3.30.2018

How to Read Books


I read a book as Cézanne painted an apple: a stroke here, a stroke there until the apple emerges as if from nowhere.

Everything is something to read — books, glances, the sky, that weird red bump on my calf, brined pork chops, algorithms, incantations, "The Wire," an abrupt end to a text, that funky smell, the form of blogs, management structures, The Dirty Projectors, grammar. Which is to say, nothing is self-evident. Of course, most readings are not readings at all: we just accept the terms given to us, assuming that such is the way of things. To wit, romantic coupling: it's just what we do. Sure, some question it, reading the implicit existential-political ideology. But most of us do not. So we date and assume a linear trajectory and marry, or don't, and find happiness or don't.

That's not necessarily a criticism. It's absurd to read everything anew. It would be exhausting not to mention maddening to read everything anew. With some things, we gladly succumb to the common reading provided. Other things, we engage, question, find different takes on it. In many ways, these decisions are what define us and our social cliques: we tend towards those who proffer different readings of the things we do. For instance, very few people close to me have had real jobs in which they go to an office every day. Most of them, including my parents and siblings, have found other ways to operate within the economy.

So, yes, my definition of reading extends to realms other than words. To read something is to engage it, to come at it this way and that, to fold it into some kind of shape.

But how are we to read? Unfortunately, we tend to define literacy as the ability to articulate the sounds letters make when strung together. That may or may not be important but, in any case, it's not what I'm talking about here.

Let's begin with that seemingly known quantity, a book. How does one go about reading a book? Well, a book has a structure that encourages us to read it a certain way. Usually, it goes in one direction: begin with the preface and move continuously through the pages which, like bread crumbs, seem to offer the way: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5....


But I don't really like being told what to do. And after reading a lot of books and having made sense of many of them in ways that have brought me enormous, resonant pleasure, I've found that reading a book according to the numbers provided is rarely rewarding. I recently bought Yoko Ono's Grapefruit for my sweetie, it being her birthday and all, and reading it together in bed we noted that it has no page numbers. "This is the greatest book I've ever burned," writes John Lennon in the introduction.

This is certainly true of philosophy books. Sure, an argument might build — Leibniz's Monadology really wants to be read in order, its 90 propositions building and involuting and folding in complex ways. But, still, read it in any order you like. 

For me, reading a book is akin to the way Cézanne would paint. Cézanne didn't begin with the outline and then fill in the middle. No, he'd put a stroke here, a stroke there until the apple — pear, landscape — emerged. For Cézanne, there was no center or external structure. An apple hangs together according to obscure and beautiful and immanent terms of cohesion. 

So when I pick up a book — any book — I flip around until I find something that grabs my attention. And then I dig in — until my attention wanders. Then I flip around again. I approach the book as Cézanne approaches the canvas, building the book from the inside out one stroke at a time.

In school, students are handed books as if that book is a given as great. But I always tried to teach my students to ask: Why this book? What does it want from me? What do I make of such requests? The book was never on a pedestal; our job is not to confirm its greatness. We should come to anything as participants, not as sycophants. 

And yet it's rarely interesting to spend time saying why a book stinks. It's as uninteresting as saying why a book is great. Stinks, great: who cares? I always taught my students that to read a text is to convey what it's up to, what it wants from the world, how it operates. That thumbs up or thumbs down is soul killing. Bring that text to life in all its beauty or ugliness or whatever it offers — but bring it to life!

Whenever I pick up a book, I hold it in my hand, feeling for the weight. Who wants to hold a book that's too heavy or too light? Well, sometimes, maybe. But I'm looking for that book that feels good in my hands. I want the font to be right, too. I'm not a young man, anymore. I need that font to be a certain size. It's fine if they want to publish at 10 point but then you're telling me you don't want anyone over a certain age to read it. Which I get! But I'm not reading you.

I then flip here and there looking for a foothold, a way in, something that might interest me, take me up, something that pops from the fray. If I don't find it, I put the book down. If I do, I keep going, flipping forwards and backwards until an image of the book takes shape — Cézanne's apple coming into being as if from nowhere. 

Such is the endless miracle of reading: something new comes into being, as if from nowhere, and yet it's right here, right there: a resurrection. A repetition. Lazarus. 

All the while, you need to ask yourself: What does this book want from me? Where is this book going? Where can it go, perhaps despite itself? The author's intention is irrelevant — after all, our intention is often belied by forces we're not even aware of. Just because an author says she intended to do something doesn't make it so. (Ask Shrodinger about his cat. Or Freud about the status of repression.)  If only life were like that! But no: we live and die by what we do, not what we intend. Life is for the living, not for the intended.

My point is this: the approach to the book is half the task. You need to feel its equal as we are all just so much stuff. A planet, a poem a person: it's all made of the same stuff. And yet the important thing to realize is that this is not to belittle the thing. On the contrary, this is the only way to actually respect a book (yes, I split infinitives because that's an arbitrary grammatical rule). To pray to it is the same as to damn in: it's to assume it has a power it never had. Our job as readers is to respect it and ask: What are you up to? How can I help? I call this generosity.

3.27.2018

Some Practical Suggestions for Teaching Creative Thinking

 
School, for the most part, teaches students how to go with the beat. I want to suggest that there is more pedagogic efficacy in teaching them to go against the beat.

So much of schooling is focused on finding the right answer. Such is the very structure of multiple choice exams, those very tests we use to asses who gets into college and who doesn't. Perhaps knowing things serves a function. Certainly at times knowing the right answer comes in handy — when assessing the trajectory of a missile, for instance, or the weight bearing limits of a plinth. Knowing some good words is handy, too, not to mention existentially useful — a good word can steer a thought.

But obviously focusing on the knowing of things is limited and, in the age of the internet, redundant. What the internet cannot teach is the how — how to think critically and creatively. Life is unpredictable. Thinking creatively allows one to make sense of new situations as they arise. But even more importantly, life is filled with the banal, the idiotic, and the ideological passing itself as true. The ability to think creatively allows one to infuse the everyday humdrum with vitality. And learning to think critically allows one to reveal the power and violence that permeates so much of life — from school to politics to romance to the media. 

How do we teach such things?

Art is a cornerstone of creative, critical thinking.  To teach art is not to teach how to stay within the lines or to replicate the real. Good job! It looks just like that mug! No, the pedagogic function of art is to teach decision making when there is no measuring stick, no right answer — which is the challenge of everyday life! The questions of art demand a student finding a position when there is no right answer but something has to be done anyway. Why do you use this or that line? Use this or that color? Frame your picture like that? And, perhaps most profoundly, how do you know when it's done? These are questions without pre-determined answers. But they are not without criteria of assessment all together. This is what makes a good art teacher: he knows how to discuss, assess, and critique a student's decisions without recourse to a teacher's edition text book.

What a skill! What could be more useful in life than teaching a 14 year old how to make sense of what she's done when there is no right answer? Isn't this the challenge put before us all on a daily basis? How do you know what to say to co-workers and friends, to brothers and sisters, to a homeless man panhandling, to cops? How do we know when it's time to leave a party, a conversation, a situation? All of these are decisions we have to make without certainty. What trains us to make these kinds of decisions? Does knowing which veins lead to or from the heart do the trick? Or is art, in fact, the only subject we teach that instructs in the way of making decisions when there is no recourse to Wikipedia?

But there are more approaches to creative and critical thinking than art pedagogy. Here are some ideas — a few I've done for myself, a few with students.

Take a sign, any sign. And read it differently that its obvious intention. To wit: "End Road Work" as a political banner. "Chicken Hamburger Milkshakes" as a repulsive offering; "Rough Road" as an existential declaration of fact; "Speed Humps" as a sentence — speed the subject, humps the verb. Yeah, sure, this may not be so funny but it's a great exercise that asks you a) to recognize that much of what seems self-evident is a construct that relies on social agreement; and b) to find alternate meanings within one sign.

Color walks: William Burroughs would do this. Walk outside. Now pick a color. Now go wherever that color is. That is, don't be lead by destination or goal nor by habit. Let your world be redistributed by the arbitrary picking of a color. Suddenly, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

You can extend this exercise to other media. For instance, choose a book and only follow one character or one part of speech or change the order of pages — going against the beat, as it were. The lesson? That there are other ways to distribute the world.

