9.18.2018

The Society of Karaoke (Updated! New & Improved!)



Karaoke enacts an complex set of relations between the personal and the public. When the performer takes the stage, she play acts being the celebrity she's singing: she puts on Lana Del Rey. At the same time, the whole thing is a charade we're all in on. Of course she's not Lana Del Rey. And yet, when she's up there, she does "own the stage" and becomes a celebrity within this environment, in this bar. Meanwhile, everyone believes that she could in fact be the next Lana Del Rey. That's what "American Idol" and "The Voice" are all about: stars are everywhere just waiting to be found! So her celebrity began before she even walked into karaoke night. The line between identity and image — between who you are and how you appear — blurs.

Instagram accelerates this karaoke effect. Everyone is mugging for the camera like J Lo (that's a thing, right?) or a smoky model because anyone and everyone could be J Lo or smoky model. And, in fact, by posting on Instagram, she becomes a celebrity. After all, there is nothing exclusive about the platform. I post on the damn thing! Of course, I don't post moody shots of myself. But look at basically every account of anyone under, say, 33 and they all are doing the same thing: post after post of themselves performing some kind of mood.

These pictures are not an expression of how they're feeling. They are the production of an identity. The image is not a medium the poster uses to express herself; the image does not mediate between her and the world. For this new world, this new generation, this new technology infrastructure — what McLuhan would call this new environment — the camera has always already been recording. There is not first you, then your phone, then Instagram. Like Neo, you were born inside Instagram, always already being recorded, always already performing for the camera. You're no longer putting on Lana Del Rey: you're putting on yourself. The image is the site of identity.

Louis Althusser says ideology hails you. Someone calls out, Hey, Coffeen, and I answer. Before we're born, ideology hails our gender and personhood. We don't come to the world pure beings; we come to the world hailed. We are enmeshed in all sorts of rituals that we think are ours but are in fact performances of the ideological state apparatus. But this operation of what Althusser calls interpellation still keeps the apparatus fundamentally outside of you. Today, that's no longer the case: we are now wired into the apparatus from the get go, are constitutive of this new image-identity-machine, continuous with its mechanics. We don't use the machine to express ourselves; we are elements, cogs, within the image-machine.

In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord argues that the society of the spectacle is one in which commodity culture has thoroughly infiltrated personal life: what were once human feelings and relations have become supplanted by commodity feelings and relations. Our inner emotional lives are saturated with the ethos and affect of mass marketing.

But like Althusser's interpellation, Debord's society of the spectacle adheres to a distinction between the human and the image. "The spectacle is not a collection of images," he writes, "rather, it is a social relation among people, mediated by images." That is to say, for Debord, the image is still something separate from identity that has the power to mediate our emotional experiences and interpersonal relations. Just think of his title, The Society of the Spectacle: it still believes in an architecture of perception that keeps image and identity apart — it's a spectacle, something to be seen. But as the artist Marc Lafia has argued, we don't live in a society of the spectacle: we live in a society of the performative in which we are all always already mugging for the camera.

In the society of the spectacle, media and commodity fetishism infiltrate us. In the society of karaoke, we are the media. We are no longer infiltrated. We perform! Your Facebook feed is a movie you're making that is the commodity — that is your identity! You now perform for the machine, as the machine, making movies of yourself. Our identities are produced, reproduced, and indexed by an always-on, always recording, always playing back image-machine we call the internet. We perform for it, as it. There is no outside, no spectacle to witness.
 
Instagram and Facebook erase the line that separates the personal and the public, the everyday and the celebrity, the audience and the stage, the human and the commodity. It's not Warhol's claim that everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. That suggests there's one stage we all take turns occupying. But there is no longer a stage. In the internet, everywhere is already a stage, every computer the center of the web, and everyone's personal life a commodified performance.

In the society of karaoke, your life is the product. You are tracked everywhere go. Your ever action is recorded, becoming a movie that is you, which is then bought and sold along with the gadgets and tchotchkes of the world. There is no longer a turning away from the spectacle. There is no outside, not even a desert of the real, and certainly no Eden to proffer relief. Our very lives are our performance. There is no slinking off stage to hide quietly in the shadows. You're already on stage.

9.04.2018

Why a machine? Why any concept, for that matter? (podcast)



Often, when I get excited about an idea — Nietzsche's amor fati, Kierkegaard's knight of faith, Deleuze's fold, and now Guattari's machine — I am often met with a certain confusion by those around me. Their instinct is that whatever I'm saying is "academic" and hence of no real interest.

Believe me, I understand such a reaction. But I believe it's an instinct that's been bred by a certain ideology that makes new, strange sounding ideas suspect. The fact is we deploy concepts all the time in how we make sense of the world, of ourselves, our relationships. Ego, the unconscious, freedom, evolution, religion are all concepts that we just take for granted as true things. But they're concepts that were created and perpetually recast — except when we just assume they're true and so never question them.

