1.05.2021

Saved by Cinema: On the Kino-Eye of Ryland Walker Knight's "I Wish You Would"

Watch the film here > https://vimeo.com/358238055

One of my favorite sequences in "I Wish You Would," Ryland Walker Knight's short(ish) new and deeply affective film, finds the camera following the lead character, Stanley, as he walks down an Oakland street drinking a case of Pabst. The camera moves with him as if it's there with him — as if, perhaps, we're there with him. 



But despite the camera keeping its steady pace, Stanley falls out of frame.  Such is the story of this beautiful, affective film: Stanley has fallen out of the frame of the social having had some kind of psychotic episode that landed him in a mandatory institutional hold. As he's released from his stay, he tries to re-enter the frame of his life. The film tracks his attempts and, alas, failures.


In this sequence, the camera carries on, keeping its pace, making no effort whatsoever to find our leading man. He may be the focus of the film but the camera has a will and way of its own. Soon, Stanley renters the frame and, once again, the camera is tracking with him. At first, I wrote "tracking him" but that's not quite right: he and the camera have their respective paces which mostly coincide — the camera is tracking with him.


And even when the camera is with Stanley, it sees as it sees, light saturating the image, as if the camera is as interested in the sun as it is in Stanley. Such is Stanley: he is alienated from his friends, from what seems to be his girlfriend, from his home (he's been locked out), from himself, and even seemingly from the camera telling his tale. 

But this camera that can't quite keep him its sights, that blends him with the sun, may very well be the very thing that sees him best and binds him to the world — perhaps not the social world but to the world in the ultimate sense: to the universe, the cosmos. 

When the film opens, the screen is black as we hear what sounds like someone trying to get comfortable in their seat and not succeeding. The first voice we hear reinforces this initial impression: "To begin," says a woman's voice, "just get comfortable." But that is the one thing Stanley can't seem to do — not here, for sure, and not throughout the series of encounters that define the film. 

"I want you to close your eyes," she continues and, with that, the black screen goes light and we see Stanley, in and out of blur, negotiating trees and we can't tell: Is he hunter or hunted? In any case, he's not settled. This is not him at home in nature. The screen then turns a reddish orange as if we're looking at the cellular structure of life itself before the camera pans back to reveal it's a flower's pistil — this seething, surging virility of life and a far cry from Stanley at the moment. But the camera is shaky. Like Stanley, we're unsure and yet can see the beauty of life, if only we could hold it in our gaze. 

Stanley, we'll learn, is never at home. After being released from an institution, presumably for a psychiatric episode, he returns to his apartment to find he's been locked out, a note attached to his padlocked door reads, "I know you're sick, but you violated our agreement." 

Of course he has. Stanley has no real connection to the social world, to friends and family, to the order of things. When he is being released from the clinic, he's handed his phone and immediately tries to make connection and, as he listens to a voicemail from a woman who sounds concerned but distant, the nurse asks, "You got someone coming to pick you up, hun?" That is the question for Stanley that the film at once asks and answers with a decided No, at least not in any any way that matters.

We learn that something happened, some kind of break, that ended with Stanley being arrested and institutionalized. In what may be flashbacks or memories, we see him running frantically towards water — the Bay or lake — where he strips to his underwear and looks about madly, lost. This is not a maniacal episode in which he's too certain of himself. This is a break, a loss of identity, of that scaffold that lets us carry on with our lives.

His return to the social upon his release doesn't fare well. The man who does indeed pick him up — a former teacher? an uncle? — is concerned but detached. "Do nothing," he tells Stanley before driving off. After Stanley enters his apartment to find his room padlocked, he goes to a café where what seems to be his girlfriend works. She, too, is concerned — but annoyed above all. Their connection is tenuous at best. Utterly at a lost amid the social, Stanley lunges over the counter for a kiss. She is horrified. "Oh god, Stan....no...Jesus...no. What was that?" "I don't know," he replies. 

His lack of social connection is devastating.  All Stanley wants is connection. To feel at home. But everywhere he turns, he's met with the ornaments of care, with frustration, with cliché. He can't get what he wants. And he doesn't seem capable of asking for it. The title resounds in this absence: I wish you would love me, kiss me, hold me, care for me.

Walking from a cemetery after drinking his Pabst, he finally has an encounter that feels real: he's mugged at gun point. After the mugger takes his phone — Stanley's last vestige of connection — the mugger demands Stanley's wallet. Which, alas, he doesn't have. This provokes the mugger and, in turn, Stanley grabs the gun and puts it to his forehead, muttering with intensity, "I wish you would." That is all he can ask for: death.

After having his phone stolen, he proceeds to Oakland's great Grand Lake Cinema. His friend, the manager, greets him — but, once again, Stanley meets nothing but condescension, the facade of care. "You been drinking?" his supposed friend asks smelling the beer on Stanley, nothing but judgement in his voice. Stanley tells him he's been robbed. Call the police, his friend tells him. Why? wonders Stanley. His friend responds as if Stanley's an idiot, "To catch the person who robbed you. That's what cops do. They catch people who commit crimes." 

This long exchange with the theater manager is a difficult scene to watch. The gap between these two friends is infinite and they both know it. But what makes it worse is the manager plays friend to a t — except he won't let Stanley stay with him. He offers platitudes instead. "You can't drink," he tells Stanley. "Has she [your therapist] said anything about taking it one day at a time?" To which Stanley replies, "They all do." Cliché is not care. Cliché, as Stanley knows too well, is a living death.

But the manager does unwittingly provide Stanley the help he need: he lets him into an auditorium to watch a film. We don't learn which one because it doesn't matter. What matters is cinema which is premised on being alone in the dark in order to be fully sated. 

This is Stanley's salvation. The camera stays on him as he watches the unnamed film and, for the first and only time, we see him relax, smile, breathe. It made me think of "Hannah and Her Sisters" when Woody Allen, after his botched suicide attempt, wanders the streets of New York until he finds himself in a movie theater watching the Marx Brothers and, watching the absurdity on screen, finds peace.


But, for Stanley, it's not what's on screen that matters: it's the screen itself. It's cinema itself. It's cinema seeing; it's kino-eye. A camera is beautifully, refreshingly stupid. It offers a seeing and act of being seen that is infinitely generous, free of any judgement or even the possibility of judgement. Where Stanley's friends see and judge in the same gesture, the camera only sees — and lets you see in your solitude. In fact, it's a very condition of cinema: solitude and darkness.  

Through the film, we see Stanley meditate. These meditations are not the stillness we associate with meditation. For Stanley, meditation is a movie. But not a narrative movie; not a story. His meditations are films of the kino-eye — no judgement, no categorization, just a wash of affect, ambience, even if there's dread involved now and again. For Stanley, salvation is not through other people. It's through cinema; it's through a seeing that is free of what Nietzsche would call the all too human. This is salvation through kino-eye, through cinema-seeing. 


"I Wish You Would" is a beautiful, moving film of alienation made by a noted film writer turned filmmaker. It made me think of Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" — Barry happens to be a producer of "I Wish You Would" — and its portrayal of vulnerability. And this film, if nothing else, is a portrait of vulnerability. But whereas the character in "Moonlight" is saved by the touch of another man, Stanley is saved by cinema — by a camera that doesn't mind if he drifts out of frame, a camera that's always on and welcomes him back just as he is, drunk and lost or not. 

And such, precisely, is this film: it's a performative salvation. Here, and perhaps here alone, Stanley is loved by a camera that, even if he drifts out of frame, will welcome him back, no questions asked. And even bathe him in sunlight.

12.27.2020

Watching "The Wire" Again and Again and Again, or The Many Modes of Repetition

I've seen "The Wire" at least two dozen times. Why? I'll let Søren Kierkegaard answer: "Just as [the Greeks] taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is repetition."

