A Worthy Witness

The pool and deck at Sierra Hot Springs.
The other night, I'm at the Sierra Hot Springs with my sweetie. It's Saturday night; I've only been to the springs twice and this was my first Saturday there. We were in the main pool which sits on a deck overlooking this incredible valley floor. Only it's at night. So we can't see the valley of cows and grass. But we can see the sky. The moon is quiet, yet to rise, making the sky teem with stars. The pool is, for me, shockingly full of people: a wet, naked cocktail party. And everyone is standing at one edge, staring up at the sky. There was a low hum of naked party banter punctuated every few minutes by collective gasps. Oh! Ahhhhhh! Wowwwww! There were shooting stars, it seems. (We positioned ourselves away from the crowd, choosing to float and cuddle under the pool's canopy, muting the explosive sky.)

What happens in this collective experience? Why do we — and why would or wouldn't we — turn to others when experiencing something poignant such as a meteor, the Grand Canyon, a car crash? Why do we want or seek a witness — or, in my case, neither want nor seek a witness?

Few things are as disheartening as a photograph of a shooting star. Still.
I remember the first shooting star I saw. It was the first time I took LSD and I was lying on my back with two friends in a field in my home town in Westchester, NY. Holy moly, the sky was awesome, this great labyrinth of light and shadow. And then: wooosh! My heart jumped. My whole body jumped. That was over 30 years ago and I can still feel that sensation resonating through me, teaching me the power of the universe, giving me a taste of my non-I, my becoming rather than my ego.

I don't remember sharing that experience with my cohorts, verbally or otherwise. I know they were there; I liked having them there. But the experience excluded them, the event summoning me and me alone: Behold! the universe commanded. In one fell swoop, I knew the movement of the cosmos, its big banging, its flair and flare, it explosive accelerations (most things in the sky appear stationary; clouds and meteors give us a glimpse of cosmic power, cosmic flux).

What do we want from the one sitting next to us? Well, confirmation: Did that unusual, intense thing actually happen? But that confirmation can be more existentially profound: not only did that just happen but am I still here? In a world in which something like that happens — the sublimity of a shooting star — am I still me? This mode of witness is fundamentally ethical; it seeks to bond human beings in a society. We are here together.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite beautiful, a calming salve for existential angst, a way to stand amidst the tumult. But when I experience something that resonates deeply, that takes me out of myself, I often don't want to be brought back to myself, at least not right away. I want to be stretched.

There is another look we can give each other, another mode of witnessing sublimity together. The universe declares itself with a certain virtuosity — a rock hurls through our atmosphere traveling eons and epochs at nonsensical speeds — and it rings out, sends a ripple, a Doppler of affect taking up all willing participants in its wake.

And suddenly I too am hurling through the atmosphere, burning and screeching with that space rock. I turn to you and together we say Yeah — not as confirmation of the known, not as a way of bringing each other back into the fold, but as the universe seeing itself, creating a conductive circuit, letting the wave flow between us, each of us edging it on as we flow with it. Yes, we look at each other seeking acknowledgement — You see that, right? — but this is not an ethical acknowledgement, not a social agreement: it's a cosmic acknowledgement. We are not agreeing to go back to the norm; we are edging each other on into the great teem of life. It is a downright giddy experience.

In that mutual nod, in that one look, we create a circuit that flows through us. We all know this experience of looking someone in the eye — a stranger on the subway or in a bar that hints at imminent violence or sex. This is a living circuit of energy we can open up or close down, the universe mining itself for energetic flows. Usually, we close it down, look away, look down, look anywhere but at that stranger. The force is too much, threatening the social order and our egos with sudden blows of love or hate or both.

But at that moment when a screaming comes across the sky, when that meteor tears through the atmosphere in a billowing wave of intensity, we are that billowing. We go with it, not as witnesses but as so much cosmic stuff. Such is what it is to see. Vision is a taking in, a taking up, a metabolic function. When we look each other in the eye and holler as it's happening, we are not just two people watching a shooting star as if the sky were a stage and we were its audience. No, as elements in the universe moving along with everything else — with sun and moon and stars and light and whales and wind — we become a productive propellant, a live circuit that amplifies the energy, like looking into your lover's eyes as you come.

