10.16.2017

More on What It Is to Read Philosophy: Of Bird Songs in the Polyverse

Like a painter, a philosopher sees a world. This is what's happening, the philosopher declares, this is what the world looks like, how it behaves. The painter paints; the philosopher writes. But they are both presenting a world they see, a world of how things go.

Consider artists. Look at these images and tell me they don't occupy fundamentally different worlds. It's not that they see the same things and express them differently. It's that they see and inhabit different worlds — with different things, different moods, different things that count as something that matters, different ways of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world. An artist gives us a cosmos and a posture.

Bacon sees flesh hanging off bodies in an arena.

Rothko sees fields of affect with only a vague sense of form.

Whistler sees human life emerging from the amorphic smear of the world.

What world does Paul McCarthy inhabit?

Well, the same goes with philosophy. Philosophers don't all see the same world then proffer their own perspective. They see, and inhabit, different worlds. So when I read philosophy, this is first and foremost what I'm looking for. What world am I being asked to inhabit? What does it look like? How do things interact here? This is a form of understanding, sure, but it's different than what we normally call understanding. Which is to say, I can "understand" a philosopher's argument and still not see his (alas, it's usually his) vision of the world.

The instinct is to read some impossibly dense sentence and parse it, grapple with it, try to understand it. This is not a bad instinct. But it is a drive that is for naught if you don't also zoom out, see a bigger picture of what this philosopher is seeing. To focus on this or that page or sentence is like focusing on a painter's stroke or use of color. It can be revealing and interesting but it won't tell you what world you're inhabiting.

When I was in grad school, we weren't given much time to make sense of a philosopher. Usually, we'd read a book a week — Kant's Critique of Judgement one week, Nietzsche's Genealogy the next, Kierkegaard's Either/Or after that, and so on. It's kind of nuts and is mostly about attaining a false sense of mastery of a "field" of knowledge rather than engaging that philosopher's world. (In college, I took a grad seminar with the great Stephen Dunning in which we read one book: Gadamer's Truth and Method. Not only did I come to inhabit, and love, Gadamer: I learned what it is to inhabit a philosopher's world.)

At that same time, reading like that had a certain pleasure and taught me certain techniques for making sense swiftly. My most common technique back then? I'd try to short circuit the long process of living with a philosopher by smoking a joint and sitting with the book all night, flipping this way and that, feeling for a way in, trying to see what that philosopher sees, what he wants from the world, for instance, why Kant is even talking about the beautiful and the sublime, why aesthetic judgement is even a topic at all. Why these books? Why these examples, these questions, this approach?

This involves reading differently. One nifty trick is to ask the same question of each philosophy and see if that philosophy can even fathom the question, not to mention have an answer. This is the question I ask these days: Where do bird songs fit it in, if at all? The answer forces a thinking through of that philosopher's world as I grapple with the logic of that world. Try it at home!

These days, I'm exploring Bataille. I first read Bataille as a teenager. Never got it. I thought it was all about transgression, which didn't interest me. I'd rather live in a world where the things I love are the norm so there's no need for transgression; this is actually a significant factor in reading philosophy, or anything for that matter: Where is it situated? But more on this at another point.

Anyway, recently I found myself attracted to something in Bataille I couldn't put my finger on. So I've been reading pages here and there. I can't tell you which book he wrote when; I am not a philologist, historian, or biographer. At this point in my reckoning, I don't care. I'm sussing out the Bataille-verse so I can figure out where and how to put my ship down and begin living there.

For Bataille, life —from the everyday to the cosmic — is relentless exuberance: the world fucks and comes and shits and decays and seethes and bleeds. This is not an anthropomorphization. It's not that he takes human sexaulity and sees it everywhere. He sees fucking and coming everywhere, as forces of the cosmos that humans also do. And within this fucking and coming and dying and bleeding, there are all these interactions, all these exchanges of energy that make new things, that yield effects and affect from vegetal sprawl to nausea, all this excess of energy that breaks and disrupts and creates.

In Bataille's world, the sun is constantly jerking off on the earth, a bukkake not of dominance but supreme generosity. We live in a world in which we are being showered with vital energy all the time! And we don't need to return the favor! It is excess and this excess abounds (is that redundant? excessive?). Capitalism imagines streamlined productivity, the least amount of energy to create, and whatever excess is produced is put back to creating more — more, more, more but never a consumption, an indulgence, of said excess.

