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.

9.23.2017

What It Is to Read Philosophy with Reference to Deleuze and Derrida (and others!)

 I've been publishing less of late. 
If you must know, you prying perverts, I'm in love and my attentions are elsewhere. Make of that what you will!

 
My bookshelves with a Nietzsche doll — a gift from students decades ago — and various tchotchkes from my kid. The point: philosophy lives amidst a life, always.


Philosophy is not trying to answer the same old big questions. It might or might not care about what's good, what's true, whether subjectivity impedes or allows for understanding, if suicide is freedom or fear. Philosophy is creative (see Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy? or my podcast on it, ahem). Philosophy creates a world, a more or less elaborate ecosystem of ideas, images, mechanisms, and words.

In this sense, a book of philosophy is like a novel or film: it creates a world and its ways. These worlds can be more or less fantastical, more or less familiar. But, as with all great films, it can be rough getting in as you're entering an alien world whose laws and beings you don't yet know. Some novels, like some books of philosophy, pull you in from the first sentence (A screaming comes across the sky (Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow); We are unknown to yourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason (Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals) only to toss and turn you once you're in. To read philosophy is not to find answers; it's to discover alien ways of going.

Surveying the field of philosophy, we don't find different answers to the same questions (although some philosophies overlap, of course; Derrida and Deleuze, for instance, both seek logics and behaviors of a world without a center; Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Deleuze all find repetition at the absent heart of things). We find all these worlds — Nietzsche's body and its will(s), Kant's structures of judgement, Kierkegaard's angsty will to self, Plato's irony, Wittgenstein's relentless uncertainty within his games. They're not trying to answer the same question as if the question already existed! Each creates its question and its answer.

These questions and answers come from someplace, though: they come from some image of the world, of how things go. Bergson says to read a philosophy is to have an intuition of what this guy — and it's usually a guy — is up to, what he saw. Once you see this image, the questions and answers begin to make sense. What was Descartes seeing when he isolated himself in a room with a ball of wax? What view of things had Nietzsche writing in those bombastic snippets? What universe did Plato inhabit so that he saw writing Socratic dialogues as a way to make sense of it? Bergson says the writings of a philosopher are all attempts to explain that first image they saw, that flash: This is what I see going on. No, let me try again. And again.

Philosophy doesn't offer answers. It offers images, moving images, akin to movies, a stream of images with conceptual and affective causalities and relations (in film, we call this plot). But unlike a movie, a philosophy is not driven by characters, a story, or even a mood. It's carried by an image of how things go.

As with films and literature, philosophy takes up other philosophy. They refer to each other, nudge each other on, poke at each other, share lines of interest or affect, indulge a common tangent before veering this way and that. It's a cosmic phenomenon, worlds colliding, colluding, orbiting, melding, gliding on by. This makes it possible, if often silly, to talk about movements. Sometimes, when I don't know what to say to certain people who ask about my degree, I say I studied a strain of European 20th century philosophy often referred to as "Postmodern." That's not entirely untrue. In fact, the way one talks about movements — their possibility, their inevitability, their impossibility — is in and of itself a way of going within a philosophy. But then I'm getting pedantic in a way that appeals to very few, if any, other than myself. Ahem. So Derrida and Deleuze are two philosophers who seem to address the same things — repetition, decentered worlds, readings texts as multiplicities. Both make prominent appearances in my dissertation; both continue to show up in my thinking, my words, my image of things. And yet, to me, they are so different it's odd to ever bring them together at all.

Anyway, when I read philosophy, I'm reading for that image, that flash of the world, that made this writer think and write this way, ask these questions, choose these points of focus, write in this tone. What, then, is Derrida's image of the world? Well, he sees structures — and structures that can't and won't hold up, despite their often creepy best efforts. And it's this moment, this moment of their collapse, that excites him. The raw is always cooked! The cooked is always raw! To have a structure means having a center and something outside the structure that can see the structure — so the very terms of the structure are the structure's unstructuring! There's a delight he finds in the a-ha! I caught you moment — a moment taken up with the resentful will of a million academics. But there's also a great, almost impish, joy he finds in the way things undo themselves. It's a comedy, not un-Hegelian, in which the world is always falling apart and finding itself in the same breath, a double gesture of slip and slide.

