5.28.2018

Grasping

Most nights, I find myself sitting alone in my house. Often — too often, I'm embarrassed to say — I feel something missing. I want something, most notably, I want some woman to give me the sense that she wants me. In today's world, this usually takes the form of a text. When my phone inevitably remains quiet, there is a whiff of rejection. So, much to my shame, I'll send digital missives into the ether. And regardless of what I write, what I'm actually saying is: Do you like me? 

Needless to say, this is not the way to attract a woman's attentions. It doesn't come from a state of calm desire; it comes from a state of desperate need. It's not a romantic or sexual gesture; it's a grasping to fulfill an internal lack. And I've yet to meet a woman who's even remotely tolerant of such a gesture.

This is no doubt the seduction of dating apps. All the blips and beeps, all those notifications, give you a sense that somebody, somewhere, is interested in you. What I've seen in my experience is that rather than let silence become the norm and risk that sense of death, people double down on the app, swiping more and more, messaging more and more, to get the taste of desire, to create a set of tethers, however false, to the social world in general and the sexual economy in particular. You hear all those beeps and think: Yes, I am desired! Most of the time, people don't even meet; the difficulty and messiness of the flesh is too much. And so they remain ensconced in a world of digital communiqués with the faint scent of desire and without the weighted hassle of real human discourse — or even intercourse. It's all so much grasping. I don't want to be alone! Desire me — even if it's false.

On the other hand, it's nice to feel desired. And the fact is, life is hard and often we feel shitty about ourselves. We feel not only unloved but unlovable. And to have someone we love say: It's ok, yes, I love you can turn a shitty night, a shitty mood, a shitty life right around. Should that be enough to turn it around? Should a person be able to feel loved and lovable on one's own, without any actual person expressing it? Yes, absolutely. This is why we hear Christians say Jesus loves you and God loves you. It creates a state of perpetual lovability. Which is beautiful. But it's hard to summon that and sustain it and I know I, for one, sometimes — perhaps too often — want some external confirmation.

In the meantime, we — well, I — grasp for things other than a woman's attention. Sometimes, it's just for some social tethers. We've all seen this, if not experienced it ourselves, on the Facebook. We post and comment to get it on with old friends, acquaintances, strangers — just to feel a little less alone. All the social media outlets amplify this — Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, Instagram, Reddit, Quora. We look for those likes and feel, even if only for a moment, that we belong with the world, that we're not just alone adrift in the cold, cold cosmos (even if, from the right perspective, that is bliss).

Sometimes, I don't grasp for feminine or social attention. The tethers I seek at these times aren't human. I pour myself some of this, eat some of that, pop a little of something else and soon I am feeling grand. I am beyond the petty needs of the social, of the romantic, even of the sexual. I am riding waves of thought and sensation. I may not belong with people but, right now, I belong with this cosmos. Watch me go!

But whether I'm texting a would-be or actual girlfriend, posting on the Facebook, swiping on the Tinder, or pouring myself a hefty glass of tequila, I am grasping. All because I want to feel enmeshed. I want to feel the embrace of the world, even if digital or drug induced. Because, on my own, I don't feel like I'm enough.

I am rarely willing just to sit with my state, whatever state that is. I'm always seeking an exit, an escape hatch, a distraction, a change. If I have low energy, I have an espresso; if I'm anxious, I pop an Ativan or pour a cocktail; lonely, I text, swipe, or post. I grasp at what's around me so as not to feel what I'm feeling. My lack, my self-loathing, seeks remedy anywhere and everywhere.

What's funny is that when I don't grasp — when I don't text or imbibe — but feel my utter aloneness on the planet, when I feel that steady drift through the cosmic ether, that is when I feel the greatest joy. This is what I'll do: I'll be sitting my couch feeling that lack and I'll consider my options — my phone, various people I know, my computer, my liquor and drug cabinet. Each proffers its own mode of a tether to the world. But then I'll reach for nothing, lean back into myself, and feel the tethers all snapping like Neo emerging from his pod in the Matrix. And, suddenly, I feel blissfully untethered. I am floating peacefully through space as this temporary coagulation of form. It is euphoric. Mind you, euphoria is not the most common reaction to my cosmic loneliness. But it does show me that grasping is not the answer.


There are of course less nefarious modes of grasping. I've met plenty of people — and I have been known to be one of them — who are constantly seeking self-improvement through this or that — different practices, books, philosophies. All of these come from the same source as me reaching for booze: something is missing. Maybe I'll find peace in two weeks of silence! Or by reading more Osho! Both of these things might be great practices; they might lend themselves to peace. But, as with booze or late night texts to women, they can also be desperate and needy, stemming from a place of self-loathing, self-discontent. It's all seeking when everything is always already perfect. There's nothing to seek.

All that said, I do have desires — I enjoy the attentions of women; I enjoy sex and romance; I enjoy bantering with the world; I enjoy my cocktails of every sort; I learn from Nietzsche and Osho. These are not tethers; they are desires. After all, we are ecological beings; we are always already and fundamentally enmeshed with the world. We breathe, eat, touch, talk, fuck just to live. So what distinguishes grasping from enjoyment? This is an elusive internal calculus. Often, I can feel the difference as each enjoys a different posture. When I grasp, I lean a little too far forward; I get twitchy; I feel the jones, as the say. When I desire, I saunter to the liquor cabinet and concertedly pour that drink. In both cases, I'm having a cocktail. The difference between the two is internal. And, alas, not always clear. 

We reach for, we reach with, the world — necessarily. We take in air, food, words, ideas, sensations and give out gases, gestures, more words. But there are different ways of doing so. Part of me wishes I never needed confirmation from the world, never needed a woman to tell me she desires me, never needed a boost or sedative, had all the wisdom I needed, that all my self-worth were self-generated at all times. But alas, at times, I want that confirmation from someone or something — from a woman, a glass of tequila, from Osho or Nietzsche. And, frankly, that doesn't seem so bad. It seems part of being alive — accommodating and loving those who grasp, offering a confirmation that they do indeed matter, that they are indeed loved and lovable.

Grasping may not be pretty. It may not be healthy. But it does seem like something we all do from time to time. We can, and should, work to reach with vital desire rather than desperate grasping. We should work to feel like enough for this world, perfect for and with this world regardless of what's happening — regardless of whether you've been fired, dumped, whether you're sick or depressed. Then again, sometimes it's just plain old nice to have the world reach for you with a loving touch, whether it's a kind word in a text, the keen insight of a tantric master, or the warm embrace of a cocktail.

5.23.2018

Difference & Duality

When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why the opposite of hot was cold. Why wasn't it, say, door? Or chocolate pudding? Or farts (I was 8 years old, after all)?

Cold, it seemed to me, was not that different from hot. After all, it's still a temperature; it's in the same general field as hot. Door, on the other hand, has very little to do with hot — although I suppose a door can be seen as a way to control the heat of a room. Chocolate pudding really has nothing to do with hot — although, I suppose, said pudding begins with heat. Farts? Well, farts are warm and I guess they can be hot!

