11.11.2018

This


My first, and for now only, tattoo, inked on my arm last month on my 49th birthday. This is one of only two things I know will persist with me over time (the other is my love for my son).

This is not a beautiful word. It lacks the lusciousness of luscious, the mellifluousness of euphony, not to mention the euphony of mellifluous. It doesn't enjoy the crisp rigidity of a good fuck; nor does it skip down the tongue as dolorous does. In fact, it's a rather awkward word, lisp-like in its utterance while being conspicuously inconspicuous on the page. Few notice and not one lingers over this.

But what this lacks in sumptuous and emotive texture, it makes up for with subtle conceptual complexity — or, rather, its resistance to concept all together. For this will not be generalized and it refuses to travel. In fact, it is that which can never be generalized, insisting on itself to infinity. This is always this.

And yet it is so supremely generous. For while this is always this, this is always different. At one moment this is that and, in the next, it is something else entirely — all while remaining this.

The linguists Emile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson refer to words like this as indexicals. Charles Peirce does, too, but I came to it through Benveniste and Jakobson and feel like I owe them something, to thank them. Mind you, it's not a moral obligation. Despite no longer being an academic and hence having no need to cite my sources, I still drop names in my writing — not to prove my erudition or substantiate my claims but as a conjuring of cohorts and their concepts, a territorialization, forging a conceptual-affective space — even if only temporarily, an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture that's there then gone. Anyway, an indexical doesn't have a fixed referent such as, say, dog or love. It is a function: the act of designating within a given event.

I is another indexical. I obviously doesn't mean Daniel Coffeen; I is a function that designates a speaker or writer who is doing something. When I say I, I designates me; when you say I, it designates you. This makes for a constant slippage when reading someone else's I. In some unavoidable sense, when you read I, you become I. And so when I'm reading the I of, say, Kathy Acker, I become Kathy Acker; I repeat Kathy Acker just as Kathy Acker's own I will never have been her own. 

When I was reading Acker some 26 years ago, I was struck by her relentlessly unreliable pronouns: he would become we, she, I. The experience was exhilarating, delirious, liberating as my very identity became scrambled in the act of reading. This is the case with all writing to a greater or less degree. When we read someone else's writing, we inhabit and are in turn inhabited by the metabolism of another — or others. Reading and writing take us astray of ourselves. Of course, most books work hard to confirm themselves and their readers. And most readers seek such confirmation, nodding their heads in agreement as they make their way. But this demands an active repressive mechanism as you have to work not to become the I of another, forgetting that when you read I, you become I.

Despite the best efforts of most teachers and dictionaries, language is a living creature that undoes all it inhabits. For there, always in its midst and letting it operate, letting it be used in everyday life, is the indexical. And there, among the indexicals, is I: a blank spot of no, and every, identity. That which anchored Descartes — that I that thinks — and which we imagine as being the home of our ego is, in fact, an opening occupied by whomever. I is not the site of identity's confirmation; on the contrary, I is where and how identities bleed, mingle, overlap, become undone only to be remade again as something different.

Language is filled to the brim with words that have referents — pixel, purple, fecund, absurdity, nomenclature, fetid. But indexicals punctuate our dictionaries with these gaps, these revolving doors. I, this, here, now: these words only come to fruition in their use, coming out of someone's mouth or scrawled across a page. They are essentially temporal (what structuralists call diachronic rather than synchronic). They refuse to be generalized; they don't have traditional definitions. They are functions that designate radical particularity, that articulate thisness, the haecceity of life.

For Benveniste, indexicals are what allow us to occupy language. The I, he argues, is a portal that allows speakers and writers to enter the linguistic code and wrap it around themelvses, to inhabit language from the inside. "Language is so organized," hew write,  "that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I." Without the I, language would be a closed system, all the words already defined, all communication existing at level of generality, all words already defined — and we'd be looking at it from the outside. But I lend(s) language temporality, opening it up to the flux of the world, to the event of life as we crawl inside its code and (re)create from within.