Derrida's image of the world is tight and impish, playful and pedantic.

The pleasure of Derrida, especially when I was 19, was that he sees this whole narrative of "Western metaphysics" and its will to suppress and marginalize. To perform his deconstruction seemed heroic, noble, important: we stand at the limits of repressive structures and undo them! (I even wore a black turtleneck: oy!).

Deleuze is up to something else entirely. He sees a different world. He doesn't see structures coming undone. He sees this flow and flux of lines of force and intensity all streaming through each other in this near-chaortc swirl of endless becoming. When I first read Deleuze, after the profound confusion, it felt like I'd seen his image of the world before: junior year of high school, sitting on Jeff Mayer's bedroom floor, both of us stoned out of our minds and listening to Jethro Tull's "Minstrel in the Gallery," the two of us explaining in harmony to the other the way the flute line at once lead and was lead by the syncopated morass that always teetered. All I saw as that record played were swirling lines, none in the center, and yet there was an order, a structure, that kept it all from becoming formless nonsense. And it's this image — this image of the great teem, this great flow and lines and vibrations — that motivates, propels, defines Deleuze and Guattari. 

I see Deleuze and Guattari seeing what Matthew Ritchie sees: swirls and lines.

So, yeah, sure: Deleuze and Derrida share a certain sense for the decentered. But they are worlds apart; they see and occupy different universes. Derrida, famously, lurks at the limits of things — the margins of philosophy, its footnotes, its slips of the tongue. Deleuze likes to dive on into the messy middle where he says things pick up speed and get interesting. For Derrida, there is a Western Metaphysical tradition that we must deconstruct. For Deleuze, there're just shapes in motion, flows and fluxes, metaphysical or not. He finds other histories of philosophy, ones that speak dialects of his alien tongue — minor languages, if you will: Leibniz, Duns Scotus, Nietzsche, Foucault.

Deleuze explores and proffers different logics of cosmic constitution. Birds, oceans, Kant, Kafka: all these different ways of going are flows within the great teem. Can you imagine Derrida writing about bird songs? Why not? Because they never even show up in his image of the world.

9.05.2017

Derrida, Proximity to Presence, and the Joy of Vertigo (with reference to Deleuze)


Arkady Plotnitsky who taught me Derrida in Philadelphia in 1989.
When I was in college, I took a class on Derrida taught by the impeccably named, Arkady Plotnitsky (I couldn't make that up; his whole shtick was pitch perfect for teaching Derrida in 1989, a parody without an original). It seems that Platonism, as well as the rest of "Western Metaphysics," is premised on a proximity to presence (one of those great phrases that has remained with me lo these many years), a primal or final place which we are closer to or farther from. Plato posits an ideal Form of, say, woman. There are then different concepts of women derived from this Form; this is followed by actual women; then sculptures and pictures of women; then the word, woman. Each thing is another step removed from that Form of Woman that is eternal, that predates any instantiation of any particular woman, a Form that is and has been forever outside the fray of time, unmarred and pristine.

My silly illustration of a parody of Platonism.
As we move to the right — from concept to person to image to word — we move farther away from the Form.

Derrida finds this proximity to presence everywhere he looks, notably, in Claude Lévi-Strauss' distinction between the raw and the cooked. Raw is natural, we imagine. It's literally primal. The cooked, meanwhile, is the stuff of man, of time, of culture, putting us at a remove from the natural order of things. This "raw man" didn't yet have language; then words came along, cooking us, as it were, moving us closer or farther from that raw state.

If you think about it for a moment, you'll see the many ways in which we like to imagine Man as a creature who was pure (for better or worse) and has become removed from the natural way of things. All this cooking, all these words, all these gadgets! Of course, we might see it a progress. We can cure diseases now! And have food that is super yummy! But whether we see it as progress or regress, we still  think of the movement from ape-man to whatever we are now as a movement towards or away from some kind of there — a fixed point, a presence.

