NASCAR is Life: On Deleuze, Repetition, & Copying

I enjoy watching sports — some sports, sometimes. But like most people I know, including sports fans, I was always confused by NASCAR. What, where, and how exactly is the sport? The cars just go round and around, round and around. And that's when it dawned on me: NASCAR is the exemplary sport, the exemplary event. NASCAR is life.

Yes, the cars go round and round. But that is precisely the challenge! To repeat each turn, each lap, anew! The Daytona 500 involves 200 laps. 200 laps! Holy shit! The demand on the drivers seems excruciating to me, even sublime — to heed this track, to be absolutely focused on each moment right here, right now, 200 times, all while going 200 miles per hour. My god!

Think about it for a second. You're hurtling around the track, dozens of other cars all around you, also going 200 miles an hour. Think how easy it'd be to lapse into a kind of daze, to go on autopilot, to just go through the motions as you go through lap 57, lap 94, lap 153. We all know that feeling.

But the demand of NASCAR is that you never go on autopilot. The demand is that that you take each turn — each acceleration, each downshift — as a live event, here and now, everything on the line. Your attention never wavers. You heed the moment as if for the first time with all the knowledge and experience of someone who's driven this lap thousands of times. In the words of the Buddhists of our American times, NASCAR demands mindfulness. Anything less and you lose.

Recently, I've been keenly aware of my aging. I see, sense, and feel the past everywhere I turn. The ghosts, which is to say the presence, of past selves are rearing their heads — and more. At times, I find myself stymied by it all. I'm overwhelmed with images and sensations of the past. And the gap between there and here seems grotesque, a dark and abysmal chasm. How did I get here? Where am I? What do I do with all this?

This is to say, as I go through the laps of my life, doing this and that, I am overcome with all the past laps and feel I can't go on. I can feel the existential plight of the NASCAR driver. I can see him just stopping, his car slowly coming to a halt mid-lap, the driver either weeping or staring off into space as cars veer and fly around him. Or perhaps confounded by his predicament of having to repeat another lap, he accelerates as fast as he can until he hits another car, loses control, runs into the railing, explodes and incinerates — anything to make this all feel fucking alive!!

Most of us experience this at some point amid the drone of the everyday and the harassment of modernity. Cooking, dishes, shopping, paying bills, dating, working, traffic, vacuuming: it's all so many laps, many more than 200. The only finish line is death. And many of us, myself included, imagine getting to that finish line a little faster, dreaming of the big sleep. Or, more commonly, we seek distraction — shopping, porn, Facebook, Tinder, Ambien, cocktails, "Game of Thrones".  Were we NASCAR drivers, we wouldn't last one season, not to mention one race.

And yet the NASCAR driver has a luxury we don't: the finish line is imminent and not absolute. He — with one exception, as far as I know, it is always he — only has to be absolutely mindful for those 200 laps. On the other hand, we have to me mindful 24/7; our finish line is unknown and could be decades away. We have to heed the now with no end in sight.

Deleuze, or at least my reading of Deleuze, distinguishes between copying and repeating. To repeat something is to initiate, discover, and inaugurate difference. To repeat is to differentiate, to forge this moment anew, even if if looks like every other moment. It's to drive the 14th, the 76th, the 152nd lap as if it were the first. It's to do the dishes again and anew, as if for the first time, to be present to the dish washing, to not just go through the motions as your mind wanders but to become dish washing as you dish wash.

To copy, meanwhile, is to go through the motions. It's to ape the gestures we know, even if trying to make them look and feel and seem new, to seem "authentic." It's to wash the dishes while we curse dish washing and think of all the TV we could be watching. (Note that this is often when we break a dish, stub a toe, bang our heads.) To copy is to drive lap 74 doing all the things that look and seem right but, somehow, aren't. You're not present, not aware, not actively creating that moment anew.

