The Ecology of Being, or The Winding of Trees

The other evening, I'm walking along Land's End in San Francisco and was overtaken with laughter, and not for the first time, by the sight of the trees. They wear their environment so explicitly, letting us see the ecology of being, as if the cosmos itself was grabbing us by the head and making us see the way of things. Look, you morons! It's right in front of you! Being is ecological!  

Of course, you could look at the same trees and say, Well, those trees are the way they are because of the wind. It's simple cause and effect: the wind blows, the trees bend. Duh. And, from a certain perspective, you wouldn't be wrong. Isolate an event and you can say this caused that.

But look at those trees again. You can't separate how they find their way, how they go — their internal mode of self-production — from the winds, a so-called external element. They didn't grow and then bend. The wind is constitutive of the tree's way of going. These cypress take up the wind just as they take up sun and rain. It would seem a bit silly to say that they grow because of the sun. The sun is an essential component in their growth but it is neither sufficient nor causal. Well, the same is true for the wind and the way the trees wind through space: the wind isn't the cause of their bending.

The wind — and the wind — is constitutive of the tree's becoming. Think about it this way. There are other ways these trees could have gone in reaction to the wind. For instance, rather than bending, they could fortify, grow thicker and stronger, lean into the wind rather than away from it. You wouldn't say that the way the trees grow, the way they wind, is not part of the tree. So why make the ocean wind an external term rather than an internal element?

Now, the very architecture of internal and external is precisely what we're talking about. At times, we imagine being begins with itself and then deals with the world. A tree is a tree. What it does after that depends on its environment. But, as Lear says, nothing comes from nothing. Everything is made of other things. What separates this from that is not just material — you drink beer, I drink gin — but in how this or that operates, its speed and intensity, its metabolism and style: I have my cocktails before and with dinner, rarely after.

This is all to say that being is a process of taking in, taking up, other things. What I am is the very act of taking up of DNA, Deleuze, bacteria, ideas, gin, kisses. This is why being is probably not the right word; this is why we say being is not being at all but the act of becoming, not in the sense of transforming from this to that — boy to man — but of ceaseless action and hence change. I am the process of wearing these parts of the world like this just as the trees wear the sun and the rain and the wind. Being is always turning inside out.

Those cypress trees are wind, at least somewhat, just as they are sun and bugs and the knife carvings of adolescent lovers (DC + CW 4ever; human becoming is not external to the cosmic ecology). The trees exaggerated posture shows us what's everywhere, visibly and invisibly. What it is to be the ocean is to take up the moon and the undulations of the earth due to ground and spin. Now, I was about to say "watching the fog come in" and questioned myself. Does fog come in? Or does it emerge from this play of elements? Is it latent in this juncture of ocean, land, and sun? Or do they conspire to create it, a misty love child? In any case, watching the fog come to and move across the bay as the sun settles behind the horizon, the ecological nature of being screams at me. And then I see these trees who seem in the end to be mocking me: You bozo! You think your thinking is revelatory? Oy.

Those cypress trees are teachers, turning what might have been missed into a clear, articulate lesson. They teach me the grammar of the cosmos. As I look at them, I see them bending away from the wind. And then I think, well, they could have hunkered down and stood their ground, as it were, or even leaned into the wind. Or, as I came to see, they wind with the wind.

A lesson, then, in prepositions. Prepositions define our relationships to and with the world. They are positional, architectural, and distributive — this above that, with this, over this but below that. In an ecological cosmos, a cosmos in which things are how they stand towards other things, the preposition is contractual, the very terms of cosmic connection: Are you with me? In me? Against me? Into me? For me? The preposition is ontological.


Living With Power, or There is No Against, Not Really

A Whole Foods moved into my neighborhood a few years ago. It's right near my boy's school, to boot. But I hate Whole Foods. I hate it on principle for being a big, global, corporate demon hell bent on greed, indifferent to local business but who still has the gall and gumption to act like a so called good citizen. There's even a sign outside this one that says, Buy Local. I shit you not! It's one of the strangest, most explicit examples of outright falsity and manipulation I've ever seen in this bewildering spectacle of 21st century San Francisco and America.  Just thinking about it fills me with rage. The poor butcher down the street who's been there for decades and actually is local and who sells local goods, is being mercilessly driven out of business. It pisses my shit off.

