I've been thinking recently about some of my favorite writers, favorite artists, favorite musicians — and how some of them have never "made it" in the traditional sense of the phrase. They are not renowned; they do not make money directly off their art. Most not only don't make money from their art, their art costs money to make.
If I write an essay about the films of Wes Anerdson, people may read it. If I write an essay about the films of Marc Lafia, no one gives a shit. If I quote Lafia in an essay I'm writing, the citation carries no weight; if I quote Deleuze, then I must know my shit.
But are these people any less great than the well-known, well-distributed, and well-paid? There is an alarming prejudice that declares that for something truly to be great, it must be well known. It must receive accolades; it must have the imprint of capitalist, popular success.
And yet many of my favorite artists, none of whom will likely ever be so imprinted, have changed my life in profound ways. Because they are fucking brilliant.
I am thinking of the great poet and writer, Lisa Robertson, who's written the downright devastatingly brilliant, The Weather and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture (whose title alone is an entire pedagogy and is so smart it makes me want punch myself in the face out of joy). She performs a new kind of knowing, a phenomenology, a way of going that is at once physical and affective and exquisite.
And of my excellent friend, Marc Lafia, who's been making short films, long films, images, and experiences for 30 years and whose work has taught me what vision is and what technology is. He operates in this incredible space that always already considers the form of something, engages the form of something, while articulating it with an incredible intelligence and beauty.
And of my fellow rhetor, Lohren Green, whose Poetical Dictionary is one of the greatest contributions to literature imaginable — at once shifting the very terms of knowing, of speaking, of writing and doing it with the utmost grace and eloquence.
Or my favorite band, now disbanded, Here Are The Facts You Requested,who take on the entire history of pop music to create what they call avant-normal — incredible songs that interrogate the very nature of a song with every note.
Now I imagine writers, musicians, artists like this all over the world — this entire strata of outrageous brilliance hovering over this globe, a strata that rarely moves, that does not enjoy dissemination but that persists out of diligence and passion. When I imagine this, I am at once inspired and saddened — inspired by the thought that despite the overwhelming stupidity and ugliness of the world, there are these flares of brilliance everywhere; and saddened that I, and you, will never know them.
The obligations of the day blind us. We focus on waking up and getting ready, getting where we need to go, negotiating work and family and love and bills and traffic and taxes. It's not often that we afford ourselves the opportunity to survey the world, its mechanics and mode of operation. You'd think the media would help us with that but the opposite is true: the media focuses on current affairs, rarely stepping back to critique the system.
Step back for a moment now and look at the mechanics of the world around you. Look at what's demanded of the body, how its movement is choreographed throughout the day. It's quite odd.
Our jobs not only don't ask us to move — they demand that we don't move. We sit at desks for hours upon hours, staring at a screen occasionally getting up to drink some coffee or chat with a co-worker. A body that moves, that flexes its muscles, an active body: this goes against the very basis of the information economy.
Meanwhile, we feed this still body poorly. Obviously, not all of us: some of us take the time to pack a nice lunch, to eat well, to treat this stationary, withering frame of ours. But, on the whole, I think it's safe to say that Americans at their jobs are not only not moving, they're eating absolutely terrible food, gut wrenching food, soul killing food.
And drinking loads of lattes — antibiotic infused, hormone drenched milk fat with some shitty coffee in it.
This world is breeding a body that does not want to move, a body that is not physically vital. Sure, there are gyms, these ghettos of movement. But I'm not sure mindless, concerted movement breeds a healthy body. Watching tv while working an exercise bike ensures that we remain locked into the information economy, to the exchange of the new capital: images.
And so, as a culture, we are being bred to manipulate pixels and words, images and icons. Capital demands a new kind of body, one that doesn't need to lift or heave — and one that doesn't want to run about, fuck, frolic. The industrial age is truly over; the informational body is being born.
And it is not pretty, this birth, this metamorphosis, this breeding. It demands a disciplining of our days that is unsavory — waking to the shrill cry of the alarm clock, slouching through maniacal traffic, being forced to sit at a desk staring at a screen for hours upon hours.
Marcuse calls this the body of labor. But that's not quite right because the very nature of labor has changed — and this new labor doesn't want a body at all. It wants a brain that can fill in the gaps between machines, between computers. I want to say: it's the antibody of non-labor labor. But that's a supremely ugly phrase.