Concepts, words, experiences: they have tendrils that wind this way and that. We live in networks, lines crisscrossing every which way as doors, chocolate pudding, and farts all find hot and cold in different ways, from different directions.

Anyway, what I'd stumbled on was the logic of opposition as distinct from the logic of difference. Cold is the opposite of hot. What confused me was that I believed that opposite meant different when, in fact, opposite means a form of likeness. Hot and cold occupy the same spectrum, namely, temperature. They are matters of degree within the same field. What separates them is quantity, not quality (even though hot and cold are radically different qualitative experiences).


Hot and cold are opposites. Hot and chocolate pudding are different. Opposition is a form of sameness; difference marks a point of distinction, of independence — although that independence is necessarily relational. Cold and hot are forever locked in the same architecture, two ends of the same line. Their fate is wound up, bound up, with each other. They move together.

Think of the so-called rebellious teen. She gets a tattoo because her parents told her not to. This teen's decision is still determined by that parental prohibition. It's not that different than obeying her parents and not getting the tattoo.
 
Difference, while relational, is emergent and ever in flux. Unlike hot and cold which are forever locked in the same relationship, door's relationship to hot changes based on circumstance. 

And difference is autopoietic, self-determining. I, this body here, wants a tattoo. What my parents say may not be irrelevant but it does not determine my decision. If I get the tattoo because my parents said no, it'd structurally be the same as not getting the tattoo because my parents said so. I just want this tattoo. That decision differentiates itself from the social field, from the play of child and parent, from the pressure of friends. It is self-determining, even if not hermetic.

To eliminate the duality of opposition is not to erase boundaries all together. On the contrary, it is to introduce boundaries everywhere, marks of distinction everywhere as bodies are perpetually differentiating themselves from each other.

Take a toe. There's a toenail, the toe itself — whatever that is —, a foot, a leg. What distinguishes one from the other? We can draw boundaries here or there, here and there, in order to distribute the body into its multiplicity. A toe differentiates itself from the foot just as the toenail differentiates itself from the toe. The distinction might bleed but it still holds: there is a point at which the toenail is clearly not the toe, the toe not the foot, the foot not the leg. Which is all to say that the logic of either/or, if the absolute limit, doesn't disappear; it's that these limits are in flux. There are limits everywhere only they're moving depending on perspective and circumstance.

There are all kinds of ways two things can be related, all kinds of ways any two things can be different from each other. There is, for instance, the double helix. This is an odd one in that the two strands never touch, never cross, and yet are fundamentally intertwined. The double helix is sort of like an oppositional duality only in flux with an odd kind of tension in which the strands always seem reaching for each other.


Marbling is a radically different mode of differential relation. Two things — there can be more, of course — are relentlessly differentiating themselves from each other, a constant game of push and pull. Black and white don't just become one thing, grey. Black and white retain their respective boundaries even as their boundaries bend and bleed.


Then there's the knot which is wildly multiple. So many different kinds of knots! Hot and spice form a kind of knot, I think, rather than a double helix or marbling.




There are any number of ways things might stand together with their difference. I think of gardens and tulips in particular. Each stands alone and yet they go together in a common gesture. But unlike marbling or knots, they don't need to; each tulip is just as content to stand alone as it is to bloom together. I want to call this tuliping.


Tuliping is quite differing from zooing. Zoos bring together radically discrepant things — lemurs, leopards, lamb — each within an environment in which it thrives. A zoo is like a book of cosmologies, a universe of universes.


What's the point of all this — these knots, tulips, and zoos, this marbling, this helix? Well, think about a duality such as good/evil, a figure that still dominates our storytelling in films as well as in our culture at large. Clearly, people and actions are never just good or evil. They are a nexus, a set of relations between and among forces, effects, affects, and ideas. Just because we say that good and evil are not opposed doens't mean we erase the difference between them. Rather, we suggest there are so many different ways they can relate to each other beyond duality, so many ways to architect their difference.

Mind/body is, of course, another common duality. I go to the gym for my body. I meditate for my mind. But anyone who's thought about either of these things knows that the gym is not just for the body and meditation is not just for the mind. To ignore the role of the mind in the gym is to ignore an essential part of your make up. I don't work out but it seems to me that working out while watching television is quite different than working out while meditating on and with your muscles, your breath, your heart. And meditation that only focuses on not focusing on one's thoughts misses all the teachings and sensations of the body.

You are as much mind as body — and yet the two are not the same. In fact, their relationship changes depending on one's actions. In sex, for me, they marble; in exercise, they tulip. Duality and opposition locks things into a fixed architecture. But life happens in the relationships that emerge in the motion of existence.

Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was obsessed with identifying a position of difference within Hegel's dialectical System. Hegel was the dominant philosopher of the 19th century who offered what he called the System: everything is a position that inevitably fails and gives rise to its opposite. This is what propels bodies, propels history, propels life itself. He calls this the dialectic. This drove Kierkegaard nuts. He longed for a position free of the System, free of the dialectic, free of opposition. The self, he said, is a point of irreducible difference. Here am I, says Abraham.

Yet this self is not a unity but rather is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, of the mortal and the divine. For Hegel, Jesus is the ultimate unity of man's internal oppositions. But, for Kierkegaard, Jesus, as with all people, is not the unity but the ever shifting dynamic between the finite and the infinite:

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

Ok, so that's an esoteric aside. But the thing I'd like to take away from Kierkegaard is that duality and its logic of opposition shut down life by creating one set architecture of sameness. But the self — and I'd suggest all forms, all bodies — emerges as the relationships between and among all our different elements. We are our ever-shifting terms of difference. 

5.18.2018

Why & How the Body without Organs (or any concept) with Reference to Meditation


This is someone named Eva Strohmeier's map of the BwO.
[I can't find a direct link; I apologize as I love this.]

Sometimes, I find myself talking about a concept — say, the Body without Organs — to someone who has not enmeshed themselves in philosophy (I'm trying out that they/them thing). They listen, ask a question or two — often with a hint of defensiveness — before saying: Ok. So what? What am I supposed to do with that?

This is the best question possible: What am I supposed to do with that? What can I do with that? For it — life — is always a matter of doing.

Then again, I'm simultaneously thrown by the question. After all, haven't we been taught concepts since we were kids, throughout our education both formal and informal — evolution, the unconscious, sickness from germs, holistic? Why does this one concept, BwO, prompt that question? I believe it's because the idea sounds so odd, so esoteric, that it brings the very activity of all concepts to the fore — which is unsettling. I believe the question can house a certain anti-intellectualism which surfaces in comments like: That's just mental masturbation. Which is not an accusation I've ever understood.

Here's a concept I just read in a book: You have a core purpose. What are you supposed to do with that? Presumably, you're supposed to discover, then reach for, this core purpose.

But then someone else comes along and says: I don't know about that core purpose stuff. I don't think we have a core; and I don't think we have a purpose. I think we're all just adrift and the trick is to ride it with grace. And, for a calculus of reasons, you believe this latter guy. So now rather than taking time alone and considering your core purpose, you move into the social, into the fray of experience, but without judgement or exploration you used to have. Now you seek grace as a passive subject within the Great Teem, riding this whole shindig out.

