Grammar's a great word. Gram is something written or letters or writing itself (this of telegram). When I think about that, I see grammar as one who forges with words. Forges is funny in that it means to fake as well as to create. Funny, as well, that grammar came to mean the rules of forging as distinct from the act of forging.
Whence rules? Sure, there's something to be said for creating consistency in communication so that we can understand each other and hence do business, mate, forge a society and culture (there's that forge again!). On the other hand, who gets to make up these rules? And, for that matter, are we sure we want and even need to forge such communicative commonality? I mean, if I want you to understand me, I'll communicate in such a way that you can and do. This happens all the time when traveling — we gesture, gesticulate, stick words together like blocks. And, often, it works: we forge sense together. But that's between you and me, not some dusty grammar book and me.
The act of forging is always grammatical. It puts things together according to a logic, a sense that may be internal rather than external, immanent rather than extrinsic, but with sense, nonetheless. Burroughs and Brion Gysin used something called the cutup to write. The name of the method is self-explanatory. Here's an example of a cut up Rimbaud poem:
Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban
air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.
The great skies are open. Candor of vapor and tent spitting blood laugh and drunken penance.
Promenade of wine perfume opens slow bottle.
The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.
Fragments of sense and image shards and odd euphonies emerge from putting things together. This doesn't mean that if you put any things together they'll be so conspicuously enticing. But, I have to tell you, most people who follow the so-called rules of grammar don't always create something meaningful and enticing. In fact, I might go so far as to say that most writing, with its staid grammar, is lousy. Which isn't necessarily the fault of the rules.
Which is my point. Sense comes from lots of things, lots of places; it comes from juxtaposition, from the relationship between things. The best sense emerges in surprising ways. And some of the best sense doesn't make sense, not in that sense of the word sense. But it does make sense in the sense that it forges sense, much as a blacksmith forges metal into, I don't know, a horseshoe or some primal, elongated whimsy.
Grammar from a book is akin to a moral code. It stands outside the fray, determining from afar. Thou shalt not diddle thy neighbor's wife! Even if the wife is miserable in her present relationship and the two of you are in mad love! Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition! Even if it means doing so makes perfect sense and not ending in a preposition is, in fact, confusing and douchey!
The grammar I'm talking about is what Deleuze would call an ethics — the emergent terms of behavior between things, in this case, words and punctuation. Here, grammar becomes a kind of verb, the very act of putting things together in order to forge sense. The risk, of course, is that you create no sense, or nonsense (I have to think about what that is), or boring sense. But that's a risk worth taking.
Reading Amidst the Fray
It's a luxury to read great books, films, works of art. You get to jump in, kick around, then stand back and think while the thing stands still. I say "for the most part" because the thing you're reading — a book, film, painting — does change as you change. But that change is relatively slow. So if you're reading, say, Cassavetes' careening film, Faces, over a few weeks the film won't change all that much. When you read it again years later, it will most likely have changed quite a bit and you'll wonder: Is it me? Or the film? The answer is both.
But there is great pleasure and a certain security in reading things. I, for one, like to spend my time coming at the thing from different angles, in different states of mind, at different times of the day, in different moods with different needs and different energies. A beautiful repartee takes place between the thing and me as I wrestle its moves and mechanics.
Mostly, I'm looking for that instance in which I get it, I see with what Bergson calls intuition: I grasp what is at stake for this thing. I see, in a flash, the terms of its world, the universe it sees and creates. This is especially true of an oeuvre: you suddenly see what they see, the world Descartes imagines, the cosmos in which Cassavetes operates, the terms of Nabokov. But that flash, while immediate, often takes time to come and then, once seen, needs to rest and take root. (For instance, I see Deleuze's world but it continues to take root in odd parts of my body and I am still surprised by it.)
Things get much more complicated when you're reading the social — all those glances, desires, needs, assaults, seductions coming at you all while you try to make your way through the endless nonsense in your own head (I suppose I should shift to the first person here). For much of my life, perhaps the present included, I am thoroughly confounded by when a girl likes me likes me, as the kids say. I can readily see when a boy or girl are interested in each other. It's so damn obvious. Just look at how she's talking to him! Duh!
But when she talks like that to me, well, I assume something's wrong. I rarely assume she likes me. How could she? I'm an idiot, a nose on a stick, an endless mouth. This neurosis prohibits my seeing what's actually happening; I see my self-loathing, not the event of desire that's transpiring directly in front of me.
