Empiricism, or Leaning into the World

To be empirical, we imagine, is to be rigorously materialist: we know only what we can sense — with our five senses. Any shenanigans about ghosts or spirits or mysterious cosmic forces is the stuff of superstition, of mysticism.

But my empirical experience certainly exceeds my five senses. All kinds of things happen to me that I don't see, smell, touch, hear, or taste but which I sense — and know. Take this common experience: when you know — yes, know — that someone is looking at the back of your head.

Or when you walk in a restaurant — or classroom, movie theater, anywhere — and just feel funny sitting in a certain seat. Or when there's suddenly a very strange mood over the city coupled with even stranger behavior. Or when you're thinking of a friend you haven't spoken to in ages, who lives clear across the country, and she suddenly calls you. 

One of my favorite Castaneda moments is when Don Juan and Carlos walk into the chaparral for their appointment with knowledge. Don Juan asks Carlos to choose the place to sit; Carlos looks about, befuddled as usual.  He chooses a spot — then Don Juan corrects him before identifying the place of power.  Don Juan, despite how he's been read and positioned, is not a mystic: he's am empiricist. He doesn't tell Carlos the secrets of the universe: he teaches Carlos how to operate within the wonder of the universe.

Some of these experiences are extraordinary, standing out from the quotidian wash. But experiences such as these happen all the time, every day, all day — from dreams to the flux of moods to synchronous moments to the odd sensations that seem to fill a space, a street, a room to the seemingly simple task of choosing a seat.

My point is this: the experience of everyday life is literally wonderful. Now, I believe this is the first time I've written this word — wonderful — and I don't think I've ever uttered it outloud but it is the right word: full of wonder, full of wondering, full of considering how things happen and not demanding a final answer but enjoying the ambiguities.

How do I know someone is looking at the back of my head? Well, we could wonder about that all day and come up with dozens of theories. And all of them would be beautiful, some of them silly, some of them persuasive, some of them dogmatic. But there would still be wonder.

This is what the empiricist does: he wonders about things. But not in a vacuum. No, he wonders about experience, following it wherever it takes him. He doesn't stop where his five senses stop: he keeps going into uncharted territory, into qualitative territory, into terrains that can't be readily measured and weighed but are no less real, no less empirical, for it.

Because these experiences are most certainly sensed. They occur here and now. They reverberate throughout our bodies and beings, even if we can't see them. You see your girlfriend with another guy or, more optimistically, you converse with an exquisite young lady you've never met but who makes your heart go pitter, then patter, and everything about you changes — and in ways that can't be thoroughly reduced to physiology.

Why would you even want to perform such a reduction? What a strange instinct! No, the empiricist is generous, seeking to give the sensual world its want, letting it frolic and meander in invisible cities, rather than binding it with known categories and numbers. 

Now, those who profess belief in mysticism repeat the ideology of the material empiricist: they assume there is one kind of experience that is material and then another kind that is of another plane — the spirit plane, the alien plane, the magical plane.

But there is no fundamental division. Experience is always strange, always alien, precisely because we are of time. We are always changing, always morphing, and so the new is always happening — even if, at times, it's very, very subtle.  The world is not a stable object to be studied. It's an event that's lived through.

And these events are at once visible and invisible, terrestrial and cosmic, material and eidetic, human and alien, organic and inorganic, articulate and inchoate.  To live through this world is move through its visible as well as its invisible terrains. This is all empirically constituted by multiple planes of experience, even if many of these planes can't be quantified. 

The true empiricist does not — cannot — divide material and immaterial experience. The true empiricist dives into the fray because he is always and already of the fray. When he has a strange sensation of some friend living somewhere else, he he does not dismiss or reduce it. On the contrary, he leans into it. That is his way of empirical knowing. 

The world, empirically, is bizarre. There is no known world on one side and a secret, magical world on the other. What we consider known is, in fact, much more wonderful than we suppose. And what we delegate a mystical secret is actually right here, right now. Just look — with all your senses.  Then lean into it.