Two concepts. Two different architectures of experience. And at least two different directives on how to behave. Concepts, like many figures, organize our sense making. They have us see the world a certain way, to process the stuff of this world a certain way. (I'd argue that any figure has this power; after seeing Francis Bacon's paintings, I see the world, I experience the world, I organize the world differently.) And this processing, which we might call understanding, inflects our desires, our experience, how we interact with ourselves and other bodies.

Concepts, like all figures, have the ability to (re)order the very structures of who we are as individuals and as a social body. They famously wrote: A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.  

So what are you to do with the Body without Organs? Well, like all concepts, it proffers an architecture of bodies: within this organized body there is another body, one that is run through with forces and flows, with becomings and desires of all sorts. This refers not just to the human body but to all bodies — to cities, houses, classrooms, relationships, discourses of every kind.

Let's take massage. You're getting a massage as your shoulder really hurts. One therapist massages the body with organs so focuses on your shoulder, on the muscles and tendons and what-have-you. Another therapist massages the body without organs so feels around for different flows and connections, moving from that right shoulder down across the back to the left side lower back before gliding across the glutes, back up, and then over the other glutes down the leg. I'm not sure which will "work"; I, for one, would prefer the latter. But preferences aside, the point is: different architectures of the body due to different concepts become different practices — and different experiences for you-of-the-sore-shoulder.

Now take your living space. Sure, there's a living room in which you do certain things; a dining room where you eat; a kitchen where you cook; and so on. It's a highly organized space — organized before you ever set foot in it not just by architects but by discourse, by the things we're taught since birth about how space is organized. But there is another space within that organized space, a schizo space, a space of different flows of action, of different possibility.

Ever since I've lived on my own, I've had this practice in which when I find myself frustrated with my living space, I wait until night and then I turn off all the lights, open all the windows, shed most or all of my clothes, and then move room to room feeling for what it wants and how the space might go together. I might play music; I might even dance. I'll sit on different things to get different vantages; I'll lie down on the floor, on the table, over the back of the couch. Sometimes, this ends up in a reorganization of the space — couch here, table there. But that's not the point; I'm not redecorating. The point is this ritual of experiencing the space outside of its organized body, inviting its BwO to play, to think the space, to enjoy the space, to have it move me through it.

I took a class in college on ethnicity in which the professor told this incredible story. There was some controversy in upstate New York where there are Native American reservations. It seems the residents were living in these makeshift homes of oil barrels and tar paper. So, to save the day, some state senator built houses on the reservation. A few weeks later, the residents had taken sledgehammers to the walls. The state was, of course, befuddled so hired my professor to figure out why. Well, it seems these Native Americans lived in wide open common spaces — the oil barrels and tar paper; walls were strange and disruptive to them — ergo, the sledgehammers, like a good conceptual brick, at once breaking down and building up. Within any space, other spaces lurk — spaces of radically different flows. A house enjoys a body without organs, too.

BwO, then, refers to any body — spatial, social, discursive. But what about the human Body without Organs? What do I do with that in my life besides choosing a massage therapist?

Over the past two years, I've thought about, read about, and practiced some meditation (not a lot, mind you). What do I, what does anyone, want from meditation? Practitioners of Transcendental Mediation (TM) talk about simply sitting and experiencing one's deep inner peace. They use a common figure in this world: the ocean. At the surface, there are waves crashing and moving this way and that. But under the waves, deep down in the ocean, there is a great stillness. This, we are told, is how we as human beings go: on the surface, we are waves of errands, work, worries. But we also house a great stillness which we forget about. Meditation doesn't just remind us; it is an experience of a stillness that lurks in all of our bodies.

This is quite different than the Body without Organs. BwO doesn't proffer stillness; it proffers a veritable flux of movement, of flows. BwO is not still or passive; it is active, emergent, vital, seething — not with the anxieties of the everyday but with the forces of life, of the cosmos.

Well, why access such a body? Isn't life complex enough? Maybe. But maybe the organization of the body with organs is the source of the stress and anxiety. Maybe exerting so much energy to hedge and control the Body without Organs is precisely the source of stress, of sickness, of dis-ease? Maybe accessing the BwO is a way to health. That rather than the BwO creating greater complexity, it creates less. In any case, BwO is a not a way to stillness but to ecstatic movement (internal and external).

I think there is a meditative practice to access the BwO that is different than TM. Which is not to knock TM at all; that stillness is beautiful, important, essential. To me, TM's oceanic body is another body alongside the bodies with and without organs. It is to say that there is perhaps a meditative practice of listening not to the silence but to the teem and flow of the BwO. This meditation might not entail sitting quietly; it might entail moving, writhing, yelling, muttering, rolling about.


Maybe we don't call it a meditation. But to me it's a meditation in that it's a disruption of everyday habit in order to allow whatever comes to come — whether silence or screams, stillness or writhing. What I imagine is a listening, not for silence, but for the myriad, affective flows and sensations.

I believe the co-opting of "mindfulness" by industry — health insurance companies, tech companies — is to make our bodies that are being torn apart by the conditions of capitalism more productive, able to keep working, keep buying, not go to the doctor. Which is to say, this form of meditation has the ability to stall and hide the symptoms of modern life rather than heal.

Needless to say, this need not be the case. It seems to me a mindfulness practice opens you up to the world beyond work and consumption, to the world of the weird and vital within the everyday. In this case, meditation becomes a kind of access to the BwO.

Of course, the risk of opening oneself up to access the BwO is a certain madness. It's certainly not always pleasant; it's not just jouissance. But it's also jouissance. One issue, it seems, is how to move between and among one's different bodies, how to have the ecstatic states of one body not just hinder the other but to have them propel each other. This may be a misguided wish; some messiness, some conflict, some pain might be inevitable, even good.

I'm still trying to figure that out for myself: Do I want only quiet peace? Do I want to be the depth of the ocean and only the depth of the ocean? I don't think so. I have energetic flows in me that want out, that don't want to be suppressed like a tantric ejaculation, holding back my reserves for internal power — even if that is fantastic, powerful, and beautiful. It's just not the only way I want to come. I also want to writhe and moan, I want to scream, to feel my body disintegrate only to reform along new and strange lines.

Mind you, it's not an either/or. All these bodies intersect each other. All these bodies exist — the angular body with organs; the writhing Body without Organs; the deep oceanic body. All these states exist — dealing with the anxious everyday; bleeding, moaning, and coming in different directions at once; resonant, quiet peace. But we can lean a little more this way than that. (Which body decides which way to lean?)

This is what this esoteric sounding concept, BwO, does for me: it multiplies the bodies I find operating in the world and within me. I, for one, don't think we have a core. Or, rather, I believe we have a core but we also don't. Burrowing to one's core is only one mode of living, even if beautiful. But there are other bodies in me. To live, it seems, is a little schizo.