Which is all to say, reading the social amidst the relentless teem of the social is tricky, to say the least. It all moves so fast! Movies move fast, too. But it's easy to pause, rewind, rewatch. I've watched movies dozens of times before writing about them. You don't have this luxury in the social. Glances and moods move fast and you are responding, always, whether you like it or not. Sitting there with a blank face is a communication with meaning; it is a reading of the situation, perhaps despite yourself.
Of course, in addition to the speed, what makes this so tricky is that your every action inflects the whole. If you smile, it shifts the mood and the play of meaning. If you turn your back, make a stuttering joke, spill your drink the very terms of exchange shift differently.
What's perhaps surprising is that this is true of reading a film, too. Your every move inflects the whole. If you read Cassavetes as dripping human affect the way Pollock drips paint, this sends ripples through Cassavetes' oeuvre and, like any grammatical instance, nudges your reading into a certain configuration — and, by extension, nudges you into a certain configuration.
Reading in the social and reading a film are not categorically different performances. As Bergson might say, they are different in degree — of speed and intensity, not different in kind. When we read books or movies or art, we are implicated. We may try to distance ourselves from this by writing arid academic prose or by deploying someone else's theory. This isn't my reading of Hitchcock! It's Lacan's! As if this got us off the hook. As if writing poorly and quoting someone else somehow spared us the insecurity, the uncertainty, the risk of being this person seeing these things.
When I read a thing, I want to throw myself into the mix. I want to celebrate the fact that I'm of the very stuff I'm reading — like Faces, I am affect and light and word and image. This is the key insight to New Journalism: we can write from the middle of the crowd, not just from the balcony. I want to feel the film all around me; I want my very flesh to shudder, my thinking to vibrate, my every twitch to be implicated. This is why I am not an academic: I want to be enmeshed in my thinking rather than wielding my ideas from afar.
There is no outside the fray, no matter how turgid your prose. This is not a bad thing. In fact, Merleau-Ponty says this is the only way we can know anything — precisely because we are of the same stuff, precisely because we are something that can be touched, seen, read. This reality can be disconcerting, especially when surrounded on all sides by glances, desires, and moods. The thing to do, I believe, is to learn from how we read things — let yourself be inundated, look for that flash of intuition, and then at once read and create that new cosmos.
In Praise of Weird
So I'm standing outside a bar in downtown San Francisco waiting for a friend. A man is standing there, too. He's white, turns out he's 39, dons a Giants baseball cap. He starts talking to me, asking if I live upstairs which, I learn, is a shelter for veterans. (I don't.) We're making very small talk — this shelter is recently renovated, it's very clean, mostly occupied by Vietnam vets who are, in his words, docile. Fair enough.
And then he asks if I know what's happening September 23 — the Day of Atonement. You know, when the skies will open and the rivers will run red. He then continues on about how the Navy is microwaving the ocean and keeping rain from California and how the Colorado River is already running red.
What's interesting is that he doesn't ask me as if he knows something I don't; he asks me as if he assumes I already know. Which is exactly how people in San Francisco will speak to me about, say, George Bush or Donald Trump — as if I know what they're talking about. Which I don't. Because I never, ever read a newspaper or watch any news. Everything I "know" about public discourse comes form my Facebook and Twitter feeds. And I skip the posts about Democrats and Republicans because, well, it's just all the same old nonsense — as Burroughs says, it's the red cape of the matador, making us charge at nothing while the sword is wielded from above.
There is, I realized, no real difference between what this guy is talking about — days of atonement, microwaving oceans — and what all the more gentile, middle class whines on about — Republicans and such. It's all just stories, stories framed and repeated by various media sources. This vet — he'd been in Afghanistan, it seems, delivering mail — simply reads different websites than the well employed Googlers. But both regurgitate the same old nonsense as if it were "news."
Now, I know that most people in my world would consider this guy a nut job. But what bummed me out was that he was not all that nuts (well, he might be but not in what he was saying to me). All the stuff he was telling me about the Navy boiling the ocean is simply not that weird. In fact, I found is disappointingly familiar.
This is the problem with the ready dissemination of "news" and conspiracy theories (which, to me, are the same thing): the weirdness of people is culled. So rather than hearing something truly bizarre, I hear the same old conspiracy nonsense about the Illuminati and the dark secrets of the US government and days of freakin' atonement — which we've been hearing about for millennia!
I want to hear something that I couldn't have imagined someone saying to me. I want to hear the weird and the wonderful and the scary and the hilarious. This is why I can't stand news sources. They're anything but new! They tell me the same old nonsense in the same old banal tone of voice.