This happens with opinions all the time. We repeat things we believe we believe even when, sometimes, we're not even sure anymore if we believe them (pace Nicholson Baker). I know that there are plenty of ideas I've taken on from doing philosophy — the plenum, difference, calculus vs. geometry, rhizomes vs. trees — that I often regurgitate on reflex. I proffer them unthinkingly — or based on thinking I did ages ago. Sometimes, I even summon the gestures of fresh excitement, adding emphatics and gesticulations. This is copying.

But what complicates this neat distinction between repetition and copying is that often I do feel the idea anew — only it's not my belief in the idea that animates me but the mechanics of it. In explaining, say, rhizomes, the movements of the concept animate and choreograph my gestures. Is this copying? Or repeating? Or, more likely, is this the point at which the two can't be differentiated from each other?

Copying, often, is living death. It's to go through the gestures of living without actually living. On the other hand, copying is a survival mode, a version of what Nietzsche calls Russian fatalism — not moving so as to conserve energy. I, for one, have gone through long stretches of time when I try to keep still — socially and intellectually. Life becomes too much, the sublimity of time and death more than I can bear. The only way to survive is to stay still and copy, pretend I'm living, do the minimal to get through the day.

But this is what it is to be human! We copy! We don't just repeat ourselves, differentiating each moment anew; we copy ourselves. We say things we believe we believe; we do things we've always done. And we do it all without reckoning. This is not bad per se. This is to be alive, as well. At some point, as we drive our 78,653rd lap, we tune out, go on autopilot, call it in, glide, live without living. But this is living, too! Sometimes, it's the only way to live, to let life happen without being drowned.

I had an exchange with a former student recently about my book. "You're clearly on the same shtick as when I took your class which was 2007?" she wrote. The answer, of course, is yes. But part of writing that book was to shed some of those ideas so I could stop copying and begin new lines of inquiry. But I've also devoted the last eight years since teaching to repeating many of the ideas I proclaimed. This blog is dedicated to thinking through things I've thought through before but now I want to think through them again from the inside out, to see if and how they resonate, to see if and how I can repeat them, to see what shapes they'll take today. When successful, these blog posts, like my book, are repetitions.

This is where life happens: between and among copying and repeating. This is how we make our way — gliding at times, eyes and senses closed at times, beaming and emanating and flowering at times, surging at times, drifting at times. Sure, vitally creating the world with every gesture is exciting, noble, a calling worth heeding. But to drift is heroic, too.


The Sonic Unraveling of Identity

One night in college, I was sitting on the front porch of a West Philly house with a friend. It was late and we were, uh, experiencing life more intensely than usual. I kept hearing a baby cry. I ignored it at first, assuming a baby was indeed crying and soon it'd be comforted and the crying would stop. But it didn't stop. And then I wondered if only I was hearing it. With some hesitation, I mentioned it to my friend. She'd been having the same experience. So then it was all we could hear. It went on for hours.

We still talk about that night, she and I. It haunts us. But it's also somehow hilarious — hilarious precisely because it was, and remains, delirious. What was happening? How could neither of us be sure if was even happening? Or what it was? No doubt, it was a cat. But that "no doubt" is never quite in fact without doubt. Such is the nature of sound: it unsettles the very possibility of certainty — and, with it, the certainty of sanity, self, and identity.

Sound is so odd because it is always, inevitably, untethered from its source. That's what makes it a sound! Sound is what leaves a body, traveling out in all directions with different intensities and volume, traveling as waves without a body. Sound is waves, invisible and palpable, entering us and then participating in different semiotic economies — I know that! That's a drum! A cat! A car alarm! But place in those signifying economies is never sure. Is that a cat? Or is it a baby? The social, semiotic, ethical difference is enormous. And yet we can't know for sure. We don't know what to do or how to feel. Do we call someone? The police? Social services? Animal services?

Sound resists certainty because it can't be seen. And we believe what we see, not so much what we hear. I think about the movement from phone to FaceTime: we want to see the other person so badly, to know that person is really that person. With sound — with the phone — there is always some uncertainty. Who is this? This doesn't sound like you! Think about how unsettling that effect, that affect, is: the voice on the other end says it's your friend but are you really sure? So we added caller ID: words will fix in place what sound can't.