The body of pleasure is being bred out of existence, leaving us literally impotent, popping Viagra just to continue the species.
And the shitty things is, this whole thing is gonna come crashing down and we'll need to be strong, really fucking strong, to survive. But by then we'll be shriveled, mere husks left to be blown away by the mighty winds that come.
The jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers of today's work world are not signs of liberation. On the contrary, they mark Capital's success in co-opting every last vestige of personal life, folding our very selves into the will of production.
The business suit — a pain in the ass, no doubt, and rarely attractive — marks a clear line between home and work. It is a uniform that declares: "This is me at work. There is another me that is, frankly, none of your business."
In the old days, you couldn't get a job if your hair was long, your nose pierced, and tattoos covered your arms. Today, at least in San Francisco, it seems like a requirement. Capital realized that the maintenance of a personal life distinct from corporate life is not productive — for the corporation. All that wasted time making love to your spouse! All that wasted time reading, writing, strolling, thinking, eating drugs! You could be using all that time to write another PowerPoint presentation! Work, you drug addled freakazoid!
I watched it happen in San Francisco in the last 1990s during the dot com explosion. Suddenly, the work space was filled with bikes and skateboards and everyone was in t-shirts and jeans, tatted and pierced and, well, working their asses off. What a find for Capital! These little fuckers get shit done!
And the bars and coffee shops, filled with the same kids, became extensions of work. The cafe went from being a refuge from work to being the site of work. And thanks to microcomputing, we are always jacked in.
Now work permeates every aspect of the day, more or less. Every moment is a potential moment of productivity. Look at how the new corporate order functions. Google — and Apple and Genentech — bus their employees to work — oops, to campus. Now, this no doubt makes said employees' lives easier and reduces the dreaded carbon footprint. But, come the fuck on, can't we have some time to ourselves? And, once on campus — oh, the word creeps my shit out — you get free lunch! Just like in prison!
And we have foosball! And M&Ms coming out the yin yang! And, look, everyone's cool and wearing t-shirts and jeans! They're your friends! Isn't work great? There's no reason ever to leave — except that housing you is expensive so we'll bus you back to your over priced condo dorm — for which you pay a rent or mortgage that keeps you in a state of perpetual indentured servitude — before busing you here in the morning.
The genius of Capital is to have you identify yourself, once and for all, with the desire of Capital, to have your most personal selves be a source of productivity, of energy, for the capitalist engine. This is accomplished through branding, of course — "I'm a Mac," "I'm a PC" — but through an absolute identification with work, as well: employees wearing Google t-shirts.
This means we identify at once with production and consumption, the ultimate dream of Capital. It's an infinitely fast circuit — the kids working all day to make the shit, buy the shit (except, of course, for the real kids of the Third World — with them, we stick to good old fashioned exploitation!).
As our uniform stays the same from home to work, our privacy gives way to the Spectacle. Look at the modern office: no private offices at all. Even the conference rooms are all glass — so when you sneak in to make a call, everyone can see you. The open work space is the splaying of the private before the panoptic eye.
The suit that kept work contained in its office has given way to the bleed of denim and the continuous, always exposed, always-on work day.
And then there was us — the beast and me, a middle class hebe and his demi-jew spawn. Oh, it was a beautiful, if chaotic, event — loud music, people everywhere, and some professional skater in the middle of it all. My boy, needless to say, was a bit intimated — he had his board and his helmet but he was sticking close to his pops.
Seeing such a young one — he was certainly on the younger side — people were coming up to us to encourage his participation. One such young man introduced himself as Kevin. Kevin was a 19 year old black man. He explained to us that he'd grown up in the SF housing projects and that skateboarding had helped keep him off the streets, out of trouble, and in school. So he suggested that I encourage my boy to skate — you know, to keep him off the streets.
But for me and the boy, skateboarding is about putting more street, as it were, into our lives. We're not trying to avoid trouble; we're trying to get into a little — just a little, of course.
And this brought to light the relativity of social issues — for one community, skateboarding is a way to stay out of trouble; for another, it's a way of welcoming some trouble where there is too little. This disparity makes making sense of social policy insanely difficult.
Take the so-called issue of drugs. I love drugs! My friends love drugs! My whole life we've been dropping, eating, smoking, and snorting so many different things. In other communities, for other people, drugs have been devastating, laying waste to entire populations.
