7.20.2018

Grammar Shmammar: Thoughts on Beginning with And and But


William Burroughs is one of the great grammarians.

Sometimes when I'm writing for others, I am met with a comment like this: "Uh, this is good but you begin your sentences with 'but'" — and then they try to change it. Needless to say, this is met in turn with most emphatic protest.

I taught composition at UC Berkeley for 15 years and watched student after student fret over beginning sentences with but. They'd all got As in high school — yes, I said got — writing with proper grammar — not splitting infinitives, not using fragments, and certainly not beginning sentences with but. This made my job difficult.

Teaching grammar teaches students that writing is a set of rules to be followed. Who wants to do that? Writing is not something you follow from the outside; it's something you inhabit from the inside. It's something you crawl into and kick around in (oh, and yes, I end sentences in prepositions). It's a put on. It's not where facts are expressed; it's where identities are created and recreated, over and over. I used to have my students write by adopting a persona — a haughty old man, a young hipster, it doesn't matter. What matters is finding a rhythm and timbre that flows, that moves, that carries ideas and facts and moods along.

What is grammar, anyway? Why this set of rules that someone laid down ages ago to be controlling and sell text books? It's downright odd. And, in the hands of the insecure educated, it becomes a weapon they wield with smug sanctimony. "You can't begin a sentence with but," they utter with disdain.

Oy! Where to even begin with such people? My quickest way out is to invoke my authority: "Well, I do have a PhD in Rhetoric and taught composition for 15 years at UC Berkeley...." This usually works. But I hate doing that as it keeps the discourse in the realm of sanctified grammar. When what I want to do is change the very way we think about grammar. To cop a line from Marshall McLuhan, grammar is not a set-in-stone set of rules: grammar is anything you can get away with.

Defenders of grammar offer a few arguments, most notably that grammar maintains meaning. And, yes, sometimes it does. For instance, when tracking multiple people, pronoun consistency is important — if you want to maintain strict meaning. Reading Kathy Acker when I was 21 was a revelation: she jettisons such consistency with abandon. The effect is delirious. So, yes, pronoun consistency is important if, say, you're writing a police report, giving instructions, or telling a classic narrative.

But language is not meaning alone. And clarity is not writing's sole purpose. Grammar, for the most part, imagines language and meaning generation are geometric: all the bodies need to be aligned in space just so.

Language, however, is temporal. It moves. Writing is movement; reading is movement. You quite literally — yes, I said literally — move. You move your head and eyes, yes, but you also move your thinking and your mood. Writing is not just the communication of information. It's the transmission of affect. And a bunch of other stuff, too, like the shaping of thought and the distributing of bodies. So to teach writing, we don't need to teach students to follow rules. We need to teach them how to move within language, to move as language.

All of this is to say, I often begin my sentences with but. And with and. But the two are quite different. In both cases, however, the reader is met first with connective tissue rather than content. That is to say, before there's some claim, before there are actors and actions, before there's something in particular to know — a fact, name, date — there's a connection, a relationship the content has to itself. In a word, there is thinking.

This is what I love about reading and writing: the connections between the claims. This is where the true action is, where life is. I don't read to learn this or that; I read to experience turns of thought, those therefores, buts, and that is to says that transform the very way I see the world. I read and write to have my world rearranged — not by a fact but by a relation to those facts. This is my pleasure.

But is my favorite because it announces: we're making a turn! Hold on! But tells you that while you may have been lead to believe something, things are about the change, get more complex, be qualified. When you read but you're already into a turn.

And is fun, too, as it declares continuity with what's come before — and then I can throw in something discontinuous, making the series of thoughts veer. And is slippery like that; it suggests everything is going along as expected and yet there is room in that conjunction, a space where difference can insinuate itself. After all, if there were no difference, there'd be no need for and; it would just be whatever it is. And announces something different coming your way. (Pace Deleuze's Difference and Repetition.)

I like not putting marks around my ands and buts in the previous paragraphs. Keeps readers on their toes. The goal of writing is not only to explain clearly; it's to afford pleasure in going differently. Grammar shmammar: I write not only to explicate but to indulge, to taste, to enjoy, to play, to move interestingly.

7.09.2018

The Luxury of the Infinite Gaze


When I was a kid, I loved looking at the sky. But I was never interested in seeing things — planets, stars, clusters. No, I wanted my gaze to keep going, never to focus, to let my eyes be drawn infinitely through the cosmos.

Like many kids, when I was young I thought a lot about space. But I wasn't interested in planets and stars. I wasn't even interested in super novas, black holes, and space ships which are all insanely cool. And despite the fact that my step father was an astronomer who took the first pictures of Venus — I shit you not — and so there were telescopes aplenty, I had no interest in using them. Telescopes are for seeing things — planets, moons, stars, perhaps constellations or even galaxies. But none of that interested me. I didn't want to see anything. I wanted my gaze never to end: I wanted to see the infinity of space.

Some kids learn the names of this or that — the Pleiades (although I love that name with all those vowels!); Saturn's gigantic moon, Titan; Halley's Comet (although to see such a screaming across the sky is at once exhilarating and humbling). But none of that piqued my interest at all (I still don't care about the names of things other than enjoying the name itself; to me, the name is another celestial body).

When I looked up, I wasn't looking for anything. I was looking for the unnameable: I was looking for that infinite horizon with a gaze that just keeps going. What I learned back then is what I'd learn again, once from Merleau-Ponty then again from Osho: if my gaze doesn't end, then I don't end. My very act of looking extends me across and through the silky cosmic body — entwining me, entwining with me.

Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end; it had no point of focus. There was nothing to see; there was only the act of seeing, seeing a world that in the same breath reveals and recedes, carrying my skinny little body along, extending me Plastic Man-like into that delicious delirium, that point free of orientation where there's no up, down, or side to side, just me going, spreading, splaying, extending through it all. Oh man! I'd shudder with what I'll call a prepubescent orgasm. But it was more expansive than that. If I wanted to be fancy, I'd say it was feminine in that it kept going rather than climaxing. Years later, I'd read Hélène Cixous and find the word that hinted at what I'd experienced: jouissance.

Thinking about it right now gives me the shivers — shivers of a very special kind of ecstasy.   

I was always confused by what people meant by "outer space." I was eight and I knew that there was no inner or outer space. Sure, those terms have relative value to a fixed point. But when I'd think about going to outer space — into that infinite cosmic body — I'd realize I was already there. Earth is in outer space. Just thinking that when I was a kid — and today, too— makes my heart go pitter patter. I see the swift pan back as we zoom out and out, the earth receding into the distance, becoming a speck in the infinite folds of the universe and, yes and yes, it's exquisite.

Such is the way of infinity: there's no fixed point of orientation. The language of proximity is only relevant if, say, you're giving someone directions or launching a spacecraft. But for my purposes, the luxury of thinking about space is precisely that there's no directions to give and no spacecraft to launch — and hence no question of proximity. I'm just zooming along like the Pleiades, Titan, and Halley's Comet.

