4.07.2020

On, TV, Schitt's Creek, the Addams Family, & Don't Trust the B*itch in Apartment 23


TV as a drug — as per Terence McKenna — that finds value in how we relate to it.

I noticed that "Schitt's Creek," a show many I love love, offers a common formula: a family that's not like the others is funny but they learn to be like everybody else. I find this disappointing.

And makes me miss "The Addams Family" — an outsider family that's privileged over and against the square world.

"Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23" is a modern Addams Family in which outsider ethics are privileged over and against Mid Western banal morality. This only lasted for the brief first season but it was something.

4.05.2020

On the Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell



This is a good one. We had an incredible conversation which I hope comes across. I think it does. And it turns out I'm bald. Who knew?

Watch and listen as Thaddeus and I cover a lot of ground including:

- What is sophistry and why I call myself a sophist

- What kairos is and ecological, embodied decision making (For ex, how do you know when to leave the sauna? When do lean in for that kiss?)

- Classical vs. Modern Rhetoric, or Fred Astaire (monumental) vs. Gene Kelly (anywhere, any time)

- The middle voice

- Psychedelics & hallucinations

- The plenum of affect (with reference to Leibniz) 

- The icky way of adamance or in defense of Socratic irony in the age of Twitter

- I confess that I voted. Egad!

- Romance and marriage refracted through the infinite

- Love and the way of attraction

- Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the Beats

- Crypto and the rise of the Information Age of Abundance

- And take my class on Nietzsche








3.30.2020

What and How is Affect?



Here I talk about a figure that runs through Deleuze: affect, a notion that changed how I think, assess, and live. This is my definition of it, not Deleuze's per se.

* Affect is the invisible state of things. Things have spatial extension but they also have affective extension which is no less real for being invisible. 

* We sense affect with senses other than the five we know so well. Just as light makes an impression on the eye, affect makes an impression on our affective faculties. 

* Affect is objective, not subjective. It is "out there," not inside us. Like all things, affect is perspectival: we experience affect from our perspectives (a glass on pavement shatters; on a pillow, no; so it is with affect, objective but relational in terms of effect).

* Affect is not emotion; it is a-human and interspecial. Affect exceeds the limits of things; it runs through the ether.

* The world is filled to the brim with stuff including affect. The world is a plenum. We live in a kind of affective plasma that surrounds everything including planets, suns, thoughts, events, staplers, cars.

* This affective plasma functions as a communication layer. That's how we communicate with animals, trees, as well as with each other. We are all in this affective gunk so of course we feel what others feel — not one-to-one but we feel with them because we are in the same gunk.

* Once we reckon affect, our knowledge, epistemology, and way of going change.

3.25.2020

There's No Such Thing as Language, or Rhetoric's Gestures & Events

While I hesitate to begin a post with Wittgenstein, he opens Philosophical Investigations with a fantastic critique of St. Augustine's account of learning how to speak. The Saint suggests that his elders would point to something — say, a pencil — and say, "Pencil." Little Augustine would repeat it and, voilĂ , the future Saint learned to speak.

 
Wittgenstein keenly notes the failure of such a method of learning language. When the elder points to the pencil and utters those sounds, how would little Augustine know said sounds referred to the pencil and not, for instance, yellow, thin stick (or any stick), or writing utensil in general? Wittgenstein suggests that this method of pointing and uttering might work for learning a second language but not for learning language per se.

It doesn't take much to realize that language is not just a set of words designating things in the world. Some words — such as one of my favorites, this — don't actually signify anything. They are functions within the act of communicating. Push at this and you'll quickly see that language is much odder than vocabulary and grammar (which is itself different than the way it's taught; grammar is not just subject-verb agreement  — I am, you are, she is — or inflection: Throw the ball to me (I becomes me when it's an object; linguists call this inflection. But more on this later).


Linguists study something called language. They break it down in different ways. The structural linguists, for instance, considered two aspects of language: langue, which is a system of references; and parole, which is the act of communicating — words spoken or written. For the most part, these structural linguists found parole so complex and unsystematic that they preferred to focus on langue, this thing they could dissect like a dead frog.