Concepts are art but, like, really pervasive art in that they inflect everything we see. Sure, seeing a Van Gogh might have you re-seeing the viscosity of the atmosphere. But a concept like the ego has you rethinking yourself and the motivations of everyone all the time.

Concepts aren't true or not true. They can work in that they can explain. They can jibe with you. They may not jibe or explain but they can be beautiful, odd, exhilarating. Long before Maturana's "autopoisesis" began to work for me, it sure exhilarated me!

But why machines in particular? Well, I think it's a concept that radically recasts the very possibility of change in the social or personal or environmental. But there's something else about machines: it's a concept or figure that refuses any sure, natural, or true ground. Everything from atoms and fleas to me and my son to the experiences of love and confusion to airplanes, solar systems, and cosmic undulations are constitutive of ever-shifting machinic flows and distributions. And so, as a rhetorician, I take pleasure in having all my paradigms be up for grabs. It's, once again, exhilarating.  I take pleasure in having all my paradigms be up for grabs. It's, once again, exhilarating.


8.29.2018

What is an Art Machine? (Podcast)



Inspired by reading Guattari, I here try to explain what I mean by a machine as distinct from Foucault's discourse, Marx's means of production, and Althusser's ideological hailing.

A bit rambling, perhaps, but I'm moving towards something. That something will be, among other things, an introduction to an incredible book by the artist, Marc Lafia, that covers his career to date — over 40 years of complex image making.

I also reference one of my mentors from my undergrad days, Peter Stallybrass and his great book, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.

8.24.2018

Don't Get Over It: Feeling Events, Now and Then



Let's say I experience something. It could be relatively small like eating some tasty pho ga at one of my favorite restaurants. Or it could be something more poignant such as watching my sister die over a six month span. What is the actual duration of these events? 

Well, my meal lasted around 90 minutes. That assumes my meal began when I entered the restaurant and ended when I left. But that's a more or less arbitrary way to demark beginning, for sure. After all, at some point I learned about meals; about restaurants; about this restaurant. I no doubt gathered expectations about such a thing beginning, perhaps, with my grandmother's schmaltzy chicken soup and inflected by all kinds of previous pho experiences. This event, then, which looks to begin at around 12:31 actually began much earlier. Now is always a before (unless you're meeting someone for said pho ga in which case telling them 1973 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan doesn't do them much good).

Now, as for when it ends: we all know too well that no meal ends when you're done eating. In fact, as we get older, we begin eating now based on what the meal will do to us an hour later, three hours later, the next day. Some meals linger uncomfortably long in uncomfortable ways. And some linger with such savory affect that you wish it would just go on and on. I still think about this pressed lamb I ate at Outerlands here in San Francisco; it was so luscious, I can feel it on my tongue a year later and salivate.

Events are rarely discrete. They happen and stretch both backwards and forwards in time. This is what we call memory. Memory is not a database of distinct things; it's where and how events continue to happen. That lamb? I may only have had it on a fork for 17 minutes, give or take, but it lingers in my mouth and body to this day. That now is still happening! Except rather than taking the form of perfectly seared flesh, it takes the form of what we call memory. 

That is how this whole thing works. We live in this world, taking it on, eating it, digesting it, processing it. These events don't disappear; they become who we are, how we go. I know how to tie my shoes, write these words, find the sock drawer, order pho ga because the event of those things is still happening right here, right now. Now is always a before and a later — an extension, contraction, a series, a fold or many folds. 

Events have vastly different intensities and modes of duration. Some don't just linger; they dominate. We can't get them off our minds, off our bodies, off our feelings. They persist with such vigor for a while. Then perhaps they dissipate, shift intensities, or rise up now and again as if from nowhere — a rock skipped across the water, touching down here or there for a moment before taking flight again.

My point — do I have to have a point? can I have a plateau? please? — is that events endure as they endure. There is no universal law — except, perhaps, that events are not temporally or affectively discrete. All events, to some degree, sprawl or contract. 

And so when I came upon Thick Slice's tweet (see above), it gave me pause. What does it mean to "get over it"? And is there a right way to stand towards the things that happen to us? Is that even something we do? Or is it something that happens to us?

My big sister dies in November 2013. Note that I use the present tense. Because the fact is every November since that November, I feel it all so intensely here and now, in the present tense. It's not a memory as we think about memories, something I checked out from the library of my consciousness and peruse out of interest. It's something I experience, still and again. And that, alas, might be the best definition of memory: events still and again.

Memory is not a repository of the past. As I wrote in this here blog in March 2011, "Memory is not a past event. It is a present event. Or, rather, it is the persistence of an event.... And is in relentless flux. After all, all those events are still happening to a greater or less degree of intensity. Some events skip across consciousness, hitting down here and there every few years. Some are tightly knit balls that rumble and roll, day after day, through our very becoming. Some are like scents that drift by.... Memory is not something that is, some static repository. It's not a library; nor is it an archive. Memory is a living thing. Memory is something that happens."  