This is a variation on the color walk that occurred to me the other day: Write about one of the so-called great books — say, The Aeneid— without mentioning the battles or the Roman state. When I was a TA in grad school, the professor had me teach it; I was bored so I followed one figure through the book — gossip. I never mentioned anything else; I just tried to define what gossip meant within the terms of the book. My argument: gossip, for Virgil, is not a matter of truth or lies but of circumstance and source. The wrong person saying a true thing at the wrong time becomes gossip. The professor was not pleased. The point: a book is inherently multiple. Purposefully ignore all the things about it you're supposed to know and follow a compelling thread that catches your attention.

For an assignment in an MFA seminar I taught at SFAI, we chose three artists in three different media — Sarah Sze, Andreas Gursky, and Paul Kos. For the students' final assignment, each had to create something in the style of their assigned artist but using a different medium. This forces the question of what a style even is — is it in the subject matter? The affect? The colors? All or none of the above?

This assignment translates well to the written word — write a philosophical essay in the style of Allen Ginsberg; write a recipe in the style of Nabokov; write instructions for building a bird house in the style of Melville.

In another SFAI grad seminar I co-taught with the brilliant artist, Marc Lafia, we had every student in the class create a performance, an installation, and an object using nothing but the reader we'd created for the course, filled with photocopied articles. The point: your medium doesn't matter; nor do materials. Having constraints forces creativity.

Constraints are great as they force a reflection on the process of creation. You can create different constraints for each assignment: Give an argument about Moby Dick in one tweet; now in one page; now in five pages. You can add all kinds of constraints. In La Disparition (translated as A Void), Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without the letter "e"; the English translation follows suit (a humbling task).

The Oulipo school thrived on such constraints. in Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau relates an incredibly banal story of an eventless event on a bus; he then proceeds to tell the same tale, whatever that means, 99 different ways. There are many variations on this exercise you could assign. I had my students write the 100th style, telling Queneau's tale in a different manner. Or students could tell the same anecdote x number of ways. This, again, teaches them about expression, about form, and about the multiplicity and plasticity of this world. What better goal is there than that?

As for teaching subjects other than art and literature, here's an easy one: whatever book you're using as your source of information, turn the students' attention to that book! If it's a text book, ask why the authors chose this breakdown of the material and have the students write their own outline for a textbook on the subject.

In college, I had to take a science class and chose physical anthropology; while the subject might or might not be interesting, this class was not — the test asked if lemurs were diurnal or nocturnal! So I flipped over the exam and wrote a critique of the text book. I got a C. But asking students to offer a different organization of the textbook is an incredible assignment that a) teaches the material; and b) at the same time, drawing attention to the very ways we make sense of the material. Oh, now I kind of want to teach physical anthropology just to give this assignment.

I gave a similar assignment in another grad seminar a SFAI: the students had to create their own art movement — write a manifesto or declaration and group artists who belonged in that movement. Again, this shows that movements are constructed, not given; and then fosters the creativity in such creation, forging all kinds of new modes of thinking, new connections between otherwise unrelated artists. This is the fundamental plasticity of the world, the territory in which creative minds thrive.

I'm thinking this should be an open source document in which we all keep adding assignments and ways to teach critical, creative thinking.

3.22.2018

A Discourse that Suits Us


What you don't see is the VI Lenin t-shirt. We're all seeking a discourse that suits us.

When I was younger, I could be preachy. I believed in a certain sense of the social good and expressed it loudly, often, and aggressively. I was president of my high school student union both my junior and senior year. My platform was student power; I believed the school should be run by students. In my freshman year of college, I founded an organization called STAND, STudents Against Nuclear Destruction (we didn't have a lot of opposition; nor did we have many members). One time, Abby Hoffman visited campus to rally students to help stop PECO from building some water pump to cool their nuclear reactor. When Mr. Hoffman asked what this student group should be called, I suggested, STOP — STudents Opposed to the Pump. I had a knack for acronyms albeit within a very limited range.

When I look back at this time, two things come to mind. One, I was so sure that the things I believed were right that I found it literally insane that anyone could think otherwise. Which is so, well, icky it makes me cringe. That's the very definition of bigotry and, alas, one of the defining traits of the liberal culture in which I was indoctrinated — a smug sanctimony built on a foundation of intolerance which is all the worse for its claims to the contrary.

And two, when I picture myself back then, I see a certain decadence, a sensual pleasure. I liked being cloaked in the affect of my words. I liked holding forth in front of crowds or in a conversation.  I liked the license it gave me to speak emphatically. I could swear, get heated, jump up and down. When I really think about it, my passion was not for the ideas I was espousing but for the position this espousal afforded me. I called myself a communist, had a poster of Karl Marx and a Che t-shirt — this was 1985, before Che was chic — but had never read either (well, I read "The Communist Manifesto" in my communist teacher's class, a great detail about my high school). No, it wasn't the ideas per se that interested me. I wore my Karl Marx because I liked the way it felt. It gave me a license to pontificate with oomph.

At some point during my sophomore year of college, it all began to feel wrong. The ground of certainty began to give way as I walked into Emerson's quicksand ("Gladly we would anchor," he writes, "but the anchorage is quicksand"). I hadn't yet read Nietzsche, Derrida, or Foucault. They would come soon and begin to give me a different kind of license — a way to speak emphatically but with something else I then craved, a superiority that wasn't moral but intellectual. If before, I claimed the mantle of righteousness, here I claimed the mantle of knowing more.

Once I discovered Derrida, I just substituted my old sense of social justice (whatever that is) with the deconstruction of "Western metaphysics." When speaking, I shed my certainty about my political positions and in turn became an enforcer for Derrida. It was unseemly. I remember taking an intellectual history seminar with Bruce Kuklick who, after my second paper, told me, "You're like a meat grinder. Put anything in and it comes out 'deconstruction.'" It was a humbling moment that resonates in my body to this day. Funny, and beautiful, how an offhand comment can reverberate. Prof. Kuklick's one comment remains one of my great teachers.

And so I was still a didactic idiot. C'mon, man, how can you ascribe to that phallocentric metaphysical bullshit?? I could have been preaching anything — the Word of God, the Second Amendment, a NY Times editorial. Only now I had an air of intellectual superiority which had been absent in my moral indignation. Alas, I had yet to see that the what doesn't matter as much as the how.

Ah, youth! So much vigor, such vitality. It looks for outlets — physical, existential, behavioral — everywhere and anywhere. All that energy needs to go somewhere. And while a five year old might be able to run it all off in an empty field, an 18 year old needs something else and so is still looking for that mode of expression that serves and suits: a discourse she can wear. As a teen, I glommed onto social justice (a phrase I really dislike for being so vacuous; I use it here precisely in its vacuity (I love the word vacuity; how often does one get to use it? But I love the verb glom)). And as a college student, it was the postmodern (another vacuous word).

As I got older, I began to truly see that life was complex with so many different angles. I knew that my positions were just positions among positions. As people die around you, you get a taste for the transience of all things. But how to express that? How to speak within the flow of time, without certainty and yet without a lack of certainty: I feel this now and know it will give way? How to speak with, from, and as a position that is always already just another position and yet one that is thoroughly, passionately felt without becoming doctrine?

This is an ongoing exploration, an experiment. I keep looking for a discourse I can wear, a discourse that suits me, as it were. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I've found a promising discourse in stand up comedy and, specifically, in Jerry Seinfeld's persona in "Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars." Stand ups know to take nothing seriously and yet they hold forth with utter abandon. Seinfeld, not the most interesting comic, has emerged with one of the more compelling, inviting, and wise discourses I've happened upon. Like us all, he is in search of a discourse that suits his comportment. This Seinfeld bit, on daytime television, inspires me: it's at once sure and detached. It's a complex ethical stance that claims his position in time towards others, at once sure and slight. What better position is there?


Language is inherently social. We can't control it; it has a will of its own, a will that is collective and ever moving. To speak is to join a conversation always already in session. And that means we're always positioned. Which means we're always looking for a position that suits us, that is flexible, that lets us be funny, smart, ironic, particular, general, smart, interesting. These positions are not easily come by!

