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.


The Beautiful, Awful Stink of Humanity: On Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight"

I started this essay after first seeing Moonlight, months ago. But I hesitated as the film left me wanting to remain silent, its overwhelming will to kindness hushing my own will to understand and articulate.

In John Cassavetes' Faces — an astounding, confounding film — plot and character disappear as we're left with this teem, this torrent, of affect. It's unsettling, to say the least. His characters are tornadoes more than they are people. And while Cassavetes is often associated with a certain human reality, that just doesn't seem right to me. Cassavetes gives us affect that runs through the human, undoing the human — real, sure, but not human. His people are drips of affect on celluloid canvas — intense and bold and careening. Faces is a Jackson Pollock.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight leads with affect, too. The plot is secondary to the affect of the film (perhaps that's an overstatement; let's say the plot, while essential, doesn't drive this film). But Moonlight is up to something very different than Faces. If Faces is affective but inhuman, Moonlight is so devastatingly, exquisitely, achingly human.

I use that word "human" cautiously and purposefully. I'm suspicious of it and, frankly, a bit repulsed by it. It's used as a generality that effaces the differences between me and you, the differences between cultures. I think of the famous "The Family of Man" photography show from when I was a kid (I had the book which held a certain weight for me on two counts. It had a photograph by my namesake, Dan Weiner, my mother's cousin who died in a plane crash before I was born. And the book had pictures of topless women, African if I remember correctly, which needless to say I found quite intriguing).  The suggestion is we're all human, aren't we? That we all have families and loves and poops so we're all united.

What's ironic is that using human in this way is dehumanizing. What makes the human interesting, what makes it a vital, living and breathing force is our differences. We live through our horrors and joys, bear and wear them this way and that.

I want something else from this word "human," then. I want a phenomenology that doesn't reduce us to either bodily functions (we all shit, eat, fuck) or bourgeois desires (family, love, a house). I want something that doesn't unite us per se but becomes a principle of our differentiation. (An example of such a principle is "do the right thing." It's always different, depending on circumstance and perspective. This is what I want from my use of the word human: a principle that fosters and proliferates difference.)

The affective teem of Faces makes sense to me. Cassavetes makes films in a world I understand — a decentered world, free of concepts. It's all a play of collisions and collusions, momentary conspiracies coupled with fray, decay, dissolution, madness. In many ways, this is how I've reckoned life: I participate in the transhuman affect of it all, the cosmic flow, the transcendent planes that run through this world. The human is often just too human for me. I've shunned it, choosing to participate as best I could on another plane. My best friends are clouds.

Moonlight gives us something else all together. The affect it proffers is distinctly human. It is the affect of childhood, of being so small and scared and confused and alone. It is cultural discourse and the expectations of what it means to be a man (or be anything, for that matter). It is the affect of memory, the way we live with the things that have happened to us. It is the gestures of regret and forgiveness. It is living this life with other people and just wanting someone to touch your face, to hold you, even if only for a moment. This is the beautiful, awful stink of humanity.

These are such wonderfully horrible aspects of living life as a human being. We live through these childhoods — all these different childhoods ripe with fear and loneliness— and bear these experiences. We are haunted, all of us, by memories and by expectations and desire. And we each make our way as we do.

I've tried to avoid so much of the human, flippantly dismissing the horrors and agony of my youth as I've attempted to surf cosmic planes, making light of romance and friendship, disdaining the social and its exhausting demands. But my past is part of me; my childhood is part of me. I may not be defined by all these memories but all these memories live in me, as me, with me. And here I am, a man in this world who longs to be desired, to love and be loved, to be held and touched. Despite my best efforts, I remain this all-too-human body, this frail and strong creature, this impossible amalgamation of forces and words, of desires and tics, of memories, dreams, and events, of skin and love.

And this is what Moonlight presents with such aplomb. But the genius of this film is that it never raises any of this to a generality. Yes, we all face the affect of childhood, its horrors and joys, but Little and Chiron's experiences are theirs. Yes, we all face the various cultural constructs and their insidious expectations — of gender, job, love, life — but Black's reckoning is his. He is located in his particularity even while we recognize the negotiation of all the factors that define his particularity — his race, class, his gender performativity, his mother, his school, his friends, the moisture of Miami.

