I move my hands when I talk — a lot. That is, I move my hands a lot when I talk. And when I talk a lot. But, really, whenever I talk.
I never really thought about this. It's just what we do. I come from a family of gesticulators hailing from a city of gesticulators. So it wasn't until I found myself in San Francisco, then teaching at Berkeley, that said gesticulating became apparent. I'd like to say it made me feel like a linguistic acrobat but, alas, the reality is I suddenly felt like a clown. Or like I had some psycho-physical disorder in which my hands and arms and sometimes whole body twitched and contorted as I spoke.
Mind you, this didn't stop my emphatic gesturing. On the contrary, and perhaps as a sort of rebellion, my gestures became more pronounced, more elaborate, enjoying greater scope and physicality. There have certainly been spilled coffees and cocktails, the occasional face, ass, shoulder, and breast bearing the brunt of my gesticulations. So it goes. I do always turn with a befuddled, dazed, and sincere apology as I smack flesh or cup.
But this is how I talk. It's even how I write. As I inscribe these very words, my hands tends to linger, shake, and gesture as they approach the keyboard, as if to coax meaning from the pitter patter of keys and their attending pixels. For me, as for those in my family and from the New York of old — I can't and won't vouch for present day Manhattan and I am pretty damn sure no one in Brooklyn is gesticulating — the kids these days fear the emphatic, at least in words, preferring to let their facial hair speak for them — for me and whence I come, language is embodied and meaning is gestural.
Usually, people like to think of language as a tool set: I'll pick up this word to designate this meaning or sensation. But that's just not how language works. As Merleau-Ponty, the great French phenomenologist, tells us, we have this language as we have legs and body; we reach for a word as we reach for an itch. Language runs through us as oxygen, gin, toxins, and what have you runs through our veins. We cough words, breathe sense, speak gestures.
Meaning is an event, not a designation. Which is to say, meaning doesn't only predate our occasion, our being on the scene. We make meaning; we conjure meaning. And this is a physical, affective, and conceptual enterprise all at once. To reduce language to mere designation, to reference, is to miss not just the nuance of meaning but the joy, pleasure, and erotics of communication.
To speak is a come on — to others, to cashiers and OK Cupid would-be dates and friends and the world itself. It's to conjure, billow, and bellow swells of inflection. We steer meaning as we steer the world and steer ourselves and are, in turn, steered. We don't just point elsewhere when we speak and write. That's what zombies do; that's a living death. No, we living beings forge the world through gestures semantic, physical, and affective.
Language is odd like that. I, for one, love the act of summoning words to the page and throat and ear. Language, as Barthes tells us, is lined with flesh. Nabokov knows this well just as all great writers do — Borges and Melville and Junot Díaz and TC Boyle and ee cummings and Lisa Robertson and Tom Wolfe and Hunter S and Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and, at his best, Walt Whitman and, of course, Emerson and Clarice Lispector and Luce Irigaray. I always found Judith Butler's writing rather arid and bereft of such gestures but, when studying Hegel with her, I was most struck by her subtle and nuanced gesticulations as she moved through the Phenomenology in person.
To speak and write is, at the same time, to conjure and create. It's not just to designate and point. When we speak, we bring forth everything that has been in order to inflect it just so to make new meaning, new sensations and affects. And this act is as conceptual as it is physical. So of course I move my fucking hands as I speak: I'm making the world here.
We lean into meaning, into the world, with our bodies and our shoulders and words and grammar, with our stomachs and hands. As we speak, we move meaning around, distributing affect and sense. This takes words, sure, but it also takes hands and limbs and everything else. This shit ain't easy. Making meaning is a demanding act, a gestural act, a gesticulation within the fray and flux of it all.
So, yes, I move my hands as I speak and even as I write. Because the right inflection of the world is hard come by. It's earned through participation. When I move my hands this way and that, I'm weighing words and their meanings and their moods; I'm moving them about, literally, even if they're invisible; I'm conjuring and creating with my toil and sweat, with my inflection at once linguistic, verbal, semantic, and physical; I'm summoning a turn of phrase and steering it into the goddamn world; I'm feeling the impact of a trope, my hands and limbs so much collateral damage or, better, an emphatic umph animated by sound, sense, and affect. Of course I'm using my hands! I'm using everything I got. What are you doing?
