Horizons, Anxiety, and Being

Where do we look, spatially and existentially, when we make sense of the world? Do we focus on our thoughts? On the space around us? On the sky, the atmosphere, the cosmos? What happens when we shift our horizons, as we shift the limit terms of our thinking what is possible?


The Delirium of Empiricism

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture is an empirical project, delirious and brimming with information of every sort. While she is categorized as a poet, she seems to hail from an empirical tradition that is part of a science and philosophy of old.

Hear the word empiricism and you probably conjure images of scientific rigor, of rationality. I don't believe in god or qi or mysticism. I believe in what I see, in what I experience. That is a parody, perhaps, a straw man. But I'm not convinced it's as parodic as I'd wish.

In any case, it seems to me that empiricism creates a delirious experience. After all, by definition, empiricism awaits the perceptive experience, not judging by theory or concept but by letting the experience dictate. And, in my experience, experience is rarely orderly or rational. In fact, the more I analyze an experience, the more complex it becomes until I am no longer sure of anything — including myself.

Perception takes us out of ourselves, introduces us to the swirl of things and sensations that teem all about. That is how perception takes place. Think about it for a moment: When you walk down the street and see this and that — faces, fog, trees, detritus, sky, squirrel, cars — are you seeing them? Or are they filling your eyes, your head, your mind? Is seeing active — you as the subject, the world as an object? Or is seeing passive — you sitting there while the world fills you to the brim?

Or does seeing happen in some entirely other way, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive? Can we say that seeing happens in the middle voice in which neither you nor the things you see are subject and object but in which the two swap places at infinite speed — seer become seen becomes seer becomes seen — so fast in fact that the two begin to blur, to marble, to intertwine at the most fundamental, ontological level? I am not just seer; I am seen. To say one is to say the other. (See Merleau-Ponty's incredible essay, "The Chiasm," in The Visible and the Invisible.)

We can say the same about all perception — tasting, smelling, touching, hearing. We don't sense the world as active subjects, even though we are in many ways active. And we don't sense the world solely as passive objects, the world thrust upon us — although it often feels like that. We are inflection points pushing back as we receive (we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest).

Picture a pebble dropped in a lake. Picture those Doppler ripples. Now picture that same pebble dropped in a river, in an ocean, in a bowl of pudding, in milk, in honey, against the pavement, in a wine glass, against your hand, your back, your tongue, your eye. All these different effects, all these ways of going with that pebble. This is perception: an exchange of vibratory intensities, mine and the many, many things of this world as I move about.

To experience the world empirically — that is, through my sense experience — I am necessarily taken out of myself, taken astray of myself. I am now made of the world as much as I am made of me.

This is rarely a uniform, rational, orderly experience. There is so much happening at once at different speeds and intensities — the shrieks of birds, babies, brakes, sirens; the smells of shit, sweat, sewer, soil; the textures of fog, wind, and humidity; the sights of bums, beauty, and bathos. Experience is ambivalent, multifarious, multivalent. It's nutty and complex, like a good single origin chocolate. And it's morphing, always morphing — albeit with patterns of some sort, patterns that are more calculaic than geometric, patterns that repeat but always with difference, patterns that are part of other patterns and part of no pattern at all, patterns that never cohere once and for all, that remain unpredictable, emergent yet somehow a pattern nonetheless and are all the more beguiling for it.

And we haven't even discussed all the invisible effects we experience at every moment, the teem of affect, the myriad moods that fill the air with impossible density. Yes, there's the persistent tug of gravity — as we age, we feel it more, our knees and feet less confident in their ability to rise — but there's also the tug of sentiment, of the ominous, glorious, seething feeling of everything everywhere. The air is thick with mood. There is no place, no moment, no particle that is not mooded.

It is impossible to strip experience of its mood. To say I see these two animals behaving this way but not to take into consideration the mood — your mood, the mood, mood in general — is not to experience those two animals behaving. It is to turn a blind eye to the very thing you, as an empiricist, are claiming to be be open to: the fullness of experience. 

All this sensual information taking me out of myself, twisting and turning me as I lean into it all, parry, duck, and embrace it all, all this swirling and morphing, all these feelings and sensations all happening at once at different speeds, temperatures, intensities, all in different timbres and rhythms, different terms of chaos and coherence: Empiricism is delirious.