These two modes of seeing together — the ethical and the cosmic — are not always distinguishable from the outside. Or even from each other: a look, a witnessing, is multiple. And, no doubt, there are many other modes of seeing together, of bearing witness. I imagine an elaborate litany of such gazes (including the phallic and Bracha Ettinger's matrixial).

In case it's not obvious, the idea of a witness is new to me so excuse my flailing about. I'm still feeling my way through as I write this. Because the fact is I always felt any remnant of the social impeded my revelations, my becoming — all those obligations, judgements, prejudices seeing me in a box before I've even had a chance to express myself (we are hailed, as Althusser says, before we're even born). And so I imagined I had to be alone or with the clouds to be wisely, intensely, passionately at peace with the universe — Kierkegaard's Abraham on Mt. Moriah, alone with his faith (well, except for Isaac who was probably freaking out), infinitely far from the social. Or Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air too cold for most people's lungs. Indeed, all my great moments of revelation have been alone, even if others were around me. How could it be otherwise? Wisdom — Kierkegaard's faith, Nietzsche's self overcoming, Buddhist transcendence — is an internal movement. Something shifts inside me. So why a witness?

And then something happened to me this past Fall, an intense internal movement as I found my ego scaffolding collapsing quickly and violently. What once worked for me to get me up and out — a concoction of ideas, words, meds, gin, and shtick — no longer sufficed. I was in a glorious, if painful, free fall. Yet all I had to do was wipe the tears from my eyes and no one knew what was happening to me. I was disintegrating incognito. Or, rather, my scaffolding was disintegrating as I was reconstituting myself. It was a violent and necessary internal movement.

What astonished Kierkegaard about Abraham, among other things, is that Abraham could return to his life, to his wife and community, after his experience on Mt. Moriah — and no one was ever the wiser. The knight of faith, Kierkegaard tells us, is incognito just as Jesus was incognito: the son of god, which we all are, runs errands like everybody else. There's no glow, no halo, to declare him. With every step, he walks into the infinite and back, beyond the ethical and back. (See Fear and Trembling, as funny and delightful as it is poignant and sharp.) And so I imagined that this call to faith, all done incognito and beyond the pale of the social, meant I had to reckon this alone.

But this internal movement that blew through me did not leave me alone. On the contrary, it repositioned me in such a way as to welcome, or even demand, a witness. I suddenly saw that, alone, I could not ascend that mountain. I could not make that infinite leap of faith. At times, for sure, I knew great peace and certainly even greater pleasure when alone. And no doubt my revelations were and would remain solitary affairs. But, solo, I can't summon the energy to take me up and out and beyond myself. Maybe this movement was just me being lonely, a social desire for others. But this internal movement was greater than a sense of loneliness, more than a middle aged curmudgeon forced to reap what he's sown (although it was that, too). This opening to a witness had an ontological weight, a whiff of necessity. Or perhaps another way to see it is as a matter of physics: I simply need the energy from the gaze of another to move me along.

When I was a young teen, I used to lie in bed and try to come without touching myself. Oh, I'd get so close, my whole body straining, twitching, every cell at the brink. But I could never do it. In order to come, in order for that little death and rebirth, that temporary disintegration of ego that is orgasm, I needed touch. Sure, it was by my own hand. But the point here is that the internal movement alone did not and could not suffice to carry me along, to move me past my ego and into the great cosmic seethe. I needed a nudge.

So now I not only welcome a witness to my own becoming but see this witness as necessary. Practically speaking, I need those eyes to invite me to taste the world outside of my all too comfortable zone of smart guy-Jew-drinker and then take me farther, take me further, to propel me into fearless bliss. My ego can't seem to disintegrate on its own. It needs the force of another, a force that comes from being witnessed.

Which is why not any witness will do. My witness is not the traditional witness; it is not a call to the ethical I primarily seek, even if I do enjoy a lovely, loving companion. No, it is that productive circuit, a witness outside the fray, capable of fomenting the frenzy, willing and able to see and be seen without the all-too-human encumbrances of reason, ethics, and ego, someone who can stand there naked with me naked and not turn away, not become shy or, worse, coy: a witness who can see what I'm offering, what I'm doing, how I'm going as I scream through the atmosphere.

