Towards a Soft Architecture: Some Thoughts on Lisa Robertson
For the past year or so, I've become quite taken with the poet — I think that's the right word — Lisa Roberston. Her writing articulates a certain phenomenology — not what phenomenology is, as Merleau-Ponty does, but how a phenomenological perspective speaks.
Yes, this seems absurd, as everything spoken, by definition, is a phenomenon. So what I mean to say is that her writing bends language to flow with the chiasm of the visible and invisible, relentlessly performing the intertwining of concept, affect, and thing. So while a philosopher operates mostly with concepts (and affects and things, too, but less so) and an artist tends to work with affects and things (and concepts, too, but less so), Robertson's writing moves amongst all more or less equally.
The effect, not to mention the affect, is astounding.
My purpose here is to advance into
the sense of the weather, the lesson of
the weather. Forever I'm the age 37
to calm my mind. I'm writing sentences here
of an unborrowed kind. The sky is
mauve lucite. The light lies intact and
folded. You can anticipate the wind.
(from "The Weather," p. 24)
It's hard to pull a quote from her. The prose is ceaseless, even when staccato (especially when staccoto), because the world is ceaseless. Being can't be summed up because it's always becoming. You find a hint of this in Merleau-Ponty's prose, in sentences that wind, relentlessly qualifying themselves. But in Robertson, this winding is of another nature — it has no need to wind back on itself because it's not trying to explain anything (as Merleau-Ponty does). Her writing keeps moving with the world, along its curves and undulations, its planes and plains.
Here is a passage I pull, beginning mid-stride and ending mid-stride — watch how it moves from conceptual pronunciations (that are never universal, always local: "flow implicates us") to statements of physical fact ("the hill slopes up") to statements of affective fact ("we accept the dispersal"):
..The hill slopes up. Our pearls broke. We are watching ourselves being torn. It's gorgeous; we accept the dispersal. It's just beginning; we establish an obsolescence. It's petal-caked; flow implicates us. It's so still; ease of movement is possible. It's very hot and fine; where does this success come from? It's wild; culture will fit now. It's chilly; we try to shape culminations.... ("The Weather," 33-34).
In another book, she writes on behalf of the Office for Soft Architecture. I am in love with this phrase and have written about it before. It begins with a manifesto that, like all her writing, is particular and hence it's hard to pull a passage:
Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us.
Now that's a sentence! Space is infused with things, with time, its bears its past and its now, it is stuff and affect and ideas grand and small, little moments, streaks of thought. There is no space that is not shaped, that is not affective. For Robertson, the world is not a stage. The world is always happening. It is not a hard stage upon which the softness of human lives and dreams and incidents and affect take place. No, the architecture is soft from the get go.
After the Soft Architecture Manifesto, there are a few essays and then the book is structured by a series of seven walks. The walk: in motion, interacting with the world, perceiving the world. This is not Descartes locked in his room. This is philosophy in motion and art in practice and something else entirely — life, perhaps. The walker — not Baudelaire's flaneur (but akin), not the middle aged mother doing as her doctor ordered, not the geologist taking up specimens of ground but some combination of all three and more.
Lisa Robertson's writing is a lesson in language and becoming and teaches us, or teaches me, how to walk with the world.
Individuals, Systems, Principles, Work, Life
Let's imagine, for a moment, that I work for some egregiously morally corrupt corporation — Philip Morris or Halliburton or some such entity that the liberal community agrees is repulsive. (More on this in a moment.) Buy my job, day to day, is amazing: I only have to work 25 hours a week; I can usually work from home; my duties entail imagining anything that the future might bring and then writing it up in fanciful prose; and there's no asshole manager leaning over my shoulder.
(Personally, I'd take that job in a flash.)
Now imagine that I work for some non-profit that builds schools for the poor in developing countries. But my day to day job involves cleaning the toilets, getting coffee for the boss, and writing extensive PowerPoint presentations that sum up someone else's work.
Which job is better?
Principles are great but they have a tendency to coerce, to dictate, to imprison the believer — not to mention making one a sanctimonious prick. On the other hand, aren't we all actors in a collective system, cogs in an engine that does all sorts of things but, mostly, pillages the planet and subjugates the individual in a number of painful, cruel ways.
What do we do? What does one do? What do you do?
Now let's complicate things. The liberal community — which, frankly, is anything but liberal in its beliefs as it adheres to a party line, an ideology, and what's less liberal than an ideology? — condemns certain corporations, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and the like. But while those corporations are no doubt morally bankrupt, the fact is all corporations — by definition — are morally bankrupt. All corporations, by the mere fact of being corporations, contribute to the pillaging of the planet and the relentless subjugation of the individual. After all, a corporation — by definition — subjugates the individual to the corporate demands: you work for the good of the company in order to drive its bottom line — increased profits.
So does it really matter, from the perspective of principle, if you work for Halliburton or Whole Foods?
Now add this creepy dimension: corporations are so good at branding — who does all this branding, anyway? — that we actually think it's cool to work at Google, at Apple, at Whole Foods but not cool to work for Halliburton, Costco, Walmart.
But the question, for me, remains the same: What is your day to day life like?
Screen Life: Becoming Image
This image is perfect: an image of image makers imaging a screen projecting images of a live event — which, of course, joins the chorus of images as another image.....
(This is an excerpt from something I've been working on, on and off, for a bit....)
Look at professional sporting events. Players and audience alike shift their attentions from the players on the field to the players on the screen and back. Stadiums are hence building larger and larger screens. In fact, these screens are so big, they literally protrude into the playing field. To wit, in Dallas, a high punt may very well hit the massive screen that hangs overhead.
Watching the same event on TV, we are privy to endless views of every play. We presumably see the live event followed by the same event seen from different angles and at different speeds. Sometimes, the commentators becomes artistes, the image their canvas, as they write over the play, adding their own contribution to what we see.
Of course, for both the live viewing audience and the TV viewing audience, all there ever was was an image. All there ever was was something to be seen. And yet something is different. Something has changed. Just as there’s a difference between being in the stadium and watching the game on one’s TV, there is a difference between watching sports today and watching sports before the digital and its explosive proliferation of image making, distribution, and viewing.
Now look at the players between plays. They’re not looking at the screens overhead; they’re looking down at photographs of the previous plays. And what do they do before a game as a way of preparing? They watch tapes — hour upon hour of videotapes of the other team, of their own team, of themselves. When commentators want to compliment a player’s work ethic, they’ll say, “He spends a lot of time looking at tape.”
Instant replay is a peculiar use of the image. The assumption is that what we see live is, in fact, false: it is the image that gives us the reality. But it’s not just the image but the image manipulated, slowed down to an excruciating speed, to a near halt. In this case, then, it is the pure artifice of the image that guarantees the truth.
Now consider how the military sees the world. Radar supplanted eyes so we scan the skies and seas by looking at a screen. Unmanned probes roam over enemy territory sending back images of the terrain. Meanwhile, satellites circle the stratosphere 24/7, photographing anything and everything. Our military intelligence is a slide show, a picture book, a movie.
In the modern era, medicine has always had an intimate relationship with the image. Doctors make sense of patients with X-rays and MRIs. But today this has extended to the consultation itself as doctors visit with patients via webcams. This is called telemedicine and it is radically changing how we deliver and experience healthcare.
Cameras abound. They are part of our mobile phones, always tucked in our pockets, close to our groins and hearts. Cameras come built into our computers (I’m looking at the eye of the camera as I type this). Cameras are on street corners, in stores, poised at traffic lights.