What we all share, Jenkins tell us, is that we are an intersection of all these things. We are all particular assemblages. Our particularity isn't outside of this confluence of forces; we are this confluence and their point of inflection. The humanity here is that we all have a set of relations we negotiate and that this set of relations is always different and that we each negotiate it differently. In this way, the film at once gives us radical particularity and a certain strange generality — a generality that will never have been a generality.

And Jenkins makes one more radical move:  within this human teem, he proffers a breadth of ethical acts — forgiveness, bearing witness and, above all, kindness. Jenkins doesn't offer us a way out of the human; there is no transcendence here. What he gives us are these achingly exquisite human gestures — forgiving a mother, touching a man's face, holding him in your arms.

Barry Jenkins' humanity is the most generous humanity: it is made of infinite difference rather than unity or reduction. He doesn't suggest an underlying or overarching unity. He simply, incredibly, gives us the beautiful, awful stink of it all — and the all-too-rare and hence radical gesture of kindness.


The Creativity of Nihilism: On Tinder, Capitalism, & Fundamentalism

Tinder — like Amazon, Judeo-Christianity, and consumerist capitalism — doesn't create endless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, it is born of a will to distraction — distraction from life: in other words, nihilism.

A married friend of mine asked me the other night if I believed online dating made women more distracted, less inclined to commit, as they could just keep shopping for another man as they do on Amazon — the perpetual search for the best widget, the best toaster, the best man. I said no: the will to be distracted, to not commit, was not created by Tinder. Tinder was created by that will.

It is a will that winds and stretches across borders and time. It is a will to not be satisfied with what is. A will that looks anywhere but here, anywhere but at what's actually happening, believing the answer — contentment, fulfillment, happiness, the best toaster — lies elsewhere. Nietzsche called this nihilism.

For Nietzsche, it is this will that gave birth to Judeo-Christianity in what he terms the slave revolt. This will is so self-loathing, so afraid of this world, that it claims that what's happening — the things you see, experience, touch, feel — is not what matters. What matters is what you don't see: the doer behind the deed. They created a truth separate from the world! Reality, they say, is a lie. Truth is not here. Truth is not what happens. Truth is elsewhere. Go find it.

This becomes religion, morality, No-saying, ego: bending the will to meet an ideal from on high, an ideal outside of life, outside of what's actually happening.

Over time, this will morphs into something else: consumerism. We hate reality so much, we hate ourselves, feel so empty, we don't look to God. We look to Amazon and Tinder. The answer is not what's in front of you. The answer is out there, somewhere in the great catalog of stuff, in a better pair of shoes, in the perfect table, place setting, rug, pants, job, apartment, spouse. I have to keep searching, keep swiping. Why? I tell myself it's because I haven't found the right man. But the fact is: I will never be content because I do not accept myself. Because I hate myself. Because I hate life. 

The defining trait of both morality and consumerism is perpetual discontent. They are born of a will to nothing, to nihilism. Amazon and Tinder and religion don't create self-loathing. It's the other way around: self-loathing created Amazon and Tinder and religion. The will to nothing is endlessly creative. It created religion and morality; it created the ego and the self; it created the suicide bomber; it created Tinder and Amazon.

Capitalism, then, is not a cause of consumerism — or of anything, for that matter. To call it a cause is misleading, a misdiagnosis that only perpetuates the disease. No, capitalism is not a system that causes things. It is a form, an expression, of a will to nothing. It's a form of nihilism born millennia ago (or earlier; perhaps it's as eternal as the God they claim exists).

Capitalism is not a system. It is the expression of a will. To eliminate it, therefore, is not to vote for someone different, not to explode a factory (even if both those things offer relief from the symptoms). To eliminate capitalism one must eliminate nihilism.

One of the more absurd components of the modern geopolitical landscape is that the most ardent enemies of capitalism are nihilists themselves: religious fundamentalists who hate life so much they blow themselves, and everyone around them, up. Consumerism and fundamentalism are born of the same will.