I also happen to loathe Whole Foods aesthetically and practically. Their produce is crappy, old, withering and dying within days. When I buy produce from my local market who buys their produce from local farms, the lettuce lasts forever — and tastes better. The fish at Whole Foods all seems to come from other countries. Why would I buy shrimp from Thailand when I can buy shrimp from the Gulf down the street?

Still, once in a while, I do pop into this corporate hell hole with my boy to grab a snack or something for dinner. Sue me.

I could no doubt boycott the place completely. Which, needless to say, makes no impact on them but does on me. It spares me the humiliation of going in there and having to walk out with a branded bag so I can continue to advertise for them. Oy! And boycotting also creates a pain in the ass for me as then I have to drive and park again to go to my butcher, then my grocer, all the while my boy is getting hungrier.

Living by principle is something we seem to respect as a culture. But not me. I don't respect it. Living by principle is living by fixed abstractions while I am a living, breathing, changing system. Why would I ever want to be tethered to a principle?  Eeesh!

And yet I do believe in certain things. I like local business. I like giving my money to the person who will use said money to pay his rent, feed his kids. Giving money to a clerk who makes minimum wage so some fat cat who lives on his own island can blow more lines doesn't feel good to me.

Does this mean I position myself against the corporate behemoths? Well, I don't want to live against anything. I want to live for me, for a beautiful, thriving world around me. Occasionally, I do need not to do something but I try to channel that No saying into a Yes saying to me and my world. No to Whole Foods is Yes to Drewes Meats which is Yes to the world I want to live in.

Anyway, it's impossible to live against or outside the reigning power structure. That's not how power works. It doesn't come from above or even from outside of me. I am constitutive of power. It flows through me and comes from me. I am as much its agent as its subject. The very ways in which I think about myself — as male, sexual, parent, father, worker, human being — have all been told to me, bred in me, of me. Power is a way of thinking and speaking. I perpetuate power at the same time, in the same breath, that I negotiate it, recast it, appropriate it.

We don't live for or against power as much as we live with power. It's an endless process of negotiating my desires, my ideas, how I impact the world around me, what I want from other people. It involves a relentless questioning of my assumptions: Why do I feel this or that way? Is it just a knee jerk reaction — Big companies are bad! — or something that really affects how I feel day to day, moment to moment?

The thing that's always driven me apeshit about so called liberals is that they assume that what they assume is just plain old right. Oh, man, maybe I just wish I could be like that rather than always questioning what drives my beliefs, my actions, my desires.

On the other hand, I enjoy this interrogation, this act of exploration and questioning. In fact, I'm less interested in the outcome than I am in the very act of interrogating my beliefs. Why do I go or not go to Whole Foods? Why do I feel this way about marriage, couples, sex? Why do I feel guilty or not about this or that parenting I do? I love when I come upon something that I've always just assumed but is now ripe for interrogation. As of late, my 10 year old son is obsessed with aliens. And that's not something I've ever really thought about, not in any demanding way. It's been such a pleasure to talk with him and, together, figure out what we even mean by alien. As he said to me, we're all aliens as we can never really know each other.

Unfortunately, to those who don't interrogate, my interrogation sounds like rejection. I don't believe marriage is a necessary good or even necessary step. However, this doesn't mean I believe marriage is necessarily bad. It all depends. But my questioning gets read as rejection — my negotiating with power is interpreted as working against it. Which is not right. There are not many things I am against per se. Well, maybe Illinois Nazis — and blind assumptions.

The other day, I was sitting with some co-workers (sort of) and we were discussing local teams. And I suddenly found myself speaking rather ardently against the logic of fandom, my pleasure in watching sports, and my disdain for the high-five and its implied complicity within a structure of fandom and masculinity that rubbed me the wrong way (I love that phrase). To me, my rant seemed so, well, obvious — banal, even. They all looked uncomfortable, turned away, and restarted their discussion about the local football team. Of course you love a team! Or else you don't like sports, which is ok, too. But land somewhere else and you're off the map all together. Foucault called this being "outside the true," outside what can be recognized as an utterance within the language game at hand.

