Empiricism is Transcendence, or Look! The Universe is Thrown

I took this from my bedroom window while writing this. 
Look at the universe — look at invisible space — bend.
Space is not the background. It's all inflected.

The west coast sky of the United States — at least between upper Oregon and Half Moon Bay — has been outrageous as of late. Yes, that's kind of an absurd thing to say as the sky is always exactly as it should be — outrageous. But, holy moly, it's been really and truly incredible recently.

I've been lucky to enjoy the sky for extended stretches, with no distractions — no emails or phone calls, no conversations or traffic. Just sitting there, safe and sound, beneath, below, and within the sky, watching. How's that for an excellent day — I spent several hours looking at the sky! That's a good god damn day.

Anyway, I'm sitting there watching the sky and this particular distribution of clouds and I see something amazing: I see the curvature of not just the earth — but also the earth — but the curvature of the space around us. I see space bending!

Now, it's tempting at times to imagine the earth as this body that's in space. We're on solid ground, suspended in even and continuous, if interrupted, space. But what is space? Is space the background or canvas on which we hang our planets and stars and solar systems, the empty place we fill with our structures of knowledge? Space is the blank spots, the playing field. So we imagine.

But I'm looking at the sky and, well, it doesn't seem even at all. It doesn't stretch out evenly in all directions. The thing we're suspended in — if we're to continue with that figure, which has all kinds of problems — is not uniform. Space is not blank at all. The damn thing is bent! All that yawning sky, that space, is not a great openness. It's filled with planes — planes I can't see but whose effects I can see (that is, the clouds and trails don't just drift any old way; they drift along what the great poet and sophist, Lohren Green, might call a seam). 

Just look at the freakin' clouds! They don't fill space evenly or randomly. No, they drift along one level plane, like the cool kids on the mezzanine at the party. 

And it's a plane that bends! The vanishing point of this plane is not the same as the vanishing point of the earth — the horizon. But both sure move along what are obviously planes. And obviously along planes that are related to each other in some complex, mutually inflecting way.

Space is not geometric; it's, at the very least, calculaic. It is bent, everywhere, all the time, in infinite curves. Space is thoroughly internally differentiated. How do I know? Look at the fucking sky!

If you literally look up from daily demands and anxieties — jobs, rent, traffic, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, children, tv shows — you see the cosmos bending with the force of enormous, twirling, spinning bodies. The universe is thrown. It's big banging all over the place, at different speeds, at different angles, along infinite and intersecting planes, creases in the cosmos, pleats in the universe — all these crevices and niches, canals and alleyways, hills and valleys of the goddamn universe. The universe is San Francisco (geographically).

To see the world is to be outside yourself. To see is to take in the world and, at the same time, to let the world take you in. To see is not to just be the seer; to see is to be seen. A condition of seeing, of taking in the world, is that you make yourself something that can be seen and taken in. This is the mechanism of life — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. You only see because you can can be seen; smell, because you are something that is smelled; touch, taste, and hear only because you're tasty, smooth, and loud.  

When I'm looking at the sky, I move along with the big banging planetary bodies moving along this infinitely variegated and inflected universe. I'm seeing that which means I'm experiencing that. As that space bends with forces and bodies so vast and swift, I tilt with it, even if ever so slightly. 

Empiricism is not a dead end road of numbers and knowledge, a means to an end, a resting place. Empiricism is participation. Empiricism is keeping your fucking eyes open for whatever and however it all comes, or not. Empiricism means moving along the planes of the cosmos with the speeds and pulls of bodies vast and swift. Empiricism is the way to transcend the ego and become with the world.


The Dupe of Looking Inward, or Wisdom Lies in Empiricism

So I'm standing in front my bathroom sink the other evening, the night getting deeper and darker, and as the water ran, I felt a bit discombobulated. My first instinct, at least at this point in my life, was to try to ground myself. And, for some insane reason, this translated into me closing my eyes, or it felt like I closed my eyes, and launching into some insane inner monologue — or would that be a dialogue? — in which I tried to convince myself to be present. What a demented thing to do! How the fuck am I supposed to be present when I'm interrogating myself, talking to myself, judging myself for feeling discombobulated.