Goth, punk, Neo-Nazi, libertarian, NY Jewish Liberal, tech douche: these are positions afforded us by public discourse. Of course, we slip into these positions and reshape from within, an inevitable process of life. But the terms of the discourse are strong; they are apparati for energy expression, affect engines. This is to say, they are modes of expression as much as they are expressions of belief. A kid who gives a Nazi salute wants to feel empowered, different, enraged.

I am not dismissing the content of that Nazi salute. I am introducing the performance of the salute as an essential component of the expression. When I hear about white supremacist marches, this is my first thought — not that these people are Nazis that need to be killed but that they are angry and in search of a discourse that suits them so why not Nazism? And then rather than combat them on the level of content, I seek to approach them as I'd approach any angry, resentful person who just wants to say: Yes! I'm passionate and different and I matter, damnit! (Mind you, this might involve a baseball bat.)

Discourse is the terms of social exchange that exceed us, taking us up, positioning us — and giving us modes of affective energetic release. We slip into it on its terms and assume our position so that others can recognize us in a way that, hopefully, feels good and right. This is all too apparent on dating sites. Oh, she's just another feel good hippy liberal. She's a Marina girl. (an SF reference but substitute any city neighborhood: She's so Upper West Side), She's a Burner! Frankly, I can't imagine what they used to think and say about me... (I have been mercifully liberated from that world).

Social life is a play of cliché and emergence, a relentless intermingling of generality and particularity, of assumptive proscriptions and real complexity. We are all endlessly seeking a discourse we can wear with grace. Yes, the things we say matter. But everything we say happens as an expression that is always situated within a more general discourse of how we assume people talk and interact. How we can say this or that is as important as what we can say. We all just want to drape ourselves in a discourse that suits us.

3.01.2018

From Inhuman Generality to Human Particularity: On PT Anderson's Great Trilogy and "Phantom Thread"


It is a grand entrance: an ominous promise — There will be blood — against utter blackness that lingers a tad too long before the desert and mountains emerge monumental, inflected by Jonny Greenwood's dissonant crescendo. The scale is epic. It's literally and figuratively big — big shot, big music, big promise. And the main character who we're introduced to alone, underground, wielding an ax is big.

But he's not big in the way, say, Darkest Hour's Churchill is. His magnitude is not due to his human endeavors; it's due to his ahumanity, to terrestrial forces that are bigger than all of us. To be clear, I don't mean his inhumanity as we generally use it to mean cruelty (which is funny in that few things are as distinctly human as cruelty). Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview is not really human. There's a competition in me, he says and this is what we witness: a force of the earth, specifically of oil's combustible black seething viscosity. While being in what seems like every scene, this is not a movie about Daniel Plainview, about a great, complicated man impacting the world around him, about his trials and tribulations, his loves and pains. No, we don't experience him as a human being; we experience him as a force.


PT Anderson followed this with The Master. Once again, the opening scene is big. Only this time it's not the earth but the ocean inflected by big angular strings. The Master, like There Will Be Blood, is not about things — for example, the founding of Scientology or post-war America — even if these details add texture. No, we are once again in the realm of forces and wills that exceed and animate the human — Joaquin Phoenix fucking the beach and jerking off into the waves. This is not a human story; it's a spectacle of a certain ahuman madness that runs through us.


Inherent Vice, Anderson's next movie, may seem at first like a break as we get beach houses, a glimpse of the ocean, kids running before we see Joanna Newsom, a halo of sun behind her, telling us a tale. Only this is not a tale of love or mystery. It's really note a tale as much as it's a series of trajectories that might or might not cohere here and there but happen nonetheless, all meander and event, all drift and coincidence. Inherent Vice, which I'll admit may be my favorite movie of all time, is structurally all Pynchon as it lives in the space between order and chaos, structure and its relentless collapse.

The brilliant film writer and maker, Ryland Knight, argues that these three films form a trilogy of the face (There Will Be Blood), the body (The Master), and the spirit (Inherent Vice). This is a keen reading that deftly weaves the three films together without unifying them. And it speaks to their scale: they are big movies in ambition and scope (while only The Master is shot on 70mm, the other two feel as though they should be). 

Phantom Thread marks a break. It's a smaller film, literally, shot in 35mm and almost exclusively indoors. It's all tight frames of tea cups and spouts, of flowers and glances, of that narrow foyer, that tight winding staircase, the ripples of a dress. If the trilogy is all grand folds of ahuman forces, Phantom Thread is tiny pleats of human being.

Indeed, from one perspective, this movement from grand ahuman generality to local human particularity is the story of the film itself. Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, deals with the form of woman, of women, as he creates dresses for them. He does not love any one woman. He has no interest in any of his clients, however renowned they are, whatever their class or royal pedigree. (The woman closest to him, his sister, he addresses as "My old so-and-so"  — even she is a generality.) All he sees, all he cares about, is the way the dress gives elegance, shape, form to their shape and form. He can't understand why he's invited to a long time client's wedding. And when that woman behaves unbecomingly, he storms into her apartment and takes the dress back.

And then he meets Alma who, at first, may be another woman in a series of lovers for whom he seems to have no real interest, sexual or otherwise. But Alma is different. Sure, in the beginning when he dresses her, she feels her own movement from an oddly shaped body to a perfect woman, to the generality or ideal of woman. This, however, doesn't last or doesn't suffice. She has taste; she has will; she has desires — at least enough to get her in trouble.


Her insistence on herself as this woman with these desires ruffles him and his house. In one of the more comical scenes, we see her pouring tea and buttering toast noisily — or what he calls "too much movement." But it's not just that it irritates him — an experience we've all had with lovers. No, the problem is that it disrupts his working process, his production of dresses. Which is to say, her way of going is not just juxtaposed with his way, a common lover's quarrel. It's that her particular way of going interrupts his process of making dresses that forge the ideal woman. On the one hand, then, we have women in general — his work, his passion, his "genius." On the other, we have Alma who is this woman with these desires, this way of buttering her toast and pouring her tea. Such is the conflict and structure of the film.

Unlike the trilogy, this film remains tightly focused. The entire film takes place, more or less, in two houses. And we don't ever even see the whole of these houses; we are privy to a room or two but never get a sense of the layout. There are few wide establishing shots. And the one or two we get only make the scene more focused. We get a few mentions of the scope of the Woodcock house; he has dressed royalty and their court from baptism through coming out to wedding.

If this were a common Hollywood movie, a fictional biopic, we'd see the royal wedding shot from afar in all its splendor. It'd tell us how important this man Woodcock is, how important fashion is, how his genius played a pivotal role in post-war European history. Oy! The very thought of this nauseates me.

In PTA's hand, the focus remains small, local, tight: we see the historical figures enter his frame — his pleated house of spiraling staircases — not the other way around. The one time we see him at a wedding, the camera never pans back: we see him and Alma at a table grimacing at the drunken bride in his dress. There is no wide view; everything remains tightly framed. Even when they're driving, we don't see the wide road around them; all we see is Alma and Reynolds, framed by the body of the car.

This image performs the tension of the film: woman as just another woman with a number in an infinite series vs. this woman here and now. It's the tension of the ideal generality vs. all-too-human particularity.

Alma is stubbornly human. And, despite his will to forge the ideal of woman, Reynolds is all-too-human, as well — persnickety, jealous, longing for his mother when's sick and afraid. Alma is a woman who can partake of the generality — we see her above bearing her number 20, another in an infinite series of female forms — but who has a will of her own, a particularity. Reynolds and his sister try to discipline this out of her but, due to Alma's clever and sadistic move, to no avail. They find their way of going in this movement from the general to the particular, from the strength of the ideal to the frailty of the human.

And such, alas, is PTA's own movement from his trilogy to Phantom Thread, his camera moving from the generality of the face, the body, and the spirit to the absolute particularity of this man, this woman, this situation. As Phantom Thread makes clear, this is a laborious movement fraught with pain, vomit, and the risk of death. But it also promises something beautiful: intimacy and love.

2.25.2018

Other People (as Death and Liberation)

It's Saturday evening; the sun will set in over an hour. This is my favorite time of day. I don't care much for afternoons; they sprawl, a nebulous temporal mass of duty and sun. Everyone is working or running errands; on weekends, I don't know what they do — hike, I suppose, or shop. Me, I stay home, the blinds closed. This is a great luxury of working from home. The San Francisco sun irritates me; its sharp, severe angularity is like jagged glass in my eyes. Robert Bechtle, the San Francisco artist, paints this so well.