Merleau-Ponty says that to look is to palpate. This continues to blow my mind. All too often, we imagine seeing as an act at remove: I am here, it is there. But, for Merleau-Ponty, to see something is to touch it, to bring it to you at the same time that it brings you to it — what he calls an intertwining or chiasm. Seer and seen reverse positions at infinite speed until they are swirls of a marbling.

So what happens when I don't look at any one thing but look into space without focus? I am palpating the cosmos itself: I bring it to me and it brings me to it. We intertwine. But rather than just marbling in place, the limit of our marbling extends in every direction. This gaze then enacts an internal swirl and an infinite extension, a going and going both inside and out. 

This infinite gaze is a going without purpose, with no point of focus, nothing to buy or think, no people to meet, nothing to say. Indeed, for Osho, this space is a vacuum, emptiness itself: It is just the vacuum, he writes, the space in which objects can exist. The sky itself is just pure emptiness. Look into it. // What will happen? In emptiness, there is no object to be grasped by the senses. Because there is no object to be grasped, clung to, senses become futile. And if you are looking into the blue sky without thinking, without thinking, suddenly you will feel that everything has disappeared; there is nothing. In that disappearance you will become aware of yourself. Looking into this emptiness, you will become empty.

I know what he means. This gaze does seem to evacuate me of the bullshit that one accumulates through the course of this all-too-often absurd existence — the worries about whether she liked when I did that thing, the idiot client who won't pay me, that ache in my shoulder. But rather than seeing it as an emptying per se, I see it as a matter of spatial scale: when I gaze into the infinite, the infinite gazes into me and so the things that once loomed large are now so minuscule as to be forgotten. And, as for Osho, there is a serenity to be found.

But, for me, space is not emptiness. On the contrary, it is full. Or, rather, it is fullness itself. It is not the place in which things are suspended. It is the stuff that enfolds everything. I find space viscous, thick, luscious. And so while this infinite gaze does afford me the serenity of putting my worries in their place, it affords me something else: the decadent surrender to the flesh of the universe and the ensuing exhilaration of cosmic affirmation as it fills me, carries me along, wraps me in its inky embrace.

I want to say that this gaze that goes is life itself in as much as there is such a thing, what Deleuze right before his fatal plunge called pure immanence or a life. Not this life, not my life, not your life: a life.

In any case, for me, this infinite gaze abounds. The very act of looking infinitely is fecund. It's a gaze that roars and boils over. It fills me rather than emptying me. But rather than filling me with the tasks and noise of this world, indeed rather than filling me with the beauty of sun and flowers or the wonder of black holes and supernovas, it fills me with life itself. I stand here and look and am filled with the infinite richness, the luscious thickness, of space, of the cosmos: of life itself. And what, I ask you, is more luxurious than that?

6.10.2018

Why I Love Astrology (and the Joy of Talking Out My Ass)


Like many around me, I'm guessing, I became interested in astrology thanks to the charming brilliance of Rob Brezsny. The way I see it, reading a horoscope is not about confirming who you are or what will happen to you. On the contrary, it invites you to see yourself otherwise, to see yourself swept up in the cosmic flow of it all, to shed who you are and become something else. Read more from him >


Let me say from the get go: I don't know much about astrology. I know about it the way people know about things — from magazine cartoons, dialogue in movies and tv shows, and mostly from Rob Brezsny's fantastically engaging horoscopes in the SF Weekly way back when. Which is to say, I don't really know anything about astrology.

This affords me a luxurious posture — that of talking out my ass. That's not a knock on me or talking out one's ass. On the contrary, it's my favorite way to talk about things. It's so liberating! I'm not encumbered by expectations of being an expert. It doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong! I'm at once detached and engaged. I'm beyond judgement. I'm not writing a column for "The New Yorker." I don't have a stance: I'm not some scientist — whatever that is — who for some deeply personal, questionable reason is trying to debunk anything; nor am I a devotee of really anything other than a 5:00 highball. I'm not a scholar and I don't "follow" my horoscope. Astrology is just something that I've glimpsed floating through the ether which has captured my interest now and again. Which is all to say, I've thought about astrology, probably more than you'd expect, but not enough to qualify me as anything other than some random guy talking about things he knows little about — that is, talking out his ass. And what, I ask you, is more luxurious than that?

Anyway, it seems to me that the first thought people say about astrology is either I believe in it! It's so true! Or: What nutty malarkey! How can looking at stars tell you anything about you or the future? Both responses use a common metric of assessment, namely, can astrology make claims to verifiable truth? It seems to me that this is coming at astrology from an odd perspective. Or, as the great French philosopher Henri Bergson would say, they both ask the wrong question, a false question.

Questions are insidious. While seeming to be open to the world — I'm just asking! Jeez! — questions already assume what counts as an answer. They thereby put the interlocutor in a difficult social position. Here's an example. A doting grandmother asks her four year old grandson: What's your favorite color? This assumes he has a favorite color; that one is generally expected to have such a thing; that in all the joy he takes interacting with a vast array of colors, he's being told that he's supposed to be ranking them — and not just in a vague, general sort of way. No, he has to have a favorite. One. Favorite. Color. That's insane! Don't we all enjoy colors in all sorts of ways? I wear black but I don't paint my walls black. What I like and don't like depends on lots of factors — mood, circumstance, desire. The question, like all utterances, already frames the world, already establishes the rules of sense. But unlike declarations — Astrology is not true! — the question feigns innocence. Be careful of questions.

The question the major discourse of our world asks of astrology is: Is it true? That question assumes that there are things that can access truth and things that can't. But what if I operate outside of any claims to truth? Say, for instance, that I do performance art. There is no question of an accurate or true performance; there is no way to verify what I've done. To ask if it's true would be absurd. We make sense of performance art without recourse to truth or verifiable judgement. We enjoy it or we don't. And we may have reasons for our enjoyment or lack thereof; we may have opinions on why others should or must feel the way we do. But no one would ever say:  I'm right and here's the evidence.

Now I'm not saying astrology is art as distinct from science. I'm with Nietzsche on this one: science is just art — poetry — that's forgotten it's art. What I'm saying is that we make sense of all kinds of things without asking: Does it tell the truth? So perhaps asking it of astrology is to ask the wrong question.

I've never had my horoscope read. But I do like the fact that it's referred to as a reading; it — whatever it is — is not self-evident. It is something that engages you and asks you to read it, to make sense of it, to engage with it and see what it wants, what you want, and what you can make of it together.

Now, it seems to me that the basic premise of astrology is that life — all life — is contingent and interconnected, that nothing is hermetic — or at least that human life and planets and stars aren't. That is, you are not a self-contained, self-determining unit. Rather, you are caught up in an impossibly dense web of factors and forces. What you call 'you' is a nexus, or are nexuses, where and when lots of different elements converge and diverge. So if I can track the bodies and forces that flow through you — the movement of the skies, the planets, moons, and suns — I can help you make sense of the universe in which you find yourself. In fact, this seems rather obvious. People tend to be in better moods when it's sunny and warm than when it's cloudy and foreboding. So why wouldn't the flow of bodies outside our immediate environment also inflect how we go in the world?