I'm watching "The Wire" these days. I've watched it many, many times before; I wouldn't be surprised to learn I've seen it 25 or more times. People sometimes make fun of me for it. But what, precisely, are they making fun of? And why do I watch it over and over? Well, for that matter, why do I — why do we, why does anyone — do anything again? 

There are many reasons, of course. But, for now, I'll try to focus on TV shows in general and "The Wire" in particular. 

I believe some people find it odd that I watch something over and over because, whether they know it or not, they somehow believe TV shows are primarily for the dispensation of information. Once you know if Ross and Rachel get together or if John McClane gets out this pickle, the show is done. Used up. This is our culture's obsession with "spoiler alerts": we believe that the show — or movie or novel — is telling us something and, once we know, its job is over. So why watch it again? 

But that's obviously absurd. Art is not the dispensation of information. Sure, some stories might turn on revelation. But the best stories are concerned with how events affect people and their relationships, not what happens. This doesn't mean there's no suspense. It means that revelation per se is not the reason we engage. Personally, I never care how something turns out; you can't spoil anything for me. The art is in the going. I think of John Cassavetes' achingly beautiful, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." The title tells us what happens. The film lives in the how — and what a how it is!

The title of the film, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," is a "spoiler alert." The film is not the what of the plot but the how of an experience — for both characters and viewers. I mean, c'mon, look at that shot! 

Now consider sports for a moment. Is each game the same thing over and over? Or is each game different, a reckoning of life, each game something new? Why play or watch a game again? Because life seethes in this again. In fact, if there were only one baseball game ever, it would be absurd — not to mention boring af, as the kids say. Sports get their power, especially baseball, in that again — and again and again. It gets more interesting the more it's repeated. Sure, you say, but each baseball game is actually different — unlike "The Wire" which stays the same. Fair enough. But sports nevertheless reveal one mode of repetition, namely, the emergence of patterns — such as consistency as signs of mastery, intelligence, skill, suckiness.

So let's take a painting, instead. You don't see a painting once and assume it's "done," do you? No doubt, we wish some art could be done after we've seen it. But not art we love. It's there to be seen over and over; we even seek out this repetition, hanging it on our walls. We want the experience of beholding that art, the way it works us over (to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan), not the information it provides. So why isn't a TV show the same? "The Wire" is an experience, not a series of facts to be known. I watch "The Wire" over and over for the same reason people look at the same painting over and over — or, for that matter, have sex over and over: it feels good. It's an expression of love. 

 I love looking Francis Bacon's paintings more than once, more than twice, more than a dozen times. And yet I don't want to have this hanging above my bed. It's too intense for my everyday living. Every will to "again" is different and depends on the bodies involved. It's not a matter of again or not. It's a matter of how this happens again.

And yet that's not always as simple as it seems. For instance, I love many paintings by Francis Bacon. But I don't always want to see them; I certainly don't want to live with them hanging over my bed, down my hallways, in my living room. They're too intense for how I live day to day, for my affective metabolism, that is, for the affect I — as this person here — desire, consume, and distribute; I don't have the affective intestinal fortitude to look at a Bacon every day in my living room as I have snack or as I, say, lounge on my couch to watch "The Wire" for the 29th time. I look at these paintings again and again and linger with them each time so that I can experience, know, feel everything they offer — their affect, their feelings, their knowledge. And then I don't again for some time. 

But I do return to them — to feel and know things that can only come by experiencing those paintings again and again. If I knew I had only one viewing, my experience would be impossible to imagine. For that matter, art wouldn't even exist. Art only exists in repetition, in the fact that we know it will endure and be viewed multiple times. Sure, some works disrupt this reductive claim. Andy Goldsworthy, for instance, makes works that disappear with the elements, the tides or rains or river carrying his creations away. But he makes work that disappears with the elements again and again; indeed, his art emerges and lives in precisely this repetition. If he only made one work that vanished with the tides, it wouldn't be art (even if it might be artistic, beautiful, engaging). Style, which is to say life, only lives in repetition.

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Each thing — whether it's art, food, exercise, medicine, sex, or the gods — has its time. And that time may very well be one and done. Or it may happen over and over at a regular clip like a (healthy) heartbeat. Or it may be punctuated across time like a rock skipped across a pond. You may eat oatmeal every morning for years and only have chocolate mousse once every 27 months. But whatever its rhythm, repetition is built into the very structure of a thing's existence. Take us human beings before they've painted anything or played any games. We breathe — in, out, in, out. Our hearts beat their rhythms until they don't. We sleep and wake in cycles that accord with the day. Repetition is the very modus operandi of life. 

But, as Gilles Deleuze writes in the opening line of his devastatingly brilliant "Difference and Repetition": "Repetition is not generality." (That's a line I didn't understand when I first read it 25 years ago; it's a line that I keep understanding differently every time I consider it.) There are as many modes of repetition as there are lives of people, rocks, insects, suns, smells, leaves, gins, experiences. It's not just that life lives in repetition; it's that living, in its many forms, is different articulations of repetition with different reasons we might do something again. 

We repeat to learn. I play guitar scales over and over to work on my precision, touch, finger strength. In fact, it's the only way to learn an instrument or, for that matter, to learn any new physical task. In this case, repetition is accumulation, a training of the body to be other than it is now. That is quite different than looking at a painting over and over again because it affords pleasure. In this case, repetition inaugurates a new mode of operation (which deftly debunks the understanding of repetition as a will to the same). 

I usually watch "The Wire" simply, or not so simply, for the pleasure. The dialogue is so good that, at such moments, it's like taking a shot of booze, a line of cocaine, smoking a cigarette, or doing a whippit: an explosive pleasure that has no goal other than its endurance here and now (until I do it again — and why wouldn't I? It feels good.)

But I watch "The Wire" again in other ways, too. A few weeks ago, I was dealing with some intense family mayhem which left me sad, anxious, unsettled. I lay on the couch and just wanted something to settle me, calm me. And as my doctor refuses to write me a script for Xanax, I turned to TV. I wanted some experience to wash over me, take me in its warm embrace, something I knew I loved that would love me back. And so I turned to "The Wire" which has afforded me extraordinary and unhesitant pleasure for years. Repetition, then, can be the allure of familiarity amid a world that is relentless and difficult. 

This time watching "The Wire," however, I took another approach. This time I was curious about things I might have missed over the years. So I turned on closed captioning which shed light on so much of the background language, all the names of the drugs (I got the icicles! I got that WMD! I got that Pandemic!) and little turns of phrase I'd missed (and learned that Bunk's name is William; I only know that as Freamon says it once at the bar and I read it in the caption; I still rewound several times to confirm). In this case, repetition served to expand my appreciation of the show. This wasn't repetition as pleasure (even if pleasant) or as balm but as a mode of learning more. After all, the show is complex with elaborate language so there's a lot to miss the first 20-odd times. Once doesn't suffice.

And then there's the fact that once the show is so familiar to me, I can assess it on other terms. That is, rather than just watching it for what I've missed or for its familiarity, I use this familiarity as a foundation that lets me analyze different aspects of the show I've not paid as much attention to. It's a compelling show; it's easy to get swept up and enjoy its mechanics, language, and intelligence without critical viewing. But this time, because I know it so well, I've been able to step back and take note of two aspects of the show that I've not tended to in any concerted way — its structure and its politics.