We distract ourselves in any number of ways — anything to avoid what's actually happening right in front of us. So we tether our very identity to what we call politics; we feel anger and outrage at this or that. Which is not in and of itself a bad thing. After all, how can one not feel rage over the casual and systemic cruelty of American governance? But to bring that rage and anxiety into oneself, into one's dreams, into one's home; to avoid being self-present; to avoid being a good wife or husband or friend or even citizen (we all know asshole activists, people who speak for respect while being a huge douche to everyone around them): this is not trying to help others. This is avoiding life. This is nihilism.

(Please, I beg of you, do not think I am against 'activism' as I accept the horrors of reality with a beatific smile of White Man Privilege on my face. On the contrary, wanting to help others is beautiful. It is what happens when you look at what's happening and love life: you want to help. And part of that help might very well involve placing explosives on an oil pipeline or disrupting traffic for weeks and the like. I want to locate political activism in a will other than nihilism. But that's for another essay.)

We avoid and deflect life in all kinds of ways — with sports, news, jobs, drugs (from booze and dope to Ativan and Paxil). Rather than feel the cosmos surge through me, I weep and scream because the 49ers suck or my boss hates me or some racist fascist was elected. Rather than feel great joy in the fact of life, in the everyday, I feel sorry for myself, unfulfilled, angry, and anxious — so spend my time mining Tinder and OKCupid or job boards or online sales. Anything, in other words, to not only distract me from myself but to justify my distraction. My team lost! Trump is awful! My job is hard! I can't find the right man! Isn't my life hard? Of course I feel terrible! Now gimme a drink! Gimme my meds!

Nihilism is insidious. It reads this and say: Fuck you, Coffeen, I can't find the right man! I need to keep looking. And to that there is nothing I can say if that is what you believe; an infinite gap, a différend, separates us. So I'll  say this: the other person cannot possibly be the answer in and of him or herself. It's a relationship, after all! This means you — you who are swiping and swiping — need to do something. Commitment doesn't come from someone else. It can only come from one place: from you, from an internal movement, a leap into the unknown here and now, as you face the otherness of your partner rather than search for a better one (I wrote an essay about this a few years ago: Why It Doesn't Really Matter Who You Love (I don't care, in most cases, for "whom").)

Of course, there are aspects of religion, Tinder, and Amazon that are fantastic. The will to nothing is creative and I've enjoyed many of its spoils. I've met incredible women on Tinder — not to mention gotten laid. I just ordered a new chair for my desk from Amazon, saving me the hassle and humiliation of going to Office Depot. And I love reading the Gospels: Jesus is awesome (he's being nailed to a cross and, other than a moment of despair, is so chill he forgives his executioners — as they're killing him!). But, more than anything else, this will to nothing creates elaborate structures of perpetual misery.


The Will to Boring

Growing up, there was this refrain in my house: Would you rather live in a world filled with interesting people? Or good people? I was young so I'd stop to consider it. But, in my family, there was nothing to consider. The answer was preordained, the question a ruse — rhetorical in the colloquial sense. Interesting, of course.

In my house, interesting prevailed over all. Each of my parents — an absentee father, a step-father, a mother — have PhDs. My brother was reading Sartre in middle school and holding forth with emphatic despair over the dinner table. Mind you, this was no Algonquin Round Table. It was the usual familial hell of discussions, fighting, and yelling — not about Trostky vs. Stalin but about whether the boys were laughing too hard. But amidst that all, the conversation was driven by an interesting article in the New Yorker, a clever take on something, a political insight (which, I see now, was all New York Times liberal drivel — which is to say, not insightful at all. But it passed as such).

As the youngest by several years, I usually just sat quiet. I liked sports. I loved the Yankees and I liked gym class. For this, I was mocked on a near nightly basis. My only memory of early accolades was one night when we had ordered Chinese take out. I suddenly offered to the room, "I know why they call it Mu Shu pork: it's all this mush with pork." They laughed and I was patted on the head for being clever. I was probably 6 at the time and even I knew that it wasn't so clever. But I learned that that's what this clan of babbling, educated beasts wanted. That's how I'd succeed here. That's how I'd survive: being clever.