There's this beautiful moment when the intensity of the light gives, the world relaxing its clenched sphincter and, just like that, I perk up. I feel a surge of energy. Don Juan tells Carlos to be careful at sunset; it's a powerful time and, if you're not careful, things can go awry. I know exactly what he means. I like to respect this cosmic shift by toasting it with a cocktail. I never day drink; it's unseemly (not in the social sense but in the cosmic sense, in the energetic sense). And I rarely night drink. I enjoy my cocktails as a way to respect dusk, to temper that surge just so (mind you, I don't want to overdo it; that would be disrespectful to all involved — the sun, the day, the earth, me).

So here I sit before my screen as music gently fills the room — Lemon Jelly, at the moment — with a glass of tequila at the ready, neat, in one of my hand blown tequila glasses. This is a perfect moment. Few things, if any, afford me such sheer, unqualified contentment. As I was dropping my son off earlier at a friend's birthday party, I awaited this exact moment with tingling anticipation. When another parent asked what the evening held for me — he was staying to socialize with other parents — I couldn't contain myself: Oh, I'm gonna go home and write. "Are you writing something in particular?" he asked, "or is it top secret?" I was briefly thrown by the question. What was I going to write? What do I write in general? Should it be top secret? What kind of writing would that be? But all I said was: Oh, whatever pops in my head.

I find the social exhausting. It takes some energy for me to figure out the rules of the occasion and then much more energy to adhere to these rules. It's not that I can't read the social; I can size up a room quickly and well (so I believe, at least). I don't experience social anxiety; I am comfortable talking (no duh, Coffeen! If only you were less comfortable talking thinks anyone who's ever spent time with me).

The source of exhaustion is manifold. I don't know the things people talk about; I don't read newspapers. When I hear people talking or see posts on the Facebook, I think: Jeez, I don't even know how to enter these conversations — about the president, sexual harassment, guns. I may have opinions. But in order to express them, I'd have to ask for time to establish, then clarify, my presuppositions. This, alas, is a) absurd; b) supremely difficult; and c) absolutely exhausting. I don't know how people talk to each other.

I don't offer any of this as a judgment or condemnation of people and their conversations. I am not suggesting that I am so different, so special, that I have to remain outside the social — a martyr, paying the price of loneliness for my idiosyncrasies. I am saying, however, that aren't we all so different? Don't we all have strange world views that rarely, if ever, sync with public discourse? I don't know what people talk about; I don't know how they do it. It appears I am socially inept, after all.

Other than my inability to navigate conversations with any grace, I find that when I'm with other people, I expend too much energy. I lean too far forward, too eager to make a joke, too eager to make some insight I find interesting, some connection with the other person that may or may not be desired. When I'm in the social, I am rarely poised. I'm a dog who hears the words walk and treat and can't contain himself, all drool and paws. I get overexcited and try to please (which is ironic in that I usually have the opposite effect). I try to be affable.


Which is why I don't like people spending the night at my house, especially in my bed. I can't shut down; I can't stop trying to please. As a result, I can't sleep — which is more annoying for my company than it is for me. After an evening with other people, I am thoroughly spent.

It feels like I have a faulty mechanism, a valve that is either open too much or not enough. And so I spend a lot of time alone. For here in my refuge, I have everything I need, everything I want — peace most of all.

But these asocial tendencies have drawbacks. In an immediate and crass sense, it hinders my ability to enjoy the company of women on an ongoing basis. It turns out, after a few dates, she expects to spend the night. I can do my darndest to explain my way out of that but, alas, there is no way that ever — ever — plays well. Such is the social: one's movements have semiotic ramifications beyond one's control. I may not mean any insult when asking a woman to leave at 12:42 AM, post-coitus, but my act has significance beyond my intention, my control, my personal meaning.

Such is the nature of being in the world: we are never masters. We don't have a domain; we are in the mix. The things we do and say resonate beyond us, without us, having effects we may never have intended or predicted. Such is life: it is to participate in a social body  which has demands and logics that figure us despite our best intentions. To live in this world demands abandoning control.

Rather than join the fray, my instinct is to withdraw completely. But this is a losing proposition. I have a son; an ex-wife; I need to make money with other people. And I enjoy many aspects of romantic entanglement — sex, physical intimacy in general, existential intimacy. And love: I love to love. Who doesn't?

Which is related to another drawback. Being alone, I am free to indulge many of my worst traits.  What makes them my worst? They leave me less healthy, or better, less vital ("health" is too medical for me; I may have technically poor health but still be vital. "Vital" is a better mode of assessment). Rather than find resounding cosmic peace, I find local, domestic peace. Sure, no one is bothering me at the moment. But I still see the world as a place of bother — and hence don't experience a peace that permeates, that streams through me. All I experience is a little respite from my personal madness.

Other people, then, afford me an opportunity to find that peace. Yes, I can meditate when no one is around and feel the resonant flow of all things. But that flow bypasses the social all together. At these moments, I move from myself to the infinite without any regards to others. But this involves deploying special blinders, keeping my eyes focused on the sky and not the sounds of the social.

Kierkegaard posits a religious state of being that enjoys an immediate relationship with the infinite. No need for marriage, for religion, for social institutions: we can have a direct relationship with the infinite without going through any of those things. But there are two aspects of this religious state. There is the one who takes leave of the social, becomes an ascetic, and devotes her entire life to God. But there's another one, the knight of faith, who doesn't need to renounce the social because she has such profound faith. This knight steps into the infinite and back to the finite with each step she takes. This is Abraham who bypasses the social when he ascends Mt. Moriah to slay his only son and then returns to his wife and community as if nothing happened!

What blows Kierkegaard away, and what incites me so, is precisely this ability: to have a direct relationship with the infinite and with the finite. For Kierkegaard, this is the lesson of Jesus, he who is both man and god at once. So are we all both human and divine, finite and infinite, mortal and immortal.

The thing is, the social can be so trying. The ego, in particular, is such a nasty beast. I become afraid she'll leave me, become disgusted by me, lose interest in me, become annoyed by me. And this, in turn, makes me ill at ease — which, of course, makes me disgusting, annoying, boring. The only way to live in the social without such dis-ease is to let all that happens happen without attachment, with a perpetual so it goes. Just as I watch the clouds come and go, I try to learn to let love come and go.

Then again, there is a great temptation — and a great joy — in experiencing the undulations of human all-too-human being. To be in the throws of passion, to feel great hurt, great loss, great lust. How do I do both of these things — be detached and utterly human? Did Osho ever get really pissed off? Have an anxiety attack? Do or say something stupid in order to win another's heart, touch, lips?

Without other people, I don't know any of these answers. I don't know how to be in the fullness of this life. And so rather than see other people as my disintegration, I try to see them as a meditative practice. How can I be here talking to you, talking to her, being with her, and still be absolutely at peace? How do I stand in the social with poise, without leaning too far forward or too far back? How can I be with all of this world, not just with the clouds and sky, not just with ideas and books, but with the flesh of this world — with its caresses, stumbles, pains, stinks, and pleasures?

So, yes, I can meditate alone. I can find a peace alone. But this is the move of the ascetic, of the nay-sayer who finds this world too much to bear and so retreats from life, staying home alone with the blinds drawn. I want to be that knight of faith, the one who is absolutely at peace whether he's alone or with others, who walks with equanimity among clouds and people alike.

2.22.2018

Repetition, Again


Found this great image from a blog post entitled, "Slow Reading Deleuze's DR." This is the opening line: "It took me nine or ten months to make it (slowly) through the introduction to Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. Will it take me a year or two to finish the first proper chapter? We'll see."
I love this. Read more here >

I remember when I first read Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. It was one of the more intellectually humbling experiences of my life: I couldn't understand a word. I was in a small grad seminar lead by my great teacher and mentor, Felipe Gutterriez. There were about 10 of us including my excellent friend, the poet qua sophist, Lohren Green. We both fancied ourselves pretty smart guys, like we could understand anything — an erroneous feeling, clearly; a delusion, for sure; hubris, indubitably. We couldn't make heads or tails of this damn book.

The thing I kept coming back to, the thing that nagged at me, was: Why repetition? How did Deleuze come upon this word, this idea, this operation? As an avid reader of Kierkegaard, I felt the same about his book entitled, yes, Repetition. What the heck was he talking about? Why repetition? I could grasp why Kierkegaard had a book on irony, on dread, on love, on the stages on life's way. But why repetition?