5.14.2018

On Kink and Enjoyment, Social and Private

A caveat: this is a true essay, a try, a reaching with words that comes from my ongoing interest in the question of enjoyment, especially within capitalism. What is the relationship between what I enjoy and what I am produced, induced, programmed to enjoy? What is the relationship between social and private enjoyment? Kink is not something I've thought a lot about but seems to operate within this odd, blurry space between the social and private and so got my attention. All of which is to say, I'm not sure at all about kink; these are just some thoughts. There are smarter people who've thought more about it. I welcome their input.



Kink is a discontinuous, though perhaps contiguous, moment within a trajectory. It's a veer, an inflection point, a point of differentiation. The rope is hanging there but at some juncture it doesn't just hang there. It does something different — turns abruptly, frays a bit only to reconstitute itself, knots and continues, bends in a different direction.

And not just because of how the rope is lying. A kink is concerted, distinctive, differentiated from the series. You can't just shake the kink out to make the rope straight again. A kink, alas, is more determined than a wrinkle. A kink is constitutive, not an accident. A kink may be the thing that breaks the series of a body, interrupts the series, or introduces a new series — or some combination thereof.

Kink doesn't just pass, even if it's temporary. After a lifetime of never paying them much mind, you may suddenly enjoy feet immensely only to find, after some time, that feet have returned to their previous status. And yet there will always be some shadow of those feet, a ghost of those soles, a wiggle of those toes wisping about your sense of the world. Such is kink: it doesn't just make an impression on you; it is an impression on you, of you, with you.

This is precisely what makes kink unsettling: it is a discontinuous moment within the narrative of yourself. Yeah, I'm just a normal guy but, well, it seems I really enjoy smelling armpits while I slow dance to REM in my underwear with a vibrator wedged gently into my rectum. Or some such thing. Is this still just a normal guy? What story does he tell himself about himself once he starts getting jiggy with "Fables of the Reconstruction"?

Of course, what is normal? Why would anyone write a narrative about themselves in which they — yes, I've adopted the pluralization of third person to avoid the he/her awkwardness; for me, this is as aesthetic as it is political; mind you, sometimes I still use the singular but hopefully in ways that are a swerve from the norm; in my book, I usually refer to "the reader" as a she, but not always — anyway, why would anyone ever call themselves normal?

Then again, we are fundamentally social creatures (pace Aristotle not to mention Althusser). We make sense of ourselves within the social body and so there is always some normal we are negotiating even if we quietly reject it. This neither good nor bad; it is what we do, necessarily.

All of this is to say a lot of things but, for now, it's to say that kink is relative. It's a moment, albeit a resonant and I dare say ontological moment, within a trajectory that is different from the rest of that trajectory. In one of my favorite books with one of my favorite titles, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius (somewhat) famously writes:

When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.

Lucretius calls this swerve, this shift in direction, this deviation from the same-old-same-old — this kink — clinamen. I love that clinamen is at once a term of geometry — the grades of a slope, of an incline — and of being in the world, as in having an inclination for, say, running or tequila. Kink, for me, is just such a swerve; it's clinamen.

Bodies are not all the same, even to ourselves. And they are not solely determined by an external force, a nudge from god or God or the wind. Nor are bodies hermetic and solely self-determining. No, bodies have tendencies —  I go for tequila, you go for a run, she loves mountains, he loves deserts. Why? Well, there is no final explanation. Sure, we can trace our respective body chemistries and upbringing by way of explanation but that only begs the question. As Nietzsche writes in "On Truth and Lies," all knowledge is tautological. Clinamen is beautiful in that it is its own final term: like all bodies, I go as I go and, at some point, there nothing else to say by way of explanation. We are these emergent forms in motion, ever in flux and yet bound, pushed and pulled by what's around us according to invisible magnetic, gravitational forces. We are all falling only to swerve here and there and thereby make the world.

Now, we generally define sexual kink as a swerve from the social norm — most people, we believe, don't bite each other. So if I bite, I'm kinky. Kink as a social term is helpful and clear. It's quantitative: most people do X so if you do Y, you're kinky by definition. It's a way, however reductive, to make sense of each other and ourselves vis-à-vis the social body.

But what does kink mean in my relationship to myself, to this body and how it goes? If all I do is bite — biting this, biting that —  then wouldn't kissing be the clinamen, the kink in the trajectory that is me?

Now, if I'm a rope, a kink comes from some way I've made my way through the world. But as a human body who desires and does certain things for my pleasure, whence my kink(s)? What makes us say doing this or that is kinky and not just something we've done? That is to say, like the rope that suddenly finds itself kinked, I might bite or be bitten due to some way of going: I met a woman, we ended up at her place, we start fooling around and, just like that, she bites me. I can certainly say that is kinky in relationship to my usual sexual experiences and, perhaps, to the social norm (but everyone has a different social, right? We're not all subject to USA Today's polls). But these bites are not a clinamen, not a swerve in how I'm falling through space. At this point, these nibbles are a wrinkle, not a kink.

But, at some point, something changes. I now think about biting and being bitten. I dream of that sensation of teeth meeting flesh — not just fingers, cock, or tongue but the porcelain rigidity of teeth. I begin seeking it out and performing it. It is now not just a desire; it's an enjoyment.

What I've always loved about the word "enjoy" is that it is at once an indifferent performance of an action — to enjoy a piece of tofu can mean simply to eat a piece of tofu— and a declaration of an inclination: I enjoy eating tofu. Kink operates at this intersection only it is not just something I do and something I enjoy doing: it is something that distinguishes itself within my trajectory, something that pops.

But what marks discontinuity with myself? Well, I suppose it's a matter of behavior: I've never bitten someone's thigh before! It's a new thing I do. But what makes it stick, what makes it sing out — what makes it a kink and not a wrinkle — is that I enjoy it. It is something I want to do, yes; but, more, it is something that resonates through me, as me, something that makes me swerve. If a wrinkle is an accident, localized and passing, kink is thorough: it pervades the body. It's not just a matter of, Well, that feels good. It's  matter of: Holy fuck! Yes! That! 

And yet isn't that all resonant satisfaction — namely, that it's a Holy fuck! Yes! That!? What makes kink — in this case, mutual flesh nibbling or, perhaps, voracious consumption of flesh — different from other resonant experiences of sexual behavior?

If I take deep, thorough, resonant enjoyment in getting a hand job — or in kissing, in soft core pin-up pictures, in holding hands — what makes this more or less kinky than taking a deep, bloody bite out of a thigh? Sure, socially they are different. But from the perspective of my body, my trajectory, what is the difference? What marks the clinamen other than the resonant pleasure — which is to say, the enjoyment?

I wonder, then, if enjoyment is in fact the source of the swerve, of the clinamen. No doubt, there seem to be things other than enjoyment that inflect a trajectory. To wit, if I think about the defining curves of my trajectory, I'd say: my father abandoning me; my mother re-marrying; moving from the way Upper West Side of Manhattan to Westchester; having a kid; getting divorced; the death of my sister. On the other hand, I've enjoyed all these things in the sense that I've lived through them. They've not just resonated through me, they've resonated as me. They've all shifted my trajectory or, better, they've created my trajectory, the kinks in the trajectory that is me.