I vaguely remember the first time I tried to watch Cassavetes' Faces. I was younger but not that young — maybe 24. I had an ill constituted cinematic appetite and couldn't stomach it at all. It was pure chaos to me, at best, harassment at worst. Years later, I'd try again. The results were some variation of the first.
And then, one time, I saw the film. I actually saw it. I saw what it wanted, what it was doing, its terms of operation, its promises and threats. And, suddenly, it was the greatest film I'd ever seen, changing the very definition of film for me, the very mode of what an encounter with art constituted, recasting the limits of what film could do — and, of course, what I could be, film as a mutual becoming.
The question that intrigues me is a rhetorical one: Why did I watch it again? What compelled me to review something that I'd repeatedly rejected?
Often, I encounter something and dismiss it with hardly a moment's recognition. Flipping through TV channels, I can safely and swiftly say No to nearly everything on screen. Walking through a museum, I glance at, then summarily dismiss, nearly everything in the collection. Same goes with the radio. Often, my boy will play me some rappy anthemic pop diddy and, within seconds, I know it's of no interest to me (think: the Fast & Furious 7 soundtrack — mind you, I like the film, not the music).
But note how I dismiss things so readily: they fit neatly into a bucket whose contents I know — "rappy anthemic pop diddy." I size it up too quickly; I already know it. There's nothing new there. Or at least I think there isn't (I could be wrong). Needless to say, everything has a way of bleeding, of undoing categorical boundaries. But they don't do so with much vigor or interest. Deleuze would call this cliché. They are stillborn, dead from the get go.
And then there are things that I engage — that I watch, read, or listen to — that are odd, new, creative and yet which I immediately love. These are special things that operate along similar frequencies as I do. And so, when I engage them, there is a certain harmonic convergence: it hits my wavelength and, just like that, I'm flowing with it as if I'd always always known it — as if were part of me. I get its moves, even its most strange ones. I felt this way about the painter, Matthew Ritchie; about Broken Social Scene's album, Bee Hives; about Borges.
This is extraordinary: to always have known something that is itself emergent, alien, odd. I don't know them because they're cliché; I don't know hem because they're culturally familiar. I know them because, impossibly, I've always known them. They are new, creative acts, fresh trajectories within the cosmos. But operating along a frequency I occupy so it feels like home, as if we were made of the same stuff.
But then there are those things, like Cassavetes' Faces, that don't immediately resonate with me. I don't recognize them as either cliché or harmonic convergence. They are alien, other, almost repulsive. And yet, despite my initial distaste, I return to them. Why?
It's an exceedingly odd rhetorical juncture. I know that thing and yet I don't. It's eerie. And what's even stranger is that, despite that initial rejection, I am drawn on. If I were to eat a chicken salad sandwich that made me feel bad, I would not continue eating. That would obviously be insane. And yet I watched Cassavetes' Faces, which nauseated me, again — and again. What's the difference? What draws me on? Draws me in? Why do we engage with things again, things we've rejected?
Just as the thing rejects us, denies us, eludes, something else draws us on — some alien seduction. This is the uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown and seemingly unknowable.
The uncanny is an odd and complex temporal fold. The future state of my enjoyment and knowledge presents itself now. Here is this thing that I don't know, I can't recognize, but which I always already will have known. It is not a now or a later. It is a later which, once reached, will become an always have known.
This is different than harmonic convergence which is an impossible now — an emergent now that has always already been, an unknowable that I've always already known. The experience of harmonic convergence is the experience of a brother from another mother or, for that matter, from the same Mother, from the same source: we are made of the same stuff.
But the uncanny is not made of the same stuff. It is alien. But it is an alien which will become part of my source, will become my Mother. At this stage of my life, I can't imagine Faces not being born of the same stuff that I am. It has become constitutive of me, of who and what I am, of how I go. In this sense, the uncanny inaugurates a repetition, the end state becoming the opening state. The uncanny is the ultimate gift, taking me astray of myself in order to become myself.
