What is Therapy? or, What if Nietzsche Were Your Therapist

I've been asked to participate in a symposium dedicated to Nietzsche and psychoanalysis which has me, alas, thinking about therapy. What does it want? What are its various and possible mechanisms? What are its goals? We bandy about this word — "I'm in therapy," "Have you considered therapy?," "He really needs therapy" — but what the heck do we mean? What are we asking for?

Presumably, one goes to therapy or into therapy — we are not clear on the proper preposition — because one is not feeling so good. But that not feeling so good is apparently not related to one's stomach, the pervasive radiant pain in one's neck, or that weird itch inside one's whatever. Those things are for other doctors. No, we go to therapy or into therapy because we feel blue. Or because we feel uncomfortable in our lives. Or because we have rushes of anxiety. Or because we just don't want to get out of bed, ever, and feel the universe is done with us and perhaps, just perhaps, we might simply be disappeared by the cosmic powers that be, disintegrated or crushed or somehow or other annihilated into extinction. Then we go to therapy.

This distinction between stomach pain and existential pain is already a bit unclear, even odd, as that pain or itch or digestive distress could very well leave one feeling blue or uncomfortable in one's skin or having rushes of anxiety. But never mind that as the causal relations will always be unclear: Does your stomach hurt because you're anxious or are you anxious because your stomach hurts? Or is there no direct causal link? There must be some correlation, necessarily, as it's all happening to or in or with or as you.

Anyway, the point is I get why we see someone else for that other kind of pain, that other kind of distress — that distinctive existential dyspepsia or malaise or ill constitution. Should this separation of professional duties exist? I get why it exists, even if it seems counterproductive all too often. But that's another question for another time.

So we seek some kind of professional help when we feel existentially ill. That makes sense. But whom do we see? What do we believe this person will do for us? To us? With us? What is our desired outcome? What is that professional's desired outcome?

We can view therapy as a little engine: it takes things in, processes them, produces a result. But what counts as input to this system? Is it your childhood? Your dreams? Your day to day experiences? How about your comportment? Your gait? Your smell? And what about your mood? And then: What does one do with that information? What is the role of this professional you've paid? Are they the wise one offering sage wisdom? A doctor offering a diagnosis? A fellow lunatic along for the ride with you? And, I suppose finally, what counts as success? What do you want to have happen in this therapy?

When we think of therapy, we usually think of words: the patient speaks, the analyst listens and, presumably, interprets. It seems almost silly to point out; of course therapy turns on words. But this reliance on words makes certain assumptions about words, for instance, that words convey internal meaning. Feelings and thoughts burble up inside us, invisible to the world. And so we give them words so this professional can use other words to calm or rearrange this internal teem. 

But that's not how I think words work. And it's not how Nietzsche thinks words work. In fact, I'm not sure there's an inside and an outside; as Nietzsche argues, we reveal ourselves in everything we do. How do we recognize a well turned out person? he asks. A well turned out person smells good! He walks well. And the problem with Socrates? He was ugly! And, for the Greeks, that was a refutation in and of itself. No need, then, to pour over someone's words. Everything we need to know about each other is right there on the surface for all to see. I believe one reason we rely on words in therapy is that it's not proper, in the bourgeois sense, to size someone up, to smell them, gaze at their tics and mannerisms. Words are so much cleaner.

And what of this analyst? What's his or her role in all this? Well, in the world of words, there are different possibilities. The most banal version has the therapist as doctor, mapping proclaimed symptom to predetermined diseases: Oh, you suffer from Anxiety Disorder or Depression — and then we get a script for some soul numbing med (hopefully!). Of course, this all assumes a) that patients say what they mean rather than performing their meaning in actions; and b) that psychological disorders are like viruses and bacteria and cancers — pre-known entities. Me, I believe we are more complex than that. But I could be crazy.