After seeing it so many times, knowing it so well, this time I noticed some things about its structure and tone. It is much more theatrical than I'd ever realized (it's still hilarious to me that it gets described as "gritty" and "realistic" when it is so conspicuously mythological and unabashedly contrived). Each scene is a set piece that could just as easily be on stage as on TV. There's a rhythm to the delivery of information, affect, character, and message in each scene that is distinctly theatrical. Which is to say, scenes rarely proffer information solely propelling plot. No, each scene is crafted in such a way to tell us something about these characters and their relations or, as it's David Simon, to preach. My first two dozen times, I was enthralled. This time, I noticed how carefully constructed each scene is — like a comedian's joke, punchline and all. Just watch. 


And I noted its politics which are more ambivalent than I'd thought. This will be a topic of a different essay — the politics of David Simon and "The Wire" and, perhaps, "The Deuce." But, for now, I want to note that after watching it so many times, this time I was suddenly troubled that I found myself rooting for the cops to come up with more clever ways to spy electronically on the drug dealers. I was rooting for the surveillance state! 

I finally saw how what the show really offers is not an empire that's broken due to bad actors and their bad policies but an empire in a time of change and collapse: the institutions of the past, with all the supposed dignity Simon loves so much  simply don't work in the mass age. I realize this is reductive; there is a deep ambivalence at the heart of "The Wire" — an understanding that it's all a game while, at the same time, taking a hard a moral stance. I look forward to fleshing this out — a fleshing out only possible (for me) because I've seen it so many times. 

That may seem obvious but Simon seems to criticize these institutions — police, politics, schools, newspapers — for becoming too obsessed with numbers, with quantity over the quality of life (juking the stats). But such is what happens when there are so many people: we lose the local school house in which everyone knows everyone — and we can't go back. This is what happens when technology changes: we don't keep offloading ships by hand and nor should we, even if we do end up dredging the canal. What Simon never seems to suggest is that these institutions aren't broken; they're anachronistic. He seems to suggest reform is needed when it's all too clear that we need new kinds of institutions with new technological age for a world with an ever increasing population — not schools simply without testing but maybe, just maybe, no schools at all. Or schools of a form we've yet to consider. 

But that's for another essay. My point here is that after watching "The Wire" so many times, I was able to be more critical, to not be so utterly seduced by its characters and dialogue but to be able to see its political logic at work. Repetition, then, as a vehicle for critique. Sometimes, it's only when we know something so well that we can be critical. Rather than blinding us, repetition can sometimes be the only way to see something clearly. 

As the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard argues, repetition is life and nothing less than a miracle: to do the same thing again and anew! Such is life and its daily miracle: we repeat ourselves to create ourselves. We repeat to reckon life — to learn, enjoy, create as every day we wake up ourselves and not ourselves. We make dinner, listen to music, tell our sweeties we love them, shower, hug our kids, have sex, go for walks, do yoga, watch "The Wire." In repetition, we live the manifold experiences of life — comfort, education, health, pleasure, and in the same gesture, the inauguration of the new. In repetition, we live — even if it looks like I'm just lazily watching "The Wire" for the 27th time. 

11.23.2020

Let's Go, Cum, Hard, and the Idiocy of "Grammar Nazis": On Repetition, Creation, & Language (with Reference to Derrida, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, & Lucretius)

This is what invention, creation, poetry looks like. 

The Idiocy of "Grammar Nazis"

Occasionally, someone who knows of my academic pedigree — a doctorate in rhetoric — but not of me assumes I cringe at the presumed deformation of our language by the youths and their apps and such. In such an understanding, I probably belong to a group who pridefully call themselves "grammar Nazis" — a most horrific, idiotic phrase.

First of all, its unabashed pride in such a self-designation suggests they believe that while the Nazis chose the wrong object — namely, killing Jews — their commitment to rules is impressive and worth emulating. When, of course, it's precisely commitment to rules that leads to the slaughtering of others.

And then there's the fact that grammar is not a set of laws that hover above language, legislating its every utterance. For where and how could such laws exist? That is, how could laws of grammar legislate from outside language when they are necessarily articulated by and within language — that is, by particular people of a particular place and time, hence undermining their claims to be universal laws of language?  For those who care about such things, this is the logic of Jacques Derrida's deconstruction: any claims to be outside a system remain of that same system — so have no inherent ability or right to legislate universally (one way to see this is that the stater of rules always has an agenda as part of the mix they're legislating). Every law that dictates the use of language is itself a use of language — and whence those rules? 

There is No Outside. Grammar is immanent.

Language is always already used, even if no one per se owns it. It flows in us, through us: we are its dummies and its inventors. It's us and not us (this is fodder for another essay at another time). There's no way to stop the use of language for a minute and excuse ourselves from its fray in order to legislate its use. We can say this or that is a rule of language — but that is just another voice speaking. And whence its rules of rules? Rules are always already emerging, always changing, relative to the bodies they consider — meanwhile, those bodies are themselves always emerging and changing. Rules and bodies inflect each other. Neither comes first; neither comes second. Rules are immanent. 

Anyway, I deeply love the relentless invention of language at the site of its everyday use. While I've thought and written about this for decades, this fact — this endlessly inventive way of language — becomes more apparent every day as I age. I understand very little of what people post on the Twitter and Facebook. No doubt, this comes from my willful ignorance of our times; I don't know much about what people call politics or celebrities so I miss the references. But my failure to understand these tweets is not due to my ignorance of their referents as much as it's due to the fact that this language has new way of making sense. The how, not just the what, is always changing.  

As I lead a reclusive life, the language I understand is, at this point, an older language. I have not been party to its unabashed reinvention — a process that has been accelerated by the ever increasing velocity of global communication. People write and read each other all the time — at near infinite speed. Tweets, texts, posts, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, comments, emojis, retweets: we communicate more than ever and with people outside our immediate geography. New rules, new words, new senses are being created on the fly all the time. 

Let's Go, Hard: Repetition as Invention

I'm walking with my son the other day, a constitutional after our respective days of video school and work. I was talking about fun things I used to with my friends when I was his age — 17 — to which he'd reply, Let's go. The first time I stopped as I thought he wanted to go somewhere. But his tone and delivery suggested something else — not phatic (phatic discourse is an utterance that keeps communication open but doesn't declare anything per se — um, what was I gonna say?, ahhh are all examples of phatic discourse) but a discursive tic signaling appreciation à la the well worn, Cool. So I kept talking and, every once in a while, he'd utter this understated yet emphatic Let's go. 

I had never heard him say this. His go-to is usually, That's hard. I love hard in this sense so much: it speaks to the mode, the tone, of the duration and its affect. For what, precisely, is hard in this situation? It's not the object of discussion which, more often than, is the dropping (I know that one! I love the architectural space of "dropping" an album; it's so much more beautiful that "releasing") of some new track or an outfit such as, say, a Fila tracksuit. Both those things are hard but not because they themselves are materially hard. No, what's hard is the way those things blaze a trail through life, through the miasmic drone of the everyday, pushing aside nonsense thanks to the fortitude of their constitution, their hardness. Hard, too, is the mode of the affect he himself is feeling — it may be elation or desire but, either way, it's coming in hard, not soft, not gentle, not ambivalent: hard. Hard moves with purpose, cutting through the noise.

Let's go is of another order, another tenor, of discourse. It de-emphasizes the object under discussion and privileges the interlocutor's enthusiasm instead. So he'd never say let's go about a song. That'd be ridiculous. The song may be hard; such is one of its qualities. Let's go speaks to the experience of his companion. His friend says, I love that song! It's hard! To which my boy might reply, Let's go. it declares his willing participation in the joy of his interlocutor: I want to enjoy your enjoyment — let's go there! What an outstanding invention! 