When I was in college in Philly in the late 80s — an exceedingly depressed and depressing time for that sad little city — there was this older white dude who roamed West Philadelphia. He was often shirtless and in jean cut offs (not Daisy Dukes, mind you); his hair was grey — he was probably in his mid to late 60s. I don't think he was homeless as he was, despite my description, not totally ill kept. But he was seeing things and thinking things and, lucky for me, saying things that were of an alternate world. The line I remember the most, that still brings me pleasure, is, "I will raise an army of lesbians and take over McDonald's!" Now that's strange! I could not have seen that one coming.
I'm guessing he was schizophrenic or something related and equally delusional. And I by no means want to make light of that. But I do want to suggest what Deleuze and Guattari suggest: that there's a strain of schizophrenic thinking that is refreshing, that finds lines of flights out of the same old discursive hegemony. Again, this is not to make light of those whose lives are crushed by schizophrenia. I've seen what it can do to people firsthand and it is often terrifying and awful.
But there is something to this figure — this concept, this function — of the schizo who is not constrained by the frames of discussion media dictate so vigorously. And it's not about dressing up wacky or piercing your nose or doing a cabaret with your friends. This is what San Francisco often thinks is weird. And while all those things might or might not be fine, fun, and delightful, they're not weird precisely because they're what we already think of as weird. They're already known, accounted for, categorized. The weird is not a what but a mode of forging the new.
Weird is surprising in that it neither goes with nor against the grain. It doesn't try to break the mold; it casts new molds. Or, perhaps, doesn't care about molds at all but rather enjoys meandering — the schizo stroll. Weird slices through discourse, categories, and common sense. It scrambles — not for the sake of scrambling but because it operates and lives in a world you cannot yet imagine.
The regurgitation of the same old nonsense — whether it's wacky conspiracy theories or the all-too-banal politics of presidents — is zombieism. It's people walking around under the insane delusion that they're alive. But to be alive is to forge new flows, to follow new lines of flight — to say things that others don't already know — and couldn't have even imagined. Life flourishes in the weird.
It's Not Misanthropy. I Just Can't Stand People.
|Sartre's play, Huis Clos/No Exit, haunts me: my hell is spending time with other people forever. But that's not a judgement. It's just how I roll.|
Some people — many people, it seems — are fueled by the human teem. I watch baseball games on TV and see the crowds, all these people willingly — enthusiastically — spending time among throngs of other people. It's not that they love baseball more than I do. In fact, many of the people I know who go to games don't really care about baseball at all. They like the collective experience, the rush and thrill of the crowd.
I imagine this is how tourists feel when they walk through Chinatown and see chicken feet and strung up ducks and the like. How do they eat that? How can that be something that fuels their system, physically, existentially, emotionally? What body is it that consumes these things willingly?
Well, that's how I feel about watching people enjoying themselves in crowds. What bodies do they have, that I don't have, that makes them enjoy this? I feel assaulted in crowds, put upon, harried. I find myself expending all sorts of energy to duck, avoid, parry the plethora of bodies and glances and energy pulsing about. Meanwhile, other peoples take all those same things — those bodies and glances and odors and energy — and seem to find strength in it, energy in it. Where I am drained, they are fueled.
We are, all of us, little machines. We are systems of production, consumption, distribution, and expenditure. The calculus of these actions and their effects is what makes me me and you you. I used to think that my aversion was aesthetic or moral, that somehow I was above the mob. But that was just an odd attempt to justify the system that I am. I realized I am not a misanthrope; I don't dislike people. I just can't be around them for every long as they exhaust my resources, my personal reserves of energy. That's just how I roll, I suppose.
Nietzsche says that the ill constituted man instinctively reaches for those things that make him ill, that sap his energy, that drain his vitality. This is why I can't stand the sound of people eating popcorn in a movie theater: all those hands reaching instinctively and repeatedly for such foul food. It nauseates me. Sure, there are no doubt some people fueled by popcorn bathed in fake butter. But looking around the theater, I don't see a lot of vital, rosy, gleaming faces.
Meanwhile, the man of strength instinctively reaches for those things that strengthen him, fuel him, drive him. The complication is that there are no rules or sure set of things that fuel us. Sure, everyone these days is brimming with opinions on the universal good — blueberries for their antioxidants! Kale for its nutrients! Flax is a super food! Only eat raw food! Only eat cooked food! It really is madness as each of us is different. Blueberries, raw food, kale all fuck up my shit (as it were). Eating food or crowds or The New York Times or porn — or whatever you do — is the juncture at which all our theories become real and we have to decide yes or no to this and that.