We usually have a friend or two who can play this role. But friendship is often tempered by a beautiful letting be, especially as we get older. Ah, he's all right, we say and get back to our business. Family is of course mired in the ethical, constantly calling us back to the very thing we're trying to shed — our selves. A therapist could be a way to go but, alas, the therapeutic industry is run and dictated by the worst impulses — a return to work, to ego, to the basest bourgeois institutions and, of course, meds. (I found one, however, who makes no claim to being a therapist, not anymore. But he's a rare find, perhaps the only one.)

A lover is an ideal witness, someone who actually loves you so is open and wants the best for you without ego, someone who's around a lot, and someone you fuck so you can visit that place beyond the pale together and often. Alas, most relationships do anything and everything but bear witness. They judge and block as two people try to keep each other tethered within the other's petty grasp. We all know this all too well.

A worthy witness, for sure.
But sometimes a witness comes along who can look at you with a gaze that doesn't seek to own, that doesn't seek to master or even know you with a probing interrogation (isn't this the horror of dating and jealousy — that look across the table that doesn't open up but judges and shuts down?). A witness who looks at you with the eyes of the cosmos itself, the world streaming through her, with her, as her, a look with the vital surge and seethe of life itself, open and generous and abundant, at once indifferent and passionately engaged, a witness who in turn knows how to be witnessed, who invites you to see her just as she sees you.

This is the only way the circuit can be created, a circuit capable of summoning the non-I: a mutual gaze that forges a propellant with a look that doesn't judge but that doesn't let me be, either: a look that edges me on, whether I'm standing naked before a meteor shower, before myself, or before her. It's all cosmic surging asking for a worthy witness.


Favorites, Or Relative Absolutes

At any given time, I will pronounce — inevitably, with a certain emphatic umph — this or that film to be my favorite. Life Aquatic is my favorite, the greatest American film of all time! Moments, days, weeks later: PTA's Inherent Vice is my favorite, perhaps the greatest American film. And then, at any given juncture later, Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels is my favorite film of all time — it changed everything for me. And on it goes: Inland Empire, In Praise of Love, The Big Lebowski, Faces have all, at some point, been singled out as my favorite film of all time.

Other people often find this frustrating. But you said Band à  part was your favorite movie they challenge me as if they've caught me in a lie. Which always throws me off a bit. What's wrong with having multiple or even shifting favorites?

Well, favorite is presumably an absolute. Every time I offer a different favorite film, it must mean that either a) I've changed my mind — in which case I'm fickle; or b) I am insincere and that which I say is my favorite is, in fact, not. In either case, I am not to be trusted.

What confuses them is that I seem so sincere, so sure, so reasoned and impassioned in my declaration. How, then, do they reconcile these two things — my lack of trustworthiness and my apparent sincerity?

I've finally understood that this is particularly difficult for women with whom I share intimacy, women to whom I seem present and loving, women to whom I declare my love (well, the woman to whom I declare my love). I say Godard is the greatest filmmaker, then Tarantino is the greatest filmmaker, then Wong Kar Wai, then David Lynch, then Cassavetes, then Marc Lafia, then Bunuel....and she's left wondering: Oh, hmn, maybe he tells many women that she's his favorite! 

The thing is, for me, absolutes are relative. Yes, that seems contradictory: an absolute is an absolute, fixed and sure, sitting steadfast on the ground, never budging. But when I look around, when I experience my world, I don't really see or feel or know a ground. I experience a world that is in motion all the way through, always and already.  As Bergson says, time (which is to say, motion) is not added to things; it is constitutive of them. Everything in the world, from the sub-atomic to the astronomically large, is not just changing but everything is shifting relations with everything else, a relentless reorienting of everything. Significance and meaning are not fixed; they're relational. As relations shift, so does significance and meaning. Of course. How could it be otherwise?

This is why Derrida liked crossing out the verb "to be." After all, if everything is always changing, how can anyone ever say something is anything? This seems particularly true of taste. If forced for some insane reason to declare my favorite food, I'd say steamed pork dumplings. But does that mean I always want dumplings? Of course not. My body desires different things at different times. I've eaten chicken salad sandwiches which were the greatest thing I'd ever eaten: my new favorite thing! Or a flourless chocolate cake! Oh, no, chocolate mousse with a shot of espresso over it from the old Ti Couz on San Francisco's 16th Street. 

Reading what I just wrote, I sure sound fickle. And a women to whom I declared my undying love would certainly be justified in doubting my sincerity. If my favorites change as my body changes and my body is always changing, then it follows that I must change my favorite woman just as I change my favorite food.