Now, am I assuming this kind of critical inquiry? Is that my ideology? I suppose so, yes. I believe it's the way to negotiate power rather than just perpetuating power's worst traits (such as the demands of marriage, career, home owning, child rearing, fandom, and so on). I believe critique to be an essential component of not only a so-called healthy society but a more interesting society. I tend to like people who question rather than assume; I prefer ironists to the serious, tricksters to bigots.

Does this make me a critique bigot? Maybe. But I understand that there are some people for whom critique is painful; it runs against their metabolic health. I remember doing a Q&A with PT Anderson and asking him about his collaboration with Jeremy Blake on Punch Drunk Love. I asked some complex, elaborate question about the relationship between affect and character. He just looks at me like I'm an idiot — or maybe an alien — and says something like, I just thought it looked cool. Which is the best possible answer to my babbling query. Negotiating with is not really a principle; it's an operation and not one that suits everyone equally.

We make decisions all day every day, at every turn. We balance our ideas, concepts, needs, desires, beliefs into an impossible calculus that results in buying or not buying some Starfucks espresso; telling my son that he'll never own a hand held gaming device because it steals souls and, no, I don't care that every single one of his friends owns one; asking your sweetie to move in, to marry you, to have a child with you; watching "The Wire" or "American Idol." We don't live as minions for principles or agents of the state or even agents of change. We live as we live, with power, with the world.


There is No Outside: Nietzsche, Foucault, Jason Bourne

The Bourne films argue that there is no outside. Power is all pervasive. The trick is to operate in the creases and gaps, the lags in roving surveillance cameras. 

The allure of the outside is compelling. Just to breakthrough! To shed all this nonsense and be on the other side! It's the allure, often deceptive, of self-awareness: Before I didn't know myself but now I do! Of freedom: I finally shed that constricting grasp! Of God: Someone, sorta, who is free of rent and hemorrhoids! And, of course, it's the promise of death — death is the ultimate outside, the ultimate promise, scaring and seducing us in the same breath.

Witness the sanctimony, the obsessive habit, of the middle aged who demand daily yoga, gluten free meals ripe with kale, maybe a glass of wine, and always a reasonable bedtime. These are all good things, no doubt. What rubs me wrong me is that these are proffered with such determination and vigor (who the fuck cares that you do yoga? Why does every woman on a dating site tell me she does yoga? Just do your fucking yoga! Ahem....). Anyway, when you encounter someone who's so sure of their ways, it's because they believe they've discovered self-awareness. Before this, they ate bread and lounged with horrendous posture and went to sleep at all hours. They didn't know. Ah, but now they do and they're telling everyone.

When I hear of someone's great revelations, I usually reply with a certain mockery. Which, in turn, is met with resentment and anger after which I am promptly dropped as a friend. Lucky me! But my mockery is never meant to belittle this or that claim. It's to say, Well, yeah, of course, and in two weeks, two months, two years, two decades, you'll be declaring something else. Right? This whole thing is in flux and nothing is certain, not even the obvious truth of downward facing dog.

Only people don't see it that way. They want whatever they've last discovered to be the final thing they need to discover. Aha! I got it! The ultimate state of this desire is the one that says: I know that I never know. This is Socrates' form of sanctimony, he's so cocksure that it's impossible to know anything that he derides everybody until they either agree they know nothing or walk away. Or, of course, murder him — justice, if there ever was such a thing.

Our banal, ideologically drenched notions of liberty are premised on this allure of an outside. Don't shackle me! Don't keep me inside! I need to get out of your powerful grasp! But Foucault taught us all too well that that's not how power, or freedom, work. We are always already enmeshed in any number of power discourses that constrain us, define us, produce us. Gender, for instance. Career is another. Home owning. Humanity. Oh, and of course freedom: we think we're free. Ha! We have to pay taxes and fill out forms and get permits for everything; we, who in order to live must agree to make some anonymous asshole rich by toiling away 60 hours a week in some ping pong office, think we're free! Why? Because we get to choose which of the three available condos we want to live in. We sign the form for the $1.4 million mortgage that tethers us to the banks for eternity and this is what we call freedom. Oy gevalt. And don't get me started on those fucking ubiquitous Google death busses.