As Rob Brezsny writes on the ECSTASY OF THE INVISIBLE, an incredible phrase I wish I'd thought of:  Many life processes unfold outside of your conscious awareness: your body digesting your food and circulating your blood; trees using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to synthesize their nourishment; microorganisms in the soil beneath your feet endlessly toiling to create humus. You don't perceive any of these things directly; they're invisible to you. 

Tune in to this vitalizing alchemy. Use your X-ray vision and sub-sonic hearing and psychic smelling. See if you can absorb by osmosis some of the euphoria of the trees as they soak in the sunlight from above and water from below.

In any case, astrology doesn't say: This is you! And this is what's going to happen to you! Astrology is neither determinative nor predictive. It says: This is what the cosmic forces that flow through you are up to. How does it play with and through you? 

A common criticism of horoscopes is that they're written to fit everyone and anything. You'll always just read yourself into it, says the nay-sayer as if he's offered some kind of insight. To which I say: Uh, yeah, isn't that amazing? Isn't that what all great art does — forge a détente with you? Ask you to wind yourself into it and be remade in the process?

To read a horoscope is not to confirm yourself — Wow! That's so me! That'd be ridiculous. Who needs anyone to confirm the known? No, a horoscope is not trying to confirm you. It's trying to affirm you. It's offering a play of forces and asking how you fit into it all, how you find yourself there and then. That very act of reading yourself into it is the art, is the practice, is the ask. For a moment or three as you engage with your horoscope, you abandon your everyday habits as you lean into this knot of cosmic activity in which you are necessarily entwined and rather than confirming yourself, rather than discovering some future truth, you explore yourself, take leave of yourself as you unravel and re-ravel, contorting your body to see how you fit, reading your way into a self forever in a state of flux right along with the moon, the stars, and the sun.


6.02.2018

How Tests Kill Thinking



Academic tests, at least in the humanities, are odd things. Do I really need to prove that I read all of Moby Dick, know what year the Magna Carta was, or what happened at the Potsdam Conference? Sure, knowing these things is important if I want to be an expert and scholar in a field. After all, that's what an expert is: one who knows all that stuff.

But is that why we're teaching students in our schools and colleges — to turn those 14 year olds into Melvillian scholars who go on to give tests on Moby Dick to 14 year olds so they, in turn, become scholars who teach 14 years when Melville was born? That's how we create the closed, strange, politics-laden worlds of the academy. It's not how we teach students to think or enjoy books, history, ideas, art, or life itself. On the contrary, by teaching students that there is one answer that they need to know — and that they need to prove they know  — we drain the vitality from the surging splendor of learning something new.

Tests are police actions. Show me your papers! And part of me understands that impulse. When I was teaching, I'd find myself frustrated and annoyed that students hadn't done the assigned reading. I told them to read it, dammit! And I'm gonna punish them if they didn't! But I realized that that was my ego, not my pedagogy. The student has to decide if she wants to read the book, if she wants to engage with it, if she wants to learn. I sure don't need her to prove to me that she read it. What good does that do anybody?

The logic of tests is the logic of the univocal. There is one answer. What is it? Tell me! Tell me! Even essay tests are odd in that they demand a student think and write quickly. I always gave final papers, not final exams. I wanted my students' best thinking, not their fastest thinking.

School and its grades coerce us into thinking there are answers when all there are are approaches, spins, takes. Answers are the least interesting aspect of any inquiry. The question is everything. The question opens things up; the question frames, distributes and redistributes concepts, facts, perspectives. Answers do the opposite: they close thought down. I know the answer! I'm done!

So rather than asking students to take tests, we should be asking them to create tests. What even counts as a question? In a class of 23 students all studying the Potsdam Conference , I'd love to see 23 radically different tests. (I have to confess: I have no idea what the Potsdam Conference is, although I could guess; I just like saying it.)

Now, when it comes to licensing, tests make sense. Licensing is the way an institution polices itself, regulates itself. So of course licensees need to know how to administer the DTaP vaccine, do ear washes, know what a duodenom is. Of course, knowing these things doesn't have any correlation with how good the licensee is at his job — in this case, a medical professional of some sort. I have to say: I am pushing 50 and have never, not once, had a doctor tell me something I didn't know about my body or health. In my experience, the doctor and I follow the same decision tree on WebMD and come to the same conclusion. The art of diagnosis — for surely it is as much an art as a science — as if science and art are opposed, which they most certainly are not — anyway, the art of diagnosis is not taught and has little to do with passing an exam.

I also get why we have standardized tests. After all, high school students have an enormous variety of experiences from a ridiculously varied set of circumstances. For colleges to assess students, they need — or so they imagine — some kind of standard. That makes sense (even if I disagree).

And I, for one, always enjoyed the SATs. The questions, especially the math, are clever in that they don't rely on deep knowledge of math per se but on the ability to know how to solve a math problem.  I'm terrible at them. I know because I find myself using pen and paper when I know I should be able to look at the answers and know. I'll say this: the creators of those questions are a clever lot, truly.

But I'm still not sure what the SATs assess, exactly. In vocabulary, the text demands knowledge of roots and etymologies and, at times, rote memorization. Reading comp is a good test — although I had to fight my urge to discover alternate interpretations. I just figured out what the test wanted. And, alas, this might be the point of SATs: they test your ability to take tests. Which is useful in a school that gives tests. It wouldn't be so important in my hypothetical test-free school.

Because, at one point in my sophomore year of college, I decided I'd never take another test. I was in a class on French feminism. And the professor assigned an exam. An exam! In a class on feminism! It seemed so phallocentric: Give me the right answer or you fail!  What does Hélène Cixous call the perpetual state of mystical, orgasmic play that undoes the sanctity of the unified subject? Tell me! It was hilariously absurd. So I refused to take that test. "Tests are police actions," I argued, "coercing alignment with institutional knowledge, reinforcing the reigning discourse. You not only judge me but I judge my self-worth by my ability to participate in the prescribed knowledge field." I'd been reading a lot of Foucault. The professor was neither pleased nor persuaded and my grade suffered, as it were. But I didn't.

And I did persuade myself — and so I never took another exam. When I took my mandatory science classes — Physical Anthropology and Physics for Poets — I wouldn't answer any test questions. In Anthro, I flipped the test over — did I really need to memorize which lemurs are diurnal? — and critiqued the assumptions of the text book. In Physics, I flipped the exam over and tied the concepts we were studying to the philosophy I was reading. I got Cs in both classes (if you go to a fancy school and pay enough money, they refuse to fail you; a C was the lowest I could get; in a community college, I'd have failed, for sure.) As for the GMATs, I mostly doodled, filling in those little circles in silly ways.

Being asked to prove that I'd memorized the feeding habits of monkeys was, and remains, absurd. If I were requesting to go on an expedition in which I was expected to study said monkeys, of course an exam would make sense. But for an undergraduate student in a required physical sciences class? Why not teach me what physical anthropology cares about, the kinds of questions it asks and can ask, how the text book succeeds and fails and how it might otherwise be constructed?

To think is to distribute concepts, facts, bodies, forces into different configurations. It's certainly not memorizing how someone else did all that. Tests not only don't teach thinking; they squash it. And, worse, their status in schools make it such that students assess their own worth by how they do on tests. So, in effect, testing shuts down the act of thinking among all our citizens and hence among our culture at large. Which explains a lot about this world.

