from an addiction to work. It's an addiction far more prevalent than, say, Oxycontin. I mean, jeez, talk about interfering with your life! Junkies actually often write about scoring junk as their job.

So, yes, I casually throw something out there about addiction being excessive or desperate attachment — a clinging — and someone says But what about genes? Some people have a gene for addiction. 

Well, maybe, I say. But what's a gene? And why and how did the gene — this thing I can't see and only very few people know how to even read — become the master term dictating behavior and trumping all other takes within a discourse? It's really weird to me. And then, perhaps to be a bit provocative, I say: Reading one's genetic make up is akin to having someone read your tea leaves or tarot cards. Which, in my book, is not to denigrate tea leaf or Tarot reading at all. They are all ways of reading a person, "knowing" a person. There are in fact lots of ways to read someone. Smelling, for instance: I think you can tell all kinds of things about a person by smelling her.  Or talking to her. Or smelling her and talking with her. (I appreciate the critique of "he" as a default for "one." But I find it difficult to use "they/them" when I'm moving between singular and plural — not due to any clinging to grammatical etiquette but simply because I find it difficult (an addiction?). So, in the meantime, I change up my third person pronouns, moving between he and she, him and her, when I can.)

Well, this set off one participant at the shindig (the guy in the couple I didn't previously know). He says something to me about having a methodology to reproduce the same results over and over as a good and necessary thing. I find this odd as he's a wine writer — that's a great qualifier of a writer! What qualifier would I use? Could I use? — and I loved hearing him talk about all these differences in wines and their making and his disdain for insipid wines — his word and an inspired choice, methinks — that seek to reproduce the same taste over and over. In retrospect, I should have brought that up as a way to suggest that the prevailing scientific method of aiming to reproduce the same result over and over is fascistic (invoking fascism in such a context is 15 year old me trying to rile shit up by going to the extreme, a poor rhetorical move for so many reasons, first of which being the ensuing turmoil that demands an ill-spent energy expenditure on my part. Oy!). After all, isn't fascism, among other things, the insistence on sameness?

He's pretty worked up at this point. Me, I'm a little drunk. (Who's addicted to what in this situation? Is ideology an addiction? People who cling to "he" or heterosexual marriage are addicted to some belief that bolsters their identity, no? Hmn). But he starts talking about bridges, about how glad he is that we drive on bridges that use this scientific methodology (I use "scientific" here in the colloquial sense; I think science can be something else entirely but give me a moment here). People love to bring up bridges. To which I suggest two things: If we use the same methodology over and over, how will anyone come up with a new way of building bridges? And: sure, I'm glad bridges use this methodology. But do we have to apply it to human beings or, say, wine making? Sometimes, we want a methodology that seeks difference rather than sameness.

In any case, I made it clear that I am not against science (I have no idea what that would even mean. What is it to be "against"? What is "science"?). I just wanted to suggest that there are many different ways of making sense and while science, in some settings, serves us well it need not be the only way to make sense. (This kind of claim — not going against but just restructuring the assignation of privilege, is the hardest to convey. When I taught immanent reading, my students assumed I was against exemplary reading when, in fact, my point was and remains: it all depends. No term need be privileged other than the non-privileging of terms except when it makes sense to privilege terms. People who are adamant — who are, perhaps, addicted — to having a position look for a way to be for or against something. Rhetoric, I maintain, is going with — neither for or against, at least not in any universal sense.)

Oy. Such is the way of discussions: none of us are talking about the same thing. All there is, usually, is a fury of claims, postures, intensities. It's usually quite confusing to me. This is why I don't have "philosophic" conversations with anyone but two people I know well, whose terms and tone I understand and enjoy and can play with. Otherwise, every conversation I have is like this one above — there's no way to begin. We are in such difference places, with such different assumptions, how can we possibly discuss such things in any joyful way?

This has long been my problem with participating in the social: I don't understand the terms anyone is using. I don't read the news; they don't read Bataille. How are we to converse? It's why I find weather to be a great subject. It couldn't be more interesting, in a visceral sense, to both parties. It affects everything! And, according to the terms of discourse, we're allowed to have different readings, different modes of pleasure, of the weather. While people generally think a beautiful day is sunny and warm while I prefer still, overcast days, this doesn't anger anyone. We can see the other's point of view. But say that I believe genetic testing is akin to tarot reading (I see this as giving props to genetic testing!), and people don't know what to say or think.

And so I stay home alone, often (except for my poor kid who has to endure all kinds of weird shit).

I never enjoyed grad school seminars — as student or professor. Seminars are supposed to be these intimate venues in which all voices can participate as, together, we discuss a text, discuss ideas. All these damn discussions — as if discussions were inherently a good thing.

I just didn't, and don't, find that to be the case. I'd sit there as different people took turns talking to each other, assuming a tone of response (often aggressive or hurt — by what was always unclear), but to what end? Are we explaining an idea to each other? Isn't that the professor's job? What is the purpose of a discussion?

This is not to say that discussions can't be useful. On the contrary, discussions are a great way to reach consensus on a subject — which, I believe, is the point of a discussion. Such is their architecture. For instance, I lived in a communal house in Berkeley, very briefly, in the summer of 1992 (I never lived in Berkeley while in grad school there; at the time, I found it had the worst of all worlds — the humdrum of the suburbs, the potential for mugging of the city. The town of Berkeley was no place for a randy 22 year old). Anyway, we'd have weekly discussions about shopping, chores, repairs. After a few weeks, I made a suggestion: How about no more communal living? We'll shop for ourselves and clean up after ourselves. We had a brief discussion and, sure enough, we disbanded the communal aspect of the house. In this case, a discussion — a means to build social consensus — was useful to peacefully rid ourselves of the need for consensus.

But what's there to discuss in a classroom? I know, I know: that sounds absurd. People love classroom discussions! That's how we learn, right? Get everyone involved! All voices heard!

But I never learned that way. Discussions are architected to create and facilitate sameness which, in the proper setting, is great. But in my day to day living, in my learning, in my philosophy, I want the many-splendored wonders of difference.

11.28.2017

So it Goes: On the Radical Empiricism of Rhetoric


Look at these three chairs. Don't they all make very different appeals, different arguments, to you? Don't they want different things from you? Reckoning these appeals is what we call rhetoric.

I remember the first time I met my friend, Brian. It was San Francisco 1992, after I'd graduated college but yet to start my graduate rhetoric degree at Berkeley (I was working at Green Apple Books on Clement Street; I actually created their "Cultural Studies" section. Back then, that's what we often called literary theory — Cultural Studies. Go figure). Brian, I knew, had recently stopped dancing ballet (he was a principal in a significant company). When I walked in his apartment — he was the friend of a friend and I was picking something up — he was sitting on the floor looking through a large format book on ballet.