Of Solitude

Here is something I've discovered about myself  — which is such a strange sentence: Who is it that discovers this something if not me? Anyway, here's what I discovered: when too many people want a piece of me — friends, lovers, clients — I become unglued. The relentless dings of that god forsaken phone become my undoing, my drawing and quartering, each vibrate a burden of unfathomable weight crushing me.

And I get nasty as each request seems like a threat to my very existence — as if these innocent demands of my friends, lovers, even clients might tear me asunder, scattering my very atoms to the ether. 

On the other hand, when I withdraw long enough from the social teem — which I often do —, I notice that my phone stops dinging and then a bit of panic settles in: Maybe I don't exist? 

Alas, negotiating the social is a perpetual endeavor. After all, the borders that separate you from me are porous from the get go. I am never wholly me and you are never wholly you. We are, quite literally, made of each other — physically, existentially, emotionally.

There is no pure individual per se: to be alive is to be connected to the world, to take in air and food and language and ideas. All my ideas, all my words, all my self pereception is informed at every turn by my history, my environment, my class, my experiences, my interactions with others.  The point is this: if I am not really an individual, how am I — in Nietzsche's words — to become myself? 

In Fear and Trembling — a funny, smart, moving, and perhaps surprisingly readable little book —, Kierkegaard considers Abraham and Isaac. What blows Kierkegaard away, what confounds him no end, is Abraham's reaction to the whole business of being asked to kill his only son (the "only" seems redundant, doesn't it? I mean, if he had six sons, would it make it any easier?).

Abraham doesn't blink. He doesn't whine or question. And, above all, he doesn't talk to anyone else about it, including his wife, Sarah. How could he? She, and everyone else, would have no choice but to consider him insane, a would-be murderer. This, then, is God's test: Will Abraham take leave of the social, of the ethical, of all things that tether him to his place in this world? Will he be an individual, alone on the mountain top, not just willing to do this terrible act but affirming this terrible act — this absurd act?

Kierkegaard — or, rather, Kierkegaard's pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio — declares over and over again: either Abraham is a nut job, a murderer, a loon — or the father of faith.  

And hence Kierkegaard's definition of faith: we have faith not despite the absurd but on the strength of the absurd. Reagardless of the inane, demented ramblings of the so-called religious in this country, faith does not bind us. On the contrary, faith bypasses the social, giving the individual a direct relationship with the universal.

All my social forays will not afford me a glimpse of — not to mention participation with— the universal. What do I mean by "universal"? Well, I'm not talking about a universal truth or god. I am talking about participating in the infinity of becoming, that surge of the cosmos that sweeps us up, that surges through us and with us. (While this may happen with another person, it is not something someone else does for you.)

This may seem like an oxymoron: to be myself, to be an individual, I must join the becoming of the cosmos.  But it only seems like an oxymoron because we tend to think in terms of dichotomies: either I'm an individual or I'm connected. When the fact is I am always already both and neither. 

None of this is to disparage or belittle the social. That would be silly. But it is to suggest that the social does not suffice. That to look for confirmation of who I am from others leads to pervasive neuroses, to jealousy, insecurity, resentment. 

Now, solitude need not happen only when one is alone. It is something you can carry with you everywhere. And this is what really amazes Kierkegaard: Abraham comes down from Mt. Moriah and joins the social once again. He does not go to the desert alone to meditate or flee. He does not take a vow of silence and live in a monastery. No, he remains silent about what he did on the mountain but talks the language of the social everyday with those around him.

Abraham is what Kierkegaard calls a knight of faith, having a direct relationship to the universal while participating in the social. With each step he takes, he walks into the infinite and back. He does not identify himself with being a web designer, a lawyer, a chef — although he may love being one. He affirms himself amidst the fray not as this or that person but as an exquisite absurdity, as something that makes no sense, this is not identifiable in conventional terms, as someone extraordinary, someone that can leave the social behind — and yet who lives joyfully in the social!

