Soft Eyes

I've certainly been in relationships in which even the smallest actions of my lover demand my attention. I see her decision to go out with friends, to lunch with a male work acquaintance, to knit, to sleep with her back to me as meaningful, as a statement about me. And I know I've felt this same attentive gaze from the eyes of lovers — my innocuous comments become amplified, the stuff of drama, of tears, of retribution, of life and death itself.

I know when I see like this it's because I'm locked into one world of meaning. Everything she does flies back to me, as if on a rope — hard, fast, merciless. There is no sense that there are other worlds in which she operates, social worlds, existential worlds, historical worlds, physical worlds, metaphysical worlds, cosmic worlds. No, my eyes are limited in their scope, seeing only the immediate social significance to me. At times like these, my eyes don't flex, don't give, don't receive the breadth of information available. They're stubborn, inflexible, hard. 

Soft eyes is a phrase I borrow — poach? steal? — from "The Wire." It comes up a few times but it's only explained once, when Bunk takes Kima out on her first homicide. You know what you need at a crime scene? Bunk asks. Soft eyes....You got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. You got hard eyes, you're staring at the same tree, missing the forest.

Hard eyes have a focal point already picked out, even if they don't know it. Hard eyes are knowing, in the worst possible sense: they reach their conclusion before seeing the scene. Eyes like these are too hard for the world to make an impression on them; information comes from the inside out, from ideas, from preconceptions, not from the touch of things. Soft eyes, meanwhile, stand back a bit, let the scene unfold. Soft eyes actually see what's there — the multiplicity of worlds, the teem of information, all those planes of existence intersecting (or not). It's a different kind of knowing.

There is a lot to see when we look at the world. Look outside your window right now. Sure, you see trees — maybe — sky, clouds, cars, pavement, other houses. Now keep looking. See all those branches, all those leaves. See all the pebbles in the concrete or, more likely, the stains on the asphalt. See the cars but now begin to notice the undulation of the metal, all the little nicks, the way dust and dirt settle on the hood, the windshield, the mirrors. See the way the sky is not a uniform blue but rather shifts intensity and hue throughout. And this only begins to address the visible aspects of what we see. Add the invisible states that, yes, we see — the affect and mood — and the information we take in quickly approaches the sublime.

If we were to see all the information that was available as our eyes scanned the plains (and planes), we'd be insane, schizo, overwhelmed, shut down, sent in hundreds of directions at once. When we claim to see the world, we already see it as categories of things — cars, trees, bugs, roads, people. We size things up, drop them in their proper category, go on with our day. This is not bad; it's necessary. This is what makes us social, human, lets us live.

But that doesn't mean all seeing is the same, that either we see everything — and are pummeled — or see only what is already known. There are different degrees of seeing. Some people see hard, often. I remember when I was in college and took a course on Derrida and deconstruction. Afterwards, regardless of which class I was in or what books I was reading, I'd somehow find the same will to metaphysics and its inevitable undoing. I thought I was open to the world, letting it flow. But then a professor of mine, an intellectual historian named Bruce Kuklick (don't know how I remember that), turned to me one day after I'd made another of my predictable comments and said: "You're like a meat grinder; it all comes out the same." I was, and remain, humbled by this.

The fact is I've not only had hard eyes much of my life, I've sought out hard eyes. This is what makes an expert an expert (in the McLuhan sense): they already know. Think of the psychoanalytic film theorist who discovers Oedipus, lack, the mirror stage in every movie she watches. So when I started studying philosophy and critical theory, first in college and then another seven years in grad school, I was training myself to see the world in a certain way. Hard eyes are one symptom of the academic disease.

At the same time, I was learning to see more softly. This was due in part to my steady ingestion of  LSD and magic mushrooms. They were helping my eyes loosen their firm grip on things, showing me swirls of being and becoming both terrestrial and cosmic that flow through all things all the time. My training for hard eyes was being met with a will to soft eyes,  letting the world flow as it will.

And then I began to see how a collection of hard views might yield soft eyes. That is, I began to take in lots of different views of the world — from Derrida and Foucault, from Deleuze and Guattari, from Plato, Hegel, Kant, Lyotard, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William Burroughs, Carlos Castaneda, Jesus Christ. It was then that I realized I'd never be an expert, never be an academic: I liked seeing all these different perspectives at the same time.