The trick is knowing how your own system operates and how best to fine tune it — without becoming obsessed with the fine tuning! Man o man, people love to consume the act of fine tuning as if their actions were not part of their calculus, their equation of life, as if the what trumped the how so they can spend all their time fixated on whether to eat this nut butter or that. But the how is nearly everything.
Anyway, I am drained by the social. It's not just crowds. It's other people. Huis Clos haunts me. But it's not depression or misanthropy that makes me like this. It's me that makes me like this. It's neither good nor bad.
What's beautiful about approaching life as systems engineering is that it lets you shed moral judgement and its elaborate justifications of behavior. Fuck it. Whatever floats your boat! For me, it's being alone. And it's not because I don't like you. It's because I can't spend that much time with you without dying.
Good and Bad vs. Right and Wrong
This is an excerpt from a book I'm working on....
There may be infinite readings of this or that text but there are still good and bad readings. A good reading is creative. Things once familiar become refreshingly unfamiliar. The reader is a progenitor of the uncanny as habit falls away and a thing experienced hundreds of times suddenly comes into focus as if for the very first time. Few things exhilarate the way a good reading does. A fine and fresh distinction or well-placed reversal infuses the banal with vitality, the quotidian with wonder, the dead with life.
My first exposure to a reading which left my heart palpitating and the ground beneath my feet forever and gloriously unsure came at the hands of one of the reader’s most ready tropes: the reversal. In the reversal, expectation and assumptions are, well, reversed. Nietzsche loves reversals. Christian morality, he argues, is built on hate and resentment cloaked in the passive aggressive stance of love. Christian belief in god is nihilistic, a belief in nothing rather than a living through of life — a devastating reversal as Christian love becomes hate and faith becomes nihilism.
I was in Mr. Tucker’s 11th grade AP American History class. A fan of the revisionist Marxist historians (it was an odd school), Mr. Tucker had us read Gabriel Kolko’s essay on the creation of the USDA that claimed that the USDA and its dispensation of approval — those assuring gradations of meat — were not born of consumer advocacy but were in fact a foil of the meat industry, an industry suffering due to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle which exposed the grotesqueries of meat packing. The USDA, then, was not only not there to protect my fellow citizens and me — it was in fact an elaborate abuse of governmental ethos, a ploy to move product, a product which may very well be harmful to the very citizens the USDA was nominally formed to protect. It was exhilarating!
My second great reading encounter came in college, in a Women’s Studies lecture with Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Her lecture concerned the culture of the faint Victorian woman. Expecting to hear the tale of patriarchic oppression (which at the time seemed interesting and familiar to my decidedly uninteresting and familiar mind), my body readied itself for confirmation. But the tale I was to hear snapped me right to attention. The feminine assumption of weakness, it turns out, was not solely a means by which men subjugated women. No, the faintness of Victorian women was in fact a strategy by which a woman could a) avoid the toiling duties of housekeeper and hostess; and b) if institutionalized, be with other women. A feminine posture of weakness and the entire medical culture surrounding it was not just another example of men keeping women down; it was in fact a feminine strategy of survival and pleasure. (Reversals demand italics — they make the words themselves careen.)
In The History of Sex v.1, Michel Foucault argues that the discourse of the repression and liberation of sexuality is part of the same discourse of power: repression does not repress and liberation does not liberate. They are both constitutive of a will to power that endlessly articulates sex and rigorously controls it. For Foucault, the very notion that sex is something that can be repressed and hence liberated is part of the system of control that is built on the logic of the depth: the soul must be mined to its deep, dark recesses.
How does Foucault reach this conclusion? He spent days, weeks, months in the archives and found a veritable explosion of documents speaking, in one way or another, about sex. Sex clearly was not repressed. And yet we walk around speaking as though it were, as though it were in need of liberation. Foucault, then, looks at what we say and what we do and the relationship between the two
These, I am arguing, are good readings. Rather than taking the world at its word, these readings heed the performance of the text at hand and then put it all together in a surprising way, flipping the thing’s own claims on its head which, in turn, creates new architectures of becoming. A good reading does not confirm the known; it spins the elements into new shapes, new possibilities so we see the thing anew, as if for the very first time.
Reversal is only one tactic of reading. One does not need to reverse in order to render the world uncanny. Take Kierkegaard’s reading of Plato. When I borrow from Kierkegaard and say that Socrates proffers a way of life (irony), not a rigid philosophy (Platonism with its Forms), I am not reversing Plato. Rather, I am offering an alternate way to read Plato’s texts, how they behave.