Deleuze's book opens like this: "Repetition is not generality." Huh? What? From the get go, I was stymied. Who thought it was generality? To whom is he talking? The book continues: "Repetition and generality must be distinguished in several ways. Every formula which implies their confusion is regrettable..." Oy vey: I was completely disoriented. He's using imperatives and declarations, referring to existing formula, as if we've already been talking, as if the conversation has already begun — only it feels like I missed the part where we began.

How'd I get here? Why am I here? The sensation is uncanny: I am being spoken to in this familiar way and yet I have no idea what's happening. This leaves me in a very strange position. I cannot have mastery of this subject, of this playing field; there is no balcony from which to gain view of the land, no preface which frames the discussion and orients me, as reader, about what I'm reading. To read the book — in fact, to read any Deleuze book — is to join a conversation that's already in progress.

Such is the logic and operation of repetition. It refuses any origin or destination; it inaugurates a trajectory, or trajectories, of becoming — not becoming anything, just becoming.

After that initial experience with Deleuze's difficult book, after what would be years of confusion and self-doubt, repetition became an integral part of my way of going. I can no longer think without the concept of repetition. It took me up and remade me, reconfigured me, redistributed me until I was not quite me but rather was me again, me anew, me reborn: repetition forged a repetition of me.

So when I find myself talking about some of my favorite philosophers, favorite ideas, repetition inevitably comes up. And, just as inevitably, my interlocutor is as befuddled as I was in that seminar 22 years ago. Only the person to whom I'm talking isn't a grad student so, well, her confusion is amplified: What the heck are you talking about?

Confusion might be the wrong word in that it suggests some orientation that has been temporarily dismantled when, in fact, there never was any orientation. The word repetition comes to her, comes to any layman, like an alien. What is this? Why is this? How is this? It's so different, so utterly alien, that it becomes silly, a piece of conceptual trash, easy to turn away from. As a grad student studying 20th century French philosophy, it was my job to understand this book. For anyone else, the drive is, well, less driven. And so I find myself in the position of trying to explain repetition — a pleasurable, if difficult, proposition.

I've tried before (almost exactly 7 years ego. Egad!). I used this fantastic David Shrigley cartoon:


Here I go again, repeating my explanation of repetition.

I think the best way to explain repetition is through identity — the identity of anything but I'll focus on identity of me (yes yes, such is my narcissism).

There I am. Who am I? What defines my identity? Is there a true self? If so, which self would this be — the baby screaming for milk? The confused toddler poking a pile of dog shit with a stick? The father confused and anxious looking at his newborn child? The hippie at a Dead show lost in Dionysian revelry? What ties all these different selves together? Is it one thing?

Without the concept — or, to be pedantic, the operation — of repetition, we might say: Yes, there is a deep self, a true self, that stays the same from birth to death. Everything else is an expression that is closer to or farther from that true self.

But then we're in an odd position of saying that sometimes we're not ourselves — which is odd for how can you not be yourself when you are always yourself? Which means we can skirt certain accountability: That guy who screamed at you wasn't me! And that we're constantly judging ourselves: This ecstatic dancing feels great....but I'm not sure it's really me.

The concept of a true self, then, creates a relationship to the self that can be uncomfortable if not downright unsavory. For instance, extend it to a true American, a true man, a true wife and we begin to see the violence inherent to such a notion of the true self: it becomes a set standard by which we judge deviations.

But it's absurd to say I have no self at all. Surely, I have some continuity. I have this scar in my finger from when I cut myself at camp when I was seven. I have all these memories, these allergies, this relationships to the world: I like chicken salad but not with raisins; that's how I drive to Davis, California and, once on the freeway, how I change lanes; this is how I tie shoes, brush teeth, cook ramen. Which is to say, there is no absolutely new me at every moment; I bring everything that's ever happened to me with me. (Kierkegaard writes: "Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward." Think about that one for a while!)

And yet I have some freedom from those memories, from that continuity. I am not predetermined. I may have loved shrimp tempura but now it wields apocalyptic intestinal mayhem. So which is the true me?

Different me's. What ties them all together? Is there a master term? Or do they have internal relationships that vary?

Is there a master term that sits above all these version of me, an Ideal Daniel? What does he look like? What foods does he like? What does he think and feel? And who decided which Daniel is the Ideal Daniel? How did they decide? When did they decide? And if there is no Ideal Daniel, no arbiter of who I really am, what ties all these different versions of me together?

Then again, do they need to be tied together? Well, legally, the state sure wants there to be some continuity. And my friends appreciate it. My name kind of ties them all together. Then again, I changed my name when I was 16 — I was born Daniel Schlosser so most of these pictures are pictures of him. "Daniel" is consistent but lots of people are tied together with that name so, in the above montage, there'd be other Daniels (but let me ask you: How many Daniels are in the above pictures? One? Six? Four? How do you decide?).

So no true self and no absolute different self moment to moment: so what and where are the threads that stitch this identity together? What links these selves, these different moments and modes, together. If, like all things, I am a creature in flux, what keeps me from dissipating into the ether as so many specks of dust?

From the young cute me to the bar mitzvah me to Jewfro me to the pudgy bald me to the skinny serious me: the connections are internal to those different me's in that they don't make a detour through an Ideal Me. Rather, the movement happens between the different me's. The terms of the links change— sometimes it's voice or look; other times, it's phrasing or attitude. You tell me. In any case, they don't all connect through an Ideal Me; they connect in different ways at different times to create a me that is both the same and different. They are all repetitions of me!

But doesn't repetition mean the same thing over and over, the same self over and over?

Fortunately, I changed over time. All things change over time. For instance, now I have no hair.

Well, no. That is one of Deleuze's deft moves: if it were the same me, I'd be the same so there'd be no reason to invoke repetition: there would just be one me. Repetition is temporal and hence forges difference in its very operation — a bigger nose, curly hair, no hair, a different posture.

From Jewfro to bald: we are creatures of and in flux. How, then, do we remain ourselves?

Parenthood is such an explicit act of repetition. Here is me and me again in the form of my son. The repetition marks continuity as much as it marks discontinuity.  What links my son to me? A glimmer of skin tone, a curl of hair, an out turned foot, a smile, a sense of humor: what ties us together is not as much an external link as an internal one. That is repetition.

Breeding — or, rather, all parenting as repetition need not be only a passing of DNA — is a clear form of repetition.
There's me and not me.

When I taught writing, an assignment I'd give is to have the students write something in the style of an author we'd just read, say, Nietzsche. But what would count as writing something in that style? Talking about the same kinds of things? What about discussing totally opposed things but in the same rhythm and tone?  

My point is this: to repeat something is not to hold yourself accountable to an external law but to continue one trajectory or another. So perhaps a student writes about the beauty of Christian faith — but using Nietzsche's adamant reversals. Those would be one mode of repeating Nietzsche. But there are others. You could write an expository essay, something Nietzsche never did, fleshing out Nietzsche's conception of the will to power — a repetition of another sort. One takes up his form but not his content; the other takes up his content but not his form. Both are repetitions.

A thing is run through with many other things. My self is a momentary nexus of trajectories — needy lover, momma's boy, aggressive intellectual, stoner sage, big nose, skinny body, sometimes a big belly. A repetition of me could follow one or a combination of many of these trajectories in order to continue that style: in order to repeat me.

Repetition, then, is a way to conceive of identity in all of its multiplicity. It lets us think identity without an anchor, without a truth: identity as relentless becoming. Repetition is an operation, a doing that takes up a mode of going and moves it, moves with it, moves as it. It doesn't adhere to an external law; it moves from the inside out.

(Just staying on the outside would be copying; to copy something is do that thing but not do it anew, not move it anywhere, not introduce difference. Copying is opposed to repetition. For instance, there are times I say something and I feel like my brother; I'm not copying him — I sometimes do that if I'm telling a story and impersonating him. No, I'm talking about a certain mannerism or phrasing in which I become him, I live him from my inside out: I repeat him.)

