Making Sense of the Invisible

I bandy about this word, affect, and I know in doing so I am being at once cryptic, imprecise, vague, and perhaps misleading. But such is the way of affect — it resists ready categorization, ready made words, ready definition. That, however, is a cop out so let me say some things about affect.

We might say affect is emotion — sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety, fear. And there is no doubt that those are affective states. But they are also so subject oriented, so bound up with the individual's psychological state. And what I am talking about exceeds the subject but perhaps streams through the subject as sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety, fear.

I want to use this word affect — perhaps erroneously — to designate the wealth and breadth of invisible states, invisible durations, invisible shapes that inflect our lives all the time at infinite touchpoints. The invisible cloaks things, permeates things. And this invisibility is not neutral or blank: it is shaped, it goes like this or like that. It is affective.

From whence these affects? Well, from things, from themselves. Along with rocks and gas and water, they make up the cosmos. They may be independent streams that wind and whip and eddy. They take up things and things take them up — they coagulate in places, inflect objects, make people's hearts go pitter patter. This is what the world is made of: matter visible and invisible, things and affects and all the ways they interact.

This is why you may find yourself walking down a street thinking, "Man, this block feels weird." Or why you sit in one area of the cafe rather than another. It's why you are attracted to this thing, that person, that place. It's why, as the weather changes, you feel giddy, reclusive, pensive, melancholy. The atmosphere is atmospheric. This is why weather is the most interesting subject in the world. And why the idea of seasonal affective disorder is at once perfect and absurd: we all have seasonal affective (dis)order, necessarily.

Affect streams through you; it goes to other affective trajectories, carrying you along for the ride. This is not say you are mere vehicle. You are a productive cog within the affective flow; you are a productive cog within the flow of the universe (even if you're a vampire, sucking life from the world). You are a singular inflection point within the whirl and teem.


What are you an agent for?

The human being — its body but also its operations — is a host for nonhuman becomings: we are all run through with moments of this and that, river and sun, storm and tree, rock and cloud. We are run through with affective trajectories, invisible but palpable forces that crisscross and constitute the world.

We are, each of us, nodes within this symphony of the cosmos, turning with its relentless, infinitely variegated rhythms — planets and suns and rocks all twirling in and around each other, attracting each other, repelling each other, colliding with each other. And then, on a smaller scale, on a more local scale, here we are: people and machines and cars and noises and smells and coffee cups twirling in and around each other, attracting each other, repelling each other, colliding with each other.

The global turning and the local turning are, of course, one cosmic turning.

The human host — its physical constitution, its intelligence — has its potential and limits. Each host has its own potential and limits. But there are various ways that a specific human host can operate in the grand cosmic machinery; each host can operate in — tolerate — any number of constellation of forces.

The question for each of us — the question of the human — is this: What cosmic forces run through your machine? How do you inflect them? How might you use this same machinery to operate with a different calculus of cosmic forces?

It is not our job to resist the forces of inhumanity. Inhumanity pervades us, and this is good and necessary. The question is: Which inhuman forces does your machinery accommodate?

In other words, who do you work for? What are you an agent for? What forces do you impel, propel, sustain? What world do you create?


On Life, Style, Buddhism, and the Peculiarities of Western Philosophy

Back when I was teaching, in every class I ever taught, there was always one student who would raise his hand or approach me after a lecture and say, "That's like Buddhism."

Now, I wonder if this is a distinctly California phenomenon. Somehow, I can't imagine the same thing happening at U Penn. But perhaps times have changed and Buddhism — or some version of Buddhism — has penetrated the American vocabulary, its psyche, its sense of its self.

The ideas that define and shape my thinking may share certain notions with Buddhism — a critique of the ego, the collapse of a subject/object dichotomy, a sense of participating in life rather than standing at a critical remove. No doubt, there are more commonalities.

And yet an enormous abyss yawns between Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque and the writings of Chuang Tzu. One experiences that difference immediately and palpably in their respective styles: while both are somewhat cryptic, one is exacting, dense, conceptual; the other is poetic and light.

This difference — what we can call their style — is not irrelevant. On the contrary, it is precisely what matters. Style is thought rendered as a life, as a way of going in this world. It is a posture and predilection, a mode, an operation: a living through.

I think it is safe to say that more people can reference some Buddhist notion — perhaps erroneously — than can reference Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida, Bergson, or Deleuze. The density — and, often, the absurdly pedantic prose — of Western philosophy is prohibitive. Buddhist writings, on the other hand, while complex and at times cryptic have a certain accessibility.

And this accessibility has to do with that fact that Buddhism concerns itself with how to live, how to operate in this world. Kant or Hegel, on the other hand, read like aliens: it's hard to imagine what these impossibly complex texts have to do with living life.

And, no doubt, this is a valid critique of Western philosophy: it is "academic." And yet....

And yet this conceptual approach to life is still an approach to life. And I, for one, happen to enjoy concepts. I happen to enjoy the elaborate, bizarre, beautiful conceptual structures of Kant and the careful, considered density of Deleuze. And this enjoyment is a life, is a posture, is a style. This is how I roll, and I dig it.

This is to say that I read all texts — Bergson or Buddha — as modes of living. Of course, the fact that I read this way — that I read philosophers for their style as much as for their ideas — places me outside of the academic community. And as I am not part of the academic community, I could care less. But my point is this: just because the academic approach to Western philosophy doesn't understand or concern itself with concept as style, as life, doesn't mean we need to critique Western philosophy for missing life.