So what does this mean for how I stand towards this memory or any memory? Well, I hope I learn some things that help me navigate this life with less fear, with greater understanding that yields greater joy. This is of course what I want from everything I do but some events are more conducive to such a pedagogy than others.

Every November is a different experience of her dying. Each time she dies, I reckon so many things — death in general, her death, her suffering, the suffering of my family, of her children, of my suffering and my death, of how I stand towards life. Isn't this repetition a good thing? Isn't that how we learn about death? When we experience the death of others, we learn how to go with death. But this is not something that happens just like that, a switch flipped; it is something that keeps happening. The word for the event of death that endures is grief.

Even if I don't learn anything, the fact is her dying persists in me, with me, as me. I am a fundamentally different person, her death an inflection point — a huge rock dropped in the sea of me. And the Doppler that I am, I feel that event in different ways all the time, each year a little differently — I'm different, the world is different, and hence that ripple is a little different. Maybe there's nothing to be learned per se; maybe there is just a living through.

As the day of her dying approaches, I find that I get increasingly emotional. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to "get over it'? What would that even mean? As we know, events don't just end. They keep happening. 

Perhaps "getting over it" means responding to it, metabolizing it, in a "healthy" way — whatever that means. Less crying? Less intensity? Is that healthy? The fact is, I've come to see that day as a gift — from her and from the universe. I get to feel all that, experience all that, have my whole body reverberate with the intensity of her and her death. That's awesome — even if I'm hyperventilating on the floor, screaming into the fullness of the void, screaming so loud I hope she'll hear and come back. Would it somehow be better if I had a few brewskies and binge watched "The Wire" for the seventeenth time? Maybe. But to have the opportunity to experience life altering events is one of life's great gifts.

I suppose a November will come one day and I won't find myself screaming into a pillow. And that will be ok, too. There are no rules; we are not in control. Events are as much something done to us as something we do. Every event has its time, its mode of endurance, the way it will live in me, with me, as me. It might very well be quiet for a time before screaming again. It may change shape, especially as I get older and approach my own death.

I feel for Thick Slice who tweeted about the memory of her now defunct marriage. Some times, the pain of those past events still enduring is too awful and we wish it away. And there is a beautiful place of forgetting, a way to forget that forges wisdom rather than avoidance — forgetting as a creative act. Nietzsche says forgetting is the essence of man; we have to forget the totality of nature in order to function together, live together, love together. One day, after whining about my family for a while, my brilliant shrink turned to me and said, "Ok, whatever. Forget all that. Now is now."

To forget takes incredible strength. And can be an important, creative thing. But so can letting the past endure as it will, letting it fill me up. Sure, I don't want to be defined or confined by my past, replaying my youthful dramas ad infinitum. That would be absurd and, yes, unhealthy as it would prevent the fullness of now, the joy of now, life now.

But letting an event from the past endure and feeling with it now, having it become part of the fullness of now, is glorious. Indeed, I've found that as I get older I relish these moments, these events that flare up even as they seem to wrack my very constitution. They are sumptuous moments amid the everyday hum.

Such is life. We are temporal creatures. Like the moon's craters, we wear our scars in our bodies, in how we go in and through the world. We don't get to just erase the events that have happened to us. But we can stand towards them in different ways; we can learn from them, learn with them, to be more joyous. They will persist as they persist, do what they will do. Rather than feeling a need to get over them, I want to relish them.

8.20.2018

Explaining Ourselves Beyond Family (Inspired by Guattari's Ecology of the Self)

“Familialism consists of magically denying social reality, and avoiding all connections with the actual flux." 

Why do people do what they do, feel what they do? What makes a boyfriend sharp tongued, a girlfriend jealous, a boss petty, a mother anxious? Every day, in a variety of ways, we assess the motivations of ourselves and others — from brothers and lovers to Jimmy McNulty and Daenerys Targaryen to presidents of united states and half-talented rappers. Mind you, I'm not asking why people do the things they do; I'm asking how we explain the things people do.

We are constantly assessing ourselves, reciting tales of our existential development to no one in the dark, to shrinks in comfy chairs, to lovers over pillows and friends over drinks, tales that explain why we keep dating the same kind of woman, won't leave our job, longingly linger as we pass the woman's shoe store. 

What's surprising is how limited our explanations are. The overwhelming majority of the time, we blame family and parents. His mother was so overbearing...so of course he's shy. His father was abusive...so of course he's abusive, too. The incredible thing about these explanations is their flexibility: the same ascribed cause can have radically different outcomes. On the one hand, He's abusive because his father was. On another hand, He's so gentle because his father was abusive.   

As parents, we feel this as we pore over our every move, our smallest gestures scarring or, when deluded, preparing our kids for life. It's a joke parents casually, albeit anxiously, bandy about the playground. I know showing him those movies will scar him for life....ha ha ha. This is the stuff that eats at parents, keeps us up at night, lingering in the back of our minds, the guilt a miasma in our consciousness like a hotdog in a burp days later: I know I'm doing something that is going to fuck him up...for life! 

