Of Photography & Writing

Burroughs' cut ups begin as a photograph begins: with indifferent data of differing speeds, affects, intensities — a kind of RAW file. 

Cameras are funny in that they are thoroughly stupid and indifferent. They don't see faces, people, events, things. Cameras don't take pictures of anything. What they do is something far stranger: they metabolize the inflection of light within a stipulated duration and place.

We add all sorts of things so that cameras serve a humanist purpose — we add knowing software to the stupid hardware. Look at Facebook: every time you upload a picture, it puts these boxes over faces, begging for information. Who is this? We must know! It must be a picture of something! If not a person, then a place! Please, tell us!

The photographer is himself a piece of software. But the terms of the software can, and do, differ greatly. Some enjoy the indifference of the camera's viewing, letting it take up the the patina of life, the wear, glare, and detritus that is everywhere, always. The images that ensue are multiplicities of different times, speeds, intensities, different trajectories of meaning and affect.

Others, meanwhile, work hard to control the camera's indifference as completely as possible. This is certainly true of most Hollywood filmmakers. They work hard, spending millions upon millions of dollars to make sure that everything in the frame signifies some kind of common concept or feeling. We see the camera pan through the room taking note of the black clothing, the messy bed, The Cure poster, the records on the floor before the view lands on our sleeping Emo girl — troubled and smart and little bit spunky, no doubt. Rather than the beautiful and grotesque indifference of the camera, we get the relentless signification of the story. (Wes Anderson rigorously controls what takes place in frame but so as to offer a multiplicity of affects and precepts, different speeds and intensities — the aqueous roll of Steve Zissou alongside the aerial spaciness of his false son, Ned.)

Photography — which, for these purposes, includes filmmaking — is such a strange art and practice in that it begins with absolute indifference. The software qua practitioner then inflects the inflections, lends shape and literal focus (or not unless we consider blur a kind of focus, which of course it is) to what we're seeing. The photographer's fodder is form and light (although it's not really form and light; it's light-form) with no knowing, no concept, no humanity. (Andreas Gursky amplifies his software to amplify this indifference which I wrote about ages ago >.)

Writing seems so different as the writer begins with words and words are so drenched in the human, so already knowing. Words already come with opinions about this and that. If photography begins, in some sense, with indifferent inflected light — light-forms — writing begins with opinionated bodies.

But, then again, where do writing and photography begin? Like photographs, writing does not give us an image of the world. The writer doesn't write about things — about places, people, and events. The writer, like the photographer, orchestrates affects and concepts and possibilities. They give us worlds, not reports (although they can give us reports, as well).

From a certain perspective, too, words may have opinions but they are also light-forms — ethereal shapes of the world, possibilities, inflected space and time, all airy sensibility. As Jacques Rancière says, the image — which can be visual or linguistic — is not the substance but the terms of relations between the elements, between the seen and unseen, between the visible and the sayable. All artists, whether working with pens or cameras, first and foremost distribute bodies, hedge speeds and directions, orchestrate movements between different elements, bodies, and times.

Still, I don't want to conflate all arts. I don't want to suggest that writing and photography are the same. Working with words is quite different than working with light-forms. There is that beautiful moment of indifference that photographers get to enjoy, a distinctly non-human moment of a very human act, namely, seeing. Writers have to work in strange ways to introduce non-human elements, to find this well of indifference.

In his efforts to infuse cinema into writing, William Burroughs introduced that distinctly photographic moment into the writing process. Rather than beginning with a story or even with words and grammar, he began with an indifferent vat of information. He'd take writing from different sources and mix it all up until it became, in some sense, a kind of RAW file — information without knowing, without intelligence, without clear form. Where writing tends towards linear sequence, Burroughs' cut ups begin with radical simultaneity, with so many speeds, intensities, and moments existing side by side, much as the camera sees.

Burroughs' writing, then, is akin to a photograph in that it operates with multiple speeds and intensities at the same time. He doesn't contort his words, as Hollywood filmmakers do, into a sequential story with clear causes and effects. Like the camera with its indifferent presentation of multiplicity, Burroughs gives us a certain allatonceness that is internally distributed.