Derrida argues that the distinction between the raw and cooked breaks down as does the distinction between man without language and man with language (for those of you who care, breaking down this distinction is what Derrida calls deconstruction, a word that is widely used in a variety of forms, all and none of which are right. I offer Derrida's definition here not as the definitive one but as a point of interest. Which is all there ever are: points of interest without a fixed original or true). All food is somehow prepared, somehow cooked. What is more contrived — what is less natural — than today's obsession with raw food? Just as  there is no such thing as raw per se, there was no time without language, no time without writing. As Derrida argues, a road is a writing on the land. We are always already writing, always already in language, always already cooking.

And yet we cling to this notion of a proximity to presence. It even creeps into our mindful practice: I am getting closer to being mindful, I tell myself, as if there were a final state of mindfulness. Even when meditating, I'll tell myself: Oh, I was there for a moment but then it slipped away. Damn! As if there was a spatial difference between meditating like this or meditating like that. As if there were somewhere to be going! As if it could be measured!

Proximity to presence is fundamentally spatial thinking. In order for us to be closer or farther from something, we need to measure the distance. And if that there there — the origin, the goal, the ideal state is moving then our distance from it becomes unclear and we are unable to assess. So we fix it in place and make ourselves move while the universe remains still. In this scenario, we are actors on the stage of the universe rather than us actually being part of the universe and rather than the universe being an actor alongside us.

But it seems to me the Big Bang was not a primal event. There was not stillness and then, Bang!, everything started moving. Rather, the universe was always already big banging, everything going this way and that, ricocheting, colliding, colluding, melding, passing in the night. All these rocks and gasses and emotions and glances: they are hurtling through space at different rhythms and rates. There's nowhere to go and nowhere we're coming from; it's all just going, relentless change, movement from the get go. Isn't this what yoga and meditation teach us — that we're already there? That there is no path, nothing to search for?

Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I picture the universe.

Every time I realize this — that there is neither an origin nor a destination, that it's all just movement this way and that, not quite a free fall as gravity is only one force among many — every time I realize in my cells that all is flux (are my cells a kind of presence I can be closer to? What about DNA? I see DNA as just another form of tea leaf reading; what do you think? What do you picture? Is my DNA closer to being me? Are my cells? Or my laugh, my smile, my douchebaggery?) — every time I let go of all my there theres, I experience a resonant rush, a vertigo of delight, and I love it.

When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed at night and picture the infinity of space. My mind would hurtle out of the house, through the sky, past the clouds and atmosphere, past the moon, the stars, and the sun and keep going and going until I reached an orgasmic state of release, my skinny little body shuddering as I sensed the infinitude of it all. I loved this feeling, craved this feeling, sought it out.

Presence functions as kind of internal — as well as external — fascist. We hold ourselves up to an internal standard, some true self, and then assess, judge, berate ourselves for not being there, not being that, for not being mindful. Think about how hilarious that is! To berate yourself for not being mindful!!! To be mindful is to be present to whatever is happening. The moment you're assessing whether you're being mindful or not, you're not being mindful. Which is ok, too! It's all ok because there is nothing else! There's just all this! (This is it, says Alan Watts, and I believe him.)


Imagine all the yous without any one being real. They're all just you. It's not that each is discontinuous; it's that each you is what Deleuze would call a repetition — a repetition without an original.  Everything is a version without an original — a cover of a cover of a cover of a cover. There's no closer to or fatrher from; you are where you are, always and necessarily. You are versions all the way down (and up and sideways and along every possible axis). And it's beautiful.

8.30.2017

The Bare Essentials for My Political Participation



I shy away from discussing politics. Discourse is so predetermined, so overdetermined, that I find it impossible to say what I think. There's no way into the conversation except along prefigured words and ideas. So the moment words leave my mouth, I am already slotted into this position or that. Besides this being at once horrifying and exhausting, it usually gets me into trouble. People get really angry very quickly about these things! It's an unpleasant experience. 