The Freudian model is no doubt more interesting as it has the analyst interpreting the words of the analysand. Here, words don't always mean what they say; it's the analyst's job to analyze, to interpret what those words mean. This tends to involve a kind of semiotic mapping, a set of metaphoric transferences in which one thing is said to mean another — the smell of burnt toast means you love your boss; a foot fetish means you spent time at your mother's feet as a child. The Freudian machine is too complex for me to reduce here. So I'll just say, at the very least, that it's an engine that relies on metaphor and interpretation. (Its reliance on childhood, for instance, also seems misguided and odd to me, relying too much on the metaphor of something being formed — the formative years — rather than something always becoming.)

Meanwhile, Nietzsche's engine relies on neither. His engine is metonymic: we are continuous, ourselves through and through. There is no need to jump from here to there, from inside to outside, from symptom to disease precisely because everything reveals itself. We are always already inside out; if your smell is keen enough, you can discern someone else's intestines, their metabolism, their constitution. Nietzsche's therapeutic model does not begin with words and does not involve interpretation; it begins with phenomena and involves discernment — taste — not interpretation.

What of this analyst, then? In the commonplace model, the analyst is a trained doctor of a sort, mapping symptom to disease, a cog in a medical establishment engine. In the Freudian model, the analyst is a keen interpreter who is not directly implicated within said interpretations. Thanks to Freud's metaphoric transference, the analyst often ends up functioning as an ideal ego or super ego.  In any case, it's the analyst's job to explain to the analysand what's wrong with him or her. And this explanation somehow does....what?

If we imagine Nietzsche as therapist, we can ask what makes him so wise and clever. Well, he's already dead as his father and growing old as his mother; he has suffered intense sickness while experiencing profound joy; he is his own doppelganger — in fact, there might even be a third. Which is all to say, the Nietzschean therapist is multiple (we might even say schizo).

And all this to what end? What are the end states of these different therapeutic engines? I'll go out on a limb and say most people want therapy to feel better in their everyday lives — feel confident in love, at work, with friends and family. And by better they mean what they used to feel or sometimes have felt. Therapy, then, functions as a return to a self — as if the self were one thing, not multiple, not schizo, not always becoming other to itself. We are "better," we think, when we feel o.k. about our jobs, our significant others, our place in this world. Which is to say, we believe better means being a productive member of bourgeois society.

But that's surely not Nietzsche's therapeutic goal. If we view his writing as his therapeutic intervention, the end state is not a return to bourgeois society but an overcoming of your very humanity — an absolute evacuation of your entire bourgeois being. He seeks to transform you, not return you. He doesn't seek better workers, husbands, and wives. He seeks ubermensch. And he does this not through explication but through engagement which may very well be confounding, not clarifying, which may very well be violent, not nurturing. After all, his therapy seeks to remake you, to have you overcome yourself, constantly.

I wrote a few years ago about my experiences with therapy. And so I'll send this a bit abruptly with how I ended that piece: In any case, what makes my shrink so awesome is that he doesn't offer me therapy per se. He refuses to engage me in the demented conversations in my head. He refuses to indulge my fear with more fear. Instead, he offers me a reminder that all my anxieties are based on nonsense, namely, a fear of death. How can you fear death when death is part of life?!? It's stupid! Rather than engage me in the sick mechanics of my mind, he points elsewhere, to something much more beautiful, much more powerful: a fearless life.


Joy as Tactic: On the Art of Michael Gillette

One image from Michael Gillette's incredible series, Little Angels. I highly recommend his monograph, "Drawn in Stereo."

As Guy Debord argues, the contemporary has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. We are inundated with images that lay claim to our most intimate selves — how we cry, love, feel, interact. We are occupied by the myths and desires propagated by capitalism, by the corporate will to profit: we believe, deep down, that the new gadget will set us free, make us whole, bring us joy.

But within this occupation lie moments, opportunities, spaces of dissent. There are what Deleuze and Guattari might call lines of flight, passages out of the occupied spaces of identity, a deterritorialization of self and world. Rock & roll has played a particularly poignant role in the spectacle and the constitution of selves and society. It has forged and fomented a variety of postures and possibilities — not all lines of flight, mind you — from angry revolt to masculine and particularly phallic bravado to the cloying nostalgia of classic rock radio.