How can we have a conversation, then, about the role of drugs in our society? And, more complicated, how are we to legislate it? The same act — smoking some crack, smoking a joint, blowing lines — means very different things in different communities. But the law must apply to all, equally — at least nominally. We know, of course, that it is not applied equally — that there is enormous racial bias.
And yet I like the idea of police being empowered to choose when to enforce a law and when not to. Because the same act is not equal for all. I know, I know: our police, unfortunately, are not trained to do that. On the contrary, they are trained — perhaps implicitly — to enforce along racial lines. But I'm asking you to listen to what I'm saying: the equal enforcement of the law does not always make sense, especially in a country as wildly diverse as this one. As legislation can't discern, it's the job of the enforcers to do so.
The grand finale of this skateboard event was the giving away of 10 boards to 10 lucky kids, courtesy of this pro skater. When they announced the beginning of the give away, all the kids raced to where the new boards were lined up. My boy, sensing the excitement and wanting a board, began his foray into the group — before Dad yanked his ass back. And I explained to him that those boards were for kids who couldn't afford their own and, as we can afford one, he had to sit this one out.
Because while the law may apply to us all equally, this doesn't mean we are all the same.
To see, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, is to palpate. It is akin to touch only capable of traversing great distances. I can only palpate with my hands those things in my immediate vicinity. But I can palpate things with my eyes that are tens, hundreds, thousands of feet away. It is odd that we might consider vision a cold sense, as if the spatial distance translated into a lack of affect or effect. How do I see something if my body is not touching it in some way? My eyes lay hold of it, take it up, weigh it, consider it, make sense of it in a way that’s different from, but akin to, what my hands do.
The digital camera and its extension — the interweb — is an extension of the eye, an amplification of its ability to palpate the world at great remove, across great distances. When we see an image, we may not have recourse to the other senses (although sound is a key aspect of the digital image) but the eyes are a quite powerful means of taking up the world. Imagine, for a moment, that rather than the eyes being extended, touch was and we could reach around the world with our hands and touch a person on the other side of the planet. Would we say the experience was mediated? Would we say the experience was not real? That it was “only” a grope? Why do we say this about seeing but not about touch?
When we interact in a chatroom with a woman in Romania; when we stare into the projected eyes of a stranger in Nova Scotia; when we discuss our deepest fears with a psychologist across town or across country: when we interact with these images, we move and are moved, literally. That is not a false encounter, a replica of an encounter. Nor is it a mediated encounter. It may not be the same as talking to someone standing next to you but the difference is not the difference between the immediate and the mediated, the real and the replica. Both are real. Both are at once immediate and mediated by our fears, memories, desires, language, eyeballs.
The point is this: the image is real, too, and makes for real encounters. Different than fleshy encounter but real nonetheless.
There’s a prevailing argument that this screen life, this image life, is alienating. Walk in a coffee shop, everyone’s on the computer. Wait at a bus stop, everyone’s looking down at a phone. Indeed, in the reviews of David Fincher's film, The Social Network, the most common comment was that the film articulates a great irony: a man with no friends creates a social network that’s supposed to be about friends. The implication is that Facebook friends are not really friends. Well, of course they’re not. A Facebook friend and a friend I see everyday, a friend I’ve grown up, are different things. Nobody every said they were the same thing. It turns out words have multiple uses depending on their context!
As for people looking down at their screens rather than each other standing at a bus stop, does this mean we are all alienated? Or might it mean we are connected to each other in ways that traverse immediate spatial vicinity? Everyday life turns in many ways who our neighbors are, on what’s happening directly in front of us. But this doesn’t mean we can’t also look down at our screens to see what others are doing across town, across country, across the globe.
Rather than looking at screen life as lacking something, as interfering with something, I’m suggesting we look at the communities it forges, the lives it makes. In many ways, screen life enmeshes the individual in multiple networks, in networks he or she might never have been a part of, to things and ideas and people he or she might never have known. The speed of the image reshapes and proliferates community.
And allows us to fold the world into a temporal origami. A friend in Thailand posts as he rises but we in California are fast asleep. I rise hours later, see the post, reply. There is, then, this very beautiful syncopated communication. Or, even better, this aparallel becoming, a moving with that is neither immediate nor mediated but that enjoys a strange temporality. We live in image time, in screen time.
This or that book, they like to say, is the definitive tome on James Joyce, on the French Revolution, on Monet. But why be definitive? What will propels such a desire?