(I'll never understand how people let the media — that is to say, politics as well as, say, sports — infiltrate their most private selves. It seems to me that I can care about other people but not harbor angst and dread about them as I go to sleep. But maybe that's because I enjoy angst and dread of another sort as I go to sleep — and all we want, in our weakness, is a bit of angst and dread to make us feel like we're alive. Which is ironic as those are the very things that kill us. Anyway, angst about Trump or angst about the infinite drift of the cosmos is still just angst. Angst is angst is angst.)

My usual response when I find myself hurled into what we call a political discussion — a mercifully rare experience thanks to my careful curation of my life — is to casually bow out (much as I casually split my infinitives). Oh, I don't know anything about these things, I coyly offer. Well, this has not worked for me. It makes people suspicious and angry. Oy vey! Even silence is predetermined — as apathy, I suppose. At least I assume that's why people get so angry at me: they think I'm oblivious and entitled (which I may very well be but that's not what propels my silence).

So why am I so averse to what we call the political? Well, I have complex feelings about government and the nature and mechanics of power (I believe Foucault: power says yes more than it says no, creating selves, not just restricting action; as for the government, I lean towards socialism but am so suspicious of the armed corporate state that I am also an anarchist).

But, in any case, I do have opinions about how the state might function more or less in its present state. Which is to say, I do have what we call "political" opinions. But I cannot, and will not, participate in a political system that is so explicitly, determinedly, obscenely corrupt. WS Burroughs said that the political is the matador's red cape: it flashes and we charge into nothing. I share this belief.

In order for me to participate in the political, this is what I'd have to see. Without these things, the whole process is a charade meant to make us feel like we are doing something when, in fact, we are ushering in our own enslavement and demise. This, then, is my initial list of things I'd have to see to consider political participation.

  • The end of all financial contributions to political campaigns. This seems so obvious. Why should I — and why would I — be forced to choose between candidates who've been bought by different interests? That's completely insane. And such an easy thing to eliminate. Just end it by saying: everyone running for any office has equal access to, say, the same web site and video conferencing service. Every candidate has access to the same amount of funds. There are no lobbyists who can contribute or withhold campaign financing. This is so obvious it seems weird that I have to say it. Campaign financing is not a First Amendment issue; that is a red herring — or a matador's red flag, as the case may be. It is flat out corruption and I refuse to participate in a system in which the candidates are bought and sold. The ripple effect on governing is exponential. See below.

  • An assumption that a dramatic reduction in military spending is open for discussion. Where are the candidates who say: Holy fuck! This is insane! I'll cut out military budget 75% and put the money to...whatever they think is most important: elections without corruption, schools, infrastructure and jobs, lower taxes, medical care for all, public art? Isn't this is the stuff of politic? Why don't they do this, you wonder? See above.

  • A suggestion that incorporation is a privilege, not a right. A corporation is a legal and tax entity meant to expedite transactions. Corporations are not guaranteed by the Constitution. So why have I never heard a candidate suggest that with the privilege of incorporation comes certain obligations — a unionized workforce and/or mandatory profit sharing? See campaign financing above.

  • Someone in the political arena suggesting a limit to the work week with mandatory overtime. Or, in other words, some discussion of creating structures — legal and practical — for labor's unionization that are akin to the corporation in their ability to centralize labor negotiation (such as tax deductions for union dues).

  • On a related note, I'd love people to make the distinction between a march and protest — two things that may or may not overlap. A protest disrupts the flow of business — traffic, capital, information. A march is a bunch of people getting together to feel better. (I was reading Nathan Heller's article in "The New Yorker" and he never really makes this distinction, even if he keeps poking at it indirectly.)

  • Of course, I'd love to see political discourse that is not mired in predetermined camps based on this or that reading of Marx. But that's for another discussion. (It seems to me that the 20-somethings I see slog to work on Google buses every day are as exploited and soul murdered as industrial workers of the early 20th century.)