One reason I never got a tattoo is I couldn't imagine anything persisting with me over time. All is flux, I figured, and as my skin relentlessly shifts and sheds, it articulates the flux of life perfectly. There was a moment when I first came to San Francisco, in 1991, and considered getting a tattoo of an old fashioned typewriter. It seemed romantic and cool. But I knew then that that romance might fade; that, in fact, I'm not one for the typewriter; I'm a word processor guy who enjoys cutting and pasting. And I couldn't think of anything that I believed would persist for me through time. (Mind you, that was my criterion for a tattoo; people get tattoos for all sorts of reasons.)

But then last month, on my 49th birthday, I got my first tattoo. It is one of only two things that will inevitably persist for me, with me, as I age. The tattoo, on my left bicep, is one word written in my own handwriting: This. 

This is always and necessarily this. It persists and yet, generously, is always different. It is at once stubborn and absolutely open minded. It is the articulation of life's relentless internal differentiation, an articulation of the one principle-that's-not-a-principle that will always drive me: difference. It is in my own handwriting as every this is different; I didn't want the generalized formality of a pre-formed font. That would belie the thisness, the haecceity, of this. It is this as written by this hand in this moment. And yet, while particular to that moment of inscription, this remains ever changing, ever adapting to the here and now. 

This remains this, an event of repetition, ever re-creating itself in the moment without relying on an idea, concept, or thing. This forges itself with itself, as itself. While the word dog relies on something else — namely, a dog that is not present — this relies on nothing else, needs nothing else, to give it meaning. It forges its own meaning from within its environment, as part of its environment, an autopoietic act of self actualization creating meaning from within the event, as the event of designation. It's astounding!  A miracle! This is the call of radical affirmation, the great Yes-sayer that is always content with itself, with its place in the world. It never looks elsewhere to confirm it, define it, to give it meaning. This is always this — and that is enough. As Alan Watts might say, this is it.

I would never have a word on my body that was declarative, constative, referential — that needed something else to give it meaning. I didn't want my favorite Nietzsche quote or my favorite Nietzsche concept, amor fati, inscribed on my body (not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not for me). While amor fati says love fate, this performs the love of fate.

People sometimes ask me why I got this tattoo. Which is hilarious to me as it is its own best explanation that, in the end, refuses any why. Of course, I could tell them about Emile Benveniste and indexicals or about my history with the word (it's the key to the title of my dissertation, Read This Text). But all that backstory is just the placard next to the painting, avoiding what's before us, avoiding the insistence of life happening here and now, turning a deaf ear to the perfect eloquence of the event emerging in the very act of reading what's scrawled across my admittedly skinny bicep. All there is is this.

11.07.2018

Attraction


This is what attraction can look like. This bridge and that wind are all up in each other's business. It's downright erotic and certainly intimate. Which is why it behooves us to consider our attractions. What gets all up in your business?

I never cease to be amazed by attraction. I am drawn to you — but not her, her, or him. I'm drawn to this book, these ideas, these foods but not those. What propels me, draws me in, this way rather than that?

You go to a new school or college or an office or a party. There are lots of people there, any of whom could be your friend. But you end up spending time and creating relationships with only some of the people. No doubt, there are certain obvious cultural forces at work. In a new environment, we tend to tend towards people who look, act, and talk like us — people of our class and race.

But clearly that doesn't suffice. There were certainly lots of middle class Jews where I went to college — I think it was 30% at the time — and yet I only ended up being friends with a small number of them. What was it about those people?

Well, everyone has certain energetic harmonies and rhythms of intensity. This need not be so woo woo. We all have a certain speed and tolerance for noise, talking, bursts of enthusiasm and such. I know that the speed with which I talk coupled with a relentless will to wit — if often failing — and a certain emphatic umph repels most while attracting others (just look at the reviews of my lectures). This all speaks to certain metabolic propensities. While, like chocolate mousse, I am too much for some, I hit the spot for others (though usually, as with chocolate mousse, in small portions).

Of course, these energetic and rhythmic convergences change shape over time. We've all had this experience: we are smitten with someone and their energy only to find weeks or months later that, well, it's just plain old fucking annoying. And, by the same token, there are those we pass over for seeming too boring only to find, with time, that their quiet articulates a simmering, even seething, cool that fits quite nicely with one's own way of going, thank you very much. We are all temporal creatures, ever in flux.