Thinking repetition introduces a certain vertigo. It is the disorientation I experienced when I first read Deleuze's book, coming into a conversation that's already happening. In repetition, there is no linear movement, no progressive path from an origin point to death. Repetition moves forwards and backwards (and sideways and every which way). Remember: there is no origin, no absolute beginning point, no fixed point to hold onto. And there's no destination, no "on my way" there. With no anchor, we are in constant free fall. Or, rather, we are in outer space as there is no clear up and down.
We happen in the middle. I am already a repetition of my parents, my brother (hear us talk and you'll know immediately what I mean), of the concept of man, father, Jew, nudge. I am constantly taking up different pieces of the world and repeating them as me. The repetition that is me is my repetition of the world. My birth happens in the middle of a conversation; my life extends this conversation this way and that.

So why repetition? Why talk about it? Because it lets us think identity without a true identity. It lets us be. (Or lets us become.) It lets all the weird me's still be me! It lets us think a more generous way of being in the world, a way to exist without tethering ourselves to truth — while not disintegrating, either. It is a beautiful figure that inaugurates, allows, and facilitates more beautiful thought. And more beautiful, if disorienting, ways of going.

2.07.2018

Posture, Or the Calculus of Standing With the World


My ridiculous posture reveals — betrays — my stance towards the world. For such is posture: it is an ethics, a world view.

A certain man, when younger, is uncomfortable in his skin. He's angry — at his parents for what he considers their cruelty, his teachers for their demanding incompetence, at the whole freakin' world for everything from the drinking age to the insane distribution of federal tax monies (it's rare to be able to use the plural of money; I seize every opportunity). It's as if there's a conspiracy that runs from his DNA, which gave him this absurd nose and even more absurd body, all the way through the federal government which forces him to register for the draft so he can pay for his education, a state sanctioned extortion. So when he walks around, he walks with a furrowed brow, a craning neck, slumped shoulders, and a will to whine — a posture of cowering poised to lash out.

Decades later, he sees the world a bit differently. There's incompetence, sure, and plenty of violence in and out of households. The government's distribution of monies hasn't changed one iota from Nixon to Trump. It may be a conspiracy, he now believes, but it's a conspiracy of dunces. And so rather than a furrowed brow and slumped shoulders, he now walks with greater ease. Sure, his shoulders are not a dancer's. But they are not slumped in rejection; they're slouched with world weary sloth.

A world view is a posture and a posture, a world view.  To exist in the world is to stand towards other things — people, cars and phones, traffic, towards work and romance, men and women and kids, towards trees, bees, birds, and dogs, towards death. I flinch when a mosquito buzzes my ear; I lean in when talking to this person in this mood, lean back when talking to this other person in this other mood. At a Pixies show, I stand like this; at a Lil Uzi Vert show, I might stand like that. And in all circumstances, I am navigating and negotiating this body of mine — this skinny, perpetually hunched, and decaying bag of blood and organs.

Which is to say, posture marks this complex intersection of the material and conceptual worlds, a juncture of our body, the bodies of those around us, the ideas we have in our head, and what we believe it means to be a person in the world. Posture is not fixed in place. Nor is it totally fluid. We are always shifting how we stand based on any number of factors — perhaps an infinite number of factors — from the crick in a knee to the fact that in 1945 we completely destroyed a city with one bomb. (Look at art, read books, listen to music pre- and post-bomb; there is a conspicuous difference, a new limit term to reckon which creates different ways of standing in the world. Would Burroughs' cut ups be possible before the bomb?).

There is such an obvious correlation between mood and physical stance. When I feel shitty, I feel shit upon. And so I duck my head, scowl, respond with a too-ready nay. You can see it by the way I walk or enter a room — a little reticent, a little tense, ready to strike. Other times, when feeling content and calm, I walk with sense of the magnanimous, enter the social with a hearty openness. I literally and metaphorically hold myself differently.

Posture is a stance that comes from that impossible calculus of body, breeding, one's conception of the world, and one's place in said world. Surely, a 19 year old African-American man and I have different postures in different neighborhoods as our bodies mean different things depending on the context. The gazes and economies in which we participate shape how we hold ourselves. Women know this well: a certain posture at a certain time can be the difference between life and death (and any number of other exchanges from the awkward and uncomfortable to the romantic and erotic).

Our very way of holding ourselves, of comporting ourselves, is inflected by those around us — say, a big dog or a hunky guy — as well as by our perception of what's around us but not visible. We believe the world is such-and-such a place based on information that's not present, namely, the "news" and things you've been taught in school and at home. Posture is an ethical stance, a way of standing towards others. 

Sometimes, the correlation between posture and circumstance is obvious: it's raining so I bend my neck and duck my head. Most of the time, the correlation is nebulous: I think this neighborhood is "unsafe" because I heard a story about it once when I was a kid — so when I walk there, I am heads down but alert (because that's my conception of being "safe"). Or I think the world is vicious and cruel due to reading a certain paper-qua-snuff film every morning and so I carry myself with knowing anger everywhere I g (see the Facebook feeds of all-too-familiar piety and angst).


Bands are a great way to think about posture. Every band performs — puts on, lives in, and enacts — a world view. Take the Sex Pistols and the Grateful Dead. These two postures, like all postures, exceed physicality. To stand towards the world in such a manner is to assume the world is such a place which demands that they stand this way.

I saw Poi Dog Pondering at the TLA in Philly in 1990. This is not irrelevant. 

What's so complex about all this is that there are so many ways of standing towards the world. Some people really go all in one way or another. Think of punks and Deadheads. They really double down on one posture! Me, I get the Sex Pistols' anger. I also dig the Dead's noodling, Poi Dog Pondering's fruity fun, My Bloody Valentine's morose ambience. I get The Smiths dramatic plaintive; Die Antwoord's playful obscenity; Jethro Tull's agricultural Renaissance prog rock. I get early Dylan; I get rock Dylan; I get Christian Dylan which makes many I know recoil. A posture, then, of postures.

Comedians, too. In fact, comedians might be better in that it's just one body with a distinct physical posture we get to focus on. Think of Chris Rock, his pacing, his delivery, the way he stops to smile that mischievous smile. Now think of Louis CK's slumped shtick. Then Steven Wrights surreal deadpan absurdity. Then Larry David's broad gesturing self-deprecation, George Carlin's slumped curmudgeon, Dave Chappelle's hunched laughing with you.





O, the ways we come to consider the world so as to hold ourselves this way or that! It's staggering! The very way I stand in the world, stand towards myself and others, is informed and inflected by how I imagine a world I don't see but have to believe exists.

For me, maturity means recognizing the factors that have informed, and continue to inform, my posture — and then adjusting accordingly. I thought the world was like this. But it's not! I thought this is what I was in the world. But it's not! I'm this other thing entirely! Which shifts how I stand. Wisdom means reckoning the way I hold myself in the world in every sense, physically and metaphysically. One might say that it's matter of aligning one's bodily stance with one's world view. Alignment, in this sense, is not as much a matter of spine, hips, and head but of ethics, gait, and world view.


What, then, of yoga? Yoga, we might believe, is all about posture, the asanas. In yoga, you mindfully — which is a funny word to use as many yogis I know speak of being free of the mind, but that's for another time — so, in yoga, you consciously try on different postures, even absurd postures, postures you'd never, ever find yourself in. Many no doubt do this because it helps their body, a kind of physical therapy — this pose for a bad hip, this other for a funky back.

But what interests me about yoga is that it doesn't address a body out of context. On the contrary, it is always a question of the body in the world — albeit a world with an infinite horizon. That is to say, whereas my understanding of Pilates is that it addresses the posture of the body free of any conception of the world, a body qua body — whatever that is — yoga is distinctly about one's posture as a living, breathing cosmic being. If Pilates imagines alignment beginning at the feet and ending at the head, yoga imagines alignment beginning at the earth and ending at the infinite cosmic horizon — and the body is just an inflection of that flowing line. Which is to say, yoga addresses one's posture towards the universe. Which, one believes, inflects posture towards other people. (Although this is not yoga's explicit concern and a point in which it seems more or less indifferent: for all the people practicing yoga in the world, there are still so many assholes. This is not the fault of yoga. I'm just pointing out that yoga is not interested in a social body but in a cosmic body.)

And so it has you try on all these different postures. Ok, so now pretend you're a corpse. Now, a baby. Now stand on your head. Then slowly go backwards until you're in some kind of bridge. All of this, mind you, not just to stretch the back, hips, or hamstrings but to see how you feel. Because how you stand in the world is how you stand in the world. How do you go when your foot is behind your head? How do you go, how does the world go, when you're supine?