But these cameras are not just cameras. In the old days — 15 years ago — we had to put film in a camera. When the film was done, we took it somewhere to be developed. Later that day, perhaps, we’d have prints of our photographs — not an easy thing to distribute quickly en masse: “Hey, you, wanna see my pictures of my house?”
Cameras today provide development even faster than the image itself: we see the picture in the screen, know what it looks like, then click. We screen the picture before we take the picture. Our cameras are screens that wind themselves into the image making process itself. When we take digital images, we don't look through a lens; we look at a screen. The image has always already been taken.
But these camera-screens are distribution agents, as well. One click, and our images — still or moving — can be broadcast to the world. We carry an entire movie studio — and theater — in our pockets.
The distance, the literal space, that separates the original from the copy, the live from the recording, is being effaced. This is not to say that the two are the same. Clearly there is a difference between you and I talking face-to-face with each other and talking via Skype. But this distance is no longer so far as to be able to maintain the illusion of the real and to secure the place of the image as a monument, as something outside the everyday, as something artificial.
The image is no longer something out there, projected on the big screen, something that happens after the fact. With the rise of digital technology, the image has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, the so-called original and the so-called replica literally touching each other, inflecting each other, sharing the space of the real: the punter’s football gracing the screen that shows the punter’s football hitting the screen. The time of the image has changed as technology has changed: the movement from image making to broadcast has become immediate. The image is no longer (solely) a record; it has become a companion.
We don't see images. We go with images. We become image.
Be generous. Speak to the smartest.
This may sound obvious but, needless to say, many in the pedagogic community believe just the opposite: aim for the lowest common denominator, for the stupid and least interested. This, alas, is what guides so many of the precious few dollars we have for public education. We don't use these dollars to spur the smartest and brightest; we use these dollars to hand hold the dumbest.
I'm not saying we should leave the stupid behind. Not exactly. I'm saying we should emphasize the smart, the critical, creative thinking, lively thinking — and make everyone follow.
I was in a client meeting today with a very large, very well known software company. We were presenting concepts and language. Much of the language was sophisticated, clever, challenging — not like Kant is challenging but challenging for this world. To which the client responded, "Well, I like these. But I have to think about all those people out there."
This, alas, is our prejudice, our assumption: the people out there are stupid and — and! — we should cater to them. Those are two disastrous assumptions that lead directly to the endless parade of dreck that passes for movies, television, and literature — not to mention politics and newspapers — in today's world.
People often say to me: "It's great, Coffeen, that you and maybe three other people get what you're talking about. But who else?" This drives me insane. Because I'm more generous than that. I speak to the smartest in people and, frankly, to the smartest people. If the dummies don't get it, fuck 'em. It's not the job of smart people to cater to dumb people. It's the job of dumb people either to shut the fuck up or try and be smarter.
And the fact is: I actually think people can be smarter than many assume (did I just say that?). Hear me out...this may seem odd.
I recently watched the first season of a television show called "Friday Night Lights." And I am impressed with the complexity and ambivalence it manages to maintain throughout the entire season. Unlike the television shows I remember, this one seems to have no real tonic note per se. It shifts perspectives and sympathies, often relishing the multiplicity of said perspectives and sympathies. There are no clear good guys, no clear bad guys. People in the show are complex human beings. There's some schmaltz, sure, but it's rarely egregious.
I have enjoyed television shows before but they've usually been on HBO — "The Wire," of course, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And the fact that those shows were not only made, not only broadcast, but that people seemed to like them made me wonder if people, perhaps, are smarter than I gave them credit for. But then I assumed, well, it's HBO and maybe only a few thousand people have HBO.
But this other program — and I'm not comparing "Friday Night Lights" to "The Wire" — is on network TV (I think). So maybe there is an appetite out there for multivalence, for multiplicity, for things that are not just straightforwardly stupid. And maybe, just maybe, there is no such thing as the lowest common denominator, not when it comes to people.
But perhaps that's irrelevant. Because the fact is I will continue to speak to the smartest and the brightest — not necessarily the most learned, by any means, but the most intellectually creative and lively. And I do that out of an ethical obligation I feel to be generous to the world, to spur its collective intellect on.
Infinity is not a threshold into which the finite passes; infinity is not the generality of things As Kierkegaard explains to us about Jesus, the finite and the infinite exist within the same body, at impossible yet actual juxtaposition. A thing can be bound and yet be infinite.
A Calder mobile, for instance: it is bound by its own and particular play of balance and weight and yet it is not stable or fixed: it moves as the world around it moves. It is in perpetual motion -- and yet it is not open to any and all possible motions. Rather, it moves the way that it moves, bound by its own limitations and yet open to infinite variegation.
Compare this to, say, Keith Haring's endless wall of interlacing figures: they spread towards the horizon in every direction at once. Any limits encountered -- the size of the wall, for instance -- are considered obstacles. (Haring, I have to say now, relishes the limit, too.) Calder, on the other hand, seeks the (open) limits of weight in the world. Or Matisse: his figures relish the limitations of the frame, even ducking their heads to remain within it.
The science of binding infinity is called calculus. That is, if geometry is the science of fixed spaces, of stable coordinates, calculus is the science of stipulated movement. A differential equation at once has a limit and is infinite; it determines its own limit in the process of its own becoming. Take the number Pi: it is infinite and unpredictable. The only way to know what Pi is to follow the equation out to its next step. And yet it remains Pi: each step is at once determined and unpredictable, bound and infinite.
Bach's organ fugues spread to infinity; they maybe based within one key, but like Haring's interlacing figures, this is an inconvenience; if it could cover every key and every modulation of every key, it would. A pop song, on the other hand, enjoys being bound while simultaneously enjoying a certain infinity, a pop differential equation: The Beatles' "Happiness is Warm Gun," the Breeder's "Cannonball," "Ween's Push the Little Daisies."
Jorge-Luis Borges' odd little stories are bound, and yet they are defined by a certain indeterminacy which opens them up to infinity; the subject matter emanates from impossible places, the author's identity a perpetual unknown. Or, better, the subject and author are known only by their effect; like the number Pi, they are determined and yet unpredictable.
An episode of the Simpsons functions in much the same way, resisting closure or finite stability, and yet remaining bound by its style, its colors. In fact, each episode provides a final stitch, a nod in the direction of a moral. And yet this final stitch remains open, multiple, a variety of options offered, all of which are viable.
The possibility of a bound infinity is the very possibility of language. A word has the odd power of shifting, morphing so as to fit its environment -- the ear of the audience, the breath of the speaker, the peculiarities of penmanship. And yet the word, despite its relentless changes, does not lose all meaning. On the contrary, the meaning of a word is its unique set of infinite uses.
Reimagining the Corporation
So I finally watched the documentary, "The Corporation," and was astounded to learn that corporate personhood was unleashed along with the 14th Amendment. That is to say, the very Constitutional move that nominally sought to assure recently freed blacks had equal protection under the law was the very same move that birthed the modern corporation: a virtual person, albeit devoid of liability.
It's too perfect: the end of one form of tyranny — nominally, that is — and the birth of a new form in the same breath ! (Well, corporate personhood was officially established in 1819. But, in 1886, with the 14th Amendment, corporations asked to be treated like everyone else — and won that right! It's literally insane and marks the birth of the virtual entity, long before the internet.)