The assumption of these familial tales is that childhood determines who we are. And that parents are the main shapers of that childhood — not institutional expectations of race, money, and time that determine our senses of value, what it means to age, to participate, to live; not the overbearing terms of the socio-sexual economy that privileges this or that body, this or that mode of masculinity and femininity, as we look at ourselves and others and judge relentlessly; not a Society of the Spectacle that's forever seeking to determine how we feel about this and that as "news," brands, politicians, and film studios buy our emotional lives. Nope: it's all family, we believe. 

Ah, if only that were so! If only the sole madness my son had to negotiate was me and his mother and not the plethora of bodies, forces, images, ideas, institutions that situate us all, saturate us all, defining our very motives, feelings, and words. I, for one, would welcome such power. 

Freud of course raised family drama and its explicative prowess to the mythical as Oedipus' nutty shenanigans become at once primal and pervasive. Privileging childhood so much  speaks to a cultural shift away from lineage and bloodline. We no longer say, I'm a Schlosser! We say, My parents got divorced. This was supposed to be our liberation from aristocratic assumptions of power.

Granting so much existential value to childhood is indeed compelling. Within our culture — whose culture? mine? yours? isn't this what's precisely at stake: the particular historical, geographic, economic, and affective economies of meaning in which we participate? — anyway, within our culture, childhood enjoys extraordinary pathos. We take this as a given but I'd venture to say that not all cultures and not all times revere childhood so obsessively. In my socio-economic world, we believe children to be innocent and frightened as the father screams and breaks things and we think, shedding a tear or two: Of course that shaped the little boy's life! How couldn't it? How does one come back from that? This is what psychoanalysis asks of the analysand: Tell me, when you were six and heard your parents fighting, how did you feel? It imagines that the road to well-being is empathizing now with the child we were then. 

This is an insidiously specious move. It has the now-you, with all your emotional understanding of the world, empathize with six-year-old-you. But six year olds don't feel or think the way we do. They remember, and more importantly forget, in ways we can't empathize with. Their emotional economy is not a 48 year old emotional economy. 

This is not to say that our childhoods aren't seminal in shaping who we are. Of course our childhoods matter. What I'm saying is that, empirically speaking, the family is only one element within an elaborate web of networks and forces that define and inflect who we are, how we think and feel, what we do.

Our obsession with childhood is not a given. It's neither natural nor universal. It's created, taught, reproduced, propagated, deployed, internalized. And as childhood is so pathos ridden, it becomes difficult to argue against. Just mentioning that, perhaps, we afford childhood a slightly less significant role in the creation of identity or grant children a less central role in family conversations makes one — ahem, makes me — a heartless monster. 




 
The fact is I definitely lean all too readily rely on family drama to explain my idiocies and idiosyncrasies. I'm a son of Portnoy, after all. And the so-called product of not just divorce but abandonment. So I must have a fear of abandonment because my father abandoned me! There's a convenient symmetry there; it almost seem self-evident.

But after reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in my late teens, I began to craft new tales. No longer were my mother or father solely to blame for my neuroses. Now it was my fear of death. Or my reckoning of the sublime infinite.  Or my fear of leaving social propriety as, approaching enlightenment, I detach from worldly concerns. My explanations for the motivations of others as well as myself began to assume a philosophical bent — a metaphysical, rather than bourgeois, drama.

But in either case — familial or metaphysical —my explanations for the motivations and determinations of character ignore the overwhelming empirical reality of cultural, institutional, social, and economic forces that flow through us, always and relentlessly. It's as if by focusing on family and metaphysics, I believe I am seeing the real stuff — deep, resonant, trans-historical, trans-cultural. And all this other stuff — money, TV, class — I brush off as so much distraction.

Writing it now, it seems absurd. With a moment's consideration, it's so patently obvious that the decisions and considerations about what I can do and feel, the things I care about, the things that motivate me and define me are inflected as much by family and a fear of death as by how I am positioned within the economic, social, and sexual economy. Duh. (The most poignant revelations are those right under my admittedly robust nose and hence are best punctuated with a duh.)

Yes, perhaps my son's anxiety —along with his posture, slinky gait, casual aplomb, and sense of humor — stems from his parents' divorce or from my overbearing New York-Hebraism. It'd be ridiculous to ignore that. 

But it'd be equally ridiculous not to heed the apocalyptic tales he hears every day as the land around him literally burns with increasing vigor every year. Or how his skinny body fits into the discourse of masculinity. Or how ubiquitous web pornography tells him, with grotesque indifference, what sex is. Or how his class and race inform his assumptions about what the future holds — why he assumes he'll graduate high school then travel the country in a van for a year before he makes movies for a living; why he thinks he might get harassed in his new public high school; why he only needs to worry about that so much because his Ivy League-educated, PhD bearing, know-it-all father can always educate the little bugger without any school. His sense of himself, the things he worries about, the things he ignores, the way he desires and imagines his value in this life today and in the futue: these emerge as and with an entanglement of forces. 

