7.13.2017

The Drift of Prose: Notes on Writing with Reference to Deleuze and Guattari


Guattari's notes to Deleuze from Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus. So fantastic!

It's a funny thing, this sitting down to write. Sometimes, I have something to say and words express said something. Other times, I have no idea whatsoever what I want to say; I simply like sitting and writing to see what comes.  

There is something magical about typing, the pitter patter here becoming a mark there which can flower or die or neither as the marks on the screen assemble meaning and move bodies (or don't). Yes! says one reader happening upon these marks we call words (this reader may be me). Huh? grunts another reader. Duhhhh....groans a third.

Usually, though, I have more or less inchoate thoughts, nascent notions, and sitting down to write is sitting down to think. It is a practice of giving form and shape to the vague and nebulous. Of course, sometimes what I believed to be a clear idea becomes less coherent as I write; it loses shape as my my words and thinking meander and drift. Such is the risk of thinking; such is the risk of writing. And such, of course, is the joy. Yes, the joy is in the drift, whether it's a matter of taking or losing form.

As I get older  — or, perhaps, simply these days — excuse this aside — aside of what, exactly?: how am I to know if the changes I experience in my life are due to age  or are a product of local sundry factors such as diet, health, love life, and such? What leads me, what prompts me, to say something is due to age while another thing is due simply to mood? Here's an example: My kid was born in 2003, right after the dot com explosion which gave rise to rocketing rents. Are the changes I experienced — the conspicuous rise in stress — due to my suddenly having the kid? Or do I pin it on the change in the economy? Or can I say it's due to getting older? Obviously, it's all of the above. But what lets me extrapolate and ascribe cause — It's the economy! — to something when there are so many correlations? Of course, some things seem clearly age related — the hesitation of my urine stream; the vigor of my erections; my inability to eat tomato sauce. But when it comes to wisdom and the like, I am quick to dub it a matter of age. Now that I'm older, I no longer play those childish psycho-sexual games, I say as if I've earned insights from all my weathered years of living. But is that why? Or might I play those games again and just aren't now because, well, I'm into something else?

Anyway, as I get older — or, perhaps, simply these days —  I am less and less sure of what I'm thinking before assuming my seat before this flickering screen. Rarely is there any one point. The teem of correlations puts my writing, my thinking, my understanding adrift.

All of the above was one paragraph. I just broke it up into these punctuated breaks. Why? The sight of a long paragraph gives many readers pause, reluctance, and even anger: Do I want to get into all that? Can I just duck out now — and watch a 30 Rock episode? What is Coffeen thinking making all that one paragraph???!!! Who does he think he is? (Experience turns readily to ressentiment in my imagination of how people think. Nietzsche pervades me. Or else Nietzsche was right. Most likely, it's both: he pervades me and he was right. But he doesn't pervade me because he was — is — right. He pervades me because he resonates with me, like gin resonates with tonic. The fact — the fact! — that he was — is — right is a distinct if fortuitous coincidence.) (The m-dash and parentheses: drifts great friends.)

This is not easy to read. What's my point? Do I need one? Can I have many? Do these points need to connect? Whose need is it, anyway? Yours? Mine? Or is it the unspoken rules coercing expectations and hence the practice of both reading and writing?

So I thought I was going to write about philosophy — what it is, what it can do, ways to consider and engage with it. This was prompted by a conversation I had recently. My charming interlocutor told me about camping somewhere years ago and each night she'd hear the dripping of water. But when morning came and she looked for the water, none was to be found. Days later at base camp, she mentioned this to a ranger who explained that there is, in fact, no water. That sound — the sound of water dripping — is the sound of a bird song. Which made me think of Deleuze and Guattari's mutual becoming as the bird partakes of water-becoming, the animal reterritorializing the aquatic which necessarily implicates the water in the bird's becoming. That bird takes up water dripping and makes it its own, if only for the duration of its song. That song is water dripping, albeit sans H2O. A river or forest condensation and a bird singing: both partake of water drip-becoming. 

Which made me think of philosophy as a kind of poetry: it enjoys a moment and puts words to it, with it, not to explain necessarily but to make all the more vital. Mutual becoming, write Deleuze and Guattari. That's a beautiful phrase, a beautiful image: poetry.

Which made me think about how words themselves territorialize, reterritorialize, deterritorialize. They take up territory that already exists and realign it, recast it, make it new, make it different (or, more commonly, fortify what's already there; most reading seeks confirmation of what's known — Yep, yep, yep bobs the reader's head — and writers like to make readers happy). Punctuation, grammar, and genre — including the purely architectural elements such as spaces between words and paragraph breaks — give shape to the shapeless; they territorialize, make a territory of these ideas, these notions, these sensations, these words. But writing has the ability to deterritorialize, as well, to lead writing, reading, ideas, and sensations down uncharted and unexpected paths.

As I get older — or is it a matter not of age but of local propensity? — I am increasingly drawn to the fragment, the filament, the fray. Sometimes, the pleasure  — and the knowing — is in the drift.

7.08.2017

All That: On Words, Wittgenstein, Cunnilingus, & Yoga


Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I see signification. Words go every which way, a great ooze and flow of factors.

So I'm going down on my sweetie the other day. At one juncture, as things heat up, she begins declaring, Yes! That, that, that! But to what, precisely, does that refer? I mean, I'm doing all kinds of things with my tongue, lips, and fingers at different intensities, rhythms, and speeds. Which that is that that?

This of course made me think of the opening to Wittgenstein's Philosophic Investigations in which Wittgenstein critiques Augustine's account of primary language acquisition (needless to say, this made for a less than erotic, albeit edifying, interlude). In recounting his early learning, Augustine tells us he learned language by adults pointing at an object and declaring its name: "Pencil," says Dad pointing at a pencil. It seems simple enough. But, as Wittgenstein points out, this might work only for nouns. After all, how does one point to justice? Or doom? Or love?

But this ostensive mode of language learning fails when it comes to nouns, too. Let's return to our Dad pointing at a pencil as he says, "Pencil." What exactly does pencil designate? The act of pointing? Any writing utensil? A long, but not that long, skinny object? An off-shade of yellow?

For Wittgenstein, this suggests that words do not primarily designate or signify per se. Words are not just pointers to things or, for that matter, ideas. Rather, words are actions within the social; the use of a word is a rhetorical event before it is a linguistic event (this was the topic of my dissertation, although I never referred to Wittgenstein for a variety of reasons — mostly because after reading the Ray Monk biography, I found Wittgenstein an unpleasant shnook who was always boxing students' ears and certainly not a genius — another case of too much information!). Anyway, this is all to say, a word is always used. Even a dictionary definition is a use. A dictionarist is a lepidopterist pinning a live butterfly: the word doesn't sit still while being defined. (Ask Lohren Green of Poetical Dictionary; rather than try to pin words in place, he put himself in motion with each word he defines — a protean methodology which is a clever, if beguiling, tactic.) A word is necessarily a performance of an action that, in turn, suggests, triggers, causes, prompts other words and actions. In Wittgenstein's parlance, a word is a move within a language game, a game that includes more than the word — the affect, politics, and power that flows through and determines what can and can't be said in a given circumstance (more Foucault's territory than Wittgenstein's).

For Wittgenstein, this is really a matter of logic and certainty. If words don't signify, how do we mean anything? But in this critique of Augustine's view of ostensive language acquisition, I see something else, as well: I see the many in the one. I see webs and oozes. 

This is what I see: To point and say that is to conjure an assemblage. This is always many — a network, perhaps, or a rhizome but in any case a multiplicity. There is rarely, if ever, a direct and single line between here and there, between word and meaning, word and thing, gesture and referent. In the seemingly simple act of saying this or that, there is always so much stuff going on. Entire worlds are initiated, reconfigured, bodies aligned and realigned, opportunities spawned, possibilities hedged.