Rather, it obliges us to find the life in Hegel and Kant and Derrida and Foucault. Perhaps we find that life distasteful. I, for one, have found Heidegger unpalatable. And Hegel, well, I could never digest dialectics. And, jeez, Kant is so hilariously uptight and reasonable that he's gloriously insane. I, for one, love that delirium — even if I am not a Kantian disciple.

I am a thinker. Such is my being. Such is my becoming. And so I roll with those who think aggressively, beautifully, thoroughly, baroquely: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, Foucault, Burroughs. This is my style. This is my life. Not the serenity or peace of Zen; not the quiet, cryptic piety of Buddhism; but the intellectual beauty — and at times crankiness and pedantry — of my Western cohorts.

This is not a critique or negation of Buddhism. It is an affirmation of me. Peace.


Taste as Category, or Make What I Like Its Own Thing

I had a fantastic time today at this impeccable purveyor of spirits: Cask, it calls itself. I bought four bottles of booze, each its own species: a rye, a scotch, a tequila, a gin.

But as I discussed each item with one or two of the shop keepers, it became obvious that I wanted the same experience, in a sense, from each: clean, heady, dry, spicy, complex. I used identical words to describe what I wanted but I used different differentiators to make clear what I did not want: no caramel in the rye, little peat in the scotch, not too floral in the gin, no dirt in my repasado.

What I was doing was creating a horizontal species — not a genus of any one species of booze but a palate, a flavor profile, that runs across the different verticals.

Music and film, of course, use this horizontal mood mapping: if you like this music, you'll like this other music that's dark, drone, and contemplative.

But even in those realms, especially in music, the mapping tends to stay within its vertical — if you like The Smiths, you might like The Cure. Of course you might.

What's more complex is making the jump to a different vertical. People do this all the time. It's called their taste. Algorithms have more trouble.

Taste is a predilection that can become a piece of code, a meme. It is an operation, a metabolism, that can become separated from the body that tastes (albeit it in a different form, necessarily).

A vertical category enjoys a certain kind of code, less operational than material: a bourbon uses corn, rye; tequila, agave; gin, fuck if I know. But within each vertical, within each prescription, there is necessarily a horizontal trajectory, a mode of putting those things together.

And this horizontal trajectory transcends the material — it is the operation, the invisible action, of putting things together.

These tastes, these metabolic styles, can become categories. But because we live in a vertical culture, we tend towards vertical categories. Horizontal categories are left to fashion and the arts (curation) but even more to the individual.

As de Certeau argues in The Practice of Everyday Life, the individual is not just a distinctive node, but a productive node within the strategies of power and capital. But he doesn't focus on the kinds of species such nodes can produce and what such a knowledge might look like.


Love, Strength, and Negotiating the Affective Flux

The question — or a question, as the case may be — is how to negotiate the endless affective flux, this relentless flow of moods and energies coming at us from everywhere all at once?

There was a time, many years ago, when I was practicing my very own kind of qigong, courtesy of my good friend. We'd spend hours moving energy up and down our bellies; then making these vast spheres of energy in our hands. We could make the flesh on our hands move by moving the other hand across it, no flesh touching: a palpation with qi. I shit you not.

But it also made us incredibly vulnerable to the grotesque qi that pervades the streets of any city, especially fetid San Francisco. I'd walk down the street and I'd be overwhelmed by the ill qi coming from this or that person.

I lacked the power — and the discipline — to negotiate this qi, to parry, absorb, defer, or placate it. And so I avoided exposure as best I could.

But that was weakness. I was fucking around with powerful forces and this made me poorly equipped to handle the world, to negotiate the affective universe — which is the universe. So, soon, I abandoned it, opting for the affective blindness of this American life.

What, then, is the way to negotiate this affective resonance? What happens when you find yourself confronted with ill formed qi, with an encounter that is foul, sour, sick, malformed?

No doubt, it is often best to avoid it, retreat, duck and cover. This is the safest way for the weak, and I am weak.

But, suddenly, I have a glimpse of what Christians mean by love — an infinite forgiveness of all the ill formed qi that comes your way: the cranky spouse, the acting out child, the cruel boss, the confused lover, the demented, neurotic, sick and plain old stupid and mean. We've all encountered these moments; we've all been these moments ourselves — cruel, stupid, anxious, cranky.

Love would be the posture that would never confront such ill qi on its terms but would at once parry and placate, absorb and return with positive qi, with beautiful energy, an infinite generosity.

But such love involves a fortitude that I cannot fathom. Like Kierkegaard's Johannes de Silentio in Fear and Trembling who cannot grasp the faith of Abraham, the faith of silently and without a hint of anxiety, sacrificing his only son, I am confounded by the demands of love. It exceeds me.

I've been rereading Castaneda. And I think don Juan knows such strength and the love it allows. Why else would he tolerate Carlos who's an imbecile? And Jesus, perhaps, knows such strength. But Carlos does not and nor do Jesus' followers. We slip into judgment so readily and love does not judge.

Now, I don't think love means never judging. Judgment is implicit in any gesture towards change, towards trying to shift someone else's state, someone else's qi. Love is not all smiles — Jesus could be a harsh bitch, as could don Juan. But it is infinitely generous. It has the strength not to need to tend to itself. Love has the unimaginable fortitude to indulge other people's profound sickness, their madness.

Me, when I'm confronted with angst and ill will and existential confusion, tend to lash out or retreat. Which is not necessarily wrong; one does what one must. But this glimpse I have of love, of what love is, is making me rethink how I approach the social and how I approach myself.

So where does this love leave us? Where does it leave me? Fuck if I know.

For now, I enjoy Old Potrero Rye and the temporary peace it affords, thank you very much.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...