People invent language all the time. We are all poets, to some degree, some of us more than others. But, for all of us, language is a living beast that is continually morphing. There is no one language. In fact, we might say that there is no language per se (this was the argument of my dissertation; I suggested we replace what we call language — a set of rules based on signification — with rhetoric, an always situated event of communication). All there are are people talking and writing and communicating and failing to communicate or failing to communicate what they thought they wanted to communicate. Some of those people occasionally decide to write books laying down the rules of this language. But those are just more words being written and spoken and, unfortunately, taught. These books of rules don't leave this realm of speaking and writing, suddenly levitate to become law over all uses of language. No, these rule books are just so much more language on the same plane as as the rest of language. There is no outside: Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, as Derrida writes. 

We're all in this stew of language. We are of it. We reach for sounds, words, gestures as we reach for an itch (or so says the great French philosopher and phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Our bodies, our lives, are metabolic engines of linguistic creation and memetic repetition. Sometimes, we are inflection points, taking up words, gestures, ideas that we find and discover other possibilities in them before we send them back into the world, changed. The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, calls this repetition.

Repetition is not the same thing. If it were in fact the same thing, it would alas be the same thing, not another thing — and hence not a repetition. I know that sounds sophistic (an odd pejorative, I must admit, as I consider myself a sophist). But the movement within the argument is, precisely, movement: it introduces time into logic, change into the way of things. Repetition is an action, an event, in and of time. Repetition happens, an act of transformation within the trajectory of this or that without any transgression of an original. (I have a friend who I hope is reading this who's always confused at why I talk about repetition. This is why: it provides a logic of identity without allegiance to an original, a true. Repetition inaugurates delirium, vertigo, as the ground gives way — but maintains form.)

Repetition is, in a sense, the clinamen in an atom's trajectory (I take that from Lucretius; I highly recommend reading his "On the Nature of Things"), the swerve of difference, sending that word, gesture, idea along a different trajectory than the one it was on: a turn — not a break. It's still that word, that gesture, that idea — only it's anew, going down a different path (perhaps a mutation, perhaps an expression of DNA: does it matter?). 


Repetition is an inflection of a trajectory — clinamen, as Lucretius might say. The point here is: repetition is a novel use that doesn't break the thing but extends it in a new direction. In this case, it's the phrase, "Let's go." Now, coming from the mouth of my son and used in this way, "let's go" signifies — performs — excitement at following someone to an emotional or affective place — not just a physical place as in, Let's go home. Instead, it's: Everything you say sounds awesome! Let's do that! Let's go there! Let's go!

For example, people say let's go in such and such a way, usually using it to mean: "Let us leave here and go to that place." No doubt, it's been used sarcastically — School? Yeah, let's go there. Not. And then it was used by my son-poet-artist to mean: let's go to that place of your joy which may not, in fact, be a place at all but a mode of enjoyment. A turn, not a break. And not the same thing, quite. A repetition

Repetition is an Event

Repetition is an action, an event. Consider a classical music score, say, Sibelius' "Violin Concerto" (which I was fortunate to hear, and see, performed at San Francisco's Davies Hall). Every time it's played, it's at once the same thing and a different thing — a repetition. And this is what's essential to understand: Nothing is essential! All the versions of that Sibelius Violin Concerto aren't judged against an original or true one. Which would that even be? All there are are versions. Which doesn't mean some aren't better than others. Of course some suck and some are great and most have some good parts and some crappy parts but for our discussion that's neither here nor there. Ontological equality isn't aesthetic or moral equality. Doy.

Doy has enjoyed great longevity in my life. It was part of my vocabulary, even if rarely used, for decades and decades. Heck, I still use it. Although that might be the very first time I've used, or written, heck. Eeesh! I do love a good eeesh, too, with or without an exclamation point. What I love about doy and eesh is that they make no significant pretenses at all — they don't claim to be words signifying anything. Both doy and eesh are discrete packages of reactive affect: of astonishment at one's stupidity and cringing due to all kinds of things, respectively. 

Language is always being reinvented from the inside out — that is, not by someone outside of language but by someone in a moment doing something new with a word or phrase or construction. Language is always emerging, always morphing, at different speeds in different places and in different ways. The dialects that spin up over the interwebs happen so swiftly and behind the backs of me and most people I know. Meanwhile, my language plods along, slowly, for better and worse. 

To Cum or Come?

I like when I am confronted with a new word — which is more likely not a new word per se (a neologism) but a new use of a word, a new possibility of how that word can go. We've seen this happen to literally and random: they simply, or not so simply, mean new things today to people under 40. 

Here's a twist on a word that I've been torn on: cum or come? I can never decide. There's something compelling about cum. The hard c that is not as inhumanly hard as k, the c's curvature softer than k's angularity; then on on to that u with its guttural lack of discretion (it's visually unbound on top and phonically unbound, lacking a consonant to end its groan — uuuuuuuuu); and u is certainly not liquid  — it's no s, for instance — its body suggesting greater viscosity (s winds, slithering; u moves slower, siting contently, all bulging belly and unabashedly open for more; and then ending with an m that never really ends — or, better, ends with breath's end much as the declared yum before a bowl of steaming pho could be written, with little argument from an editor, yummmmmm. 

Come, on the other hand, seems too uptight for the task at hand (especially during this pandemic). The closure of the o stands in stark contract to cum's unbound u. And that final e serves no purpose other than to quiet the moans of the m; it doesn't even do its admittedly mystical and downright acrobatic job of elongating the o before the m. That takes some finagling! But in come, that e is nothing but a buzzkill. Comb is a better word for cum than come, minus the o that's suddenly elongated by a b of all things. Shouldn't comb be pronounced cum while come should be pronounced comb?

Anyway, I realize now my only hesitation writing cum is that it smacks of porn-speak. But so what? I am a fan of porn but, even were I not, I am a fan of dialects, of what Deleuze and Guattari call "minor languages," inhabiting one language with your own, remaking it from the inside, as the inside. And cum is a good reinvention, a good repetition, inspired. Cum it is, then!

(It's funny to me how weird public discourse is about sex in general and about pornography in particular. Should I not have written about cum? Why, exactly, is it verboten to discuss? Major search engines don't even try to autofill for you if you type a word it associates with sex acts. Type anything else into your search bar — just an accent aigu, ´ — and Google jumps to attention, eager to make suggestions! But type cum or even fellatio and it draws a blank — not because you've stymied its intelligence but because it's made a judgement. Porn, it seems, is beneath it. Yes, it gives you returns on your search (driven by profit motive, of course) but it's not lending a helping hand — not because it can't but because it chooses not to. What a douche.)

Grammar Is Anything You Can Get Away With

Those who insist on certain rules of grammar, on meanings staying the same, are great enemies of life. And they're dangerous as they drape themselves in sanctimony. The rules of grammar provide the weak a weapon to bludgeon others with (hence their oddly gleeful self-designation as Nazis!). 

Grammar, I want to suggest, is whatever you can get away with (pace Marshall McLuhan's "art is anything you can get away with").

This is not to say that there's no such thing as grammar. Of course there's grammar. Grammar is the way words go with each other to make sense — adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, punctuation, verb and pronoun inflection. But sense is multiple and always changing, as are words, so grammar is multiple and always changing, too. Grammar is not a set of rules but modes of operation for this complex, ever-morphing organism we call language. Rather than grammar being a cage of communication, let's see it — let's think it and teach it — as a mechanism of creation, of invention, of new senses, of new ways of making sense. 

Mind you, just because it's new and creative doesn't mean we have to like it. And just because something's old doesn't mean we should keep or abandon it. I return to the sophist's creed: the right thing at the right time. And that always depends, as is the way of kairos. We don't need some set of agreed-to rules. Make your own sense. 

10.13.2020

Window as Screen: On Brendan Lott's "Safer at Home"


The conceit seems simple enough. During this "shelter in place", the artist takes photographs from his window into the apartments around him. As Brendan Lott, the artist, suggests there seems to be a voyeurism here, the thrill of peeking into the private lives of others, capturing them in candid moments unaware of the camera. While there may be some ethical questions raised, the project seems at heart a humanist one: we will glimpse the individuality of people, their most private selves — and, in that way, discover our humanity amid our isolation.

