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, clich├ęs, 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.