And then I opened my eyes and saw the water running. I reached into it, cupped it, immersed my face in it. And then I was present. And then any disorientation, anxiety, discombobulation vanished in one great, silent woosh!

The image of the searcher, of the seeker, plagues us. We imagine that the person who looks for answers, who asks the so-called deep questions — Who am I? Why am I here? — is on some road to discovery, to greater truths, perhaps even to ultimate truths. We believe the answers lie within. So we burrow, we interrogate, we judge ourselves: You weren't present, you fickle moron! Be present!

Alas, there are no answers hidden within in. There is no depth. There are no questions. To ask questions, to mine oneself, is nihilistic and only perpetuates the very sensation that initiated the query to begin with: anxiety, feeling lost, out of place, discombobulated.

O, I could say and write that word over and over: discombobulated. It performs itself so well, so elegantly, despite its unwieldiness or, rather, precisely because of its unwieldiness. The word pops and mutters and reels, like the experience it names.

Here, then, is where the world is to be found. Not in exploring yourself or being true to yourself; not in asking big questions; not in antagonizing the inner voice to speak more, question more, judge more. No, the answer always is: there never was a question and everything you need and everything you need to know is right here (am I quoting Sinead? So be it).

Standing in front of my sink, going deep within only perpetuated my personal mayhem. Well, mayhem is hyperbolic — my discomfort. But leaning into the water, hearing its sound, feeling its temperature, its weight brought me right to where I already was: right there.

The myth of depth is dangerous. As Foucault argues, it is what inaugurates the very conception of the pervert, the criminal mind, the endless interrogation that will out your truth through relentless, endless, infinite discourse. Turning inward is not the answer. That's what they — you know who they are — want us to believe. It is a disconcerting collusion of philosophy, epistemology, religion, "self-help," and the police state (or what Foucault called, at one point, an episteme).

There is no depth. And turning inward isn't wise; it's idiotic. Asking deep, philosophical questions about life and your place in it is even stupider. There are no questions as there are no answers other than: this is this. This is it (pace Alan Watts). All there is is all this.

The world happens at the surface. And I don't mean surface as opposed to the depth; I am not privileging the transient pleasure over and against the long lasting truths of the world. I'm throwing out the whole damn schema.

The surface of the world is run through with physical sensations of sound, smell, touch; it enjoys speed and intensity. And it's also run through, at the same time and along similar pathways, with ideas, concepts, affects, moods. The visible and invisible world are intertwined (thanks Merleau-Ponty!). When I left my "inner" monologue telling myself to be cool and leaned into the running water, I was leaning into life itself as it was happening — which always, necessarily, includes moods, ideas, notions, concepts, affects.

You can't brush away the water to find the truth. Turning inwards is a dead end, literally. The world is neither in here nor over there: it's right here, right now — this. The so-called wise man doesn't seek answers or look deep inside himself; he doesn't ask why he's here or why there's something, not nothing. No, he just leans into the water, washes his face, and quietly — or even exuberantly —smiles.


What is Radical? On Burning Man, Sub-Culture, and Living Vitally

When I was in high school, I fancied myself a radical of a sort, a subversive. I had a Karl Marx poster in my room (it replaced the St. Pauli Girl poster, I have to admit) as well as a Grateful Dead poster. I was in personal contact with the head of the Communist Party at the time, Gus Hall. When I told my grandfather this — my grandfather who'd helped found the National Lawyers Guild and who'd defended communists who faced deportation — he was angry. I was surprised; I thought he'd be proud. But he wasn't proud. Be invisible, he told me, more or less. There's no need to declare myself a communist to the world; believe and do what I believe and do and leave it at that.

It took me many years to understand this. I think I'm still trying to understand it. After he told me this, I still declared myself a radical at every turn. I wore my hair crazy Jewfro hippy; I wore a Lenin t-shirt on move-in day at college. I started an anti-nuke group my freshman year — STAND: students against nuclear destruction. An idiotic name, I know. And an idiotic group, no doubt.

To this day, I feel an urge to let people know that I don't think like them, that I'm different — smarter but also more, well, radical. Besides the idiotic vanity of this, it also belies my very claim: to be radical, one doesn't need to declare oneself as such. One lives as one lives. (And what's more stupid than trying to prove you're smart?)