A conspicuous aspect to rock & roll is that it was never only a sonic movement. It was, from the beginning, a visual movement. We can literally picture rock & roll — from Elvis to Stanley "Mouse" Miller and beyond. We see The Beatles in that crosswalk, Mick Jagger gyrating, Stevie Nicks swirling. Like all kids from a certain era, I'd put the record on and then sit with the album cover, studying every last detail. Two in particular scared me with their promise and possibility. One was the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" which, with its idiotic sexual innuendo and complex psychosexual politics, titillated and confused me and let me know an entire universe awaited me with pain and pleasure (I was, like, seven).

The other was the back of The Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" with its pastoral scene of hippie families. Oh, man that one still haunts me! Were they free of the bourgeois world I lived in? What did that entail? Did they have beds and showers? Did they go to school? That image lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, a possibility of freedom and a possibility of stinky horror.

I am not saying much when I say that the intensity and affect of the music worked with the intensity and affect of the image to create many possible modes of self. To a lot of people, it was — and remains — a literal line of flight out of the mundanity, and often violence, of their closed worlds. Michael Gillette was one such person.

And while rock & roll was creating new — and reviving old — myths of self and society, the art world was playing a particular role in fomenting different kinds of lines of flight. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Marc Lafia, John Baldessari: all these artists grab images of the capitalist engine as they pass through the ether and ourselves and redistribute them, forging cracks, folds, and territories. They jam the system, revealing its mechanics — its environment, as Marshall McLuhan would say. But they do other things, as well, each in their own way. Warhol reveled in the freedom the endless imagistic production of self affords. Lichtenstein denuded the myths, allowing us a certain distance from their affect. Baldessari, Prince, and Lafia — each in their own distinctive manner — give us the engine of image production as a plaything.

Michael Gillette does something else entirely. He doesn't jam the system. Nor does he merely perpetuate it. While his work seems familiar — there is no doubt a whiff of nostalgia for the promise of punk — he breaks cliché through one of the most difficult tactics: joy. He takes up the images of rock & roll that surround us — the elaborate mythology of the psychedelic, of Woodstock, of "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" — and inhabits them, lending the mythology a pathos evacuated by the the profit motive and cock rock disc jockeys.

Look at his Little Angels series. Here, he paints portaits of dead rock and pop stars — Biggie, Amy Whinehouse, Whitney, Jimi and Janis, Kurt — but as children. The pathos is achingly poignant, almost unbearable. In these faces, painted with just their their name, we see and feel lives lived and lives lost, all at once. The fact that it's just their first name echoes twice: it is how children designate themselves — you can see Amy as child, "Hi, I'm Amy!" — and it's how they are mythologized by the spectacle: you hear Amy and you know to whom it refers (it's the title of her postmortem documentary: the one name suffices, amplifying the mythos). But by mixing these two — the innocence of youth with the spectacle of image — we live the life of the myth in its beauty, its pain, its horror, its exploitation, its longing, its aspiration, its villainy, its promise.


Gillette is in perhaps a unique position. While Warhol played at labor with his Factory — although I feel his best paintings were his corporate illustrations — Gillette's art is often literally labor, the product of a corporate commission, illustrating for the likes of Levi's and "Spin" and Penguin Books, (although not exclusively). While the art world proper might frown on such things, it is what gives Gillette's art its power, posture, and particular poignance. (And isn't all art a commodity? Isn't the distinction specious at best? Don't we all know this by now?) He is poised at the the very juncture where the spectacle is produced. And while some artists might ironically sneer, Gillette takes it as an opportunity to lend pathos where there is too often none.

There is no doubt an implicit critique that runs through Gillette's work. By taking up images of what we know, by taking up the myths of rock & roll as artifice, he is exposing the machinery of myth-making, revealing the environment of spectacle production. We create these myths, he tells us. And by revealing, and reveling in, the pathos cliché and nostalgia eliminate, he points to the dehumanization inherent in capitalist production.