Years ago, I went to the yoga class of a friend who was visiting and guest teaching. She'd instruct the class to put our pelvises forward or lie with a natural spine or some such thing. I had no idea what she was saying and, much to her chagrin, kept raising my hand for clarification. What did any of those words mean? I couldn't correlate her words with my body. The signification kept going astray, getting lost in the shuffle of associations, memories, clichés, our distinctive understandings of our bodies.

Which made me avoid yoga classes. Sure, I avoided yoga classes for other reasons, most notably the humiliation I tend to feel when being asked to use my body in public (I don't dance, either). But I also avoided yoga classes because I knew I could and would never understand how the teacher's words related to this beanpole body of mine. As the words traveled from her lips to my ears, they'd inevitably get lost in the miasma of sweat and self-loathing.

An image from the teacher training at Kaya Yoga in Davis, CA. Yoga brings to the fore the strange and nebulous path between words and meaning.

And then I did yoga one-on-one with a great teacher (the radiant Kia Meaux). When I'd ask her what her words meant, she'd deflect and instead ask: What are you feeling? What a deft move! With that simple rhetorical move, she taught me that there was never to be a direct line between words and body. Or, rather, there is always a direct line but that line is not straight; it's curved, folded, and has multiple tendrils and tangents.  (The role of words in the teaching of yoga is a rich topic for another time.) There is no single there, no singular that.  There is always an exchange of multiplicities — her words and gestures and affects co-mingling with mine and more. There is always all this and all that, all mixed up together.

I thought I knew this from Wittgenstein, from Derrida, from Nietzsche, from 30 years of reading philosophy. Yet I still expected these yoga words to refer to a very particular posture, a bend of my back or knee or neck. Silly me! Words are not arrows, even if they sometimes pierce our hearts and souls. Words are nebulae. Words are webs. They participate in flows and fluxes that are affective, historical, cultural, personal, idiosyncratic, cosmic.

How, then, do I know what to do as my face is nuzzled between my lover's thighs and she's yelling That! That! That!? Well, I always know and never know. The question remains, more or less: What am I feeling? What feels right? Which is to say, it's a rhetorical matter, not a linguistic one. It's matter of making a move within the fray of bodies and sensations, not a matter of understanding. It's a matter of leaning into the ooze and flux and feeling my way through.

And so I just keep doing what I'm doing, listening for the various utterances of her body, verbal and otherwise, feeling out the elaborate conversation that is all exchanges, physical and verbal. I keep doing all that in order to continue all that. And, sometimes, it all comes to a glorious juncture. Which, of course, just leads elsewhere. Every that is always another all that.

6.27.2017

Reading the Way of Spaces (a podcast)


Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, offers a whiff of the wild which offers different modes of behavior than, say, Central Park in Manhattan.
Spaces distribute bodies and behavior. They make demands and set limits. Consider how you walk into and use a restaurant. You keep your clothes on; you don't walk around much; you don't lie down. There are behaviors that we all assume we will enact, following the invisible but all the more powerful laws of action. 

Now consider all sorts of spaces — parks, cities, "nature," classrooms. What is asked of us in those spaces? What kind of energy do we need to expend in order to find our ease, to go with the space in such a way that we maximize our vitality?

All of this was triggered by time I spent recently at clothing-optional spas in Northern California, spaces that ask square, urban me to behave differently. This implicates me and my social semiotics at a profound, resonant level. Who am I here? How do I go? What serves me best in this place?


6.14.2017

Always Already Coming: On Fabric and Marc Lafia's "In What Language to Come"


A painting is a material whose materiality is repressed. It becomes forgotten, background, a no place, a blind spot. We look at the paint, not the canvas. We can say the same of photographs and film: the material — the paper, celluloid, code — are quieted by the play of significant and signifying content. What matters is the image freed from its materiality, an image that can somehow exist anywhere. Sure, we might focus on the paint or the exposure time, comment on the density of a painting's paint. But we rarely, if ever, see the canvas, paper, and plastic.

This has of course been amplified by the digital network. Images are no longer tethered to any material other than ones and zeros, interpretive algorithms that transform those numbers into an image that can be seen but not touched. It's as if the image has finally been freed from its body, pure soul manifesting here and there. The materiality of art has responded by becoming monumental, the stuff of stories — think Koons or, in film, Michael Bay — or conceptual, rarely taking root in thingness. Or else it's all petty bourgeois craft, people relishing the feel of wood, of rope, of clay — which is great. But it's not art. It's not creation as such; it's delicious commodity, a decadent relishing of stuff.

Marc Lafia's work often focuses on the terms of image making and distribution — on photography, on narrative, on algorithms of sense making, on the always-on network (which, as Lafia makes exquisitely clear, is a ubiquitous camera and screen). In his work, he has made semiotic content secondary to the production of semiotic content which, in turn, becomes the semiotic content. Which is to say, it's not that his work is absent signification; it's to say that what he signifies is the very terms of signification.

In this new work, he has shifted from the means to the stuff. If in earlier work, he presented the seeing of seeing, in this work he presents seeing as such — an absurd claim, perhaps, and one I am making, not Lafia.

This is not to say that fabric is free of significance. On the contrary, it is mired in it. But this mire creates a miasma that belies ready reference or any direct didacticism. The referential trajectory is blurred, veiled, drifting and draping this way and that, blowing with the wind, wrinkling and pleating, often a folded mess of a pile, multicolored and multi-textured. It is not quite babel but it is polyglottal, alternately and simultaneously euphonious and cacophonous.

Fabric is at once something and not something. It is usually a means, a vehicle, an ornament and not something in and of itself. For centuries, it was a currency, something of value, yes, but something to be exchanged. And, no doubt, today it retains a certain value, the stuff of consumerism.

All the while, it is saturated with association. It is the stuff of clothes and bed, of fresh from the shower and cuddling on the couch, the softened ground beneath our feet, the surface of our sitting. It surrounds us, encloses us, and while we might pay this or that version of it our concerted attention, the fabric as such tends to remain secondary.

And then there is the phenomenology of fabric. It is technically a solid but it shares an affinity with liquid, almost filling its container. It is fundamentally pliable, plastic, as if awaiting use, scissors, stitching, glue. In this sense, it is akin to the digital, a file always awaiting manipulation. But unlike the digital, fabric has an immediate tactility — it is seen and touched before and as it is manipulated. It is not just palpated; it is the stuff of palpation. 

In this work, Lafia does not use fabric as a backdrop. It is fabric and nothing but: fabric on fabric, fabric with fabric. And not to create an image as, say, Rosemary Trockel does. Nor to act as symbol or a means as Joseph Beuys did. And it's certainly not the fine craft of, say, Turkish kilim. Rather, Lafia engages fabric as fabric, using fabric perhaps as a painter would use paint — only, in this case, the painter paints painting.

There is, then, this sumptuous redundancy in Lafia's work. Rather than zoom out or zoom in on the means of image making — as he has so often done in the past — here he remains thoroughly and completely within the realm of the seen, within the realm of seeing. He creates an orgy of fabric, bodies mixing with bodies in all sorts of relations and juxtapositions and with no desire other than this — this frolic, this play, this drape and drift, these folds, this billowing. It doesn't add up to anything; it goes nowhere. It doesn't try to point to meaning or to an experience other than this — a tautology, an haecceity, a redundancy, the world touching itself everywhere, a polymorphously perverse onanism, a plenum of palpation.

This is surely a new language freed of signifiers and signifieds, free of Saussure's semiotics, Lacan's algebra, and Derrida's deferral. Untethered, this is a language free to roam (like all poetic languages). Unlike the language of stretched canvas and pinned art, these fabric works occupy their territory with grace and aplomb. They can live anywhere (I accidentally typed "love" anywhere, a fortuitous mistake).


There is a certain aggression, no doubt, an aggression implicit in any territorialization. These works not only take over a space; they want to take over a space, indoors or out, big or small. They do not stay nailed to the wall, discreetly out of the way, only to be looked at now and again. No, these works inundate, spread, drift, drape, get in your way.

But not all territorializations are created equally. This occupying tongue is passionately languorous, generous, joyous; it softly but insistently spreads the word — which is to say, it spreads itself. This is not only in what language to come. It's in what language is always already coming.