Think of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and the rich tapestry that is humanity. Each window opens onto a different narrative, a different way of going. Peering past the street and into people's lives, we witness the pains and pleasures of each — those moments of individuality, all these stories and lives splayed before us. And while, for Hitchcock, violence may lurk, so do all these other modes of the human experience — love, loss, longing, despair. 


Hitchcock's film relies on a certain common architecture of seeing and self. There is what we present to the world; and then there is what goes on inside. The window, especially the rear window, allows us to catch a glimpse of what is not visible in the light of the social, on the street. Our eyes look through windows to glimpse the interior life of people, to see their individuality. Hitchcock then projects this seeing through windows onto a screen as we sit in the audience, complicit in an act of voyeurism that, despite ethical quandaries, affirms our humanity. Indeed, were we not looking, a man may have got away with murder. 

But such, alas, is not Brendan Lott's photo series, "Safer at Home." These images operate within a different architecture of seeing and self and hence presents a very different image both the image and  interiority. Which should come as no surprise. Since the days of Hitchcock, the status of the image has radically shifted as the act of imaging — the circuit of camera and screen — has become instantaneous, always-on, and ubiquitous. 

The image is no longer over there or up on the screen, in theaters, or even on TVs. The image is right here. It's everywhere. It's us. The camera is no longer a mediation of the real. We have become image (of course, Henri Bergson argues everything is image anyway as matter = image). In the age of the networked image, we are all imaging machines. The very fabric of the social and personal identity is stitched together with images — and so what it means to look, to photograph, to be inside, to be alone have all shifted since the days of Hitchcock's cinema.

For instance, I first encountered these images by Mr. Lott in my Instagram feed alongside pictures of my friends' kids, my own kid, friends hiking, clips from Godard films, pictures of Bob Dylan, images from the Tate, ads for mattresses and air filters, pictures of my cocktails and plants, friends on vacation, promotions for podcasts. It's all one feed, one screen — ads, the personal, "art" living side by side. There is no special place for the image, no special act of photography. We take, consume, and distribute images at the same time and on the same device. This is not Hitchcock's world in which the camera might capture a glimpse of interiority and then project it later; this is the world of the networked image in which there is no interiority per se. There is only projection.

A quick survey of Mr. Lott's images tells us much. The apartments are near barren, their windows revealing not individual idiosyncrasy but uniformly vacuous lives. It's unsettling, like the opening shots of a dystopian film. This is not the baroque view Hitchcock gives us of so many lives brimming, dripping out the windows of their isolation if only we'd look. No, what we see here are lives evacuated of their particularity — bare floors, white bedding, the ubiquitous plants in their inevitably white pots, their verdant vitality mocking us.

And no faces. If Hitchcock offers us as look into the faces of humanity, including its horror, Mr. Lott gives us something else entirely: the horror of the faceless. This is a literal claim: in Mr. Lott's photos, we only ever see a chin, a side of a face or, more often, just a headless body, the face obscured by this or that. And it's a metaphoric claim: if the face is the site of our individuality, these faceless bodies articulate the evacuation of individuality in the age of the network.

Networks are strange things. While they have the ability to decentralize certain flows, such as how the internet distributes information, networks have this seemingly paradoxical effect of breeding homogeneity. This is what we call the network effect: rather than the proliferation of identities and the rise of idiosyncrasy, we get the opposite — mass movements towards fewer and fewer nodes, fewer and fewer possibilities. To wit, look at the explosive rise of monopolies such as Facebook (which includes Instagram, the home of these images for now), Amazon, and LinkedIn. 

This same network effect that leads to monopolies in business leads to homogeneity of identity. In the pre-networked world, we were isolated and so were inevitably weird. Identities had no choice but to follow their own trajectories as there were minimal external coercive forces. Sure, a king or priest might give you a hard time if you were too weird— if and when you crossed paths. But there were no media pervading the home and hence not many external forces shaping our very identities. Guy Debord calls this the Spectacle. Today, not only does this Spectacle of mass media enter our homes, we actively project ourselves into the Spectacle, into this network of images and identities. And, as is the way of networks, rather than our individuality becoming amplified, we tend towards commonality. And so, as with businesses, we become more homogenous as we gravitate to a few network nodes. The nuance of life is effaced.

Look at how many of Lott's pictures involve people looking at their phones or recording themselves with the ubiquitous ring light. When we peek inside these windows, we don't see the interiority of a life. We witness the projection of a life — a life that looks like every other life. These images are a far cry from the baroque humanity of "Rear Window."

Covid and the lockdown accentuated this evacuation of interiority. Suddenly, solitude became the defining term of the social. That is, rather than our homes being a respite from social coercion, a place to be free and weird, our homes became the mandated site of social existence. Our solitude became synonymous with social participation. Which is the very condition of social media and the networked image! Just as the network turns us inside out, always already projecting ourselves, lockdown transformed our refuge from the Spectacle into the very Spectacle itself. There is no longer an inside; everything is outside.

Writing about this series, Mr. Lott tells us "[t]he subjects don't know they are being looked at. The only way to get this level of unselfconscious intimacy is through secrecy." But the subjects do know they're being looked at! In fact, they are projecting themselves into the network to ensure they're being looked at. 

Despite what Mr. Lott writes, these photographs are not in fact voyeuristic as there is no voyeurism anymore. We are all on display, already a circulating image. Mr. Lott harkens to a pre-network age in which there was such a thing as photography in which the camera mediated the real, such a thing as seeing inside, such a thing as a secret. But, in this series, he is not peering into windows and nor are we. We are all looking at screens.

Mr. Lott entitles his series, "Safer at Home," a sardonic, almost macabre title. What we learn from seeing these images is that there is no longer any safety at home for we are all evacuated, turned inside out, atomized within the network, all these isolated nodes gravitating towards the same center. The line that would separate a screen from a window has been erased. We no longer peer through windows; we view screens.

And rather than this exiling our loneliness by enmeshing our most private selves in the very fabric of the social, the effect is quite to the contrary. The loneliness in these images is palpable, is devastating. 



9.28.2020

The Erotic is the Universe Touching Itself


The erotic is not univocal. Sure, as a category it delineates a certain kind of experience — the erotic speaks to us via our sexuality, through different modes of physical arousal which, of course, is never just physical as we will never have been just a body. (Of course, being just a body is itself a trajectory, a resonance, within the erotic: to be free of the ego and its narratives of selfhood — I am such and such a person, dammit! — and be driven by sexual thirst alone. Ahem.) Eroticism is not only what happens in there or when you're feeling that — and even what happens in there and the feeling of that are wildly varied, even within an individual

The erotic is a mode of relation that pervades our behaviors, attitudes, assumptions to greater and lesser degrees all the time. For instance, my feelings for Deleuze are erotic. They are not solely erotic. And I don't usually masturbate to Deleuze — although I have been known to discuss Deleuze as foreplay (yes, I am single for obvious reasons). And then there's how I wrote my dissertation, especially my chapters on Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze. But I'm not ready to share that with the world quite yet. In any case, I most certainly feel an attraction to Deleuze's ideas and books and writing that is palpable, physical, that gets me all excited and tingly, my cheeks flushed, my heart aflutter. I definitely rub myself against A Thousand Plateaus — and don't get me started on The Fold. (Not surprisingly, my erotic relationship with Deleuze is different than with Deleuze and Guattari.)

Consider your life for a moment: Why these friends? This set of beliefs? These films, books, magazines, artists, tchotchkes, hobbies?  We are seduced by them. In as much as we are drawn to other bodies — people but also art, films, ideas, food, places, plants, animals — we are run through with the way of the erotic.