Within minutes, I said, "I never got ballet. I don't know what it wants from me." He replied,  with a hint of defensive hostility to what he perceived as a suggestively hostile query, "What do you mean, what does it want from me?"

I had no clear response for him. Two yappers, we quickly became engrossed in a long, animated, and mutually generous conversation, one that continues to this day (only it's no longer focused on ballet).

What does ballet want from me?
But why did I phrase my question, my confusion, as I did: What does ballet want from me? Well, it just came out of my mouth. But what was clear to me is that ballet — as a concept and a practice — was this thing that stood towards me as if waiting or asking for a response. And I had no fucking idea what to do, no idea how to make sense of it, no idea how and where to find my pleasure (or even my displeasure), like someone asking me pleadingly in another language. I know they want something but, for the life of me, I have no idea what it is. 

What I came to understand is that I was reading the world rhetorically. That is to say, I saw everything — in this case, ballet — as a something addressing me. It enjoyed a posture and a way of standing towards other things — people, history, ideas, music. Ballet, like most if not indeed all things, has a way of going in the world, in the social, of taking up bodies, history, ideas and digesting them before playing it all back like...this.

Punk rock, heavy metal, Muzak, the waltz, EDM, Jethro Tull, this chair I'm sitting in: they all stand in the world in a particular manner. They all address the world in a particular manner. They each consume different things, desire different things, ask different things.

This is rhetorical reckoning: a positional making sense. I stand here, physically and metaphysically (after all, I am more than you can see; I am all the things that have happened to me; I am a teem of moods and thoughts; I have dreams and sensations no one will ever know); ballet comes to me, at me, in a certain tone, doing certain things. What do I do in return? How do I engage this? What kinds of things can I do with it, to it, in it, as it, for it? (For all the criticism laid as its door, rhetoric is essentially ethical — amoral, sure, but thoroughly ethical.)

In one sense, rhetoric is radically materialist. It deals with the world as it happens as part of that same world. I am here doing this; you're doing that — you have a safety pin in your nose, you're wearing a tutu or a business suit or lingerie; you say this or that, gesture just so, emanate a certain smell. We are embodied beings interacting with each other just as any material things might interact with each other — wind with leaves, wind with ocean, wind with my bald head; glass filling with whiskey, glass falling on rocks, glass bent to let me see what's far away. Ballet is an embodied practice; I am an embodied practice. When it leaps and pirouettes, what does it want from me?

Now look at all these modes of dancing. See how they go. Each asks something different of the world, of themselves, of you.

But, for the keen rhetor, materialism is inflected and run through with the immaterial, with ideas, with past experiences, with mood, with affect, with rhythm. Such things might not be able to be measured or quantified but they are still constitutive of experience. This seems so obvious: every thing has an invisible as well as visible state. Rhetorical analysis, then, is not as much radically materialist as it is radically empirical: it makes sense, it reckons, what it encounters, visibly and invisibly.

This insistent positionality is what makes rhetorical analysis democratizing. Philosophy, literature, biology: they all involve knowing certain things, regardless of where or who you are. These things philosophers and other experts know are indifferent to circumstance and position.

But rhetorical analysis begins wherever you are, as whomever you are, doing whatever it is you're doing. You encounter something — another person, a faulty car engine, a Bach concerto, a ballet, a Rauschenberg collage, a big nosed Jew babbling at you. You make sense of it as you do. You don't need anything else. There's no special knowledge required (although you might not fix your engine); there's no key you need to find. Just as wind goes differently with different trees, leaves, objects, you go with what comes as you go.

Everything in the world makes an argument, makes an appeal. It might not want much from you; a tulip is happy for your gaze and returns the favor with elegant poise. But it's just as happy with your looking. A puppy, on the other hand, will not rest until its pet and tended to.

As everything is an argument that comes from a position to another position, there is no final truth to be attained, no absolute or universal to be known. All there are are positions endlessly interacting with other positions. Some respond to a puppy's appeals with treats and pets; others, with a swat and a gripe; and still others don't even hear the furry yelps. There is no right way; there are just different ways with different effects, different results, different positions.

Mind you, this rhetorical reckoning riles many people up as it doesn't try to ground itself or its going in anything outside itself — in a truth or axiom or universal claim. It is indifferent to such things except in as much as such things are arguments, things to reckon. And so rather than ever being tethered or even seeking a tether, the rhetorician begins to enjoy all the different ways different things can go. It reads multiple ways to reckon a puppy or ballet or chair. Rather than stake a single claim, she — our rhetorician — takes delight in the going of things, in the possible ways of things. Which can be infuriating to someone who's adamant in a single belief. This is what ballet is!

Rhetorical analysis is finally, although there is no finally, interested in going with things and the different ways things go and can go and might go. A rhetorician might simply enjoy its own way of going — without adamance, mind you. Like Pooh, our rhetor simply prefer honey but will never get imperial in demanding it.

Or, unlike Pooh, our rhetor might find joy in the multiplicity of modes the world assumes, its many appeals, its varied terms of distribution, the kinds of arguments it makes. Such a rhetorician is less interested in the stability of what per se and more keen on the flux of how.

And so the rhetor takes up the world as it comes, as it happens, feeling no particular need to explain, know, or define it once and for all. It may explain one way now, another way later, or not at all. So it goes.

11.20.2017

Towards a Philosophy of Rhetoric


 From the brilliant, charming "Clueless," an all too rare depiction of rhetoric praised rather than vilified.

Rhetoric is concerned with the everyday, with the ways things stand towards other things or, rather, with the way this stands towards that — how I stand in the crowded subway car, what I say to my son when his rapidly elongating body extends into my couch space, how much to beat the eggs before pouring it in my broth for egg drop soup. That is to say, rhetoric is less interested in a general theory of ethics than in the particularity of an encounter. 

These ethics — these interactions — need not be human. Trees and wind, for instance, have a complicated relationship, rhetorically speaking. Trees shape wind and wind shapes trees. I love the way the trees along the Pacific coast grow as if the wind were always blowing, the wind winding through the very structure of the tree. Those are some complex arguments they make to each other, elaboroate conversations, negotiations, jokes. (The funniest tree I ever met was a ginkgo in West Philadelphia.)


With its attention on the particular, even if this particular extends temporally backwards (the past is always present) and forwards (so is the future), rhetoric enjoys a resounding indifference to what we usually call truth. Its focus has never been universal claims or moral dicta (that's a word I bet you rarely use!) or what actually happened. It cares about this body and that body and the different ways they can and do go together.