Self-Management, or The Society of Performance

I'm sitting at the bar the other night talking to a local writer who, from time to time, reads her writing in public. I've watched some of her recordings, read some of her writing. When I told her I liked her performances, she said she still hadn't watched any of my videos but had read a few of my posts. Which gave me pause: Videos? And then I remembered that I'd made some insane videos in which I rant at my laptop camera, stuttering and gesturing like a spastic pervert.

I find those videos unwatchable, all nose and ramble. And yet I've left them on the interweb for any, and very few, to peruse. (The only video that people seem to watch is me talking about Nietzsche's will to power. How do I know people watch it? I am notified via email when they leave their inevitably bile filled comments.) My co-gin-imbiber at the bar noted that she can't remove the videos of her as she didn't post them. But I can take mine down. So why haven't I?

The web is a kind of collective memory. We do what we do and the web notes it, indexes it, tucks it away for future access according to ever shifting algorithms (thanks mostly to Google's profit motive). But unlike my memory which can never be purged, the archive of the web can be scrubbed — sorta, more or less. In fact, I have taken things down — not often but I have. Why? Because they were a little nasty and perverse.

After all, I have multiple identities I negotiate. I have a so-called professional life as a brand strategist working with well respected corporations; one as a Deleuzian quasi-academic; another as a blogger about life, death, tequila, and capitalism; from time to time, as a guy trying to find a lady; and another as a former professor, old friend, and father (Facebook). There are probably more such identities but that's already complex enough. And so I pulled down writing that served none of these in a good way and, in my eyes, put some of these identities at risk — get too nasty and no one will hire or date me and, alas, I could jeopardize my custody. (Are these postings gone for good? I doubt it. Like all memory, where does forgetting go? Once folded into the engine, there's no getting out, not absolutely. The "trash" on our desktops is misleading. I'm suddenly tempted to quote the Eagles. See? Memory haunts us.)

And then it suddenly occurred to me: life today demands management of one's identity. I don't just create my identity through my self-expression. There are all these threads, voices, and possibilities that constitute me in the social that I have to constantly negotiate (to wit, I am thinking about the fact that I just split my infinitive which some don't notice, some enjoy, and some judge. For whom am I writing right now? You? Are you still reading? Did I just use "whom"?).

In his forthcoming book, Image Photograph (Punctum books), the artist-theorist, Marc Lafia argues (among other things) that we've moved from the society of the spectacle to the society of performance. In the society of the spectacle, we are turned inside out and folded into the capitalist fray. Our emotions, our identities, become indistinguishable from the commercials, magazines, movies, and TV shows that fill our lives. In the words of Debord, our social relations — including our relations with ourselves — are "mediated by images". There is no so-called authentic life; our emotions and relations have been supplanted by capitalist images.

Social media changed all that. Yes, we remain mediated by images. But we create, curate, and distribute those images. As McLuhan argues, new technology works us over completely. And so network, social media has transformed us from seers and seen into managers of identities. We are no longer just spectacle, mediated by images. We've been commanded to perform our imaging, to control, negotiate, curate, create, orchestrate the images that we are.

It's been pointed out that we've become the commodity for sites like Facebook, our identities bought and sold to advertisers. But, what's more troubling, is that we've become not just the commodity and not just the labor but the managers of our identities. We are indirectly complicit not only in our commodification for the likes of Facebook but we've become active agents of the corporate state and its relentless will to control and manage identities.

This is the ultimate fantasy of the bourgeois state: after it's tagged us with social security numbers and passports, once it's force fed us the inane garbage of its presumed pedagogy, it puts us to work to control ourselves. This is not Foucault's panopticon in which we watch ourselves; this is Foucault-cum-Kafka in which we endlessly manage ourselves according to algorithms of identity that are forever out of our reach. Tweak something there and over there an image, a quote, a comment pops up. It's comical and utterly insane as it's an impossible, relentless task, as absurd as it is necessary.

I find myself wishing I was just a commodity to be bought and sold. Then I could just do my thing and let the bidders bid. But our corporate state won't have it. It won't be content with hocking my identity, creating my emotions, surveilling my every action, eavesdropping on my every call. I can't even run from it, be the outlaw, Jason Bourne-like. No, it's put me to work: my very being has become my relentless self-management.


What is Bourgeois?

