The Perversion of Hostility to Life (a verbal essay)

Listen here (as it refuses to embed, sometimes, for whatever reason)

I'm really enjoying these verbal essays....In this one, I discuss the notion of "hostility to life" as it manifests in Wilhelm Reich, Nietzsche, Alan Watts, Derrida, and the Tao. What a funny thing to wish things were otherwise! To wish that whatever is happening wasn't happening! When there's no alternative! This is it! There's no outside the text! Amor fati!

Which doesn't mean we can't change things. It just means the terms in which we seek to change things are less, well, adamant. Perhaps.


On Experience, or If a Tree Falls in a Forest and Nobody Hears it..... (a verbal essay)

I suddenly had a revelation about that idiotic clich√© of a question — If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? It's a silly question as it assumes way too many things. And it can be parsed any number of ways — as a semantic question, as a matter of humanity's place in the world, and so on.

But it suddenly struck me that the reason it's persisted is because it's a profound existential and ontological question. If I experience something and no one else is there to hear it, see it, know it did it happen?

The answer, of course, is yes. Because we are, all of us, constitutive of the universe. We are this piece, this moment, of happening. But that's scary. It's the fear of death: we go through it alone, necessarily. Yes, there's an event of death that implicates those around us. But the experience of our own death is absolutely alone.

I want to draw the distinction, then, between events that are exterior and social and experience that insists here.

Social media testifies to this anxiety to be heard. The way we reach for our phones relentlessly — this supposed need, this urgency, to hear and be heard. But experience insists. It cannot be heard, even if it's never silent. Experience persists, insists, with you, as you, in you, of you.


The Materiality of the Invisible (a verbal essay)

A change of pace: a verbal essay in which I try to make sense of the materiality of the invisible, the matter of memory, through four lenses (it doesn't seem to load on my phone; here's a link > )

- Rereading the Tao Te Ching (the Ursula Le Guin translation is fan-freaking-tastic), I am struck by the surge of sensations I feel. Which is to say, in rereading it,  I am not reminded of certain things per se (unless we shift how we define memory). And it's not that I understand certain things again; my understanding persists with or without reading it. No, I am struck that as I read, I participate in the tao, again and anew, and right then and there. Reading it is an incantation, not a mnemonic.

- The same is true when I look up at the clouds. I'm not reminded of my place in the universe; I become my place in the universe. Seeing, a certain seeing, is a participation.

- When babies cry, you change environment and, often, they stop crying. This is true of all of us. In a shitty mood? Change where you are. Change rooms. Affect, mood, my very way of being is locally and environmentally, uh, involved.

- Which makes me think of Castaneda and his sites of power. Think about where we sit in a room, a restaurant, a classroom, a bus. We look for the site that suits our power, that lets us be as we want to be. Space is never neutral; it is all inflected. The straight line between two points is never straight. We live in a curved world.


On Systems & Signatures, with reference to the art of Marc Lafia

I've recently been thinking, talking, and writing about the work of the visual artist, Marc Lafia. I've written about his work before but always about a particular show or set of work (I've written many pieces on this blog; and I even wrote about a piece of his for the Tate Museum; and, if I may be so bold, that's one of my favorite pieces of my own writing).

But this time I've been thinking about his work as a whole. What a funny, strange thing to do! What the hell is a body of work? Why, and how, is it even something as distinct from a series of different things? Is it something that can, or should, be thought? (See Foucault's great essay, What is an Author?)

Some artists have such a pronounced signature, a clear style. Barnett Newman. Mondrian. Pollock. But even these folks resist ready reduction to such a monolithic style. For the most part, we associate their style with the works that became popular, touted by galleries, museums, critics, and perhaps even viewers.

