The Intimacies of the Urban

Paris je t'aime Tuileries by Narfouette

Life in a city is permeated with peculiar, oft overlooked, intimacies with strangers. Take windows.  As you walk through the city, you may casually glance up and see someone on the phone, a father playing with his kid, a family eating dinner, everyone everywhere watching tv.  You might see someone wanking his willy but he's probably doing that so you can see so that doesn't really count.

But it's not just windows.  This intimacy is everywhere, all the time.  You can smell your neighbors' cooking, are privy to their parties, their taste in music, when they wake and when they sleep and when they go out. 

In Species of Spaces, Georges Perec has a great thing on apartments: you're eating your dinner and right on the other side of the wall is someone else's bathroom. Or mere feet from where you sleep, a stranger is sleeping, as well, your two heads almost touching.  If you think about it too much, it will freak your shit out. 

When we go to the bathroom at work, in restaurants and bars, in train stations and airports, we piss, shit, pretty ourselves, change clothes, groom our nose hairs as strangers come and go inches away.

In elevators, we spend time in an incredibly small space — with strangers and their smells and ticks!  Which is a little odd!

On streets and subways and buses, we are inundated with the private selves of strangers — those hangdog faces, those looks of exhaustion or interest or exuberance or malaise. Now think of all the conversations we hear all day every day about god knows what.

For the most part, we pass through these streets with one ear and one eye, if that. We have to let this teem pass us by, even if bits here and there ricochet into our consciousness.  I find it's usually the hilarious rantings of the insane that penetrate the veil.  The mad don't know the rules of space, of sound, and so their private worlds collide into ours with more vigor.  (I can still hear the old grey haired white dude, shirtless, ranting in the West Philly streets: "I'm gonna raise an army of lesbians and take over McDonalds!")

Sometimes, you catch someone looking at you longer than they're supposed to and with a bit more interest than is prescribed.  It's always a poignant, if understated, moment when your eyes meet and the other person looks away. The speed of the encounter is everything — did they hold your gaze for a moment or did they look immediately away?

As a little boy living in Manhattan, my mother always told me not to make eye contact with strangers. Crazy things happen when strangers lock eyes; it can have the most powerful effect, tearing down protocol and inviting sudden intimacy: violence, sex, laughter, understanding. 

When you think about all the lives that intersect us with surprising intimacy, it is overwhelming. It is an incredible skill we've all learned, this tuning in and out (mostly out), this ability to be ourselves within the impossible density of other people's lives.

I used to do my laundry at this laundromat on the corner.  I'd sit outside on a bench as my clothes tumbled. A young woman — 20-something — lived in the apartment across the way. As I'd sit there, she'd saunter back and forth in less and less clothes until she was naked. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the city, even if quite beautiful. But what was truly beautiful was when we'd see each other face to face, on the street or even in the laundromat, exchanging not even a glance but sharing this very strange kind of intimacy.

Sometimes, it's distance that affords a certain kind of closeness.

From a one angle, it may seem sad as if we're ignoring each other, turning a blind eye to humanity.  But it's not sad. On the contrary, it's amazing and beautiful: to be able to live amidst such a swarm of humanity, taking in snippets here and there, all without being swept away.


What's an Image?

[an exerpt from a much longer thingamajig]

An image is not an image of. Or, rather, it is also an image of. 

An image, like a word, is a way of going, of taking up the world — a face, a sunset, light, sadness, love, ambivalence, things — and assembling them just so. Like a word, an image selects, inflects, arranges, and prioritizes. This is not to say that an image is not intimately enmeshed with the thing in the picture. Of course it is. A picture of me is a picture of me. But it is not solely a picture of me. It is another me, another thing in the world, another way of going. The image of me is simultaneously a reading of me and its own thing. 

An image is not a re-presentation. It is a repetition. An image of me is me again and anew. Neither the image of me nor this me is the real one. Or, rather, we are both real but in different ways. Obviously, an image of me is not covered under the same legal jurisdiction that I am: tear the picture of me in two and you will not be arrested for assault (but you may for damage to property). An image circulates in its own network of economies — legal, financial, interpretive. This network intersects the network that is me. Together, we inflect each other more or less depending on the node within the network, the junctures of the diverse economies. 