Long hair, mohawks, safety pin in noses and cheeks, tattoos: these are signs that presumably declare to others I am radical! And, no doubt, there is something socially radical about sticking a pin through your nose and wearing it around. It probably freaks out the squares in their Gap and yoga pants. But is that radical in and of itself?

Back in those Jewfro, commie, Dead days, I imagined there was a counter-culture, a sub-culture that resisted the Man. But later I'd come to see that all there are are networks of people who share a language, a dialect of words and signs and gestures. There is no master group: all there are are sub-cultures.

This meant that being a commie and going to Dead shows did not make me radical. It just meant I followed the rules of a different group, used different words and wore different clothes. It's all language games, as Wittgenstein might say, without a master rule set (old school grammarians included).

What, then, is radical?

I have a good friend who explores the intellectual, sensual, and existential world with a certain vim. He parties, as they say, and when he was younger, liked to go to arty punkish alterna-rock shows. The thing is, he's always been a dapper dresser — nice pants, nice shoes, a blazer over a  sweater, perhaps, hair neatly groomed. And, at these shows, he'd catch shit from people there. And the funny thing is, in that crowd, he was far and away the most different — the most radical.

In my world, it's shocking to hear someone say I believe in God. We're all supposed to be these liberal, scientific rationalists. And maybe "spiritual," too. But to say those words — I believe in God — makes people cringe and shrink away. So I like to say precisely those words, when asked, because it's true: I do believe in God. I could qualify that in many ways, describe what I mean by I, believe, and God. But that would just help my world be more comfortable with the fact that I wasn't playing their language game. So I just leave it at that.

Of course, in other worlds, to say I don't believe in God is to disrupt the language game, to make people shrink away. So perhaps to be radical means breaking the rules of one's language game.

A good friend of mine was just here recently, making his way home after his billionth Burning Man. He showed me many pictures of pretty women and men scantily clad with that beautiful sky making them gleam all the more. Then he showed me pictures of his trips to Thailand and Bali and, at first, I couldn't tell the difference form the Burning Man pictures. Everyone looked the same; they all were partaking of the same language game, the same fashion code, the same vocabulary of what's to be said and not said.

There is certainly something radical in there, in this creation of a new language game amid the tired language games of work, marriage, kids. This is what Deleuze and Guattari might call a minor language, a dialect that borrows from the major language but makes its own sense, invents a new language game (to mix Wittgenstien and Deleuze and Guattari).

On the other hand, it's all just another language game — meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Of course, this language game may not be interested in being radical; it just wants its pleasures and delights. And that, to me, sounds radically fantastic.

Burning Man seems to me like the Carnival of the Middle Ages, a chaotic, indulgent release from the strictures of the everyday. So people go to their idiotic jobs and pay their mortgage and fancy car lease and fight with their spouses and such and then, for 10 days, they get to cut loose and be nutty — and then go back to their insane lives. In this case, the minor language of Burning Man becomes a sub-set of the major language of contemporary, urban, liberal American capitalism. Without this release, the whole charade of work-marry-die might come crashing down.

(Please,  I am not criticizing Burning Man at all. As an agoraphobic misanthrope, I have no desire to go at all. And everyone I know and love who goes, loves it. So I love it, too. I am just trying to understand the idea of radicality and subversion and poking at Burning Man a bit to see if it helps me understand.)

I know that I lead a very odd life compared to those around me. I have never really worked for anyone else, had a job that I had to go to every day (at least since college; I did work then — but even then, the jobs I had were odd and left me a lot of freedom to roam). I spend a tremendous amount of time alone. I've lived in San Francisco 25 years and I have no one who expects to see me or cares where I am or wonders what I'm doing (except for my son, who only cares when he's here with me).

This life gives me plenty of time to relax, which I need after I work and think. It gives me plenty of time to write. It pays the bills (for now, at least!). And it lets me eat and piss and shit when I want, in privacy. There are very few language games I have to master, no fashion codes to follow (I write this in my pajama pants and stained sweatshirt that I wear all day every day). This is my radicality; this is how I burrow, parry, duck, and avoid the monstrosity of life today.

This, then, might be what defines radical. It's not just disrupting language games or inventing new ones. It's forging a course of daily life that fuels your vitality.