Which is itself interesting. A thing does not exist unto itself (even if every thing is a singularity; a singularity is not solipsistic but is a singular point of inflection within, or as, an assembling event). A thing is bound up with a set of conditions, an entire system of which it is constituent and constitutive. There is the technology (itself an unclear thing) — painting, photography, printing presses of all sorts, digital cameras, cinema, the internet. This overlaps with the materiality of both creation and consumption — paint, canvas, printing press, paper, pen, camera, film, Photoshop as well as screens and frames. Which overlaps with institutions from websites and magazines to galleries and museums and even streets and city walls and all modes of critique. This overlaps with historical and cultural desires and more or less elaborate economies of consumption — financial, aesthetic, and personal. All of these are intertwined in elaborate ways that can be mapped (in different ways!) by people who actually know things (not me; I don't know many things).

We come to associate certain names with certain styles. You hear Pollock, you see the drips (a casual, everyday synesthesia). But that in and of itself is a component of the production of the artist, of the oeuvre, of a commodity that can be circulated both physically and conceptually — bought, sold, displayed, understood. There are two points here (at least!): The work exceeds concept and signature (as Derrida point outs, the signature doesn't guarantee continuity or homogeneity. On the contrary, the very conditions of the signature is that it fails to guarantee a whole.). And the mode of creation, consumption, distribution, and critique inflect the image which in turn inflects the creation, consumption, and critique and so on and so, creating an ever-off kilter feedback loop.

A good critic, it seems to me, becomes a proliferative, generous node within the production of images. This critic helps create signatures that can produce more than drips or color fields, a signature that is open, that doesn't reduce or hinder but multiplies the system to infinity. The signature, then, not as a final flourish of production — we can see the artist uttering done as he signs his name — but as kind of systemic catalyst propelling the new, the signature as a mode of folding and flowing within an autopoietic system.

Lafia's work is unusual in the sense that it doesn't bear a distinctive visual style or even one medium. He makes films (what does that mean??), paintings, drawings, photographs, re-photographs, collages. What makes all this work one thing rather than discrepant things? And why even try to wrap my conceptual, rhetorical, and linguistic arms around it?

For two reasons. One, it's fun. It's fun to make sense of radically discrepant things — not in order to unify them but in order to see what thoughts come of their radical differences. And two: because that is what the art world wants. It craves, yearns, demands something it can package up and sell as commodity. It is a rhetorical exercise, a reckoning of life and a reckoning of audience.

Here is an attempt to say what the whole of Lafia's work is, or at least some of his work (four shows take together): his large prints of Tumblr images, his recent paintings, his digital collages (for lack of a better word), his layering of found sea objects on classical images of art and anatomy.


Lafia takes on — uses, deploys, picks up — what I want to call the regime of an image, the system of its production, distribution, and enjoyment. For Lafia, these things are not exterior to the image; they are constitutive of it. The desire and pleasure —the entire economy of perception — flourishes in the image. Or, rather, is the image.

Systems of production, distribution, and consumption are not linear.  Rather, they are distributed in flows that run in all directions at once which include desire, appetite, environment, capital, the body and its many senses. Things are not byproducts of systems. We need to think of things as nodes within systems rather then end products. And we need to think of systems as emerging from the play of more than engines and materials: systems are made of flows of perception, affect, appetite, desire, water, wind, animals, flora. Systems create themselves (autopoiesis).

The images we see are constitutive of a system, a regime that includes all of these different things and flows. In lafia's images, as in all images, we see the technology, the materials, the desires (of others, of ourselves, of the maker), the modes of distribution, the play of cultural significance, the resonance of personal reckoning, the infusion of money, the space of creation (bigger studios tend to mean bigger art; more money, bigger, higher resolution prints; and so on). The thing made is not the end product but an inflection point within a system that spirals and feeds back.

This is clearly true of capitalist production  as well. It's non-linear. We like to think it goes from idea to creation to purchase to use and we're done! But we all know that's bullshit. Economists refer to externalities, the costs and effects — the systems — which a product takes on outside of this linearity.

Consider any object. There's of course the effects of material gathering and production — emissions and disruptions of ecosystems. But I'll keep it simple here. Just consider how the life of something persists. There is its storage; the temporality, timbre, and tempo of its enjoyment; the systems and engines of its destruction. These bleed into the world around us, into the air and trees, into the skies and minds, into the oceans and winds and souls and beaks and stomachs of fauna, flora, rocks, people, and planets, into our architecture and modes of living (because of the odd placement of my front door, I can't buy certain beds; I can't get comfortable at night; I can't screw when company is here as my existing bed creaks; I get cranky from not getting laid; and on it goes). And I'm not even discussing the flows of capital, the means of production, the laws and regulations and ethos of making.