But Gillette does this all through a surprising technique: through an abundance of love! An abundance of joy! He finds life where there was none! I see him closer to Jeff Koons than, say, Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince. If Lichtenstein affords us a certain critical remove and Prince a critique of art production both through a certain delirium of image appropriation, Koons loves the glitter and shine of the pop image. But he takes images of Michael Jackson and moves them into a posthuman affect: his Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not of this world, the pop image elevated to pure adorned glitter. There is no human pathos there, only a toothy sheen. Gillette, on the other hand, discovers a transcendence within the human-all-too-human, within the mythologies that we create. We feel the love but also the pain. And that, alas, is the affirmation of this life. That is joy.

We see it in his line which I want to call voluptuous, generous, adoring. Look at his illustrations for "American Hustle" (one of the great American movies of the past few decades). Look at the glimmering love. There is no irony. Nor is there capitulation to the spectacle, selling for the sake of profit. Rather, there is a love of it all, a generous eye and line, emanating pathos. His line, his gesture, is so effusive, so voluminous, so palpable that we feel the humanity within the myth.

At times, there is a wit that is joyous and affirmative, as well. Look at his Elvis. It's funny. It's true, somehow. There seems at first to be some snark, Elvis love as Americana. But take a second look. There is no snark. Yes, Elvis love embodies a certain Americana. And vice versa. And that is how we make myths, yes. And it's glorious and strange and fun and funny. Gillette sees and enjoys it all — and let's us do the same.

And then look: it's Michael Cera, all sweet nerdy innocence. How are we to stand towards this? How are we to feel? There is a nod of recognition, sure. But then something else happens. In its glaring analogness — an unseemly word but conceptually apropos as Gillette is relentlessly non-digital — a personal aside I happen to know: he doesn't have a cell phone —  in this human touch, we see so much: myth making but also the power of myth to forge possibilities, of Cera's distinctive promise of unpretentious humanity. What Gillette gives us is the most difficult mode of critique — critique not through alienation, not through No-saying, but through an abundance of love: through joy.


The Monumental Within the Everyday: On the Images of Raoul Ollman

Visit: http://www.rollmansf.com/ to see Ollman's oeuvre.

The images are of familiar things — faces, streets, buildings, his family (in full disclosure, he's even taken a picture of me). But something is different; things are still — too still, conspicuously still, as if cemented in place.

At first glance, this may not seem surprising. After all, we like to say that photography captures the world. The presumption is that life is fleeting; the camera freezes it in place. This, we imagine, is the promise of photography: the world moves, the photograph stays put.

But Ollman is up to something else, creating a different architecture between photography, world, and photograph. Yes, his camera seems to freeze the world around us. But his images are not just still; it's as if they've always already been still. Viewing image after image, I feel like I'm moving through Pompeii. But that's not quite right. It's more like moving through some kind of sculpture park.

It's not, then, that Ollman is stopping something in motion. It's that he sees a different world, one in which the everyday is pervaded, down to its very molecular structure, with a certain transcendent stillness: with the monumental.

As the photographer, Ollman doesn't see a world in progress and try to capture the moment. I want to suggest, rather, that when he sees the everyday world, he sees something else: he sees the monumental already there, running through the world. He doesn't just proffer the beauty, the grotesque, or sublimity of the world around us. He's not Weegee. Nor is he Stieglitz or Eisenstaedt, raising the everyday to the level of grandeur. He sees the elements of the everyday that persist across time and space. There's a transcendence, sure, but that word doesn't suffice. It's too immaterial, too vaporous. Ollman's images have weight, enormous weight, perhaps infinite weight: the weight of being itself.

In fact, I want to say that he's not as much a photographer as a sculptor who carves with a camera. That is what these images are: faces and scenes carved in stone, all the better to celebrate their grandness and stand the test of time. Only they're not sculptures per se; they are not made of stone. They're made of light and pixels.

This has the perhaps surprising effect of making them even more monumental. As we've seen with the great Greco-Roman artifacts, sculpture gives way to the elements. Noses lose their definition; limbs fall off (see the Venus de Milo). But the photograph, especially in the digital age, offers the true monument: the image that will never fade. I want to say, then, that Ollman is a digital sculptor of the modern urban moment.

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 ...