But, for me, a favorite is something that saturates me. It is absolute in that it is at a limit of me: it permeates, thoroughly, even exhaustively. When I say Life Aquatic is my favorite film and then Chunking Express is my favorite film, both claims are absolute — but from my perspective of each. Or, rather, from the perspective of our mutual encounter. When I declare something a favorite, it's because that thing has run all the way through me, extended me, stretched me in some luscious and surprising way. For that's my favorite film to leave my mouth, it means an exquisite event has transpired: I've tasted the infinite — but not any ol' infinite, this infinite: the infinity of Life Aquatic, the infinity of Band à part, the infinity of Chungking Express. I have resonated through the cosmos with those films; they've inflected my becoming all the way and in just that way, the way particular to them. These films resonate just so with these vibratory strands that I am creating a kind of harmonic convergence, an orgasmic détente in which I cry "Yes! This is my favorite!" How could only one of those be my favorite as each carries me all the way through the heavens and beyond?

Calling something my favorite is different than saying I like pumpkin seeds. Sure, I like pumpkin seeds. But I'm not going to say pumpkin seeds are my favorite food. No, to say something is my favorite, it has to give me a taste of the infinite, extend me and my trajectory in a new trajectory.

There is no best painting ever. That's ridiculous. But it's not because taste is subjective; it's because each painting redefines art! Recreates art! There is no center of things precisely because everything is moving, all at different speeds and rhythms. Or else everything is the center! We can begin anywhere and find our way to the infinite. Every asana is yoga; no one pose promises closer proximity to enlightenment. In a world in motion, there is no center. Or there are infinite centers. In either case, there are no fixed points and there are absolutes. Isn't that amazing?!?

In "The Solar Anus," (yes, that's the title, perhaps my favorite title of all time), George Bataille writes, Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things. / And if the origin of things is not like the ground of the planet that seems to be the base, but like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle.

For me, there is a world in which I live in which Life Aquatic is my favorite film, a world in which that is the center, the apogee, the ground. There is also a world in which Band à part is my favorite film, a world in which I see everything through its lens, as it were. I live in both these worlds and more, in a world in motion with a mobile center.

So does this mean I love all women — or many women — each from a different perspective? Perhaps. (Then again, the ethics of human love and the ethics of art love are different. But I think that's a tangent I won't explore now.) Sure, I can imagine a world of worlds in which each woman is the love of my life, each woman offering and extending a different me, a different infinite trajectory. But only certain women, like certain art, resonate with my skinny hebe self. This resonance happens quite rarely for me. In fact, it happens so rarely that I can say it only happens with one woman.



The Image of What's Not There

A camera can never take a picture of what's there. What's there is an elaborate milieu of horizons, a moving set of forces and circumstances, a world in motion along its many axes all intersecting, coalescing, falling asunder. It's seen by sets of eyes run through with assumptions, histories, cultures, metabolisms of different tastes and speeds. How can a camera — an eye without history or knowledge, an eye with such limited periphery and a relentless will to frame geometrically — see what's there?

The moment the camera enters the picture, the scene is changed — for the camera and everything within its stupid scope. I say stupid because cameras are the very definition of stupid: they know nothing nor can they know anything. They go as they go, without thought and without feeling.  Such is their liberation; such is their cruelty. A camera knows no justice, no longing, no desire, no sentiment whatsoever. To the lens, it's all so much light — and maybe form but form is really just the inflection of light.

And yet a camera enjoys perspective. Analog cameras always have a radical materiality — this lens and this film. Yes, the image remains plastic, awaiting realization in the darkroom where all sorts of things can transpire. But this is all limited by the raw materiality of the celluloid or what-have-you. The digital image has a different materiality: the interpretation of an algorithm. The image that appears on your iPhone screen and scattered around the interweb is an interpretation of 1s and 0s, the product of an algorithm that selects pixels to keep and pixels to throw away, that makes red brighter or darker. Or something like that.

This image remains porous as we add filters willy nilly. The digital image is plastic through and through; it's never done. It never even considered presenting what's there. It takes up light and form — form really being a subset of light — and awaits mixing and remixing by whomever, wherever. In today's image, there is surely no there there. The image will never have been about what's there. It takes pictures from the world, a thief of the highest order. And thievery is the artist's stock-in-trade.