This computer here, right now, bears its history and production, its different and intersecting economies of desire and capital. We are not dealing with rational systems of creation predicated on efficacy, need, or clear desire. We are dealing with complex systems that flow every which way (although always particular ways; each system enjoys its own flows, its own paths, its own metabolism), driven by accident, momentum, greed, appetite (we still call things pages and desktops; the absence of ports — another vestige of a term — speak to a drive to generate more capital via subscription storage; there are legions of folks who make their living fixing and disposing of computers; and on and on and on).

A thing is not a product of an engine and its system of production. A thing is constitutive and constituent of this system, at once preceding it, driving it, and acting as an inflection point and flow within it. An image isn't done once it hangs on the wall or sits as a Facebook post. That image continues to happen, making other things happen — arousal, erections, nausea, excitement, enlightenment, malaise, insight, laughter, this blog post here. It's all a continuous (even in its discontinuity) system of loops and streams, flows of materials, appetites, desires, modes, and decay. If you look closely at anything, at any image, you can see it all.

Life keeps happening, all matter and memory endlessly distributing themselves into different systems of flows, modes, shapes, and images.


Tethers & Tonic: On Life, and Solitude, in the Social

I'm out and about the other evening— Sunday, 5ish — and I realize, at the moment, I had no immediate social tethers. No one knew where I was and, moreover, no one wondered where I was. No one cared where I was or what I was doing; no one expected any form of communication or presence from me. My phone was silent — no texts, emails, calls. No one expected me back home; no one was meeting me for a drink. I had no work in the morning as I work for myself. I could do anything, be anywhere — until Monday at 6, when I needed to pick up my boy from school.

As a reclusive, I've felt this before, known this sensation before. But my understanding suddenly became so acute. I suddenly saw life — and particularly the social — as a vast array of tethers that run through us, that link us together, that push and pull like some kind of collective, mutual marionetting, defining our physical and existential movement.

Some of these things are vast — historical, cultural, institutional. What tugs at me in the social, in building my identity and my behavior, is very different than what tugs and pulls and pushes on young black men, Muslims in America, a homeless junky. But even as a white, middle class man, I feel the tethers of multiple forces, from social protocols to the law.  I can't, for instance, run naked in the streets, lie down for a nap in a hotel lobby, dance on the bar at the local watering hole (some of which sound fantastic). There are social protocols, yes, but there are also very real and violent limit terms, i.e., the police.

(Then there's just the plain old oddity of being out alone in the social. If I'm with a woman or my kid, I already and immediately fit a mold. When I was first single after being married, when I had my kid, I had no problem talking to women. Why? Because I was already a known quantity. But alone? Who, they have to wonder, is this bald shnoz of a man alone at the bar? I have to find my words, my rhythm, to enter the double dutch of the social. Often, I mis-step and speak too loudly, too often, too aggressively, too emphatically, too obtusely. But I'm 46 so who gives a shit? My only concern is getting the right drink, the right food, the right moment.)

Some of these tethers are close and strong, things like a job, a spouse, kids, parents. But me, I don't have a wife; I don't have a group of friends. I have a son, yes, but he only lives with me part time. I don't have a boss or co-workers. My family, those still alive, live half way around the world. We talk, sure, and they affect me but they don't know or care where I am or what I'm doing at the moment.

Which made me think of my friends and the people I know and the organization of their day, physically, emotionally, existentially. Their time is accounted for. They know what's expected of them; where to be and by when; the kinds of things they can say and do. Sure, they may look forward to their "alone" time — a few hours here and there, maybe even a few days once in a while. But, otherwise, they are tethered by various strings linking them to others who push and pull, defining the movement, sensations, and organization of their very being — a kid's pick up, grocery shopping, a job, dinner with the family.