All this is to say that attraction happens at the level of bodies, between and among flesh and its style, its mode of operation. Just as comets and space dust are drawn just so by other celestial bodies, we are drawn by our own constitution — by our physical and affective comportment, our visible and invisible shapes — towards some bodies and not others (while some repel us, like magnets flipped the other way). 

What goes between people and people goes between people and food, music, books, ideas. I remember when I was working out my doctoral field of study, "20th Century French Literary Theory," with the fantastic Charlie Aliteri, he suggested I read Maurice Merleau-Ponty's essay, "Cézanne's Doubt." Which I did. I then proceeded to read pretty much everything Merleau-Ponty wrote (even reading much of it in French just to be saturated). It stirred me, lit me up, drew me in and set me free. When I next met with Prof. Altieri, he was flabbergasted by what I'd done. "Don't you find him too priestly?" (I think that was his word but don't hold me to it.) But more than his words, it was the look on his face, as if I loved eating something he found vaguely repulsive, bowl after bowl of tripe. Some tripe is ok, his look said, but that much? What kind of person are you?

(I feel the same about Hegelians and Heideggarians. Actually, I feel that way about most people who are an anything; my own appetite tends towards the hodgepodge rather than allegiance to any one thinker. In any case, I always looked suspiciously at people who studied Hegel in depth. What kind of body, I'd wonder, is attracted to Hegel's ponderous System and its magical dialetic or the downright humorless Heidegger? How do they digest all that? I imagine it's how some people feel looking at the ducks hanging in the windows of Chinatown. Who's eating that? (I love that duck, mind you, and I love it hanging in the windows.).)

In any case, my point is this: attraction is an ethical act. We judge people for the things that attract them. Indeed, Nietzsche would say we should. How can you trust — how can you enjoy — someone who reads British philosophy? For Nietzsche, we are the things that attract us. A "well turned out" man, Nietzsche argues, instinctively chooses what's best for him. We surely know the opposite: those who return over and over again to the very things making them sick — Doritos, abusive partners, drugs. Which is all to say, the things that attract us speak about us, reveal us. Attraction is the silent but audible sound of our way of going in the world. We can say all kinds of things, do all kinds of things, pose all sorts of ways. But attraction happens in the midst of, and despite, our best pretenses.

Attraction is an immanent operation. It happens between and among these bodies right here, right now, doing this or that. Of course we rely on allopoietic operations — external knowledge and codes such as morality and laws — to make selections about people, food, art. But such external terms do not determine attraction. Attraction is autopoietic: it happens within this sphere, between these bodies, as these bodies. As with gravity and magnetism, the event of attraction is a complex calculus of bodies in motion interacting with each other at various levels and points all at once. It's not conscious or active per se. Attraction happens behind our backs, as it were, without our knowing (our grammar articulates this passivity well).

This makes attraction so intimate. It calls to us from the literal fiber of our being. This is why we often get nervous approaching someone to whom we're attracted: our very comportment is shaking. Think of the comet being drawn inextricably into the sun, all the feelings it must feel — the delirium, joy, fear, relief. Indeed, what could be more profound than being attracted to another human being?

I'm constantly surprised that articulating one's attraction to another is often met with recoil and even anger (although when attraction is one-sided, it can be menacing and hence the real fear people have when someone comes on with them).  You just want to fuck me and that's it? Don't you respect me for me? That retort is, to me, insane. If I'm attracted to you, I'm attracted to you. I don't separate your body from your mind, your wit from your waist, your ass from your ideas. You are this way of going that includes wit, waist, ass, calves, humor, scent. And I'm digging it.

But we are plagued with the residue of inane dualistic, nihilistic thinking that believes attraction is physical, animal, hence fleeting and less important than the rationality of our souls. But attraction is more of a gestalt operation: we are drawn to the manner of a thing. Mind you, this doesn't mean all attraction is eternal, divine love. That's absurd. But it does mean attraction is always a force to reckon — and not to be dismissed as just attraction. We can believe someone is attractive based on their body and not their style — or the other way around. But when we're attracted to someone, it's body and style. It's the way it all hangs together, even if not in equal proportion. You can't separate the visible from the invisible, the body from the way of going. 