When people tell me they think my kid is cool, I never say Thank you as that would imply I had something to do with it. And while I have something to do with it just as my insane ninth grade history teacher has something to do with how I learned to negotiate demented, stupid authority figures with power, my kid's prowess comes from his participation and negotiation with a juncture of forces that far exceed me.  So when people do say, Yo, your kid is cool, I reply, Yeah, right? — as much a witness as anyone. 

This is all to say that one's motivations and mental health — whatever that is —  are not determined by childhood alone but by a nexus of factors — geographic (after all, the weather affects us every day in so many ways), economic (not just how much money you have but how your value is situated by institutional forces, racial, gender, physiologic (different bodies situate us differently in the sexual economy), political.  

This is what Félix Guattari, the French psychoanalyst and theorist, posits: identity is created at, and as, a nexus of social, physiologic, and economic forces.  Who we are, how we become what we are, why we do the things we do, and how we explain it all: putting it all on the family — or, even on highfalutin metaphysical drama — ignores the flux in which we are always becoming. 

Our dominant modes of explanation or what, in my book, I call forms of exemplary reading: they take this or that behavior as an example of a bigger concept. Abusive father? Abusive man. The particulars are determined by general, broader ideas — the Oedipal Complex, fear of death — that encompass and explain particulars. 

This means we ignore the socio-economic conditions of life as a source of mental health or even as a contributing factor to our dementia (it'd be nice if it would be for our peace and calm!). People aren't insane because of the absurd demands of capitalist America! It's not because they're exhausted and humiliated by the demands of work, the fear of not paying rent, of having their credit score go down so they can't buy a house or car or who knows what for the rest of their lives! It's not because of an endless barrage of "lifestyles" we encounter at every turn! It's not because we feel the state might murder us for the color of our skin! No, none of these things make us mentally unsound. It's all family or fear of death.

Once you see it written, it sounds insane, doesn't it? Of course our mental health — whatever that is — is constituted by the forces that create and constitute us! (As an aside which deserves more space and time, this is why I like the American version of "The Office" more than the British one. In the British one, David Brent is socially awkward and insecure. But the explanation exceeds the culture at large; something happened to him as a kid. Steve Carell's Michael Scott, however, has a symptomology that far exceeds his clearly troubled upbringing. His madness is splayed through the Society of the Spectacle as he's constantly moving between prepackaged identities. He has no identity of his own, for sure, as none of us do. But what he's left with is nothing but a shopping cart of identities — a kind of schizophrenia induced by his culture and American capitalism, not his family or fear of death.)

What Guattari proffers is a rhetorics of mental health, a rhetorics of explanation for why we do the things we do. That is, rather than relying on broad stories that eclipse the particularities of one's life — race, class, gender, and more — Guattari asks us to look at our world as we 're living in it. To look at the different perspectives. My experience of American capitalism is different than a working class woman which is different than an Asian immigrant which is different than a black adolescent. Guattari asks us to be empirical rather than conceptual, to heed the teem of forces around us as a localized juncture of institutional forces.

This is much more complex  than relying on a big story that's easy to master. It demands we excavate what Marshall McLuhan calls our environment, excavate and consider those things we take for granted as truth. This is what excites me about Black Lives Matter — it asks us to consider everyday life outside the white perspective. It's a movement that moves beyond policy as an abstraction to think about how institutions shape everyday life. It's not insane for African-Americans to assess how they gather together on the street or how they imagine their future in this America. It's not because of the lack of a daddy. It's because the police, and white people in insidious ways (see Starbucks), wage structural war against them. And this has an impact on their mental health. Duh!

The very way we construct ourselves and are constructed, our mental well being, doesn't come from family alone. It comes from the forces that define our identities and shape how we think about ourselves in this world. To make sense of ourselves demands we look at the world around us.

7.31.2018

Delirium

Sometimes, I find myself using a word increasingly often without understanding quite what I mean by it. It insinuates itself into my vocabulary, sure, but it's more penetrating than it: without my knowing, it takes root in my body, in my thinking, in my image of the world. As it nestles, it becomes more fertile, sprouting longer and longer tendrils until it winds out my mouth, as much a surprise to me as anyone. I'm the dummy in this cosmic ventriloquist act. Then it comes again at a different angle — and then again: a veritable blooming.

After a period of uttering its name, I begin to take note of it, feeling for its weight, following its logic, learning its lessons. What do you want from me, delirium?

This is my reckoning: delirium, I think, is the state of being without fixed orientation. No ground below or welcoming heaven above. No ideals or concepts to guide. No map, no anchor, no axes, no north star, no goal, no origin.