Knowing is a Process

For many years, I taught a course on joy. Joy, I'd argue, is the affirmation of life as it is, as it happens, as it becomes. Joy doesn't kvetch or whine; it doesn't hope things will get better. It declares Yes to everything, even pain and suffering. Joy doesn't seek an elsewhere. It regrets nothing; it wishes for nothing other than what is. I'd teach Nietzsche's Ecce Homo and his great dictum, amor fati: don't just accept fate, love your fate! I'd teach Whitman's unabashed voraciousness for life. And, eventually, I'd come to teach the story of Job, who really got the shit end of the stick but still affirmed his faith without wishing things to be otherwise. That Job!

But, while understanding the concept and mechanics of joy, I actually knew nothing. For when I was confronted with my own pain and suffering, my own dark hour, I didn't say Yes. I flailed and whined; I turned sour, dour, and blue. I imagined the great relief a bullet to the head would bring. I still often pine and whine, fear and dread. I don't just take things as they come; I fear what might come and hope things go a certain way.

What, then, was I teaching of joy?  My knowledge? My understanding? What is it to know something?

There was a long, beautiful period of my life where I was making all sorts of connections, seeing the world anew constantly. I loved spinning things, seeing how they could and would meld and reconfigure according to this or that theory, this or that view of the world. It was a constant high. I'd see lines of flight here, knights of faith there, the will to power abounding; I'd see différance playing itself out, the post-modern condition in action, the society of the spectacle folding me in. I killed authors, found meaning in the slightest gestures, saw montage create movement where there'd been none.

Then a conspiracy of sort occurred as time and circumstance (is that redundant?) had its way with me. I aged. I spawned. I became tired, admittedly sad, often distracted by the newfound burdens of work (grad school was all play) and parenting. Ghosts of my childhood came to roost, unearthed by the presence of my own progeny. I stopped seeing things anew; I crashed from that high.

But a funny thing happened. I began to know things I already knew. That may sound silly but that's precisely what happened. I knew what a line of flight was, in some sense. But it wasn't until confronted by the traps of parental discourse that I really learned what a line of flight was — and only after many, many failed flights that ended in crashes of the most unseemly sort. I may have known what exploitation and alienation from the means of production meant but it wasn't until prices skyrocketed and my expenses along with them that I knew, and saw, how things work and how deeply fucked we all are.

There are different kinds of knowing, different modes of understanding. I don't want to say that my early reckonings of ideas were false. I did see something, know something, understand something. However, my knowledge was limited, tempered by the mechanics of my own body and experience. Sure, joy found me, found the part of me that could grapple with it, even articulate it. But it didn't find other parts of me, the folds of my being, the whispers of my becoming. The resonance of that doppler wave was limited.

For the past few years, my mode of knowing has changed. I rarely see the world radically realigned; I rarely find newfound connections between aspects of the cosmos. But I continue to know, to learn, to understand those ideas and possibilities I nibbled on in my youth. I was about to say that every day, I understand Deleuze, Nietzsche, Whitman, Eistenstein a little more thoroughly, from a different angle, in a different way. But I'm not sure it's every day.

Which makes me thing about the time of learning, the time of understanding. I used to tell my students that, for the most part, they wouldn't understand a word I was saying at the time. But, years and even decades later, fragments might strike and resonate. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was talking to myself, telling myself that these ideas that were bouncing all around my body and mind would take root at different speeds, in different rhythms, with different reactions, affects, and effects.

I recently spent a few days on the Oregon coast, fueled by mental and existential accelerants and catalysts, expecting and wanting to see the world anew. I missed the old days of my old high in which the world would and could realign itself before my eyes and I'd declare, Holy fuck fuck! Yes! That! But that yearning already showed me the limit of my understanding of joy as I was still hoping for an outcome, not affirming whatever.

What I experienced, then, were no new revelations, not of that sort. Rather, I experienced the profound resonance of some things I've been in the act of understanding not just for decades but for scores. I saw the sky, the infinite sky, yawn and fold before me and around me. I felt the sun touch me in all sorts of places: I felt life happening in me, as me, with me. I knew joy again; I knew it anew.

To know is not to conquer, despite anachronistic academic protestations to the contrary. To know is to live through, over and over again, a process of reckoning, of resonating, of becoming.

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 ...