This indifference has been the source of its criticism. Besides Socrates' ambivalent anti-rhetoric rhetoric, see any Hollywood movie about the law. Lawyers — who've come to stand in for the classical sophist, those who use arguments to get results rather than the truth — are inherently sleazy because they're only concerned with the outcome for their client, not the truth. And then the good lawyer has a crisis of conscience and leaves the law to follow Truth and Justice. Oy vey! The same old moralistic crap. In fact, all of our depictions of a good lawyer are those who believe in a moral cause that exceeds the law ("To Kill a Mockingbird," for instance, or "A Civil Action"). But a lawyer who's great precisely because he's indifferent to the truth? I can only think of one instance: that brilliant exchange in "Clueless."

This critique of rhetoric assumes that sophists manipulate the truth to get what they want. But what if there never was any truth? This is what makes rhetoric interesting and, dare I say, beautiful: it begins somewhere else entirely, somewhere outside the search for certainty, outside the need for universal claims, outside the desire to speak for others: to reference a great professor of rhetoric whom I only met through his books, rhetoric is beyond good and evil (yes, Nietzsche was a professor of rhetoric). It proffers a world view that feels no need to affirm, deny, or undermine the truth. Rhetoric isn't punk rock; it's not rebellious (except when it is): it's more like an aesthete, indifferent to silly bourgeois propriety.

Thinking about what rhetoric is and how it operates  brings me great pleasure. Talking about it begins to sound like philosophy — there are some concepts (kairos) and functions (appeals) and ways of operating. But unlike most philosophy, it doesn't seek a common answer to a question or a universal.  In fact, might rhetoric be non-philosophy à la Laruelle? You tell me.

In any case, rhetoric neither offers nor rejects such postulates. Rhetoric is not a position that rejects anything (unless it does). It takes (or doesn't) whatever comes. In this sense, rhetoric is akin to science in that both are empirical: the rhetor, like the scientist, perceives. But, unlike the scientist, the rhetor doesn't seek a formula for reproducing the same results over and over. The rhetor doesn't want to confirm anything. No, the rhetor just wants to get that kiss, feel that stretch, enjoy that cilantro pesto without too much garlic. Yum!

I think I'd say rhetoric is closer to what I might call taoism. I qualify that as I don't know much about taoism other than reading the hilarious Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (I highly recommend both). I was going to say yoga but I feel like yoga has some element of prescribed practices — the poses. But if you take out the poses, rhetoric is indeed yoga: it's the practice of reckoning the now. In both cases, there's just a going with.

And, like toaism's wu wei (the do nothing way), rhetoric is neither active nor passive, neither creative nor consumptive. It flourishes in the spaces in between, in the relations between and among things (even the spaces within a me that will never have been a me). Taoism and rhetoric have no expectations, no oughts; they both play it as it lays. That said, rhetoric strikes me as having a bit more, uh, umph, a greater will to will. To wit, there are a lot of very quiet taoists but I've never met a quiet sophist.

I see rhetoric as a branch of phenomenology. Or vice versa (in a world of flux, genus and species often realign position). In my version of phenomenology, which comes from Merleau-Ponty not Husserl, the world is fundamentally phenomena, not idea. Ideas exist but they are events rather than determinative figures per se: they are part of the flux, wound up with material, rather than being an external thing that tells material what to do.

Anyway, I've spent decades thinking about rhetoric, fleshing out its logic — creating a kind of philosophy of rhetoric. Here are some postulates of rhetoric, a field free of postulates:

  • All is flux. Life is fundamentally temporal. Some things are slower (mountains, my grandfather) or faster (humming birds, light). The great French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that most philosophy operates with bad questions because it assumes time is added to space rather than being constitutive of it. Once we begin with (at least) four dimensions — time being the fourth — our foci and questions shift. Bergson follows this into philosophy; I follow it into rhetoric which, alas, has no in into which I can go. It's just this. Anyway.

  • Everything is emergent. Everything is always already in motion, always changing. We don't know beforehand what'll happen, what'll be (even if we can often make pretty good guesses about many things).

  • We are always already enmeshed in the social. There is no outside the fray, no position from which to assess so as to act. You're always already in the shit, as it were. Aristotle said something like this, I believe.

  • The inherent selfishness of rhetoric is undone by the fact that the very premise of rhetoric undoes the I at its core. There is no I because everything is relational: I am constantly being nudged by a bevy of forces — human, natural, cosmic, alien, affective. There's no moment in which I'm ME; I'm always changing with the forces and bodies around me. I am in flux and so am no I at all.

  • All words, all actions, all feelings are collaborative: they emerge from a conspiracy of forces — my body, my mood, my history, the culture that exceeds me, the things around me and their histories, affective flows, ways of going. The emergent moment is a joint effort.

  • The terms of this collaboration are never pre-set but are usually aparallel and in flux. We might think about this as the terms of power.

  • As everything is in flux and nothing is outside the fray, there are no hard and fast rules dictating behavior. But this doesn't create chaos. On the contrary, it births relentless limits and criteria. What's best for my health is quite different than what's right for your health. Trust me: you don't want to hang out with me after we've eaten ice cream. Our modern concept of diet is not rhetorical; it assumes all bodies are the same hence no one should eat carbs or everyone should eat kale or you should drink a quart of bone broth a day (which I, for one, recommend — but only if it's right for you. How do you know if it's right for you? Well, that's what makes the rhetorical life so damn interesting! There's never any certainty! All you have to go on is your going and your going has nothing to go on but more going. You make decisions and act according to an impossibly complex calculus that emerges so can't be programmed or known beforehand. The next time you're eating, pay attention to when you start and stop: what factors entered into play? How did you make those decisions? Such is the mystery of rhetoric — and life). Diet in its old sense is something else all together: diet is what you eat. A good diet is what serves your vitality and health. You can have other criteria. But I'm sticking with vitality and health (which is distinct from longevity).

  • As there's no outside the fray of it all, no position that's not part of the flux, we always stand in some position in relation to other positions. This is what we call perspective: we always enjoy a vantage on the world based on our bodies, our place, our position, our way of going. One thing I love about San Francisco is the way the city constantly juxtaposes itself with itself. There is not one or two big hills that overlook this or that. There are hills everywhere, like a crumpled piece of paper. One's perspective is constantly different.

  • And yet, to be clear, perspective is not subjectivity — as in I see red but maybe you see green. That's silly. I am in the world; you are in the world; that chair is in the world. We both see it — from different perspectives which include our physical point of view but also the things we believe, know, have experienced, desire, and such. The interior world, as Bataille calls it, need not be subjective — only opaque to others.
I used bullet points because it's funny. And makes my argument look organized. Which it is — but according to an emergent logic.