This is what Bataille sees: all these different terms of energy exchange, what he calls the general economy and which includes the financial economy. In this general economy, there is great seething squandering, repression, indulgence, channeling, hedging. The exchanges of energy that make the world, from the everyday to the cosmic, are big and inefficient as efficiency is not the point: it's the seething flow that matters, the exuberance, the spilling, the being swept up and away. Such is Bataille's world. There are bird songs at the periphery, sometimes gliding through, chirping their ejaculatory songs, an exquisite excess within the air.

Derrida doesn't see or hear any birds. Nope, no bird songs here. He lives and operates in that moment — and the ensuing process — in which he realized that to define a word, he had to know all the words in that definition, and then all the words in that definition, and so on and so on and so on — an infinite process that never gets there and, it seems, never actually began. He sees conceptual structures that at once perform and attempt to evade that logic (he calls this "deconstruction"). His hands are a little inky from the textual play but they're not too messy as he holds everything at its limit, his fingers in the margins. Despite the privilege he affords play, his world is quite clean — not orderly necessarily but clean. There's no blood, very little shit, a penis and a vagina here and there but not much sex — and certainly no damn bird songs.

Deleuze and Guattari live in a big crazy lava lamp of enormous complexity teeming with everything and anything human and not, terrestrial and cosmic. They see shapes coming into being and giving way everywhere, the relentless constitution and dissolution of form — rocks, crowds, books, concepts, music. Forces and bodies come together or don't in a breadth of ways. Bird songs create spaces, visible and invisible, differently than grass, asteroid fields, the nation-state, Freud, Francis Bacon. (And while there is certainly a line or two that runs between them and Derrida — the lack of origins, the multiplicity of texts, the play of movement — they occupy very different worlds. If nothing else, Deleuze and Guattari's world is extremely messy; Derrida would get uptight living there.)

Foucault sees bodies constantly being distributed by cultural-historical-existential forces, by language, people running up against things that they can say and can't say. And these distributive and distributed forces are always in motion, mutating over time, shifting relations to and among things at different speeds (although everything in Foucault's world moves much slower than in Deleuze and Guattari's; Foucault sees fewer explosive lines and more big, tectonic movements). There are bird songs but only ones he enjoys while goofing around. Mostly, he sees bodies being moved and managed, which he finds at once erotic and disturbing.

Nietzsche lives in a world of man's relentless creation, this urging urging urging always procreant urge of the world — only it's met with all sorts of other forces and urges, most of which are stupid and vile. There is a nature that exceeds everything we do, a nature we forget we're part of, a beautiful mercilessness to the stream of life. Like with Foucault, there may be bird songs but those birds aren't creating territories: they're beautifully indifferent to man, a joyful exuberance of nature.

For Bergson, the world is not so complicated. Like many philosophers after him, Bergson thinks philosophers muck things up. He looks at things and sees them; he doesn't wonder if he really sees them or what they really are. Look! A chair! He's quite reasonable like that. And everything he sees is moving. And he sees himself moving, too. And everything he feels emotionally is moving.Yet when he reads philosophy, it always assumes things are primarily still. He's quite concerned with the world of philosophy. But, mostly, he just sees everything always already moving, relentlessly forging itself. No bird songs here except as something else that moves.

Kant's world is the madness of reason. He doesn't trust or believe in his senses: the world does not reveal itself to him, or to anyone, through its appearances. There's a kind of paranoia there. But in order to dissipate that paranoia, he goes in search of ideas and concepts that can reveal the order of things, a secret structure of how things go. It all gets messy when he does engage the senses, when he look at art, listens to music, eats food, or enjoys a bird song. But through some nifty engineering, he manages to have some pleasure and still hold on to his reason, however unreasonable.

Socrates is an ironic shnook. He can't believe people believe they know anything, that anyone can be adamant about anything. The human world is so unsure and fleeting, how can they be certain? It's ridiculous! There is clearly some other plane where things persist above and beyond all this human silliness. Which is why he roams the streets badgering people who profess to know things, badgers them until that person either admits knowing nothing or, annoyed, walks away. This is why they killed poor Socrates: he was a nudge. And he does hear bird songs, and enjoy them, but like everything in this material world, their song gives way to a divine truth we can't see or know.