But where, exactly, does this langue — this system of communication — exist? Isn't language always and necessarily used? Give me an instance of language that is not parole, which is to say, a moment of language that is not somebody saying or writing something. There's no such thing. We make dictionaries seem like they weren't written but we all know some writer was not paid enough to write those entries. Language is always and already being used. The dead frog on the table — langue, a system of language — is dissecting itself with itself. 


This insight is the beginning of what we call poststructuralism and is how the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, made a splash with his form of deconstruction: every structure — in this case, langue — has a moment situated outside itself (parole) that undoes the structure. See his great essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play," not to mention his epic, if pedantic, Of Grammatology.


For Derrida, communication always involves this double gesture in which meaning is proffered and infinitely deferred. He refers to this function as différance (the "mis-spelling" is intentional, emphasizing the gap between written and spoken language, between langue and parole, a gap that at once makes meaning possible and impossible). This is to say that Derrida begins with the assumption that language tries to mean something, to signify something, but fails as the gap between structure (langue) and performance (parole) can never be closed.


But what if we begin from another place all together, a place in which there will never have been this dubious distinction between structure and action, between the static (langue) and the in motion (parole)? What if we begin by viewing all of life as in flux, even structures?



When my son was quite young, he started doing this funny thing. He'd speak about something as though it were a science documentary. Mind you, he wasn't offering actual knowledge. He'd use words that he didn't understand and offer facts that might or might not be related or true. But his tone was spot on. He knew the gestures of knowing.


And such is language: a series of gestures that distribute the world — facts, bodies, events, moods. Wittgenstein referred to these as language games. Learning a first language, he claimed, is not learning referents and grammar (as St. Augustine suggested) but learning which words delivered just so create a reaction. A baby crying, for instance, inaugurates a set of reactions — a mobilization of interactions. Every culture has different modes of games. Every household, indeed every person, is a player in this game and manipulates the players and action as they will. As we all know, the rules of the language game of parenting have changed dramatically since we were kids. No cry when I was a kid demanded the set of responses which, today, are de rigueur — unless, like me, you're interested in playing a different game. When two co-parents want to play two different games, we get discontent and divorce.


A word, I am suggesting, can't be reduced to its referential function. That is a misleading architecture of sense. A word is a gesture, an action, that aligns and distributes bodies in such and such a way. This gesture is at once meaning and movement, a meaning in motion, a way of taking on inherited terms and moving them about. In this model, rather than spoken language being a present tense example of an established structure of language, it is an event that distributes time, distributes structure, recreating it in the very act of using it. A word is not a tool taken from the tool set of language. A word, any utterance in fact, is a repetition of all meaning and structures. Every time I use a word, I am using it again, using it anew, forging nuance and inflection, changing the very mode of that word — what it can be, what it can mean. In the words of R.P. Blackmur,
"gesture is that meaningfulness which is moving". 

To quote 27 year old me invoking Merleau-Ponty: This gesture-event is at once meaning and movement; rather than pure immediacy, the event is itself the distributing of past, present, and future: "henceforth the immediate is no longer the impression, the object which is one with the subject, but the meaning, the structure, the spontaneous arrangement of parts."  Now, "past time is wholly collected up and grasped in the present." 

Some people, of course, prefer to copy word use — rather than repeat — to ensure that their utterances are in line with some notion of accepted meaning. They want to be in the game, "in the true," not changing the rules of the game. And some relish using words in ways that change the very terms of the game. These are poets and philosophers — although many of both in title are actually neither.

What happens when we begin with the assumption that there is no language, only rhetoric? What happens when we assume that the basic unit of communication is the gesture? In other words, why am I saying any of this?

By beginning with the gesture rather than the word, we shift the very terms of literacy. Now, rather than a learner mastering a definition, she is nudged to consider the operations of that word — its sense, its affect, how it moves people this way or that. We see some of this kind of critique coming from identity politics. Unfortunately, such so-called critics reduce a word to a fixed sense, to a univocal performance, so that any utterance of that word only means one thing: You're bad! 