11.18.2017

What is Rhetoric? (Take 1): A Podcast




Sometimes, I enjoy talking rather than writing. This is me rambling on about what rhetoric is and what the theory and practice of making sense of life as part of life means. Yep

11.16.2017

It All Depends: Thoughts on Rhetoric & Philosophy


Rhetoric is the art of living and hence is the art of participating with circumstance. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. It always depends. Except when it doesn't.

These days, rhetoric gets a bad rap. People assume rhetoric is just so much fluff, a charming veneer at best, fatuous and vapid at worst. "It's just empty rhetoric," they'll say. Or the ultimate condemnation: "It's just rhetoric" — as if that were enough! (I remember my rabbi telling us in Sunday school that when people call you a dirty Jew, it's not the greatest but at least they felt the need to qualify Jew; when they just call you a Jew with venom, you know you're in trouble. This has sat with me all these years.)

Now, I'm no historian, but I believe for centuries rhetoric was actually a ubiquitous thing people studied: how to address the world. In any case, I got a freakin' PhD in it. Usually, when someone has a doctorate in rhetoric, it means they've studied modes of teaching composition; they'll probably seek a job running composition courses and curricula at a university. Sometimes, what academics call rhetoric refers to forms of argument — syllogisms, fallacies, and such. Other times, rhetoric is bundled with something called "communications." That's an odd one for me.

Even in my own department at UC Berkeley, most grad students don't study rhetoric per se. In fact, this is what's on the department website now: "The Rhetoric PhD program is best suited for students who wish to approach a specific area of academic inquiry, research objects or archive while working critically within and between academic disciplines in order to pose questions that transcend disciplinary divisions." There's no mention of rhetoric per se.

To be fair, when I applied to the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department in 1991— the only place I applied — I had no concept of rhetoric. It was not a word I used. And it certainly was not a discipline I was familiar with (when I applied, I wouldn't have ended a sentence with a preposition; after studying rhetoric, I now unabashedly shed arbitrary grammatical rules. This is the luxury of what we call an advanced degree: I can casually ignore grammar rules. This makes for interesting discussions for me professionally as copywriters tend to love grammar. Grammar lets them feel in control, feel smart, and judge others. I shed that shit like a...I was gonna say like a snake sloughs skin, a common TC Boyle figure, but I shed faster than snakes slough and with more vim. I love parenthetical asides. Burroughs wondered how anyone could write without them. I know just how he feels). I was interested in what we tend to call Continental Philosophy (as distinct from Analytic Philosophy which is usually Anglo-American, or so the story goes) or maybe what we call Critical Theory or what is really 20th Century French and German philosophy. In my application, I claimed I was interested in exploring a "genealogy of addiction." In fact, I took up smoking as I was curious if I could feel a longing that exceeded my will (all my other dalliances had failed to do so). Anyway, my point is this: I began studying rhetoric without knowing, or even thinking about, what the heck rhetoric is.

But that all changed. In my dissertation, I offer a theory of rhetoric and explore its implications. This killed me academically as what I called rhetoric and what the academy calls rhetoric are so different. Other things killed my academic career, most notably, my love of teaching. Academic powerhouses who ruled my department — I'll let you figure out their well known names — have great disdain for teaching. And for passion in general. But that's not interesting as it's just another story of terrible people in power, a truth that pervades all fields. So back to rhetoric.

Rhetoric, I always said, is the theory and practice of circumstantial propriety — a heady mouthful for sure. But what I've come to understand I mean by that is that rhetoric is an everyday practice. Philosophy is not; philosophy is a rarefied skill. It involves being learned in philosophic texts, knowing forms of argument, and being able to construct such arguments. Rhetoric is everywhere, always. It is the odd logic and practice of making sense within circumstances as part of said circumstances — knowing what to eat, when you've eaten too much, when to lean in for a kiss, what to say to a sweetie, a client, a parent, a child.

Anyone and everyone can perform rhetorical analysis, too. How does this or that thing — a book, booze, lover, stranger, chair — approach you? How does it appeal to you? What does it want from you? How can you go with it? Philosophical analysis demands that you know philosophy. Rhetorical analysis only asks that you be you wherever you are doing whatever you do.

And that you be present. Rhetoric is akin to yoga, in this sense: it is the art — that is to say, the practice — of being present to circumstance without letting ego dictate all the terms. When ego takes over, it tries to force circumstances into a pre-determined mold of what should be happening; a keen rhetor, like a keen yogi, participates with circumstances rather than dictating circumstances. Of course, this participation may involve dictating. It all depends.

This, alas, is the mantra of the rhetor: it depends. There are no absolutes here. There are no hard and fast rules except that there are no hard and fast rules except, sometimes, there are in fact hard and fast rules. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. How do you feel? How will you feel later? How does it feel good to be you? What sorts of things happen if you drink the whiskey or don't drink the whiskey? Rhetoric begins with minimal assumptions about the good. But it's temporally and contextually sensitive, aware, present.

None of this is to poo poo philosophy. I love philosophy. But I read it rhetorically. I ask: What is its tone? Its structure? What world does it inhabit? What is it asking of me? I do not read it looking for truth or meaning per se (although I may find some of each). I read philosophy as I read fiction or art or people: is this a world I enjoy? A world that fuels my health, my vitality, my vim?

Many people get annoyed with rhetoricians for our casual yet insistent refusal to state a position. Rhetoric, after all, is the position of positions — including the absolute position that effaces the position of positions. This is a contradiction to a philosopher. But it's not to a rhetorician. Why? Because rhetoric is a fundamentally temporal practice. Philosophy finds contradiction because it wants mutually exclusive positions to occupy the same space. But to a rhetorician, there is always flow and change. There is always shifting circumstances. What's true? What's the right thing to do? Well, it all depends.

10.30.2017

Thoughts on My Experience at the Symphony

When I was in my young 20s, I thought going to the symphony was sophisticated. So I went now and again. And I could say I was bored, which is certainly true. Bored off my ass (which is an odd phrase now that I write it). But it wasn't just boredom I felt. It was closer to confusion: I didn't know what the experience wanted of me. I didn't understand the terms of its appeals, its argument, if you will.

But I went this past Saturday night with my sweetie who was excited — an understatement — to see (to hear?) Sibelius' Violin Concerto. I could tell you it's the one in D Minor but he only wrote one concerto (thanks, Wikipedia!). Me, I'd not only never heard it, I'd never heard of Sibelius.