In today's San Francisco, where ostentatious wealth abounds in the form of multi-million dollar lofts and Porsches, not to mention the endless parade of new pricey ass restaurants, one hears the word "bougie" bandied about. And, for the most part, these things are bourgeois — but not because they're expensive or indulgent. It's because they're not quite that expensive or indulgent; it's because they're all about comfort, safety, and appearance — and because they fit neatly into the cycle of creation, exploitation, consumption.

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. So was the ill-named American Revolution which wasn't a revolution at all but a war of independence from aristocratic taxation. In both instances, business and new land owners wanted power — and to stop paying taxes to an aristocracy that had done nothing to earn its position other than be born into it. These were not revolutions of "the people" per se. They were revolutions of those who'd earned their wealth and were pissed off at those who'd inherited it. The bourgeois were busting there asses and wanted a piece of the pie.

Aristocrats flourish outside the fray of business squabbles and everyday demands such as traffic, parking tickets, home upkeep, screaming babies, and the demand for the newest stroller. There is, at least in principle, a certain decadence to the aristocracy. They play and frolic and fornicate without consequence. They're not hampered by glances of neighbors peering through their shades; they don't have to keep up with the Joneses. They are free to come and go and do as they please. And, for the most part, they don't care about anyone else — as long as they can continue to get their way.

The bourgeois revolution ushered in a new age — one of control, of being counted, of a work ethic and, worse, the demand for a work ethic. And being beholden to an employer, to a corporation, for your livelihood. Which, in turn, ushered in an age of fear and indebtedness, of being counted and accounted for. No more hiding in the shadows as a poor drunk; now everyone has to be accounted for, to be productive, to be part of the capitalist engine, one way or another.

If the aristocracy feels beholden to no one — carries no debt — the bourgeoisie is an indentured servant, owing time and energy to the banks, to the company, to the will and laws of capital. Whatever is not productive needs to be folded into the fray, into the engine of production-consumption. They even turned poverty and criminality into an industry, a way to make money. This is how the bourgeois care about the poor — as so much fodder to make more money, as commodities to be exchanged through a juridical system.

To be bourgeois is to be hampered by the everyday and its petty concerns. It's to adhere to the laws and rituals of the corporate state (quite different than the regal state) which decrees: You must go to college — and take loans to do it! You must get a job that accounts for your time and soul and you must be thankful for it! Then you must try to pair up with another — it used to be strictly heterosexual but homosexuality, which once stood for a non-bourgeois life, has been folded into the bourgeois fray (feminism, too, was folded into the fray: why aren't women making things as well as consuming them! Put them to work!). Then, you must buy a house — and take loans, huge, long lasting loans which keep you tethered to your job until you die. Then you breed which, in turn, makes your need for a job greater and your indebtedness to your boss more exhausting, more totalizing, more absolute. It becomes the norm, just what you do — even if you hate it, even if it's crushing your soul and libido and intestines day in and day out. No worries: we have a drug for that.

The aristocracy knows no such things. Sure, it has laws and rituals and, yes, they often had to marry folks they didn't like. But they were not indebted to a boss who owned their time and energy and productivity. There is no aristocratic productivity. That is a bourgeois concern — a concern that mines every corner of life, every moment of waking time, of human energy in order to produce more capital.

To be bourgeois is to be enmeshed within the moral codes of the corporate state, of corporate power. It's to work as much as possible, be thankful for it, then spend your earnings on things the corporate state produces. You become a literal cog within the production of capital: the hands and minds that create, the body that buys and consumes. These things keep you distracted from the misery of your life — from your exhaustion and constipation and gas and kvetching spouse and whining kids and asshole boss. You choose the comfort of your couch to the possible discomfort of not knowing how you'll pay your rent.

To be bourgeois is not to be wealthy: it's to be beholden, of your own will, to the rules of capital: earn money then spend it, and more, thanks to loans. It's a little life the bourgeois lead, never looking up to the infinite sky which shatters all structures, all codes, all pretenses.

I believe what confuses people these days is that the monied bourgeois act like entitled aristocrats. But that's just a facade. Because, in the morning, they know they need to wake up and earn their keep, pay their debts, absolve their guilt —  and fuck you if you don't!