The camera creates. It frames and interprets, albeit stupidly, revealing the prejudices of its creators and its materials. In this way, it becomes an additional organ, not an extension of an existing one. While the camera can help the eye to see far beyond the eye's reach — think Hubble — the camera is not essentially an extension of the eye. It is a new appendage, an organ, a gland: it takes according to its own logic and behavior and plays back in the same manner.

More and more, I find my little camera phone a way to engage the world. I don't take it out of my pocket in order to take a picture of what's there. As we know now, that'd be in vain — and usually result in an excruciatingly boring picture. After all, what's there — what I see without the camera — is so tremendously complex, to use a camera to see it is a waste of energy and to have a picture of it is only to have trace residue — a mnemonic, at best, but never what's there.

No, I take out my camera as a way to see what I'm seeing differently, impossibly, in a way that my eyes and ears and skin never could. The camera makes a whole new sense of what's there, creates more than what's there. It extracts things that only it can, in ways only it can. Often, my bodily senses more than suffice; they are overrun and run through with sensations, percepts, affects that provoke, thrill, delight, repulse. But, sometimes, my camera becomes a great way to make new sense of what's there.

What's so fantastic about cameras today is that they are both camera and screen. As I point my camera here and there, it shows me a picture — even before that picture has been stored: a taking before the taking. I run my camera along my sweetie's body as she lies in bed just as I run my fingertips along her skin and, in so doing, see things I couldn't have seen — right then and there, as if it were in my head! It's astonishing.

Think about what happens when a camera enters the scene. I know I, for one, begin to act differently. My internal life is shifted; I become a slightly different self. This happens in a very different way when certain people enter the room — a crush, an old friend, an overbearing douchebag. We shift ourselves based on our company; we are relational creatures. A camera shifts us, too, but in even stranger ways. When a camera sees us, we are being seen by a nobody that is making a different sense of us — and can alter and disseminate this other us infinitely far and long. We say: "The camera pulls it out of us" which may be right but it could be: "The camera makes us different."

To say: "Stop recording and see what's real!" is often ignorant and idiotic. A camera isn't recording; it's creating. As my camera runs over her body — or over that tree, that street, that flower — it creates a there that didn't exist per se (which doesn't mean me taking my camera out isn't annoying to those around me). The camera, then, is not a tool of recording but an organ of engagement. It is a way to know the world differently, to engage with it differently, to make something else of it.


The Drift of Prose: Notes on Writing with Reference to Deleuze and Guattari

Guattari's notes to Deleuze from Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus. So fantastic!

It's a funny thing, this sitting down to write. Sometimes, I have something to say and words express said something. Other times, I have no idea whatsoever what I want to say; I simply like sitting and writing to see what comes.  

There is something magical about typing, the pitter patter here becoming a mark there which can flower or die or neither as the marks on the screen assemble meaning and move bodies (or don't). Yes! says one reader happening upon these marks we call words (this reader may be me). Huh? grunts another reader. Duhhhh....groans a third.

Usually, though, I have more or less inchoate thoughts, nascent notions, and sitting down to write is sitting down to think. It is a practice of giving form and shape to the vague and nebulous. Of course, sometimes what I believed to be a clear idea becomes less coherent as I write; it loses shape as my my words and thinking meander and drift. Such is the risk of thinking; such is the risk of writing. And such, of course, is the joy. Yes, the joy is in the drift, whether it's a matter of taking or losing form.

As I get older  — or, perhaps, simply these days — excuse this aside — aside of what, exactly?: how am I to know if the changes I experience in my life are due to age  or are a product of local sundry factors such as diet, health, love life, and such? What leads me, what prompts me, to say something is due to age while another thing is due simply to mood? Here's an example: My kid was born in 2003, right after the dot com explosion which gave rise to rocketing rents. Are the changes I experienced — the conspicuous rise in stress — due to my suddenly having the kid? Or do I pin it on the change in the economy? Or can I say it's due to getting older? Obviously, it's all of the above. But what lets me extrapolate and ascribe cause — It's the economy! — to something when there are so many correlations? Of course, some things seem clearly age related — the hesitation of my urine stream; the vigor of my erections; my inability to eat tomato sauce. But when it comes to wisdom and the like, I am quick to dub it a matter of age. Now that I'm older, I no longer play those childish psycho-sexual games, I say as if I've earned insights from all my weathered years of living. But is that why? Or might I play those games again and just aren't now because, well, I'm into something else?