The other night, I'm sitting alone at this exquisite neo-crafty-kid Portlandesque bar cum restaurant — a bar to me, a restaurant to everyone else — and, as I looked around and saw the different faces and bodies and groups — all these postures and gestures and moods — I was overcome with a desire to tell everyone what I saw. You have a great face, sir. Oh, look at you lady, so lovely, so calm, so generous. You, you look so nervous. Relax. You, dude, what's up with with the douchey thing? It's weird. And so on and so forth.
This was not a will to judgement. I had no desire to condemn or even asses anyone for that matter. I just wanted to inform them, in total benevolence, total naivete, total innocence, like a weird big nosed Jew angel.
And yet it was more than that — whatever that is, and I'll return to it in a moment. This will to commentary was my pleasure in being able to enjoy the undulations of the scene. There was so much nuance, so much rise and fall in these faces and encounters, these local reckonings bearing their histories and futures. I liked just being able to ride the crest of that energy. I felt like I could float on it, lie down and be carried along its eddies, flows, and stillness. Commentary, then, as surfing.
And surfing the undulations of it all, not just the social. As I left the bar, which happens to be mere blocks from the beach, I walked into the sun setting over the Pacific. And I wanted to comment on that, too, to tell the wind and the sky and the ocean what was so charming and annoying and beautiful and odd about everything they were doing.
As I got to the beach, people were sitting, as if in a sandy theater, eyes glued to the screen of the horizon. I kept looking all around, turning about, riding the scene of the ocean, wind, sand, social, city. I loved how people looked as they looked. I loved the way the sky over the city shifted. I felt that steady wind pick up speed with the descent of the sun, as if the sunset itself were suddenly blowing into me. And through it all, I wanted to give my commentary! And, frankly, I'm pretty sure I was muttering out loud.
There is this incredible pleasure in letting the event guide, not as detritus caught up in its fray, but as a body that's navigating the ebbs and tides of it all. This surfing is not a quiet surrender; it's a continuous articulation, in every sense — affective, linguistic, physical. The event summons and declares certain words through me. I'm the conduit that Burroughs imagines himself to be: words come, we write them, say them, offer them. Commentary, then, as an inflection point, a seam forming between (and amongst) my body and the world.
No doubt, my will to commentary is a will to a certain kind of control. I am somehow not implicated; I just ride along as jetsam, gossamer, barely palpable wisp of a presence to others. But of course the commentary undoes that invisibility, it announces and implicates me. Commentary is a weird kind of participation.
Which makes me think about sportscasters. They have this very peculiar job to announce and comment on an event that you're seeing. What's beautiful about it is precisely that challenge: What posture towards the event will the commentator take on? What stance? The worst announcers, and there are lots of them, tell you nothing new or, worse, tell you things that sour the event. Joe Buck, from Fox, loves to do this, at least in baseball: he points out who's failing (rather than who's succeeding and why). To hear his commentary is to hear a sick body at work, reacting poorly to the world and forcing his ill constitution on as many people as possible. I truly believe that a bad sportscaster should face criminal charges for sickening the world.
But the best sportscasters add this beautiful inflection of the event. They somehow magnify, repeating the event's physical visuality in words. It's a kind of echo but it has style, a distinctive and productive way of repeating what just happened. I can hear Jon Miller announcing as Gary Sheffield was at bat. Miller, in his focused intonation, observes, "Sheffield, menacingly shaking his bat...." What a beautiful read! And what a great contribution to the event — that word, "menacingly," so perfectly uttered. In that instant, Miller's commentary stretched the event somewhere I hadn't at first noticed — Sheffield's menacing stance — but forever shaped my way of perceiving not just that at-bat but all at-bats, forever.
I love that at-bat is a noun.
But it's not just his interpretation. More often, it's his emphatic repetition. He make home runs somehow more — more exciting, more explosive. He makes the pitches bend a little more, curve a little more, snap a little more. Which is to say, commentary doesn't need to go unexpected places. Sometimes, it amplifies, vivifies, vitalizes. And what's better than that?