So I offer one simple suggestion. Rather than using one text book in a course, have each student write an outline for how they'd write a textbook for the course. And, at the end of the semester, rather than giving an exam, have each student go home and write a test.

5.28.2018

Grasping

Most nights, I find myself sitting alone in my house. Often — too often, I'm embarrassed to say — I feel something missing. I want something, most notably, I want some woman to give me the sense that she wants me. In today's world, this usually takes the form of a text. When my phone inevitably remains quiet, there is a whiff of rejection. So, much to my shame, I'll send digital missives into the ether. And regardless of what I write, what I'm actually saying is: Do you like me? 

Needless to say, this is not the way to attract a woman's attentions. It doesn't come from a state of calm desire; it comes from a state of desperate need. It's not a romantic or sexual gesture; it's a grasping to fulfill an internal lack. And I've yet to meet a woman who's even remotely tolerant of such a gesture.

This is no doubt the seduction of dating apps. All the blips and beeps, all those notifications, give you a sense that somebody, somewhere, is interested in you. What I've seen in my experience is that rather than let silence become the norm and risk that sense of death, people double down on the app, swiping more and more, messaging more and more, to get the taste of desire, to create a set of tethers, however false, to the social world in general and the sexual economy in particular. You hear all those beeps and think: Yes, I am desired! Most of the time, people don't even meet; the difficulty and messiness of the flesh is too much. And so they remain ensconced in a world of digital communiqués with the faint scent of desire and without the weighted hassle of real human discourse — or even intercourse. It's all so much grasping. I don't want to be alone! Desire me — even if it's false.

On the other hand, it's nice to feel desired. And the fact is, life is hard and often we feel shitty about ourselves. We feel not only unloved but unlovable. And to have someone we love say: It's ok, yes, I love you can turn a shitty night, a shitty mood, a shitty life right around. Should that be enough to turn it around? Should a person be able to feel loved and lovable on one's own, without any actual person expressing it? Yes, absolutely. This is why we hear Christians say Jesus loves you and God loves you. It creates a state of perpetual lovability. Which is beautiful. But it's hard to summon that and sustain it and I know I, for one, sometimes — perhaps too often — want some external confirmation.

In the meantime, we — well, I — grasp for things other than a woman's attention. Sometimes, it's just for some social tethers. We've all seen this, if not experienced it ourselves, on the Facebook. We post and comment to get it on with old friends, acquaintances, strangers — just to feel a little less alone. All the social media outlets amplify this — Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, Instagram, Reddit, Quora. We look for those likes and feel, even if only for a moment, that we belong with the world, that we're not just alone adrift in the cold, cold cosmos (even if, from the right perspective, that is bliss).

Sometimes, I don't grasp for feminine or social attention. The tethers I seek at these times aren't human. I pour myself some of this, eat some of that, pop a little of something else and soon I am feeling grand. I am beyond the petty needs of the social, of the romantic, even of the sexual. I am riding waves of thought and sensation. I may not belong with people but, right now, I belong with this cosmos. Watch me go!

But whether I'm texting a would-be or actual girlfriend, posting on the Facebook, swiping on the Tinder, or pouring myself a hefty glass of tequila, I am grasping. All because I want to feel enmeshed. I want to feel the embrace of the world, even if digital or drug induced. Because, on my own, I don't feel like I'm enough.

I am rarely willing just to sit with my state, whatever state that is. I'm always seeking an exit, an escape hatch, a distraction, a change. If I have low energy, I have an espresso; if I'm anxious, I pop an Ativan or pour a cocktail; lonely, I text, swipe, or post. I grasp at what's around me so as not to feel what I'm feeling. My lack, my self-loathing, seeks remedy anywhere and everywhere.

What's funny is that when I don't grasp — when I don't text or imbibe — but feel my utter aloneness on the planet, when I feel that steady drift through the cosmic ether, that is when I feel the greatest joy. This is what I'll do: I'll be sitting my couch feeling that lack and I'll consider my options — my phone, various people I know, my computer, my liquor and drug cabinet. Each proffers its own mode of a tether to the world. But then I'll reach for nothing, lean back into myself, and feel the tethers all snapping like Neo emerging from his pod in the Matrix. And, suddenly, I feel blissfully untethered. I am floating peacefully through space as this temporary coagulation of form. It is euphoric. Mind you, euphoria is not the most common reaction to my cosmic loneliness. But it does show me that grasping is not the answer.


There are of course less nefarious modes of grasping. I've met plenty of people — and I have been known to be one of them — who are constantly seeking self-improvement through this or that — different practices, books, philosophies. All of these come from the same source as me reaching for booze: something is missing. Maybe I'll find peace in two weeks of silence! Or by reading more Osho! Both of these things might be great practices; they might lend themselves to peace. But, as with booze or late night texts to women, they can also be desperate and needy, stemming from a place of self-loathing, self-discontent. It's all seeking when everything is always already perfect. There's nothing to seek.

All that said, I do have desires — I enjoy the attentions of women; I enjoy sex and romance; I enjoy bantering with the world; I enjoy my cocktails of every sort; I learn from Nietzsche and Osho. These are not tethers; they are desires. After all, we are ecological beings; we are always already and fundamentally enmeshed with the world. We breathe, eat, touch, talk, fuck just to live. So what distinguishes grasping from enjoyment? This is an elusive internal calculus. Often, I can feel the difference as each enjoys a different posture. When I grasp, I lean a little too far forward; I get twitchy; I feel the jones, as the say. When I desire, I saunter to the liquor cabinet and concertedly pour that drink. In both cases, I'm having a cocktail. The difference between the two is internal. And, alas, not always clear. 

We reach for, we reach with, the world — necessarily. We take in air, food, words, ideas, sensations and give out gases, gestures, more words. But there are different ways of doing so. Part of me wishes I never needed confirmation from the world, never needed a woman to tell me she desires me, never needed a boost or sedative, had all the wisdom I needed, that all my self-worth were self-generated at all times. But alas, at times, I want that confirmation from someone or something — from a woman, a glass of tequila, from Osho or Nietzsche. And, frankly, that doesn't seem so bad. It seems part of being alive — accommodating and loving those who grasp, offering a confirmation that they do indeed matter, that they are indeed loved and lovable.

Grasping may not be pretty. It may not be healthy. But it does seem like something we all do from time to time. We can, and should, work to reach with vital desire rather than desperate grasping. We should work to feel like enough for this world, perfect for and with this world regardless of what's happening — regardless of whether you've been fired, dumped, whether you're sick or depressed. Then again, sometimes it's just plain old nice to have the world reach for you with a loving touch, whether it's a kind word in a text, the keen insight of a tantric master, or the warm embrace of a cocktail.

5.23.2018

Difference & Duality

When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why the opposite of hot was cold. Why wasn't it, say, door? Or chocolate pudding? Or farts (I was 8 years old, after all)?