And so what is kink — not in the social sense which is, alas, really an arithmetic equation but in the personal sense, in the story we tell ourselves?  I wonder if it has less to do with some general sense of the odd or different than in the distinctive experience of enjoyment, those resonant experiences that stand out from the fray of it all? And so what defines kink for me would be: What gets you all nutty worked up, so worked up that you're a little bit different that you just were? What stirs you unto the cosmos? What makes your rope bend, twist, and head off in a distinctive direction, even if only for a few moments?

5.12.2018

Deleuze & Guattari's Body without Organs (BwO), Yoga, S&M, Drugs, and a Morass of More!


Yoga, chakras, discipline, crack, LSD, trees, Gargantua, Humberto Maturana and autopoiesis, and so much more!



 And I give you some Boredoms to perform the Body without Organs.....

5.09.2018

Schizo Sense: On the Space, Place, and Drape of the Image in Marc Lafia's "Making Sense"

I first encountered this body of work in his house. This is not in and of itself unusual. I've done plenty of studio visits over the years which are often in the artist's house, in a room set aside for that purpose.

But this was different. There was no studio. There was a large, long living room. The art, however, was not set up to be viewed per se. That is to say, most of my studio visits involve seeing art that has been arranged precisely to facilitate seeing, one image after another along a wall or floor so I can peruse the images one at a time. The space is immaterial, an afterthought at best; I'm there to see the images. It's as if the frames exclude their environment, letting me confront the image without hindrance.

But, in this case, the art was not displayed for this. It was everywhere — hanging from clothes lines that ran the length of the room at different angles; from windows; draped over couches, objects, paintings, chairs; and, when I could peek through the windows, I could see it lying over bushes and trees.



This is not art that one sees as much as one wears: we don't see it as much it drapes us. Drape is a term of fabric and, yes, this art is made predominantly of different fabrics. But when I say drape, I mean more than the mode of display: I mean the mode of engagement. A painting, photograph, or film usually privileges a certain relationship between object and eye: everything is about clearing lines of sight, illuminating the image just so in order to see it more clearly.

This art operates with a different relationship to vision, light, and the viewing body. The experience is not one of the eye taking in an image but of an affective body being draped in a certain ambience of light and material. Light, in this case, does not illuminate the image; on the contrary, light shifts the image itself. Mind you, it's not light art à la James Turrell in which the material facilitates an experience of seeing. For Turrell, the object is light which he hangs just so. Lafia's work does the opposite: it doesn't present light but insistently presents materials that metabolize light. If for Turrell, material serves light, for Lafia, light serves material.

This art, then, drapes us. It doesn't contain itself to the eye; it flows all around us. Its folds and pleats, its ridges and nudges, seem to make it sculptural but sculpture tends to reenact the architecture of painting: it is something to be seen. (I still can't believe that we're not allowed to climb Oldenburg's "Cupid's Span" here in SF. Seeing it is a bit banal; it wants to be touched, climbed, slid down. In Philly, we could climb on his "Split Button.") Lafia's work is of a different order: it is, at the very least, haptic — that is to say, sight and touch are entwined and, at times, even interchangeable. In any case, to see this art is to be draped in a sensual experience that at once palpates and is palpable. (The great French phenomenologist would call this a chiasm, an intertwining, articulated in the middle voice — neither active nor passive, both active and passive.)

One thing was clear to me immediately: there is no clarity as to what constitutes an image here. This is not an experience of discrete experiences; it is an experience of ever-shifting relationships. They may have stitches here and there but they are not framed. These works bleed, essentially. It is how they go. They can pick up and go elsewhere and find themselves comported in an absolutely new way — what was once on a clothes line may now be over a window, a bush, covering, filtering, and making new sense of something else. This work is not a series of works. Nor does any one piece have a definitive way to display itself. It's generous, willing and able to be here or there.

Over time, this bleed only intensified. When I revisited it a few weeks ago, it had begun to take up objects around it. The fabric no longer just lies there metabolizing light; it metabolizes other art and things, creating localized dramatic scenes.




And all of it still in that large, long living room. One of the great effects of this space is that it's not always clear what's art and what isn't. That coat hung over the chair? Those rolls of paper in the corner? That old painting against the wall? In this environment, the line between art and everyday objects blurs. Which, frankly, is beautiful, calling to mind Niezsche on the Greco-Romans for whom everyday objects, and beliefs, were art as much as they were utility.

So when the curators of the 1GAP Gallery — at Grand Army Plaza, the glass and steel Richard Meier building on Prospect Park in Brooklyn — agreed to show this work, I wondered how they'd display it (I almost wrote "hung," which is telling: that is what galleries do — they hang art for the viewer's eyes). I imagined its vast glass walls lined with textures and fabrics, the space not just inhabited but ravaged by this work, this work that has a will to bleed. And that would no doubt be glorious.

But this gallery is interesting in that it occupies, and moves through, a residential building. Only the residence is not the artist's; it's occupied by owners and paying tenants, many of them with kids. And it's curated as a gallery that is, lest we forget, a seller of art. Both factors — residents with kids and objects to sell — call for a certain discretion. (The fact that these two factors align in their intention is not a coincidence, of course; both are bourgeois institutions. That said, kids themselves — as distinct from children as a socio-juridical entity — disrupt bourgeois propriety in such a glorious manner, espeically vis-à-vis art. When my own child was young, I usually kept him in line wherever we went as I enjoy quiet. But at museums, I'd encourage him to run wild. Such is my prejudice: I want art to be in, of, and as the everyday rather than as a special thing to be worshipped.)

The gallery had the odd task of turning this bleeding drape into discrete objects, works that could be hung alone, titled, and sold. And I have to say: it was fantastic. The individual objects, hung rather than draped, and then optimized for viewing are beautiful, engaging, hilarious. If I had walked in and seen the work just like this, each as one piece within a series, I'd have been astounded. (You can see more images of that show, which is up through the Summer, here.)








The gallery, needless to say, turned Lafia's work into "art" — into an institutional commodity, framed and poised for consumption. This institution is more than the gallery; it is the history of art, an engine of capital, academia, publishing, museums, collectors. Duchamps' "Fountain" only works because there is such a thing, an institution that is as much transactional (for buyers as well as viewers) as it is ideological and spatial. The curator in this case, Suzy Spence, had the difficult task of transforming Lafia's viral, schizophrenic work into something respectable and readily consumable. And she did an incredible job, choosing work that works in the windows, work that works on its own, work that is witty and has something to say within the discourse that is institutional art.