I lead what is no doubt a peculiar life to many: solitude in the city (rather than the country, hermit life — of which I dream). This means I have very few immediate tethers to define and organize my day and myself while still being surrounded by the sounds and suggestions of such tugs. It can be scary; I sometimes feel adrift. I think I've kept girlfriends longer than I should just to have someone who texts me, who (nominally) cares what I'm doing at that moment, where and how and with whom I'm spending my time. It's comforting, reassuring — like a tonic note in a musical scale. A home. A point of orientation. A respite amidst the fray and teem of it all — even when it's unpleasant.

I've been helping a friend write a press release for his new record, an ambient affair. This album is pure texture, affect without identity, melancholy without a melody. There are no choruses or verses; there is no obvious structure. It is an album of drift. There are no tonic notes, just endlessly modulating sensations. Such, in many ways, is my day to to day life: no verses, no chorus, no clear structure. Drift.

A student of mine from ages ago, the great artist Daniel Tierney, once said to me: drift is heroic. I'll never forget that.

What do we want from the social? Yes, there is no escape from it, no outside the text. But what does it offer?

It offers intimacy, physical and emotional. This is beautiful and important. There is no outside the social, no cutting tethers once and for all. And intimacy is incredible. It's not belonging per se; it's a sensation unto itself, an intermingling of energies. It's what we get from certain art and music but made palpable. It is fuel.

I love cuddling with my kid. One of the great delights of being a parent is I get to hug, kiss, pick up, throw around, noogie, wrestle another delightful human being.

Then there's psycho-sexual intimacy, touching and kissing and sucking and fucking and cuddling and goofing with another person.

Then there's existential intimacy, what I get from my brother and a few friends — a kinship across time and space, a collective goof off. There is intense laughter and deep resonance here: harmonic convergence, a bridge undulating in the wind. It is at once physical and existential and, frankly, feels cosmic, the orbits of planets and such.

But when I have too many immediate tethers — appointments and requests — I get insane. I feel put upon, tugged here and there without being able to tug back. Life, my life at least, is negotiating and navigating these tethers, modulating their power, their leverage, their pull.

And then there is social media. Does it mediate the social? Or define it? Many, so many, seek grounding in it, a sense of belonging, a willing abandon to the network tethers. There are so many stamps and signs and traces of connectivity — OkCupid telling when last someone was online, who "likes" you and, by extension, who doesn't; Facebook and all its posts; tweets and retweets; for some, LinkedIn and those who viewed become a social and psycho-sexual set of tethers; and on and on. It's relentless.

But what is it? What happens when I turn off my phone and head into the night, no one expecting me, no one knowing or caring of my actions? What happens then? What am I to do? Who do I become?


Why, and How, the Social

For Nietzsche, so-called basic needs didn't come first for the Greeks. Beauty and function are not distinct terms.
Maslow's hierarchy is false and dangerous, just as Hobbes' social contract is.
If we begin from a different set of assumptions about the social, we create a different social.

What do we want from other people?

I like my solitude and so spend a tremendous amount of time alone. But I'm not a hermit. I don't live in a cave bereft of all social contact. I hear the cars and voices, honks and sirens, of this almost-city. The social is the very backdrop, the very condition, of my life. Of course. 

And, frankly, I crave some desire from others. Most of us know this desire in ourselves all too well: it's the glances in the streets we seek, the blinking light of the answering machine, the likes of a post, the rings and dings of the phone. 

So while I like being alone, I also want someone to want me not to be alone. I want someone to desire my company. I want my solitude but not just as a saying Yes but as a saying No. I want the best of all possible worlds (not in the Leibnizian sense): I want the peace of my own company and the desire of others. Which is a certain kind of sickness, as Nietzsche would have it — and I'm prone to agree. I am often not utterly and thoroughly content in my own company. There's the Groucho Marx joke in there somewhere which speaks to self-loathing, guilt, a sense of indebtedness to others — hence a sense of being incomplete, ill at ease, when alone.

When I am utterly, thoroughly content in my own company — for moments, nights, days at a time — I feel my very best. I feel life surging through me, with me. I feel I am the universe, or at least this moment of it.