The erotic, then, is not the sexual. I may watch a pornographic movie but not feel drawn to it at all. In fact, this is usually the case. It's clear that the image is sexual. Just look at it! And it might have millions of views on PornHub with an equal number of thumbs up. But, for me, it's not erotic — and not just for me: for every PornHub video, there are inevitably thumbs down and exponentially more for whom it never showed up on their radar. It may even be an image of something I find intensely erotic in the abstract. And yet there's something about that image that doesn't draw me. I gloss over it as I gloss over most things in this life — as so much noise in my periphery.

The video, however, remains sexual. "Sexual" is a designation of fact — even if one contests the factuality of this or that image being sexual. "Sexual" is a matter of fact, a declarative claim about the thing. The erotic, however, is a state of a body — of my body. The erotic is a relation — a very particular kind of relation. The sexual may or not be erotic to me or you just as the image of the erotic may not be sexual.

For instance, I may see an image that is not sexual per se — let's say a photograph of someone I don't even know, perhaps a friend of a friend, just sitting on a bench with just such a light, just such a smile, just such a posture — and feel undeniably, unabashedly drawn to it. I may swoon; become a bit flushed; see it in my head for hours, days, weeks. I may become beside myself, as they say (what an expression!).

Note that I say "it" as I don't know if I'm drawn to the person or not. What's pulling me is the image much as a magnet pulls; the person and the image are different materials so of course they have different pulls. Which should not be surprising as the stuff of an image and the stuff of a person are different stuffs even if they share certain traits — which tells us something about images as well as eroticism. The erotic is a form of magnetism, a pull between bodies at a molecular level, and hence is a material relation, even if the bodies are invisible (such as an idea, memory, or feeling). 

Take writing which, for me at least, is intensely erotic yet is not sexual per se. To write is to go with other bodies, with ideas and words and structures; it's to manipulate them, play with them, have them wash over me as I return the favor and, together, we go through a series of postures and positions at once physical, conceptual, and affective. In many ways, writing is the assumption of positions between and among bodies of various sorts — words, ideas, affects, grammars, people. 

Writing is always an orgy. It's why I'm so obsessed with prepositions. For anyone who regularly reads my writing, they'll notice that I often say things such as, "a posture is a way of standing in, towards, and with the world." For what are prepositions other than who goes where in the orgy of argument?

To inscribe, even with pixels, is to caress and be caressed by others — including you, dear reader. Yes: reading is most certainly of the erotic as words, images, figures, ideas penetrate us in a rhythm that moves us, gets us worked up, excited, energized. I haven't listened to a book on tape yet but I can only imagine the erotic potential — to have a world whispered in your ear!

What is persuasive writing other than seduction? It need not be the only mode or even dominant mode. I mean, just pick up Kant: he may be flirting but it's not going so well (which, as Nietzsche maintains, tells us lots about the culture that is in fact seduced by that mode of going). Yet he's building an entire world in and with you — and that can't help but partake of the erotic just as it can't help but partake of culinary appetite. We consume and are consumed; such is communication; such is perception; such is participation in the social; such is life. And while not all modes of consumption are erotic, the erotic is never far off as we're always necessarily taking it all in with our eyes, skin, nose, ears, minds, selves. We live in the push and pull of the world. 

And that is where we find the erotic: in the in-between. The erotic relation necessarily ruptures your boundaries, your containment. It is a mode of becoming undone and done in the same gesture. 

Mind you, I'm not saying that all beckoning of the world is erotic. We have other drives and draws. We run from fear. We scream in anger. We twitch in annoyance. In all of these cases, the world has moved us a certain way, drawn us in, stirred us. 

Such experiences — fear, anger, annoyance, the erotic — may seem pretty common but the fact is most of the world passes us by with no push or pull at all. Most things just don't affect us, speak to us, whisper our names. Most of the time, most of the world passes us by with nary a thought. To be angry about something means that thing, of all the things, got up in your business, as the kids say. 

When something irritates us, angers us, frustrates us, annoys us, it's entered a rarified space, distinguishing itself from the wash of sensations that defines our experience nearly all of the time. Something about that thing draws me in even if only to anger or annoy me. How odd is that? I mean, it makes sense that something draws me in with an erotic seduction. But how is it that something pops from the fray, lures me into its orbit, expends my energy only to anger me? What is it about that relationship between me and it? Why do some things affect us so thoroughly, for good and bad, while others drift by as if they'd never existed?

Nietzsche argues that these relationships are constitutive of who we fundamentally are. We are, in some very real sense, the things that affect us. We are defined by the things to which we are receptive — and by our reactions to those things, the terms of that affective exchange. We know people who are drawn, say, to the misery of the world — they call to discuss it, linger on it, seek it out. Such is how they're constituted, the workings of the mechanisms that are their way of going in the world. We are the selection, speed, and rhythm of being affected. 

What is is that defines the push and pull of the erotic, that distinguishes it from, say, anger and annoyance? (Before some of you leap out of your seats, I am not saying that anger and the erotic are mutually exclusive; we all know they are often intimately intertwined.) What is this tug that we call the erotic? What does one magnet say to another to entice, or repulse, so decidedly? 

The tug of the erotic is a matter of harmonic resonance: that image — it's all images, if we believe Bergson, and I do — vibrates at the frequency of me. As such, the erotic is an event, not a quality per se. The erotic happens. It is always an event of exchange or, rather, of harmonic resonance as the way of disparate bodies become a common chorus. That curve of back, that turn of thought, that flitter of hair, language, gesture: they pull me out of myself to forge a collective resonance. 

The erotic, then, is never univocal. By definition, it is a nuptial, a meeting, a convergence of modes. And is radically material, even if invisible (such things as style and affect are invisible but embodied components of an erotic draw). There is no erotic distinct from particular bodies interacting. The erotic event — which is redundant as it's always an event — is particular, a localized happening between and of these bodies here. There is no erotic generality — no idea, no concept, no universal trait we can all erotic. The erotic necessarily happens between particular bodies in time, in place, of circumstance. 

The erotic is an operation of the universe. Just as we can see that bodies of a certain speed and weight circle other bodies with some regularity — we call these orbits which are part of solar and galactic systems of attraction — all bodies are drawn to other bodies with greater or lesser intensity. On a planetary level, we have all sorts of names for these forces such as, well, gravity. But there are multitudes of such forces that put bodies in relation to other bodies — and forces that draw bodies together with such vim. The erotic is one such force, a sub-set of magnetism. 

As Bataille argues, the erotic is hence always an undoing of stipulated border of bodies and identities. This erotic event is not in a body; you can't touch it, hold it, even know it. It is an experience that happens despite you. It is of your body — a matter of possession by forces that exceed you. Just as magnet has no say in it being pushed or pulled, so it is with all bodies: we are drawn and repulsed despite our identities, self, narratives, despite propriety — and even despite desire.

There is, as Bataille likes to say, a violence within the erotic. You're leading your little life with spouse and kid and job and such and then, bang, you stumble into the erotic. It is a force, an event, that doesn't care for your situation. It happens and tears apart anything and everything you might imagine as your self, your life, your values, your truths, your ethics. This doesn't mean you have to act on it. You are still ethically and legally liable for our actions. But the erotic doesn't care about any of that. It's happening regardless of your will, your desire, your life.  

And it's putting you into a pre-ego flow. The erotic affirms your existence by dissipating your identity. This is why people work so hard to parry eroticism, to duck its pull: the erotic is an undoing of your social, existential scaffolds. 