As I sat there, in a suit no less as that's how I roll (how is that, exactly?), many, many thoughts streamed through my head. Part of going to an unfamiliar experience is that the terms of its operation are more exposed. I don't have a habit there (other than the habits of being me). I don't know the rules; I take little for granted. Which affords me a great luxury: the ability to see the medium along with the message.

Anyway, we had fantastic seats: an orchestra box. I offer this as it was an important part of the experience for me. A box has its own door. For an aging man who enjoys his pre-concert cocktails, ready access to a bathroom seemed essential.

I don't mention this just to be silly. One of the conspicuous aspect of the symphony experience, as distinct from the rock & roll experience, is the demand it makes on the body. Rock & roll is about moving the body, however the body wants to move — stand, dance, rock, twirl, twitch, talk, walk in and out. Of course, the one thing you can rarely do at a rock & roll show is sit down. And this old man likes to sit down. So having a relatively comfy chair from which to enjoy the music was delightful.

But the fact remains that you can't get up and walk around. In fact, every cough, gulp, excessive leg movement suddenly comes to the fore. And, like that, I understood in every fiber of my being the productivity of repression. Sure, the symphony has rules that repress the body. Don't make noise! Don't move too much! But in so doing, my body's sundry needs and and desires became all too apparent. I could feel myself not moving, not pushing my chair back and putting my feet up, not making snide off color remarks to my exquisite date. The negative puts enormous attention on that to which it says no (pace Foucault).

And I found myself thinking about the distribution of affect and power within, and I suppose without, the orchestra. There's this written set of directions that dictates timing and mood — but, as it's only written, there are limits. There's the musicians who feel, who inhabit, their contribution to a greater or less degree as they let that one note linger or want to wait a nanosecond before coming in because, well, because that feels right, dammit! But there's a whole orchestra there and, gesticulating in front of them all with the biggest salary, is the conductor whose only job is to determine the timing and affect (two fundamentally intertwined things) of the part and the whole. I kept picturing the oboist shutting his eyes as he lets that one plaintive note moan a moment only to open his eyes and see a disgruntled, disheveled man putting a kibash on that oboe with a concerted wave of his baton.

A conductor is an old fashioned dj.

Conductor as conductor of affect is just plain old awesome. I think there should be more conductors in more positions, steering the timing and affect of all sorts of experience. This is an argument against, or not quite in line with, democracy.

The part-whole relationship within an orchestra can keep your head spinning for days. And I like it.

Then there's the experience of the music. Do I keep my eyes open or closed? Open can be interesting. I really liked many of the conductor's moves, especially this thing he'd do when he'd bend down low and point his open hand farther down, concertedly, as the basses and cellos descended. (For those who care, it wasn't MTT; it was a guest conductor.)

The first piece was a short little ditty by Sibelius entitled, "Finlandia." It was a nationalistic nightmare, for the most part. (Nightmare is certainly an overstatement but alliteration is a temptation I rarely resist.)


No doubt, the Violin Concerto is something — moody and odd and meandering and featuring a featured soloist violinist (that phrasing doesn't sound right at all) who seemed 19 years old and totally awesome. There are a few show offy Yngwei Malmsteen moments I could do without.

And then I sat back and tried to place when it was written. I was sure of one thing: the person who wrote that piece of music never saw, never imagined, planes dropping enormous bombs out of the sky. There is certainly some angst in the piece. But it's romantic angst, not neurotic angst. (I guessed 1907; it was written 1902-1906.)

This was made all the more obvious by the final piece of the night, Shostakovitch's Symphony 1. That piece was certainly written after planes had demolished cities with their payloads — the marshal angularity, the sudden anxious shifts.

Which made me think about affective events that dominate a spatio-temporal milieu. What kinds of art — visual, literary, musical — become possible after the mechanistic killings of World War I (does, say, New Zealand or Uraguay or Zimbabwe even know what World War I or II would even mean? Were they really world wars? Like I said, a lot of thoughts go through one's head at the symphony) or the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima?

Which made me think about a comment a musician friend of mine made about lot of contemporary music. There is this strain within minimalist techno-pop — think FKA Twigs or The Weeknd — that is built on a sense of menace. Not necessarily menace that the music is going to cause you but menace in the world, menace that needs to be made sense of, menace that creeps not like the marshal drumming of Shostakovitch's armies and bombs but like the twitchy tech grip of the Corporate-State Apparatus.  There's great sentiment in Sibelius' piece but there's no menace, no hums and tics of surveillance — not even the loud, dramatic death toll of Düsseldorf.

The play of generosity and the dictatorial is so different at the symphony than at a rock & roll show. Rock & roll lets you meander, talk, piss, drink but all the while it is driving towards you, pandering to bring you into its fold with a near fascict vigor. Songs may be complex but, live, usually have one driving figure, a melody or beat, that tries to sweep you up and out. At the symphony, I find it hard to find the melody, if that's even the right word. The music is all over the place in terms of mood and melody. And so, although my body is constrained by outdated etiquette (well, not all of it is outdated), the music lets my mind roam any old way. It's quite dreamy. And then I look out over the other heads and faces and find they, too, are in their reverie. While rock & roll often tends towards the one great Yeah!, orchestral music foments a multiplicity of dreams and images. Me, I mostly just liked being there, a strange place for me, wearing strange clothes, all these ideas ricocheting around my head, and a lovely lady by my side.

10.16.2017

More on What It Is to Read Philosophy: Of Bird Songs in the Polyverse

Like a painter, a philosopher sees a world. This is what's happening, the philosopher declares, this is what the world looks like, how it behaves. The painter paints; the philosopher writes. But they are both presenting a world they see, a world of how things go.

Consider artists. Look at these images and tell me they don't occupy fundamentally different worlds. It's not that they see the same things and express them differently. It's that they see and inhabit different worlds — with different things, different moods, different things that count as something that matters, different ways of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world. An artist gives us a cosmos and a posture.

Bacon sees flesh hanging off bodies in an arena.

Rothko sees fields of affect with only a vague sense of form.

Whistler sees human life emerging from the amorphic smear of the world.

What world does Paul McCarthy inhabit?

Well, the same goes with philosophy. Philosophers don't all see the same world then proffer their own perspective. They see, and inhabit, different worlds. So when I read philosophy, this is first and foremost what I'm looking for. What world am I being asked to inhabit? What does it look like? How do things interact here? This is a form of understanding, sure, but it's different than what we normally call understanding. Which is to say, I can "understand" a philosopher's argument and still not see his (alas, it's usually his) vision of the world.

The instinct is to read some impossibly dense sentence and parse it, grapple with it, try to understand it. This is not a bad instinct. But it is a drive that is for naught if you don't also zoom out, see a bigger picture of what this philosopher is seeing. To focus on this or that page or sentence is like focusing on a painter's stroke or use of color. It can be revealing and interesting but it won't tell you what world you're inhabiting.