And this too

When I was in high school, I had this great literature teacher who made us write a paper every week — no more than two pages each. The assignment alternated between two assignments. One week, we had to compare any two books from the long list of American and English literature; the other week, we had to write about a quote he'd give us. One week, the quote was, "This too shall pass." It's resonated with me ever since.

In some sense, it was my first conscious engagement with the thought, image, and concept of flux (I'd sure as hell lived it but thinking it was all together different). I have to admit I don't remember what I wrote for the paper (although I do remember what I wrote for others) but I do know that that quote sat with me, pervaded me, and got me through some rough times. No matter how awful some event is, no matter how stressful or painful, it too shall pass.

What glorious relief! What a lift to the great burden of existence! If something is really, really crappy, I can just wait it out!

Of course, this ignores the other side of the equation, if you will. If something really, really great is happening — love, happiness, pleasure — that too shall pass. Life is impermanence. Everything gives way in the end, or earlier, to something else (hints of Hegel, I suppose).

And yet there is a rhetorical perspective within those words. Yes, it points to the impermanence of everything but, somehow, it doesn't seem indifferent. It seems relieved, as if life were too difficult to bear, as if life were a problem in the first place, as if we needed relief.

Perhaps I'm reading it too negatively. After all, all it's saying is that everything passes, everything gives way — the good and the bad.

And yet it seems uttered with a little resentment, a little ressentiment, as if delivered from on high by some god who sits in an eternal throne watching the silly transience of human existence. Indeed, there is something beautifully and horribly religious working in this one four-word phrase.

After all, why tell me that this too shall pass? Either it's to offer relief from suffering or to check my hubris. In either case, there's a hint of resentment against life, against its transience, as if flux were a problem for which we needed reminding. And perhaps we do.

But what if we already know that life is flux and we love it all the more for it? I think of Andy Goldsworthy who toils for hours, weeks, months on a creating something that he knows will very quickly be swept away by the wind or waves. He doesn't need to be told that this too shall pass! He builds in the face of flux, with the windings of flux, letting the wind and waves and river and tides be his co-creator. In this passing, Goldsworthy finds creation, the emergence of life at the precise point of its disappearance.

It seems to me that the joyful, those who adhere to a gay science, to amor fati — to those who love life in all its shapes and forms, from vomiting phlegm for days (Nietzsche's example and own ailment) to getting jiggy in the bar — such joyful people don't ever utter, "this too shall pass," precisely because they already know this shall pass — and they love it! Such lovers of life utter something else, something that seems like the same thing but is in fact worlds away. They utter, "And this, too!"

I'm captivated by this phrase, this inflection on the one I learned 30 years ago. And is an incredible word, at once conjunctive and disjunctive. It brings things together without necessarily uniting them.  This and this and this and this...and and and to infinity (pace Deleuze). I actually learned the power of and from Whitman who is a voracious consumer of life in all its sundry forms. To read Leaves of Grass is to be swept up into the glorious wind, the absolute affirmation, of the infinite and.  He loves this and this and that and that, too, and then this and this and that and on and on and on. He doesn't unify it; there is no dialectic (Hegel fades into the background). He consumes whole heartedly.

This is part of what I love about this phrase, "And this too." It's voracious. It's consumptive — Yeah, gimme that and that — without being greedy or gluttonous. And loves to take in the world.

But the full phrase tempers that consumption with an exquisite indifference of life happening as it does, proffering its multifarious gifts — Yeah, that happened, too. And yeah, it will pass, duh. But what I dig is that it happened, that it's happening. So, yes, this too. There is an unabashed love of life.


We Are Here to Go, or Life & Relationships Aren't Linear So Enjoy the Ride

Often, too often — in fact, always for many — we think of life, and certainly relationships, as linear and progressive. You meet, flirt, date, kiss, fool around, fuck, spend more time together, move in together, marry, spawn, divorce (or not), then die. It's a nice neat line, even if punctuated with intense emotional experiences of love, doubt, heartbreak, loss.

This is what philosophers call a teleology: things moving with purpose towards an end and away from a beginning. The Fall is a teleology as we are moving away from innocence. This defines much of how we think about childhood: we had something beautiful and we lose it over time. The end of the world, or our prevalent eschatology, is another teleology: we had something beautiful but, because we're sinful, we're headed towards the end of all things. 