It seems such a peculiarly imperial drive — to claim the territory, plant the flag, make the laws: this is James Joyce, dammit! This will imagines knowledge as a domain to be colonized with texts that are fixed entities, quantities to be exhausted and hence known — as if knowledge had an end.
But what of the will to multiplicity? What of the will that says, "This is my take on Joyce. What's yours? The more the merrier!"
The will to multiplicity doesn't mean writing with any less rigor (although rigor of research wields its own very special kind of tyranny). Nor does it necessitate hedging its bet (although there's nothing wrong with that — hedging is a complex art and science unto itself). One who writes with such a will is no less passionate, no less engaged with the material than the one who seeks to be definitive. I might even say that the will to multiplicity enjoys a certain intimacy with the material, seeking to see it celebrated, proliferated, extended into new territories.
Just because I recognize that there are other readings doesn't mean I don't stand by mine. Why can't I be passionate, emphatic, about what I have to say while simultaneously relishing the fact that there are other passionate, emphatic readings?
A text — whether it's a book, an oeuvre, a life, an event — is infinite. There are as many ways into a text as there are readers and more. I want to say that a text is all of its possible readings, including those yet to come, including those we cannot yet imagine. The more readings — and the stranger the readings — the more alive that text becomes.
The will to multiplicity enjoys the lack of finality, the impossibility of reaching the end. It knows no reading can claim the land because there is no land per se: the whole thing is in motion, a river, an ocean, a sky. It does not seek to exhaust a text because there is no exhaustion — there is nothing but the act of reading, of reading again, and again, and again.
The will to multiplicity is premised on love — a love of the text, a love for and of and with difference. It is a love of life in all its multihued splendor.
It doesn't mean liking that thing. On the contrary, it means putting judgment aside in order to engage the thing, consider the thing, take it on, take it up. And what can be more generous than that? To consider something entails a certain intimacy, letting it play across you, with your ideas and memories, your blood and tissue and muscle. Generosity entails lending something else your body to see how it plays with your system, how it sets and where it settles — its speeds and intensities, its desires and drives, its shapes and trajectories.
And this means letting this thing have its way rather than making it conform to your pre-established ideals. Needless to say, you will make it conform to you. How could it be any other way? An engagement with the world is singular: this going with that, you going with that book, that word, that photograph. But this is different than making it conform before its had a chance to speak, before its made its way. The best reading is a co-operative event, you and thing together making something new: you take the thing somewhere it didn't know it could go and it returns the favor.
Letting something have its way demands great trust. And so this is another aspect of generosity: assuming the best from something. That is, rather than looking for how something fails, why it sucks, why you hate it, you look for what's great, what's interesting, what has possibility. Why spend your time, your energy, talking about something you don't enjoy, you don't respect? What a perverse thing to do! Generous reading seeks to proliferate a thing, make it as interesting and wondrous as possible! It doesn't reduce; it multiplies.
And, well, if you don't like something, put it down — stop eating, shut the book, leave the theater, click to another page. Life is too fucking short to spend it with shite.
Shed the shite! (Ok, ok: I'm a fan of Irving Welsh's, ergo, "shite.")
Does this mean there's no place for what seems to be negative critique? Does this mean you can't stand up every now and again and say, "This sucks shit"?
Well, I say: if you can walk away, walk away. Better to use your attention, your energy, your vitality on something that makes you more attentive, more energetic, more vital — on something that propels you in the healthiest, most robust fashion possible.
And for those things from which you cannot so simply walk away — things like capitalism — well, I say that in the spirit of generosity, try to make your critique as interesting and nasty as possible.
Thinking today — and maybe thinking always — is about forging connections, not piling up facts in a closed domain. This is not to say there is not a pleasure in facts, a knowledge to be enjoyed in facts. Foucault would spend hours upon hours, weeks upon weeks, in the archives, discovering a peculiar erotics of the information splay. (Me, I've never been a fact guy. Even as an undergraduate history major, I found facts achingly boring and hence wrote my thesis on Foucault and models of historiography — anything to avoid facts! Which, alas, is not a critique of facts but a critique of me — not in the sense of criticism but in the true sense of critique. I like to move fast in my thinking and facts slow me up; I'd rather make shit up. But many of my favorite thinkers enjoy a very different speed. It all depends on your metabolism.)