But that is precisely the power, and luxury, of the erotic. You are liberated from decision making — of deciding whether to swipe left or right, to propose or not. And liberated from the tyranny of the self. The erotic is a force — not from on high so you can parry it but it is of you and your way of going in the world. The erotic is your participation in the world in a way that belies your best intentions, your social standing, and your very self. It happens as a the very conditions of your being alive, being this body, being here and now — as a Dionysian body. To find oneself within the pull of the erotic is to participate in the mechanics of the universe itself. 

No doubt, the how and why of your experience of the erotic is complex. We can turn to psychoanalysis, the Situationists, to Deleuze and Guattari in order to better grasp the systems that manufacture desire. But this doesn't matter to the erotic; it's indifferent to your ideology, your false consciousness, your indoctrination. The erotic speaks to your participation in the cosmic body in a way that is indifferent to your explanations. Which is not to say you shouldn't question or explore these explanations. It's to say the erotic happens despite all that.

The erotic is the very act of the universe arranging which bodies go with which. It's beautiful, if unsettling, to experience the universe organizing itself, caressing itself. O, to experience that pull, that draw of the world! To know — to feel — you are part of cosmic becoming! When you feel that tug of the erotic, when you experience that resonance that makes and unmakes you in the same gesture, that is the universe touching itself.

9.14.2020

On the Terrible Tryanny of School


This picture is horrific to me and says so much about school: line them up! Make them sit, like little prisoners, while we harass and harangue them with some state mandated syllabi created by morons in a room far from here.


I have to be honest, when I think about tyranny I rarely think about the state. This is due, in part, to the relative luxury I enjoy being middle class and white. When I see cops, I rarely assume they'll stop and frisk, harass, or shoot me. Indeed, my relationship to the tyranny of the state is rarely so immediate. But this doesn't mean the state isn't tyrannical; it means it's masked itself as simply what we do.

I like to say that the first time I felt the strong arm of the state was when I was applying to college. Ronald Reagan was president and he'd instituted mandatory registration for the draft. The punishment for failing to do so was relatively mild but had a significant effect on me — a refusal of federal student loans. So, with great hesitation, I marched myself into the local post office and registered for said draft, writing a large "CO" in yellow highlighter over the form and, in the white space at the bottom, wrote what I'd learned I should write to build my case for being a conscientious objector: I object to all wars in any form.

But this story leaves out a more explicit coercion of my body by the state: I went to school. Every day. Very early in the morning — like, absurdly early in the morning. I left school out as an example of state tyranny as it never even occurred to me that this was the state forcing me to do things. It never occurred to me not to go to school. And that's because, unlike war, school was situated in another form of tyranny — a much more powerful, more insidious form: the discourse of my home. What we valued at home coincided, in the case of school, with the state's mandate.

Now, the state demanded I attend school for such and such a time — you had to attend until 16 in New York; but it's 18 in California — more on that in a moment. Unlike many laws that are enforced haphazardly — for instance, pot was illegal my whole childhood and yet was readily available — the law stipulating we go to school is indeed enforced. In fact, the present vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic party, a former Attorney General of California, sought to rigorously enforce these laws, threatening to jail parents whose kids were truant. The law demanding we attend school is not one easily parried or ignored without serious repercussions.

Which, you have to admit, is kind of odd: why is the state so adamant about where our children spend their days? The problem with protesting it is it sounds like I don't care about children. All I can hear is the "Simpsons," "Won't somebody please think of the children?" I do care about my child; I just can't figure out why the state cares so much — and thinks it knows better than I do what's good for my son (and better than he, at 16, knows. Sixteen! And he's forced into these re-education camps every day! It's insane).

And yet, when it came to school, it wasn't just the state coercing me. It was my family. School mattered in my house. Every night at dinner, we talked about school. I never questioned this. But I was aware that, in elementary and middle school, my indifference to academics was frowned on around my dining room table. To this day, they tell the story of how all I wanted to talk about was gym — and isn't that hilarious? Whereas the state only demanded I attend in body, my family demanded I attend with all of myself. Now that is powerful power!

As a parent myself, though, this has changed. Unlike my parents, I have a wide definition of what might be called education but see almost none of it reflected in these schools. So I don't feel my son should spend his days dealing with the ingrained idiocy and ideology of schooling.

My son is bright in so many ways. But, for the most part, none of those ways are the subject of his so-called education. This is of no matter to his schools or the state. He must attend — or we face the intrusion of the most horrible state institution, social services. Our decision not to send our son to school so he can learn and do different kinds of things — that is, be a human being — could be construed as negligent parenting, punishable by jail and worse.

And, in California, no one under 18 can legally work without having passed some state exam proving you've mastered their curricula. This is true madness to me: to deny his right to earn money without giving money in turn is downright egregious. If my son is legally not allowed to work — and I'm not taking about child labor laws; my son is 16 — then the state should be providing the income that he could be generating. The fact that this is never mentioned, never an issue, never on a ballot, never part of any politician's platform tells you everything: it is simply the norm. And nothing is more powerful that entering the status of the norm.

As parents, we have no choice in the matter. Sure, resources allowing, we can send my son to private school or, the better option, home school. But both private school and home schooling are still under the yoke of the state's force and, worse, its vehement stupidity — those darned mandated syllabi that demands my son regurgitate various forms of math equations.

Now, perhaps that doesn't sound so tyrannical. But I sometimes think of it from my son's perspective: his body and time is fundamentally controlled by the state for an alarming percentage of his life. And not only is he not learning a thing from their syllabi, he's made to feel bad about himself as the core of these curricula are reading and math, the two things his dyslexic, dyscalculiac self sucks at. And there's nothing he can do about it. The state is fucking up my kid and both he and I are helpless to do anything about it. It's infuriating.

These, then, are the lessons I try to teach my son about school. School, especially in California, is the tyranny of morons backed by a police state apparatus. Know that. And then figure out how to make your way through it without making your life worse — how to do minimal work but make it seem like you're trying; when to fake being sick so you're liberated at least for a bit; how to turn assignments into something that serves your own interests such as learning new software or starting a business. This, I tell him, is the only lesson from school: learning to operate in a system run through with idiocy and enforced by morons with real power over you.

9.13.2020

Standing before My Bookshelves & Bathing in the Delirium of Duration, Memory, & Sense Making


My new well appointed home library. Please note: I am not a bibliophile. I am not "proud" of my books; they are not signs of how learned I am or what I've accomplished. Frankly, I'd just as soon not have any — were I not me. No, these books on shelves are intensely private, my memory externalized and splayed there before me. At times, these shelves repulse me, like seeing my own entrails. Other times — and usually — they delight me, this undulating of my own becoming glittering and glimmering, all this sense making, with and without me.


I was forced to move a month ago. Such is the casual cruelty of a housing market. In my latest pad, I have lots of room. So much, in fact, that I am able to dedicate an entire room — albeit a very small room — to my books. I even added a comfy chair, ottoman, reading lamp (with a bulb whose color I can change), and small table for my cocktail and such.

Anyway, I found myself sitting in that chair just gazing at my books, my eyes scanning the spines, reading both individual titles and taking in the gestalt — a gestalt that remains radically particular to these books and me (gestalt is always the particularity of a generality, isn't it?). And I was struck, nearly knocked over, by the complexity, volume, and variety of what I was taking in — the sheer volume, yes, but that coupled with the velocity of commingling, of relationships between and among all those ideas, people, phrases, feelings, images all conjoining, colliding, cruising by, forging networks and associations of every sort and all through time, all these narratives of my becoming, of their becoming, of my trajectory, my present, all these narratives of them and me at once possible, mythical, actual, and always multiple —  a body without organs, a Matthew Ritchie painting.

 

Matthew Ritchie illustrates my experience of standing before my bookshelves — an experience which borders on chaos but is defined by a complex act of remembering and making sense. In fact, the experience marks the juncture of memory and intellect, the point at which you can't separate the two.
 