In both cases, and in most cases in which we figure our lives, we see life as a coming from or going to. There is a starting point or there is an ending point by which we can define our present position — I'm an adolescent, I'm having a mid-life crisis, I'm regressing, Our relationship isn't moving forward. Sure, these teleologies terrify us, riddle us with anxiety, but they orient us, help us feel grounded. And it seems we prefer this sense of orientation to freedom from angst. 

I'm not saying there is no such thing as these experiences. Surely, there is an experience of adolescence, of infancy, of old age. But these don't necessarily happen in order. I've seen my 11 year old son be an infant, an adult, and old man; I've seen the same in myself. Life is more spirals, twirls, and folds than neat little timelines. 

Such temporal teleologies are, as Nietzsche might say, nihilistic. They seek to control and define the multiplicity of time and the great indifference of the universe. They wish life to be other than it is, namely, an ever swirling flux of becoming. 

Histories tend to revolve around neat narratives with clear origins and endpoints. We entered the war because we were bombed; we ended the war with an even bigger bomb. But start poking at the beginning and end and those points become blurs, become multiple (did Japan and Germany really "lose" the war, as if winning and losing meant something? Weren't they the two financial superpowers for many years?). As Foucault says, when we look for the origin, we find the dissension of other things. 

History is not a movement of progress or regress; we've neither gained nor lost. We change, always. The time of the mountains and rivers and oceans is different than the time of nations which is different than the time of ideas and desires and individual lives and societies and birds and tortoises. Each goes as it goes, multiply, intersecting others (or not). There may be thresholds here and there but they are local and they inevitably bleed. 

Life is not linear. The moment you are born, you begin to die. With each breath you take, you live a little and die a little. Birth and death are not absolute beginnings and ends; they are local limits that in fact run through the whole of your life. You are constantly reborn and you are constantly dying. Life and death are folded together with infinitely dense pleats. 

And relationships, no matter how hard we try, are not linear — even when they seem that way. I once met a girl, dated, married, moved in together (we broke the order and married the day we moved in together, a fold in the traditional sequence), had a kid, got divorced. But the divorce only ended our legal marriage. In reality, our relationship keeps changing, morphing, even if it's long past romantic or sexual. I see this in all the relationships I've had: they don't have absolute beginnings or ends. They are nebulous folds, trajectories, differential equations with infinite limits that will never be reached precisely because they are always still happening.

This is what we might call a teleonomy rather than a teleology. There is some sense of purpose only that purpose doesn't exist outside the process of going; the going is the becoming of the purpose. That is, if the teleology of the Fall is a going away from a point, a receding horizon, the teleonomy of life and relationships offers its purpose right here, right now, as its going. It's the difference between walking to work and going for a stroll. 

And yet we cling to these insane wishes for linearity. In relationships in particular, we keep asking: Where is this going? When will you propose? When will we move in together? These might or might not be fair questions to ask now and again but they also avoid the now. For instance, there we are, having a great time hanging out, talking, playing, smooching, cooking. Everything is hunky dory; everything is great. And then one of us stops the fun and asks, demands: Where is this relationship going? It's not enough to enjoy this life; I need this life to be oriented within a false temporal scheme that inevitably gives way to the beautiful chaos of life. To stop and ask such a question is to prefer a false sense of ground to a beautiful sense of vertigo. For there is no there there. All there is is this going. 

As Brion Gysin writes, What are we here for? Does the great metaphysical nut revolve around that? Well, I'll crack it for you, right now. What are we here for? We are here to go! Not go anywhere in particular but just to go, to be a going. 


The Impossibility of Teaching

Socrates, of course, says we never actually learn anything. It's impossible, he claims. How can we even ask a question, get a foothold, about something we don't know? It's absurd. If we can wonder about it, we know it. If we don't know it, we can't know it.

And so he claims all learning is remembering. It seems we once knew everything and have since forgotten it, what with the trauma of birth and living in these absurd bodies and all.  And yet, somewhere in us, are the memories of all things, of truths and such. For Socrates, the teacher's job is to help you remember, a mid-wife (his words!) of truths that already are.