In any case, I am suggesting than an image is not a derivation or a supplement of the real. In the logic of repetition, there is no original, no master term: we are always already supplemental. Or, to put it more affirmatively, everything is a point of origin, everything is the center of its world — just as it is a periphery in another word. All the terms are repetitions that inflect each other. Isn’t this the way of fame — that the relentless image making of a person changes that person?

An image, like any thing, is a multiplicity, a more or less elaborate network of affects, effects, speeds, intensities. It is a metabolic engine. A camera doesn’t as much capture the world as it does digest it and reassemble it. An image maker, then, does not make a picture of the world. He proliferates the world, making more and more of it. 


Passionate Indifference

"Passionate indifference" is a phrase I've been passionate about for a while now.  It came to me first after first watching Pulp Fiction.  Here is a film that is cold, that seems to enjoy a casual brutality.  We may  feel for John Travolta but he gets shot, as an aside, while taking a shit. Uma Thurman takes a syringe to the heart. "Flock of Seagulls" is shot mid conversation.

And yet the film itself is absolutely passionate — every scene brims not with pathos but with vim, with verve, with vigor. It has a certain indifference to the plight of this or that character and an indifference to our identification.  The film gives us something else: the passion of film making, the passion of the event, the passion of a humanity that is not mired in bathos but in the very flow of the world — or at least of the moving image.

The best of nature shows and nature commentators speak with passionate indifference. Nature, after all, is neither kind nor brutal: it just is.  There is such intense drama — the large cat taking down a gazelle, hungry polar bears bearing the burden of an infinite winter, flora fighting for survival. And yet nature is absolutely, mercilessly, indifferent.  We can hear this in the voice of the great nature documentaries we know so well thanks to PBS.

And we see it in the great new book by Matthew Deren, "A Forgotten Wilderness: Nature's Hidden Relationships in West Central Idaho." You can see this passionate indifference in the sub-title: the hidden relationships.  For this is what Deren finds: a world that brims with ever-shifting relationships between animals, weather, insects, flora, man.  There is no good or bad.

The ancient Native Americans, Deren tells us, came to the New World, found it over run with large beasts — mammoths and saber tooth tigers — and slaughtered them all in a matter of a thousand years or so. This, in turn, gave way to different environment where food was to be found in more elusive forms of deer and plants.  Which, in turn, gave way to a culture of humility and interconnectedness.

Now, this is a beautiful argument. And one we are tempted to judge, to read through a moral lens. But Deren doesn't do that: to him, it — nature — and a nature that includes man — is simply, or not so simply, an ever shifting set of relationships.  These may not always be obvious unless you know how to look. His book teaches us to see everything — the berries and birds and beasts — with passionate indifference, with an unbounded love and respect but utterly free of moral judgement, of bathos, of cloying human sentimentality.

There is a certain coldness that is, in fact, sizzling hot.  It is cold to the insularity of humanity and its self-absorbed sense of self. This perspective grasps the bigger picture: man as one beast amidst the beasts, amidst the fray.  And as our gaze takes in these "hidden relationships" that teem, we experience a surge, a vitality, a passion — a passion that is indifferent to the bullshit and utterly alive to life. 


A Relationship with the Infinite

When I was a kid, I was overwhelmed by the concept of infinity.  I'd lie in bed at night, in the dark, and try to picture the infinity of space, each limit in my mind giving way giving way giving way until I achieved a kind of vertigo and my skinny little body would tremble as if in orgasm, a conceptual tantra.  It was exquisite.

And it was the beginning of my conscious relationship to the infinite. 

What is the infinite?  It is the understanding — an understanding that is an experience, that is lived through — that this life is necessary, that there is no other life, that everything that happens resounds infinitely precisely because it happened, because there is no other way: there is nothing else but this. And this necessity makes every moment constitutive of the universe — everything you do, think, say, feel makes the world in this absolutely distinct way.  Everything you do, think, say feel resounds infinitely.