Still, hard eyes are hard to surrender. Maybe I could see softly when I read books but those hard eyes would return when it came to people. We've all experienced that awful feeling of stone eyes sizing us up before we've even had the chance to speak. I know I've been seen that way just I've seen others that way. It's an ugly way to see the world, shutting it down, stopping it cold in its tracks.

Soft eyes are more generous. They lend themselves to the world, let impressions form, however strange, however disconcerting. Soft eyes respect things by letting them be rather than judging them. I think of it like this. When I'm in a relationship, there are always things that drive me apeshit — she judges people too readily, leaves her knitting everywhere, makes up strange stories about where she's been. My instinct is to judge, to see her actions as about me, as a personal affront. But to be angry is absurd as that's just how she is! So why should I judge her? Just let the damn woman be! 

Soft eyes love. Hard eyes may often feel like love as they reach and grope for things, try to possess them. But that's not love. That's desire, maybe, or more like that's insecurity posing as desire posing as love. Soft eyes relax and are relaxed. They let the other person be in all her quirks and nuance, in all her strength and weakness, in all her ways of going.

This doesn't mean I can never get angry, never judge, never harden my gaze. Rather, it means situating my gaze in that beautiful space where vision flourishes, poised between and amongst worlds. Seeing is neither active nor passive, is both active and passive. Think of it this way. When I'm reading these words, are my eyes grabbing them or are they grabbing my eyes, winding themselves into my very mind and body? It's both and neither. At my best, I let those words come to me as I go to them and, together, we make something new, something interesting, something beautiful. At the risk of sounding sappy, we make love — literally. 


Of Irony and Humor: On Seinfeld, Socrates, Scandal, Kierkegaard, Carrey, Deleuze, Nietzsche, and David Letterman

No one makes me laugh like my big brother. We'll be Skyping across the world and I'll find myself  heaving and drooling, my entire body convulsing, my face contorted. And I love it. It's rare to laugh like that. As I've gotten older — I'm 45 —, I find I'll say, "That's so funny," while barely breaking a smile. Oh, to laugh fully demands a kind of surrender, succumbing to the world, letting go of ego and propriety as you grunt, wheeze, drool, and fart.

How and when we laugh is not frivolous, something that might be nice but is somehow inessential. On the contrary, in the things we find funny (or not), lurk entire worlds.

I've been obsessed with irony for a long time. It's the topic of Kierkegaard's dissertation, not surprisingly entitled, On The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates — which, for the record, is hilarious if you're into that kind of thing. He had to ask for a special dispensation to write his thesis in Danish, not the usual Latin, so he could play ironically. In it, he makes these wry jabs at key academics and such. Which, of course, he delivers ironically.

Irony has been the figure of resistance for millennia. I can tell the king I respect him while meaning something else entirely — and even signal to others that I don't really mean what I say. Irony can maintain my personal integrity — I'm not really saying I like the king — while also establishing a community of dissent as others detect my tone. Richard Rorty claims that this is in fact how irony functions: by building complicity among a certain crowd (a minor crowd, as Deleuze and Guattari might say).

A lot of comedy is premised on irony. In a recent episode of "Scandal," the indefatigable Olivia Pope is kidnapped and imprisoned in some secret place, presumably Sudan. She grabs her cell mate, looks him in the eye, and gives an impassioned speech that she is Olivia Pope, damn it, and that means she will be safe, saved, rescued. She then realizes the absurdity of her claim, laughs, and says, "It's funny because it's not true." Indeed, the humor — what there is of it — lies in the radical discrepancy between her known world and the new world in which she finds herself, namely, a world that doesn't give a shit about Olivia Pope. 

Irony posits two realms: the eternal, or divine, and the temporal, mortal, physical. We live in this world with its laws and constraints, its culture and bodies. We think certain things which are defined by words, habit, power, desire, need. But we know there is another world that exceeds this one and that in fact fuels this one. This is the plane of pure Being, of Life itself, that blurs boundaries and makes such silliness of our all too human world.