Cold, it seemed to me, was not that different from hot. After all, it's still a temperature; it's in the same general field as hot. Door, on the other hand, has very little to do with hot — although I suppose a door can be seen as a way to control the heat of a room. Chocolate pudding really has nothing to do with hot — although, I suppose, said pudding begins with heat. Farts? Well, farts are warm and I guess they can be hot!

Concepts, words, experiences: they have tendrils that wind this way and that. We live in networks, lines crisscrossing every which way as doors, chocolate pudding, and farts all find hot and cold in different ways, from different directions.

Anyway, what I'd stumbled on was the logic of opposition as distinct from the logic of difference. Cold is the opposite of hot. What confused me was that I believed that opposite meant different when, in fact, opposite means a form of likeness. Hot and cold occupy the same spectrum, namely, temperature. They are matters of degree within the same field. What separates them is quantity, not quality (even though hot and cold are radically different qualitative experiences).


Hot and cold are opposites. Hot and chocolate pudding are different. Opposition is a form of sameness; difference marks a point of distinction, of independence — although that independence is necessarily relational. Cold and hot are forever locked in the same architecture, two ends of the same line. Their fate is wound up, bound up, with each other. They move together.

Think of the so-called rebellious teen. She gets a tattoo because her parents told her not to. This teen's decision is still determined by that parental prohibition. It's not that different than obeying her parents and not getting the tattoo.
 
Difference, while relational, is emergent and ever in flux. Unlike hot and cold which are forever locked in the same relationship, door's relationship to hot changes based on circumstance. 

And difference is autopoietic, self-determining. I, this body here, wants a tattoo. What my parents say may not be irrelevant but it does not determine my decision. If I get the tattoo because my parents said no, it'd structurally be the same as not getting the tattoo because my parents said so. I just want this tattoo. That decision differentiates itself from the social field, from the play of child and parent, from the pressure of friends. It is self-determining, even if not hermetic.

To eliminate the duality of opposition is not to erase boundaries all together. On the contrary, it is to introduce boundaries everywhere, marks of distinction everywhere as bodies are perpetually differentiating themselves from each other.

Take a toe. There's a toenail, the toe itself — whatever that is —, a foot, a leg. What distinguishes one from the other? We can draw boundaries here or there, here and there, in order to distribute the body into its multiplicity. A toe differentiates itself from the foot just as the toenail differentiates itself from the toe. The distinction might bleed but it still holds: there is a point at which the toenail is clearly not the toe, the toe not the foot, the foot not the leg. Which is all to say that the logic of either/or, if the absolute limit, doesn't disappear; it's that these limits are in flux. There are limits everywhere only they're moving depending on perspective and circumstance.

There are all kinds of ways two things can be related, all kinds of ways any two things can be different from each other. There is, for instance, the double helix. This is an odd one in that the two strands never touch, never cross, and yet are fundamentally intertwined. The double helix is sort of like an oppositional duality only in flux with an odd kind of tension in which the strands always seem reaching for each other.


Marbling is a radically different mode of differential relation. Two things — there can be more, of course — are relentlessly differentiating themselves from each other, a constant game of push and pull. Black and white don't just become one thing, grey. Black and white retain their respective boundaries even as their boundaries bend and bleed.


Then there's the knot which is wildly multiple. So many different kinds of knots! Hot and spice form a kind of knot, I think, rather than a double helix or marbling.




There are any number of ways things might stand together with their difference. I think of gardens and tulips in particular. Each stands alone and yet they go together in a common gesture. But unlike marbling or knots, they don't need to; each tulip is just as content to stand alone as it is to bloom together. I want to call this tuliping.


Tuliping is quite differing from zooing. Zoos bring together radically discrepant things — lemurs, leopards, lamb — each within an environment in which it thrives. A zoo is like a book of cosmologies, a universe of universes.


What's the point of all this — these knots, tulips, and zoos, this marbling, this helix? Well, think about a duality such as good/evil, a figure that still dominates our storytelling in films as well as in our culture at large. Clearly, people and actions are never just good or evil. They are a nexus, a set of relations between and among forces, effects, affects, and ideas. Just because we say that good and evil are not opposed doens't mean we erase the difference between them. Rather, we suggest there are so many different ways they can relate to each other beyond duality, so many ways to architect their difference.

Mind/body is, of course, another common duality. I go to the gym for my body. I meditate for my mind. But anyone who's thought about either of these things knows that the gym is not just for the body and meditation is not just for the mind. To ignore the role of the mind in the gym is to ignore an essential part of your make up. I don't work out but it seems to me that working out while watching television is quite different than working out while meditating on and with your muscles, your breath, your heart. And meditation that only focuses on not focusing on one's thoughts misses all the teachings and sensations of the body.

You are as much mind as body — and yet the two are not the same. In fact, their relationship changes depending on one's actions. In sex, for me, they marble; in exercise, they tulip. Duality and opposition locks things into a fixed architecture. But life happens in the relationships that emerge in the motion of existence.

Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was obsessed with identifying a position of difference within Hegel's dialectical System. Hegel was the dominant philosopher of the 19th century who offered what he called the System: everything is a position that inevitably fails and gives rise to its opposite. This is what propels bodies, propels history, propels life itself. He calls this the dialectic. This drove Kierkegaard nuts. He longed for a position free of the System, free of the dialectic, free of opposition. The self, he said, is a point of irreducible difference. Here am I, says Abraham.

Yet this self is not a unity but rather is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, of the mortal and the divine. For Hegel, Jesus is the ultimate unity of man's internal oppositions. But, for Kierkegaard, Jesus, as with all people, is not the unity but the ever shifting dynamic between the finite and the infinite:

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

Ok, so that's an esoteric aside. But the thing I'd like to take away from Kierkegaard is that duality and its logic of opposition shut down life by creating one set architecture of sameness. But the self — and I'd suggest all forms, all bodies — emerges as the relationships between and among all our different elements. We are our ever-shifting terms of difference. 

5.18.2018

Why & How the Body without Organs (or any concept) with Reference to Meditation


This is someone named Eva Strohmeier's map of the BwO.
[I can't find a direct link; I apologize as I love this.]

Sometimes, I find myself talking about a concept — say, the Body without Organs — to someone who has not enmeshed themselves in philosophy (I'm trying out that they/them thing). They listen, ask a question or two — often with a hint of defensiveness — before saying: Ok. So what? What am I supposed to do with that?

This is the best question possible: What am I supposed to do with that? What can I do with that? For it — life — is always a matter of doing.

Then again, I'm simultaneously thrown by the question. After all, haven't we been taught concepts since we were kids, throughout our education both formal and informal — evolution, the unconscious, sickness from germs, holistic? Why does this one concept, BwO, prompt that question? I believe it's because the idea sounds so odd, so esoteric, that it brings the very activity of all concepts to the fore — which is unsettling. I believe the question can house a certain anti-intellectualism which surfaces in comments like: That's just mental masturbation. Which is not an accusation I've ever understood.

Here's a concept I just read in a book: You have a core purpose. What are you supposed to do with that? Presumably, you're supposed to discover, then reach for, this core purpose.