For those who might not know what I'm talking about, corporations in this country have the same legal rights as individuals — they can enter contracts, sue and be sued, buy property. You may say, "Duh! Of course." But not of course. It's actually incredibly strange: a corporation is not a person — it has no feelings and no body. It can't go to jail. And it has no interests, by definition, other than profit. This is not true of human beings, even incredibly greedy human beings. Because even the most greedy motherfucker wants to eat, sleep, dream, pee, think, emote, opine, speak. A corporation is not anything; it is thoroughly virtual. And, again, is has — by definition — no other interest than maximizing profit.
When corporations first began, they did so at the behest of the public good, offered their corporate status by the government in order to serve the public good — to build a bridge or mine coal. This corporation was severely limited in what it could do — it could not, for instance, buy other companies. It could not go public. Its reign and purview were limited by the terms of its incorporation.
But, with the 14th Amendment, corporations claimed that, as people (you following me? It's bizarre and insane), a corporation should be free to do as it pleased within the boundaries of the law. Just like anybody else. Again: did you hear me? Just like anybody else.
And so the modern corporation was born and, very quickly, began to take over basically every aspect of life, including the legislature, the police, the military. The government fights wars to defend corporate interests — and yet the corporations don't pay for the war. We do. No fair!
Corporations are persons — bereft of sentiment and body, of course — who act with relative impunity. After all, you can't put a corporation in jail — it's a thoroughly virtual entity. And you can't put the officers in jail because they work for the corporation and hence have limited liability.
If a group of individuals were, say, to dump enormous amounts of pollution into a river causing birth defects, cancers, and death those individuals would be arrested, indicted, stand trial, perhaps go to jail. A corporation, meanwhile, pays some fines — maybe — and — maybe — loses a civil action suit and pays money to those left dead and deformed.
And this is the normal functioning of this country! This is how corporations are legislated! It's madness. And it's not normal. It's not capitalism. It's corporatism in this very particular, relatively unrestrained form.
To limit what corporations can do is not to go against liberty for all, against the rights of the individual. On the contrary! Corporations are not people! They are tax and legal entities! They only exist because of a law that brought them into existence!
You want capitalism? Well, level the playing field and eliminate the corporation. You can do business; you can make and buy and sell. But not as a corporation.
So let's imagine, for a moment, how it might be different.
What might things look like if we eliminated the corporation all together? That is, individuals could get together and form companies but, legally, they would have to do business as a group of liable individuals. How might behaviors change? Would a corporation still be as willing to dump pollution? Release products that make people sick? Could they grow as exponentially (by eliminating all those individuals involved and creating one entity, the corporation, it makes acquiring money swift and easy: get rid of it and a business has to move much slower)?
Or let's keep the corporation but change the laws. What might we do? How about this: all profits exceeding x amount have to go towards employee pay, starting from the lowest paid? You want the right to be a corporation? Then that's what we, the people, require of you for that privilege.
What else? Let's re-imagine our corporate culture. What might we do differently?
Towards Real Critique, or Why Nothing in America Will Change
The most brilliant thing the American system does is make reform the agenda of change — and reform, necessarily, is constitutive of the very system it seeks to change. Real change — systemic change — becomes impossible.
Consider professional football, a subject that has received a lot of press recently. For over 100 years, there has been a steady movement to reform the sport, to make it safer. The forward pass and discrete play, for instance, were instituted to prevent injuries associated with the scrum. But that means more open space, more acceleration, and harder hits. So they began making more robust padding. Which, in turn, allowed players to hit harder which, of course, led to more injuries. So they changed the helmet from leather to plastics. Which, in turn, led to players leading with their heads which led to increased head injuries. And so on.
The point is all the changes operated within the very logic of the game so of course not only do things not "improve," the system becomes more focused, better engineered: injuries increase.
Now, this is true of the American political system. The most ardent call for change in this country in recent years was a presidential candidate running under the same old rubric of parties and corporations and wars. The only thing radical about Obama is that he's smart. But, in a sense, that only makes him more dangerous because now we have a smart man refining the system that is destroying us.
Take the Jon Stewart show. I like Jon Stewart. He's funny and smart. His show is funny and smart. I see why people like watching it. But, c'mon, all it does is recapitulate the terms of the system it critiques. The thought is: if only we acted differently, things would be better. But there is no critique of the system itself! Look at the format: it is a news show. And who perpetuates the system? The news! His show acts like every other show, only smarter and funnier.
Where, in this country, do we have any — any! — critiques on a systemic level? We mock or ignore the radicals and communists who hand out pamphlets at subways and street corners. In other countries, this was the norm — think about the Communist movements in China and Russia. They were not fucking around. Critique began at a systemic level; change was then enacted systematically.
Now, I am not supporting the Cultural Revolution: it was a violent, cruel movement. But I am saying that change can only come at the level of the system and that begins with systemic critique. And yet we lack the tools, not to mention the will and desire, to perform such critique.
Look at our movies. Look at our literature. Look at our tv shows. They are all about the individual trying to work things out — to get a better job, to love his or her family, his or her life. Nowhere is there any critique of the system. Sure, there are critiques of the politicians, of the wars, but not of the system itself.
I think the first move is to institute a culture, a vocabulary, of critique. We have to teach people, teach kids, how to think on the level of a system. We have to teach them to consider the terms of a system, the terms of media, the terms of the conversation and not the conversation itself. We need an active press that discusses the terms, the environment, rather than focusing on the content.
Some Thoughts on Teaching: Violence, Seduction, Love
The teacher's task — to have a student be reborn, repeat — is impossible. What, as a teacher, can I possibly say, possibly do, to move students from point A to point B — where point B is an insane world they never knew existed and to get there entails surrendering everything they've ever thought or known?
A certain violence is necessary. Students need to be pushed. For me, this took several forms. I kept the ceiling moving. That is, I never let a student think he or she got it and was done. Rather, I'd always say: good, now did you consider this? And this? And this? I kept pushing rather than giving out medals. After all, there is no there per se to reach, no actual point B — especially when point B is the position of all positions, a place that is not a place because it keeps moving, folding, winding, doing and undoing itself.
I have to say, when it comes to teaching a 7 year old, this tactic of perpetually raising the ceiling might not be the most effective technique. I'm not sure if it's effective for 19 year olds, either. One pedagogic strategy I never tried was infinite parental patience — stern, but loving. Don Juan does precisely this (among other things) for Carlos. (Castaneda's books give us one of the great pedagogies.)
And I'm not sure what "effective" even means in pedagogy: How do I know if a student has learned something? What counts as learning? What counts as something? Teaching is strange, frustrating, work — and fantastic precisely for those reasons.
Anyway, back to the task at hand: How, as a teacher, do I get students from point A to a point B that is not a point?
Repetition: I'd repeat myself relentlessly, repeatedly. I'd say the same thing, verbatim, over and over again. And then I'd say it in a different way, verbatim, over and over again. This, alas, is a kind of violence: I was trying to drill ideas into the heads, into the bodies, into the becomings of these students. I wanted the repetitions to be like a nail gun.
Violence, however, has its limits. Pushing, drilling: these will only take a student so far because, finally, that student has to make the jump, take the leap. Being pushed doesn't work. I suppose I also wanted the repetitions to be a kind of mantra that might transport them on their own to another place, to another way of thinking, to another way of being.
Still, how do I get a student to take that leap, to do as Carlos Castaneda does and jump off that cliff when everything he's ever known says that he will, without a doubt, fall to his death?