6.06.2017

Good Enough



(This essay was fueled and helped by discussions, feedback, and insights from the inimitable Kia Meaux.)

Two weeks ago, I find myself at Orr Hot Springs — I love the passivity of "I find myself there," not I went there or I was there; French has that great reflexivity — I call myself, I seat myself, etc — in which the subject is also object; English does this all too rarely. I love it because it expresses that middle voice in which we actually find ourselves all the time, more or less, at once elevating and then refusing the ego as subject — anyway, two weeks ago I find myself at Orr Hot Springs, a naked resort tucked into the hills in Mendocino County in Northern California. It's hot out. I'm lying in the shade on a wooden deck next to a cool spring fed pool into which I occasionally plunge. I'm alongside a beautiful, brilliant woman who, like me, is naked. We are not entirely sober, as it were, and are feeling plain old good. There is no cell reception, no WiFi, no clients, no work, no kid, no hassles, and nothing to buy. I turn to my lovely cohort — my lover — and say something like, "Ah, this is so decadent. All I need now is a cocktail." To which she replies: "Isn't this good enough?"

I was, needless to say, humbled.

Like many people, if not most, I have a fiend in me. I find myself in a situation, which is to say I situate myself here or there, only to find myself wanting for something. And immediately I reach for a remedy — a cocktail, an edible, a book, a TV show, my phone, sex, something or someone or some experience that is not present.

Often, this is a fine and good reaction. I know how to steer my experience into my pleasure zone, that place where everything suits my constitution. If say, I'm at a boring event for my kid's school, I may sneak a swig from the flask tucked into my back pocket. This is not a lack of contentment; it's good planning and self-awareness. I know my needs; I know the world; I know how to play it — a rhetorician's coup.

Usually, I am able to avoid any such experiences as I've engineered my life so that I am able to say Yes often and No ever so rarely. No one invites me to dinner parties that I feel obliged to attend. No one invites me anywhere, in fact, that I feel obliged to attend — except, occasionally, an event for my son's school. I've developed a world built around my particular inclinations, around and with my way of going.

But this can of course lead to an ever tightening knot in which I fold in on myself until I'm this tightly wound bundle of self: me, all me! I submit to my habits because I can and because they feel good or, rather, because they are good. I have, for the most part engineered a life of me. Which is fantastic. But this me becomes a habit which can, and will, inevitably not be satisfied. My me will not have its way. This is the condition of life: it is a flux that exceeds me, takes me up. Which is all a fancy and long winded way of saying: sometimes, I'm somewhere where I really would like a cocktail — or quiet, my pillow, fresh bread, my friends — but it's not attainable. Despite my best laid plans, I am not, nor will ever be, totally in control. 

It is insane to wish things other than as they are — that there was always a cocktail, always quiet, no traffic, no assholes, no rent due, that she always loved me, that the train is on time. This doesn't mean one doesn't work to engineer that the same thing doesn't happen again. I am not suggesting that we can ever live in a pure now free of all social ills or that we'd even want to. Or that just because shit sucks, we have to only live in sucky shit. We are not just of time; we are time. Like the now, we are not immediate. We are folds of pasts, other presents, and futures. But to say, here and now: Damn, I wish that what is happening were something else is a kind of madness and certainly the basis of neurosis.

And is the very fuel of the American, or at least Western, liberal capitalist world. It is propelled by a constant desire for something else — new shoes, new house, new job, new phone, new boyfriend, new restaurant. Imagine, for a moment, if we were all content with our lives. Imagine, for a moment, that we wake up and say: This is good enough. Then we get out of bed and go on with our days, all along our mantra is, This is good enough. How would Amazon ever survive?? While I reach for my cocktail, most people reach for a new pair of shoes. Or a another date. This guy's pretty good but, well, is he all that? Our entire economy — financial, social, and sexual — is propelled by a pervasive lack. Something is missing. I need to fill that hole. (And it's not that capitalism made us this way; it's that we are capitalism. We are this will, this breed of life, this way of going, this will to power.)

We relentlessly yearn for, and in fact demand, something more. Something else. This is how we interpret that cryptic right to pursue happiness. Out of my way, loser, I see a better guy over there! I'm swiping left on your sorry ass! This — all this — is never enough.

Would you ever feel like you should settle for good enough? Don't you feel that you're entitled to more than that? You're entitled to the best, goddamnit! And the best sure as shit isn't this! Gimme another blouse! (Yes, I know no one says blouse; I do because it's funny.) Gimme another boyfriend! A better girlfriend! Sure, this one is good enough but how could I — why would I — ever settle for good enough???? We even have conversations about having it all! How to Get It All is a not uncommon headline.

Think about how insane that is! It's hilariously deranged. What will, what breed of life, would even ask such a question? How could such a line of inquiry even find itself expressed, not to mention seriously discussed? To me, the most deranged thing about this is that the question is asked by those who wouldn't know what to do with it all! They have plenty and are still lacking — and so they want more? In fact, they want it all???!! Really? How about first do something beautiful with what you have before asking for everything. Jeez louise. It's a will that, as Nietzsche would say, is ill constituted.

Wanna know how to have it all? Stop asking! Stop looking for something else! Stop swiping left or right! You already have it all, you deranged nincompoops!

And, please, know that I count myself among the deranged nincompoops. After all, there I am at Orr Hot Springs with an incredibly beautiful, lovely woman who loves me and whom I love; it's the perfect temperature and, if it's not, there are pools to warm and cool me; I have nothing whatsoever to worry about. And yet, without thinking, I want something else, something more. I want a cocktail.

But isn't this good enough?

What propels me to seek more, to seek something else, to reach for that cocktail? It seems to me that that dissatisfaction comes from a sense of lack, a fundamental belief that life is not enough — that I am not enough. Nietzsche calls this nihilism. It oozes from a being incapable of affirming this life, incapable of loving this life, incapable of loving itself. And we certainly live in a world premised on this lack of love for life. For Nietzsche, it began with the slave revolt of Judeo-Christianity who found perfection outside life, in God. I see it in liberal capitalist America where we are told, from day one, that something is wrong. Pregnancy, for fuck's sake, is seen as a medical condition. The very birth of the species is a disease! And then it continues — you shit wrong, you're too loud, you can't spell, you can't read, you can't do that, stop playing with your food, put your clothes on. You are wrong! All this, in fact, is wrong! So we keep grasping for the thing that will make it right.

And the only thing we believe capable of setting it all straight is something outside of life — the ego or god. Both, alas, create and propel relentless dissatisfaction as they create a split within life, a split between the world and me. I am here; the world is there; I can control the world. But this is a false dichotomy. After all, aren't I constitutive of the world, as much stuff as the sky, planets, widgets, and squirrels? I am not in traffic; I am traffic. To be groaning about traffic is to be groaning about myself.

So what if rather than looking elsewhere, we exhale and say: I am good enough. This is all good enough. Life is good enough. Such is amor fati. Such is love.

Should I find myself at the altar, the eyes of friends upon me, my sweetie before me, all I want to say, all I want to hear, is: You, my love, are good enough.  What expression of love could possibly be greater?

5.31.2017

Notes on Moments: An Accidental Teacher

Whether Castaneda made up Don Juan or not is irrelevant. The teaching remains the same.
(I actually like it better as made up.)

Sometimes, I have an idea that takes on life (what a great, odd expression: to take on life — like one does with clothing, sorta; like a mule does with stuff; like fisticuffs in the thoroughfare). I see something or think something and, as it makes its way through my body, it blossoms. And then I sit and write it, fleshing it out in every sense. These become essays that usually live here; other times, they've been known to become books. (Buy my darn book, already, you lazy louts! I promise it's chock full of goodies!)

