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.

8 comments:

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

ceci n'est pas un biceps?

Mark Hampton said...

Hi Daniel, I'm reading the way of things and wondering if there is a corner of the internet where people are discussing the book? I'm enjoying this, thanks!

Daniel Coffeen said...

@mistah: this made my day....I laughed heartily.

@mark: Thank you so much for reading my book! I don't know of any dark corners where they discuss this tome. There used to be discussion groups around my Rhetoric 10 lectures (UC Berkeley) so if you google that, there might be something. Otherwise, it's just me....

Mark Hampton said...

Taking that as an invite, thanks. Reading generously does not come easy! Your book challenges me to see how change might happen without deconstructing assumptions. There is the concept of a paradigm and it seems to demand losing faith in a current paradigm before a new paradigm can be embraced. The immanent reading of a text may challenge an assumed (or preferred) hierarchy e.g. the text inspires a desire to adopt new values. This seems to require "work" in some cases (perhaps exemplary reading). Perhaps you can show me the error of my ways? Do you see changes in how you go about changing through the influence of immanent reading?

PS I'm at chapter 17

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey Mark. I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you asking about how I, as reader, am changed by books when read immanently?

I'm not sure books persuade us to change our values per se; I don't think it's ever, or rarely, a matter of following a logic and being converted to a new world. I think it's about enjoying the way a book goes. For instance, I really clicked with Nietzsche, with the way he makes sense, the way he moves through ideas. I did not with Heidegger. It's more metabolic than logical.

Is this answering your question at all????

And: my hope is that reading generously is the easiest thing in the world! Just let the text work you over however it works you over!

But, yes, it also demands being game to follow wherever it goes, being willing to not understand, to feel weird, to poke at surprising connections it makes.

Mark Hampton said...

Hi Daniel, a generous reading of my question :) I'm interested in the impact of reading in this way. I agree that books don't persuade us in a rational way. I resonate with the idea of "clicking" and I see that within a broader sequence, for example maybe reading Heidegger at another time would have clicked, or reading Heidegger after a particular experience would help it click. This links to a question your book raises for me. There is a context that helps us make sense of a text and immanent reading seems to encourage avoiding conscious effort to explore these connections, would you agree this leaves more space for unconscious connections to emerge?

Reading generously seems difficult for me because I notice a critical reflex when I'm reading e.g. if something in later parts of a book seems to contradict with earlier parts of the book, then my attention is drawn to this. It makes it more difficult to "go with" a text. Your suggestion of "being willing to not understand" addresses this. I assume that there are values I hold that are sometimes in contradiction to "being willing to not understand" and there is possibly some effort I can make to help avoid/accept/repress that contradiction. I can see I am willing to not understand many things, but sometimes there are other priorities.

I guess this is an example of how I read - your book gives me some discomfort (I see this as positive) and I'm drawn to understand that. For example I think I can listen to music in a more generous way. It seems preferable to have the option of reading generously available. However "just do it" does not always address our desires for change. I wonder if immanent reading would put all these questions aside and I would take what "clicks" an leave what "unsettles"?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hello Mark. For me, I only read texts that I think are great; ones that aren't, I stop reading, listening, watching or, at the very least, feel no reason to expend more energy on writing about them or thinking about them.

That means, whatever I am reading, I approach generously: I want the best from it. I assume it is right, it has a way that can teach me to think and be otherwise. For instance, Socrates contradicts himself often. But rather than assume he's mistaken, I assume he's creating a non-contradictory logic, namely, irony — the ability to hold mutually effacing positions at the same time.

This doesn't mean that some books/writers don't contradict themselves and that it's not worth pointing that out. It all depends on what you're trying to do, what serves your ends, purpose, health, pleasure.

And I think "clicking" with a text is both conscious and unconscious. I believe there is some work to do there, if one is so inclined, about what it is that clicks and attracts. Immanent reading is not mute; it engages quite articulately — unless being rendered mute is the way of that engagement.

See? We sophists are annoying! Our answer will always be: it depends.

Mark Hampton said...

Hi Daniel, the podcast http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/2068-2 was a good clarification of some ideas in the book, thanks.

I'm becoming interested in Deleuze and technologies as providing new senses - so your book's title stood out. I like your reading of Deleuze.

I dislike the idea of static hierarchy. I see preference as being contextual and a hierarchy can be articulated if we explore preference but typically that is not of use. So preference is of more interest than hierarchy.

Is there any references you could recommend that touch on preference and/or hierarchy from a Deleuzean perspective that you appreciate?