There is this peculiar movement afoot, from the rise of medical marijuana to organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and non-profits such as EmmaSofia, to justify the use of certain drugs. Big Medicine steps in, runs studies, and more often than not comes to conclusions that anyone and everyone who's ever taken the damn things already knows.
This is not a surprise as we always privilege experts and quantified studies over actual experience. What's funny is picturing this scene. Picture these doctors feeding MDMA to people and watching them roll, talking to them as they roll (Now how do you feel?), taking notes (Patients are smiling grotesquely). And then declaring: Whoa! People who were once low and blue are now happy and full of vim! Then they put some numbers to their experience — The quotient of happiness among patients in Class B increased significantly, over 40%, in Trial 1 — and, suddenly, we all "know" that MDMA can make you feel better.
Again, Duh! We give credence to someone watching an experience over someone having the experience. And yet the watchers — the clinicians — are noting the experiences of the users. There is no so-called objectivity. All there is is a filter — an often well paid filter — whom we "trust" even though he's never taken the damn drug! It's strange and funny to me that we're trained to trust people who don't experience something over people who do experience it, including ourselves.
I can understand tests that measure and assess damage to body organs. This is something that can actually be quantified. Creatinine levels in users rose by 5% (note: I made that up). Ok, thanks to a study, I know something in general about how MDMA affects the kidneys or liver or jaw. Still, it might not affect you or me like that. And correlation is not cause — maybe the increase in creatinine was due to the doctors stressing out the users' buzz. Nevertheless, it's something to pay attention to and I support as many studies as whoever wants to fund them.
But when it comes to behavior, well, that's a hard thing to quantify. How do you measure someone's happiness or, for that matter, their suffering? It is a qualitative experience that is lived through from the inside out. Which is to say, it's the user's experience, not the doctor's.
Still, the world does reveal itself. We generally know when someone is happy or not, content or not, agitated, anxious, melancholic, depressed. Unfortunately, many of these words have been hijacked by the medical establishment. Depression is no longer a state but a condition. Like the designation pervert, "depressed" pervades someone totally. Which is absurd. In the harrowing, dark waters of feeling depressed, we also feel joy, ennui, happiness. I'm not going off on a tangent (but what if I were? So what? What constitutes sense here?). I'm suggesting that we've all come to lean unthinkingly on a certain way of making sense of states of being that can be a) dangerous; b) absurd; and c) sometimes useful.
I come back, then, to the present trend towards the legitimization of drug use. Many in my world hail this as a good thing. See? We were right! MDMA (or pot or acid or psilocybin) are good for us! I get that, I do. But I already knew that! How? From experience! I don't need some Big Pharma funded study to tell me what I already knew, what was so goddamn hilariously obvious to anyone and everyone: MDMA makes you feel great! Even afterwards! That's the whole fucking point!
So, yes, it's great from one perspective that people who live in certain states can get their weed without too much hassle (although it was easier, in many ways, before these laws). And I love that people who are suffering and might never have encountered MDMA can enjoy it and enjoy life.
But, of course, if it hadn't been illegal in the first place, they'd probably have already known about MDMA, taken it, and avoided years of suffering. Letting the medical establishment be the determinant of experience, legitimizing experience, makes things generally worse for everyone.
The how matters. That is, how we've come by so-called legalization shapes the discourse itself, shapes experience, shapes how we think and talk about things. Yes, we can go to weed shops and there are more and more studies on the efficacy of CBDs and in Marin shrinks can prescribe MDMA (so I hear). But does putting all this under the aegis of the state sponsored corporate apparatus (and the corporate sponsored state apparatus) really serve our interests?
I think I'd rather have a different discourse of legitimization and have these drugs remain illegal than enjoy the privileges of a medical marijuana card (if I did). At least, that's what I think I think.
Think about how you make sense of things. Often, we try to pinpoint things, recognize them, name them. Oh, this is post-goth industrial noise pop. This is neo-noir. That's feminist. Or not. This is a certain technology, a certain mechanics of sense making, that assumes things are instantiations of bigger things. I am a man (so some say); man is type of human; human is a species; and so on, I suppose, but I'm not sure where it ends. Life? God? The cosmos?