If we're to consider gestures, then we are considering all different modes of that word, all the ways it can be expressed. Memorizing meaning, even if this meaning is now dictated by a cohort of identity-driven critics, reduces the play of words, reduces us to mere users of a system. A gesture lives in its execution, in its delivery, in its performance. And this is what literacy should embrace: a living through, an embodiment of meaning that conjures and arranges sense, history, and structure and, in the very act of speaking, recasts the very rules and modes of communication.

To live in language with its structures is to reduce life to referencing a world that is predetermined. If all my speaking and writing is just an example of an abstract structure with a set of rules, then how can I ever be free? I'm trapped in a prison house of language! How can we ever recast our dynamics if we're all taught to use a system that exists nowhere and whose rules are set in place? 

By shifting from language to rhetoric, from words to gestures, we infuse the past with the present and vice versa. We fold time. In the act of speaking and writing, each of us takes up the history of this thing we used to call language and rewrites the rules. No doubt, many seek stricter rules; to wit, today's internet. But these word police understand that language is, indeed, a living agent that we mold, even if they wish it to be more constraining. 

We can take up this logic of words as gestures to inhabit discourse, to make it weird, to make new senses of the world, of what's possible, using play, humor, seriousness, affect, and irony to break the shackles of inherited meanings: to recreate the world in every gesture.

3.22.2020

3.08.2020

O, the Sweet Complexity of Kairos! or, May Every Decision Be a Reckoning

There are few things I love as much as standing before a bar. All those options! All those opportunities! What does my body yearn for? What do I desire? What do I need? What inflection of spirit goes well with me at this juncture? What o what shall I order?

Despite appearances, I am not a creature of habit. No, every time I pour myself a drink, I consider it — "it," mind you, is not the booze but the meeting of me at this moment and that booze. "It" is an event, a meeting of different ways of going: me in this moment (not me in general as there is no me in general) and that tequila (all tequilas are different), or that gin, with or without soda, with or without a beer back, with or without lemon, and so on. All these elements are constitutive of this ever elusive formula for the right thing right now for me.

The Greeks had a word for such a moment: kairos. Kairos is emergent opportunity, a particular inflection within temporality, a kind of seam — a word and concept I borrow from Lohren Green's Atmospherics. It's a seam in that multiple bodies run up against each other without any claiming absolute dominance. It's an in-between moment where bodies and events may go this way or that. Kairos is a juncture of reckoning.

Now, kairos to the ancients was a divine, hence rarer, event. They'd never cast kairos as the event of me choosing my booze. But this is the difference between ancient and modern rhetoric. If for the ancients, kairos was monumental, for the moderns it emerges as part of the everyday — what to make dinner, when to lean in for that kiss, when to finish eating, when to say what to whom, and so on and so on. It's not just for generals and politicians; it is the purview of all, anytime, anywhere. If ancient rhetoric is Fred Astaire, always on stage and dressed for the occasion, modern rhetoric is Gene Kelly, dancing alone on the street, in the rain, in a tenement with a newspaper: anywhere, any time.

Gene Kelly is modern rhetoric, any moment anywhere an occasion, a juncture. Kairos abounds.

When I'm at home rather than the bar, this kairotic moment begins with the flicker of a desire as my whole body registers it's cocktail hour. This rarely comes from looking at a clock. No, it's a moment that announces itself in me, as me, with me. And while I do have a drink almost every evening come 5:00, give or take, it's not habit that drives me. Which is to say, I don't move to the liquor cabinet blindly. No, I always — always — consider my desires, needs, and moods.

This is important: my movement towards the liquor cabinet is repetition, not habit. By which I mean that each visit, each pour, is a distinct event, a reckoning — and never a blind reach for the hooch. It's new every time, an inauguration.

This is not say that I don't have habits, those things I do unthinkingly by rote. Oh, but my cocktail is never such a blind event. I enjoy it too much to treat it so disrespectfully. On the contrary, my pleasure derives from the fact that my eyes — and mind, loins, nostrils — are wide open, that this is a decision I'm making right here, right now.