I often take inventory of the things that attract me such as my long time propensity for bourbon and then the shift to tequila, then gin, then tequila again, and back to whiskey. In that trajectory, I see my body, my self, navigating my place in the world. When young, the weighty viscosity of bourbon grounded my skinny, wiry ways. As I aged, such a tether became too much so I reached for the ethereal ebullience of tequila. When my stomach began to burn with tequila's heat, I turned to gin's harmony with ice. And now, feeling a certain will to slow wisdom, I enjoy whiskey's thick legs. These were not conscious moves; they were my body being pulled this way and that to keep me healthy.

Needless to say, not all the things that attract me fuel me; on the contrary. Some people have offered that my attraction to alcohol is an ill formed instinct, keeping me sick and subdued. Navigating attraction and appetite — which is to say, living — is not a science. We feel our way through it. So to take account of one's attractions is to take account of oneself. As I move beyond booze to food, places, activities, art, and relationships, I begin to get a pretty good picture of how I go in the world — and where the operation is ailing me. For the things that draw us in articulate us, form us, hedge us, kill us — or fuel us.

While attraction will have its way, this doesn't mean you can't change what attracts you. It takes discipline but you can shift your instincts, train yourself to be healthy, to be vital. This doesn't mean choking down wheat grass or kale smoothies because you heard they're good for you. That's not disciplining your instincts; that's listening to some blogger. No, training your instincts means not adhering to some external code but listening more closely, more attentively, to one's own metabolism.

I see attraction as a gift never to be taken lightly. As we're hurtling through this world, making so many decisions, navigating cars, kids, money, passwords, mothers, loves, some things emerge and call to us. That's the universe whispering to us, tapping us on the shoulder, all come hither-like. Attraction is a cosmic come on.

10.31.2018

On the Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell



I had the supreme honor and pleasure of talking with a brother from another mother, Thaddeus Russell who wrote this book.



This book is a sheer joy for me as it gives these sharp, smart, hilariously surprising and refreshing interpretations of American history. His book grew out of frustration with both the Great Men of History — presidents, wars, corporations— and it's so called improvement, the Great People of History — civil rights leaders, important women, productive African-Americans. For Russell, both models focus on people who want power and ascribe to disconcertingly similar forms of good behavior, good citizenship, good workers (eeesh!). And hence neither talk about pleasures — sex, booze, music, leisure — or more involved understandings of freedom.

This is what interests him: freedom and pleasure. So Russell looks and focuses elsewhere — to the pleasures of sex and booze and jazz and so to prostitutes, slackers, drunkards, and gangsters. And finds that it's these people who have, for the most part, defined and created the American freedoms we cherish such as having sex (other than in marriage) and weekends off from work.

That's all I'll say for now. I highly recommend it for the supreme and all too rare pleasure of reading someone who's lit up and talking about things you think you know but in such a fresh, generous, and surprising way.

And if you read his story about his run-in with academia, you'll begin to understand my excitement over crossing paths with him.

10.05.2018

Intuition


Massage is a surprisingly complex art. You may know everything there is to know about the body  — muscles, tendons, and ligaments; joints, fascia, and nutrition — but that doesn't tell you about this body lying naked before you. How do you know where to touch? How deeply? With what intensity and speed? When do you move on to somewhere else? How do you know? How can you know?

Now, I don't know squat about anatomy. But I love giving massages for precisely this reason: it demands an immediate mode of knowing. I don't rely on textbooks or specialized knowledge. Of course, I know bodies in general; I know my body; I've touched many bodies. And that forms a kind of general and historical knowledge. But other than my history, all there is is me and you — preferably naked. I have to lean into the demands and desires of your body, feeling for what feels good and right to me as well as you. And then I do indeed know how to touch you, where to touch you, with what rhythm, speed, and intensity.

Sure, at times my attention may wander and I'll dig into a scapula too intently or linger too long or too lightly on your neck. At these moments, I am not reading your body; I'm thinking about tomorrow or Nietzsche or if my bananas are too mushy. When I am not heeding the moment, I rely on knowledge — it's good to always massage the scapula — rather than immediate knowing. We all know this experience from getting massages — when it becomes mechanical and rote. Ah, but when I'm present, there is a silent yet audible conversation that takes place between your body and me, guiding my hands here then there. And we both know it.