Of course, we often think of the infinite as out there — like my younger self discovering the infinite in space. It is no doubt easier to experience the infinite without the distractions of what seems finite — traffic, jobs, pissing, eating, cleaning, what am I gonna do Saturday night, does Sally love me, my parents are insane, etc.  So monks recuse themselves from the everyday and meditate day and night with the infinite.Kierkegaard called this "infinite resignation": one gives in totally to the infinite, putting aside the "distractions" of sex, of the right restaurant, of job, of car maintenance. 

But for Kierkegaard, the trick is not to live in the infinite alone but to live at once in the finite and the infinite — to move into the infinite and back with each step (he call this person the Knight of Faith — see Fear and Trembling, a truly fantastic little book).

Nietzsche may serve us better.  In "The Gay Science," he gives us a test, what he calls "the greatest weight": an angel — or daemon — comes to you and says: Everything that has ever happened and will happen to you — every thought, meal, pain, action — has happened an infinite number of times and will happen an infinite number of times.  How do you respond? Are you crushed by its weight? Or liberated by the call of necessity?

This is to say, for Nietzsche, our lives — what we do here and now — are absolutely necessary. Fate and chance are the same thing. We are what we do; the universe is what happens (ontology gives way to becoming).  When one lives as if this were so, as if every moment were necessarily perfect because there is no other way for that moment to be, then one is living in the finite infinitely. 

Experiencing this kind of joy, having this profound knowledge of one's necessity, is difficult to maintain day in and day out.  We get distracted by the humdrum, by the quotidian demands, by our neuroses and anxieties — what if, what if, what if, if only, if only, if only.  When one says "what if" and "if only," then one no longer sees life as necessary but as contingent, as finite. 

It's not easy to let go of the what ifs and if onlies.  It is an on going job — well, at least for me it is. 

And all I ask of those around me — my friends, my lovers, my family — is that they at least try to live infinitely, that they have a relationship with the infinite, that at least at some point in their lives they've experienced the necessity of this life, that they've lived through that trembling, that joy — and that that experience is something they actively seek and foster.


#OccupyWallStreet and the Question of Change

One of the dominant critiques of #OWS is that it has no clear demands.  And yet, as many in the movement have claimed, that is precisely the point.

Revolution is not the goal. We don't want to turn all the way around and find ourselves right back where we started.  We need to take a line of flight, go somewhere else entirely, like Bugs Bunny being chased by Elmer Fudd.  He doesn't run; he shifts the conversation.

And this, I believe, is what #OWS wants: a fundamental change of structure and of behavior.  They don't oppose; they multiply.

And this means radical openness, different voices and perspectives. This means moving beyond ideology and its implicit violence, its us vs. them dichotomies, its righteousness.  Righteousness is unseemly in every way.

And so a new way of coalescing.  A way that does not have one, fixed agenda but has multiple agendas or no agenda at all.  This is a performative protest, practicing what it professes.

Is that enough?  Well, of course not. A bunch of people sitting in the streets stirring up shit and talking in round tables is not the end state. It's the beginning state.  And it's an essential element — collective, non-ideological discussion fueled by passion, anger, frustration, need, and desire.

Individually, a lot of changes need to be made.  People need to refuse to work 60, 70, 80 hour weeks without proper compensation.  People need to stop shopping at convenient behemoths and support local business.  People need to stop driving like they're the only one on the road.

We have to claim dignity and civility on an individual basis.

But there are enormous, powerful structures in place that need to change, as well.  The flow of capital needs to be re-engineered.  Right now, the game is rigged by a coalition of government and police that enforces these flows, ensuring the capital flows towards the top of global corporations. 

This is not about liberation. That is a red herring. This is about the structural engineering of capital flow.

And so change must begin with dismantling the privilege and power afforded corporations.  This means:

  • Taking away personhood from corporations.  While this cannot happen overnight, it would be nice to have some economists begin mapping out how to do this without triggering a complete economic collapse.
  • As incorporating is a privilege and not a right — a privilege granted by the government, which presumably is by the people —  put certain mandates on corporations that re-engineer the flow of capital.  Now, it all flows up.  So mandate that it must flow down, too: profit sharing with all employees.  Don't like that rule? Don't incorporate.

What else?

The Posture of Things

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