I know I run certain risks and open myself up to a variety of jokes and criticisms for saying this but: seduction. As I teacher, after pushing students, I'd try to flip to the other side and beckon: Come on, it's nice over here. It's exciting and cool and beautiful and enlivening. Come hither. Come play — the water's fine.
So, yes, I'd try to seduce students to the rhetorical posture, to the position of infinite play. I tried to make the ideas appealing — no, alluring. I tried to make the ideas so freakin' alluring that students wanted to come and play.
I wanted those ideas to be so alluring the students would fall in love. And love is what it takes to move people, to have them give up their comfort to enter the unknown. If only I could make students fall in love with an idea, they'd follow that idea over the cliff. They'd take the leap.
Repetition, and Pedagogy, via Kierkegaard
Socrates asked the great epistemological question: How can we know something we don't know? If we don't know it, how can we even form a question about it? How can it enter into our understanding? His answer is that all knowledge is recollection. We already know, Socrates claims, but we've forgotten. The task of the teacher is to help you remember. Ergo, the Socratic technique which asks questions, as if to trigger what you already know.
This, alas, was never my pedagogic approach.
For Kierkegaard, that is the classical way. But with Jesus, we get a different mode of life (and a different pedagogy): we get rebirth. We get repetition. We get a living that is always looking forwards, that is future oriented: "When the Greeks said that all knowing is recollecting, they said that all existence, which is, has been; when one says that life is a repetition, one says, actuality, which has been, now comes into existence." Recollection, Kierkegaard claims, makes us sad; repetition makes us happy. It is the emergence of life rather than its memory.
Life is repetition, says Kierkegaard. To repeat is to live.
A pedagogy based on repetition is, in a sense, much more violent: it must pick the student up and move him elsewhere, into a future the student couldn't possibly know exists (see Kierkegaard's book, "Philosophic Fragments").
Just think about this as an epistemological and then pedagogic problem: How can a teacher get a student to know something new, something that student couldn’t even know was possible to know?
For the student, it demands a leap — and a leap onto unsteady ground, into space. It’s Carlos at the very end of “Tales of Power,” leaping off that cliff: “Then a strange urge, a force, made me run with him [Pablito, another student] to the northern edge of the mesa. I felt his arm holding me as we jumped and then I was alone.”
And for the teacher it demands a push, a prod, a poke, and then a disappearance.
My Discussion about Deleuze with Doug Lain
Some of My Favorite Concepts: Repetition via Deleuze
When I first read "Difference and Repetition," — I dunno, 17 years ago — I was so thoroughly confused I could not speak, read, or write for a year. But once I enjoyed a glimpse of comprehension, everything — and I mean everything — changed. Repetition is the defining concept of my adult intellectual life to date. Which is what Kierkegaard claims repetition is: to be born again and anew — an impossible, yet actual, undertaking.
For Deleuze, repetition allows us to think the relationship between sameness and difference without making one the derivative or disruptor of the other. That is, on the one hand we can say that I am a fixed self and all the different moments of me are accidental. Or I can say that all these moments are each a different me and hence there is no me per se: I am shattered and therefore there is no I.
Well, ok. But what if there is neither a fixed me nor a shattered me? What if there is no I but there is still a this? What if we deploy a different logic, one that is not premised on the existence, or lack of existence, of a fixed identity? That logic is repetition.
Repetition allows us to think limits, forms, and continuity without identity. That is, repetition allows us to think a certain kind of sameness that is not opposed to difference. So rather than being stuck in an either/or — either I am a fixed self or I'm a series of disconnected moments — I am one who repeats. I am the act of repeating this, then this again and anew, then again and anew.
Each moment of me is me; each moment of this is this. None is privileged. But nor are they isolated: they are repetitions of each other, a taking up and reconfiguring of elements to make something new. I am this network of moments, this limit that is always becoming. When there's another me that doesn't seem to fit — well, it does fit: it recasts the network, redraws the limit (a limit that is a process, anyway, not a stable line).
Repetition displaces any call to an original me. It's not that it undoes the original (as Derrida's iteration does); it's that there never was an original: we are always already a repetition.
What does that mean? It means it's turtles all the way down. It means the world has always already begun, always already been repeating itself. (Foucault writes that when we look to the origin we find "the dissension of other things" — a line that has stuck with me for over 20 years.)
Consider the song, Satisfaction, by the Rolling Stones. Which version is the original? The one, probably never recorded, of Mick humming it to Keith? The one with Brian Jones playing harmonica? Is it the version they did live at this or that club? The 1965 mono single? Or the stereo re-release in the 80s? The song is always a repetition of itself: look for the original and you find a series.
Now add all the covers — Devo, Cat Power, Bjork with PJ Harvey, Britney Spears — and we see the song isn't tethered to its authors. It repeats. It keeps finding new life, new possibilities. We could keep looking back to some mythical original. But, with repetition, we look forward and see the song endlessly emerging, endlessly being reborn. There is no original, only versions to infinity and it is beautiful.
Learning to Eat
I find this humiliating but, at 41, I'm still not sure how to eat. But I am much better at it today than I was.
In college, I would cook these enormous meals for myself. And, for some reason, I'd eat it all. I equated that feeling of pain as being full and so, moron that I was —and, in many ways, still am — I ate until it hurt. Sometimes, I'd take a nap mid-meal, wake and pick up right where I'd left off. Night after night, it was the same thing. I simply did not learn. It was if I assumed eating should be self-evident so why should I consider it — even when my stomach was aching every freakin' night.
There's a metaphor here for lots of things. Anyway....
I was not alone. When my friends and I would cook meals together, collectively we would enact this same stupidity: we'd eat until all of us were on the ground moaning in pain.
Several years ago, I began actually to heed how I ate — amount, yes, and content. But getting this right — eating so as to maximize the system that is my body — is easier said then done. How do we know how to eat? How do we decide what to eat?
We can go by what we crave. And, often, this is effective. But, for many, craving and health are at odds. Nietzsche says that an ill constituted person instinctively craves that which makes him sick. The strong man does the opposite: he craves what makes him healthy. All you have to do is go to one of these monster supermarkets – surely, Safeway is one of the most depressing places on the planet, all flourescent glow of indigestion, mass processed death — and see what people are eating. It's horrifying.
So if craving alone cannot be trusted, how do we make these decisions? Well, experience, of course. I've eaten this before and, well, I felt good so I'll eat it again. This generally works very well. Only it's not that easy as a) one's body changes so what was once good may not be anymore; and b) we don't eat in isolation: multiple foods, multiple factors, come into play. So perhaps that one food fed my vitality but perhaps it was that food in combination with another or with my mood or with the time of year. There are dozens of variables, each varying. And, anyway, it's not really a matter of a food but of how to combine them, when to eat them, how to eat them.
There's outside knowledge — what people tell you, books tell you, science reports tell you, nutritionists tell you (and everyone these days is an expert on food; it's unsettling: from whence their knowledge?). But this can be quite confusing. Eat raw, says my friend, that way you get all the nutrients. Cook everything, my acupuncturist says, make sure it's warm and grounding. Who you gonna believe?
We are, at last, alone with our bodies. We make these decisions in the moving, morphing lab that is our bodies, that is our lives. Each decision is a temporal fold, a calculus of past experience, present craving, opportunity, future predictions, outside knowledge, and gut instinct (as it were).
Alas, this is really the way of all decisions, conscious or not. They are impossible but actual. Heeding the everyday ain't easy.