Ever watch a hitter step to the plate in baseball? He knows that pitcher is going to be throwing such and such pitches at such and such a speed. But then that hitter has to take that knowledge and be ready for whatever comes his way. Watching a great hitter is incredible. You see how his body moves with the pitch, feeling for its trajectory, how it's going to break. He participates with the way of the ball coming at him.

This is knowing rather than knowledge — an act rather than a fact. If knowledge with its categories, genus, and species is three-dimensional, this mode of knowing is four-dimensional. It's an action, a doing, a reckoning of this moving world while moving oneself. It is temporal. And while invisible, the information I am reckoning is not esoteric; on the contrary, it is radically empirical, tending to experience as it's happening. There is no reflection and little associative thinking. There are, however, demands and requests of bodies.

Two modes of knowing, then. One that is categorical, general, and static; and one that is immediate, particular, and active. I am calling this second kind, intuition.

Intuition is knowing of, and within, the invisible world, the play of energies and forces — cosmic, animal, vegetal, geological, atmospheric — that stream through all bodies. This includes affect and mood as well as linkages, the modes by which a body assembles itself — the style of a body, how it goes in the world, its rhythm, speed, and shape, its tendencies and propensities, the manner in which it carries these limbs, ideas, words, scents, desires through the world. These are essential pieces of information that express themselves all the time in all bodies. So while I see your body, its skin and limbs, I also sense a wealth of other information that is at once invisible and palpable — your affective state, your mood, your style.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist, claims that when we perceive something, we entwine with it. So when I see, say, a pear, I take up the pear as the pear takes me up. Which is to say, perception is not a cold process; it is friction filled, a palpation. Sight, too, is a mode of touching the world. For Merleau-Ponty, the very possibility of perception is that I am not distinct from the world — a subject with consciousness who sees objects. No, I see objects because I am object, too, because I am something that can be seen. Seeing, as with all perception, is what Merleau-Pointy calls a chiasm, an intertwining in which seer and seen swap places over and over. Perception is immersive.

This is true of invisible states such as energies and affects. When we perceive something, we entwine with the mood and way of that thing at that time, in those conditions. We're always doing this. We say, This place has a funny feel; let's get out of here. Or we feel a distinct attraction to certain places, things, people, ideas, a pull that cannot be quantified or even seen but that is no less real for it. On the contrary. We feel our way through this world as much as we know our way through this world. Intuition is this feeling-as-knowing.

Intuition, then, is not not thinking. It is not intellectual reflection in which, for instance, you try to understand the Kantian sublime. But once you understand what the heck Kant is talking about when he talks about the sublime, this does not mean you know Kant. Because a philosophy, like everything else in the universe, is not made of facts and figures, concepts and quantities, alone. A philosophy is a way of metabolizing the world, distributing the world. It proffers a vision of this universe and how it all works. It has energy flowing through it; it is affective; it enjoys a style.

When I was in grad school, I did a semester reading Kant's Critique of Judgement. I'll be honest: I could not figure out what Kant wanted from me. I could understand what I was reading; I could even discuss his ideas. But I could not figure out his shtick, his style, his vision of the world. So one night I did what I'd often do at such moments: I'd put the book before me and smoke a joint. This allowed me to both pull back and zoom in, to see how the pieces fit together as well as comprehend the micro-movements of his thought. And I'd wait for that moment which would come in one feel swoop and there, before me, would be Kant in all his mad reasonable glory, trying to make the world into this rational machine which made his vision all the madder.

This is why Bergson calls intuition the most reliable philosophical method — not the pot smoking necessarily but intuiting what a philosopher is up to. Or what anything is up to. "Intuition," writes Bergson, "is a method of feeling one's way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it." He maintains that all philosophy stems from an initial intuition about the way of the world; the philosopher then spends the rest of her life trying to express it analytically. But the only way to understand it is to be done, at some point, with analysis and move into intuition. Shitty academic philosophy analyzes ideas, parses concepts, groups thinkers and ideas. There is little appetite for intuition in academia. That's why most academic writing is dead on arrival.