I welcome critique and contributions as I will wholly and unabashedly admit that I know very little about such things. Of course, no one really cares about or wants my political participation. Anyway, with that, I tentatively hit publish.

8.20.2017

A Worthy Witness

The pool and deck at Sierra Hot Springs.
The other night, I'm at the Sierra Hot Springs with my sweetie. It's Saturday night; I've only been to the springs twice and this was my first Saturday there. We were in the main pool which sits on a deck overlooking this incredible valley floor. Only it's at night. So we can't see the valley of cows and grass. But we can see the sky. The moon is quiet, yet to rise, making the sky teem with stars. The pool is, for me, shockingly full of people: a wet, naked cocktail party. And everyone is standing at one edge, staring up at the sky. There was a low hum of naked party banter punctuated every few minutes by collective gasps. Oh! Ahhhhhh! Wowwwww! There were shooting stars, it seems. (We positioned ourselves away from the crowd, choosing to float and cuddle under the pool's canopy, muting the explosive sky.)

What happens in this collective experience? Why do we — and why would or wouldn't we — turn to others when experiencing something poignant such as a meteor, the Grand Canyon, a car crash? Why do we want or seek a witness — or, in my case, neither want nor seek a witness?

Few things are as disheartening as a photograph of a shooting star. Still.
I remember the first shooting star I saw. It was the first time I took LSD and I was lying on my back with two friends in a field in my home town in Westchester, NY. Holy moly, the sky was awesome, this great labyrinth of light and shadow. And then: wooosh! My heart jumped. My whole body jumped. That was over 30 years ago and I can still feel that sensation resonating through me, teaching me the power of the universe, giving me a taste of my non-I, my becoming rather than my ego.

I don't remember sharing that experience with my cohorts, verbally or otherwise. I know they were there; I liked having them there. But the experience excluded them, the event summoning me and me alone: Behold! the universe commanded. In one fell swoop, I knew the movement of the cosmos, its big banging, its flair and flare, it explosive accelerations (most things in the sky appear stationary; clouds and meteors give us a glimpse of cosmic power, cosmic flux).

What do we want from the one sitting next to us? Well, confirmation: Did that unusual, intense thing actually happen? But that confirmation can be more existentially profound: not only did that just happen but am I still here? In a world in which something like that happens — the sublimity of a shooting star — am I still me? This mode of witness is fundamentally ethical; it seeks to bond human beings in a society. We are here together.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite beautiful, a calming salve for existential angst, a way to stand amidst the tumult. But when I experience something that resonates deeply, that takes me out of myself, I often don't want to be brought back to myself, at least not right away. I want to be stretched.

There is another look we can give each other, another mode of witnessing sublimity together. The universe declares itself with a certain virtuosity — a rock hurls through our atmosphere traveling eons and epochs at nonsensical speeds — and it rings out, sends a ripple, a Doppler of affect taking up all willing participants in its wake.

And suddenly I too am hurling through the atmosphere, burning and screeching with that space rock. I turn to you and together we say Yeah — not as confirmation of the known, not as a way of bringing each other back into the fold, but as the universe seeing itself, creating a conductive circuit, letting the wave flow between us, each of us edging it on as we flow with it. Yes, we look at each other seeking acknowledgement — You see that, right? — but this is not an ethical acknowledgement, not a social agreement: it's a cosmic acknowledgement. We are not agreeing to go back to the norm; we are edging each other on into the great teem of life. It is a downright giddy experience.

In that mutual nod, in that one look, we create a circuit that flows through us. We all know this experience of looking someone in the eye — a stranger on the subway or in a bar that hints at imminent violence or sex. This is a living circuit of energy we can open up or close down, the universe mining itself for energetic flows. Usually, we close it down, look away, look down, look anywhere but at that stranger. The force is too much, threatening the social order and our egos with sudden blows of love or hate or both.