But sometimes I have an idea or a comment or take (oh, "take" as a noun is fantastic!) that might not have enough, quantitatively speaking, to become an essay or book. Or maybe it does have enough but that's not what interests me: what interests me is a moment within the flow, an aspect, a whisper, a shiny brooch, a parenthetical, a throwaway. Or I don't even have an idea or comment. I just have a notion or observation. How do I publish that? Sure, tweets are great, an Oulipo project. But what I got is often more than 140 characters. (I tend to be purple. The limitation is probably good for me. 140 characters! Or an essay! And yet: why not something in between? And, again, it's not just a question of length, of quantity, but of quality and form. Need everything I write have a point?)

I always carry a little Rhodia notebook with me to scribble ideas as they come to me. Very few take on more life than that. And so there most of them remain, scrawls in a ratty notebook in a jacket pocket.
There are worse fates.
I love stand up comedy as a form. There is such license to build different flows and logics, different ways of moving through an "act." Like any performer, comedians use the refrain in various ways to stitch it all together. But they always leave room for the non-sequitur. Often, it's lead by a pause..."Anyway.......I almost died last summer" (pace Sarah Silverman who forces her audience to note the form more than any comedian I've ever seen).

Music definitely faces this. Maybe you have a lick but not a song; or a song and you can't find the bridge. Can you, would you, buy an album of licks? (Yes, I know, no one buys albums anymore. Humor me.)

And then there's writing. Sometimes, I just want to share a tidbit, an ornament, an insight, a comment.  It's probably longer than an aphorism but, in any case, less profound, less dense. I'm curious in the expression of notions. (At first, I wrote "the phenomenology of notions and words." But that's cumbersome. So I got rid of "words." But then it wasn't accurate. Then I had "the phenomenology of the expression of notions." But that made me want to punch me in the face.)

Orr Hot Springs. The back room on the left is the steam room. This pool is the cool pool, in every sense. The whole scene is quite decadent.

So here's something. I'm at Orr Hot Springs a few weeks ago with my, uh, special lady friend. It's a clothing optional resort in Mendocino County in Northern California (for the curious, about 3.5 hours north of San Francisco). There's a lot to say about that, which I will, but not at the moment. What I want to tell you now is this.

This clothing optional spa — I'll just say naked spa — has a small steam room right next to the cool pool. We were going back and forth between the intense heat of the steam room and the bracing cold of the pool which, for the record, is simply a great experience that opens the senses, making you ready and eager for life.

So at one point, we're in the steam room. It's a very small room — maybe 8 x 8 (I made that up; I have no idea. Just know it's a small, intimate space). At first, we were alone and just sitting next to each other, shvitzing (no, that's not code for fooling around; it's Yiddish for sweating. Stay with me here). Anyway, a guy walks in and proceeds to lie down on a lower bench at 90 degrees to us.  Remember, we are all naked. Which, in this story, is irrelevant and yet adds necessary color.

So he lies down but as the tile bench he's on is small, he has his legs up against the wall, stretching his hamstrings. And then, through the quiet and steam, he lets loose one of the more extended, rich, robust farts I've ever encountered.

What's startling is not that he farts — everyone farts — but that he farts so loudly and follows absolutely no social protocol whatsoever, spoken or otherwise. He says nothing. No excuse me. No acknowledgement. Nothing. And his energy, for lack of a better word, reveals no shift whatsoever — not a hint of embarrassment, shame, or self-consciousness of any sort. Zero. Zilch. He just continues to lie there, occasionally flexing his legs. My lady and I giggle because, well, we're 13 year old boys at heart.

And then he does it again! And still he offers no sign of social negotiation. He's just lying there in this steam room naked, with two naked strangers, laying down farts of geologic import. (Note that as the springs that feed this place are laden with sulphur, there is a fart miasma pervading the place. Which is to say, his production yields no new discernible odor.)

Eventually, as we're sweating to death, we leave the room to go into the pool. But both of us are absolutely blown away by this man (I wasn't wearing my glasses so I can't tell you his age; I'm guessing mid 40s). He is a master! A teacher of the highest order! Someone so comfortable in their skin, in the way they inhabit the world, they can inflect the social so freely without any acknowledgement whatsoever. He wasn't brazen or punk rock about it. He wasn't hippy-we're-all-just-meat about it. He was absolutely, completely, utterly neutral — not asocial nor social. He was simply being, simply becoming, as this thing in the world. Here was a teacher like none I'd ever met.

Still reeling from this experience, this great teaching — which, by the way, is as profound to me as the story of Abraham and Isaac — we leave the cold pool to go back to the steam room. Our Master Farter is gone. And my lady friend — what word do I use? girlfriend? friend? you tell me — proceeds to lie down on the tile bench much as our brilliant farter had. And then, as she moves to stretch a muscle, the same farting sound suddenly blasts from her body!

Holy shit! None of these sounds were farts. It was simply moisture, flesh, and tile expressing themselves.

And yet this revelation detracted nothing from the teaching! It didn't, and doesn't, matter at all that it didn't actually happen. This man, this would-be farter, taught us more than most books and courses ever taught us — or could possibly teach!

This accident of perception became a figure, what Deleuze and Guattari might call a conceptual persona. It became an epic tale, biblical, perhaps made all the more so for not having actually happened. It became elevated, a teaching from on high, an aspiration. The material reality was irrelevant, concertedly displaced by a much more profound, resonant reality — a truth, a possibility, that forever exceeds some 46 year old gaseous hippy.

This makes me think of Carlos Castaneda. People accuse him of making up Don Juan. Which is insane as an accusation. If it "actually" happened, that's great. If he made it up, all the better! It makes him a genius and a master teacher. In fact, he's a master teacher either way. Just like our steam room farter. Which is all to say, I remain inspired — indeed, haunted — by this man who only exists as a possibility, as a beautiful idea, as freedom vital and embodied.

5.30.2017

Drape and Drift: On Marc Lafia's "In What Language to Come"


I'll say this from the get go: when you see Marc Lafia's latest work — a site specific installation in his Park Slope brownstone — you want to be there. If you saw it through the window from the street, you'd find a way in. It is deliriously seductive — sumptuous, sensuous, beckoning. The word that comes to me is enchanting with its mystery and captivation, the way enchantment at once disarms, infuses, and engages. That is this work: it takes you up.


The colors might be the first thing to grab your attention — purples, whites, pinks, blues, greens. But then there are the textures as silk, neoprene, latex, rubber tubing, cloths, zippers and such make their way. With the fabrics enjoying a variety of opacity, your experience of the space is relentlessly changing, the works interacting with each other as well as with you, with the sun, with what lies behind them (paintings, house objects, framed photographs as these fabrics frolic in their freedom, draping over other art, acting as filter, as veil, as liberator — and as executioner). This creates a persistent visual hum, a shimmering of ever shifting intensities, a billow of affect. The space is alive.



Lafia has taken the object of art — the thing we behold, the thing we hang on the wall, the thing we fetishize as we interpret ad nauseam, the thing often of codes, references, and representations  — and draped it about. The object has lost its rigidity — and gained vibrant plasticity. If the framed object of art is bound, even as it bleeds (pace Derrida etc), this fabric enjoys a conspicuous state of becoming as it refuses to settle, all shimmer and hang.

Of course, the Abstract Expressionists (among others) tried to elude the signifier by creating art that was an action not a representation. But they still framed it, turned it into a fixed object, a new piece of information but information nonetheless. They took a living action and nailed it to the wall, lepidopterists pinning a butterfly's wings in place. The framed object that sits securely to be viewed linearly — see this one, then the next one, then the next one — performs signification even if the objects themselves refuse signifiers as content.



This work has no frame. Even the edges of the fabric are often frayed, as if they're always coming to, or out, of existence. This work is unbound. And yet it enjoys discretion. In fact, it proliferates borders, internally and externally. That is, each piece is a thing, for sure (even as it frays). It is an object. But this object drapes and reflects, folds, pleats, moves, filters, interacting with its environment in ever changing ways. It is what I call a bound infinity, drifting this way and that — sort of like a Calder mobile (or, rather, a mobile that's actually mobile! It's insane to me the way museums halt the mobility of those metal gossamer dances).