As Kierkegaard argues, Socrates was the king of irony. His philosophy is premised on the belief that the only thing we know is that we know nothing. And so he goes about Athens pestering people who claim to know until said people either walk away or admit they know nothing. Which is why Socrates speaks ironically: he lives in this world while pointing to the other world.  (This is why Nietzsche considered Socrates a nihilist: Socrates isn't happy until everyone claims to know nothing.)

Recognizing that there are these two planes, we adjust our language accordingly and speak in two registers at the same time, an odd kind of self-harmony (although quite different than the Tibetan monks throat singing or Roland Kirk's flute playing grunting scat). This dual-register articulates the needs of this world — its laws and desires — while pointing to other world, to an Eternity that effaces all our laws and bodies. It lets us be human while recognizing the divine. 

Humor posits a different relationship between bodies and being, this world and that world, life and ideas. In this world of humor, the two planes are not conflated per se and yet they are not radically separate, either. They infuse each other, inflect each other, are intertwined. The mockery of this world by that world — and vice versa — is pervasive, thorough, and mutual. 

If irony keeps things apart, humor conjoins them without unifying them. Irony is premised on either/or, the incommensurability of the finite and the infinite (and the title of Kierkegaard's great book). Humor is deployed via and. It's not that bodies and ideas are one and the same; it's that the terms of their relationship lack discretion, are multifarious, and delirious. As Deleuze argues, Kierkegaard is a leaper, jumping between worlds separated by either/or. Nietzsche, meanwhile, is a dancer, flowing along the undulating surface of becoming. This is the difference between the comedy of irony and humor: irony jumps, humor dances.

"Seinfeld" gives us irony and humor side by side. Jerry is ironic. He maintains his place in this world while realizing its absurdity. Kramer, meanwhile, is humorous: in him, the different planes of existence meet and play out their odd relationship. We see Kramer become a dog, a pimp, a karate expert. His whole being is consumed by the transcendental plane of becoming. Kramer never knowingly winks, never signals that he knows nothing, never points to the Eternal. While Jerry presents his ego while pointing to its undoing — the premise of his stand up comedy—, Kramer's doing and undoing is commensurate with his ego. Kramer is not a comedian: he is humor happening, the and of becoming — man and dog, man and pimp, man and x.

Jim Carrey is not ironic; he's humorous. Like Kramer, his whole being commits to the transcendental plane as it becomes a local expression of other worlds. He doesn't slyly point elsewhere the way, say, David Letterman does. I always saw Letterman as the modern day Socrates, taking on the silliness and vanity of so-called stars. This is what lies at the heart of Letterman's shtick: all this — these movies, this TV, all of it — gives way because there is another world that's true, that's essential, that's transcendent. Carrey, meanwhile, lives the madness, the delirium, of that transcendental world here and now. He never points elsewhere. It's all going on right here.

So what of my hysterics while Skyping with my brother? On the one hand, it's the madness of this world giving way to another world. Isn't that what siblings do for us, do to us — remind us that despite all our grown up pretensions, our quoting of Deleuze, our fancy jobs, we're really just silly kids, that life is either/or? On the other hand, siblings have that incredible ability to link these two worlds, to fold the beautiful humiliations of our childhood into the humiliations of our grown up selves and, I suppose, vice versa — to be the and. When I laugh with my brother, a laugh resonant and thorough, I am simultaneously drunk on irony and humor, my different selves at once discrepant and intertwined.


Between Thought and Action

I've never liked the assumed distinction between thought and action. Isn't thinking an action? When I'm thinking about something, I'm certainly doing something. Thinking involves my body, my memory, my time. It's not some ethereal event, happening on some abstract plane. It's work (or, better, play) — my heart rate shifts, my muscles might twitch, my toes and fingers wiggle.

True, thinking rarely involves my sweat, except during anxiety attacks. On the other hand, or on another hand, anxiety might not be thinking at all. In fact, I want to say that anxiety is a kind of non-thinking as it recapitulates the same pattern ad nauseam. I might go so far as to say that anxiety is our ideal of action: pure doing without any thinking at all! But even if I'm very still and my heart rate stays the same, when I'm thinking, I'm acting — I'm adjusting my world view, my understanding of the universe and my place in it. In many ways, what action is more profound?

And isn't action itself a kind of thought? Watching Michael Jordan play (excuse my out of date references), it was obvious to me that the way he negotiated the court was a kind of thinking. When a painter paints, he's distributing the relationship between concepts, ideas, colors, moods, affects — even if he's "just" dripping paint on the canvas. Which is to say, he's thinking.