Anyway, as I get older — or, perhaps, simply these days —  I am less and less sure of what I'm thinking before assuming my seat before this flickering screen. Rarely is there any one point. The teem of correlations puts my writing, my thinking, my understanding adrift.

All of the above was one paragraph. I just broke it up into these punctuated breaks. Why? The sight of a long paragraph gives many readers pause, reluctance, and even anger: Do I want to get into all that? Can I just duck out now — and watch a 30 Rock episode? What is Coffeen thinking making all that one paragraph???!!! Who does he think he is? (Experience turns readily to ressentiment in my imagination of how people think. Nietzsche pervades me. Or else Nietzsche was right. Most likely, it's both: he pervades me and he was right. But he doesn't pervade me because he was — is — right. He pervades me because he resonates with me, like gin resonates with tonic. The fact — the fact! — that he was — is — right is a distinct if fortuitous coincidence.) (The m-dash and parentheses: drifts great friends.)

This is not easy to read. What's my point? Do I need one? Can I have many? Do these points need to connect? Whose need is it, anyway? Yours? Mine? Or is it the unspoken rules coercing expectations and hence the practice of both reading and writing?

So I thought I was going to write about philosophy — what it is, what it can do, ways to consider and engage with it. This was prompted by a conversation I had recently. My charming interlocutor told me about camping somewhere years ago and each night she'd hear the dripping of water. But when morning came and she looked for the water, none was to be found. Days later at base camp, she mentioned this to a ranger who explained that there is, in fact, no water. That sound — the sound of water dripping — is the sound of a bird song. Which made me think of Deleuze and Guattari's mutual becoming as the bird partakes of water-becoming, the animal reterritorializing the aquatic which necessarily implicates the water in the bird's becoming. That bird takes up water dripping and makes it its own, if only for the duration of its song. That song is water dripping, albeit sans H2O. A river or forest condensation and a bird singing: both partake of water drip-becoming. 

Which made me think of philosophy as a kind of poetry: it enjoys a moment and puts words to it, with it, not to explain necessarily but to make all the more vital. Mutual becoming, write Deleuze and Guattari. That's a beautiful phrase, a beautiful image: poetry.

Which made me think about how words themselves territorialize, reterritorialize, deterritorialize. They take up territory that already exists and realign it, recast it, make it new, make it different (or, more commonly, fortify what's already there; most reading seeks confirmation of what's known — Yep, yep, yep bobs the reader's head — and writers like to make readers happy). Punctuation, grammar, and genre — including the purely architectural elements such as spaces between words and paragraph breaks — give shape to the shapeless; they territorialize, make a territory of these ideas, these notions, these sensations, these words. But writing has the ability to deterritorialize, as well, to lead writing, reading, ideas, and sensations down uncharted and unexpected paths.

As I get older — or is it a matter not of age but of local propensity? — I am increasingly drawn to the fragment, the filament, the fray. Sometimes, the pleasure  — and the knowing — is in the drift.


All That: On Words, Wittgenstein, Cunnilingus, & Yoga

Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I see signification. Words go every which way, a great ooze and flow of factors.

So I'm going down on my sweetie the other day. At one juncture, as things heat up, she begins declaring, Yes! That, that, that! But to what, precisely, does that refer? I mean, I'm doing all kinds of things with my tongue, lips, and fingers at different intensities, rhythms, and speeds. Which that is that that?

This of course made me think of the opening to Wittgenstein's Philosophic Investigations in which Wittgenstein critiques Augustine's account of primary language acquisition (needless to say, this made for a less than erotic, albeit edifying, interlude). In recounting his early learning, Augustine tells us he learned language by adults pointing at an object and declaring its name: "Pencil," says Dad pointing at a pencil. It seems simple enough. But, as Wittgenstein points out, this might work only for nouns. After all, how does one point to justice? Or doom? Or love?

But this ostensive mode of language learning fails when it comes to nouns, too. Let's return to our Dad pointing at a pencil as he says, "Pencil." What exactly does pencil designate? The act of pointing? Any writing utensil? A long, but not that long, skinny object? An off-shade of yellow?