Intuition, says Bersgon, carries us into the interior of the thing. From the outside, we can analyze and size up: she's 5'3", long dark hair, hearty laugh, very flexible. But, even if I've physically entered her, this analysis doesn't carry me into her interior. This is not how we enjoy people. We feel our way through the social, pushed and pulled by a variety of invisible forces, finding ourselves face to face with this or that person and then feeling our way into them, with them, through them, of them. We entwine with their way of going and find a flow, a fit — or don't, and we move on.

As Bergson claims, this is a radical empiricism, a tending to what it is here and what is happening. Intuition demands participating in duration, in different durations, in the durations of the things at hand (duration is Bergson's word). When I go to Ocean Beach here in San Francisco, I perch myself amidst the juncture of all these different durations — the eternal flux of the ocean and sky, the steady hum of cargo ships, the frantic follies of dogs and children, the urgent anxiety of cars, the formations of pelicans, the darting of plovers. And me and my time, my speed and rhythm, my duration entwining with the times of others forging a complex temporal symphony, filled with dissonance and extraordinary harmonies. To intuit is to participate in the world, to lean into its nudges, its tugs, its repulsions. Intuition is a mode of going-with.

This is not to disparage analysis and intellectual reckoning. It is necessary and can be quite beautiful. And the fact is analysis and intuition are always inter-related, interdependent. Just look at this essay. At times, I analyze intuition, doing my darndest to explain it, to explicate its parts and functioning. And then I reach an end of such thinking and I move into a different mode of knowing as I try to intuit intuition, feel for how it operates, how it goes in the world.

The relationship between analysis and intuition echoes the relationship between the visible and invisible. There is some purely physical element of a body that we can talk about. And yet all bodies have some affective state, some invisible forces at work running through them. And while we can talk about affect and forces free of bodies, they swirl in and around and with bodies all the time.

Intuition is a mode of knowing the invisible states and forces of the world. To only think analytically is to ignore the vast amounts of information that this world offers. Isn't this why we find stock photos so boring and bereft of life? I'm sitting here looking for a picture of a massage and all I can find are these clichés that analyze a massage, showing me the veneer, showing me what is visible but missing the invisible all together, what is interior to a massage, what is qualitative rather than quantitative.  Intuition is what lets an artist find that interior and create something alive, a critic reckon a text from the inside out, a student understand a philosophy's demands, a cook assemble a meal that simply flows. And it is how you learn to touch the naked body lying before you.

10.02.2018

Walking with Moods, Curves, & Inflection Points

I just spent the last few hours walking through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park — a ridiculously, generously fecund place to stroll. As I made my way from the buffalo — yes, there's a buffalo paddock in the park — down different paths, over knolls and knells, until I came to the Pacific Ocean screaming its glory, I was struck by the continuous modulation of mood that that park, as well as any walk, affords.

Any walk, every walk, is a stroll through and with a modulation of mood. Sometimes, a mood may persist over a long stretch. I find this to be particularly true when I hike as the space tends to be less urgently variegated. But GG Park, as in a city, enjoys relentless shift of foliage, sky, curve, incline, and inflection. Which is to say, as I walk, I rise and fall, walk through a breadth of trees and plants and flowers from all corners of the globe, find myself in wooded enclaves only to turn into the yawning sky and blaring sun as a path curves this way then that. All of this shifts the mood.

What is mood?  Well, I see it as the affective state of the visible world. There are such and such leaves, lighting, scents, colors, textures. We readily record all that with our senses; all of these elements are quantifiable. But they all also have qualitative states. This leaf is soft and welcoming; that one, edgy and shy; those all play together; these others loom large as individuals. Or the play of sun: the melancholia, the exuberance, the sharp edge, the dull glows. Now combine the leaves and the play of sun — not to mention the sounds, birds, insects, decaying stumps — and you get an assemblage of qualities all working in some kind of concert that forges a certain....mood, a state that is as historical as it is immediate, the entire history of a place or thing coming to bear upon the senses and upon sense itself, ghosts playing in the leaves and shaping the now just so.

And of course there's you: you bring so much to the situation. You bring all your knowledge, history, and enculturation, all your assumptions and associations about what makes something melancholy or exuberant, not to mention how you're feeling that day. We all know that when we're depressed, it casts a pall over everything we see just as when we're joyous, everything seems to rejoice.