This, I believe, is the trick to it all — to becoming oneself as well as to helping create a more livable social world: to carry solitude with me all the time whether I am cloistered in my odd little house, lying in bed next to a woman, or walking amidst the droves on Market Street.

Of course, learning to carry this solitude may take some actual solitude. It may take developing the fortitude of being alone, of not having the distraction of social drama, of defining oneself and one's time by whether she likes you or he's available to hang out. It may take learning to actually enjoy yourself, alone and profoundly. It may take a certain wallowing in oneself, in one's weft and stench. But being alone is not the same as carrying one's solitude. To affirm oneself absolutely as this way of going is a continuous internal movement. Alas, living alone will not suffice.  

To enjoy solitude is not to flee the social but to live more thoroughly with the social as an individual, to feel less threatened by its demands and requests. And perhaps even be a better citizen for it as, hopefully, I won't live and die by the fickle crowd and can hence be more generous. It's not a matter, then, of either being alone or being social. It's a matter of how best to live with the world.


The Glorious Mess of Communication

Sometimes, we get frustrated trying to express ourselves. We can't find the right words. We end up sounding like we're pissed off when we're not. Misunderstandings lead to all sorts of problems with lovers, mothers, co-workers, children.

We imagine communication as a linear process in which meaning loses its valence as it makes its way from me to you. It goes something like this: Me > Meaning > Words > You. This model assumes an awful lot:
  • That there is a me — some singular, unified Me that has something called intention;
  • That meaning is singular — as if I have one thing to say;
  • That meaning is the goal of communication — and not, say, feelings or mood;
  • That words' job is to carry meaning — and this container, we assume, doesn't suffice;
  • That you are a you — and, anyway, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
     Alas, I don't assume any of these things. I assume:
    • That there is no one me — I am many forces, most of which exceed me;
    • That meaning is always multiple — we mean many things at once;
    • That there are aspects to communication other than meaning — affect carries the day;
    • That words don't carry meaning — words are themselves powerful bodies with histories;
    • And you are a lot more than you — I hope.

    Let me explain.
    When I speak or write or gesture, a veritable chorus of forces, voices, tics, memories, and ghosts have their say in the same breath. This is to say, when I speak, there is no singular, intentional being thoroughly in control. No, I am a node within a vast network of personal, cultural, historical, and cosmic forces that flow through me, a swirl of desires that exceed me and speak through me.

    This is not to say that there is no intention. Clearly, there is something we call intention. But this intention is only one component within an event that far exceeds anything I intend to say. In Annie Hall, Annie says to Alvy, "Well, she [a shrink] said that I should probably come five times a week. And you know something? I don't think I mind analysis at all. The only question is, Will it change my wife?" This is a so-called Freudian slip. Which, I ask, is Annie's intention — wife or life? Or both? Forces within us, and which we are not aware of, have their intentions, too.

    Now, usually, we mean a lot of things simultaneously. When a spouse curtly utters, Fine, what does he or she mean? Well, lots of things including it's fine and it's not fine.

    We communicate much more than meaning. We convey mood, attitude, belief, affect. When we converse, we inundate and are inundated with information — with meaning, with so-called sub-texts, with sensations and fears and feelings. Communication expresses more than meaning: it expresses a relationship to meaning.

    There is a lot going on in any communication — a TV ad, a stranger's glance, a conversation with your mother — other than the conveyance of meaning. Just consider irony, sarcasm, sincerity or, my favorite, phatic expression, those ums, ahs, and what was I gonna says? that keep communication open without uttering any meaning at all. Communication is not as much the conveyance of meaning as it is the inflection of meaning.

    And what about those pesky words? Well, words are not neutral containers of meaning. Words are excessive, brimming with histories and etymologies, with connotations and denotations, with a prism of senses. Junk sick dawn, uttered by William Burroughs, means one thing. Junk sick dawn uttered by your truly, means something else entirely. Rather than read this as a lack, we can read this a fecundity: one word, one phrase, births multiple worlds.