The Jason Bourne films do a fantastic job of showing us a world with no outside. This is the world of the capitalist spectacle (pace Debord) where continuous surveillance folds every place, every moment, back into the media-power machine. You are owned by ads or by the NSA: it's the same thing. It's all the spectacle, all putting their eyes on you, assuring no outside. Bourne tries to get off the grid, as it were, and a for a little while enjoys some peace in Goa.  But he's found and his girl killed. His only mode of operation is not to flee but to operate in the folds and creases of this spectacle, in the tiny gaps between roving cameras, in the delay before the next drone. Those films argue that there is no outside; power is all pervasive. The trick is to learn how to operate within.  Freedom is not breaking out of anything precisely because there is no outside. All you do is move to another realm with its modes of control. This is not to say that all is fascism. It's to say that all is power and negotiation. There is no outside power. Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, as Derrida liked to say.

Nietzsche argued that the Judeo-Christian desire for an outside — for heaven, for life after death, for an eternal God — is nihilistic. Christians want out of the messiness of life. They want out of the relentless toil and headache of shitting and hemorrhoids and trudging through work and lousy lays and asshole neighbors who play video games on their surround sound until 4:00 a.m. God is the one who doesn't have to deal with any of this — no ass, no mouth, no need to make rent. So we yearn for Him and what He promises. What's that? Death.

Death winks and tries to seduce, its own kind of outside, its own kind of nihilism. I, for one, dream of an affirmative suicide, a suicide that is not a fleeing from but a claiming to — to dignity, to grace, to self-affirmation. At least, this is how I imagine the way of the samurai. So every now and again, I walk myself through the steps of my own demise: buying the gun, loading it, destroying the hard drive overrun with things no one should ever see, and pulling the trigger as I ask myself: Is it the right thing to do today? Is this beautiful? But, no doubt, death is just another pain in the ass. If not worse.

I will admit that I don't eat gluten. Messes up my precious belly, gunks up the digestive paths. I used to eat gluten. A lot of it. Then it began to, uh, sully the metabolic passages. So I stopped. At some point, I assume my body will change again and want this and not that — nothing but spaghetti and seitan! Whatever it is I am doing now, whatever it is I know, is both specific to me and temporary and hence not anything I could or would ever suggest to anyone else. It's just a temporary mode of operating within the infinite complexity of the universe.

Life keeps happening. It's relentless like that. Moods and bodies and climates change, constantly. What's right one moment is wrong the next. And there's nowhere else to go — not to the Sierras or the kitchen or church or the grave. No place, no thing, will relieve you once and for all. You are always somewhere, doing something, negotiating the tireless, merciless, exquisite, humiliating demands of existence.  Nietzsche says we should love it, every aching moment. I try. In the meantime, I just try to live it.


On the Fold: Deleuze, Nietzsche, and the Seduction of Metaphor

We are all folds in an origami universe. 

I remember first reading Deleuze's The Fold and being, well, confused. Here's how it opens:
The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait. It endlessly produces folds. It does not invent things: there are all kinds of folds coming from the East, Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Classical folds.... What the heck is he talking about? What the heck is a fold and how are there so many of them? What's going on here?

Now, this is one of Deleuze's modes of operation: he begins his books mid-conversation, mid-stride. Introductions to books have a way of situating the reader in order to proffer a certain purview: this is the lay of the land, this is what's coming, this is the territory you're entering. But Deleuze doesn't do that. He doesn't set up his ideas. He doesn't provide a frame precisely because there is no outside, no place to stand to get that view. We're always standing somewhere, negotiating something. There is no outside. There are only folds which mark this territory from that territory, inside from outside, here from there. Deleuze begins in the middle because that's where we always are.