Emphatic Ambivalence: Velvet Underground's Greatest Love Song
So I was lying in the bath just now listening to Velvet Underground's eponymous second album when "Some Kind of Love" comes on. And I am struck, not for the first time, by the fantastic, playful, hilarious, and generous lyrics.
The title alone is telling and, again, generous: some kinds of love. Not this kind of love. Not love as pain, love as longing, love as union — just different kinds of love and each has its place:
Margarita told Tom
between thought and expression lies a lifetime
situations arise because of the weather
and no kinds of love
are better than others
Love emerges from the weather, in the faltering between feeling and word. And this love can take any number of forms, from the silly to the profound:
Some kinds of love
Margarita told Tom
like a dirty French novel
combines the absurd with the vulgar
and some kinds of love
the possibilities are endless
and for me to miss one
would seem to be groundless
...and some kinds of love
are mistaken for visionary
This ambivalence does not heed indecision or reflection without action. On the contrary, for Lou Reed it inspires play and frolic:
Put jelly on your shoulder
let us do what you fear most
that from which you recoil
but which still makes your eyes moist
And it ends with an embrace of the ambivalence, the multivalence of love — and this, I would say, is joy, an affirmation of it all, a diving in even though he knows — knows — there will be pain and tears but also pleasure and delight: there will be life:
I don't know just what it's all about
but put on your red pajamas and find out
This is the greatest love song I know precisely because it embraces all the different modes of love, the different kinds of love. Because it loves without demanding univocality, loves without cliche, loves without bathos but with pathos, loves nonetheless, loves with feeling, loves with humor, loves with passion.
And isn't that what love is all about?
The Challenge of the Everyday
I believe in my last post I chose a misleading example — writing. Writing is more or less monumental; it is a discrete event, a happening that takes place outside the drone and hum, or within the drone and hum but not quite as part of the drone and hum.
A better example, methinks, is getting dressed. Or taking a shower. Or eating breakfast. Or going to the bathroom, washing dishes, brushing teeth. You get the idea: everyday things, banal things, things that we do regularly and often as the basic maintenance of daily life.
These are the things that slip readily into habit: we do them without paying the least attention. Perhaps that's the way it should be. After all, who wants to pay attention to washing the dishes, especially when there are so many other things to think about — what Deleuze means by pure immanence, for instance, or how you can somehow seduce your co-worker or whether you need to cut your toenails.
But there is much in washing dishes — the sensation of warm water on your hands and running through your fingers, the way soap plays along sponge and dish, the give of grease. The wonders of the universe reside within that banal task of washing dishes. (Eeesh! Do I sound like a Buddhist?)
There's a great little essay by William Burroughs, "DE, or Do Easy" in "Exterminator!" Every task, he claims, has a rhythm, a mode. The trick is to find this mode, to heed the circumstance, to pay attention and, suddenly, you're doing easy. I like this because it stays in the realm of thermodynamic system thinking: it's about expenditure of energy.
But I do believe there is a beauty as well, and not just an efficiency, to heeding the moment, to truly enjoying the feel of bristle on gum or water on hands. After all, that is life happening. Just because it's banal doesn't mean it's not of value. This is all there is.
This, in a sense, democratizes experience. Rather than there being a hierarchy of events — these are important, those are not — this approach ushers in a field of endless wonder and differentiation: the world flows with the contours of itself, an undulating plane of intensities.
But this is truly demanding work. At every turn, habit is a temptation. To heed each and every moment, to live through every moment, to live well with things however seemingly banal, this is the great challenge of life. It's so demanding that we — or I do, at least — fill the empty space with noise — tv and news and music and porn and work and texting and anxiety and chitchat, all distractions from the banality and yet each, of course, so banal itself.
This is why the shows about people surviving incredible events don't do it for me. It may be cool that some dude survived being lost at sea for two months. But show we someone who can survive bourgeois life, day in and day out, and truly heed their lives and I will be awestruck, dumbfounded, torn asunder.
Kierkegaard says that the person of faith — the knight of faith — a rare if not impossible person — lives simultaneously in the infinite and the finite. With each step he takes, he moves from the finite to the infinite and back. There does not seem to be anything extraordinary about the knight of faith. He doesn't glow. He lives his everyday life but he does so extraordinarily. That, alas, is the task at hand: to live the infinite within the finite.
Any schmuck can rise to the occasion. The trick is to heed all occasions.
Living Through, Living With
To live through is to experience this or that, to experience life, thoroughly. (I've been attracted to this word, thorough, for a long time, as well. I like it because it is, well, thorough without being exhaustive: it does not suggest that there is a finality or fixed limit but that there is some kind of totality).
But what does that mean, to live thoroughly? I've only begged the question.
There are times — most times, in fact — in which I'm doing something. Let's say I'm writing.
In some instances, I'm writing what I already know; I'm writing by rote, by habit. It's as though my anima is not involved. I'm not excited; the words are not on the brink of the new, the ideas are not alive. My energy is being used elsewhere (or, more likely, not at all).
Perhaps living through, then, is a matter of a thermodynamic system, a distribution of energies. I like this because it makes it an engineering problem: tweak the system, align the valves, and voila: living through!
Other times, I'm writing but it's not habit per se that propels me, animates me: it's copying. I'm regurgitating what someone else has just told me — Houellebecq or Deleuze or Nietzsche or Foucault. I did this quite a bit when I was in college; some more in grad school; less, as time goes on (more on this in a moment).
This is a tough one because, when copying, I can be incredibly animated. I often have all my energy focused. I remember writing my undergraduate thesis on Foucault: I was thoroughly animated, all right, only I was thoroughly animated by my poor but excited understanding of Foucault. Oh, man, it was glorious! I'd write like a maniac, fervently, passionately about power and knowledge!
But rather than living through, in a sense, I was lived through. I loved every moment of it. But I was occupied, possessed, by someone else's style: I'd become host to the Foucault virus, if you will. Now, this is a beautiful experience and is an important aspect of learning something: to be possessed by it. I learned Foucault well because I ate is for every meal, breathed it for every breath.
Again, this is a tough one to articulate because, well, aren't we always playing host? Aren't we always being lived through?
So perhaps, when writing about Foucault — nay, when copying Foucault — I was doing a kind of living through. But I wasn't yet becoming myself. Nietzsche says, when writing, one must be careful not to read lest an alien scale the wall.
(Let me ask this: my undergrad thesis was filled with passionate sincerity, spewing dumbed down Foucault. But what is it sincere? It was sincerely...something. I'm just not sure what.)
Then there are times I'm writing when I feel possessed all right — possessed by my place in the world, possessed by ideas and words and their force. Everything in me is contributing. My heart pounds; my fingers twitch. I'm intellectually, physically, sexually aroused. This is why I write: to find that thorough possession that is not an alien possession per se but a kind of self-possession.
This, too, is an odd kind of living through because, yes, words and ideas live through me. But they are thoroughly digested by my metabolism, working with my style, my tics and speeds and intensities, my way of making sense. The system flourishes. (Of course, other aspects of the ecology begin to malfunction — cleanliness, relations with others.)
(Although, this state can be manic and begin to cannibalize itself, which is redundant, I think.)
I want to say living through, like sincerity, entails a certain kind of self-presence, an owning of oneself — which is a strange, impossible circuit: to own oneself. Living through is attentive. It is encompassing of (close to) the entirety of the system — thoughts and feelings and fingers and desires and digestions and needs and lusts.
I want to say that living through emanates from the inside out, but only if we understand that inside and outside are relative terms, that there is no real inside. I am not talking about a soul or some kind of knowing homunculus.