Yoga, it seems to me, recontextualizes physical posture by having you address a different horizon. Rather than assuming your same old posture of you watching TV, working at the computer, talking to your lover, boss, mother, yoga has you assume all kinds of poses as you address the cosmos. Its primacy focus is not how you go in the social. Rather, it teaches you different postures of standing towards the universe which might have you stand in and towards the social differently.

This is all to say that we don't just stand in the world. We comport ourselves. Our posture is always already a movement, a mode of address, an ethics, a self-relation, a way to engage the world.

1.30.2018

We Are Nothing at Bottom Because We Have No Bottom


Vertical Being and Flowing Being
How we architect, how we figure, being has profound implications for how we relate to others, to ourselves,
and to the therapeutic.

There are times I think: At bottom, I am an angry person. I may not always feel angry; I may laugh and kid and play. I may cry, bemoan, become anxious, bored, annoyed. But all those states mask and are informed by what I am at my base: angry.

And I'm not gonna change until I excavate this anger! And that means penetrating my veneer, breaking through the scaffolding, tearing down the edifice I've built on top of this bedrock of anger.

But all this assumes that I have a bottom. Which assumes that human beings are vertical creatures with, well, a bottom. And that this bottom is foundational, all pervasive, running through what I think, say, feel, and do.

In the first volume of his hilarious, achingly smart History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discovers the invention of the pervert, an invention that coincides with the invention of the self. Sure, in some sense, there have always been some kinds of selves (in another sense, there have not always been selves). But, for Foucault, the self as we know it is a modern invention that posits we have a depth, a true being inside us. To quote myself talking about "Perverts and You": "...[There] is something, deep down, that defines us. There is a real you. And, thanks to the rise of a certain fear of sexuality, this reality is often thought to exist in one's sexual proclivities, in one's perversions."

A pervert, we imagine, is a pervert. Probably, we assume this because she has done some perverted acts. How many such acts does it take before one becomes a pervert? Is there a formula? In any case, this notion has profound impact. It's how we size people up. To quote myself again: "I'm sitting there with some more or less random woman, trying to size her up and she tries to size me up. Usually, I'll say something no doubt inappropriate — or considered as such — and I'll watch as she withdraws. Suddenly, what was charming and safe about me has become suspect, refracted through the lens of being that kind of guy — a pervert, a player, a motherfucker of some sort. And, once so categorized, there's very little chance of escaping the box — "you are a pervert all the way down, you horny hebe" — and even my most generous, kind gestures become construed as perverse."

We see it in our legal system where the price paid is much more severe than not having a second date with a criminally uninteresting woman. Someone convicted of certain crimes remains a convict, even after doing her time, as she must register as a sex offender even after her release. (How this is constitutional befuddles me. If you're a legal scholar of some sort, please chime in.) Do those convicted of stealing remain thieves even when they're not thieving? It seems not. But flashers remain perverts — even after their death!

But I don't want to talk about sexuality, selfhood, and the juridical. Just read Foucault's book (it's short, pithy, and a blast to read). What interests me here is how the figure of "the bottom" creates an architecture of social relations, relations to one's self, and the therapeutic that has resonating implications.

As in my example from my old dating life — which, mercifully, is over thanks to happening upon mutual love with an exquisite genius — the figure of the bottom makes us read people through a filter. We see their tender actions but read them as perverted. We see their jokes but regard them as repressed anger. Which is to say, this bottom has a way of blinding us to the event, to the performance of the actual thing happening.

On the other hand, a person is clearly more than a series of actions. We each have a way of going (just as a rock, goat, cloud, gas, song, idea, myth does). When we meet people, we get a sense of that person. Which makes me hesitant to say a person is only the things she does as I readily dispense with all notions of self. Life is more complex than that.

But whence this sense? Well, it clearly comes from her way of going — her posture and smell, her speed, the things she says and does, and all of these things at once in conjunction and over time. If I only looked at events in isolation, I'd never come to know her — or anyone, for that matter. Life is essentially temporal, always already in motion. This means that a person is a trajectory, a differential equation: there is a limit, yes, but this limit term is never reached and the mode of never reaching it is unpredictable — within limits!

When I picture getting a sense of someone, I picture a marksman assassin leading his target. Or a quarterback leading her receiver. To get a sense of someone means feeling and looking for the trails of her actions and modes, for the shadows and projected trajectories. After all, it's rare that someone totally surprises us, especially on a day-to-day basis. Much as a shortstop gets the feel for how a baseball might bounce even though the hitter has yet to hit, we get a sense for someone's next action before it happens.

I am suggesting, then, that this sense of self is different than a vertical self with a bottom. This sense has no bottom. It is made of water, of honey, not of cement or ideas. Sense makes space for flow. To proffer a bottom is to tether a person to that weight, regardless of what happens next. The bottom is a life sentence. And this just seems, well, unfair. Life is a process; life happens. Which means chance, the new, is always possible.

In the bottomed self, generosity comes in the form of tolerance and pity, those pillars of liberalism. I'll let you pervert into my house because I am such a tolerant human being! What lets me be so tolerant? Because I feel sorry for you! You didn't choose to be a pervert. You just are.

Yuck! This sanctimonious condescension makes my skin crawl. It's a bee in my bonnet, baby! (That's me channeling George Costanza and my great teacher, and love, Kia Meaux. This is them flowing together through me at this moment. Because what we are at bottom is ever in flux.)


A sense of self begins with an architecture of flow where temporality is constitutive rather than a static architecture of vertical edifice in which time is exiled.  In this flow, there is no bottom. There is something else: there are flows, all these affective lines, these streams running through us becoming the things we think, say, feel, do. Rather than being angry at bottom, sometimes I am angry. And sometimes that anger flows with nostalgia; other times, with spite; at still other times, with joy. And sometimes there's no anger at all.

And so a sense of self demands generosity, an openness to what comes, a receptiveness to the complexity of what it is to exist in this world. A sense is known and not-known beforehand. We anticipate and we await what we expect while expecting nothing and everything.

I'd imagine that shifting architectures of self would shift, recast, psycho-therapeutic tactics. If I'm angry at bottom then my therapy involves addressing this anger as the source. Why are you so angry? What happened when you were child? It must be the source. The source! Ha! As if a life could have one source! As if life were not always already continuously processing, digesting, expression a great multiplicity of feelings and ideas, of notions and desires, all at once! I can't even imagine what life would look like if people were any one thing at bottom once and for all.

Rather than excavating the source of my anger, perhaps I'd take on ways of leaning into different streams of my way of going, other possible ways to perform myself. I believe the great psycho-philosopher, Félix Guattari, created such therapeutic models. Rather than trying to return you to your ego or cleaning out your bottom, ahem, he'd have activities. How about gardening? Or wood working? Or writing?

In this model, life is expressive rather than introspective: it streams outwards. The self becomes itself with the world. In the bottom model, the self is defined by one thing — which in turn, is defined by one or two people — and can be isolated in order to explore one's sickness. What is the source of your anger?!? We're not leaving until we discover it! Therapy becomes an interrogation room (pace Foucault).

But in the sense of self, there's no need to interrogate any one mode. Instead, learn a posture of leaning into a different mode of going. Therapy becomes a practice of postures — yoga, if you will. And sizing up other people, as well as oneself, becomes less dictatorial: it becomes generous and fecund, always proffering something new. There's no need, then, to look for the bottom because there is no bottom. There is just this great teem we call a life.

1.23.2018

Notes on the Anxiety and Liberation of Writing



These days, people write all the time. I know that might not sound quite right but, as we know, we don't talk much to each other. We text. Text has become a verb! And not one made up by 90s post-structural academics! When I used text back in the day, it always smacked of pretentious academia (I don't like such accusations of pretension; it seems based in a deep rooted anti-intellectualism that disturbingly lurks in Americans but that's for another time).

Yet despite this rampant writing, there persists a certain anxiety around writing. It seems that while many are more or less comfortable with this texting and its Morse code-like shorthand and hieroglyphs, once they need to write an email or an essay — what's an essay? who writes essays these days? — they stammer. (In full disclosure, I text in full sentences with paragraphs, parentheticals, citations. I keep looking for the italics option. Mind you, this is not because I believe in proper writing; I don't. It's because I enjoy such writing and, well, I don't know how to do the texting as the kids do.)