Metaphors have a way of seducing us. They literally architect our thinking. For instance, think about the metaphor of inside/outside as it's used to discuss people. Of course, we don't think of it as a metaphor; we think of it as the way things are: there's an inside that can't be seen and an outside that is transient. But all knowledge is a metaphor, a use of words that organize how we think about something, distributing facts, concepts, feelings into some kind of structure, often hierarchical.

In his great essay, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense," Nietzsche claims we look at something and, based on our prejudices and inclinations, declare that thing to be such and such. The example I like to use is "moon." English speakers looked up at that oft glowing rock and noticed it waxes and wanes; it moves according to a cycle, hence "moon." The French, however, looked up and saw light (which is funny seeing that the moon is sometimes black): la lune. These are metaphors acting as knowledge. Poetry, Nietzsche argues, precedes truth. In fact, truth is just the name for a metaphor that we've forgotten is a metaphor.

Back to how we think about ourselves. There's what's inside me — not my guts as much as my feelings and thoughts. And then there's what's outside — my appearance, my face, my words. But inside and outside is a metaphor that offers an architecture of my self. There are no doubt other figures. At one point, talking about Socrates, Nietzsche writes, "We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation." What shocks us about this is it seems to break the logic — the architecture, which is to say, the metaphor — of the self. Nietzsche does not adhere to the figure of inside/outside. In one fell swoop, he rearchitects the very space of selfhood: there's no strict line separating the inside from outside. It's continuous, as if all one crumpled piece of paper. This is Nietzsche's great move, as is the great move all thinkers: they use different metaphors and so recast, reshape, how we think and experience the world.

All thinking is organized by these metaphors. Indeed, to think is to scramble metaphors, to use this one there and that one here. All of language is metaphoric, Nietzsche claims. There is no literal language and then metaphoric language. The thinker — as distinct from the follower — rearranges metaphors, redistributes concepts and affects and facts. The follower regurgitates the metaphors he already knows, assuming them to be truth‚ when all truth is is the regurgitation of the same metaphors by a lot of people.

The fold is a way of organizing thinking without binaries, absolutes, or hierarchies. It's not one or the other; there's no inside or outside; there are no limits to rupture. It's all just a relative position ripe with shadows, obscurities, edges but that all give way once you round the corner, make it over the crease (or not, as the case may be). Socrates ugly face and nihilistic philosophy are part of the same origami structure.

The fold is a flexible figure that allows for distinctions while maintaining continuity. I think about language and the relationship between the constative — description — and performative, or the action done in the very saying itself.  Both are active in every utterance, every saying and writing. But they are not the same thing, even if they happen in the same breath. They are at once separated and connected via a fold in the material of language.

Think about what we call self-awareness. This is one of the great seductive metaphors of our new age (in every sense). We need to be self-aware, we believe, not muddled in the mix of things, befuddled by the fray. But with it comes a certain sanctimony and self-assuredness: Before I did not know; now I do — as if that now were not part of the fray, as well! All self-awareness is relative to another state and will itself become the new fray for a new self-awareness. You'll never know yourself once and for all. The metaphor of inside-outside promises a breakthrough, a release. But the fold says, Hold on a minute there, buddy. This is just a relative position within an endlessly pleated surface of life. 

Binaries such as inside/outside and surface/depth operate with an either/or logic: it's one or the other. The fold, however, allows for the operation of and: it's both this and that. There's a distinction between what I feel and what I say, sure. But they are intimately bound up and rarely opposed. They are different planes of a common event: the event of me.

I am a series of folds within an origami universe. Of course, this is not to say that there aren't tears in the surface of things. But there is no nothing nor is there an outside. The universe is a plenum, full of itself. A tear is a kind of fold, too.

There are no doubt all kinds of folds, different ways of distributing components, of folding them together into a this.  This is what's so great about the fold as an architecture of thought: it has infinite variations. Have you ever seen an origami exhibit? The variety of possibility is mind boggling.