How does one go about teaching thinking? How does one go about teaching the skill of making connections? Well, it's through example. See how Foucault makes a connection between jails, prisons, and schools; look how Deleuze makes connections between calculus, architecture, and Paul Klee; look how McLuhan makes a connection between the assembly line and the alphabet. These are not examples we can copy; they are not examples from which we can extrapolate a concept. No, they are examples that show how thinking can happen, the possible directions it can take, the types of leaps and bounds it can make.
Which is to say, it takes practice — practice in linking, assembling, deconstructing, proliferating, meandering meaningfully and not.
Writing, at its best, takes the reader on an unexpected tour of such lines of thinking, such veins of thought. The very movement of the words takes us along a ride through uncharted territory — and, in the process, lays claim to new domains — domains that may very well be sui generis.
One might say — am I saying it? Well, yes and no — that thought is the art of metaphor as metaphor, etymologically, means to transfer, to carry over (doh! a fact! a fact I love, relish, and deploy often). Which might explain the long historical ties between philosophy and poetry and why Lucretius calls himself a poet.
In any case, I wish the kids today learned more of this and less of that — or both this and that.
"Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose." — Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium is the Massage"
What entitles someone to speak about something? Based on what authority do we speak, write, form our opinions, hold forth on this or that?
The university system is predicated on the structure of the expert — you must major in something. If you pursue gruduate studies, you're asked to specialize within that major: not only are you studying literature, you're studying British 19th century women's literature. Why such specialization? Because this is the only way to become an expert, to exhaust a field of knowledge, all the so-called primary and secondary texts.
But the expert is, by definition, a conservative: his or her job is to conserve that domain of knowledge, to say what gets in and what gets out. As Barthes argues in "Death of the Author," this pedagogy is built on the priest model: the expert is the conduit between the lay person and the Word.
The expert is a mortician, presiding over dead knowledge.
Ah, but the amateur is a lively bloke who pays no heed to inherited categorical distinctions. The amateur reads what he reads, writes what he writes, thinks what he thinks. The amateur makes his way on the fly without regard to official knowledge. He makes connections in surprising ways, traversing domains along trajectories no one could have imagined. The amateur strolls and meanders through the experts' various domains, creating new byways and through ways as he goes.
If the expert is an imperialist, laying claim to a domain, the amateur is a perpetual poacher, taking some here, some there in order to create new shapes and possibilities — that may very well be washed away as the tide comes in like an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.
And this is what the network demands — the ability, the skill, to make connections, to cross domains, to traverse fields of presumed expertise. The academy and its experts are premised on the pyramid: a rigid hierarchical structure. But the new age is an age of the network, of every which way, of all ways at once.
The academy is an embarrassing anachronism. And its gatekeepers — the so-called stars of the university — are gravediggers, embalmers, and undertakers.
What, then, will be the university of the future? What is the education of the network? Well, it's based on skills, on how to handle information, not just memorize it. It should always already be interdisciplinary.
When I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute's graduate center, most students didn't study photography or painting or sculpture: they congregated in what SFAI called "new genres," a field that considers all materials fair game.
This is not to say that one shouldn't learn how to handle paint or cameras or learn about differential equations and chemical reactions. It's to say that such knowledge is not the end-point, not the goal. The point of network education is to breed perpetual amateurs, those who are always taking risks, making connections that risk madness and nonsense but that perpetually flirt with beauty and the delirium of the new.
We affirm the quality of life over the deranged demands of “work.”
We believe pleasure is the goal and we are not talking about the pleasure of convenience, of commodity fetishism, of endlessly new things, of guilt ridden romps in rub and tug parlors. We believe pleasure is slow and permeates body and mind — as if the two were even distinct. By pleasure we mean enjoyment, not consumption.
We embrace complexity as we know things in this life are multivalent.
We believe it’s good to be singular, to enjoy strange and surprising views on things — and we reject, at every turn, the attempts of the media to reduce everything to one side or the other; of Hollywood to reduce the great human complexity to pat narratives that reaffirm the same old bourgeois bullshit of family, hetero love, marriage, work, death.
We affirm the right to move slowly — and in cafés that are not extensions of the workplace.
We believe in the pure gift, exchange without profit.
We believe in a basic public civility that respects the privacy, and strangeness, of people — unless it is only through incivility that we can find our strangeness.
We embrace change but reject the capitalist fetish of the new.
We believe in things — but not things that give a temporary buzz then break. We believe things should be respected as part of life, that they should be well made, well considered, and should propel pleasure, dignity, civility.