Unlike most people who will see this show, I've had the luxury of experiencing it in the two venues. And this affords me a distinct pleasure: I was able see this body without organs, as Deleuze would call it, become a presentable organism — a shapeless, shifting morass of color, texture, and affect become a refined yet witty conversationalist. And so now I see it in both states at the same time, a body that keeps shifting its posture in such fundamental ways while somehow remaining recognizable — the funky underwear slipping out of the tuxedo pants while the tuxedo sits comfortably amid the drape of silk, plastic, neoprene, rubber, latex, and paper. Back and forth this work goes, always becoming, always becoming other to itself in the very act of its actualization.

5.08.2018

In Search of an Object to Critique


The art of Marc Lafia is a persistent source of nourishment for me, feeding me objects to critique. Look at this from his recent work. It draws me in, pops from the fray, but without ready answer. It's monstrous, in the best sense, in that it's not a known quantity. That knowing comes in and with my reckoning, my writing, my critique. And that is decadent, like happening upon a feast of my favorite things.

How does one choose what to write about? I've kept this blog — is "to keep" the right verb? — for 10 years now. I've written about photography and images in general; about particular images and image makers, including films; about death, dating, tequila, Nietzsche, repetition, Deleuze, and Kierkegaard; about teaching, writing, and teaching writing; about language, words, grammar, and teaching language, words, and grammar; about therapy, the will to boring, and the pros and cons of the fact of other people.

Why these things? Well, why not. So perhaps the question is: How these things? How did they occur to me? Well, they obviously come from a reckoning of the life I'm leading. I never thought really about death until I watched and helped my sister die; I didn't write about therapy until I was in it and not about the will to boring until therapy taught me it; as for the pros and cons of other people, that emerged when I fell in love for the first time in decades.

Still, there are many things in my life I don't write about. I rarely mention noodles, for instance. And I don't write a lot about my son, despite the fact that he's the most important and present figure in my life. I suppose noodles are just not that interesting to me and my son is too interesting to me.

Interesting to me: that's a phrase that begs the question. How does this come to the fore as an object of critique but not that? I fear my answer right now is banal and continues the begging: some things just do pop to me while other things do not. We are, all of us, metabolic systems. This means we are desiring machines, filters, and processing engines. I crave noodles the same as I write about Nietzsche — I desire them, I take them up, I process them and enjoy processing them.

Of course, when I was younger — when I was in grad school — everything was interesting (which is actually the tagline for my kid's middle school). The architecture of the classroom, of my writing pad, the various speeds of my pens, the tenor of my voice in the classroom, the size of a book, this or that font, the distribution of trees on the street, even noodles. I was voracious; I could take up anything and critique it. And I did, all the time, often in my own head, too often to those around me.

That was 25 years ago, though. Today, I'm at once more discerning but also less voracious. I choose what to take up, what to process, what to critique. (Note, please, that critique here is an affirmative practice; it is not to criticize or judge. It is to flesh out, flush out, animate, extend, reckon.)

Sometimes, nothing pops to me. This can be frustrating in that I find myself mired in too much me — the same ideas, the same books, the same objects. I become a bit zombie-like. But another aspect of this is luxurious: I enjoy the things of my life, live with them as they nourish me.

Still, I usually jump at the opportunity to have a new object, something fresh to digest — a film, an art work, a book. I am grateful to my friend, Marc Lafia, who continues to make and show great, beautiful, complex art — and asks me to write about it. What a gift! He feeds me new nourishment. And this affords me the luxury of something to write about as, above all, I love writing.

Still, what is "interesting"? I think it's what is literally of interest to me, to this body, to how I go. I find something interesting that can fuel me, feed me, and as I said, nourish me. And these are things that somehow emerge from the din of the everyday, that come out of the shadows and present themselves to me as something different, something emergent, something now, something not yet known. My taking up is my process of knowing.

But it's not just that these things come to me. I go to them. It is a cooperative process of us finding each other, just as I happen upon the noodle section of the Asian market in the Richmond. It draws me in as I draw it in. I suppose it's a kind of magnetism, then. Which is itself a kind of love — and vice versa. (Love is a subset of magnetism just as magnetism is a subset of love; then again, we need not think about any of it in terms of hierarchies, of subs and such, but rather as networks of mutual becoming: magnetism as a concept and action pulls and pushes love as a concept and experience.)

Notice how all of this inquiry begs the question: How and why these objects to critique? This is perhaps the most complex thing to teach. I could tell my students the form of an essay, perhaps. But how do I tell them how to find an object to critique when this object is intimately entwined with their metabolism, their way of going? The things that speak to me most likely don't speak to them. So how do I, how does anyone, teach the finding of an object to critique?

My approach was to show. We'd read a text together — whether it was the classroom itself, an essay by Nietzsche, a Platonic dialogue. I'd literally read it line by line in class. When I think about that now, it seems insane. But that's how we did it: we'd read each line and I'd stop after each and critique everything we'd just read. Looking at it now, I think students believed I was teaching them particular things about this or that text. But I wasn't: I was trying to show them how to find an object to critique. And this meant pointing out how everything can be interesting, how everything can emerge from the fray of life, from the blindness of habit and conditioning, to be something vital, bizarre, new. I actually taught a class on watching films entitled, "Bring on the Strange." This may be the only goal of teaching, at least for me: teaching students how to see what's in front of them as something new, emergent, something to reckon anew, something downright strange.

Finding an object to critique, then, means discovering a moment of alienation, a moment in which social protocol drops and this thing stands there, odd and misshapen, and says: What about this?

5.04.2018

The Economy of Energy


I'm at a restaurant the other evening with a large crowd of people. I don't know most of them; they're friends of my friend. Crowds are not my thing; nor do I enjoy eating with other people. I consider fleeing. I have to go, uh, take care of something. But I'm there to support my beautiful friend so decide to stay.

Once I commit, my anxiety begins to wane. The thing about anxiety is that it's an energy suck. Sure, I'm just sitting there doing nothing. But, inside, I am careening. I can feel it in my veins and muscles and it's draining me. But decision made, I relax my sphincter and my internal churning — and hence my energy spend.

This crowd, though all over 45, is worked up and loud. Not me. I'm quiet. Indeed, for one of the first times in my life, I am the quiet guy at the table.

At some point, a man across the table begins to talk to me about his kid's school. He has nothing in particular to say; his delivery is as banal as his tale. As we're sitting at a table, I can't save myself by just walking away. Trapped, I consider my options.

Now, in the past, I'd turn to my go-to: go in head first, teeth bared, words and nose and hands and ideas flailing with an umph considerably more than emphatic. Why? To entertain myself. To break this temporary prison of banality. I'd do it all the time in classrooms and seminars, at parties, at casual stop-and-chats. I'd stir shit up with a hint of bile, an obnoxious smile, and a profound indifference.

I'll tell you, I started into this guy. Well, if I may poke at this for a moment...I began as I leaned forward. But not even a full sentence into my attack, I stopped myself. I just didn't have the energy. Or whatever energy I did have, I wanted to preserve for my friends and my lover. And, jeez, who the fuck cares? So I changed direction mid-stream — adjusting my tone, removing the umph, relaxing back into my seat, and adding perhaps and so I suppose I could see to my now neutered tirade.

The older I get, the more I understand expenditure. When I was 24, pumped up on coffee and cigarettes, sitting in a grad seminar with a bunch of anxious grad students, I held nothing back. I was a fury. At 48, I just don't have the same reserves. I have to choose when and where to spend what I have. And sitting at this dinner table with this man who was nice enough was not one of those times. I had nothing interesting to say and no will to say it. And so, in what I deem as a radical gesture, I became the boring guy.

I think of Nietzsche's soldier in the snow who, to preserve his waning energy, lies perfectly still — perhaps unto his death but done not as suicide but as survival. Nietzsche calls this Russian Fatalism:

Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything—to cease reacting altogether. This fatalism is not always merely the courage to die; it can also preserve life under the most perilous conditions by reducing the metabolism, slowing it down, as a kind of will to hibernate. 

For Nietzsche, such is life: it is the distribution of energy, its accumulation and expenditure. This is how he assesses life — not with moral codes or aesthetic judgement but by the energy created or demanded by one's actions:

Nothing burns one up faster than the affects of ressentiment. Anger, pathological vulnerability, impotent lust for revenge, thirst for revenge, poison-mixing in any sense—no reaction could be more disadvantageous for the exhausted: such affects involve a rapid consumption of nervous energy, a pathological increase of harmful excretions…

Here we see Nietzsche express a thought we find in Jesus, namely, turning the other cheek. But if for Jesus this is because we should love our neighbors even when they've wronged us, for Nietzsche the matter is much more practical: revenge and resentment drain one's energy, one's vitality. 

As I get older, I make sense of my time and activities by the energy involved. I love going to the ocean. As both Merleau-Ponty and Osho say, what we see enters us. So when I look over the vast, seething expanse, that infinite horizon rushes into me, through me, expanding me. I am vitalized.

But, at the same time, the ocean exhausts. The wind, the relentlessly surging waves, the dark depths: they evacuate me. I was told by someone ages ago not to do qiqong by the ocean; it'll wash your energy away. So if I'm writing well or in a certain social groove, I am careful to avoid the ocean as it's like an existential enema, cleaning me right out. On the other hand, if I'm mired in my all-too-human nonsense, the ocean's seething indifference and infinite expanse is a welcome cleanse.

Then there's the sun. Georges Bataille, who takes up Nietzsche's energetics, sees the sun as a continual ejaculation, giving everything in its path its seed. Plants eat it all up, taking in all that energy and growing. Me, I'm no plant; the sun drains me. Which is why even just an hour at the beach leaves me mere husk, the sun and waves sucking all the life out of me.

Few actions are simple accumulation or expenditure. In The Accursed Share, Bataille performs economic analysis of what he calls the general economy which includes finance but also sex, food, desire, the sun — the constant giving and taking that is life, the economy of energy. Sleep might come the closest to being pure accumulation. But I, for one, sometimes wake exhausted by my sleep! Anyway, the point is action is a transaction, a giving and taking.

When I'd go on a tirade in a seminar, I'd expend energy, of course. But I'd take the ideas that came out of this explosion as fuel for future thought that would sustain me, enliven me, drive me. Indeed, at times I've lived on little more than ideas, whiskey, and ramen. Ideas can spur, make one's heart go pitter patter, speed up the blood, generate internal cyclones.

Sex is one of the more complex economic transactions. Take oral sex. When I'm performing, I am no doubt expending my energy. But, if I perform well, I take in much more energy than I'm giving out. And, by the end, she's usually exhausted and I'm rearing to go.

Intercourse — I use that word rather than, say, fucking as I like the economic implications — is a veritable micro-physics of energy transaction, a constant giving and taking at every turn and thrust, a fueling that's an expenditure and vice versa. It's more subtle and complex than who's on top as energy flows from more than the hips: it oozes from eyes and breath, from fingertips and nipples and toes and skin.

I've spent much of my life performing. That may sound obvious as life is always a performance. But I mean it in the more specific sense of putting on a show. I surely did it when I was teaching; I'd call it the Jew Clown show — prancing, ranting, alluding, joking, screaming, pacing. At the end of my lectures, I often couldn't speak, my voice gone, my will depleted. I did the same in most social settings, holding forth, feeling some compulsion to be the loudest, smartest, funniest, crudest person in the room (in my own eyes, mind you). Oy! Just writing that now exhausts me! My ego was killing me.

These days, I'm more reserved, paying keen attention to how I spend my energy — and where I take it in. When I was younger, I'd drink like a fiend at night — which seemed like I was fueling up. Hey! Listen to me! I got something else to say about Deleuze! This bourbon is giving me so much energy! And then I'd feel shitty the whole next day. What a terrible economic decision! Sure, sometimes it was worth the spend. But usually it was a lousy move. So now I do all my drinking before dinner; I never have hangovers anymore. Oh, and I drink tequila or gin, booze that is more energetically generous. Yes, I still love whisky. But it's a night cap.

I do the same with my food and drugs: I negotiate the entire transaction from decision to consumption to experience to the next day or two or three. Certain food and drugs give a few hours of delight and insight then demand days of sleep. This can be a good transaction. But it all depends. It's not simply a matter of not wanting to spend. That'd be what we call miserly. No, it's a matter of making a propitious economic decision in Bataille's sense of the general economy: What do I give? What do I get? I'll gladly give up three days to sluggishness and sleep for the eight to 12 hours of a great acid trip that shows me new ways of going or affords ridiculous delight.

In any case, these days I keep my energy more and more to myself, choosing to spend it on those close to me. Perhaps that means people think I'm boring. So what? I'm playing the long game in this general economy.

5.01.2018

Teaching Critical Writing

I taught comp for eight or so years.  But to teach any humanities class — if not any class — is, in some sense, always to teach writing. Because to teach writing is to teach a posture in and towards language, in and towards things and ideas, in and towards the world. And isn't that what all education is?

I only taught at UC Berkeley to freshman and sophomores who, for the most part, believed they already knew how to write. Which, for the most part, they didn't. They'd been taught some silly things. This inevitably tempers the reach of my insight. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on the subject and some tactics I deployed. Frankly, I felt I was just figuring it out when I stopped teaching.

To Write Critically is to Write About Something: Always Have an Object
To paraphrase Husserl, all critical writing is writing about something. Of course, there is writing that need not be about something; I think of the so-called avant-garde. And there are aspects of all writing that are not about anything — tone, texture, the way words play along the palate.

But if there is no object to analyze there is nothing to critique. The language may be gorgeous, the affect delirious. And that's fantastic. But it's not critical writing. Critical writing needs an object, any object.

To write critically, then, is to read critically. Which means I spent a lot of time in my comp classes parsing the arguments and performance of the texts we read.

Little did I know that this was not common practice. But during the brief period when I considered teaching for a living, I interviewed with the head of well known comp department in the Bay Area — ahem, Stanford — and we disagreed over precisely this point (needless to say, I didn't get the job and, frankly, I didn't want it). After looking at the materials I'd sent her, she told me: "It sounds like you're teaching a subject matter, not writing." I offered my retort but I knew, from her question, that this was no place for me. Still, I wonder what the heck they do over there.

It's all very odd to me because without something to entwine oneself with, student writing tends to get vague, general, passive, meandering. Without an object, what else can it do?

So on the first day of class every semester, before there was any assigned reading, together we'd read the space of the classroom, constructing an argument about it. Why are all the chairs facing one direction? After all, the knights of the round table used, well, a round table. And why is there a very small window in the door — a window good for looking in but lousy for looking out? What could inform such a decision? And on and on we'd go making sense of the space we were in. Because to write critically is always to write about something — is always to read something.

No Generalities. Be the Reader of This Text
I discovered, much to my bewilderment, that students thought that critical writing begins with a wide generalization before getting particular. The first time I taught Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense" — a perfect essay to teach, I will add  — many papers began like this: Man has long pondered the question of truth. In his essay, Nietzsche.... 

Oy! When I asked them about this, they told me they'd been taught to write using this inverted triangle: begin broadly, then get specific.

I immediately addressed this: no generalizations. No talking about things you don't know anything about. To say Man has long considered the question of truth is to make an historical argument. But are you an historian? Have you done the historical research to justify such a claim? If not, you're undermining your own authority before even beginning.

We are readers of this text, here and now. That is your authority — an unquestionable authority! If you begin looking outside the text, begin making historical, biographical, or general sociological claims, you enter a realm in which you have no knowledge and no authority. But as a reader of this text here, you have as much authority qua reader as anyone in the world.

The point is: be particular. Talk about this text and nothing but. Begin specifically: In 'On Truth and Lies,' Nietzsche does x.... Now that's a first sentence.

Short, Frequent Papers
The comp requirement at Berkeley dictated that I assign so many pages — 35, if I remember correctly. Which is too many. The number of pages has nothing to do with whether a student knows how to construct an argument, how to connect ideas, how to integrate citations. When I began teaching, I'd assign five page papers. But then both my students and I had to spend too much time making sense of nonsense we could have more readily negotiated in two pages. If you don't know how to write, one page and five pages are the same — only five pages make writer and reader miserable.

When I was in high school, I had an incredible English teacher. Every week, we had to write a paper no more than two pages. (The assignment was always the same: One week, he'd give us a quote to explicate; the other week, we had to compare any two books on the extensive reading list.) He'd give our papers back the next day (holy moly!) with succinct comments. And then we'd have our next paper the following week.

So, in my own classes, I did two things. One, I had them write every week on a class blog. I didn't grade this but it forced them to write every week for the public. And, two, I made the papers two pages until the last paper which I made longer to prepare them for other courses with longer page requirements.

I found a quick feedback loop more productive than long papers stretched over the semester.

And short papers have an added benefit: they have to edit. They can't write those long winded sentences. They have to be precise. Longer papers are easier to write because you can waste time, meander. But short papers? You have to know what you want to say. And it made my job grading much easier. Everybody wins.

No Re-writes
Rewrites are one of these things that are taken as both good and necessary in comp classes. Me, I found them unproductive if not counterproductive. Usually, the problems are structural so what would it even mean to do a rewrite?

My philosophy and method was: Take what you learned from this paper and apply it to the next.

No Outlines. And No Rough Drafts.
I've written about this before. Outlines are static and recapitulate the biggest "mistake" young writers make: listing. Nietzsche does this and this and this and that. The fact is, my clients do this, too. I work with big companies to help them construct an argument about who they are, what they do, and what they offer customers. Many companies, like young writers, list their features and functions: We're a good value and high quality and have good service and...and...and.... I'm paid to help them turn it into an argument: We believe x so built y to let customers do z. This argument is what we call a brand strategy.

To avoid students listing, I created something called the Argument Map. I had students write four to five sentences, numbered, that should move from point 1 to point 2 to point 3. What matters is the movement between. That's where arguments happen.


With an Argument Map (I didn't use the worksheet; I had them email me their four to five sentences), I could see their thinking, critique it, make suggestions in mere minutes. How did you get from point 1 to point 2? Might you have considered this? And without wading through pages of awkward prose, we had a structure. And those students suddenly wrote clear, lucid, assertive papers — no passive voice, no meandering. They knew the map — the lay of the land — so then just had to tour it. The transformation of their writing was remarkable.

No Also, In Addition, Furthermore, or In Sum
As listing was far and away, and consistently, the biggest issue in students' papers, I forbid the use of "listing" words — also, in addition,  furthermore, in sum. Nietzsche says this and also this and, in addition, says this; furthermore, he says this. So in sum.... 

That's not an argument. What does furthermore mean? It sounds like it means something but it says nothing. And "in sum"? This isn't arithmetic. No need to sum anything up. Rather than sum up, let your conclusion open up.

I always look for words that signal turns of argument — but, therefore, that is to say, however. These involve logical twists; also is just an enumeration of a to-do list.

Every time a student used one of these words, they lost a full grade — from an A to a B. While I'm not a fan of such violent prescriptions, it was effective.

Create Arguments as a Class
Creating an argument is hard — not just for students but for everyone. For the most part, people get inundated with information and don't know how to organize it, coerce it, shape it, make sense of it all. So they rely on the main tactic they know — listing. Arguments — the logical and particular connections between things — are hard.

So I'd spend much of class time creating arguments. And when it came paper time, I'd have one student at the board walking us through his or her argument map. And, together, we'd assess it.

If other students ended up using this as their argument, well, great. The first component of critical writing is knowing how to write a critical argument. I don't care about originality; that comes later. In order to write an original argument, you have to know how to write any argument. Repetition is an incredibly effective pedagogic tool.

Ask a Critical, Specific Question: The What and the How
How, alas, is a young writer supposed to write a critical essay? The instinct is to bring in theory and thoughts from elsewhere — Freud, Marx, "The NY Times," stuff they just think is true.  But this raises all sorts of issues, namely, command of that material and authority.

Which is why I always asked the same question of them: How does what the text says relate to how it says it? This bypasses any critical reference, moving the critical frame to this reader and this text right in front of them. No other knowledge is necessary.

No Opinions
I don't care if a 19 year old thinks Nietzsche is "brilliant." Once again, this only raises the question of their authority: Why does your opinion matter?

The goal of critical writing is to open the text up, to show your readers what's interesting and perhaps overlooked when reading, say, Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies."

Critical writing is a world away from judgemental writing, from the thumbs up thumbs down, 5-star review world we know so well. What matters is how a text operates, not whether you like how it operates.

Learning the Way of Words
While focusing on how to construct an argument, I found it necessary to focus on the way of words — tone, rhythm, getting a feel for words. I don't mean to downplay this element which, I assume, most people associate with writing classes. But I wrote about that here. 

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I realize that my approach spends a lot of time focusing on things that don't seem like writing. But to write critically is to organize ideas and things. It's to make an argument about something — and that means spending time talking about arguments and things and how things relate to each other. Writing is not just about words and grammar. It's about standing towards the world and making sense of it.