For me, writing is surely an act of thinking. Maybe, when I was younger, writing was a transcription of thoughts. But, right now, writing for me is the very act of making sense of the world, of organizing it, metabolizing it, distributing it. Which is why I love it so much, particularly this essayistic writing, this blogging, where I can follow threads here and there, feel out the world and the relationship between me, the non-present world, ideas, words, and moods.

And yet, despite all that, there is still clearly a distinction between thinking something and doing that thing. I can think, "I'm so cool!" But that's not the same thing as acting cool. In fact, one could argue that thinking I'm so cool is to act uncool. This is all to say that there is an important distinction between thinking and doing but that the two are related and certainly not opposed.

I've been seeing this incredible shrink for the last year who has been helping me — or talking with me — about life and death. Our entire relationship, and the therapeutic relationship in general, casts an interesting relationship between thought and action, doer and done. After all, he can't change me. That would be absurd, even if awesome. I mean, how great would it be if I could go see some dude, have him tinker with me, and I walk out feeling joyous?!? Delighted!?! Ready to take on the world!?! This is the dream of Western medicine: pop a pill and, voilà, you feel great — happy and erect! If only health weren't an ever shifting  calculus of thought and action one performs alone.

But, no, that's not the way it works. My shrink says things; I say things; we say things together, or not. And I feel the way I feel and he feels the way he feels and on it goes.

Much of what he says feels like an argument. I say to him, "Holy moly! My sister is dead and it freaks my shit!" To which he replies, "Yes, she's dead. Everybody dies — we're not here, we're here, we're not here. No reason to be afraid of it. That would be absurd as it's not only inevitable but good because it's inevitable!"

This is a logical argument. I understand it and find it compelling. I've heard and even taught versions of it for years — in Nietzsche (amor fati: love fate, love whatever happens), Leibniz (this world is the best possible world), Kierkegaard (death is not the sickness unto death; anxiety is). I'm persuaded, or so it seems.

And yet, from time to time, I yell and scream and wail my tears at the fact that my sister is gone. And that others I love will go the same way and that, presumably, I will die, too. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

But how can I freak out when I've understood that it's absurd to fear death? Death is as much part of life as life is in that there is no life without death. This is different from desiring death — which need not be a bad thing but, usually, is a sign of a morbid constitution. Am I some kind of moron, then, that I fear death when I've so clearly understood that death if necessary and, in its way, beautiful?

From one perspective, I've not understood the beauty of death, even if I've thought about it and claim to understand it. Even if I can follow its logic, repeat it, persuade others of its enduring veracity. As long as I freak out, as long as I fear the next moment that might bring the demise of me or those I love, I have not understood this argument

There is a doing that must take place, action I must undertake beyond thinking about it. I have to make what Kierkegaard calls an internal movement. I have to redistribute myself. That is, perhaps I need to think! Or is it that I need to stop thinking and make this understanding an action?

It's funny to me that in order to get me to stop thinking and accept death, accept life as it happens, I encounter arguments that I have to think through but for which thinking is not enough. I suppose this is why there are koans, word-logic puzzles that have no answer but, when contemplated, help bring the individual to a new kind of understanding. In a way, the koan is a trigger for internal movement — a movement from a certain understanding to a different understanding, from a certain kind of doing to another kind of doing, from one kind thinking to another kind of thinking: from thinking to action (even if both remain invisible).

I think again of Michael Jordan or of any athlete, or any person, really, who's "in the zone." I've always loved this phrase, this idea: entering a temporal and psychic and physical space in which you feel congruent with all that is happening, flowing with the world without friction or hiccup. I think being in the zone is the absolute melding of thought and action, a congruence of understanding and doing (which might be redundant because if you actually understand something, you do that thing, regardless of what your thinking tells you).

The Buddhists, among others, offer another mode of self — or of being — that involves neither thinking nor action: observing. Thinking is a product of human construction, of books and ideas and fears and desires. Action is the movement, even if invisible, of these human bodies. Observation, on the other hand, thinks nothing and does nothing.