We believe education needs to be freed from the tyranny of the classroom and its state sponsored curricula and its petty pedantic academics. Education needs to permeate not just the day but the life.
Since I was young, I've been attracted to that invisible nub that emerges when you put two magnets near each other, that push and pull (depending on polarity): one the one hand, that palpable attraction between two supposedly inanimate objects. On the other hand, that palpable repulsion between two supposedly inanimate objects.
Magnetism is a sensual introduction to the power of objective forces, a testimony to the undeniable reality of the world's primal desires.
But it's that moment in which the magnets neither push nor pull, both push and pull, that I love. Once the magnets either connect or leave their zone of repulsion, the fun is over. It's the power, the energy, in the moment just before that is nothing less than erotic.
This is an exquisite erotics — riding that tension without ever quite consummating. Oh, it's not easy to maintain. Bodies want to go together or not — attraction and repulsion: they want to fuck or be gone. Of course, there's an ambivalence between human bodies that is more nuanced than between magnets. Still, to exist in and on and with that nub where attraction and repulsion have begun to show themselves, when bodies ache for each other but don't surrender: this is a kind of jouissance, an edging towards that release but never coming, as it were, to a conclusion.
In order to maintain, it involves a very intimate and secret compact between you, an endless negotiation that says "yes I want you" and, in the same breath, "but, no, I'm not gonna fuck you." This takes confidence by all parties involved, a surrender to possibility without making that possibility real — heavy petting without fucking. Sometimes, it is much harder to not fuck than to fuck. It demands an incredible, impossible intimacy, a conspiracy of desire: both parties must say yes, let's ride this wave of surging power, extend it even though its very condition is to annihilate itself, even though it's telling us to go all the way, even though this is what the universe seems to demand. What a strange and beautiful pact!
This is not the only erotics. There is, needless to say, a beauty and power and frenzy and delight and merriment and madness in consummation, in riding that wave of attraction that exceeds you and dominates you and becomes you all the way to the sweaty, sticky end.
But it is that tension, that palpable push and pull, that attracts me in many ways. It's the time just before kairos, the very possibility of kairos, the groundwork of kairos, the conditions of kairos. It is the moment in a gunfight before they pull their guns, the dribbling and passing and movement before the drive to the basket, the tension and swell before you undress.
There must be a word for this.
One thing that will never cease to delight me about San Francisco is that it constantly juxtaposes itself with itself. Every street promises a different perspective, every turn a different view. This city is a crumpled piece of paper, an endlessly modulated surface, a billowed plane.
New York — the New York I remember growing up in, the Manhattan of the 70s — is a city of heights and depths. As you ramble through its tenement girded corridors, you feel the belly of the beast quite literally grumble to unimaginable depths. What's down there? you wonder at times. But, for the most part, you just assume that the ground you walk on gives way to a baroque universe of oddity, wonder, and curiosity. Meanwhile, above you, mystery maintains its grip. What happens in those offices, those penthouses? Not that you care but it's safe to assume that something is going on....
San Fransisco does not know depths and heights. There is no real subway — and, no, BART doesn't count: it's a commuter train. It does not crisscross the guts of the city. And while there are a few taller buildings, they live amongst themselves and are bereft of mystery.
Even its one signature skyscraper, the Transamerica Pyramid, is not like its imposing siblings in Manhattan. No, the Transamerica Pyramid is friendly to pedestrians, offering itself with great generosity as its contours mimic the walker's line of sight. Which is to say, from down below, we can still take in the enormous edifice, visually make sense of it. (In NY, skyscrapers loom heavy: they are walls to be walked by. Even when you crane your neck, it's impossible to take them in.)
And this is true of San Francisco as a whole: it is generous, offering itself up to those who desire. San Francisco is not a difficult city to master. Sure, there are some urban planning oddities — the way Market cuts at angle can be confusing for a while or the way 3rd St intersects 22nd St. It is a peninsula, after all, which sometimes makes it difficult to remember which side has the ocean and which side has the Bay (ocean, west; bay, east).
And, yes, there are nuggets that will surprise you — a first-run movie theater in West Portal; a second run double feature way the fuck out on Balboa; Vietnamese food on Noriega; sushi in a place that seats around 10 and is only open 3-4 nights a week on Arguello, tucked next to the park; an outpost of Samovar across from the Zen Center on Laguna, affording a respite from the fray; handball courts in that enormous, wondrous park that enjoys a whiff of the wild. (NY's Central Park, an amazing park, is much more sophisticated, made for strolling. Golden Gate Park, true to the way of the West, is made for exploring.)