O, that moment! Kairos, sweet complex kairos! When I'm choosing my drink for that night, for that moment, it's when I am wide awake and the plethora of options and opportunities yawns before me in all their idiosyncratic glory as I seek my place within these flows that exceed me — things like weather and obligations, like health and the vicissitudes of desire, like the sun drenched tequila of that region. When I reach for a bottle, I am as much following as leading: I am in the middle voice, at once choosing and being chosen.  As I scan my bar, the El Tesoro Reposado may wink at me, an undeniable come hither. Or that wink may be a false seduction and the secrets of that night lay in my Occitan Gin. Or even in nothing at all. (I find that when I'm getting sick, I don't want a drink. That is not a negative decision, a saying no. In kairos, it's all Yes-saying, a creative turn of events.)

The moment  — kairos — is the arbiter of what's right. Not me, not the bottle. It's an emergent propriety. It's not the abandonment of all propriety, a wily nilly consumption. That'd be unseemly! Just because there's no exterior "right" doesn't mean anything and everything is right. On the contrary, the right thing emerges, is particular to these bodies in this moment.

What makes it right? Will there ever be certainty? No. What's right is multiple, perspectival, and ever changing. How could it be otherwise? All these bodies, all these moments, all these needs and desires, all these ways of going: there is no "right" that stands outside them all. What's right for this body in this moment is inevitably different than it is for that body, that moment, that situation. And even what's right for this body may very well be multiple, opening up different trajectories — of that evening, of desire, of existential possibilities. There are standards but they're protean (pace Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary).

Of course, what makes this difficult for some people is that there is no fixed standard, no sure way of assessing, not to mention knowing, the right thing. If there's a standard, decision making is easy: It says here to drink 1.5 ounces of Fortealeza Blanco, neat, with six ounces of Modelo Especial back. Ok! (If only all such dicta were so wise!) But, no, we have to make decisions on our own — as this body with these experiences, these desires, these needs. At some point, we all stand before the bar of life, decisions and opportunities before us, reckoning ourselves in the world.

This is the way of all decisions. We stand not as much before the bar of the world as amid the bar of the world as all these forces, factors, and desires swarm and seduce. We are in the middle of it, constitutive of it. Which is to say, the world does not offer itself to us as we luxuriously decide from afar. No, we're in the mix. We are bodies of this or that sort aswirl in a teem of other bodies all making their way. Some bodies recoil at each other; some blend into a new form, black and brown becoming yellow; some come together but maintain their identity, marbling. 

So there I am at the bar, surveying my options. It is a moment; it is now. But this now is itself a temporal fold. My decision is not strictly speaking immediate. No, all our decisions are mediated by all sorts of things, most notably, our past experience which itself opens on our understanding of the future. For instance, as I'm surveying the bar and thinking Maybe I'll have four double shots of Jack! some part of me remembers that I've done that before and, well, it didn't end well. As we make our decisions, our memory inflects the now as it projects ourselves into the future. (A great Stoic exercise to reckon the now is to imagine yourself in the future: How do you fare in that image?)

Mind you, these are not external criteria. It's not as if I really want those four double shots of Jack but know I'll feel lousy later. It's not a battle between two selves, the desiring-self and the knowing-self. That's a specious construct we see in movies and such. No, my memory is not outside the now, outside this juncture. On the contrary, it is present as part of this moment, that past shaping this now from the inside out, not as an external term.

Of course, sometimes we let our past experiences dictate our now. This is how our actions become habits. This is how we ignore kairos, ignore the now as emergent opportunity. We shut it down before it even happens. Oh, I got sick on gin in high school so never touch the stuff. This may be a memory presenting itself to the juncture of now; but it may be the elevating of a past experience to a rule that is exterior to the juncture. This is something we reckon as we reckon: when I reach for that tequila, am I relying on an external rule such as a bad memory? Or am I open to this emergent possibility? It's a meta factor that's folded into the mix.