Like art and literature, philosophy gives us a world, not a truth, not the meaning of life. A meaning of life may present itself to you. I found such meaning when I read Pynchon. But meaning is not the promise of philosophy. A philosophy offers something at once more humble and more grand than meaning: it proffers a world.

10.06.2017

Fear, Loathing, and Daffy Resistance within the American Spectacle: Thoughts on "The Office" (US), or Making Sense of Some of Deleuze and Guattari without Mentioning Deleuze and Guattari



The situation of this situation comedy is, of course, dark from the get go: a small, regional paper distributor in a cold industrial town just far enough from the metropolitan as to be outside the fray of the current but not far enough to be rural and have its own culture. The backdrop of the show is the purgatory of contemporary American capitalism. I add "capitalism" as the show is distinctly about the relationship between the self and business. And, like the characters in the show, this company doesn't make anything (the only one who dabbles in creation, Pam, fails and returns to her cruel fate). Nor is it part of the emerging information economy. It is cog and nothing but, at the mercy of forces, never shaping them.

And it's all being filmed for no apparent reason other than everything is always already of the spectacle. The camera is always on. There are other shows that use this figure, most notably "Parks and Rec," but the camera functions differently in the two shows. In "Parks and Rec," the camera acts as an ironic foil standing in for the knowing audience. The cameras are not a character, are never part of the plot. In "The Office," however, the cameras have will and intention. They probe and reveal, are often referred to, and are explicitly addressed. The camera here is not the audience; it is the surveilling media-state — anonymous, relentless, probing, watching. For the camera of "The Office," we are always performing, always being excavated, turned inside out, transformed into spectacle.

Enter Steve Carell's Michael Scott. He does little but flail in the spectacle. His social and emotional life is made of snippets from ads and media, movies and comedians. He actively offers no affect other than the affect offered to him by the media-state. He of course has symptoms that exceed this — intense loneliness and cruelty that come from his stunted development and his imprisonment within the confines of such a world. But he has no outside this manufactured vocabulary of sentiment, no coherent interior life capable of negotiating, redefining, parodying, or resisting the spectacle's hegemony. It is grotesque and often difficult to watch.

Indeed, rhetorically, "The Office" is strange. Despite the traditional set up of a workplace comedy, there are no real points of character identification. The main focus, Michael Scott, is completely demented. From time to time, we are asked to have sympathy for him — we get flashes of his odd upbringing and, as he's stuck in some pre-adolescent phase of development, we don't judge his selfishness or relentless racism and sexism as harshly as we might. We often cringe and furrow our brows. But we have neither identification nor loathing. He's a character in the colloquial sense, something to behold, never something to identify with or love. He is spectacle.

He does not have a secret heart of gold, either (ignoring the later seasons). He has the most extraordinary loneliness that pervades every fiber of his being which can make him act softly. But, through and through, he's lonely, sad, stupid, and selfish — extraordinarily so. The loneliness may predate his job but it does not predate his participation in the American Spectacle. He was, in fact, on TV as a child. He has been inside out from the get go, an American casualty.

The obvious set up is for us to identify with Pam and Jim. But they are so vapid, so achingly banal, that we don't really care. In a way, they are the saddest characters. What are they doing there? Their office mates are not nice and are not their friends. This is not "Cheers." These other characters are cruel, selfish, and insane all in very different ways, careening lines that occasionally intersect beyond physical proximity but which, for the most part, pass each other by in the deep dark night of lonely, dark America. (Creed — his name is creed! — is the only character that seems to resist, to have a complex life outside, yet seemingly within, the spectacle. He even dated Squeaky Fromme.)

And yet it's not just that these people are quirky and odd. They are, for the most part, anxious, cruel, and vindictive. They are deeply alienated from each other and filled with fear and loathing. This is not the "Cheers" gang; this is no "Friends" who harbor secret love for each other (even if, in reality, the characters on "Friends" actually seem to hate each other; but that's for another essay). These characters are disposable, cogs within a nation and system that cares little for their well being but needs their bodies for labor and consumption — at least for the time being. Like the industry they serve, they are being phased out.