Delirium is not disorienting per se; it's a-orienting. That is, it's not the event of losing orientation; it's the state of not having orientation. Of course, if you're counting on some fixed tether and you stumble into delirium, well, that's certainly disorienting — reaching for the last step in the dark and it's not there. But what if you never expected there to be a step?

I knew at a young age that the universe is delirious. What does up and down mean in space? I knew that representations of the Earth as always pointing the same direction were arbitrary. But what I couldn't figure out is why all the maps I saw were the same. Was this some kind of conspiracy? And  why do all the images of the solar system look the same — a center and everything going orderly around it? I mean, anything can be the center; the Earth could be pointing any direction, depending on your perspective.


Someone told me about these videos of the solar system in motion which, finally, begin to look like what I knew as an eight year old — a calculus rather than a geometry:



But watch what happens in this video: it claims a universal logic, an orienting shape. "Life," it tells us, "is a vortex, not just a rotation." Indeed, many in the psychedelic community seek precisely this, what they call sacred geometry. This supposes that the the universe is in fact geometric — three-dimensional rather than four-dimensional (or nine or 11, depending on which string theory you believe). Which is bizarre as, uh, isn't it obvious that everything is in motion? Shouldn't they be talking about sacred calculus, not sacred geometry?

To me, the psychedelic is not the revelation of a secret order, a master shape such as the golden ratio. It's a demand for going with a universe that is distinctly not geometric, that swirls every which way, that keeps moving, emerging in unknowable ways, ways that can be toured but never mapped, a universe that will never have had a ground or clear direction. The psychedelic is an experience of becoming without goal, concept, formula, or ratio in a universe that is not disorienting because it will never have had orientation. The melody seems to guide things only to dissipate, morph, go somewhere else entirely, into another melody, always at the edge of chaos. This might date me but wasn't this the flow of a Dead show — this teetering, this never-quite-knowing, this movement in and out and over and through? When they were flowing, there was no sacred geometry; there was exquisite delirium. The psychedelic is a ride, a trip, a movement of emergent order (and hence is not chaos).

In any case, I demand delirium from my art. In fact, I'm tempted to say that delirium is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of art. Once an image becomes illustrative, symbolic, or didactic, it ceases to be art: it becomes cliché, dead on arrival. Art is precisely the conditions of a certain free play, an internal movement without ground or determining concept.

But while I don't want my art getting fixed in place, I do find myself distinctly attracted to art with arrows — Paul Klée, Matthew Ritchie, Eva Hess, Julie Mehretu. Their arrows are not the arrows of street signs; they don't orient. On the contrary, they foment delirium, offering a whiff of direction without orientation. These arrows are a local flow within a set of other flows. What these artists teach me is that delirium is not chaos. While there may be no external term — no symbols or messages, no secret meaning — there are internal flows, drifts, currents, and eddies.

Eva Hesse

Matthew Ritchie

Paul Klée

Julie Mehretu

In my reckoning of delirium, I even did something I rarely do: I looked at a dictionary — that institution that works so hard to shut down the delirium of language by becoming a disembodied, deadpan authority. This word means this! Me, I love when people use words in all sorts of ways; I love that literally has come to mean something akin to emphatically (I think!). I like when people pronounce words differently, use them in odd ways. I love reading William Burroughs who tears grammar apart only to put it back together again along emergent, affective lines of force.

Anyway, the dictionary tell us that delirium means "a state of violent excitement or emotion." I'm not quite sure what to make of that. For while the act of losing orientation is inherently violent — an unmooring —  delirium is not violent at all. On the contrary, delirium is a condition of peace, of love. In fact, it seems to me that having fixed orientation is violent as it shuts down play, establishing a pulpit of judgement. Delirium has no pulpit, no firm declarations, no absolute demands. Or, if it does, they're not front and center; they're just another element, another arrow pointing away.

Everywhere I look, delirium is pathologized. Google it and you'll see what I mean. I was surprised by the uniformity of perspective. No one comes out in favor of delirium! Not only does the dictionary fix it as violent, delirium is listed in the DSM-5: "Delirium is a common and serious problem among acutely unwell persons. Although linked to higher rates of mortality, institutionalization and dementia, it remains underdiagnosed. Careful consideration of its phenomenology is warranted to improve detection and therefore mitigate some of its clinical impact."

No doubt, delirium can be unsettling and scary. Since I was young, I've often experienced a temporary delirium as I feel knowledge of myself in the world disintegrate — I'm not quite sure who I am, where I live, where I'm going. This sensation is fleeting and usually unpleasant. I may be more or less alone in this; I mentioned it once to my now ex-wife — who is a brilliant artist and fantastic human being — saying something like: "You know that moment every day when, at some point, everything gives way and unravels?" To which she replied, with deadpan genius and a bit of concern — not for me but for her decision to marry me: "Uh, no."

But I don't think I'm alone in this. And I've come to believe that it is a good thing, a reminder that all is fleeting, that the stuff of my ego and stake in the social is not everything, that there are other states of being, states of becoming, that there is a milieu of every-which-way flow that runs through this seemingly ordered social structure. As Alan Watts writes, "To go out of your mind once a day is tremendously important, because by going out of your mind you come to your senses."