When I was in grad school, we weren't given much time to make sense of a philosopher. Usually, we'd read a book a week — Kant's Critique of Judgement one week, Nietzsche's Genealogy the next, Kierkegaard's Either/Or after that, and so on. It's kind of nuts and is mostly about attaining a false sense of mastery of a "field" of knowledge rather than engaging that philosopher's world. (In college, I took a grad seminar with the great Stephen Dunning in which we read one book: Gadamer's Truth and Method. Not only did I come to inhabit, and love, Gadamer: I learned what it is to inhabit a philosopher's world.)

At that same time, reading like that had a certain pleasure and taught me certain techniques for making sense swiftly. My most common technique back then? I'd try to short circuit the long process of living with a philosopher by smoking a joint and sitting with the book all night, flipping this way and that, feeling for a way in, trying to see what that philosopher sees, what he wants from the world, for instance, why Kant is even talking about the beautiful and the sublime, why aesthetic judgement is even a topic at all. Why these books? Why these examples, these questions, this approach?

This involves reading differently. One nifty trick is to ask the same question of each philosophy and see if that philosophy can even fathom the question, not to mention have an answer. This is the question I ask these days: Where do bird songs fit it in, if at all? The answer forces a thinking through of that philosopher's world as I grapple with the logic of that world. Try it at home!

These days, I'm exploring Bataille. I first read Bataille as a teenager. Never got it. I thought it was all about transgression, which didn't interest me. I'd rather live in a world where the things I love are the norm so there's no need for transgression; this is actually a significant factor in reading philosophy, or anything for that matter: Where is it situated? But more on this at another point.

Anyway, recently I found myself attracted to something in Bataille I couldn't put my finger on. So I've been reading pages here and there. I can't tell you which book he wrote when; I am not a philologist, historian, or biographer. At this point in my reckoning, I don't care. I'm sussing out the Bataille-verse so I can figure out where and how to put my ship down and begin living there.

For Bataille, life —from the everyday to the cosmic — is relentless exuberance: the world fucks and comes and shits and decays and seethes and bleeds. This is not an anthropomorphization. It's not that he takes human sexaulity and sees it everywhere. He sees fucking and coming everywhere, as forces of the cosmos that humans also do. And within this fucking and coming and dying and bleeding, there are all these interactions, all these exchanges of energy that make new things, that yield effects and affect from vegetal sprawl to nausea, all this excess of energy that breaks and disrupts and creates.

In Bataille's world, the sun is constantly jerking off on the earth, a bukkake not of dominance but supreme generosity. We live in a world in which we are being showered with vital energy all the time! And we don't need to return the favor! It is excess and this excess abounds (is that redundant? excessive?). Capitalism imagines streamlined productivity, the least amount of energy to create, and whatever excess is produced is put back to creating more — more, more, more but never a consumption, an indulgence, of said excess.

This is what Bataille sees: all these different terms of energy exchange, what he calls the general economy and which includes the financial economy. In this general economy, there is great seething squandering, repression, indulgence, channeling, hedging. The exchanges of energy that make the world, from the everyday to the cosmic, are big and inefficient as efficiency is not the point: it's the seething flow that matters, the exuberance, the spilling, the being swept up and away. Such is Bataille's world. There are bird songs at the periphery, sometimes gliding through, chirping their ejaculatory songs, an exquisite excess within the air.

Derrida doesn't see or hear any birds. Nope, no bird songs here. He lives and operates in that moment — and the ensuing process — in which he realized that to define a word, he had to know all the words in that definition, and then all the words in that definition, and so on and so on and so on — an infinite process that never gets there and, it seems, never actually began. He sees conceptual structures that at once perform and attempt to evade that logic (he calls this "deconstruction"). His hands are a little inky from the textual play but they're not too messy as he holds everything at its limit, his fingers in the margins. Despite the privilege he affords play, his world is quite clean — not orderly necessarily but clean. There's no blood, very little shit, a penis and a vagina here and there but not much sex — and certainly no damn bird songs.

Deleuze and Guattari live in a big crazy lava lamp of enormous complexity teeming with everything and anything human and not, terrestrial and cosmic. They see shapes coming into being and giving way everywhere, the relentless constitution and dissolution of form — rocks, crowds, books, concepts, music. Forces and bodies come together or don't in a breadth of ways. Bird songs create spaces, visible and invisible, differently than grass, asteroid fields, the nation-state, Freud, Francis Bacon. (And while there is certainly a line or two that runs between them and Derrida — the lack of origins, the multiplicity of texts, the play of movement — they occupy very different worlds. If nothing else, Deleuze and Guattari's world is extremely messy; Derrida would get uptight living there.)

Foucault sees bodies constantly being distributed by cultural-historical-existential forces, by language, people running up against things that they can say and can't say. And these distributive and distributed forces are always in motion, mutating over time, shifting relations to and among things at different speeds (although everything in Foucault's world moves much slower than in Deleuze and Guattari's; Foucault sees fewer explosive lines and more big, tectonic movements). There are bird songs but only ones he enjoys while goofing around. Mostly, he sees bodies being moved and managed, which he finds at once erotic and disturbing.

Nietzsche lives in a world of man's relentless creation, this urging urging urging always procreant urge of the world — only it's met with all sorts of other forces and urges, most of which are stupid and vile. There is a nature that exceeds everything we do, a nature we forget we're part of, a beautiful mercilessness to the stream of life. Like with Foucault, there may be bird songs but those birds aren't creating territories: they're beautifully indifferent to man, a joyful exuberance of nature.

For Bergson, the world is not so complicated. Like many philosophers after him, Bergson thinks philosophers muck things up. He looks at things and sees them; he doesn't wonder if he really sees them or what they really are. Look! A chair! He's quite reasonable like that. And everything he sees is moving. And he sees himself moving, too. And everything he feels emotionally is moving.Yet when he reads philosophy, it always assumes things are primarily still. He's quite concerned with the world of philosophy. But, mostly, he just sees everything always already moving, relentlessly forging itself. No bird songs here except as something else that moves.

Kant's world is the madness of reason. He doesn't trust or believe in his senses: the world does not reveal itself to him, or to anyone, through its appearances. There's a kind of paranoia there. But in order to dissipate that paranoia, he goes in search of ideas and concepts that can reveal the order of things, a secret structure of how things go. It all gets messy when he does engage the senses, when he look at art, listens to music, eats food, or enjoys a bird song. But through some nifty engineering, he manages to have some pleasure and still hold on to his reason, however unreasonable.