But at that moment when a screaming comes across the sky, when that meteor tears through the atmosphere in a billowing wave of intensity, we are that billowing. We go with it, not as witnesses but as so much cosmic stuff. Such is what it is to see. Vision is a taking in, a taking up, a metabolic function. When we look each other in the eye and holler as it's happening, we are not just two people watching a shooting star as if the sky were a stage and we were its audience. No, as elements in the universe moving along with everything else — with sun and moon and stars and light and whales and wind — we become a productive propellant, a live circuit that amplifies the energy, like looking into your lover's eyes as you come.

These two modes of seeing together — the ethical and the cosmic — are not always distinguishable from the outside. Or even from each other: a look, a witnessing, is multiple. And, no doubt, there are many other modes of seeing together, of bearing witness. I imagine an elaborate litany of such gazes (including the phallic and Bracha Ettinger's matrixial).

In case it's not obvious, the idea of a witness is new to me so excuse my flailing about. I'm still feeling my way through as I write this. Because the fact is I always felt any remnant of the social impeded my revelations, my becoming — all those obligations, judgements, prejudices seeing me in a box before I've even had a chance to express myself (we are hailed, as Althusser says, before we're even born). And so I imagined I had to be alone or with the clouds to be wisely, intensely, passionately at peace with the universe — Kierkegaard's Abraham on Mt. Moriah, alone with his faith (well, except for Isaac who was probably freaking out), infinitely far from the social. Or Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air too cold for most people's lungs. Indeed, all my great moments of revelation have been alone, even if others were around me. How could it be otherwise? Wisdom — Kierkegaard's faith, Nietzsche's self overcoming, Buddhist transcendence — is an internal movement. Something shifts inside me. So why a witness?

And then something happened to me this past Fall, an intense internal movement as I found my ego scaffolding collapsing quickly and violently. What once worked for me to get me up and out — a concoction of ideas, words, meds, gin, and shtick — no longer sufficed. I was in a glorious, if painful, free fall. Yet all I had to do was wipe the tears from my eyes and no one knew what was happening to me. I was disintegrating incognito. Or, rather, my scaffolding was disintegrating as I was reconstituting myself. It was a violent and necessary internal movement.

What astonished Kierkegaard about Abraham, among other things, is that Abraham could return to his life, to his wife and community, after his experience on Mt. Moriah — and no one was ever the wiser. The knight of faith, Kierkegaard tells us, is incognito just as Jesus was incognito: the son of god, which we all are, runs errands like everybody else. There's no glow, no halo, to declare him. With every step, he walks into the infinite and back, beyond the ethical and back. (See Fear and Trembling, as funny and delightful as it is poignant and sharp.) And so I imagined that this call to faith, all done incognito and beyond the pale of the social, meant I had to reckon this alone.

But this internal movement that blew through me did not leave me alone. On the contrary, it repositioned me in such a way as to welcome, or even demand, a witness. I suddenly saw that, alone, I could not ascend that mountain. I could not make that infinite leap of faith. At times, for sure, I knew great peace and certainly even greater pleasure when alone. And no doubt my revelations were and would remain solitary affairs. But, solo, I can't summon the energy to take me up and out and beyond myself. Maybe this movement was just me being lonely, a social desire for others. But this internal movement was greater than a sense of loneliness, more than a middle aged curmudgeon forced to reap what he's sown (although it was that, too). This opening to a witness had an ontological weight, a whiff of necessity. Or perhaps another way to see it is as a matter of physics: I simply need the energy from the gaze of another to move me along.

When I was a young teen, I used to lie in bed and try to come without touching myself. Oh, I'd get so close, my whole body straining, twitching, every cell at the brink. But I could never do it. In order to come, in order for that little death and rebirth, that temporary disintegration of ego that is orgasm, I needed touch. Sure, it was by my own hand. But the point here is that the internal movement alone did not and could not suffice to carry me along, to move me past my ego and into the great cosmic seethe. I needed a nudge.

So now I not only welcome a witness to my own becoming but see this witness as necessary. Practically speaking, I need those eyes to invite me to taste the world outside of my all too comfortable zone of smart guy-Jew-drinker and then take me farther, take me further, to propel me into fearless bliss. My ego can't seem to disintegrate on its own. It needs the force of another, a force that comes from being witnessed.

Which is why not any witness will do. My witness is not the traditional witness; it is not a call to the ethical I primarily seek, even if I do enjoy a lovely, loving companion. No, it is that productive circuit, a witness outside the fray, capable of fomenting the frenzy, willing and able to see and be seen without the all-too-human encumbrances of reason, ethics, and ego, someone who can stand there naked with me naked and not turn away, not become shy or, worse, coy: a witness who can see what I'm offering, what I'm doing, how I'm going as I scream through the atmosphere.

We usually have a friend or two who can play this role. But friendship is often tempered by a beautiful letting be, especially as we get older. Ah, he's all right, we say and get back to our business. Family is of course mired in the ethical, constantly calling us back to the very thing we're trying to shed — our selves. A therapist could be a way to go but, alas, the therapeutic industry is run and dictated by the worst impulses — a return to work, to ego, to the basest bourgeois institutions and, of course, meds. (I found one, however, who makes no claim to being a therapist, not anymore. But he's a rare find, perhaps the only one.)

A lover is an ideal witness, someone who actually loves you so is open and wants the best for you without ego, someone who's around a lot, and someone you fuck so you can visit that place beyond the pale together and often. Alas, most relationships do anything and everything but bear witness. They judge and block as two people try to keep each other tethered within the other's petty grasp. We all know this all too well.

A worthy witness, for sure.
But sometimes a witness comes along who can look at you with a gaze that doesn't seek to own, that doesn't seek to master or even know you with a probing interrogation (isn't this the horror of dating and jealousy — that look across the table that doesn't open up but judges and shuts down?). A witness who looks at you with the eyes of the cosmos itself, the world streaming through her, with her, as her, a look with the vital surge and seethe of life itself, open and generous and abundant, at once indifferent and passionately engaged, a witness who in turn knows how to be witnessed, who invites you to see her just as she sees you.

This is the only way the circuit can be created, a circuit capable of summoning the non-I: a mutual gaze that forges a propellant with a look that doesn't judge but that doesn't let me be, either: a look that edges me on, whether I'm standing naked before a meteor shower, before myself, or before her. It's all cosmic surging asking for a worthy witness.

8.15.2017

Favorites, Or Relative Absolutes



At any given time, I will pronounce — inevitably, with a certain emphatic umph — this or that film to be my favorite. Life Aquatic is my favorite, the greatest American film of all time! Moments, days, weeks later: PTA's Inherent Vice is my favorite, perhaps the greatest American film. And then, at any given juncture later, Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels is my favorite film of all time — it changed everything for me. And on it goes: Inland Empire, In Praise of Love, The Big Lebowski, Faces have all, at some point, been singled out as my favorite film of all time.

Other people often find this frustrating. But you said Band à  part was your favorite movie they challenge me as if they've caught me in a lie. Which always throws me off a bit. What's wrong with having multiple or even shifting favorites?

Well, favorite is presumably an absolute. Every time I offer a different favorite film, it must mean that either a) I've changed my mind — in which case I'm fickle; or b) I am insincere and that which I say is my favorite is, in fact, not. In either case, I am not to be trusted.

What confuses them is that I seem so sincere, so sure, so reasoned and impassioned in my declaration. How, then, do they reconcile these two things — my lack of trustworthiness and my apparent sincerity?

I've finally understood that this is particularly difficult for women with whom I share intimacy, women to whom I seem present and loving, women to whom I declare my love (well, the woman to whom I declare my love). I say Godard is the greatest filmmaker, then Tarantino is the greatest filmmaker, then Wong Kar Wai, then David Lynch, then Cassavetes, then Marc Lafia, then Bunuel....and she's left wondering: Oh, hmn, maybe he tells many women that she's his favorite! 

The thing is, for me, absolutes are relative. Yes, that seems contradictory: an absolute is an absolute, fixed and sure, sitting steadfast on the ground, never budging. But when I look around, when I experience my world, I don't really see or feel or know a ground. I experience a world that is in motion all the way through, always and already.  As Bergson says, time (which is to say, motion) is not added to things; it is constitutive of them. Everything in the world, from the sub-atomic to the astronomically large, is not just changing but everything is shifting relations with everything else, a relentless reorienting of everything. Significance and meaning are not fixed; they're relational. As relations shift, so does significance and meaning. Of course. How could it be otherwise?

This is why Derrida liked crossing out the verb "to be." After all, if everything is always changing, how can anyone ever say something is anything? This seems particularly true of taste. If forced for some insane reason to declare my favorite food, I'd say steamed pork dumplings. But does that mean I always want dumplings? Of course not. My body desires different things at different times. I've eaten chicken salad sandwiches which were the greatest thing I'd ever eaten: my new favorite thing! Or a flourless chocolate cake! Oh, no, chocolate mousse with a shot of espresso over it from the old Ti Couz on San Francisco's 16th Street. 

Reading what I just wrote, I sure sound fickle. And a women to whom I declared my undying love would certainly be justified in doubting my sincerity. If my favorites change as my body changes and my body is always changing, then it follows that I must change my favorite woman just as I change my favorite food.

But, for me, a favorite is something that saturates me. It is absolute in that it is at a limit of me: it permeates, thoroughly, even exhaustively. When I say Life Aquatic is my favorite film and then Chunking Express is my favorite film, both claims are absolute — but from my perspective of each. Or, rather, from the perspective of our mutual encounter. When I declare something a favorite, it's because that thing has run all the way through me, extended me, stretched me in some luscious and surprising way. For that's my favorite film to leave my mouth, it means an exquisite event has transpired: I've tasted the infinite — but not any ol' infinite, this infinite: the infinity of Life Aquatic, the infinity of Band à part, the infinity of Chungking Express. I have resonated through the cosmos with those films; they've inflected my becoming all the way and in just that way, the way particular to them. These films resonate just so with these vibratory strands that I am creating a kind of harmonic convergence, an orgasmic détente in which I cry "Yes! This is my favorite!" How could only one of those be my favorite as each carries me all the way through the heavens and beyond?

Calling something my favorite is different than saying I like pumpkin seeds. Sure, I like pumpkin seeds. But I'm not going to say pumpkin seeds are my favorite food. No, to say something is my favorite, it has to give me a taste of the infinite, extend me and my trajectory in a new trajectory.

There is no best painting ever. That's ridiculous. But it's not because taste is subjective; it's because each painting redefines art! Recreates art! There is no center of things precisely because everything is moving, all at different speeds and rhythms. Or else everything is the center! We can begin anywhere and find our way to the infinite. Every asana is yoga; no one pose promises closer proximity to enlightenment. In a world in motion, there is no center. Or there are infinite centers. In either case, there are no fixed points and there are absolutes. Isn't that amazing?!?

In "The Solar Anus," (yes, that's the title, perhaps my favorite title of all time), George Bataille writes, Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things. / And if the origin of things is not like the ground of the planet that seems to be the base, but like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle.

For me, there is a world in which I live in which Life Aquatic is my favorite film, a world in which that is the center, the apogee, the ground. There is also a world in which Band à part is my favorite film, a world in which I see everything through its lens, as it were. I live in both these worlds and more, in a world in motion with a mobile center.

So does this mean I love all women — or many women — each from a different perspective? Perhaps. (Then again, the ethics of human love and the ethics of art love are different. But I think that's a tangent I won't explore now.) Sure, I can imagine a world of worlds in which each woman is the love of my life, each woman offering and extending a different me, a different infinite trajectory. But only certain women, like certain art, resonate with my skinny hebe self. This resonance happens quite rarely for me. In fact, it happens so rarely that I can say it only happens with one woman.