Kierkegaard gets all this but thinks it's the way of the ancients. The modern way to learn, says Kierkegaard, is not through memory buy through repetition. Where the ancients lived backwards, the moderns live forward. Repetition, Kierkegaard cryptically and beautifully tells us, is memory only lived forwards instead of backwards. Jesus, not Socrates, offers the modern pedagogy — says Kierkegaard. With Jesus, you are reborn as another person: you repeat yourself.

But how does he, or He, do that? What is learning and, even stranger, what is teaching?

Well, Jesus as teacher comes to you and says, "I am the eternal God." It's a strange moment. Here's this skinny Jewish dude, probably smelling less than fresh, nothing particularly compelling about him other than he says these outrageous things.

But the question is: What do you do? You can surely turn away, ignore the lunatic, muttering to yourself, What a freak! Or you can believe. You can make this absurd, absolutely ungrounded move, and say to yourself and the world, should it ask: This little, malodorous hebe is the eternal God. I believe this.

The presumed modern way is to ask for proof. But to ask for proof is to miss learning all together. Proof is the end of discussion, the end of teaching, the end of learning. Proof is what is self-evident. But, alas, truth is not like that. Truth is not self-evident. Truth is relative and slippery and mysterious and ungrounded through and through.

It would be quite convenient if learning was simply a matter of hearing the right things. Oh, you're God, cool! Thanks. And, voilà, you've learned.

But learning is not like that. Learning asks something of you. It asks, it demands, that you make a move — internal and external — into a different existential space. It demands that you be rearranged inside out so that, now that you know this or that, you are no longer the same person. You've been reborn. You've repeated yourself.

What does Jesus do to get you from here to there? He poses a problem. He doesn't try to get you to remember. He doesn't poke and prod at your well held truths until they collapse, as Socrates does. No, Jesus presents you with a living, breathing moment of decision: Do you believe this or not? To believe demands a fundamental reordering of how you see and think and feel the world. To not believe is to continue as you've been doing. What do you do?

This is always the demand of learning, whether it's calculus, philosophy, reading, or God. To understand the calculus is to understand that life is, or can be, shapes in motion, infinitely becoming and differentiating themselves. To understand Nietzsche is suddenly to understand, to see, that life is all a surging, a health, a will to power. To learn something is to take a leap into a new way of being, to overcome the différend — the irreconcilable gap between who you are now and you're about to become. There's no proof to be had. You either leap or you don't. You make the move or you stand still.

But what of the teacher? What is she to do? Can she just push you across the gap? Shove knowledge into your body with sheer force, with foot and will? Clearly, her job is not to convey knowledge. That's what the internet is for. Any moron can look up facts. The teacher's job is something else all together.

The teacher is not there to remind you of something you already know. And the teacher is not there to learn for you, to make you learn or understand. That's absurd. Everyone learns alone; it's an internal movement. So the teacher's job, it seems to me, is to create the conditions for others to make this internal movement on their own. This can be unsettling, such as when a skinny smelly Jewboy says to you: I am the eternal God!

The teacher is a cog, yes, but not a conveyor. The truth does not travel on the body, in the words, of the teacher. No, the teacher is a facilitator of conditions, of opportunity, making it possible for students to make a leap which they inevitably must do on their own.

When they get across the abyss, the words the teacher was speaking will be different. They may not even be familiar. All the teacher does is create the space for the internal movement of the student. Where the student goes, what he does, is his business. And it inevitably goes astray. Teaching is not the laying of a path. It is not the conduit. It is an element within the creation of the conditions.

To teach is not to convey this datum from here to there. It is not a singular trajectory. It is the co-creation of an environment of multiplicity, of possibility. As the teacher, you say things, you do things. As a student, you hear this, do that. It is not a one-to-one correspondence. It is many-to-many. What the teacher says is multiple, as multiple as a life. What the student hears and does, the way he makes sense, is multiple. And there are multiple students, all making their way as they will.

So what is the moment of learning? What is the moment of teaching? It is not singular and happens in its own time. One day, I might lecture about rhizomes. Sixteen years later, a student might find himself as a distributed root system. Or not. So it goes.

When I think about it, I don't understand how learning takes place and, what's more, how a teacher is to teach. The demand seems surreal, impossible even. And yet it happens. Teachers, rare for sure, are able to forge these spaces of emotional, affective, and intellectual possibility, these places and circumstances in which students are able to transform themselves, to be transformed, to see and think and feel and be anew.

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 ...