This decision has no one right answer. Each decision opens up different selves — forwards and backwards! The now I become in my actions shifts the self I was. When someone does something totally "out of character," it makes us wonder if we ever really knew that character in the first place. What we do today changes what we did yesterday — perhaps not in "fact" but in significance. 

Suddenly, the decision of what to order at the bar takes on this almost unspeakable complexity. So many factors, bodies, weights, moods, possibilities, experiences, desires all commingling, ricocheting, harmonizing in an impossible calculus that, we hope, ends in an order — unless you're in a Beckett novel.

Every decision is made amid a teem of factors, bodily and temporal. Every decision is an embodies inflection point within the becoming of you and the becoming of the world.

Writers know kairos well. As you begin every sentence, you are inaugurating a certain flow of sense. Such is the way of grammar: begin as such and you end up here; begin like that, and you end up there. Every adjective, every tense shift, every paragraph break, every mark of punctuation shapes the whole in such radically different ways. Mood and meaning are on the line with every inscription. As writers and non-writers alike know, this can be maddening: how do I write this?! ? As we write, we seek a secret sense that reveals itself, moving us to write this, then this, then that before deleting that whole chapter and beginning again. In writing, these kairotic junctures are so apparent. In life, it's less so: I choose tequila, I choose gin, so what? Maybe I'm a bit hungover the next day. But writing, once inscribed, persists to infinity. You can't just shake off a bad page with some hair of the dog. No, writers — like painters — see their decisions writ before them at every turn, a now carved into eternity.

The declaration of this — the ordering of a drink, the writing of a sentence, leaning in for that kiss, ordering the Mu Shu Pork, voting for Bernie — is a teeming multiplicity. It is a nexus in which so many factors come together and are inflected, each factor changed, each trajectory sent this way or that. Tequila leads me one way; gin, another, bourbon, another; no drink, another; and so on. Each decision reorients me towards myself, past and present, forging a new trajectory (even if of an ilk with existing trajectories; radical discontinuity happens but is rare — and may be undetectable from the outside, anyway).

Of course, most people make most decisions absent kairos. They live out of habit, doing the same things day in and day out because they've done them before, because their parents or a book or a guru told them to. No action is in and of itself right, healthy, good, or true. Having that smoothie, doing that yoga, going to that therapist: none of them are in and of themselves right.

Kairos, then, may emerge at every turn but only if you beckon it and, in turn, let it beckon you. You may wear gloriously chic blinders — this job, lover, apartment, shoes — but you're still wearing blinders. Which may very well be working for you! Sometimes, I wish I could succumb to a current that carried me along. Sigh. Kairos, while available for the asking, doesn't rear its head without your participation, without a summoning — and willingness to be summoned. We come to kairos not as masters but as participants, as much ingredients as the tequila, ice, or cabbage in the Mu Shu Pork.

Of course, we all get carried along to greater or less degrees with our blinders gladly on. Not every moment is kairotic for anybody. Many, if not most, of the things we do are rote as I plop in front of the TV to watch "30 Rock" for the 53rd time. Which, thankfully, rarely disappoints! I could watch Liz Lemon all day and be happy! Some habit, then, is necessary and can even be good, carrying us along when we lack the wherewithal to reckon the emergent now. This is what we mean by good habits: those behaviors that don't hurt us when we're not heeding kairos due to sickness or weakness, physical or otherwise. Sometimes, you just need to put your head down.

But to treat the moment as kairos is to beckon divinity, to enter the becoming of you-in-as-world. It reveals the seams that open onto new possibilities of living. It turns the mundane into the epic as each decision reverberates throughout the cosmos, at once stretching backwards and forwards in time. It's to lead a lively life in which every moment is a reckoning, every decision an opportunity, every action an inauguration. El Tesoro Reposado neat, please, with a Pilsner back. Thank you.

On, TV, Schitt's Creek, the Addams Family, & Don't Trust the B*itch in Apartment 23

TV as a drug — as per Terence McKenna — that finds value in how we relate to it. I noticed that "Schitt's Creek," a show ...