Forty years later and a life of being clever, a life of being interesting, has nearly killed me. To be interesting is demanding! It consumes tremendous energy, exhausting one's personal reserves, as it demands not only parsing the word in ever-fresh ways but having to negotiatethe rhetorical circumstances, the terms of the social. To be relentlessly interesting means throwing social agreements to the wayside. Never would I nod along with the group — "Yeah, that W!" or "Oh, that Trump!". Instead, I'd offer an alternate take on it all, inevitably with a hostile, judgmental bite. To be interesting is constantly to be on stage, to be evacuated of oneself — and, usually, an asshole.

This is not to disparage the interesting per se. I want my books to be interesting, my art to be interesting, my films to be interesting. What do I mean by that? I want them to be surprising, to make me think in ways I didn't know possible, to have me see the world anew. I don't want to be spoon fed the same old drivel; rarely, if ever, do I want to be confirmed. On the contrary, I want to be sent afloat, unmoored, put in freefall.

I want all that in order to infuse me with life, to vitalize me, energize me, have me feel the tug of the universe, the spin of the cosmos, the air wooshing by, my few remaining hairs tussling, as I fly untethered from my bourgeois moor.

But to be interesting in the social — that is, to perform the interesting — is a drain as it constantly runs up against the grain of the social. By definition, it rubs the wrong way (even if said rubbing can be immensely pleasurable!).  To constantly perform interesting means always being outside myself — thinking about what others think, how to disrupt it, shift it. It's a posture without poise; it leans too far forward (pace Lohren Green). And, alas, I've found myself flat on the floor, face front.

I've begun to summon a new ideal state. Rather than being the most interesting guy in the room (the more deluded I was — and am — the more the show gets amped up, perverse, ribald and the more exhausting it becomes) — so rather than being this jew clown, as I've dubbed that role, I want to be the most boring person in the room.

This is what I imagine: All these people sitting around a table and me, there, silent. I have no interest whatsoever in appealing to this crowd in any way — not because I don't care for them. Not because I don't love them. On the contrary, because I do love them. And because of this love, I can sit there utterly and completely content with no ambition or effort to be clever, smart, or provocative, no effort to be charming, sexy, good looking. That is, I offer nothing interesting per se — except myself.

Imagine this. Zero energy expenditure. Just sitting in the social without being evacuated in any sense, in any way, sitting utterly unto oneself. But not a solipsist, not closed off, not hunkered down. That would entail a reactive position and, as such, would demand an energy expenditure. It would still be a performance. No, what I am imagining is sitting silent, even if talking; sitting still, even if moving. Every gesture, every word, animated by the élan vital rather than by a sense of social duty, social anxiety, social ambition.

In recent days, I've become acutely aware of all the ways I — and I can say we as in all of us, for the most part — anticipate the social by distending, evacuating, and inflecting ourselves. Before meeting this or that friend, I adjust myself, I ramp myself up or down: I get in character.

And then I've begun to notice all the things I do to maintain this character rather than just drift along with the tides — the cocktails and such, kinds of comments on social media as well as in the social. Here's an obvious one: when people ask me what I do — that quintessential American query — ,I inevitably begin, "I used to teach. Now I do other things." Why? Because I hope that teaching will imply that I'm interesting. If I say I do brand strategy, well, to me that sounds less interesting. But the reality is: Who the hell cares? If I am putting any energy into whether people think I'm interesting or not, I am literally killing myself, emptying my reserves without any return.

So now I have a new will: a will not just to be boring but to be the most boring person in the world. Of course, I should probably qualify this. Because once freed from the teem and torrent of socio-existential obligations, once one is utterly and completely content with oneself without having to perform or judge, well, the boring vanishes. And is replaced with the perpetual surge and hum of life itself. Or at least that's the Nietzschean image of joy, the Taoist image of enlightenment, the Kierkegaardian image of faith. Nietzsche's ubermensch, the Buddha, the Knight of Faith: they are the most boring people in the room precisely because nothing is boring to them.

It's not easy to be boring. Distractions abound. The social whispers seductively, the promise of accolades, flirtation, even fellatio await. The cocktail bar is always locked and loaded, ready to take me somewhere that screams with excitement. To sit still and silent amidst all that, even while talking and moving, is at once the simplest and most difficult task of all.

So how would I answer that family refrain today: Would I choose the world of good people over the interesting? I'm not sure as good worries me. But I know this, at least, and it is a complete turnaround from when I was younger: today, without doubt, I'll take kind over clever.