There are any number of ways to operate as an empiricist. A scientist finds formulas, patterns of repetition that become strange kinds of laws, terms for how this and this and that and this usually or often or under certain conditions go together. This empirical scientist, it seems to me, would consider mood as much as weight, quality as much as quantity.

An artist might focus elsewhere, at the perceptive patterns, at pushing back at this multipronged experience or capturing it or hedging it to let this part in and not that. Think of Jackson Pollock writhing over his canvas watching his drips of paint fall: he is an empirical painter who hedges the forces at play, just a bit, with the flick of his wrist. Or Julie Mehretu who maps the flows of the cosmos, visible and invisible alike. Or Matthew Ritchie who illustrates it.

Julie Mehretu maps the empirical swirl of the visible and invisible cosmic experience.

It's funny that we imagine that information is in experience when, in fact, experience is information — and vice versa: information is experience, is experiential, is of and with experience. Somehow, empiricism went from surrendering to experience to the extraction of hard data from experience, letting all the soft data fall by the wayside — the moods and intensities, the histories, the ghosts, the trace presence of forces and bodies from afar, all the delicious complexity of experience.

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture, which I've written about here, is an empirical reckoning of this world. She is as much scientist as poet: Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. (Buy her incredible book.)

I like to imagine, then, a different world of science and information, a world in which knowledge is indeed empirical, in which poetry and science blur as experience is given full voice in all its dissonant, messy, multihued splendor.


On Self-Deprecation

I self-deprecate, often. I come from a people who transact in self-deprecation — Jewish New York of the 1970s, my household in particular, and my adored brother specifically. With a certain emphatic umph, I make note of my big nose, bald head, general lack of fitness, my string bean body, my tendency to act the know-it-all despite my pronounced ignorance, my ardent laziness, my fear of many, many things, my list of failures personal, professional, and sexual.

Socially, it's an aggressive move, all the more so for being couched in the veil of the meek. How is my interlocutor supposed to respond? Is she supposed to nod along? Doesn't this suggest agreement with the low assessment of myself? Yeah, your nose is quite big. How rude!

Is she supposed to counter or qualify my claims? I like your big nose! I think bald guys are sexy! This can be awkward as she may not actually feel that way but simply feel compelled to say it — as if I need cheering up. Which, in this case, is certainly not my intention. But, as I let loose my string of presumed self loathing, I am well aware that, to the goyim, it may look like such is my intention. Poor Daniel! He thinks so lowly of himself! Doesn't he know that having an enormous nose doesn't really matter? And that some women find it sexy? (You can see how this could open a Pandora's box. Some women? But not you? What do you mean it doesn't matter? There is no way for her to win taking this route. Fortunately, cheering up is rarely my goal.)

And for her to counter my claim by suggesting that my failings are, in fact, successes creates a certain tension. Do I then counter her counter? Sure, bald can be sexy. Alas, my dearth of hair fails to achieve that Bruce Willis magic. Which then perpetuates the dynamic of point-counterpoint, mimicking an argument — in which I assume the absurd position of maintaining that I am indeed an ugly loser — where there is, in fact, no argument.

What, then, is my move? Well, the social awkwardness is in fact the key element. In this sense, my self-deprecation purposefully puts my interlocutor in this uncomfortable, perhaps impossible, position. This serves several functions. It's a kind of test as it disallows the usual soul numbing pleasant banter of the casual conversation. I mean, begin talking to a stranger at a party and point out your most conspicuous ugliness and see how they squirm! Deal with this potential social awkwardness! Needless to say, I am not invited to social gatherings often. 

Because there is a way of participating in my self-deprecation without either confirming or countering. There is the teasing continuation — Yeah, now that you mention it, did I leave my keys up your nose? This is a tough one as it is dangerously close to insult. There's the self-deprecating counter-move. Yeah, if you think that's big, you should see the mole on my ass! 

From this perspective, self-deprecation is a kind of social litmus test, an invitation to a certain kind of person to play along. Why? So that, together, we can shed our egos and agree, through our mutual play, that there is nothing really worth taking seriously in this world. 