Perhaps living through is really a living with — a going with ideas and people and affects, a going with what is healthy, what is enlivened and enlivening. Perhaps living through is truly a thermodynamic matter of going well with the forces of the cosmos.
I am thinking out loud.
Habit, Repetition, Enjoyment
Not everything we repeat is a habit. On the contrary: when we repeat something, we live through that thing, we enjoy that thing in every sense of the word "enjoy."
There are two smokers standing there. One is smoking and probably doesn't even know it. The other is tasting the smoke, feeling the pull on the lungs, relishing the buzz. The first smoker smokes out of habit. The second smoker repeats smoking a cigarette — each cigarette is new, each drag lived through. This smoker is the same person at different times.
Sometimes, I do something and I enjoy doing it: I love a cocktail — usually tequila — around 5 or 6 in the evening. This is good for me. My body enjoys it. My mind enjoys it.
Sometimes, I pour the drink and, well, I didn't really want it but I did it anyway. Or I didn't know what I wanted so I poured the tequila when I should have poured scotch or coffee or kombucha or rye.
But when I'm living well, I'll stop and consider: Do I want a drink? Yes! What shall I drink? Hmn, how about tequila? Yes!
Habit doesn't say yes. Habit doesn't perceive per se.
Repetition says yes every time. Repetition enjoys it every time, again and anew.
Repetition demands a certain liveliness, a certain vitality, a certain attention — and that is difficult and exhausting (at least for me it is). Habit is a great temptation precisely because it doesn't demand a reckoning.
Shedding habit doesn't mean doing something different all the time. It demands living through whatever you're doing, even if it's the same thing all the time.
Shedding Habit, Becoming What One Is
This is what I've been thinking about that as of late.
It is not a matter of emptying yourself, of voiding yourself: no existential enema will do. On the contrary, you want to become yourself, live through your metabolism, live through your time, live through your own trajectory of becoming, live through your memories. It not a matter of forgetting per se but of moving well with how you got here, of moving will with your memory. "I did that. Yes I did." Not emptiness but fullness: a plenum of your own.
As for shedding habit, it is relentless, exhausting work. But there are plenty of techniques and short circuits — each of which runs the risk of becoming habit. This is something I wrote a few months ago . I'd love to hear what others have to say. Note that I have not done — or necessarily done well — some of these techniques....
Still, how does one go about shedding habit, asking different questions? Derangement of both senses and cognition can be effective. This can be achieved through different practices — music, art, drugs, sex, exertion, extreme silence. We fall into patterns, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, thinking the same things. Contemporary life — and perhaps all human life if not all life — tends towards repetition of the same. The school day, workday, television programming, open and closing of stores: they all work in conjunction forming a network of familiar triggers and behaviors. This informs how we read the world, often blinding us with the sheer pervasiveness of the familiar. Breaking these patterns — introducing new ones by literally scrambling the patterns of perceptions — can wake us up to the way of things.
Go on a color walk: choose a color — blue — and go where you see blue. See nothing but blue. Turn your day blue. See the infinite variations of blue. Become blue.
Terence McKenna recommends smoking DMT. Three big puffs of this spirit molecule and you’re transported into other dimensions. In his words, you will be astonished — not just amazed but astonished. “Under the influence of DMT, the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe. Color and the sense of a reality-unlocking secret nearby pervade the experience. There is a sense of other times, and of one's own infancy, and of wonder, wonder and more wonder. It is an audience with the alien nuncio.” (http://www.serendipity.li/dmt/chris_v.html). Everything you know, everything you take for granted, everything you assume life to be will be altered — for 5-7 minutes. “We can all smoke DMT, or you can make it your business to now find out about this, and see for yourself. And not everybody agrees with me. I mean, some people say it wasn't anything like that. But some people agree, and I think if you get two out of ten agreeing with a rap like this, then you'd better pay attention.” (http://deoxy.org/h_twhat.htm)
There’s that excellent scene in I Heart Huckabees in which Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg discover a temporary answer to breaking the monotony, and pain, of the quotidian: they hit each other in the face with a big red ball. In Fight Club, men pound each other, maul each other, to escape the soul-numbing drone of the everyday.
Of course, sensory and cognitive derangement can be as equally blinding and obscuring as any habit — and, of course, such deranging can itself become a habit. Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda that drugs were necessary for him, Carlos, to experience the magic universe, not necessary in general. It all depends on the circumstances, on what this or that system demands.
In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sense, Deleuze argues that the painter does not stand before an empty canvas and figure out what to paint. He stands before a dense canvas, a canvas filled to the brim with received images, with clichés. The artist’s job, then, is to cut away, destroy, carve this density of images in order to make something new. Francis Bacon would begin by marring the canvas, taking a broom with paint and making seemingly random marks on the canvas. And, based on these, he’d construct his images.
And yet this, too, can become cliché, does become cliché. Consider what happened to Pollock’s drips or to Warhol’s multihued silkscreens.
In any case, in order to read the way of things, we have to work hard to shed habit. This does not mean we have to make ourselves empty. There is no pure now, no pure event, as if there were a reality that flourished just below the surface of this world. To read the way of things well does not mean evacuating yourself. It means making perception an event that emerges between and amongst reader, thing, concepts, knowledge, history, desire. The beginner’s mind, in this case, is not blank. On the contrary, it is full yet open. It is a consuming, engaging plenum.
To shed habit is not to empty oneself but to become oneself.
Towards a Society of Individuals: On the Press
And, even more shocking to me, why does no one say anything about it? In fact, people actually argue over which newspaper or news program is better — as if there were any difference whatsoever! I know people in my community love to bash Fox News (in all honesty, I have never seen in so I cannot opine). But can you tell me that the events and topics they cover are any different than the events and topics covered by whatever network you prefer?
Sure, they have different tones, more or less (although who invented that awful, inhuman delivery that all newscasters seem to have? I find it literally unbearable). But they all seem to have the same purview — the happenings of governments.
In "The Present Age"— thanks, Dr. Watson, for reminding me of this fantastic book —, Kierkegaard argues that the press eliminates the individual by proffering in its stead, "the public." So we get phrases such as, "The American people believe...." Who? Who are these American people? I'm sure as shit never included.
This is to say that the press functions as an extension of the corporate state, working towards the elimination of the individual and all that that entails — peculiarity, particularity, multiplication of perspectives. The press rigorously frames the discussion of what matters so that people on the street reiterate this same frame, these same terms: Is Obama living up to his promise? Is the Tea Party gonna vote for unemployment compensation?
When someone actually has an opinion that lies outside the terms of the discussion, this person can't get a word in edgewise — his words, his ideas, are predetermined by the idiotic discussion, invented by the press and parroted by the American people — whoever they are.
Let's imagine, for a moment, a different kind of press. This would mean a) having multiple multiple perspectives on what even counts as content for the new; and b) having multiple perspectives, multiple readings, of that content.
First of all, let's have an official government newspaper and tv program. Here, the government can say all the nonsense they say in press conferences — the president did this, the attorney general did that. No reason for there to be reporters to type it up for us. Let's get those reporters actually reporting.
So now imagine all the things that you might consider news. Don't assume this news has to do with legislation or governments or armies. Imagine for a moment that the news can be anything, anything that is literally of interest to you and your world.
And then there are the frames of discussion. Rather than there being one frame for any given topic — are you pro-life or pro-choice (a specious distinction)? — why not multiple frames? The example I often use is the word "abortion": it has already framed the discussion in such a way that the focus is on the fetus, on stopping something that's in progress? But why not focus on the woman's menstrual cycle and call it a "renaissance"?