But all these things are fundamentally available, there for the taking. They are obscured by a hill, nuzzled behind a neighborhood, but they are not forever out of view. In NY, there is always something else, something you don't know about, something weirder, cooler, more expensive, less expensive, something you will never be privy to and probably don't want to be privy to.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, gems may not always sit right in front of you but if you peek around the corner, hike over the hill, you'll find them.
Now, I will admit that I think I'm pretty good at sizing up a room, taking its affective temperature, making sense of its mood. And, from time to time, I can make a comment or two that stirs the stew just like I like it. But, more often than not, shit goes terribly wrong: I piss people off, I'm thoroughly misunderstood, taken as a know-it-all prick (which I am) when all I want to come off as is an easy going guy with some ideas.
There are several reasons for this, I believe.
One is I am a narcissist: I care more about myself than about the audience and so I speak to myself, not to them.
Two is I never know when to begin. That is, I have no idea what people have thought about and at what point my own diatribe meets things they've thought. Inevitably, I begin too far down the path: to wit, this very evening, speaking to a room of about a dozen 20-something hipsters, I launched into a rant about "affective resonance," as if they would have any fucking idea what I was talking about. I think I mentioned invisible asteroid fields of affect — which, to me, is an excellent figure but which I fear, to them, was insane. Doh!
Deleuze does it so well, always beginning his books mid-stride. When I do it, I lose my audience from the get go and am met with an alarming composite of boredom, loathing, and disdain. But, in all honesty, I don't do it to be provocative: I live in such solitude that I just don't know what people know and think about.
Three is my tone of voice and mode of delivery: NY hebes — read: I — deliver uncertainty with a tone of absolute certainty. I feel like I take irony for granted — of course we're all just making it up, throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. And in order to know for sure, you have to throw with conviction! So I speak and write with a certain emphatic umph and always with the understanding — held by me alone, it seems — that all of this might very well turn out to be nonsense.
But my audience, especially in this absurd city of San Francisco, think me an asshole. Which I may be, but not for the reasons they think. And I want people to know why, precisely, I'm an asshole.
And so, despite years of rhetorical training, I am a terrible rhetor, perhaps the world's worst. Fortunately, I enjoy my solitude and, for the most part, I understand myself quite well.
People claim to have seasonal affective disorder. Of course they do. Only a) it's not a disorder; and b) we all have it.
The weather is a mood and not simply some numbers — temperature, humidity, wind — that tell us what to wear. Winds don't just blow warm and cold, wet and dry. They also blow anxious, calm, frenzy. Weather is the swirl of affect.
And San Francisco is deep in the swirl. This is a strange city with an incredibly intimate relationship not just to the sky but to the atmosphere in general. Montana, Kansas, Texas: they have Big Sky. San Francisco doesn't have big sky: it has Close Sky, sky that comes down to us, clouds that literally kiss us. We call it fog.
Ocean, bay, desert land, sky, wind: here they interact in endlessly shifting configurations that relentlessly modulate our days. We may not experience extremes of hot and cold but within our tightly stipulated range, we experience great tumult, enormous variation. And with this, an endlessly shifting affective resonance.
A few weeks ago, I'm driving through the city and experienced something that happens with some frequency in San Francisco: everything was nutty. Cars were doing strange things — stopping for no reason, drifting, turning suddenly. Pedestrians, too, were popping up at unexpected places in unexpected ways. I couldn't go one block with some wacky shit happening.
The next morning, I learned that the earthquake in Japan had happened and that the tsunami had hit the California coast. Of course, I said to myself, that's why everything was so wacky yesterday.
And just in case I didn't believe it, the next day found my boy and me at the park where we sat — randomly, whatever that means — to watch some amateur baseball game. We took seats next to one teams' bench — we where the only people in the stands — and I looked at a player's jersey: Tsunami, it read, in big bold letters.
The world is not a stage. It is an actor. And a pervasive, demanding one at that.
When I write — when I speak — it is at once emphatic and uncertain. I speak from a position but with the full understanding that positions are not fixed, that conditions change, minds change, feelings change. But I still feel the way I feel and so I write on.