Ahem. Anyway, revisiting the common dictionary definition — that "state of violent excitement or emotion" — I do like picturing someone getting so excited about something — say, getting a kiss from a sweetie — that he takes leave of himself, even takes leave of his sweetie and that kiss, and enters a new state of going, one in which the kiss will never have been the goal. That thing he craved so ardently, those lips on his, becomes just another thing as he's launched into a state of such frenzy that the ground gives way — and ego and ground and all orientation along with it. Where he thought the kiss would orient him, it in fact sends him deliriously adrift. And nothing could be better.

Delirium is, for me, the condition of critique and what, in my book, I call immanent reading. I go into a text — a book, film, party, person — without expectation, without goal, without firm grounding. I await what it will do to me, do with me, how it will carry me along. In fact, if it fixes itself and tries to fix me too ardently, I walk away. That is preaching, not the experience I want from art, people, books. Like that kiss from a sweetie, I want to be set adrift.

The world around us works hard to orient us. Alarm clocks, jobs, expectations of marriage, school, debt, dental check ups: these things are markers, sign posts, that give direction, marking a path. Go this way! You're on the path! Indeed, consider the things people often list as the greatest causes of depression: moving, losing a job, divorce. Each of these is disorienting, the loss of regulated time and relationships.

The remedy the world offers is not to negotiate delirium but to end delirium by throwing down new anchors. Find a new apartment! Get a new job! Get a new spouse! And I get that, I do. Being adrift in this culture —without work, without a home, without a romantic partner — can be profoundly unsettling and upsetting. I've certainly experienced it: without these tethers, it's as if I'm plummeting.

But I want to suggest that rather than only pathologizing delirium, we can offer modes of going with delirium. That being untethered to any fixed orientation — economic, domestic, romantic, sexual — can offer possibilities of knowledge and experience that are expansive, illuminating, edifying, revelatory. 

There are modes of going, modes of participation in the world, that don't need or want a fixed sense of time, place, or person. Delirium demands a form of surrender — surrendering control, ego, the immediate safety of home and hearth. It asks for a different way of going. It asks for poise rather than steadfastness, readiness rather than expectation, openness rather than preferences, an oar rather than an anchor.

This is not to say that delirium is in and of itself a good thing. It can of course be terrifying, a true pathology.  My point — yes, the irony of driving home my point in an essay on delirium is not lost on me —  is that delirium is not in and of itself something to be avoided. That, in fact, there is great value to be found in delirium. That delirium may very well be the condition of all critical and ecstatic states. That there is joy, wisdom, and knowledge in being untethered, adrift in the flux and flow of it all. That there is a pedagogy lurking there teaching us that we don't just have to quash the chaos to go through the world: we can learn to go with the great cosmic teem to become with a universe that will never have had any orientation — a universe of delirium. 

7.29.2018

The Way of a Way


I just spent the last few days at the Sierra Hot Springs where people of all ages and sizes shed their clothes to lounge on decks and in pools. It's hard not to notice all the different ways the human body can go — this one, long and lean, is so jaunty, as if listening to some cheery diddy only she can hear; that one, a bit doughy, lilts leftwards; that one sits heavy on his heals, slouching unto himself; me, I imagine myself sauntering, a lazy, bent string bean. Everywhere I look, I am struck by the variegation and particularity of how we make our way. And that's just looking at human beings!

Birds, planets, chairs, vegetables, flatware, cows, grass, clouds: everything has a way of going. Some clouds wisp, others puff. One cat lounges, heavy and oblivious while another, alert to every rustle, is coiled to pounce. With its overstuffed and worn cushions, the couch on the deck beckons the slump of guests while the metal chairs in the grass, perhaps more nimble, demand firmer attention.

Everything has a comportment — a way of hanging in the world, the way flesh drapes and skeletons lean. Everything has an external speed and rhythm which we might call a gait — the butterfly's hiccup (pace Lohren Green), the bee's punctuated zigs, the dancer's splayed poise. Everything has an internal speed and rhythm, as well, a mode of consumption and self-production which we might call metabolism. Everything has a temperature; we all burn differently.

A way of going is not an essence. It is something that is created, determined by a variety of forces. As we live, we happen with the world and, cooperatively, we make and are made. Of course, things have a material constitution that seems to have hard and fast limits. As the great Stoic, Epictetus, writes: If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. But this limit is not absolute. Just ask Rudy Ruettiger or Alexandra Billings. We may have physical limits but even these are plastic, even these are recast in the act of living as other forces come to play — economic, cultural, bodily.

Think of a tree. As it grows, it takes on the world, growing in and around and with a fence.


 Or it takes on the wind, almost becoming the wind.


