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.

 

7.27.2017

The Image of What's Not There


A camera can never take a picture of what's there. What's there is an elaborate milieu of horizons, a moving set of forces and circumstances, a world in motion along its many axes all intersecting, coalescing, falling asunder. It's seen by sets of eyes run through with assumptions, histories, cultures, metabolisms of different tastes and speeds. How can a camera — an eye without history or knowledge, an eye with such limited periphery and a relentless will to frame geometrically — see what's there?

The moment the camera enters the picture, the scene is changed — for the camera and everything within its stupid scope. I say stupid because cameras are the very definition of stupid: they know nothing nor can they know anything. They go as they go, without thought and without feeling.  Such is their liberation; such is their cruelty. A camera knows no justice, no longing, no desire, no sentiment whatsoever. To the lens, it's all so much light — and maybe form but form is really just the inflection of light.

And yet a camera enjoys perspective. Analog cameras always have a radical materiality — this lens and this film. Yes, the image remains plastic, awaiting realization in the darkroom where all sorts of things can transpire. But this is all limited by the raw materiality of the celluloid or what-have-you. The digital image has a different materiality: the interpretation of an algorithm. The image that appears on your iPhone screen and scattered around the interweb is an interpretation of 1s and 0s, the product of an algorithm that selects pixels to keep and pixels to throw away, that makes red brighter or darker. Or something like that.

This image remains porous as we add filters willy nilly. The digital image is plastic through and through; it's never done. It never even considered presenting what's there. It takes up light and form — form really being a subset of light — and awaits mixing and remixing by whomever, wherever. In today's image, there is surely no there there. The image will never have been about what's there. It takes pictures from the world, a thief of the highest order. And thievery is the artist's stock-in-trade.


The camera creates. It frames and interprets, albeit stupidly, revealing the prejudices of its creators and its materials. In this way, it becomes an additional organ, not an extension of an existing one. While the camera can help the eye to see far beyond the eye's reach — think Hubble — the camera is not essentially an extension of the eye. It is a new appendage, an organ, a gland: it takes according to its own logic and behavior and plays back in the same manner.

More and more, I find my little camera phone a way to engage the world. I don't take it out of my pocket in order to take a picture of what's there. As we know now, that'd be in vain — and usually result in an excruciatingly boring picture. After all, what's there — what I see without the camera — is so tremendously complex, to use a camera to see it is a waste of energy and to have a picture of it is only to have trace residue — a mnemonic, at best, but never what's there.

No, I take out my camera as a way to see what I'm seeing differently, impossibly, in a way that my eyes and ears and skin never could. The camera makes a whole new sense of what's there, creates more than what's there. It extracts things that only it can, in ways only it can. Often, my bodily senses more than suffice; they are overrun and run through with sensations, percepts, affects that provoke, thrill, delight, repulse. But, sometimes, my camera becomes a great way to make new sense of what's there.

What's so fantastic about cameras today is that they are both camera and screen. As I point my camera here and there, it shows me a picture — even before that picture has been stored: a taking before the taking. I run my camera along my sweetie's body as she lies in bed just as I run my fingertips along her skin and, in so doing, see things I couldn't have seen — right then and there, as if it were in my head! It's astonishing.

Think about what happens when a camera enters the scene. I know I, for one, begin to act differently. My internal life is shifted; I become a slightly different self. This happens in a very different way when certain people enter the room — a crush, an old friend, an overbearing douchebag. We shift ourselves based on our company; we are relational creatures. A camera shifts us, too, but in even stranger ways. When a camera sees us, we are being seen by a nobody that is making a different sense of us — and can alter and disseminate this other us infinitely far and long. We say: "The camera pulls it out of us" which may be right but it could be: "The camera makes us different."

To say: "Stop recording and see what's real!" is often ignorant and idiotic. A camera isn't recording; it's creating. As my camera runs over her body — or over that tree, that street, that flower — it creates a there that didn't exist per se (which doesn't mean me taking my camera out isn't annoying to those around me). The camera, then, is not a tool of recording but an organ of engagement. It is a way to know the world differently, to engage with it differently, to make something else of it.

7.13.2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.08.2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.27.2017

Reading the Way of Spaces (a podcast)


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

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

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


6.14.2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

6.06.2017

Good Enough



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

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

I was, needless to say, humbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But isn't this good enough?

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

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

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

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

5.31.2017

Notes on Moments: An Accidental Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.30.2017

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


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


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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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