But, usually, I write essays, not treatises. And I do this not out of indecision, not because I am somehow lame or uncommitted, but because this is the change I'd like to foment: I want the whole world to be less dogmatic, to embrace ambiguity and multivalence, to love multiplicity and sing in dissonant chorus, to embrace complexity and all that it engenders.
So of course I run into problems: the very terms of political exchange are premised on opposition. And I'm trying to speak outside of opposition, in the language of play because play, methinks, will set us free.
Part of the issue is that we're all beginning from different places, from different sets of assumptions. Me, I'm not sure what politics is, what people means, what capital denotes. Which is to say, I begin from a place of rampant stupidity — my own rampant stupidity, that is. But ingrained in this is the belief that we should all begin from such a place — a place that privileges the question over the answer, a place that is willing to put it ALL back together into odd, beautiful shapes that resonate.
And then there is the nature of this subject matter. It is run through with pathos, with sentiment, which tends to eclipse discussion. People find themselves all worked up — which always surprises me.
And then there is the nature of discussion. What happens when the terms of exchange are premised on oppositional argument and I operate in a discourse with very different rules? My favorite mode of exchange is the conversation punctuated by the monologue: You hold forth, I ask some questions, lend some refinements; then I hold forth while you question and lend some refinements. This way we enact a multiplicity of perspectives co-existing — which is precisely the change I'd like to enact!
Solidarity in multiplicity!
I've been whipping out my iPhone camera more and more. And it has taught me something, something I thought I'd always known but didn't: the camera creates new possibilities of becoming.
Look at the video above. I was filming my kid without him knowing it and this gives us the classic possibility of the camera: to be privy to events that are otherwise personal. But what astounded me, and what astounds me every time I watch this, is what happens once he does know he's being filmed. His face — his whole being — goes through a series of configurations expressing a range of nuance within the realm of shyness and pride.
And yet these are not faces I'd ever seen on him before. These are faces made possible by the camera and existing only for the camera. Usually, our faces negotiate now — we grimace, smile, wink as our audience demands. But the camera is a strange kind of audience. It is at once no audience at all and every possible audience — after all, who knows who will see that face down the road. His face is trying to make sense of a now that, all of a sudden, is becoming a forever.
This is why many people make faces for the camera that are monumental; they seek to emulate the other arts of forever — the painterly portrait, the statue.
But the camera — the digital camera — is of another beast entirely for it is not monumental. It is everyday. These are not the images that grace museum walls, standing strong amidst the flux of time. No, these images are on little screens that sit in our pockets. These images bounce around the planet. These images are essentially plastic — forever, yes, but not monumental. They live with us, everyday, in coffee shops, at work, lounging at home.
This creates a new kind of being seen. When we are digitally filmed, we are not just being taken up by eyes. We are being taken up by an engine that creates multiple versions of ourselves that co-exist with our fleshy selves.
And this, I've discovered, extends us. Watching my son's face do these things I didn't know it could do, I came to have a newfound respect for the camera, for the way it doesn't just capture the world but creates new possibilities of the world.
(When I say "system," I mean system: a complex network of forces and institutions working together. A system is not something we can replace — we can't swap socialism for capitalism. It doesn't work that way. I use system to get us into "system thinking," to not isolate this or that — the Brazilian rain forest! the spotted owl! campaign finance! — but the way everything works together.)
In some sense, Greenpeace is a wing of corporate America taxed with dealing with one of the more obvious corporate externalities: pollution and planet pillaging. Nestle, Chevron, Exxon/Mobil: they should be charged with cleaning shit up, with not raping the forests. But instead it's Greenpeace funded by.....you and me (well, not me). Without Greenpeace protecting our forests and air, Nestle would probably deforest the planet and then where would it be: no more forest and no more people. The dead make poor long-term consumers.
Just as espionage is built into the peace process, charities in the US are built into the capitalist, corporate process: they clean up the mess made by the corporations. Which, in turn, allow the corporations to keep doing what they're doing.
Notice that none of these organizations go after corporations directly. Why doesn't Greenpeace et al put their lobbyists to work to take away personhood from corporations? Why don't they advocate for less work hours which, in turn, would slow consumption and hence the pillaging of the planet? Because they are constitutive of the corporate structure. Because they get their funding from the corporate structure. They are the counterpoint to corporate pillaging that lets the whole system keep running.
So I'm not saying do away with Greenpeace. I'm saying do away with the whole kit and kaboodle, including Greenpeace.
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