There is, however, power and resistance in Michael Scott's madness. He is so completely and utterly insane, so evacuated, that he churns violently, often disrupting the everyday functioning of the system that is killing him. He cannot read social cues; he rarely follows social protocol. His madness pushes him outside the social's rules as he uses snippets of the spectacle as a kind of weapon to break the machine of capitalist etiquette. His relentless madness disrupts the flow of business, of conversation, of everyday functioning. He knows no bourgeois propriety at all and he constantly, and unwittingly, throws people off kilter. His utter lack of self-awareness, his lack of an internal coherence, is the very thing that makes him dangerous. He is unruly through and through.

Bugs Bunny is a great figure of disruption and resistance, engineering lines of flight with ease. He refuses to let discourses stand, never playing the hunted when he's being hunted. Bugs plays mad but is not actually mad. On the contrary, Bugs is knowing, canny, manipulating discourse with casual aplomb. Michael Scott is no Bugs Bunny.

And then there's Daffy Duck who is utterly and completely insane. Like Daffy, Carrel's Michael Scott doubles down on his madness and never, ever relents. Everything and everyone in their path is affected, thrown off. They don't offer a self to which others can appeal; their madness is total. They are loud, demanding, incoherent, obnoxious. And yet they are not criminal. They quote enough of the existing structures that we are forced to respond without calling in the medical-police state.

This schizo madness becomes a kind of resistance, a power itself capable of disorienting, destabilizing, and disrupting the productivity of the spectacle. This is what drives much of the plot structure: Michael doesn't like to be productive. He disrupts everyone's work day at every point he can. He's not an anarchist; he's not trying to break any system. In fact, he thinks the spectacle, not capitalism, is the best thing in the world! And so the system — social and corporate — tolerates him. He speaks its language, only in a schizo tongue.

It may be, then, that the American Spectacle made Michael schizo. But his schizo-ness turns on its creator, creating the possibility of rupture — rupturing the structures of culture and business within the show as well as rupturing our experience as viewers. The daffiness can make the show difficult to watch. It's grating, as is Daffy Duck. But this mode of grating is precisely what's potentially revolutionary: it grates but can't be policed. It's like a ricocheting bowling ball in the china shop of capitalist America. Or some such thing.

The show turns maudlin in the fifth season as it begins to look for its heart of gold. It's as if the daffiness of the show was too much for it. And so it succumbed, letting itself be enfolded in the banal affect factory of the spectacle. This often happens with TV shows, of course, as they are conspicuous constituents of the spectacle. A tragic example is the little known  and short lived, "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23." In the first season, the "good girl" from the Mid-West comes to New York and has her bland sanctimony upturned by the party girl's brilliant and liberating amorality. In the second season, the show flipped the script back to the familiar, ruining the very thing that made it interesting.



But let's forget how 'The Office" turned sour. In its first four seasons, it gives a devastating critique of capitalism, of the fear and loathing that pervades it, of the alienation it forges. And, in the very same breath, it offers a mode of resistance.

10.03.2017

Beginning from the Middle (with reference to Deleuze)


Francis Bacon in his studio. Note the images everywhere. As Deleuze argues, the painter doesn't begin with a blank canvas;
he begins with a canvas dense with images.

Where to begin? How to begin? As Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition, Descartes supposes to begin without presuppositions. I'll doubt everything, says Descartes adopting his version of skepticism, and see what I find. And we all know what he finds: a thinking self, the CogitoI think, therefore I am. As Deleuze points out, however, this assertion is not free of suppositions at all: it has its own elaborate set of assumptions, namely, that we all know what an I is, what thinking is, what being is.

There is no clean slate. No pure beginning. We never begin from nothing to form something. We always begin somewhere. There is no outside the fray of it all, no place free of culture, of personal experience, of history, of ourselves. We're always somewhere doing something as this, whatever this is.

It sure seems like it'd be nice if we could shake this all off like a dog after a bath. Or scrub with exfoliating brushes until we're free of ourselves. Alas, after the exfoliation and waxing and asshole bleaching, we're still here, still this — wherever here is, whatever this is.

We're quite attracted to origin stories. The universe was something and then, Bang!, it blew apart and became all sorts of things moving this way and that. But what if it was always already all this stuff moving around? Why does the universe need an origin story in which there is only one moment? What a weird thing to even imagine! The universe is so fucking big and complex it seems hilariously demented to reduce it to an absolute beginning. In his great essay on history, Foucault writes that when we look for the origin of things, we find the dissension of other things. We find forks and splays. There is no singular point that begins the line from there to here. There's always already multiple things happening, careening and veering every which way.