The Limits of Understanding, pt 2

I can write all kinds of things about ecstatic experience. I can visit shamans, watch them dance, levitate, or whatever it is they do. I can go to raves and see people lose their proverbial shit as they get jiggy for hours on end, smiles as big as the sky across their faces. I can write about their postures, how experience makes them move, inflects the body — and vice-versa. I can reference Bataille and write about the excess that tears the bourgeois body, the bourgeois order, asunder. I can be a scholar of the ecstatic, lecture on it at length, publish books, probably even get tenured.

But does any of this mean I have ever experienced ecstasy?

I, for one, have found myself talking at great lengths about meditation. I've said things like, "Meditation is not about relaxing. It's about achieving a state of relaxed alertness, a posture of poise, leaning neither back nor forward, ready and accepting of all that comes while remaining still." I've even talked about the role of posture, how the way the body holds itself and is held in the world inflects the meditative practice, how posture affects and realizes poise.

But what is more hilarious, more absurd, than a man who understands meditation without ever doing it? I am that comical, absurd man. My first instinct is always to understand — and then to explain, often to the chagrin of those around me (which is, for the most part, just my son. Poor kid. He's had to  suffer through so many lengthy explanations about capitalism, the nature of power and bourgeois discourse, how the ecstatic can pervade the everyday if you allow it...and more!)

Ecstatic states and meditation both rigorously deny — and, in some sense, exclude — understanding. They are practices, actions, that begin where understanding leaves off. This is how Kierkegaard describes faith: "faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off." Which is why he says faith demands a leap: it demands an action — leaping, not understanding. Because Kierkegaard's faith — like ecstatic states and meditation — resists, eludes, and beguiles understanding. Where Kierkegaard uses the paradox to lead understanding to its limit, Buddhists use the koan. (I am not conflating Kierkegaard's Christian faith and Buddhism; I am just trying to show how various folks approach the limit of understanding.) There is an infinite chasm between understanding meditation and meditating.

What about understanding ideas? Sure, ecstatic states, meditation, and faith elude understanding. But what about Nietzsche's idea of ressentiment? Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome or plane of immanence (which Derrida says neither he nor anyone ever understood)? Or Merleau-Ponty's flesh?

Well, I have met many petty, resentful shitheads who quote Nietzsche. And I've met many, many who believe they have the definitive take on Deleuze and Guattari. This, alas, is the main reason I continue to distance myself from the academy. The most conservative people I met at UC Berkeley were professors known for their radical ideas. The madness was more than I could bear! (And more than they could bear, alas. It wasn't exactly like they wanted me there.)

Of course, there were some ideas I understood and was then done. Kant's categorical imperative comes to mind. It's interesting but hogwash to me. And Hegel's dialectic. I'm with Kierkegaard on Hegel: Hegel gives us an understanding that vigorously flushes out every corner of life, digesting it all in one (albeit a triad) gulp of comprehension — and never offers a living moment. But Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault and Kierkegaard: they threw down the gauntlet. They were never satisfied with understanding. They asked for nothing less than for their readers to be remade, recast, reoriented, reborn. They never wanted to be understood. In fact, they want you to do anything other than understand them!

I don't want to knock understanding. I love understanding! Give me anything, anything at all, and I'll do my darnedest to understand it. Car engines, distributed and masterless data schemas, Taoism, economic models, calculus, synthetic biology: I love understanding them — or at least trying to. My favorite part of how I make my living — I consult to companies, helping them understand (ha!) and articulate what they do — is the beginning of the process in which I have to understand their product, their business model, and the historical state of the market. I've ghost written white papers on best practices in workers' comp insurance.

All this understanding has at least two major effects on me. One, it just plain old gives me pleasure. There's a certain erotics as all this new information streams into me as I handle, assemble, and massage it just so into a moving shape in which all the parts flow productively together. It's a sensual, beautiful practice.

And understanding all these different things expands me and how I see the world. When I think or hear about any product, all my various understandings from all my various clients come into play. I begin to imagine their server architecture, their use of data, how they insure their workers, the role of their real estate holdings. Thanks to understanding, the way I see the world is much more complex, nuanced, rich than it otherwise would have been.