But here I am writing this — on a blog, no less. These words are, at the very least, a ping in the pond of the social. I want my ripple, my Doppler effect (from my palace of solitude). 

What does the social offer? The Hobbesian argument is that we want agreements from others that we won't kill each other. I get that. I don't want to walk down the street fearing for my life from every person I pass. That'd suck, for sure.

But what a funny assumption Hobbes makes — that our first instinct is to kill each other, and as that's annoying, we agree with others not to kill one another. I don't think that's our first instinct. It's not mine, that's for sure. Which is not because I'm a good person, trust me. It's because killing someone else sounds icky, not to mention exhausting. There is not state of nature; no fundamental law of kill or be killed. Those things, like all things, are little created machines, engines that drive relations, laws, discourse, identities, desires. 

As a machine, I get the social contract thing: we all take care of things together that we share and need— roads and water treatment plants and plumbing of every sort. Why these aren't all government institutions is a different, if related, question. The point is: we all use this stuff so let's work together to build and maintain it. I get it. 

Needless to say, we don't always agree what stuff we need. Still, the basic idea of a social contract — my individuality vis-√†-vis the anonymous social — makes some sense. 

But it doesn't suffice. We want things from the social, seek things from the social, that exceed any contractual terms. Deleuze and Guattari argue that the social is not forged via a contract. A contract assumes that rational individuals already exist; Deleuze and Guattari argue that such things — individuals, rationality, contracts — are created. Culture produces itself along and with flows and orders rational and not, individual and not. For Deleuze and Guattari, we are always living within flows that have been hedged, stipulated, veered this was and that: within desiring-machines of which we are constitutive (and which are at once rational and irrational). 

And, rest assured, I don't think you complete me, Lacan-meets-Jerry Maguire style. Sure, we're ontologically interdependent. Yes, of course. But that tells me nothing of the mechanisms that drive, motivate, and create social dependencies and desires (beyond the utilitarian, which never suffices as an argument. Forget Maslow: that's a false, dangerous path. As Nietzsche argues about the Greeks, form and function, beauty and utility, art and survival need not be distinct or opposed; on the contrary, the healthiest wills will them together). 

Of course, there's the matter of sex. From one perspective, sex is no different than any other desire. I live, and am created and constituted, within a desiring-machine that we can alternately call culture, discourse, ideology that drives my drives (as it were — and which my drives, in turn, drive). There is no doubt that much of my desire for sex comes from the same slave ideology (to borrow Nietzsche's figure) that would have me needing others to confirm myself. That is to say, I often find myself pining for sex in which said pining is really just a desire to confirm my ego. I am wanted! This is part of the machine Burroughs calls the Orgasm Death Gimmick.  Sex and desire, then, not for pleasure per se or for seething vitality but to confirm my worst self. I should let that go just as I try to let my desire for page views to go.

And yet unlike the desire for the ringing, dinging phone, sex really does involve another person — and not necessarily to confirm my ego but to, well, touch me and be touched. I am not suggesting that the desire for sex is somehow more primal or instinctual; it is produced from the cutting of the flux as all desire is. But I am saying that the desire for sex operates with different mechanisms and along different trajectories (at least for me). 

My will to solitude, then, is not a will to solipsism. It's the will of a certain metabolism that needs time and space and quiet to regenerate. At my best, my desires to have sex, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved, are vital to my existence — as vital as food and shelter. 

I believe that the role of the social is not to agree to live without fear (that's clearly failed, anyway). Nor is it to complete me (fuck Lacan and his lack).  The role of the social is to bring out you — not the best you, forget that moral nonsense — but the you qua you. Friends and lovers are not there to console you; they're there to nourish you, fuel you, vitalize you, to touch you and be touched by you. It is an exchange and mingling of energy and vitality, not existential confirmation, emotional consolation, or the proffering of so-called basic needs. 

What would a society constructed along these lines look like? What would community come to mean? What kinds of discursive regimes might we build that would foster the fomenting of personal strength rather than playing on — and creating — our weakest, most ill-constituted selves? What might a society of individuals look like? I'm pretty sure it would include the non-human — ideas, clouds, books, moons, and cows. 


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 ...