We all have an observer inside us, some aspect of ourselves that watches ourselves be the beautiful bozos we are — feeling good, being a douchebag, being pretentious, afraid, brave, passive aggressive. This observer passes no judgement, does not intervene. He, or she (it's indifferent to gender), stoically, calmly, just watches.


Travel Shmavel

Among most of the cultural cliques to which I'm exposed, travel is a priori good. Every woman's profile I see on OK Cupid or Match declares her love for travel. They all list their passport as one of the essential things they need, usually along with coffee, their phone, and good friends. Oy.

Me, I will admit without hesitation: I don't like to travel.  It's all such a fucking hassle. Flights and packing and the humiliation of planes only to find myself in a city that's more or less like any other city only suddenly I have none of the things that fuel my everyday health. I'm stuck researching, finding, and finally consuming meal after meal prepared by strangers. Sure, once in a while I'll find some freakishly delicious dumpling, some new combination of tastes and textures, expanding my world. But, usually, I'm eating mediocre food that I'd have prepared differently and that inevitably leaves me with a cocktail of thirst and gas.

Going to another country is even worse. All the things that support my intellectual, emotional, and existential vitality are gone — where to sleep, eat, shit, drink water, drink booze, use money, talk, know the fuck I'm going. I'm reduced to an imbecile (yes, yes, I hear the jokes now: you're already an imbecile, you imbecile). At home, all those needs are tended to so I can delve, think, push myself.

Of course, I see the edification afforded by alienation from everyday bourgeois comforts. It's good and healthy not to take all the crap we have for granted, to be exposed to discomfort, confusion, a distancing from the life one takes for granted. No doubt.

But I'm alienated enough as is in my own world! I feel like a freak amongst the working, familial throngs of America. I don't take my TV or gluten free bed or wifi or drinkable tap water or home cooked meals for granted. I love them all, reckon them all, savor them all.  Why, then, would I need them stripped of me — voluntarily? And at great expense?

This is not to say that I don't like being somewhere else than my own house. I'll travel eagerly to an exquisite house in an exquisite location where I can enjoy peace, beauty, a yawning horizon, a glittering night sky. I'll even venture to some obscure location and sleep beneath the stars — if it beckons with that touch of the divine. Oh, give me that desert view and the quiet of yelping coyotes and I'm happy as a clam.

But flying from San Francisco to New York for a few days? Oy gevalt. Sure, seeing excellent friends is great and worth the tsuris. But to just go there to check it out? What's there to do besides buy and eat shit?

Now, I could launch into ideological critiques of travel. I could suggest that the will to travel is fundamentally imperial, not in the sense of conquering the other but of enjoying the other for your delight. Not everyone assumes travel to be a good thing; it is a distinctly cultural and class desire.

I could also suggest that travel feeds the bourgeois need for distraction from the horror of work, family, debt, the soul draining pain of Facebook and suburbs and anther god damned burrito. Travel distracts by forcing us to deal with the nonsense of life — money, food, sleep, water. Suddenly, we don't have to deal with the deathly mundanity of our existence.

But perhaps the problem lies not in travel but in me (I can hear all the women I've had in my life nodding in emphatic affirmation). Perhaps, as said women suggest, I'm a prima donna, a lazy fuck, a curmudgeon.

On the other hand, if we remove the a priori good from travel, then perhaps I simply don't like it. My distaste doesn't have to point to some deep character flaw, however much others would like that to be the case. Perhaps such is my metabolism, simply how I roll. Just as I don't criticize my lady friends for not, say, regularly reading Nietzsche, they don't have to lay into me for not wanting to travel. Perhaps it's just a matter of my constitution and by not traveling, I'm being true to my self.

How do we become who we are? Well, we feel it out. The world offers us peyote, Jean-Luc Godard, the Fast and the Furious, chopped chicken liver, satin sheets, pilates and we consider each more or less. Sometimes, for sure, we reject as said thing might kill us. Other times, we reject out of fear even though said thing might enliven us, fuel us, ignite us. What are our criteria? How are we to know?

Alas, I'm 45, I've traveled and I don't like it. It drains me. All you would-be girlfriends be damned. I'll give you adventures of another sort. But I don't need to see Ho Chi Minh City or Greenpoint to be fulfilled or happy. All the world I need is right here, right now. At least for the time being.

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 ...