In much of his past work — there is a lot as he's been creating for almost 50 years — Lafia has reckoned and recorded the very act of seeing. He gives us the seeing of seeing, making film and photography and painting the very thing he films, photographs, and paints. We usually find him playing with instrumentation, the technical and conceptual apparati, of image making — the camera, "photography," the network, Tumblr, algorithms, Command-Shift-4, Chatroulette, watch cameras.

But here he is doing something different. If in the past he proffered a seeing of seeing, here he gives us just seeing. The work confronts the viewer not through concept or even affect but as the very stuff of seeing, a material haecceity. This! Lafia delcares. This! This! And that! And all this! Our act of seeing is taken up and for a ride — folded, pleated, reflected, draped, filtered, titillated, danced with, spun every which way, a veritable carnival of seeing.

As with a Calder mobile, our movement inflects the work while the work inflects us. We move around; it changes; which changes us; and so we move around; and on it goes, an endless, beautiful dance. It is not a hermeneutic circle of understanding; it is a sensual moving-with. We don't see the contingency of seeing, we experience it as seeing-bodies. This is what Merleau-Ponty calls the chiasmus or the intertwining: seer and seen have always already been swapping positions. Unlike an object that's nailed to the wall, this work is ontologically contingent — with viewers, with light, with wind, with the other pieces.

And all this takes place in and with what Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh — the stuff that fills the void, the materiality and palpability of the invisible, the stuff between stuff as well as the stuff itself. The world is a plenum, Merleau-Ponty suggests (and Leibniz maintains), filled with itself. "In What Language to Come" is a delicious encounter with the flesh. (I was going to say that this work is generous. But it's not. It's actually dictatorial; it immerses you, take you up, enchants you. But, while not generous, it is kind, luxurious, and giving.)

Unbound, this work inhabits space rather curiously. You first confront it in a domestic living room. The space has not been arranged to mimic a gallery. On the contrary, it luxuriates in itself as a private living space as we see the things of a living room behind and between the fabric. This is not a statement about the domesticity of fabric (even if it points to the everdayness of art). It is, rather, a flexing of this work's reach. A rhizome, it can and will live anywhere — on city streets; among trees, bushes, and plants; as discrete window pieces; even isolated and nailed to a wall (paintings, after all, are fabric, too; photographs, too, just plastic and paper. And so these works can sit joyfully on a wall, truly hanging just so).



In this intertwining of the sensuous — an experience joyfully free of information, of the signifier, free of the economy of meaning — Lafia gives us a different way of going in the world. He proffers a different way of speaking, of communicating. It is a language that has at once come and will never come, a language we're always already speaking and will never speak. It's the language of an experience — perhaps the language of all experience — that's always happening and hence never finally here. This work speaks in what language to come, sans question mark, an enchanted tongue of drape and drift.


5.20.2017

Yes, No, and Neither: On Preferences, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Getting on with It


I like my cocktails a certain way. While I am no longer averse to a hint of sweet — it gives the cocktail some legs, some viscosity — I find sugar repulsive (as in it literally repulses me, rejects me, makes me recoil). And I don't like my cocktails too sour, either. I want the booze to prevail. Oh, and I usually like my cocktails over rather than up for two reasons. One, the ice adds some much needed hydration to my flailing, failing body. And two,  a cocktail served over comes in a rocks glass which I find less emasculating than a martini glass. These are my quite particular preferences which, too often, I am not shy about explaining to the barkeep with a certain emphatic umph (read: a NY Jewish inflection). 

But what happens when such particularity is not met? When my preferences cannot be, or aren't, served?

Well, I have some options. I can get irritated which itself can take a variety of forms — from rudeness and/or anger towards my server or, as is the go-to for the kids these days, I can write a scathing Yelp review. That'll learn 'em!

I can leave the premises and go in search of a cocktail bar that'll cater to my very precise preferences. This, of course, defers my pleasure and, if with company, becomes a burden for all.

I can say nothing and have the barkeep concoct an inevitably too sweet, too sour cocktail served up and sit there and drink it.

Or sit there and not drink it. (It's a funny thing to me that people feel that, because they paid for something, they are obligated to consume said thing. I have the opposite belief: because I paid for it, I can do what I like with it. I can not finish my meal, not drink my drink, not watch the movie I paid to see. That, alas, is true luxury: the freedom to walk away.)

I can order something else, something that runs little to no risk of offending my delicate palate — a whiskey neat, for instance.

Each of these options is viable. What matters, it seems to me, is not which path I take but how I stand towards my decision. If my preferences keep me from enjoying my evening, enjoying my life, then something is wrong with those preferences. Nietzsche would call this sickness: the things I want make me sick (indirectly, of course).

Now extend this past a cocktail. See your preferences extend into the social. She's smart and cool but I prefer someone taller. He's smart and funny and makes me happy — but I prefer someone who has a real job. Or into the everyday: I don't like being in this traffic! I prefer the road to be clear! Goddamn fuck it all! (This is me, often, in today's suckhole of the city we call San Francisco.)

What, alas, is more insane than demanding life to be different than it is? What is more sick than cursing traffic while being in traffic? First of all, I am not in traffic; I am traffic. I am in and of every situation in which I participate. So hating that situation, expending energy hating that situation, is a kind of self-hatred. And, worse, it's an enormous drain of energy: it depletes without any return on investment.

What I always loved about riding a bike is coasting: I pedal once, twice, three times and then coast for a while. It feels like the most healthy energy exchange possible; I exert a little and get a lot! It's a great deal!  Getting pissed off about traffic while being traffic is a terrible deal, expenditure without return.


Walt Whitman is a, and perhaps the, great Yes sayer.  He says Yes! To everything. He is vor-a-cious! Leaves of Grass is a catalog of things he loves, which is everything he encounters. That is surely one way to go. I love this cloying, sour cocktail in its ridiculous martini glass! I love this traffic! I love this sinus infection! Whitman is beautiful, one of the great souls of this, or any, planet. He is a man without preferences and hence a man without disappointment.


Nietzsche, the great philosopher of affirmation, has a lot of preferences. Never drink coffee, he tells us, as coffee spreads darkness. He likes the air just so; his company just so; his meal just so. And, in the same breath, he says that the key to living well is the affirmation of everything. How can he reconcile this?

Well, for Nietzsche, saying no is not necessarily saying No. There is a no-saying that affirms this body, this health, this life. We have to know our own way of going. If coffee makes you sick, don't drink coffee. But, he tells us, we want to be in a situation in which we can say Yes as much as possible as no-saying expends energy, sapping life.

It seems to me that preferences are not only inevitable but good. It is what differentiates me from you. But when these preferences prevail in the moment and become demands, there is only madness. Sure, you might shape your life to fit your preferences — only go to certain bars, date certain women, talk to certain people. Or do what I often do and just stay the fuck home, alone. But this is a strange strategy as it's doomed from the get go. At some point, you will be in a situation you can't control, that doesn't conform to your preferences. It's not a matter of adapt or die as much as it's a matter of accept and get on with it.

I've always taken pride in my preferences, fancying myself a discerning man. But this discernment becomes an escape from the flux and flow of life, a moral code that dictates from on high, trying to make the inevitable unruliness of life obey. My preferences become my own private fascist, trying to force life's meandering cadence into a military march that conforms to me and me alone. This is when preference is no longer a matter of health and self-sustainability but a matter of sickness, denial, and living death.

A few weeks ago, I was in Golden Gate Park (in San Francisco) with a friend. It was a rare sunny, warm, Spring day and the field was filled with all sorts of 20-something sporty types throwing objects and drinking beer. We sat on the perimeter, as is my preference (I've always sat in the back of the bus, the classroom, the movie theater as crowds displease me). At some point, my friend wanted to refill our water bottles from the water fountain located over yonder and — ahhhh! — through the crowd. Without thinking, I started walking with her when, all of a sudden, I noticed myself in the middle of this swarm of bodies drinking, tossing, shouting, cavorting. I stopped short and immediately scanned for my escape: there, a path that winds outside of the throngs! My friend looked at me and, without skipping a beat, declared: Don't look for the exit. Just go with it. And, with that, I relaxed and together we strode through the sea of bodies, balls whizzing by our heads, sweaty frat bros hollering this and that. And all — all — was good.