And yet mood is not subjective. You do not just invent the melancholia of the sun from the depths of your being. Mood is a conspiracy of states that exists out there in the world, as the world. It may run through you but it doesn't only live inside you. Mood is expressive. You are not simply subject to it; nor do you determine it. You live through mood in the middle voice — neither active nor passive, both active and passive. You only know the mood as you are a participant within it, as much determining it as it is determining you. Of course, this mutual determination is rarely equal. Sometimes, your shitty mood overwhelms a place just as the intensity of a place can overwhelm you. In any case, mood envelops as it emerges.

Every time I'm walking through GG Park, I am struck by the play of curves, both horizontally and vertically, and the way this shapes the tenor of the day. The pleats of a curve distribute time, and hence mood, very differently. Consider the straight, clear path: you can see indefinitely in front and behind you. The path stays with you, never out of sight, just as the future yawns before you without surprise. There it is! And yet you quite literally see time receding; you see and feel your past moving away from you. The effect, and affect, is a play of inevitability and all that existentially entails.

Now consider a sharp turn. You have no idea what's around the corner. It could be people, animals, oceans, a cliff, a meadow, sun, shade — you can't know until you make the turn, forging anxiety, anticipation, excitement, even if muted. And then once you make the turn, your past vanishes in one fell swoop, as if it were never there.

And then there is what I call the Hockney curve (David Hockney loves to paint this curve). It is gentle, steering you towards a future that is unknown — you can't quite see around it and yet it's coming gently, generously.  Meanwhile, the past recedes at the same clip — with no real urgency, what's behind you falls away. This curve tempers intense mood shifts.

David Hockney

On my walk today in GG Park

And then there are inflection points — dramatic shifts in mood and, usually, terrain. Picture walking through San Francisco's Union Square with its Saks and Apple and Tiffany's down Geary Street, past the fancy hotels, when you suddenly find yourself in the Tenderloin — yes, that's the name of the neighborhood — with its abundant abjection. People lying in the street, some shooting up, some lying in vomit. This is a common experience in America's city: turn a corner and everything changes.

Or walking west in GG Park and soon the road widens, the sidewalks exand, the trees reach higher and then, like a miracle, there it is: the freakin' Pacific Ocean staring at you from around the bend. Everything changes in that one moment. Every time, it simultaneously takes my breath away and fills me with its briny air. It leaves me winded — deflated and inflated at the same time.


Once I walk to the ocean, leaving the park behind, I am in a totally different moodscape as the infinite stretches out ahead of me, seething, and the sky, freed from the trees' framing, is allowed its full extension.


Inflection points abound, even if less dramatic than the ocean's emergence. We know inflection points in all aspects of our lives — that moment when water boils, when satiety hits, with coffee kicks in. And we know these inflections points in mood as we make our way. Turn this way and suddenly everything is frantic, tumultuous, hurried. Turn that way and the day takes a deep breath.

I like to take what I call mood walks. They are best done alone so I'm not distracted by the niceties of the social. But mood walks can of course be done in tandem; that might make them even more complex. In any case, as you walk, lean into the micro moods. Note the way you feel, the way the place feels, as you move past that house with its manicured lawns, then that with its broken crap on the stoop, then past that alley that wreaks of piss. Feel the way the speed and noise of the traffic shapes it all. Let the sky impinge upon you, conspiring with people and places and machines to make the day feel just so.

As Michel de Certeau writes in his incredible book, The Practice of Everyday Life — in his chapter entitled "Walking in the City": "The panorama-city is a 'theoretical' (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices." That is to say, when we picture the city, we picture pictures of the city splayed before us as if in a map. But our experience is always particular as we only see what we see from our vantage point at this moment with these things, these scents, this digestion, this dappled sunlight — what de Certeau calls this practice, this doing. Yes, our experience is historical and this history shapes our moods. But our history, like our vantage, is perspectival, local, particular, and always coming to bear within this now.


Such is all experience of walking, not to mention living. We are always enmeshed, enveloped in moods we shape and which, in the same breath, shape us. It is incredible to me how mood is not spoken of more, how it has not become a science. Lohren Green's Atmospherics is the closest thing I know to reckoning mood as knowledge. And, of course, Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles.

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.