Socrates is an ironic shnook. He can't believe people believe they know anything, that anyone can be adamant about anything. The human world is so unsure and fleeting, how can they be certain? It's ridiculous! There is clearly some other plane where things persist above and beyond all this human silliness. Which is why he roams the streets badgering people who profess to know things, badgers them until that person either admits knowing nothing or, annoyed, walks away. This is why they killed poor Socrates: he was a nudge. And he does hear bird songs, and enjoy them, but like everything in this material world, their song gives way to a divine truth we can't see or know.

Like art and literature, philosophy gives us a world, not a truth, not the meaning of life. A meaning of life may present itself to you. I found such meaning when I read Pynchon. But meaning is not the promise of philosophy. A philosophy offers something at once more humble and more grand than meaning: it proffers a world.

10.06.2017

Fear, Loathing, and Daffy Resistance within the American Spectacle: Thoughts on "The Office" (US), or Making Sense of Some of Deleuze and Guattari without Mentioning Deleuze and Guattari



The situation of this situation comedy is, of course, dark from the get go: a small, regional paper distributor in a cold industrial town just far enough from the metropolitan as to be outside the fray of the current but not far enough to be rural and have its own culture. The backdrop of the show is the purgatory of contemporary American capitalism. I add "capitalism" as the show is distinctly about the relationship between the self and business. And, like the characters in the show, this company doesn't make anything (the only one who dabbles in creation, Pam, fails and returns to her cruel fate). Nor is it part of the emerging information economy. It is cog and nothing but, at the mercy of forces, never shaping them.

And it's all being filmed for no apparent reason other than everything is always already of the spectacle. The camera is always on. There are other shows that use this figure, most notably "Parks and Rec," but the camera functions differently in the two shows. In "Parks and Rec," the camera acts as an ironic foil standing in for the knowing audience. The cameras are not a character, are never part of the plot. In "The Office," however, the cameras have will and intention. They probe and reveal, are often referred to, and are explicitly addressed. The camera here is not the audience; it is the surveilling media-state — anonymous, relentless, probing, watching. For the camera of "The Office," we are always performing, always being excavated, turned inside out, transformed into spectacle.

Enter Steve Carell's Michael Scott. He does little but flail in the spectacle. His social and emotional life is made of snippets from ads and media, movies and comedians. He actively offers no affect other than the affect offered to him by the media-state. He of course has symptoms that exceed this — intense loneliness and cruelty that come from his stunted development and his imprisonment within the confines of such a world. But he has no outside this manufactured vocabulary of sentiment, no coherent interior life capable of negotiating, redefining, parodying, or resisting the spectacle's hegemony. It is grotesque and often difficult to watch.

Indeed, rhetorically, "The Office" is strange. Despite the traditional set up of a workplace comedy, there are no real points of character identification. The main focus, Michael Scott, is completely demented. From time to time, we are asked to have sympathy for him — we get flashes of his odd upbringing and, as he's stuck in some pre-adolescent phase of development, we don't judge his selfishness or relentless racism and sexism as harshly as we might. We often cringe and furrow our brows. But we have neither identification nor loathing. He's a character in the colloquial sense, something to behold, never something to identify with or love. He is spectacle.

He does not have a secret heart of gold, either (ignoring the later seasons). He has the most extraordinary loneliness that pervades every fiber of his being which can make him act softly. But, through and through, he's lonely, sad, stupid, and selfish — extraordinarily so. The loneliness may predate his job but it does not predate his participation in the American Spectacle. He was, in fact, on TV as a child. He has been inside out from the get go, an American casualty.

The obvious set up is for us to identify with Pam and Jim. But they are so vapid, so achingly banal, that we don't really care. In a way, they are the saddest characters. What are they doing there? Their office mates are not nice and are not their friends. This is not "Cheers." These other characters are cruel, selfish, and insane all in very different ways, careening lines that occasionally intersect beyond physical proximity but which, for the most part, pass each other by in the deep dark night of lonely, dark America. (Creed — his name is creed! — is the only character that seems to resist, to have a complex life outside, yet seemingly within, the spectacle. He even dated Squeaky Fromme.)

And yet it's not just that these people are quirky and odd. They are, for the most part, anxious, cruel, and vindictive. They are deeply alienated from each other and filled with fear and loathing. This is not the "Cheers" gang; this is no "Friends" who harbor secret love for each other (even if, in reality, the characters on "Friends" actually seem to hate each other; but that's for another essay). These characters are disposable, cogs within a nation and system that cares little for their well being but needs their bodies for labor and consumption — at least for the time being. Like the industry they serve, they are being phased out.

There is, however, power and resistance in Michael Scott's madness. He is so completely and utterly insane, so evacuated, that he churns violently, often disrupting the everyday functioning of the system that is killing him. He cannot read social cues; he rarely follows social protocol. His madness pushes him outside the social's rules as he uses snippets of the spectacle as a kind of weapon to break the machine of capitalist etiquette. His relentless madness disrupts the flow of business, of conversation, of everyday functioning. He knows no bourgeois propriety at all and he constantly, and unwittingly, throws people off kilter. His utter lack of self-awareness, his lack of an internal coherence, is the very thing that makes him dangerous. He is unruly through and through.

Bugs Bunny is a great figure of disruption and resistance, engineering lines of flight with ease. He refuses to let discourses stand, never playing the hunted when he's being hunted. Bugs plays mad but is not actually mad. On the contrary, Bugs is knowing, canny, manipulating discourse with casual aplomb. Michael Scott is no Bugs Bunny.

And then there's Daffy Duck who is utterly and completely insane. Like Daffy, Carrel's Michael Scott doubles down on his madness and never, ever relents. Everything and everyone in their path is affected, thrown off. They don't offer a self to which others can appeal; their madness is total. They are loud, demanding, incoherent, obnoxious. And yet they are not criminal. They quote enough of the existing structures that we are forced to respond without calling in the medical-police state.

This schizo madness becomes a kind of resistance, a power itself capable of disorienting, destabilizing, and disrupting the productivity of the spectacle. This is what drives much of the plot structure: Michael doesn't like to be productive. He disrupts everyone's work day at every point he can. He's not an anarchist; he's not trying to break any system. In fact, he thinks the spectacle, not capitalism, is the best thing in the world! And so the system — social and corporate — tolerates him. He speaks its language, only in a schizo tongue.

It may be, then, that the American Spectacle made Michael schizo. But his schizo-ness turns on its creator, creating the possibility of rupture — rupturing the structures of culture and business within the show as well as rupturing our experience as viewers. The daffiness can make the show difficult to watch. It's grating, as is Daffy Duck. But this mode of grating is precisely what's potentially revolutionary: it grates but can't be policed. It's like a ricocheting bowling ball in the china shop of capitalist America. Or some such thing.