5.12.2017

The Energetics of Being


Cuteness is a power, an exuding of energy. We can transact with that energy in different ways.

When I was younger and would see a cute thing — say, a kitten or bush baby— I'd grit my teeth as a certain seething would surge through my body. All I wanted to do was take the cat's face and squeeze it, hard. Maybe eat it. It was a painful experience, even if pleasurable. I'd be exhausted afterwards. When I finally owned a cat — o, I miss my Metapuss — my life was nearly destroyed, the cuteness an endless tax on my being. (The cat was no better for it, either.)

We all know this: a cute thing has the power to determine the behavior around it. To wit, poppa bear usually doesn't kill baby bear. That little useless sack of cuteness exudes a power, an energy, that can make a two-ton beast stand down.

Cuteness is a source of energy. It moves and controls bodies. And, the silly brute I was, I didn't know what to do with that stream of energy. I'd gnash my teeth. I'd begin to crawl out of my skin. That stream came to me and, rather than finding it a source of fuel and vitality, it became an exhaustion of my reserves. I could have stored that energy. But instead I expended my energy to fuel its power. Which is absurd! It has enough power.

From one perspective, life is an economy of energy, a constant series of transactions, expenditures, and transferals. Think of food, sex, money, conversations, plants, relationships. We eat and experience different amounts of energy distributed in different ways — sugar, caffeine, protein, fried foods, LSD, and so on. Every meal at once fuels us and demands fuel to digest it. The same goes for human relationships: each person and each exchange involves a different give and take of energy. Some people leave us drained; the best leave us infused. And of course we pander or defer in various ways that exhaust us, regardless of the other person. Now apply this to all things — taking care of plants, what they give and take; music; art; work (which demands so much and gives little in return); and so on.

For Georges Bataille, all of these things — and more — are intertwined into a more General Economy of energy exchange that includes the sun, thinking, cosmic winds, eroticism. Nietzsche played with this idea, too, of course. Life is all transaction of energy. The ethical question for Nietzsche becomes: How do you maximize your energy, your vitality, your life? It's not a matter of a moral right and wrong but a very practical matter of: What saps you? What fuels you — materially and metaphysically?

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to "World" magazine which came with a fold-out poster in each issue. One week it was a bush baby. Oh, man, I loved that thing. With it pinned to the wall, I'd just stare at it. Thinking of it now gives me a certain thrill, almost erotic in nature. Why? Because it was a source of power, a quiet but steady hum of energy that would permeate me, lift me, carry me. And what is life other than this? What more do we want? (I knew a guy, an "art collector," who had a series of Francis Bacon prints hanging in his bedroom. Ask yourself: What kind of being enjoys that exchange of energy upon sleeping and waking every day?)

This is the case of all images. Which is to say, it is the case of all things (pace Bergson who says matter and image are synonyms). Things exude and take in different proportions and with different intensities. This is what life is: an eco-system of energy exchange. On a day to day basis, we give and take. We negotiate energy exchanges. For instance, cuteness is so taxing we partially denude it — we hedge its power — via kitsch. Rather than gritting our teeth, we take a little cute kitten video to help us get through the drain of energy put on us by jobs, traffic, the bombardment of modern life.

Starbucks and kitten videos: this is what keeps us hanging on, just. Without them, capitalism would exhaust all human energy reserves and then there'd be no one to produce and, worse, no one to consume. We think the energy crisis is about fossil fuels. Nope: it's about a fundamental skew in the energy economy that has human energy being depleted at a dizzying pace. This is why we're obsessed with zombies: how can we make the dead productive?

We all know too well the correlations between sex and violence: Make love, we say, not war. What allows us to say this, to make this substitution? They are both modes of energy expenditure. Louis CK does a bit about bros at the club who, after not getting laid, you find afterwards at some pizza place beating up some nerdy passerby.

But off course not all energy expenditures are the same. The great thing about a certain mode of sex is the give and take. Yes, it's an expenditure but the other person gives you energy back creating a beautiful cycle, a transference of this energy for that energy. Violence, on the other hand, tends to be terribly inefficient, all expenditure without return.

Sometimes, this kind of expenditure is necessary. For instance, when I was younger, I'd have an excess of energy, as youths are wont to have, and so would put on some rockin' tunes and dance like crazy in my undies. I'd burn that energy, releasing that excess, allowing my body to relax, to flow more steadily, more evenly. An excess of energy can be quite disruptive (any manic knows this well).

Aging involves, and perhaps is, a decrease in energy production. At first, this is disconcerting, to say the least. What's wrong with me??? my head shrieks in panic. I see this in friends and acquaintances. Why am I so tired? they ask as they hit 44 and are working 50 hour weeks and then hiking on the weekends and worrying about rent and their future and their kids. It's astounding that they don't know what's happening to them. It's astounding, and humiliating, that I didn't know what was happening to me: I was getting older but still expending energy as if I were 27.

I spent much of my life as what Jung might call the clown and I call the jew clown. I'd do shtick relentlessly, pandering to the crowd (even a crowd of one). It nearly killed me.

A key part of the maturation process is adjusting one's energy store and spend. Rather than lean forward in the social, prattling on and doing the jew clown shtick, I now lean back more and more. I let the social unfold as a more collaborative effort, even if that collaboration is failing to produce, is falling quiet, is disintegrating. The benefit of maturity is knowing that this doesn't matter. That all of life is an ebb and flow of energy — and hence there's no need to expend energy to revive the dying fire of a social encounter. There will be more fires. (Or there won't.)

And so now when I see cute things or feel a flood of love from another, I don't go immediately towards expenditure. I don't grit my teeth, do a jig, try to eat the face of the kitten. Rather, I let the energy pervade me, let it flow through me, infusing my cells and soul with vitality. I store up so when it's time to give, I can.

5.03.2017

Holding Tightly, Holding Lightly: Thoughts on Love & Relationships


Romantic love is seductive. Like any good drug, it enraptures. It takes you up and carries you away. Your heart beats faster; your veins course with joy itself; you're giddy and smiley and all is right with the world.

Except when she doesn't return your call for a surprising amount of time. Or when he's acting a bit distant. Or when she not so subtly hides her phone after the telltale ding. Then, like most drugs, the trip takes a turn. You're distraught, anxious, distracted. Your veins course with toxins and nothing is right with the world.

Ah, such is love, we say. The ups and downs. So it goes with passion. It's in our movies and novels, in our songs, in our paintings and poems. It's the price we pay for the beautiful, magical thing we call love.

Only I'm not sure any of that is love. It's something, for sure. And it's something seductive and powerful. But is it love?

Love, it seems to me, is infinitely generous. Love doesn't forgive because it never judges in the first place. Love never says, "I love him but I just wish he liked to travel more." That's not love. That's an all-too-human romantic relationship  — which is rarely premised on love. It's premised on fear — "I'm not lovable" — which is premised on ego which, out of fear, seeks attachment.

Unfortunately, our romantic relationships are built on ego, fear, and attachment. This is what we're taught; this is our discourse on love. "He's mine." "She's my girl." And the problem with attachment is that everything of this world gives way. That's just the way it is. Wishing it any other way is, at best, neurotic; at worst, pathological. So the whole thing is doomed from the get go.

Now, we try to temper this fickle fade of flesh with both the formal and informal institutional prowess of the promise. "I will stay yours forever, even when my attentions turn; I will stay yours even in death." We call this marriage and it's not a bad way to go.

I was married for 14 years. What I loved about it is that all the mundane bullshit is inflected through the infinite. How can something as minor as a fight about a comment persist when seen in the light of the eternal? What are we going to do — fight over it forever?? Of course not. And so, just like that, all the little crap vanishes in the sublimity of the infinite.