As my eyes followed the line of books, each one stood up as a thing, an object that's been in my world, inflecting it just so. I was inundated with fragments of images — how I carried it around (or didn't); where it laid its head, Husserl's "Ideas" suddenly in my back pocket (I selected it for its size), on a bar, on a desk in that studio on 22nd St. All these things crisscrossed with memories of places, feelings, people, experiences, each book a metonymy, a point continuous with other points, with a life rife with romance, ideas, bodies, things — where I was living, who I was dating, what I was drinking, what I was doing and feeling. This is of course the way of all things — books are not special in that way: they are not just reminders. They are our memory externalized, right there. (A metonymy is something that is continuous with a thing or event. In films, we see someone raise a knife and in the next shot, we see blood dripping down the wall: that blood is a metonymy, continuous with, and constitutive of, the murder via knife. Should you care, synecdoche is a part that stands in for a whole — as in "I have 50 head of cattle"; metaphor bridges distinct trajectories — rather than seeing blood after seeing the knife, the film cuts to lightning.)

But books are not like other things. For example, we put them all together on shelves so we can see them all at once. The fact is I don't have many things in general — and certainly not that I line up like this. I have a good bar, it's true, where my booze beckons; I do like to sit in front of it, too, as I consider my appetite and the possibilities for an evening. Other than my booze, though, I have a few sweatshirts that hang on some hooks; shirts on hangers I rarely notice; several works of art hung here and there; and a few knickknacks from my son scattered around the house. Books on a shelf stand out in our lives, creating this intense condensation of things and memories and more, this panoply of associations and thoughts splayed before us. I imagine that this is what some people, famously some women, must feel when they scan their closet of clothes — I've seen it in movies! — all these memories along with all these inflections of themselves, all these possibilities for the day, for the night, for life. (Books and clothes are in fact similar in the way they inhabit us as we inhabit them.) Bookshelves, like closets, are dizzying. 

Just perusing the spines, I was enthralled. Delirium lurked as this undulating, near-chaotic flow of images, ideas, and sensations poured over me. But there was this other force, this other event, happening at the same — I was sorting, connecting, making myriad connections at infinite speed, this juncture of memory and intelligence. Standing in front of my bookshelves, I experienced these two registers at once: a torrent of images and affect alongside the event of sense making. O, it's humbling to  experience the speed and prodigy of sense making that carries on elaborate operations without my control. Standing there, I remember and process — I make sense of all this data, both visible and invisible, past and present — just as I breathe. 

So many layers, speeds, and trajectories. So many arguments being made, unmade, remade. Multiple senses being forged, new and old, coherent and not — some with me, most without me. To stand there before these shelves is to be taken up by these forces and events — and, I have to say, it feels downright decadent. What a luxury, what a treat, to let all this play over me without purpose, without telos: to just  bathe in the teem.

This experience is not just memories but memory itself. That is to say, these are not just recollections; this is memory. Memory is not a repository; it's an organizing and processing of events, ideas, feelings, bodies, a mode of making relations of varied durations. Memory is not in the past per se; in fact, memory is necessarily in the present. How else could you remember? Memory is the duration of things from the past, those events still happening now. If they stopped, you wouldn't remember. Memory is the present experience of the duration of past events.

Meanwhile, the books carry on without me, indifferent to my memory, creating their own connections — Nietzsche talking to Socrates, of course, but also to Lispector, Houllebecq, Badiou, Hunter Thompson, Bruno Schulz, Frank O'Hara. Can you imagine what Ginsberg and Kant are saying to each other? Books speak with other books in all sorts of ways — through figures and phrases, ideas and notions, moods and affect. If I were not standing in front of these books, they'd still make all kinds of sense. Books always talk to each other out of earshot, enjoying conversations we can't imagine, in registers equally obtuse. (This is another way clothes and books are related, just as my books actively forge connections among themselves regardless of me, clothes in a closet don any number of ensembles to one's liking or not.)

Standing there, I become another conduit within the mix, another text with its own connective, textural, textual tissues. Some connections flow through me as I become their conduit, Nietzsche meeting Burroughs at the party that is my experience, metabolism, and sense making. My particular way of going opens up channels, flows that might not have existed without me. I am an inflection point as these connections use my flesh as their meeting ground, my neurons their stepping stones, their meeting place for mutual exploration. I am surely not the one in control here, even as I process and sense make at infinite speed — sorting, combining, connecting, rejecting.

Needless to say, books on their own — not even assembled on shelves — are odd creatures, unlike other things. Sure, they're things in as much as they're material we touch and feel. But they exist, mostly, to deliver something other than themselves — ideas, sensations, figures, styles. Which is one reason one's own books are so strange: their invisible offerings are made flesh. I know Gadamer's "Truth and Method" not just as set of ideas, not just as a style of thinking and writing, but as this particular book — this edition, sure, but this actual book with my scribbles, stains, tears. This makes my own bookshelves fundamentally different from a bookstore. 

Of course, if I lose this book, I don't lose Gadamer's ideas. Books, then, operate in multiple registers — like Jesus, books are body and soul: when their body goes, their soul persists. Each book is an object and a set of ideas, a juncture of flesh and concept, and hence enjoys different, even disjunctive, temporalities — as a thing, the book is mortal; as ideas (and styles, moods, notions), it is immortal. Books flourish in multiple registers at once. They're these dusty, more or less beautiful objects, run through with associations, soy sauce, and sweat. And, in the same breath, they fall away leaving so much in their wake — perspectives, styles, modes, moods, notions, figures, ideas, gestures. A book is a bound infinity that undulates in multiple registers that may or may not intersect each other.  

Now add the particularity of my books, these books here, and we introduce even greater temporal and affective complexity. I have associations with that particular edition of Husserl's "Ideas" that are embodied — my body, that book, these places, these situations. And while Husserl's ideas may not be fundamentally tethered to these bodies, I nonetheless do have an embodied relationship to those ideas. That is to say, my reckoning of Husserl as a 28 year old in San Francisco is a memory that simultaneously intersects and diverges from my embodied experience of this particular book's thingness. While a book's ideas may be immortal, my experience of those ideas enjoy a particular duration, entwined and embodied by me.

So when I remember Husserl's book here and there and who I was dating and what I was drinking, I also have memories of my understanding of Husserl's ideas. And this memory mixes with those other memories but also mingles in another register, constantly interacting with my embodied experience of other ideas throughout my life. I may remember thinking Husserl was saying such and such — how I came to believe that, how that understanding of that idea mingled with all the other ideas I had from other books — even as my understanding of Husserl changes. 

Now, if I were writing an academic essay, that memory of an understanding of Husserl may be more or less irrelevant. But standing in front of my bookshelf, those memories are all fluttering about. There are all these memories, these durations of things and versions of myself coming to all these different ideas, all happening at the same time at different speeds. As I stood there, I suddenly understood — which is to say, I experienced — the juncture of memory and intelligence, memory as sense making and sense making as memory, a chiasm among diverse eddies and spirals.

What an utterly odd, uncanny, and exhilarating experience it is to sit before these bookshelves, this stirring flood of flesh and feeling, of ideas and notions, the speeds and intensities of time as turns of phrase and interpretive techniques and ways of going flow through these versions of me in different registers and rhythms at once — all while the books themselves perform pirouettes of sense in my periphery. The effect is peculiar, beautiful, unsettling in the best way. Standing there, I am an active node within a vast network of networks, this precise juncture of memory and intellect, of recollection and sense making to which I am privy and not, where I am as much thinker as thought. To stand before my books is to stand with my very becoming as it vibrates with the becoming of the world — and it is sumptuous, vertiginous, delirious.

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