Because the fact is: I don't care what you do or what you've accomplished and I sure as shit don't care what I've accomplished. And, in case part of me does seem to care, my self-deprecation points to the fact that I don't really care — and you shouldn't, either.

While this can be born from a certain negativity — Why do you have to be negative, Daniel? — it comes from something else, too: from the understanding that everything gives way. That everything we do is necessarily puny in light of the cosmic teem. That the ego is so much silliness; that social posturing is even worse; that all we have is this moment, here and now, so let's tear down all social bullshit and stand before each other with merriment. And this might very well mean effacing ourselves before the other.

Is this negative? Sure. But there is a productivity in the negative that is not solely negative per se. This is where irony exists; this is what irony does: it effaces the things of this world, its words and postures, as it points to indifferent Nature, the merciless Divine, the seething Cosmos or the infinite cosmos, to the everything that exceeds all this. To do nothing but affirm demands clinging to the bullshit of this world a bit too much for my liking — and so I tear part of it down to show the glaring sublimity that resides below, above, and just to the side of this all-too-human nonsense we call our bodies, jobs, lives, selves.

Of course, self-deprecation is a kind of narcissism, too. It becomes a way to point myself out, even my ugliness, in order to draw attention to myself. If I really just wanted to ride the great cosmic wave, why not just keep my mouth shut?

On the other hand, there is something funny in self-deprecation. It's funny in that it destabilizes our social position, makes it weak, unsteady — and one effect of this is laughter. All the great efforts we humans attempt and endure in order to be something are hilarious, absurd, ridiculous. So why not laugh it all off?

And then there is another glaring aspect of self-deprecation: it comes, at some point, from a place of self loathing. After all, there are other ways to be ironic other than self-deprecation. For me to point out my big nose means that, at some point, I believe that I do have a big nose (which I do, duhhh) and that it is something that needs to be noted before it's noted negatively by someone else. If I own my own ugliness, I disarm those who would use it against me. This is, of course, as paranoid as it is true.

My brother and I laugh uncontrollably at what lazy losers we are. We egg each other's self-deprecation on with wild, hysterical abandon. Which, no doubt, has an effect of keeping the other in check, assuring the other doesn't get any holier than thou airs about him thinking he's all that. For us, self-deprecation is a familial warmth and, alas, existential limitation that prevents us from achieving true self love. No third eye for us. We'll go to our graves self-loathing but laughing the laugh of the universe. And that, in its way, is beautiful.

But I've discovered, lo these 48 years, that women don't really enjoy my self-deprecation. It has been delicately pointed out to me that, to women, this self-deprecation reveals an insecurity — and insecurity isn't sexy.

And, worse, the negativity of self-deprecation spreads to become a more rampant, all encompassing negativity. Really? You want me to go on that yoga retreat? Have you seen my downward facing dog? Or: Oy! You want to go dancing? Have you seen me try to move this nose gracefully? Soon, there is nothing left to do, no way to leave the prison of fear and self-loathing.

The reality is self-deprecation becomes all-too-human, as well. It is an easy crutch to avoid the true moment of reckoning face to face with another. Just as bravado and self-seriousness are so much evasive foolishness, self-deprecation has a way of becoming evasive, phony, a posturing — a way of avoiding vulnerability when its great power is in conjuring vulnerability. Everything can become an egregious social posturing. And thanks to a culture that foments self-loathing, self-deprecation becomes an easy way to participate in the social without actually being alive to the world.

What I love about self-deprecation, and why I won't just drop it, is that it creates the space for a coming to the world, what my sweetie might call an authentic moment of self — afraid, alive, a thisness in all its ugliness. The downside is that it becomes a foil, a shtick, another evasive gesture among the pantheon of evasive gestures we call American Bullshit. We all this know all too well, me most of all. I've lived this shtick, as much to my success as to my chagrin. I want what any beautiful person wants: to participate in the abundant joy of the world without my scaffolding, my shtick, my go-to self-deprecation.

And yet self-deprecation has its place. It has its moment. It remains a powerful antidote to smug social seriousness which, to me, is the greatest sin of all. For me, self-seriousness is the ultimate negativity, blinding us to the power of the non-I, the cosmic self, the beauty of the day. Because, c'mon, everything gives way. Don't you know that? (he writes, somehow imagining that he's channeling the folksy wisdom of Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo).