11.11.2018

This


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

11.07.2018

Attraction


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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