And no doubt this pleasure and this worldview are both kinds of practice. They have real, palpable effects on my body, my thinking, my life, my relationships in the social. Understanding is a kind of doing, absolutely.

But there are limits to what understanding can do. Understanding is a layer that runs through existence but by no means ever encapsulates existence. It can never throw its arms around the life, however hard it tries, however ardent its protestations to the contrary. Which may sound obvious but the problem with understanding is that it is often given this power — and often believes in its own power, as if understanding is enough. Picture traditional schools: students just sit while someone talks at them and then tests their understanding of math and spelling. But it all amounts to nothing, more or less, if these students have no practice of learning, of critique, of engagement.

Understanding can be a critical moment within the practice of self-transformation (or transforming into something other than a self: into a trans-self, a multiself, an unself, a post-self). For me, after I understand something, after I've assembled it into some kind of little machine, I like to test how it can and might flow with me, with my style, my metabolism, my digestion: my way of going. This is complex in that my way of going may very well be inflected in the process, find new ways of going, be sent astray, be destroyed. Hopefully, at least.

But understanding is a crucial step — for me. I'm not sure it's always necessary. But understanding is a powerful function, a way to feel something, to feel for something, to assess its weight, its way of going. The trick is not to stop there, not to stop when understanding washes over you in a warm, luscious rush. Because it's only after that that things start to get interesting.


The Limits of Understanding

This book refuses understanding by offering no concepts.
This book belies understanding by proliferating concepts.

I've always enjoyed understanding things. Frankly, I'm good at it. I usually understand things quickly. That is how my metabolism works: I take something in then process and distribute it swiftly. I've always been skinny.

Except when it comes to much of math. I understand some algebra and arithmetic. And I get some big ideas of calculus, maybe. But too many numbers and my understanding fails; things don't add up. All I see, all I "get," is a blur.

But, for most things, I can size up a situation, an idea, a process and begin to figure out what questions to ask, how it all might fit together. Inevitably, I miss something; such is the way of learning. But even the things I miss make sense. Such is the way of understanding.

For most of my life, I've relied on understanding. It's a powerful mechanism. It's made me feel wise, in control, and superior.  Like I have things figured out.

I'm not alone in bestowing such power on understanding. This is one of the premises of a certain psychoanalysis: understand whence your symptoms and the symptoms will disappear. Understanding, in this scenario, becomes the way to health.

And yet I've never quite been content with understanding. Sure, I invested a lot of my life into it, ensuring I could grasp almost anything. Indeed, this is what the university system asks of us: to know and understand. I remember constantly being frustrated in grad school by peers of mine who'd size up an idea with a ready, Oh, that's just Deleuzian repetition. Or: That's Lacanian lack — as if naming it and knowing its mechanics were enough! Which, for me, it often wasn't. I yearned for those ideas to undo me, thrill me, titillate me. I liked being moved, in every sense, by an idea.

But being moved has no place in the academy. Being thrilled and titillated has no place in the academy. And being undone sure has no place at all. The entire institution is committed to the opposite: to sealing up, to mastering, to owning through knowledge and understanding. This is why the academy focuses so much on scholarship rather than thought: it wants to know ideas, cite them, not live through them.

Here's the funny thing, or not so funny thing, as the case may be: I've understood that understanding doesn't suffice. I'm still in the realm of understanding. I'm still in the realm of seeing how it all fits together, being able to articulate it, even with an air of weathered wisdom. My will to understanding is insidious and voracious: it wants to transform everything into itself — which is to say, into a neat, effable package.

A book that's long stymied me is the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. It does not offer a philosophy or dogma. It offers situations and ways to navigate those situations. The only overarching principle I can make out is that you live every day as the day of your death. After that, the book never adds up — at least in understanding. The way of the samurai is precisely a way: it is a practice, a doing, not a knowledge or understanding per se.

Meditation makes this all  clear. We can talk about meditation — what it is, its different theories, meditation as mindfulness, meditation as critical inquiry, meditation as transformation, as nihilism, as joy. I've definitely come at meditation with many different understandings. But all that vanishes when I sit down and meditate. Which, of course, is one effect of meditation: it is not something to be understood. It is something to be done.