But then someone else comes along and says: I don't know about that core purpose stuff. I don't think we have a core; and I don't think we have a purpose. I think we're all just adrift and the trick is to ride it with grace. And, for a calculus of reasons, you believe this latter guy. So now rather than taking time alone and considering your core purpose, you move into the social, into the fray of experience, but without judgement or exploration you used to have. Now you seek grace as a passive subject within the Great Teem, riding this whole shindig out.

Two concepts. Two different architectures of experience. And at least two different directives on how to behave. Concepts, like many figures, organize our sense making. They have us see the world a certain way, to process the stuff of this world a certain way. (I'd argue that any figure has this power; after seeing Francis Bacon's paintings, I see the world, I experience the world, I organize the world differently.) And this processing, which we might call understanding, inflects our desires, our experience, how we interact with ourselves and other bodies.

Concepts, like all figures, have the ability to (re)order the very structures of who we are as individuals and as a social body. They famously wrote: A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.  

So what are you to do with the Body without Organs? Well, like all concepts, it proffers an architecture of bodies: within this organized body there is another body, one that is run through with forces and flows, with becomings and desires of all sorts. This refers not just to the human body but to all bodies — to cities, houses, classrooms, relationships, discourses of every kind.

Let's take massage. You're getting a massage as your shoulder really hurts. One therapist massages the body with organs so focuses on your shoulder, on the muscles and tendons and what-have-you. Another therapist massages the body without organs so feels around for different flows and connections, moving from that right shoulder down across the back to the left side lower back before gliding across the glutes, back up, and then over the other glutes down the leg. I'm not sure which will "work"; I, for one, would prefer the latter. But preferences aside, the point is: different architectures of the body due to different concepts become different practices — and different experiences for you-of-the-sore-shoulder.

Now take your living space. Sure, there's a living room in which you do certain things; a dining room where you eat; a kitchen where you cook; and so on. It's a highly organized space — organized before you ever set foot in it not just by architects but by discourse, by the things we're taught since birth about how space is organized. But there is another space within that organized space, a schizo space, a space of different flows of action, of different possibility.

Ever since I've lived on my own, I've had this practice in which when I find myself frustrated with my living space, I wait until night and then I turn off all the lights, open all the windows, shed most or all of my clothes, and then move room to room feeling for what it wants and how the space might go together. I might play music; I might even dance. I'll sit on different things to get different vantages; I'll lie down on the floor, on the table, over the back of the couch. Sometimes, this ends up in a reorganization of the space — couch here, table there. But that's not the point; I'm not redecorating. The point is this ritual of experiencing the space outside of its organized body, inviting its BwO to play, to think the space, to enjoy the space, to have it move me through it.

I took a class in college on ethnicity in which the professor told this incredible story. There was some controversy in upstate New York where there are Native American reservations. It seems the residents were living in these makeshift homes of oil barrels and tar paper. So, to save the day, some state senator built houses on the reservation. A few weeks later, the residents had taken sledgehammers to the walls. The state was, of course, befuddled so hired my professor to figure out why. Well, it seems these Native Americans lived in wide open common spaces — the oil barrels and tar paper; walls were strange and disruptive to them — ergo, the sledgehammers, like a good conceptual brick, at once breaking down and building up. Within any space, other spaces lurk — spaces of radically different flows. A house enjoys a body without organs, too.

BwO, then, refers to any body — spatial, social, discursive. But what about the human Body without Organs? What do I do with that in my life besides choosing a massage therapist?

Over the past two years, I've thought about, read about, and practiced some meditation (not a lot, mind you). What do I, what does anyone, want from meditation? Practitioners of Transcendental Mediation (TM) talk about simply sitting and experiencing one's deep inner peace. They use a common figure in this world: the ocean. At the surface, there are waves crashing and moving this way and that. But under the waves, deep down in the ocean, there is a great stillness. This, we are told, is how we as human beings go: on the surface, we are waves of errands, work, worries. But we also house a great stillness which we forget about. Meditation doesn't just remind us; it is an experience of a stillness that lurks in all of our bodies.

This is quite different than the Body without Organs. BwO doesn't proffer stillness; it proffers a veritable flux of movement, of flows. BwO is not still or passive; it is active, emergent, vital, seething — not with the anxieties of the everyday but with the forces of life, of the cosmos.

Well, why access such a body? Isn't life complex enough? Maybe. But maybe the organization of the body with organs is the source of the stress and anxiety. Maybe exerting so much energy to hedge and control the Body without Organs is precisely the source of stress, of sickness, of dis-ease? Maybe accessing the BwO is a way to health. That rather than the BwO creating greater complexity, it creates less. In any case, BwO is a not a way to stillness but to ecstatic movement (internal and external).

I think there is a meditative practice to access the BwO that is different than TM. Which is not to knock TM at all; that stillness is beautiful, important, essential. To me, TM's oceanic body is another body alongside the bodies with and without organs. It is to say that there is perhaps a meditative practice of listening not to the silence but to the teem and flow of the BwO. This meditation might not entail sitting quietly; it might entail moving, writhing, yelling, muttering, rolling about.


Maybe we don't call it a meditation. But to me it's a meditation in that it's a disruption of everyday habit in order to allow whatever comes to come — whether silence or screams, stillness or writhing. What I imagine is a listening, not for silence, but for the myriad, affective flows and sensations.

I believe the co-opting of "mindfulness" by industry — health insurance companies, tech companies — is to make our bodies that are being torn apart by the conditions of capitalism more productive, able to keep working, keep buying, not go to the doctor. Which is to say, this form of meditation has the ability to stall and hide the symptoms of modern life rather than heal.

Needless to say, this need not be the case. It seems to me a mindfulness practice opens you up to the world beyond work and consumption, to the world of the weird and vital within the everyday. In this case, meditation becomes a kind of access to the BwO.

Of course, the risk of opening oneself up to access the BwO is a certain madness. It's certainly not always pleasant; it's not just jouissance. But it's also jouissance. One issue, it seems, is how to move between and among one's different bodies, how to have the ecstatic states of one body not just hinder the other but to have them propel each other. This may be a misguided wish; some messiness, some conflict, some pain might be inevitable, even good.

I'm still trying to figure that out for myself: Do I want only quiet peace? Do I want to be the depth of the ocean and only the depth of the ocean? I don't think so. I have energetic flows in me that want out, that don't want to be suppressed like a tantric ejaculation, holding back my reserves for internal power — even if that is fantastic, powerful, and beautiful. It's just not the only way I want to come. I also want to writhe and moan, I want to scream, to feel my body disintegrate only to reform along new and strange lines.

Mind you, it's not an either/or. All these bodies intersect each other. All these bodies exist — the angular body with organs; the writhing Body without Organs; the deep oceanic body. All these states exist — dealing with the anxious everyday; bleeding, moaning, and coming in different directions at once; resonant, quiet peace. But we can lean a little more this way than that. (Which body decides which way to lean?)

This is what this esoteric sounding concept, BwO, does for me: it multiplies the bodies I find operating in the world and within me. I, for one, don't think we have a core. Or, rather, I believe we have a core but we also don't. Burrowing to one's core is only one mode of living, even if beautiful. But there are other bodies in me. To live, it seems, is a little schizo.

