We Are Nothing at Bottom Because We Have No Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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