Yes, understanding is a doing. But it is a different doing than, well, doing doing. And this not to say that there's something wrong with understanding. On the contrary, it's great to understand things! There's a pleasure and there's something else, too: there's a foothold, something to step into, a place and a way to step outside oneself. The trick, however, is not to let the foothold be the end because most ideas demand eliminating footholds all together. To only understand an idea is not to finally grasp that idea.

The beautiful thing about meditation is that there is no place for understanding in the act itself. Of course, an understanding is part of it. For me, it's how I might situate myself — why I might practice a certain way. But this understanding quickly reaches its limit and the demand for a practice takes over. It's no longer a question of why you're doing this but of how you're doing it. It's all performance, all a doing.

Meditation, then, is not a not doing. Even wu wei, action through inaction, is not not doing. Both are quite demanding as a practice, as something you do with your body, your mind, your time. They demand a posture of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world — and with yourself. This posture is as visible as it is invisible. Meditation is not just sitting there. It is a state of poise, relaxed and alert. It's a matter of holding your shoulders, your arms, your head a certain way — not because of a dogma or understanding but because such is the way to facilitate the end of understanding.

Of course, this is not just true of meditation and Taoism, though they provide such perfect models. It's true of, say, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. There are a lot of ideas in that book; it produces and proliferates concepts at a dizzying pace. In fact, it's so abundant that understanding becomes overwhelmed — and, at some point, silly. The book disorients and reorients, introducing a different practice of making sense, of understanding. It's a practice of multiplicity, of play, of generosity. After all, what could be more absurd than someone being adamant about multiplicity!

This doesn't stop the academy, of course, from trying to suck the life — which is to say, the practice — out of Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately for me, I'm no longer an academic. I don't have to understand anything anymore.


When the Scaffolding Comes Tumbling Down

I have a friend who is a fan of medicating, as it were. He, like most people I know (myself included), has an elaborate pharmacy he uses to propel himself through the day — and with gusto! — from coffee to kratom to booze to pot to whip-its to Ambien to whatever. Note than none of these are illegal. And so a little of this, then a little of that, and the day goes on without catastrophe. Mind you, this is a highly productive person with his own business and happy family. (I add this aside as I hate that drugs are generally seen as an ugly agent, even if they often are for many people to whom I mean no disrespect at all). He refers to this all as his scaffolding.

I love this word, this image: scaffolding. It's poignant in that it holds up a structure, helps maintain a structure, but is not itself a structure. Existentially, we all rely on scaffolding in different forms  — those things that hold us up.

Jobs are probably the most pervasive form of scaffolding. They give people an identity — I'm a coder; I'm a UX designer; I'm a chef —but they also structure people's time. They give people a clear, presumably inarguable (although I'd beg to differ) reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives them some place to go, a reason to have their bodies doing this and that. It gives them purpose. Take away their job and whatever would they do? How would they spend their time? Who would they be? In Silicon Valley, and its culture, a job is no longer just a job. It's a way of life. It's a scaffolding so pervasive it seeks to take over the structure.

Of course, in reality, people are frustrated and fatigued from their jobs. Which is why they have Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and HBO. They have their shows. Shows become a way for people to distract themselves from their fatigue and frustration. This same show culture mocks the housewives of old who needed to see their shows at all cost — their soap operas. But it's all the same thing: scaffolding to keep people from standing alone, naked, with nothing to define their time or grab their attention.

This is not to say that these shows are bad or that watching them is bad. Jeez, I watch all kinds of things. I am not criticizing. I am, however, pointing out that jobs and shows are part of our scaffolding. You can hear the panic, feel the dread, when the WiFi is down. Whatever shall we do? What will amuse us? Where will we sit and what will we look at?

The scaffolding pervades — porn, politics, the new restaurant, Tinder, Facebook, the news. It's all so many things to demand our attention, keep us distracted, so many things to fill the day so we never have to reckon the various miseries that pervade our lives: our self loathing, our horrible childhoods, the relentless crap we tolerate in our romantic relationships, the soul suffocation of work, the fear of death, the actual deaths of our loved ones, our own impending demise.

I am not saying everyone is unhappy. What I'm saying is that the mere fact of being human inevitably affords us a certain amount of misery. Communication goes astray at an alarming pace (some would say always); desire provokes and goes unsated; love goes unrequited; parents get frustrated and scream at their kids, making both miserable and guilty and self-loathing; those closest to us die. I'm not being a pessimist. I am stating the obvious: living is fucking hard. And so we construct scaffoldings of different sorts to keep the pain at bay.

But what happens when the scaffolding comes tumbling down?

For me, my scaffolding involves a litany of substances — of course — but more integral is a certain sense of a solitary, knowing self. This is how I've imagined myself in the world: alone, outside the social (despite having been married and having a kid; a scaffolding is a story as much as anything else) and always understanding the way of things. Coffeen: the smart guy.

I clung to this notion, this conception, this support for decades. I cling to it still. The thing is, it's giving way. I suddenly find myself 47 years old, nearly broke, and alone. Yes, I have a child. Yes, I have some friends around the country. But, somehow, I've managed to keep them all at arms reach — or further. And my understanding of things? It looks terribly silly in the blinding light of my sister's death and the horror of trudging myself through the everyday.

Over the past few months (if not longer), this scaffolding has begun to give way. It became obvious to me when I went to New York in October, my first time home since my sister's funeral. And I was devastated, overwhelmed by memory, an inchoate swirling affective teem. It was not a series of images or events I was recollecting: it was my life all jumbled, all the sensations, all the loss, all the loves, all the death, all the violence, all at once, here and now. I was gutted, a bumbling, mumbling fool. So I upped my booze and my kratom and my Ambien which, perhaps needless to say, only made the scaffolding less steady. Still, back in SF, I doubled down on my pharmacopeia.

And then Christmas came and I couldn't turn to my usual litany of substances as I was sick as a dog. And then this sickness got worse. Desperate, I got a script for an awful antibiotic, hoping despite everything that it would restore order. But it did just the opposite: it made the entire scaffold collapse. I began crying hysterically all day and night as a steady stream of misery drowned me — alone and lonely in my shitty little rented house. (This is an actual side effect of the drug, Levaquin.) And I now understand Nietzsche when he says that when he was sick, he was not sick at bottom. For me, however, my sickness went all the way down.

Take away my coffee and cocktails, my kratom and pot; take away any work to distract me; take away my loves and desires; take away my shows as I've seen them all too many times and now they've begun to ring false; take away my philosophical ramblings and my witty repartee (a generous interpretation, no doubt); take it all away and what is left? This blubbering fool.

Laying about trying to maintain....something...I've been rewatching Breaking Bad. Hank is a character whose scaffolding we see give way. His good old boy machismo is no match for the horrors he faces — killing a man in a firefight, then seeing co-workers killed and maimed in an explosion, then being shot. He's afraid to say he's afraid; he's afraid to show himself a blubbering fool: he's afraid to be vulnerable. So he tries to double down on the machismo, despite relentless panic attacks. This only takes him so far so he retreats sullenly into his bedroom, ordering rocks and minerals like a lonely woman buying clothes online at 4:00 AM.

There is no such thing as no scaffolding. Indeed, the structure — who we are — and the scaffolding are entwined. But when the scaffolding gets too rigid, it can't support this human structure that moves, changes, that suffers in new ways. My scaffolding has been the scaffold of the solitary young smart ass — horny and quick and hyper critical: the smartest, randiest guy in the room who just wants to be left alone. But I'm older now. I move slower. My main tether to the world, my site of unconditional love that was always there, is there no more.

And so I need a new scaffold, one that can bend with me when I heave over in pain. One that can give way and allow other people to see me, to see my pain, to help me. I suppose this is why older people turn to Buddhism, to a practice and philosophy of acceptance. Without the vigor of youth, without a steady scaffold, all we have left is this. And this is what Buddhism presumably offers: this, just this — a scaffolding that's always changing to fit its structure.

I'd like to suggest that within us all is a blubbering fool — a scared, lonely, bag of flesh that just wants to love and be loved, to be known, to be held. And that much of our scaffolding impedes this, impedes love, impedes intimacy because it defers vulnerability. Because we work so hard to maintain the scaffolding, we neglect this blubbering fool, this beautiful, grotesque being. And so neglect this all too human life.