I've also been divorced for seven years. But, for me, this is not a failure of love. Divorce is not a failure at all! It's what happens to things of this world — they give way. In fact, the thing I am most proud of in my life is my divorce. I still love my ex-wife. Of course I do. That's what love is! It's infinite! It doesn't stop and start. Lust stops and starts; romantic love stops and starts. But love? Nope. Love persists.

I realize that this kind of divorce is an anomaly. I hear horror stories of how once married couples treat each other. This is truly confusing to me. Because either you don't love each other — in which case, just be indifferent and enjoy your lives. Or you do love each other — in which case, be good to each other. This other option — fighting, undermining — can only come from one thing: ego, fear, and attachment. Someone feels scorned. Someone feels unloved. Someone feels unlovable. Someone feels abandoned. All of that crap is ego and is ridiculous and has nothing whatsoever to do with love.

Love is not attachment. On the contrary, love holds the things of this world ever so lightly so as to let them become as they are. Grab on tightly and everyone gets hurt. Like Lennie, you end up crushing the mouse.

But, damn, romantic love is seductive. I, for one, want to be enraptured. I want that delectable joy to pump through my veins. I want all those deep seated fears to go away just by the way she looks at me. What is sweeter than an embrace that erases that persistent thought that I'm not lovable? That makes me feel safe and desired? Man oh man! It's perfectly delicious. The only problem is that I, like most people, get hooked on the embrace — an embrace that will inevitably end.

Attachment is not love. It's fear. And fear comes from ego. But love is not ego bound. In fact, love erases ego. Love doesn't seek to own or control; love lets things be. Love lets the world happen as it happens. Love is not just acceptance of his not wanting to travel or her complaints about work. Love is a radical affirmation of all things. Including yourself! And the incredible thing which happens is that this love erases the fear of being unlovable which erases self- and other- judgement which erases the need for attachment. Voilà! 

Still, romantic love is delicious. And I'm not sure I'm quite willing to give it up entirely. Not yet. Perhaps never. After all, I am all-too-human. I have fears and doubts. I love to be loved. And so the trick, it seems to me, is to hold tightly and lightly at the same time. To gather her up in my arms and squeeze and squeeze and, in the same breath, to open my arms so she can do as she does, be as she is, go as she goes. Which, alas, may be with or without me.

4.26.2017

The Poses of Prose: On Writing, Yoga, and Embodiment


I recently had a realization about yoga thanks to the incredible genius of my teacher, Kia Meaux. I always thought yoga was about these very precise poses, more or less discrete, that could be strung together into a routine to stretch the body, its muscles and ligaments and the like. But, as Kia has taught me, yoga is a practice that's not about stretching per se: it's about becoming embodied. (She likes to say that she can show you all of yoga in one pose. I love that.)

That's an incredibly complex idea: to become an embodied body. At first, it sounds absurd. After all, aren't we already embodied? Isn't that what all this — this flesh, these fingers, these farts  — is? Isn't this my embodiment?

Sure, in some sense. But in another sense, we are actually rarely in and of and with our bodies. I, for one, certainly am not. I imagine myself as a nose on a stick that emits words while ideas flow and ricochet around me. So when I've tried to do yoga, I spend all this time listening to what the teacher says then trying to contort my body into some pose that looks like what she's doing. All my attention is on understanding while my body is only tangentially involved. The result is not pretty.

Kia made me stop all that. A pose, for her, is a set of possibilities. It is a way that discloses as many ways as there are bodies. I start contorting my body and ask: Is this right? She replies: How does it feel? Which is to say, there is no absolute pose. There is a way of sitting with one's body that draws more or less attention to this or that part — the hamstrings, the spine, the shoulders. It's about experiencing that part of the body, not necessarily stretching it. The pose — and its stretch — is a way, not an end: it's a way to being present with the world as oneself.

As I consider her question — How does it feel? — my mind folds into my flesh. My attention is on my body, in my body, and when it all feels as it feels (even if hurts a bit), my attention becomes my body. The pose-that's-not-a-pose is an exercise in being present with my body in the world — feeling gravity's embrace, feeling the muscle extend, feeling the pleasure and sometimes a little pain. The end result is not a limber body or hot ass; those are by-products. The end result is living well with the world.

After a few lessons, I tell Kia: I can't believe the way you move so fluidly in your body, your understanding, your teaching. To which she replies, more or less: That's how I feel about you and your writing.  

This was an incredible moment for me as I suddenly saw writing as a kind of yoga practice. We often imagine writing as disembodied, an abstraction from the world. But, for me, writing is leaning in with my whole self, my body and mind and senses. Writing is a practice of going with ideas, language, moods, and sensations. It's rarely if ever about expressing a pre-formed idea and having it fit perfectly with the words. Writing is not a pose. It's a way.

Now, I've often compared writing to surfing — another thing I have never done and, in this case, something I will never do as I don't even know how to swim. But what I love about surfing is that in order to move, you have to lean into the wave. And then, once there, you have to remain poised. Lean too far back or too far forward and you're gone. It's a constant negotiation of forces, adjustments being made on the fly with the tumult of the ocean. The figure that ties writing to surfing and yoga is the demand of embodiment. But I don't want to conflate all these things; so now I'm gonna stick to yoga.

When I write, I'm looking for a flow — a flow of words, of ideas, of revelations, of affect, and of myself with those elements. I'm not sitting back and composing; I am performing, practicing, on the screen, with the keyboard, with my fingers, with my thoughts, with the thoughts of others, with tangents and dreams, with wisps of notions and fleeting sensations, with all the vicissitudes of language and its grammar and sounds and shapes. As in a yoga routine, I am moving the energy from there to there to there, feeling my way through — for a word, for the stretch of an idea, for an energy, for a flow that, uh, flows. And noting it all. Heeding it all. Experiencing it all. (Well, maybe not always all. But a lot! Or much! Or, sometimes, some!) Writing is not a standing back but an immersion.

For me, writing is not about delivering an answer. As in yoga, there is no telos; there is only flow (of course, your writing teachers may disagree and fail you). The goal of writing — for me as well as for my readers, few and insane as they may be — is not to have a goal but to attain a certain enlivening, a certain waking up, a taking notice, a being present. One might say that the endpoint-which-is-not-an-endpoint of writing is a kind of embodiment: a moving with the world (rather than a taking leave of the world through abstraction, anxiety, fear, ego, and the like). Oh, when in that groove, the words stream, the ideas stretch, my mind and loins and gut all working as a little engine with language and the weight and contours of ideas and sensations to forge....this.

But doesn't writing inherently have an audience in a way yoga does not? Well, that depends on how you look at it. For me, writing is personal. I'd write with or without publishing it as writing is the act, is the making sense, is the stretch: is the embodiment. But, that aside, yoga has an audience, too. When you're moving your energy about, flexing your ass with your downward facing dog and such, you're writing on and with the body. Your flesh, as well as your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is your screen. You are the page, the words, the ideas, the affect, the flow: you are the essay.

Like yoga, writing has a grammar (nifty move there, eh?). Yoga has poses and movements between poses, a vocabulary and a grammar that turns around hips, breath, spine, neck, balance (not knowing much, I'll stop there). What are the poses in writing? As in yoga, there are thousands if not infinite: there are as many poses as there are writing bodies.

For instance, there is the circle: tying the beginning into the end. I use this pose often. In my last post, for instance, I begin with the pleasure of distinction and end with a call to more distinctions. That's a shape, like child's pose, in which there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of give (oy! "give" as a noun is downright fantastic!).

There's the related tangent which, if you think about it, is a sideways stretch. For example, above, I talked about surfing while talking about yoga. 

The non-sequitur — that is, talking about something completely unrelated — is under appreciated as schools systematically beat it out of us. What does this have to do with anything? they scribble madly in the margins (they was often I). But I've come to really like the understated cool of the band, Suicide. 


The failed attempt is a great performative pose. A friend of mine just sent me a great example of this. He was writing about his art, trying to explain it this way and that, but each effort came up short. So he shifts and addresses the nature of the coming up short. 