This is to say, why not imagine a press that actually proliferated topics and perspectives?
Look at how we talk about movies: thumbs up, thumbs down. But why not have readings of films, multiple perspectives on what makes a film interesting. Why not a film critique of nuance? A culture of film critique based on individuality, not sweeping generalizations?
Of course, the interweb seems to promise just such a thing. But what I find, for the most part, is that the grammars of the interweb, of social networking sites such as Facebook, is that they recapitulate existing corporate grammars: likes and dislikes, place of work, male or female, single or married.
A society of individuals would put aside the ready judgments and embrace, encourage, multiple perspectives. Wouldn't it be nice to enter a conversation wondering what the other person might say? And have that person open to hear what you have to say? Wouldn't it be nice not to have to relentlessly qualify and explain oneself because one doesn't fit into the existing brain dead discussions?
Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a society of individuals in which we expected peculiarity, nuance, particularity, multiplicity?
Towards a Society of Individuals: On "Pirates of the Caribbean"
"Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End" (an excellent, smart title) is about the struggle between a society of individuals and a corporate state structure.
In the film, we can't separate corporations from the state. The trading company, understandably, wants its trading routes safe (and wants the pirate booty) and hence wants the pirates exterminated. I have no problem with this: let the corporations and the pirates battle.
What gets creepy is that the state, too, wants the pirates exterminated. But why? What this film makes obvious is that the interests of the state are identical to the interests of corporations. In fact, it is not corporations that exist at the behest of the state; it's that the state exists at the service of corporations. And so rather than there being a more or less equal battle between the trading company and the pirates, we get the battle between the state, its legislation, its mass army and its funds.
From when its army? From whence its funds? From the citizens. But who is harmed by the pirates? Corporations.
(Look at how the Somali pirates were handled — by governments and by the press: it was assumed that the pirates were bad and the corporations were innocent and good. Listen, I know nothing of these pirates. But I was surprised at the assumptions that crimes against corporate property are covered by the press necessarily as crimes and not actions that need to be considered. Which is to say, our press is another wing of corporate interests, of the interests of Capital. I'm not saying the Somali pirates were good or bad. I'm just trying to point out the "environment" — as McLuhan might say — in which these events happen and how our assumed interests happen to be corporate interests.)
Where does this leave our pirates of the Caribbean? They are radically individualistic, roaming the last terrestrial frontier, the ocean. As the massive corporate sponsored state navy takes to the sea, each pirate in his or her place stands little chance of survival. This is the way of the modern state: total coverage.
And so the pirates bond together, reluctantly. And what I love is that they don't surrender their differences; they don't unite to form their own nation: they work together,as individuals, to fend off the State.
Their politics are inevitably complex, not always pretty, and at times violent. But it is not the terrible, merciless violence of the State.
Qualifying the Word "Individual" with Metabolism
In many ways, this word — and concept — "individual" raises some problems and issues. It suggests that perhaps we are all discrete units, closed off by our minds and skins, finally alone in the whirlwind of our being. This conception of the individual lies at the heart of bourgeois propriety and its relentless will to ownership: I am an individual in my individual bed in my individual room in my individual house on my individual property in my individual country. That is, our notions of property and the civil body have, in many ways, been dictated by a certain conception of the individual.
As Marshall McLuhan argues, the assembly line relies on this notion of the individual: a discrete unit playing its role, a cog in the greater engine of the factory and the corporation.
But that is not the individual I am speaking of. My individual is, as I've said, run through with ghosts, with streams of affect, blocs of becoming — with the tics of others, the dreams of clouds, the gait of the wind. Burroughs talks about this so well in his fantastic essay, "Immortality," in the ways the voices and styles of others wind through our bodies. I will say that whenever I hear myself talk — in, say, a recorded lecture — I am overwhelmed to hear that, at times, it is not me speaking at all: it is my brother.
The individual I speak of is a networked becoming, not an idle being. So in what sense do I speak of an individual?
Well, as a singular node within this network of streams and trajectories. We are necessarily distinctive metabolic propensities. Just look at us, look at yourself, look at people on the street, in the cafe, in your own home. There is infinite variation in the way each of us comports (comportment, another favorite concept of mine), the way each of us hangs in the world. It's in our postures, yes, and in the way our bones are sheathed by our skin, the way our skin makes sense of the sun, the speed of our blood, the width of our veins, the mechanics of our glands, the gestures of our hands as we speak and rest and dream.
We are singular nodes, with distinctive speeds and rhythms, intensities and propensities, tics and styles. We are metabolic creatures — we take in the world and make sense of it in such infinitely different ways.
My question is this: What might a society of such individuals, such singular nodes, look like? What might be its ethics? Its mode of legislation and leadership? Because what we have now, in this so-called land of the individual, is an elaborate state apparatus that is armed to the teeth and rigorously enforcing the will of corporations.
Let's imagine something else entirely.
On the Myth, and Extermination, of the American Individual
I've been working on this argument, an argument no doubt grounded in my profound historical ignorance, but I think it's nifty nonetheless. Perhaps this is obvious or wrong. But hear me out.
There is an American myth of the individual. Capitalism, this myth declares, is the system of individualism. So there is somehow a continuous line that runs from the frontier of the American West through to the boardrooms of Halliburton and their kind.
But I see something else entirely. America was settled by a variety of strands of the human species that had developed in Europe. One of these strands was the radical individual, the one who wanted little to do with organization, with law and its policing. These were misfits and loners, lunatics and holy men. And there was another strain (amongst others): the corporate strain and its will to organized anonymity and all that follows in its wake.
The individual was literally pushed farther and farther outside the coalescing nation-state — that will to corporation — that would become the United States. Eventually, the corporate strand would win out, subjugating the individual and turning the American West into commodity, kitsch, a sideshow where someone can earn a buck. The frontier was no longer the frontier: it had become Spectacle.
Capitalism loves the myth of the individual — Anyone can make it! Just work hard! But if that's true of capitalism it is certainly not true of American capitalism which is not premised on the individual but on the corporation. And the corporation is rigorously and mercilessly opposed to the individual; the individual must integrate into the system, become a cog in the profit engine for an entity that has all the legal rights of the individual but is in fact nothing but an anonymous will to profit.
This struggle between the two strands — a struggle no doubt that is not so cleanly delineated, an opposition that is not always an opposition but that bleeds and intertwines — is the first great American Civil War.
This is the subject of Michael Mann's film, "Public Enemies," in which Mann argues that Dillinger and his crew were the last stand of the old West, annihilated by the rise of the police state and its relentless hegemonic will, a will funded and driven quite literally by the demands of Capital: the banks. Dillinger held up banks. The federal government and its police wing, the FBI, acts as a wing of the banks and hunts Dillinger down by exposing the entire nation to a common light of interrogation: the panopticon, surveillance, wire tapping.
The individual is of course a complex term and category. It can, and does, mean many things. We can view it as the source of American greed and selfishness, responsible for destroying the planet. And that is no doubt one thread of the individual, of individualism.
But there is another thread, one not built as much on ego and selfishness as on integrity, peculiarity, self-possession (as distinct from state or corporate possession). This is the individualism of true grit and the Coens' film by that name. The line running from that breed of individualism to the boardrooms of American corporations was severed long ago.
The American state apparatus — its legislation and its military — works for corporations, advances the cause of corporations, usually over and against the individual.