Avital Ronell wrote her great book on the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, she tells us, imagined the phone as a means to contact spirits, as séance, a conjuring. After all, the phone rips the voice from the body, turns identity into electronic and sonic transmissions: turns the body into waves, into spirit. The great film, The Ring, makes this terrifying: you watch a video, yes, but it's not until the phone rings that your death is heralded. It's the ring of the phone that marks your death, initiates your death, is your death. The phone is not just the presence of another in your ear; it is the absence of that person. All that remains is the sound.

We know this all too well with music. Music is associated with the Dionysian because it takes us out of ourselves. Think of the Grateful Dead throngs: no more individual identities. Just a mass of gyrating skeletons. Sound heralds a grateful, beautiful death. But even with cock rock and rap, we witness and experience the evacuation of identity. The kid who walks down the street with his head phones on, rapping out loud to Lamar, is no longer himself: he is becoming Lamar. The dude doing his best Ronnie Van Zant, belting out "Freebird," no longer sees himself qua himself: he is, for those moments, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sound occupies us, displaces us, replaces us.

I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, I rented a room in a flat with just a mattress on the floor. One night, going to sleep, I heard the distinct sound of a woman moaning and man, occasionally, grunting. I never saw this couple; I never knew their ages, what they looked like, or if they were even in fact a man and woman and not, say, two men or two women or two something else. And yet — or rather precisely because of this — I found it enormously erotic. The absence marked a possibility. But it's not that their visual absence let me imagine some beautiful, perfect sex act. The erotic is precisely that I can't, and don't, see anything. Sound proffers the erotic through its possibilities, through the way it enters and flows through us, occupies us, tickles and undoes us. It is not erotic despite being invisible; it is erotic precisely through its palpable invisibility, its spectral infiltration.

The visual, along with those stranger glyphs we call words, have a certain stupidity and, worse, conservatism. The State loves seeing and naming things. There are video recorders on cop cars now. When we go to record events, we pull out the camera on our phones, not the sound recorder. The visual, for sure, has many pleasures, erotic and otherwise. But it also has a tighter tether on identity which the State loves. It's the very basis of the panopticon. Can you imagine Jeremy Bentham's prison, or Foucault's reading of it, turning on a microphone in every cell?

And isn't this McLuhan's argument? The alphabetic privileging of the visual over sound created hierarchies, industries, the factory, the atomization of the social: everything in its proper place. Sound, he maintains, is allatonce. It's delirious. There is no directionality per se; it overtakes us, inundates us. The electronic age is a sonic age, an allatonce age. But what he underestimated was the will of the state to resist this, to mandate that each identity would have an image — a Facebook profile pic.

The horror of sound is the freedom of sound is the eroticism of sound. It is the human, along with all identity and the world itself, untethered, unmoored, body turned spirit yet still so palpable, so real, so poised to occupy and disorient and arouse, all at once. 


On Research

Over the past few months, I've done something I rarely if ever did before: I attended a talk or two and even gave one or two ('a talk': what an odd, ominous, and beautiful noun). Through all my years of grad school (7) and adjunct teaching (9), I don't think I ever went to a talk. Maybe one or two but I've successfully repressed those memories.

The one thing that has struck me, no doubt in my narcissism, is the way people talk about things versus how I talk about things. People who give talks quote other people; they look up facts, even double check them; they drop names with seeming abandon — from Greek gods to esoteric philosophers to the usual litany of theorists to novelists, rock bands, and filmmakers. Which is to say, people who give talks do research. Me, not so much. (Of course, this is all relative. I realize I drop all kinds of names — and, yes, always the same names: Deleuze, Guattari, Burroughs, Nietzsche, Houellebecq, Cassavetes. But, holy moly, in these talks I've been to, people drop names every sentence! It was startling to me. I'm ignorant!)