Anyway, sense making is not a natural thing per se. It is constructed in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari suggest that desire is constructed. There are what they call fluxes — emergent flows — that are cut and distributed by machines. The act of making sense by categorizing or knowing something is just such a machine. It's a kind of technology that is taught in schools as just how we do things. Now, Bobby, can you put all the red blocks in the red bucket?
This seems innocuous enough, perhaps, but it is built on a vertical architecture, a hierarchy, a pyramid in which less and less is on top and it's the top that's in control. Sound familiar? It plays itself out in social dynamics (the leader of the group), knowledge economies (the expert knows; we don't), and of course in politics: the buffoons at the top make the laws as dictated by the ones on the very top — the uber rich.
In school, we learn two methods of sense making: deduction and induction. Deduction begins with a general rule or axiom and then derives and discovers subservient truths. In rhetoric, this is taught as the syllogism; in philosophy and math, axioms and their proofs. (I know some mathematician somewhere is reading this and yelling that I said something wrong.)
And then there is induction in which we begin with the particulars and climb and build our way up until we've constructed a category, principle, or axiom. In inductive reasoning, the final resting point is not as sure footed as it is in deductive reasoning. After all, it's not built on self-evidence but on transient, empirical evidence which, alas, we feel we can never finally trust.
Nonetheless, in both deductive and inductive reasoning, the architecture is built on a vertical axis. We move down from general principles to examples or else we move from particulars to general principles.
But, it seems to me, there are other axes of sense making such as horizontal associations (that are not siblings — that is, that are not secretly the same). Many years ago, some friends and I built an associations engine that linked art and artists across all disciplines — fine arts, TV and film, philosophy, puppetry, music, design — to each other. We created a vast taxonomy broken into disciplines and movements and time periods. But then we also built a keyword system of concepts and affects — delicious, erotic, repetition, repetitive, in your face — that forged non-didactic, non-categorical connections, associations that sprawled sideways rather than up and down.
I imagine, and try to operate with, a technology of sense making that is free to sprawl every which way. Rather than limiting sense making to categories, we open it up to the inchoate, the affective, open it up to fluxes. I think of Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary which defines words by their pronunciation, etymology, established definition, and affective resonance. He doesn't see these things as opposed or in any way interfering with each other. He follows where the word goes — which takes him along vertical, horizontal, and every which way paths. The result is not nonsense; nor is it ineffable. On the contrary, it's quite articulate albeit in a slightly different tongue than we're used to (the traditional dictionary has an all too familiar, exceedingly arid tone).
Kids make sense differently, especially before they've been trained to use a hierarchical technology of sense making. Just think back when you were a kid and all the odd things you thought — the ways you mixed up and combined words, the ways you linked things together. This is what I think of when Deleuze and Guattari say the flux — these smears of associations that create sense, that are sense, but never cohere into a concept or category. The sense remains at the level of dreams.
William Burroughs considers his dreams his education. The films of David Lynch forge all kinds of sense that are not linear, hierarchical, or conceptual as they enact a certain dream cinematics. Buñuel, of course, did the same but he enacted bourgeois culture along the multi-axes and fluxes of dreams.
But as kids go to school, the machine cuts these fluxes. Suddenly, kids enter middle school and they become know-it-alls. No, Dad, that's not a cumulus cloud! Duh! As kids are rewarded for their ability to put things in buckets, they abandon their sprawling poetic sense making and flaunt their ability to classify. This is what we teach them it means to know. Education becomes the process of domesticating the wildness of their thinking, turning those insane, private, ineffable images into social, public, accepted knowing.
It'd be nice to teach a different mode of sense making, deploy a different technology, a different architecture that moves according to different mechanics and dynamics — a sense making that's allowed, and encouraged, to be weird.
Allison Holt is an artist, theorist, and teacher working with video, sound, glass, maps, words, and more to present the mechanics, and criti...
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