5.14.2018

On Kink and Enjoyment, Social and Private

A caveat: this is a true essay, a try, a reaching with words that comes from my ongoing interest in the question of enjoyment, especially within capitalism. What is the relationship between what I enjoy and what I am produced, induced, programmed to enjoy? What is the relationship between social and private enjoyment? Kink is not something I've thought a lot about but seems to operate within this odd, blurry space between the social and private and so got my attention. All of which is to say, I'm not sure at all about kink; these are just some thoughts. There are smarter people who've thought more about it. I welcome their input.



Kink is a discontinuous, though perhaps contiguous, moment within a trajectory. It's a veer, an inflection point, a point of differentiation. The rope is hanging there but at some juncture it doesn't just hang there. It does something different — turns abruptly, frays a bit only to reconstitute itself, knots and continues, bends in a different direction.

And not just because of how the rope is lying. A kink is concerted, distinctive, differentiated from the series. You can't just shake the kink out to make the rope straight again. A kink, alas, is more determined than a wrinkle. A kink is constitutive, not an accident. A kink may be the thing that breaks the series of a body, interrupts the series, or introduces a new series — or some combination thereof.

Kink doesn't just pass, even if it's temporary. After a lifetime of never paying them much mind, you may suddenly enjoy feet immensely only to find, after some time, that feet have returned to their previous status. And yet there will always be some shadow of those feet, a ghost of those soles, a wiggle of those toes wisping about your sense of the world. Such is kink: it doesn't just make an impression on you; it is an impression on you, of you, with you.

This is precisely what makes kink unsettling: it is a discontinuous moment within the narrative of yourself. Yeah, I'm just a normal guy but, well, it seems I really enjoy smelling armpits while I slow dance to REM in my underwear with a vibrator wedged gently into my rectum. Or some such thing. Is this still just a normal guy? What story does he tell himself about himself once he starts getting jiggy with "Fables of the Reconstruction"?

Of course, what is normal? Why would anyone write a narrative about themselves in which they — yes, I've adopted the pluralization of third person to avoid the he/her awkwardness; for me, this is as aesthetic as it is political; mind you, sometimes I still use the singular but hopefully in ways that are a swerve from the norm; in my book, I usually refer to "the reader" as a she, but not always — anyway, why would anyone ever call themselves normal?

Then again, we are fundamentally social creatures (pace Aristotle not to mention Althusser). We make sense of ourselves within the social body and so there is always some normal we are negotiating even if we quietly reject it. This neither good nor bad; it is what we do, necessarily.

All of this is to say a lot of things but, for now, it's to say that kink is relative. It's a moment, albeit a resonant and I dare say ontological moment, within a trajectory that is different from the rest of that trajectory. In one of my favorite books with one of my favorite titles, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius (somewhat) famously writes:

When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.

Lucretius calls this swerve, this shift in direction, this deviation from the same-old-same-old — this kink — clinamen. I love that clinamen is at once a term of geometry — the grades of a slope, of an incline — and of being in the world, as in having an inclination for, say, running or tequila. Kink, for me, is just such a swerve; it's clinamen.

Bodies are not all the same, even to ourselves. And they are not solely determined by an external force, a nudge from god or God or the wind. Nor are bodies hermetic and solely self-determining. No, bodies have tendencies —  I go for tequila, you go for a run, she loves mountains, he loves deserts. Why? Well, there is no final explanation. Sure, we can trace our respective body chemistries and upbringing by way of explanation but that only begs the question. As Nietzsche writes in "On Truth and Lies," all knowledge is tautological. Clinamen is beautiful in that it is its own final term: like all bodies, I go as I go and, at some point, there nothing else to say by way of explanation. We are these emergent forms in motion, ever in flux and yet bound, pushed and pulled by what's around us according to invisible magnetic, gravitational forces. We are all falling only to swerve here and there and thereby make the world.

Now, we generally define sexual kink as a swerve from the social norm — most people, we believe, don't bite each other. So if I bite, I'm kinky. Kink as a social term is helpful and clear. It's quantitative: most people do X so if you do Y, you're kinky by definition. It's a way, however reductive, to make sense of each other and ourselves vis-à-vis the social body.

But what does kink mean in my relationship to myself, to this body and how it goes? If all I do is bite — biting this, biting that —  then wouldn't kissing be the clinamen, the kink in the trajectory that is me?

Now, if I'm a rope, a kink comes from some way I've made my way through the world. But as a human body who desires and does certain things for my pleasure, whence my kink(s)? What makes us say doing this or that is kinky and not just something we've done? That is to say, like the rope that suddenly finds itself kinked, I might bite or be bitten due to some way of going: I met a woman, we ended up at her place, we start fooling around and, just like that, she bites me. I can certainly say that is kinky in relationship to my usual sexual experiences and, perhaps, to the social norm (but everyone has a different social, right? We're not all subject to USA Today's polls). But these bites are not a clinamen, not a swerve in how I'm falling through space. At this point, these nibbles are a wrinkle, not a kink.

But, at some point, something changes. I now think about biting and being bitten. I dream of that sensation of teeth meeting flesh — not just fingers, cock, or tongue but the porcelain rigidity of teeth. I begin seeking it out and performing it. It is now not just a desire; it's an enjoyment.

What I've always loved about the word "enjoy" is that it is at once an indifferent performance of an action — to enjoy a piece of tofu can mean simply to eat a piece of tofu— and a declaration of an inclination: I enjoy eating tofu. Kink operates at this intersection only it is not just something I do and something I enjoy doing: it is something that distinguishes itself within my trajectory, something that pops.

But what marks discontinuity with myself? Well, I suppose it's a matter of behavior: I've never bitten someone's thigh before! It's a new thing I do. But what makes it stick, what makes it sing out — what makes it a kink and not a wrinkle — is that I enjoy it. It is something I want to do, yes; but, more, it is something that resonates through me, as me, something that makes me swerve. If a wrinkle is an accident, localized and passing, kink is thorough: it pervades the body. It's not just a matter of, Well, that feels good. It's  matter of: Holy fuck! Yes! That! 

And yet isn't that all resonant satisfaction — namely, that it's a Holy fuck! Yes! That!? What makes kink — in this case, mutual flesh nibbling or, perhaps, voracious consumption of flesh — different from other resonant experiences of sexual behavior?

If I take deep, thorough, resonant enjoyment in getting a hand job — or in kissing, in soft core pin-up pictures, in holding hands — what makes this more or less kinky than taking a deep, bloody bite out of a thigh? Sure, socially they are different. But from the perspective of my body, my trajectory, what is the difference? What marks the clinamen other than the resonant pleasure — which is to say, the enjoyment?

I wonder, then, if enjoyment is in fact the source of the swerve, of the clinamen. No doubt, there seem to be things other than enjoyment that inflect a trajectory. To wit, if I think about the defining curves of my trajectory, I'd say: my father abandoning me; my mother re-marrying; moving from the way Upper West Side of Manhattan to Westchester; having a kid; getting divorced; the death of my sister. On the other hand, I've enjoyed all these things in the sense that I've lived through them. They've not just resonated through me, they've resonated as me. They've all shifted my trajectory or, better, they've created my trajectory, the kinks in the trajectory that is me.