I assume because of my big nose and glasses and know-it-all assertions, and because of the PhD, people assume I know things. But I don't. I know shockingly few things, in fact. Sometimes, I wear this with pride, a bit to my chagrin (not to mention the chagrin of those around me). The fact is: it's not a matter of judgement on me or them. It's a matter of taste: I don't enjoy knowing things. I don't enjoy research. That's just how I roll. Somewhere along the line, I missed the moral imperative I know opting for the much more luxurious I believe.

This is one reason I never felt at home, or could find a home, in academia. The whole university system is predicated on expertise in a field of knowledge — Medieval British Political Philosophy (pace Dr. Oliver, my favorite academic, truly), Dante, 19th Century British Literature, psychoanalysis (I don't know what happens in the sciences). I never had such a field; I have no domain of knowledge. I wrote a mess of a dissertation about tropes and rhetoric, reading and quoting about eight books very few of which ever mention tropes or rhetoric. I open the book talking about William Burroughs and aliens, talk about Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, then end taking about Alice in Wonderland.

But this issue precedes my run-ins with academia. Starting at a pretty young age — six, seven — I started collecting records — Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, Carole King. I knew a lot about the albums I owned, more than kids my own age. But my knowledge came strictly from the album — from the music itself and the liner notes. I was sated, satiated, by the knowledge I had just sitting on my bedroom floor listing to "Rumors." Why the hell would I leave my bar mitzvah hi-fi system, leave the spinning turntable, leave the music playing and the comfort of my room to learn more? It simply never occurred to me.

I thought I knew things. I thought I was what people today call a "music nerd." But then I got to college and then San Francisco and, whoa, I learned quickly that I knew nothing. It shifted my whole relationship to myself and to knowledge. Very, very quickly it became apparent that while I knew a few things, and had strong opinions (much to the chagrin and disdain to the tepid San Francisco sentiment and true music nerds), I didn't actually know shit.

But what is research? There is what we commonly refer to as research — reading what others have written, mining archives of unpublished material, interviewing people and then — then! — making sure that what those people said is true. Oy vey ist mir! That is a lot of energy expenditure that I can't imagine, well, spending.

I get why it's popular, why this notion of knowing things, has such currency. How would a publisher or an academic department chair distinguish between people? The process of vetting who gets published, who gets the job, who gets the talk has to turn on something. So why not knowledge? Whoever knows more gets the gig! It provides a neat, seemingly objective way to make sense of the world, to make sense of authority amidst the deafening din of voices.

This makes me sound disparaging of research. I am not. I am disparaging of the institutional reliance on research as a metric of who deserves money, a job, a contract. But I am not disparaging of research. How could I be? I love that people — other people — do research. Then, if I'm so inclined, I can read the back of their book cover and claim to know some things myself. That sounds like I'm being a douche but I mean it: I love that other people love doing research.

But what is research? I remember first reading Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels and being blown away. Here was research I understood! Of course, it was still research I would never actually do. I mean, c'mon, imagine me spending five minutes, not to mention a year, with the Angels. It's absurd. Still, it was research as living through. And this excited me. Gonzo journalism shifted how I thought and imagined my own — or any — relationship to knowledge. While I might not spend a year with the Angels, I certainly would spend years with "Rumors." And this gave me plenty to say.

Back when I was teaching the introduction to rhetoric at UC Berkeley, I'd always open my lectures with the same shtick, which I imagined as provocative — and, well, I believe still is. I'd say, "I'm not going to teach you anything. I'm going to teach you how to do things." (Alas, this is lost to posterity as the first 30 minutes of those lectures weren't recorded because, well, I don't know things such as how to turn on a mic.)  Sure, my class turned on texts. But the texts were common objects to reckon as much as they were fodder for how to reckon. I taught these essays and books as self-interpreting. Which is to say, I taught a certain tautology of experience and knowledge rather than knowledge being the ground for experience, the justification of and for experience. The text defined itself with us as readers. And that is a kind of research. (My great mentor and advisor, Charlie Altieri, told me he loved reading my dissertation but thought my argument was ridiculous because it was a tautology: a text goes as it goes? How idiotic! His objection, however, was my assertion and I doubled down — although I did add a footnote about tautology somewhere in there.)