    Now, as for you hearing and understanding what I say, well, you're a complex of forces and desires just as this so-called I am.

    This leaves us with a very different image, a different model, of communication. Communication doesn't move from point A to point B, as if I were an archer trying to hit his bullseye. Communication is a moving network, a miasma, a cooperative and disjointed event in which something that is me, something that is you, and everything that is language, culture, history all conspire to make this event which will never have been one. Communication breeds multiplicity. It's not a matter of planting my feet in order to hit my target. It's a matter of leaping — or tiptoeing, shuffling, cannon balling — into the fray.  

    Sure, this sometimes makes living amongst other people difficult — I try to say something nice but she reads it as being aloof. But if we all remember that communication is not linear, that I am not me and you are not you, that there is so much between us and that this in-between is fecund, overflowing with information and wonder, then perhaps we can be less frustrated, less judgmental, and most importantly, more aware of the incredible richness of communication. Perhaps then we can embrace this glorious mess.


    The Possibilities of Theory

    The world teems. As Nietzsche says of nature, it is "boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain." There is no higher order, no "laws of nature" as if there was some great legislator ordering it all.  Culture neither progresses no regresses. It just morphs, always. The world does what it does: it's all one great, infinitely complex swirl of stuff and events.

    Day to day, we see things according to well enculturated schemas. Those there, those are men; and those, they're women. But, sometimes, we get a glimpse of the arbitrariness of gender, we truly see — we know — that they are just bodies more or less motion, all different. Taken together, they form diverse and various zones of intersection and divergence: a veritable lava lamp Venn diagram.

    We see this amorphic flux of all things and sense the grand merciless indifference of the cosmos. It is an exquisite, humbling, and terrifying experience.

    And then, perhaps, we see other ways of ordering these flows.  Men and women? Really? How odd. Look again and you'll see a breadth of genders. Or a fluidity of gender that is not part of a body, not immanent to you or I, but that flows like a force between us, through us, taking us up for a bit. Or we see swirls, sexual marbling. Or....what?

    That "or" is affirming. That "or" is life. That "or" is theory.

    All knowledge is a way of assembling, of distributing, the merciless, purposeless flux of Nature.  Science studies the flow and then, sometimes, says: This is the way it is. Here are the hidden orders. Philosophy, too, shares this tendency: This is what truth is, what morality is, what freedom is, what being is.

    And then there's theory. Theory is less sure of itself. Where science and philosophy have a tendency to write in ink, theory writes in pencil.  Theory is, well, theoretical.

    Theory gives us different lenses with which to see the world, to make sense of it. Of course, science and philosophy create theories, too. This is my favorite part of each: when they don't claim to know but suggest, hey, the world is 11 or eight dimensions. Or: Being is defined by nothingness. Or: there is no being, only becoming. Or...or...or. I love looking over my bookshelves and seeing this proliferation of possibilities, of universes, all of them and none of them true. As if they were all in one eight page Borges story. 

    From one angle, theory is art. It gathers this and that, propositions and events, things and tendencies, and weaves them together into some shape.

    Theory, like art, is a mode of making sense that enjoys the practice of making sense.

    When I taught theory to MFA fine art students, I didn't teach it as a way to explain or understand art. I taught this or that theory as a confrontation with this or that art. Each class, we'd read and discuss a text and see and discuss art. A theory is a sculpture and a sculpture is a theory.

    In the work of Sarah Sze, I see possibilities of seeing, possibilities of making sense of this world. "Things Fall Apart," she says, quoting Yeats and in the same breath superseding him. They fall apart not because the center cannot hold but because, well, they just fall apart and in so doing create something new.

    This is to say that Sze, in her whimsy of form and car and styrofoam, proffers a fundamentally different architecture of order than Yeats: where his world needs a center to orient it, hers proliferates centers. It is, quite literally, a different way of seeing the world.

    And that is theory: it is the art of making new sense of things. And then doing it again. 

    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 ...