And so what is kink — not in the social sense which is, alas, really an arithmetic equation but in the personal sense, in the story we tell ourselves?  I wonder if it has less to do with some general sense of the odd or different than in the distinctive experience of enjoyment, those resonant experiences that stand out from the fray of it all? And so what defines kink for me would be: What gets you all nutty worked up, so worked up that you're a little bit different that you just were? What stirs you unto the cosmos? What makes your rope bend, twist, and head off in a distinctive direction, even if only for a few moments?

5.12.2018

Deleuze & Guattari's Body without Organs (BwO), Yoga, S&M, Drugs, and a Morass of More!


Yoga, chakras, discipline, crack, LSD, trees, Gargantua, Humberto Maturana and autopoiesis, and so much more!



 And I give you some Boredoms to perform the Body without Organs.....

5.09.2018

Schizo Sense: On the Space, Place, and Drape of the Image in Marc Lafia's "Making Sense"

I first encountered this body of work in his house. This is not in and of itself unusual. I've done plenty of studio visits over the years which are often in the artist's house, in a room set aside for that purpose.

But this was different. There was no studio. There was a large, long living room. The art, however, was not set up to be viewed per se. That is to say, most of my studio visits involve seeing art that has been arranged precisely to facilitate seeing, one image after another along a wall or floor so I can peruse the images one at a time. The space is immaterial, an afterthought at best; I'm there to see the images. It's as if the frames exclude their environment, letting me confront the image without hindrance.

But, in this case, the art was not displayed for this. It was everywhere — hanging from clothes lines that ran the length of the room at different angles; from windows; draped over couches, objects, paintings, chairs; and, when I could peek through the windows, I could see it lying over bushes and trees.



This is not art that one sees as much as one wears: we don't see it as much it drapes us. Drape is a term of fabric and, yes, this art is made predominantly of different fabrics. But when I say drape, I mean more than the mode of display: I mean the mode of engagement. A painting, photograph, or film usually privileges a certain relationship between object and eye: everything is about clearing lines of sight, illuminating the image just so in order to see it more clearly.

This art operates with a different relationship to vision, light, and the viewing body. The experience is not one of the eye taking in an image but of an affective body being draped in a certain ambience of light and material. Light, in this case, does not illuminate the image; on the contrary, light shifts the image itself. Mind you, it's not light art à la James Turrell in which the material facilitates an experience of seeing. For Turrell, the object is light which he hangs just so. Lafia's work does the opposite: it doesn't present light but insistently presents materials that metabolize light. If for Turrell, material serves light, for Lafia, light serves material.

This art, then, drapes us. It doesn't contain itself to the eye; it flows all around us. Its folds and pleats, its ridges and nudges, seem to make it sculptural but sculpture tends to reenact the architecture of painting: it is something to be seen. (I still can't believe that we're not allowed to climb Oldenburg's "Cupid's Span" here in SF. Seeing it is a bit banal; it wants to be touched, climbed, slid down. In Philly, we could climb on his "Split Button.") Lafia's work is of a different order: it is, at the very least, haptic — that is to say, sight and touch are entwined and, at times, even interchangeable. In any case, to see this art is to be draped in a sensual experience that at once palpates and is palpable. (The great French phenomenologist would call this a chiasm, an intertwining, articulated in the middle voice — neither active nor passive, both active and passive.)

One thing was clear to me immediately: there is no clarity as to what constitutes an image here. This is not an experience of discrete experiences; it is an experience of ever-shifting relationships. They may have stitches here and there but they are not framed. These works bleed, essentially. It is how they go. They can pick up and go elsewhere and find themselves comported in an absolutely new way — what was once on a clothes line may now be over a window, a bush, covering, filtering, and making new sense of something else. This work is not a series of works. Nor does any one piece have a definitive way to display itself. It's generous, willing and able to be here or there.

Over time, this bleed only intensified. When I revisited it a few weeks ago, it had begun to take up objects around it. The fabric no longer just lies there metabolizing light; it metabolizes other art and things, creating localized dramatic scenes.




And all of it still in that large, long living room. One of the great effects of this space is that it's not always clear what's art and what isn't. That coat hung over the chair? Those rolls of paper in the corner? That old painting against the wall? In this environment, the line between art and everyday objects blurs. Which, frankly, is beautiful, calling to mind Niezsche on the Greco-Romans for whom everyday objects, and beliefs, were art as much as they were utility.

So when the curators of the 1GAP Gallery — at Grand Army Plaza, the glass and steel Richard Meier building on Prospect Park in Brooklyn — agreed to show this work, I wondered how they'd display it (I almost wrote "hung," which is telling: that is what galleries do — they hang art for the viewer's eyes). I imagined its vast glass walls lined with textures and fabrics, the space not just inhabited but ravaged by this work, this work that has a will to bleed. And that would no doubt be glorious.

But this gallery is interesting in that it occupies, and moves through, a residential building. Only the residence is not the artist's; it's occupied by owners and paying tenants, many of them with kids. And it's curated as a gallery that is, lest we forget, a seller of art. Both factors — residents with kids and objects to sell — call for a certain discretion. (The fact that these two factors align in their intention is not a coincidence, of course; both are bourgeois institutions. That said, kids themselves — as distinct from children as a socio-juridical entity — disrupt bourgeois propriety in such a glorious manner, espeically vis-à-vis art. When my own child was young, I usually kept him in line wherever we went as I enjoy quiet. But at museums, I'd encourage him to run wild. Such is my prejudice: I want art to be in, of, and as the everyday rather than as a special thing to be worshipped.)

The gallery had the odd task of turning this bleeding drape into discrete objects, works that could be hung alone, titled, and sold. And I have to say: it was fantastic. The individual objects, hung rather than draped, and then optimized for viewing are beautiful, engaging, hilarious. If I had walked in and seen the work just like this, each as one piece within a series, I'd have been astounded. (You can see more images of that show, which is up through the Summer, here.)








The gallery, needless to say, turned Lafia's work into "art" — into an institutional commodity, framed and poised for consumption. This institution is more than the gallery; it is the history of art, an engine of capital, academia, publishing, museums, collectors. Duchamps' "Fountain" only works because there is such a thing, an institution that is as much transactional (for buyers as well as viewers) as it is ideological and spatial. The curator in this case, Suzy Spence, had the difficult task of transforming Lafia's viral, schizophrenic work into something respectable and readily consumable. And she did an incredible job, choosing work that works in the windows, work that works on its own, work that is witty and has something to say within the discourse that is institutional art.

Unlike most people who will see this show, I've had the luxury of experiencing it in the two venues. And this affords me a distinct pleasure: I was able see this body without organs, as Deleuze would call it, become a presentable organism — a shapeless, shifting morass of color, texture, and affect become a refined yet witty conversationalist. And so now I see it in both states at the same time, a body that keeps shifting its posture in such fundamental ways while somehow remaining recognizable — the funky underwear slipping out of the tuxedo pants while the tuxedo sits comfortably amid the drape of silk, plastic, neoprene, rubber, latex, and paper. Back and forth this work goes, always becoming, always becoming other to itself in the very act of its actualization.