The fold overcomes binaries including the binary between binaries and not binaries. Which is to say, the fold doesn't just replace either/or with and. It supersedes the distinction by offering either/or and/or and. It all depends on the mode of the fold.

The fold is the figure of a multicentered world, a world of intersecting planes, of flourishing possibilities and synchronicity. Things rarely move in a line; linear time is one possibility rather than the norm. We all live through this as we cycle through moods and behaviors. We don't just stream along in a straight line. We move backwards, forwards, sideways, flipping over at strange angles through four dimensional space. I live through adolescent and even infant moments in my forties. At other times, I'm already dead. We live as pleats within pleats. Or so I like to think.


The Knowing Game

I'm walking in the park the other day as this 11 year old boy and his father pass me. The boy is coming out of his shoes he's so excited, his eyes wild in wonder, 41 megapixels! Can you believe that, Dad? 41!

Now, 41 pixels may be a lot. And these weren't just pixels, they're megapixels! And 41 of those suckers sure sounds like a hell of a lot. The photos on my phone are somewhere around 2.1 megapixels or some such thing. Forty-one seems like a vast improvement. No wonder the little man was becoming unglued. 

But I'm thinking: what's a megapixel? And why 41? Forty-one seems either arbitrary or necessary — which is funny. Such is the way of knowledge. An engineer might hear 41 and think, Of course. It has to be 41 because of x and y.  Or else it's just as many megapixels as some dorky engineer could squeeze onto whatever the field is so he could tell the marketing department: 41! Necessary or arbitrary: to my ears, it's the same.

And yet this little boy was delivering this knowledge with such relish and oomph. Perhaps he knows things — he knows the math that makes 41 a necessity. Or else he's an engineer and knows managing to squeeze 41 of those megabuggers is something to hoot and holler about.

More likely, however, he's just like me. He heard 41 megapixels in some ad and, looking at his own 2.1 megapixel camera, felt like that was a lot. And hence a good thing. And hence worth repeating to others as a fact they could know and should enjoy.

This is the way of knowledge. It is what Wittgenstein calls a language game: the right set of words said at the right time with the the right passion. We all perpetuate "knowledge" without actually knowing anything; all we know is how to say this set of words at this time: How many megapixels? 41 you say? Great. 

Kids make this so beautifully, hilariously apparent. They repeat facts they've been told or have read and deliver them with such fervor. Did you know, Dad, that there are 18 million different kids of worms? Uh, no, I didn't. 

And while it's cute and sweet, the fact is it's what we all do all the time. I'll find myself proffering some piece of information — Kale's good for your heart — and suddenly realize that I have no fucking idea if that's true or not. I've never had a clear heart problem that kale remedied. Nor have I ever known anyone who experienced such a thing. So whence does this so-called fact come? Well, I suppose I've heard it from various people I know; maybe I read it in Yahoo! news. 

So do I really know if kale is good for your heart? No way. But that doesn't stop me from offering it up, having someone listen, think about it, and then have someone else offer an equally meaningless piece of information, It's true but you need to eat a lot of it — a fact with the same dubious provenience as my own. Those are just two statements within the language game of knowing (the thing about the game is it not only defines the terms of statement creation; it has rules for statement adjudication, deciding whether to believe this fact or that fact.)

There are of course times when I offer some knowledge that I know to be true. That picante sauce is hot! Twelve shots of tequila makes you feel good then real bad! Blood doesn't come out of sheets so easily! I've experienced these things a lot; I feel confident about them and when I offer them up to others, I do so with a special kind of emphasis, Trust me, stop at four shots, max, a knowing look in my eye. Still, people don't necessarily listen. I gave a friend of mine very specific instructions on how to take an herb I've taken every day for two years — mix two measured teaspoons in warm water and be sure to have eaten a little food. He, however, decides he wants to know so proceeds to eat the whole bag at once on an empty stomach. He vomited continuously for 73 hours.

Which goes to show that there are some things we have to know, and probably should know, without experiencing them personally. Otherwise, well, life would be absurd. Much of what we call knowledge — about whales and oceans and rhizomes and herbs — is not experienced and, for the most part, can't be experienced by the majority of people alive. These facts seem to play the rules of the game and so we believe them. And, more importantly, we repeat them with our own sense of authority and certainty. Yes, there are only 27,854 whales alive today! 

