2.19.2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.16.2017

The Will to Boring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2.04.2017

The Limits of Understanding, pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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