In any case, the goal of the reader is to fold, pleat, spin, cut, shape the world in some way that does not seek to confirm the known but rather seeks the unknown. To read well is literally an adventure, a forward looking propriety, a thing being made in the very act of reading. As Steve Zissou declares at the end of Wes Anderson's film, The Life Aquatic, "This is an adventure."
This is really a matter of one’s posture in the world, how one stands towards things, towards experience. Do you seek to recognize world? Or (re)create it? Of course, we often seek to confirm what we know. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is necessary. This is how we organize our world. But when I come to a book or art or politics or sometimes just a glass of tequila, I want to see it anew; I want to spin it into new shapes and new modes of living. I want to be lead astray of myself, taken somewhere new and exciting. I want the world to shimmer and gleam.
Of course, not all readings fare so well. Søren Kierkegaard claims that so-called Christianity mis-reads Jesus and His Testament. The Church, Kierkegaard tells us, picks up where the Gospels leave off, after Jesus has risen. But for Kierkegaard, Christianity — and faith in particular — is a matter of reckoning the life of Jesus. A poor, skinny Jew stands before you and claims to be the eternal God. Believe him or don’t: that is the struggle of faith. A historically specific person claims to be eternal; it’s absurd. And yet it is precisely on the strength of this absurdity that a true Christian finds faith. To premise one’s faith on a Jesus who has risen is, for Kierkegaard, to miss Christianity all together. After all, Jesus’ words come while he is alive. So Kierkegaard asks us to be contemporaneous with the text, with the disciplines, to hear Jesus’ words as if they were spoken, while He was still alive and the burden of faith is on you. It’s not that the Church is wrong per se; rather, it’s that the Church reads the Gospels badly.
Ted Morgan entitles his biography of William S. Burroughs, Literary Outlaw. Few would find this title surprising; indeed, it seems appropriate. After all, Burroughs is the bad-boy of literature, eschewing plot, consistency of voice, character development, and perhaps every other literary convention. This reading works.
But it’s not terribly interesting. Burroughs, reading himself, takes issue with this characterization of his work: "To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of. I never had such a base." That is to say, to read Burroughs as an outlaw is to read him as reacting to the laws of literature rather than (re)inventing them.
A good reading is uncanny, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar so you at once know and don’t know the thing. To see things, to think things, to sense things that you didn’t even know existed, to experience turns of thought, insights and twists, nuance and qualifications: a good reading is exhilarating. To read a good reading of a film or painting or book is akin to seeing Rafael Nadal work his opponent to one side of the court before delivering a drop shot to the other side; it’s akin to watching Michael Jordan penetrate a defense, stop, turn, jump in the air backwards and sink a basket without a hint of rim. A good reading is athletic.
A reading can’t really be wrong — there is no code to be deciphered, no truth awaiting behind or within the words. The author will not come to deliver the Word from on high. Nor will the critic or the professor. All there are are different readings.
And yet a reading can be out of bounds. To say that Moby Dick is a tale of Soviet oppression is just plain silly. And, I suppose, we can say it’s wrong. Such a reading can be violent to a text, making it bend in uncomfortable ways. So perhaps rather than saying a reading is wrong, we can say a reading is distasteful? Unethical? Foul — as in baseball? Yes, I like “foul” because it is at once ethical, aesthetic, and fair. There may be no proof that a reading is right but there is evidence— a foul pole of a sort. To read something demands attention, an accounting for what’s there, for what’s happening. It is empirical.
And then there are plain old bad readings of things. These are readings that may very well be in bounds but that are bad for any number of reasons. A bad reading may make the thing less interesting, quashing its multivalences, such as the writing on the wall in the museum at the Philip Guston show that reduced Guston’s work to a symptom of his childhood. Or calling Burroughs an “outlaw” when he really is an outlaw of both the law and the outlaws. And, to be fair to Ted Morgan, I think this is how we can read his title: Burroughs is not an outlaw per se, he is always already outside the law.
A bad reading may just be obvious, the reader not really doing anything at all but echoing that which has already declared itself. An example might be when a reader reads Nietzsche and claims that Nietzsche does not believe in truth. That’s a bad reading because, well, Nietzsche’s texts say they do not believe in, or ascribe to, truth as a value in and of itself. A good reading would tease out the rhetorical nuance of Nietzsche's claim, perhaps show how truth functions for him — as not just something that is or isn't but as something that operates within an elaborate will to power and how that might impact what it is to be a reader of Nietzsche. In any case, a good reading does not reduce or state the obvious: it sheds light on places you didn't even know existed — as perhaps they didn't before this reading.
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