The show turns maudlin in the fifth season as it begins to look for its heart of gold. It's as if the daffiness of the show was too much for it. And so it succumbed, letting itself be enfolded in the banal affect factory of the spectacle. This often happens with TV shows, of course, as they are conspicuous constituents of the spectacle. A tragic example is the little known  and short lived, "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23." In the first season, the "good girl" from the Mid-West comes to New York and has her bland sanctimony upturned by the party girl's brilliant and liberating amorality. In the second season, the show flipped the script back to the familiar, ruining the very thing that made it interesting.



But let's forget how 'The Office" turned sour. In its first four seasons, it gives a devastating critique of capitalism, of the fear and loathing that pervades it, of the alienation it forges. And, in the very same breath, it offers a mode of resistance.

10.03.2017

Beginning from the Middle (with reference to Deleuze)


Francis Bacon in his studio. Note the images everywhere. As Deleuze argues, the painter doesn't begin with a blank canvas;
he begins with a canvas dense with images.

Where to begin? How to begin? As Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition, Descartes supposes to begin without presuppositions. I'll doubt everything, says Descartes adopting his version of skepticism, and see what I find. And we all know what he finds: a thinking self, the CogitoI think, therefore I am. As Deleuze points out, however, this assertion is not free of suppositions at all: it has its own elaborate set of assumptions, namely, that we all know what an I is, what thinking is, what being is.

There is no clean slate. No pure beginning. We never begin from nothing to form something. We always begin somewhere. There is no outside the fray of it all, no place free of culture, of personal experience, of history, of ourselves. We're always somewhere doing something as this, whatever this is.

It sure seems like it'd be nice if we could shake this all off like a dog after a bath. Or scrub with exfoliating brushes until we're free of ourselves. Alas, after the exfoliation and waxing and asshole bleaching, we're still here, still this — wherever here is, whatever this is.

We're quite attracted to origin stories. The universe was something and then, Bang!, it blew apart and became all sorts of things moving this way and that. But what if it was always already all this stuff moving around? Why does the universe need an origin story in which there is only one moment? What a weird thing to even imagine! The universe is so fucking big and complex it seems hilariously demented to reduce it to an absolute beginning. In his great essay on history, Foucault writes that when we look for the origin of things, we find the dissension of other things. We find forks and splays. There is no singular point that begins the line from there to here. There's always already multiple things happening, careening and veering every which way.

It can be maddening to imagine no beginning and no ending, to imagine that time has always existed. It's much cleaner to imagine time as a line that begins somewhere rather than as an infinite number of lines have always already been happening. So we posit primal moments — the big bang or, well, some intense moment from childhood (like seeing our parents screwing). I am this way because my father left me or my mother was controlling or favored my brother or...or...or. Sure, those things figure into who we are and how we go. And some events are no doubt more poignant than others. But, as Foucault says, when we look for the origin, we find the dissension of other things. We are all the things that happen to us and the way we process these things. We cannot be reduced to one event. That's ridiculous.

In his book on the painter, Francis Bacon, Deleuze says the painter never comes to a blank canvas. The artist's job, he argues, is not to create something from nothing but to create something new from the density of what is and what has been. That canvas may look white but it is infinitely dense with images from the history of art, from TV and movies, from advertising, from the news, from everyday life.

The painter is enmeshed in this density of images at a certain posture, with a certain metabolism, and begins to break those images, smear them, parody them. Pollock grabbed the canvas off the easel, threw it on the floor, and writhed over it, all serious bravado (you can imagine a similar gesture done with more, say, smiling). Guston made the KKK into cartoons alongside his big soft goofy rocks and shoes and light bulbs. Duchamps just picked up a urinal and, prankster-like, deposited it in a gallery. Bacon smeared his canvases with a broom and created falling flesh from what emerged.

Look all those ways of beginning. What determines this way or that way? Look at your own way of beginning anything — a book, a conversation, writing. What propels you? What images are in your mind? What do you think you're doing? Whatever your answer, there are more answers you'll never see, never be able to articulate (so it is with the eye; it never sees itself; we are always more than we think, thankfully).

Deleuze says we're always in the middle. And so his books always begin mid-conversation. That is, he doesn't even try to frame his conversation as if he could stand outside his own text and let us survey the scene. That's what text books do; they want to be definitive and tell you: this is what is known. But Deleuze operates from the middle, amidst the fray and teem where all there are are assertions, positions, postures — never certainties. And so he just begins wherever he is.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation  
A round area often delimits the place where the person — that is to say, the Figure — is seated, lying down, doubled over, or in some other position.

Spinoza: Practical Philosophy  
Nietzsche understood, having lived it himself, what constitutes the mystery of a philosopher's life.

Difference and Repetition  
Repetition is not generality.

The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque   
The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait.

The effect can be disconcerting. I've found myself making sure I didn't skip a page or three. But nope: Deleuze flourishes in the middle, in the thick of it, in the middle of a life in motion, amidst an idea already happening.

Nietzsche never believed that morality exists outside of history, outside of ideology, of desire, of the will to power. Which is why he dismisses Kant just as he dismisses Judeo-Christian codes. And why he performs a genealogy of morality, tracing it to a certain set of historical-existential conditions: the emergence of ressentiment. Whence ressentiment, you ask? Well, it just happens, a convergence of any number of forces and events. William Burroughs thinks it's a mutation, perhaps from an alien world. For Nietzsche, our beliefs come from our intestines, from our constitution and comportment, from how we bear experience. And what determines those? Being born from these people in these conditions as this body. And this thing that's born is always multiple. Nietzsche himself is his own own doppelgänger — and even a third!

When Derrida looks for the origin of, say, a text he finds other texts. You're already quoting other words. When he looks for the origin of identity, he finds iteration. What propels this iteration, this text and not that text? Derrida doesn't talk about that so much. He just knows there are no origin points, that it's all play.

Every beginning has always already begun. Every beginning is a multiplicity that is mired in historical, physical, cultural, and conceptual trajectories that intersect each other at different speeds and intensities. 

Trying to shake it all off — all this body and thinking, all this life — is absurd (Nietzsche would say it's nihilistic). But that doesn't mean we can't be reborn. That we can't dramatically shift how we go in this world. But doing this isn't a matter of getting to the bottom of things or wiping everything away. It's not a matter of creating a clean slate or getting back to the beginning. It's a matter of short circuiting, hedging, leaning this way rather than that. It's a matter of engineering from the middle.