Having taught comp and humanities courses for over 15 years — at UC Berkeley, mostly — and then having participated in the online dating world which, oddly, is comprised mostly of textual missives; the only thing more anxiety producing than the written word, it seems, is meeting in person —  I am well acquainted with the anxiety and discomfort (and inability) people experience when confronted with the demand to put words on page. These same people don't usually panic when they speak. So it's not a matter of language per se triggering them. No, it's writing, the act of inscribing words visually. I see this anxiety in all walks of life, in people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and settings, personal and professional.

I don't blame them. Writing is disconcerting. You sit there in front of your screen thinking this or that; you tap your fingers across the keyboard and, boom, there are these words over there on the screen which, despite marketing that suggests otherwise, is not smart. And yet it's suddenly saying things, making sense (or not), assuming a voice and tone. Is it my sense? Is it my voice? If so, what's it doing over there? What is my responsibility for it? To it? In the Phaedrus, Socrates calls writing an orphan that rolls about without anyone to defend it: And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not; and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

In this sense, writing is akin to cutting your nails or hair. This stuff which was you, or seemed like you, is no longer you. I distinctly remember that uncanny sensation of seeing my hair lying on the bathroom floor after my mother had snipped away. Ever see human hair in the garbage? It's creepy. Seeing words I thought were mine on the page in front of me is uncanny in the same way: me and not-me are over there, to be disposed of any old way.

But perhaps a better analogy is shit. Words and ideas are food and writing is their digestion: we take them in, process them, play them back. Shit is considered grotesque, of course, but then again that's how many people feel about their writing: it's all so much ick. We are taught at a young age to shit in a toilet and then flush it away — woosh and it's gone. I see the fear in toddlers' eyes. Isn't that part of me? Where is it going? Why doesn't anyone talk about it? Ahhhhhhhhhh!

And so some young 'uns cling to their making, preferring to defecate in their diapers. They don't want to relinquish control, give up their creation to the great violent plumbing infrastructure. So they hold on to it. After Freud, we call this anal retention.

I've seen this same hanging on in the faces — feces? — of my students. They just can't seem to write the paper and, even if they do, they resist handing it in. It's scary shit! These words and ideas come out of them but then there they are, on a wrinkled set of pages, being tossed in my dirty backpack. Ahhhhhhhhh!


There's something hilarious about this. On the one hand, it's an attempt to tether identity to a process we call writing that, by nature, unmoors identity. On the other hand, the use of that "as" suggests that I can post as anyone but just happen to be posting as Daniel Coffeen, that writing doesn't secure identity but proliferate it.

Writing undoes us. It's us but not us. In fact, it's emphatically not us. I am this — this ridiculous nose, this ridiculous body, this excuse for a beard, these thoughts and feelings. The words I write are other things over there that are shared all willy nilly by anyone and everyone,  passed around, coming in and out of the mouths and fingers of any ol' person with desire. There are a lot of Daniels. To write, then, is to move out of oneself. It's to have one's sense making, one's most private thoughts, meld with this mysterious common body we call the written word.

If only the page were as clear cut as a toilet! (I do love italics; note the name of my blog — the emphatic figures prominently.) A toilet's flush may have a resounding finality to it that's scary but when I write, there's no toilet. On the contrary, now my words are out there, floating around the universe for anyone to see. Usually, I want — or need — someone to see it. For many people, I believe, writing is akin to shitting at a party and the toilet just won't flush.

And not only is writing an orphaning of one's words, it has so many complex rules. To express yourself, you can't just spew words any old way. There is an order — nouns, verbs, prepositions, tenses, pronouns, sequence. And, to make it worse, these rules aren't absolute. It's not like I have an idea and then choose my written expression from a list of options. Oh, I'll go with Option A and, boom, your writing is done Nope. In writing, there are so many different ways to express an idea, so many ways to begin a sentence, so many options at every turn — from word choice to voice to which rules to adhere to (I, for one, love ending in prepositions and splitting infinitives; much of school room grammar is arbitrary and silly.) And then, once I make a decision, all kinds of new choices emerge.

I'm going to the store.
To the store I go!
The store is being gone to by me (eesh!).
I am going to the store.
I'm going to the corner store.
I'm going shopping.
I'm headed to the shop.

All these word choices! All these constructions! Writing is rich with internal logics, limits, ways of going that determine sense as well as mood, little of which you get to determine. Once you enter the written page, you are no longer the master.

And we haven't even discussed the audience which, oddly, isn't ever here. That's the whole thing about writing: it's asynchronous communication. When I speak to you, you respond. The words are not as important as other things, as our being together and what feels like. But when the same words are written, isolated on a screen, the words take on a different role. When speaking, mood and social etiquette comes to the fore — so much so that people often don't even notice what you've said. In writing, words take center stage.

To wit, I used to do this obnoxious thing (I used to do, and probably continue to do, all sorts of obnoxious things). I'd ask someone — a barrista, a casual acquaintance on the street — a conspicuously personal question. You get any lately? Almost every time, the person would reply. Uh, huh? Uh, yes... Why would they reply when my question was so clearly out of place? Because a question is a social contract and people in America are loathe to confront face to face yet love to when enjoying the absence writing affords. See: Yelp reviews, Thought Catalog comments, Twitter trolling. Were I to ask the same question in an email, they'd ignore it or tell me to fuck myself.

The time and context of the writing — the rhetorical milieu, if you will — is so different from the time and context of speaking. There is a spatial and temporal gap between when I write and when you read. I don't know what mood you'll be in. Maybe you're grumpy after a hard day's work. Or you just met another fella who's caught your eye and my missive feeds your doubts about me. When I'm writing, I don't know how you'll take a particular word, if you'll know I'm joking, if you'll know my references.

And this is all assuming you're the one reading what I wrote. As we know, once set to page, writing is set loose in the world. I may have only emailed you — which you remains to be determined — but the fact is the writing is out there for all to see. The now-act of writing is hence inflected by a future audience that is unknown in size and mood. When we write, in some way, we are always writing for all people across all time. In this, writing is a photograph: when we pose for a picture, we get uncomfortable because we're being looked at by unknown eyes at an unknown time. With writing and photography, the now is never quite the now.

And, damn, the things I wrote in that now are still now! I may have changed my mind about this or that but that piece of writing keeps saying the same things over and over. To infinity! The written word never changes. It's a now that's never quite a now and yet remains stubbornly now. Writing can't all of a sudden change its mind.

Yep, writing is scary. You have to give up control to this strange body with all kinds of rules and modes of operation. It's an inherently public act so you are on display — and you don't even know to whom you're on display. It's not surprising that writing causes anxiety.

And yet the very thing that makes writing scary is the very thing that makes writing liberatory. It demands we leave our egos behind, that we lean into this morass of forces and rules that is written language in order to recreate ourselves in the world. That we face the often inchoate stream of moods and ideas bouncing and streaming through our bodies and try to inflect them with this incredible thing, these written words and their grammar, in order to make some kind of sense, to at least express a desire to others if not to introduce new ways of going in the world.

A great hindrance for would-be writers is that they think they need to express themselves. That somehow, somewhere, there is a version of themselves in writing that they've yet to discover. But finding your voice in writing doesn't mean discovering something that's already there. It means happening upon a rhythm and mode of going with language that makes you feel great. If writing unmoors identity, the response is not to try to moor. There is no mooring to be had. The trick is to play in the waves and love it.

The surf analogy is apropos. Just as the ocean has tendencies but is always changing, written language has propensities but it's not a fixed thing. It is a way, not a house. There's no hidden room where your voice lives. When we enter writing, we let go of ourselves. That's the whole point!

As in surfing (he says not only never having surfed but not even knowing how to swim), the writer has to lean into the fray, into the surge, the tug, the swell of the ocean of language and mood and ideas. When you write, you are no longer in the realm of the true and sure. You enter the world of becoming, a place that is never a place once and for all, where nonsense becomes a new kind of sense only to teeter into nonsense once again. Writing is not a matter of moving thoughts from point A to point B, even if it often feels like that. No, writing is a matter of playing at the border of chaos and order, at the ever emergent junctures of sense where the self gives way to the world.