Just as a tree grows with a fence or wind, all things become with the world. Think about yourself and all the ways you took on the world and the world formed you — your desires, humor, vocabulary, imagination, the things you consider cool, that annoy you, intrigue you. Yes, you came out of the womb rearing to go this way or that; you were already on a trajectory. But that trajectory was not of your own making; your way of going occurs in what we call the middle voice, neither active nor passive, both active and passive, between and among mother and father and culture and class and history. A way of going always already supersedes the nature/nurture dichotomy.

A way of going is always a way of going-with. This going-with is determined by the respective comportment, gait, metabolism, and temperature of the various bodies. And is not limited to physical states. A cat may take on human-becoming or dog-becoming: we all know cats that act like dogs or people. My cat in college, Metapuss, would lie in my bed, her head on the pillow, her arms outstretched to cuddle. Men take on woman-becoming and vice-versa, necessarily. A person may take on rock-becoming — firm, stoic, staid. Another, the wind: blustery, relentless, swirling. We all take on the way of other things depending on our way and the way of the things around us.

A way, then, is not tethered to a body. It lives in a stranger place — not in the heavens or in the body but as a style, as a set of possibilities flowing through the world, lurking invisibly but palpably between bodies, a set of relations that link elements together in just such a way. You grab on to this or that way if you have the constitution — the comportment, gait, metabolism, temperature.

But while everything has a way of going, this is quite different than what is meant by, say, the Way of the Samurai. I capitalize that Way to distinguish it from the more generic, if always specific, way. What is this difference? If everything enjoys a way of going, what makes a Way any different?

Well, there is usually effort involved. While still existing in the middle voice, a Way demands action, work, attention, focus, discipline to counter the hegemony of ready-made life, of banal worldly distraction. But as the Taoists point out, this activity leads to inactivity, back to the middle voice, to that place between active and passive, neither active nor passive. In this sense, a Way is a repetition, a return with a difference to one's way of going — yet this Way forges a new way that may look an awful lot like the old way but is fundamentally different.

What is this difference? While a way of going is an everyday state that distributes a body and its relationship to other bodies, a Way is an active attention to folding the infinite into the finite, the eternal into the temporal, the plane of pure immanence into a body. This is presumably what Zen offers in its many practices — the Zen of tea, the Zen of archery, the Zen of motorcycle maintenance, the Zen of calligraphy. These are all practices that transform ways of going — you making tea, you fixing your bike — into Ways of going as they summon, recognize, and realize the infinitude within the everyday.

To practice a Way is to become Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith who lives incognito, never declaring himself but simply, humbly going about his business — with his family, his work, his community. But in all his actions, he makes a double move: he steps from the finite to the infinite and back, over and over, as this temporal person takes on eternity: When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity. As Kierkegaard says, a Way does not make you extraordinary; that would just be a notable way of going. No, a Way is an opening into the infinite, the eternal, the power of life within this body here.

There are as many Ways as there are ways. In a relentless double gesture, irony speaks the finite and infinite at the same time, negating any pomposity or fixity of the everyday as it points to the infinite flux of all things. Irony, then, as a Way. (But it must be careful not to drift into nihilism, negation of the finite without embracing the infinite.)

Humor, too: humor plays in the flux of it all. If for irony, the finite and infinite are fundamentally incommensurable and hence demand a kind of double-speak, humor always already operates in the flow, everything always giving way to the eternal flux with the movement of a laugh. (But it must be careful not to become flippant; true humor is quite serious.)

Meditation is a common Way. You sit and do nothing and, there and then, open to the eternal now that lurks within you and around you. The trick, as Osho might say, is to keep that eternal now in every now, not just when sitting. (But you have to be careful not to become too careful: focus too much on your meditation and it becomes another way of going, an all-too-worldly state filled with self-judegment.)

Art as a Way: it seeks the pulse of the infinite within the material of this world — paint, color, light, image, fabric, bronze, paper, wood. After all, we know the difference between mere use of paint and the artist's use of paint. When I paint, my image remains firmly in this world, stuck in its materiality. Sure, there may be a flair here or there, a moment in which a line may traverse into a gesture of infinite becoming. But this is what the artist seeks in every gesture. This is not to say that she always succeeds. As DH Lawrence writes of Cézanne: "We can see what a fight it means, the escape from the domination of the ready-made mental concept, the mental consciousness stuffed full of clichés that intervene like a complete screen between us and life. It means a long, long fight, that will probably last for ever. But Cézanne did get as far as the apple. I can think of nobody else who has done anything." (All art risks cliché, DOA images.)

This is a beautiful description of a Way: it is the effort to overcome, to break through, the hegemony of ready-made life, to work towards finding the seething life, the eternal life, within everything. After all, our ways of going too often find themselves tethered to the shenanigans, the soul crushing banality, of the everyday, ignoring that this and that resonate infinitely. Why doesn't she text me back? Will this traffic ever end!? Will I get a good grade? A Way is a shifting of one's focus to the beating heart of life that lurks within the all-too-often deathly drone of one's way of going.

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.