Alliteration and other forms of mouth filling are great go-tos (note the title of this meandering post. Oh! Meander! That's a great figure for the form of essays in general). While this is often what we imagine as being writerly, it is not something taught in composition classes: the way words fill the mouth, even when silently read. (When I taught comp, I had students read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" out loud in class. We'd go around the room, everyone taking a stanza — who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York/ who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls....)I fear if I did that today, I'd be fired, sued, and molested on social media). The written word, after all, is never totally silent. Such is the nature of a phonetic alphabet — the words slither from the page across your tongue and down your throat. Nabokov loved to fill the mouth, almost suffocating you with confection: 

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please! (From Ada). 

I could go on and on. The shift of address: suddenly address your reader directly. The reversal: take a claim everyone assumes and flip it — belief in god is...nihilism! There are so many prose poses. But none of that matters. The point is to move with. To  keep the flow flowing, feeling good and right or, perhaps, just flowing: if it gets too contrived, change positions. Start over. Shake it off. 

The point is not to think of writing as having a point. It's not about expressing an idea from my body to yours. Writing is a doing. It demands you being present.How does that feel? How about that? And that? It's all a stretch but the stretch is not the endpoint. The goal-which-is-not-a-goal is to feel with the world. It's to notice. To experience. To be embodied.

Oh, here's another amazing thing to realize about writing, a realization akin to what Kia taught me: there are no hard and fast rules. You can split infinitives, end in prepositions, not use sentences. Just ask yourself: How does it feel?

4.03.2017

On Kink and Perversion

I've always been a fan of the keen distinction. For instance, simple and easy. It's quite simple to stop smoking: you simply don't smoke. But that doesn't make it easy. I find such a sensual pleasure in feeling those words and ideas, which are so readily conflated, differentiated. A distinction makes many where there was once one. There's a great joy in such a will to distinguish, an affirmation of life in all its difference.

Here's another distinction that was introduced to me of late by a here-unnamed genius: kink and perversion. In public discourse, these words are bandied about — when they are in fact bandied about which, to be fair, may be more common in San Francisco than elsewhere —anyway, when casually referring to sexual proclivities, one may find oneself conflating kinky and pervy when, in fact, the two could not be more different.

Kink is territorial. It often has a space — a dungeon, a "doctor's office," a boudoir. Of course, this is not a requirement but it is of note that the world of kink often claims a territory, even if only temporarily. And once inside that space, there are all kinds of rules. Behavior is rigorously controlled. Of course, within those controls, there may be plenty of opportunity for exploration and expression. Still, the kink is defined by the fact that it has definition, both spatial and regulatory stipulation.

The non-kink world — let's call it the vanilla world — has space and rules, too. It has the bedroom and, sometimes, the couch. It has unstated rules of behavior: we'll kiss for a while, touch, lick, then do it. During the act, there may be flourishes of surprise — an ass spanked, a throat grabbed, a thigh bitten. But any serious deviation is not tolerated.

The difference between vanilla and kink, then, is not immediately obvious. But the way I see it, the distinction lies in the word kink itself: rather than a straight line, there is a coiled, spiraling, kinky line — more fusilli than spaghetti. Or what Lucretius refers to as clinamen, the curve in the flow of atoms. If vanilla finds the erotic within the blindness of established rules — there is nothing natural per se about vanilla or kink; they are both contrivances and both expressions of the erotic — kink finds the erotic in other places, in other ways, in other rules. (It is, without a doubt, more complex than this; I am less interested in the psychology of it than in the social and semantic distinctions.)

Perversion is something else entirely. Perversion operates without any territory. In the words of Michel de Certeau, perverts poach. They find their pleasure in the territory of others. The pervert is, in some sense, a rhetorician always seeking erotic kairos — or is it kairotic eros? — within the everyday.

Let's take a subway ride. It is a common space in which there are all kinds of  rules, legal and social. For example, we don't sit on someone else's lap (unless it's a parent and child or, sometimes, two lovers). In fact, we usually respect a certain distance between our fellow travelers. This space is not dictated by state law but it is surely dictated and different country to country, culture to culture. We all know these rules.

On this subway, on this common conveyance, we go about our way, dressed for work or galavanting or what have you. And there, on the subway, is our pervert. Let's make it a she just for the goof. Her eyes scan the car looking for that opportunity, a crack in the everyday edifice through which eros flows — a look in someone's eye, a smile, a sandaled foot, and then....an exposed knee. Gulp! Her eyes trace the knee, linger over the bend, drift over the calf, perhaps explore to see if there's a thigh.

There are, of course, such cracks all the time. The doctor's office, for instance: it's a strange place in which being naked in front of a near-stranger is not illegal or even frowned upon. It's even demanded! This is ripe territory for a pervert. Now take all the sandals and skirts, all the exposed shoulders, all the shorts and yoga pants, all the eyes and smiles and scents and suddenly the world brims with erotic possibility, cracks through which eros — a profound and relentless force — can flow.


What makes the pervert so reviled is she doesn't ask permission: she searches, she looks, she finds her pleasure in that social crack (as it were) all without asking. Kink is all about permission. Kink loves contracts and safe words: Chattanooga! and everything comes to a halt — the ball gag comes out, the whip relents, the electrodes stop flowing.

The pervert, however, never asks for permission. For some perverts, this not asking may very well be the source of erotic delight — a kind of rape, even if only with eyes. When we think of perversion, we think of the man in an overcoat, flashing unsuspecting people on the street or the subway. It's icky, for sure. But, ethical judgment aside, what defines perversion is an exploitation of a moment within the everyday without asking for permission.

But this doesn't mean all perverts are criminals or are even icky. After all, how else are we to meet each other, find pleasure in new people, if we didn't take advantage of those propitious moments of, and within, the erotic? We used to approach people in cafés and bars because we were attracted to them, because we felt the tug and pull of eros within the everyday. Is it perverse to note this then act on it? Of course not.

What distinguishes the pervert is that the tug and pull may very well be the limit of the play; she has no desire to ask out the knee. This, here and now, this gaze, the intersection of eye and knee, this play of energy, is itself the erotic moment. It's not foreplay; it's not an initiation. It is an act unto itself.

So let's imagine an ethical pervert, someone who finds the erotic within the everyday but doesn't want to be icky, doesn't want to be criminal, doesn't want to offend. She wants a kind of permission. But the very possibility of perversion is not having that permission. And so begins a complex negotiation of eyes and energies, a complex rhetorical reckoning within the delirious space of the erotic. Perhaps she lingers on that knee but when the person whose knee it is suddenly becomes uncomfortable, she turns her gaze — and her erotic energy — away. But maybe, just maybe, the knee enjoys that gaze. And maybe, just maybe, that knee begins to flirt back with those eyes and now there is an erotic transaction — silent, perhaps, but no less real, no less profound, no less erotic for it.

The ethical pervert has a hard time, for sure. The risks are enormous. There are legal risks — arrest and such — and then social risks: unspeakable humiliation. But perhaps the rewards are equally enormous. Perhaps riding eros flowing through the banal drift of everyday life is a delight worth the risk.

I, for one, have been known to be a social pervert (avec and sans eros). I like to disrupt the unspoken everyday order of things, usually out of boredom. For instance, when I step into an elevator, rather than turn my back and quietly regard the ascending or descending numbers, I face the crowd. It's so simple but it really throws people off. Which eases my own anxiety about being part of the herd. And maybe suggests, however slightly, that there are unspoken rules everywhere and we can break these rules.

For Marshall McLuhan, art is a kind of perversion that seeks to expose the terms of the environment — or what we might call the Matrix, all those invisible but insidious terms that define how we are to behave with each other and ourselves.

Perversion of a sort, then, is a revolutionary act precisely because it never asks for permission. Kink, meanwhile, tends towards the conservative in its will to rules. It may be way outside the everyday matrix but, to the pervert, it's just the new boss, same as the old boss. The pervert seeks to disrupt any terms, regardless of the rules. Of course, the flasher and frotteurist isn't a revolutionary. He's pretty icky. So maybe calling all of this perversion conflates too many unlike things. Perhaps we need more distinctions.