What I'd like to explore is how a society of individuals might look, how it might function, how it might behave. Stay tuned.
And yet.....On Sincerity, take 2
Is this song sincere? Sincerely, or insincerely, what?
And yet there is some quality we might call sincerity or authenticity that we look for in others — we look for it in our music and art, in our literature and philosophy, in our friends and lovers and colleagues and neighbors.
It's just that authenticity and sincerity are elusive and rarely take the traditional form (whatever that is) of being sentimentally straightforward or staightforwardly sentimental. And there is a certain will to authenticity — one might know it best in rock & roll — that is egregious and breeds half-assed art.
Let's consider one of my favorite bands, Ween. Their music is never, ever, sincere. And yet they are sincere — they are sincerely arty, they are sincerely playful, they are sincerely "putting on" the world. I trust them.
There's a great line in Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting" in which Renton finds himself in an discussion of pop music: "The Simple Minds have been pure shite since they jumped on the committed, passion-rock bandwagon of U2. Ah’ve never trusted them since...." He’s never trusted them precisely because they’ve made claims to depth, to conviction, to a certain brand of sincerity. I trust Ween precisely because they are not sincere; or because they are sincerely artistic.
Now, I may be conflating terms and ideas — of depth, conviction, trust, sincerity. But I am trying to get at the relationship between expression, sentiment, truth, and multiplicity and all those terms come into play to nudge each other about. So bear with me, please. This is live thought.
The Beatles may be a better example as more people know them. Are The Beatles sincere? Is "Let it Be" a sincere song but "Honey Pie" is not? Is sincere an irrelevancy when discussing The Beatles? Or can we say, yes, they are sincere — sincerely doing their darndest, sincerely moving my mind and heart?
What is that quality we look for in our friends and lovers, our art and ideas? What is the term for it, this strange thing that lets us trust what's coming out of someone's mouth, even if we don't trust what's coming out of their mouths? What is this authenticity that does not seek, does not speak, does not want authenticity?
Tom Wolfe might say, "You're on the bus."
Can we call it "Being on the Busness"? But what is said being on the busness? From whence does it come? Some sense of internal knowledge, some self-awareness? Some elusive yet absolute sense of being present?
On Sincerity and Speaking Multivalence
"I'll finger sincerity, by exemplum relate a portrait of my luck." — Lisa Robertson, The Weather (more on her soon).
I think that my efforts at speaking the ambivalence — nay, the multivalence — that I feel often makes my words seem to ring, well, insincere. On the one hand, I deliver my words with great conviction. Simultaneously, I have a hard time being terribly serious. After all, everything gives way.
But does that make me insincere? Or, on the contrary, does it make me more sincere? What is sincerity? Must sincerity be univocal, filled with conviction about this or that? Or is sincerity a certain articulation of what's happening — and what's happening is manifold (I love that word)? Can I be — and, perhaps, must I be — sincerely ambivalent?
(Socrates — he who was never sincere — was often accused for moving between the "natural" and "conventional" definition of a word: Which use of sincerity shall we use?)
Bergson seeks a philosophy that would be absolutely precise, absolutely particular, absolutely one with that moment of the world. To do so, this philosophy must not just think duration, it must think and speak within duration, within the relentless change that is the world, that is all things.
How best, then, to speak this world that is always moving, changing, always giving way?
I love the quote form my new favorite writer, Lisa Robertson: I'll finger sincerity — not embrace it because sincerity is too loaded with sentiment, with cliche, with falsity — and I'll do it by exemplum, by showing this radical particularity that is my becoming, that is my luck, that is my fate, that is my happening, that is: this. Here, this, all this.
Irony, methinks, is sincere. As is humor, often. What is probably more commonly insincere is sincerity in that it fails to speak the duplicity, the multiplicity, of becoming.
This is not say that there is not a time and place for a certain mode of sincerity, on those rare but perhaps beautiful occasions when one's feelings are so unified that speaking in breathy, teary proclamations is appropriate. (There are no doubt other modes of sincerity, too.)
But, most of the time, duplicity and multiplicity are what's called for, are what's called forth. I want to say it all, to have the great teem and whirl, the desire and need and fear and love and loathing and dream come through, all at once. To be sincere in that sense is to make language speak in multiple tongues simultaneously, like Tuvan throat singers who sing harmony with themselves.
Only they're revered and people just think I'm an insincere asshole. And so it goes.
A Sign Speaks
So I'm walking in the park today and I come upon this sign. And I find myself asking myself: Who, precisely, is saying "Thank you"? I can think of three options, the most likely, the one that makes the most sense, being the most insane and strange of the three:
1. It's the State. But if it's the State, what are they doing saying Thank You. Aren't we, in a sense, supposed to be the state? If they are saying thank you, then they are admitting that they are a distinct force — yes, a force, with all its threats — that is distinct from the people and, besides violence, they have politeness as a strategy to persuade the people. Now that's odd.
2. It's the animals. The animals are saying thank you for not running us over. Or thank you for trying not to run us over. But animals don't make signs, usually, at least not ones in English.
3. It's the sign that's talking. It's asked us to do something and so, as one does, it says, "Thank you." This, alas, is the only option that makes sense. And it's clearly the most insane.
I recorded my thoughts as they came to me here, using my terribly nifty iPhone voice memo feature — for the first time! I didn't want to forget this no doubt noble moment.
Speaking Emphatically Amidst the Flux: On Irony and Funyuns
When I was in high school, sitting at the town diner enjoying some french fries, I was known to declare, "This is the greatest fucking thing I've ever eaten!" The next day, while wolfing down some Funyuns, I'd declare, with equal emphasis, "This is the greatest fucking thing I've ever eaten!"
I did the same thing when listening to music. Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys"? No doubt, the greatest fucking song ever written. Jethro Tull's "Baker Street Muse"? Oh, c'mon, the greatest fucking song ever written. And so on.
And you know what? Each time, my declaration was right. It's not that my mind changed per se and I had to update some list of best things I'd ever eaten or best songs ever written (although I did know people who kept such lists; I was not one). It's that circumstances changed and, for that moment, for that time and place, those french fries were the greatest thing I'd ever eaten and "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" was the greatest song ever written.
What I'd discovered was the absolute within the circumstantial.
All is flux, yes. But as all there is is this flux, it is absolute — for a time. As a kid, I loved being overwhelmed by a Funyun or by Tull; I loved having every fiber of my being on edge, standing up, yelling: Yes! Yes! Yes! There is no other moment! This is it!
Everything gives way. I know that. I know that in every fiber of my being. At the same time, this flux is all there is: I am this flux (even if the flux exceeds me). I therefore try to live absolutely — and yet within circumstance: Absolute circumstance.
Irony has hence always attracted me. With irony, I can speak thoroughly of and with this world and at the same time recognize — and articulate — that all this will give way, is already giving way, even as I speak. If Socratic irony points to the infinite — or, according to Nietzsche, to nothing — my irony (I hope) points to the flux.
I speak with great emphasis and yet I know that things change — my mind will change, life will change, I'll feel differently. Does this knowledge mean I need to temper everything I say? Qualify everything I say? Well, yes and no. I do qualify everything I say — in tone.
But at the same time, I love being overwhelmed by the moment, by an idea, by a song or a food or a woman or a book. I love that moment when my body and everything in my body declares, without hesitation, Yes! Even though it knows that that yes may become a maybe, or even a no, down the road. But, for the moment, the feeling is absolute.
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