For Wittgenstein, this suggests that words do not primarily designate or signify per se. Words are not just pointers to things or, for that matter, ideas. Rather, words are actions within the social; the use of a word is a rhetorical event before it is a linguistic event (this was the topic of my dissertation, although I never referred to Wittgenstein for a variety of reasons — mostly because after reading the Ray Monk biography, I found Wittgenstein an unpleasant shnook who was always boxing students' ears and certainly not a genius — another case of too much information!). Anyway, this is all to say, a word is always used. Even a dictionary definition is a use. A dictionarist is a lepidopterist pinning a live butterfly: the word doesn't sit still while being defined. (Ask Lohren Green of Poetical Dictionary; rather than try to pin words in place, he put himself in motion with each word he defines — a protean methodology which is a clever, if beguiling, tactic.) A word is necessarily a performance of an action that, in turn, suggests, triggers, causes, prompts other words and actions. In Wittgenstein's parlance, a word is a move within a language game, a game that includes more than the word — the affect, politics, and power that flows through and determines what can and can't be said in a given circumstance (more Foucault's territory than Wittgenstein's).

For Wittgenstein, this is really a matter of logic and certainty. If words don't signify, how do we mean anything? But in this critique of Augustine's view of ostensive language acquisition, I see something else, as well: I see the many in the one. I see webs and oozes. 

This is what I see: To point and say that is to conjure an assemblage. This is always many — a network, perhaps, or a rhizome but in any case a multiplicity. There is rarely, if ever, a direct and single line between here and there, between word and meaning, word and thing, gesture and referent. In the seemingly simple act of saying this or that, there is always so much stuff going on. Entire worlds are initiated, reconfigured, bodies aligned and realigned, opportunities spawned, possibilities hedged.

Years ago, I went to the yoga class of a friend who was visiting and guest teaching. She'd instruct the class to put our pelvises forward or lie with a natural spine or some such thing. I had no idea what she was saying and, much to her chagrin, kept raising my hand for clarification. What did any of those words mean? I couldn't correlate her words with my body. The signification kept going astray, getting lost in the shuffle of associations, memories, clichés, our distinctive understandings of our bodies.

Which made me avoid yoga classes. Sure, I avoided yoga classes for other reasons, most notably the humiliation I tend to feel when being asked to use my body in public (I don't dance, either). But I also avoided yoga classes because I knew I could and would never understand how the teacher's words related to this beanpole body of mine. As the words traveled from her lips to my ears, they'd inevitably get lost in the miasma of sweat and self-loathing.

An image from the teacher training at Kaya Yoga in Davis, CA. Yoga brings to the fore the strange and nebulous path between words and meaning.

And then I did yoga one-on-one with a great teacher (the radiant Kia Meaux). When I'd ask her what her words meant, she'd deflect and instead ask: What are you feeling? What a deft move! With that simple rhetorical move, she taught me that there was never to be a direct line between words and body. Or, rather, there is always a direct line but that line is not straight; it's curved, folded, and has multiple tendrils and tangents.  (The role of words in the teaching of yoga is a rich topic for another time.) There is no single there, no singular that.  There is always an exchange of multiplicities — her words and gestures and affects co-mingling with mine and more. There is always all this and all that, all mixed up together.

I thought I knew this from Wittgenstein, from Derrida, from Nietzsche, from 30 years of reading philosophy. Yet I still expected these yoga words to refer to a very particular posture, a bend of my back or knee or neck. Silly me! Words are not arrows, even if they sometimes pierce our hearts and souls. Words are nebulae. Words are webs. They participate in flows and fluxes that are affective, historical, cultural, personal, idiosyncratic, cosmic.

How, then, do I know what to do as my face is nuzzled between my lover's thighs and she's yelling That! That! That!? Well, I always know and never know. The question remains, more or less: What am I feeling? What feels right? Which is to say, it's a rhetorical matter, not a linguistic one. It's matter of making a move within the fray of bodies and sensations, not a matter of understanding. It's a matter of leaning into the ooze and flux and feeling my way through.

And so I just keep doing what I'm doing, listening for the various utterances of her body, verbal and otherwise, feeling out the elaborate conversation that is all exchanges, physical and verbal. I keep doing all that in order to continue all that. And, sometimes, it all comes to a glorious juncture. Which, of course, just leads elsewhere. Every that is always another all that.