It can be maddening to imagine no beginning and no ending, to imagine that time has always existed. It's much cleaner to imagine time as a line that begins somewhere rather than as an infinite number of lines have always already been happening. So we posit primal moments — the big bang or, well, some intense moment from childhood (like seeing our parents screwing). I am this way because my father left me or my mother was controlling or favored my brother or...or...or. Sure, those things figure into who we are and how we go. And some events are no doubt more poignant than others. But, as Foucault says, when we look for the origin, we find the dissension of other things. We are all the things that happen to us and the way we process these things. We cannot be reduced to one event. That's ridiculous.

In his book on the painter, Francis Bacon, Deleuze says the painter never comes to a blank canvas. The artist's job, he argues, is not to create something from nothing but to create something new from the density of what is and what has been. That canvas may look white but it is infinitely dense with images from the history of art, from TV and movies, from advertising, from the news, from everyday life.

The painter is enmeshed in this density of images at a certain posture, with a certain metabolism, and begins to break those images, smear them, parody them. Pollock grabbed the canvas off the easel, threw it on the floor, and writhed over it, all serious bravado (you can imagine a similar gesture done with more, say, smiling). Guston made the KKK into cartoons alongside his big soft goofy rocks and shoes and light bulbs. Duchamps just picked up a urinal and, prankster-like, deposited it in a gallery. Bacon smeared his canvases with a broom and created falling flesh from what emerged.

Look all those ways of beginning. What determines this way or that way? Look at your own way of beginning anything — a book, a conversation, writing. What propels you? What images are in your mind? What do you think you're doing? Whatever your answer, there are more answers you'll never see, never be able to articulate (so it is with the eye; it never sees itself; we are always more than we think, thankfully).

Deleuze says we're always in the middle. And so his books always begin mid-conversation. That is, he doesn't even try to frame his conversation as if he could stand outside his own text and let us survey the scene. That's what text books do; they want to be definitive and tell you: this is what is known. But Deleuze operates from the middle, amidst the fray and teem where all there are are assertions, positions, postures — never certainties. And so he just begins wherever he is.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation  
A round area often delimits the place where the person — that is to say, the Figure — is seated, lying down, doubled over, or in some other position.

Spinoza: Practical Philosophy  
Nietzsche understood, having lived it himself, what constitutes the mystery of a philosopher's life.

Difference and Repetition  
Repetition is not generality.

The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque   
The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait.

The effect can be disconcerting. I've found myself making sure I didn't skip a page or three. But nope: Deleuze flourishes in the middle, in the thick of it, in the middle of a life in motion, amidst an idea already happening.

Nietzsche never believed that morality exists outside of history, outside of ideology, of desire, of the will to power. Which is why he dismisses Kant just as he dismisses Judeo-Christian codes. And why he performs a genealogy of morality, tracing it to a certain set of historical-existential conditions: the emergence of ressentiment. Whence ressentiment, you ask? Well, it just happens, a convergence of any number of forces and events. William Burroughs thinks it's a mutation, perhaps from an alien world. For Nietzsche, our beliefs come from our intestines, from our constitution and comportment, from how we bear experience. And what determines those? Being born from these people in these conditions as this body. And this thing that's born is always multiple. Nietzsche himself is his own own doppelgänger — and even a third!

When Derrida looks for the origin of, say, a text he finds other texts. You're already quoting other words. When he looks for the origin of identity, he finds iteration. What propels this iteration, this text and not that text? Derrida doesn't talk about that so much. He just knows there are no origin points, that it's all play.

Every beginning has always already begun. Every beginning is a multiplicity that is mired in historical, physical, cultural, and conceptual trajectories that intersect each other at different speeds and intensities. 

Trying to shake it all off — all this body and thinking, all this life — is absurd (Nietzsche would say it's nihilistic). But that doesn't mean we can't be reborn. That we can't dramatically shift how we go in this world. But doing this isn't a matter of getting to the bottom of things or wiping everything away. It's not a matter of creating a clean slate or getting back to the beginning. It's a matter of short circuiting, hedging, leaning this way rather than that. It's a matter of engineering from the middle.