Now, presumably someone counted all those whales. I mean, he probably missed a few or screwed up his count once in a while but, man, if he went through all that trouble, the least I can do is believe him! It's a freakin' art project: I'm gonna count all the whales in existence...1...2...3....4.... I love that kind of madness.  

But certain knowledge gets abstract. The smallest particle of matter is something we can't see but we can weigh, theoretically. This dude followed the strange rules of science and created this fact. And I guess I believe him. To me, that's an even cooler art project than counting all the whales although less elegant, less clean, less accessible. Both are great, though. Do I believe them? Does it matter? They're both odd and beautiful things to even try to do — to weigh theoretical matter and count all the whales in the world! Brilliant! Strange! Funny!

It can be disconcerting to some to use the language (game) of art when discussing science and knowledge. Facts have a set of rules, a way we talk about them, how we ascribe value to this or that claim. It's often quite rigorous. Art has a different set of rules, different things we're supposed to say. Lots of opinions in art; not so many facts. There is a kind of truth we ascribe to art — Man, it's the real thing! — but it's not the truth of 27,854 whales or of the weight of dark matter, for that matter.  

But while facts are not supposed to be beautiful, formulas and equations sure can be. Euler's Identity, for instance:

I just read this on the Wikipedia: "After proving Euler's identity during a lecture, Benjamin Peirce, a noted American 19th-century philosopher, mathematician, and professor at Harvard University, stated that 'it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth.'" Oh, man, I freakin' love that!  So weird and perfect: it fits the rule set, performs it well, and so is not just necessarily true, it's beautiful. No doubt, my brilliant mathematician friend is cringing with every word I write. Breaking the rules and, worse, stating it poorly is offensive. Her cringing is well founded.

Today, as the pomp of science becomes suspect (rightfully or not), we read more and more facts that present themselves as scientific knowledge but which enjoy different genealogies.  Purple fruits are good for the stomach chakra. I love nearly everything about that sentence. I love that color is the dominant factor; I love that it's affecting my chakra (I'm told I have a whole bunch of those. Woohoo!) and that it's delivered alongside the seemingly less poetic, Fibrous foods can create intestinal gas. True shmoo: I just like this juxtaposition of poetic, affective registers. Whether I decide to believe it or not is up to me, this elusive combination of experience, gut feeling, and a personal understanding of logic. 

Now, it seems like everyone today is an expert on something. Every 20-something with a beard seems to know everything about coffee, medicinal herbs, arugula. There is something about witnessing as 26 year old hold forth with utter certainty about the best coffee bean in the world that makes all knowledge suspect and beautiful at the same time. You're 20-freakin'-6! How many coffee beans can you have consumed? Where is your humility? This is one result of bottom up knowledge, of Wikipedia and the dethroning of the expert: everyone's suddenly an expert. Everybody's a freakin' webMD, coffee aficionado, and worst of all, foodie. This is the best tuna tartare in the world! Really? You're 24!  Oy!

Rather than introducing humility, doubt, ambiguity, and complexity into our world, bottom up media has had the effect of perpetuating the culture of expertise — only without the rigor. Which is fine and dandy in theory but it's quite annoying and, well, boring. The knowledge game is boring precisely because it's a knowing rather than a not knowing, a doubting, a questioning. Instead of irony and curiosity, we get sanctimony and knowitalldom — the worst aspects of the knowing game and culture of the expert. Where is humility? Doubt? Uncertainty? Irony? Humor?

Irony and humor switch and swap language games — art becomes true, science beautiful. This is a nifty way to reveal what McLuhan calls the environment: it brings the unspoken, assumed mechanisms of the world to the fore. By scrambling language games, irony and humor destabilize the ground of the knower. They introduce doubt and possibility and hence life — uncertain, beautiful, strange, true life. 

This post came to me on a walk, uttered into my phone half coherently.
 I include the voice memo here because I think it's kind of funny.

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 ...