For me, research doesn't involve going to the archives or reading a lot of books. For me, research involves getting into something, going with something, giving up my body to know its ways, its mechanics, its modes, its desires. For me, research is erotic.


The Agony of Recollection, the Miracle of Repetition

 “But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!--so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.” — WG Sebald

I went home recently. But the moment I write that, I immediately start qualifying — in my head and for you. I went to New York City where I was born and lived the first six years of my life. Except I was in Brooklyn, mostly, which I never went to growing up. And I was in Manhattan, which I also briefly lived in as an adult, but it sure isn't my Manhattan. My Gramps is long dead; my brother moved to Thailand ages ago; my sister moved to Jersey (egad!) and then, well, she died. The Manhattan of my youth is no longer there.

How could it be? Life is flux and that includes place. (Over the past 25 years, I've watched San Francisco morph into a beast slouching towards Bethlehem.) And yet it wasn't as though I was visiting some place for the first time, all awe and confusion and curiosity. As I made my way about town, I was struck by the fact that I was not really there at all. I wasn't revisiting my past as that was long gone. But nor was I seeing the city for the first time. There was a filter over my eyes, over my experience, that refused to let me see what was happening right in front of me. I didn't have the openness of a tourist or the memories of a city I knew and loved. I had neither; I had nothing. Between my experience of New York and me was an impenetrable wall, or perhaps an abyss, a nothing, a no place. As I walked around, I was not just blind or even dead. I was zombie, neither alive nor dead, neither here nor there, the horror of purgatory.

This was, needless to say, disorienting. And so I headed 15 miles north, to the town and house in which I spent most of my childhood. It's a small town — a Hudson river town — green and lush and a mere 1.5 miles across with around 8,500 people. Here was where I came of age; here was where my great family dramas and violences and pleasures played out; here was where I discovered sex and drugs and love and rock and roll and radical politics.

But as the train huffed up the river, I felt myself disintegrating. I wasn't going home, finding myself, grounding myself. On the contrary, I was entering a world where this me now couldn't find footing at all. The ghosts kept accumulating, gathering, my visit a séance. But I was no medium, conjuring the dead with my gift. I was evacuated by them (pace Gus in "The Wire").

This was not just nostalgia. This was not just a longing for the past. This was the present of the past, the air itself thick with ghosts, with images and sounds of events gone by all swirling through each other. There were few particular memories. It was a flood, a flooding, a drowning.

But how can the past be present? On the other hand, how can the past not be present? Derrida might say, with Hamlet, that time is out of joint, unhinged. But that's to assume that time was hinged in the first place, that we proceed linearly through life. The past is always present, necessarily, to greater and lesser degrees of intensity. This intensity may be visual, affective, sonic, or some combination of all three.

After all, what are the limits of an event? How discrete could it possibly be? When I experience something, that something happens to me, with me, and as me. Which means the event continues to me, with me, and as me. I carry my experiences in my comportment, continuously.  “It seems to me," writes WG Sebald, "then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space....”

This is explicit when it comes to, say, scars. An event decades ago leaves an impression in my skin until I die. We also know the present of the past through taste and behavior — how we know how to tie our shoes, that we like chicken salad but never with raisins, that we know the train station is this way not that, that sunlight has a certain duration, that Kierkegaard wrote Repetition. The very possibility of knowledge is the presence of the past.

But things get murkier when we talk about other aspects of events other than knowledge. All those feelings, all those images, all those sounds: they ricochet and reverberate through out until we die, scars of greater or lesser depth. How could it be otherwise? Where else would these experiences, these images, these sounds reside other than in us and around us?

As I strolled about my hometown with an old friend, I was wading through the density of the past. Here, I wasn't blind but I certainly could not see. If in Manhattan I was no place, here I was someplace but that place was at once spectral and viscous. With each step, I was animated by forces and images and an intensity from long ago. The sensation was not joyous per se; I was not giddy. I wept nearly without stopping.

But why? Well, there was no doubt the sadness of my sister's death, the memories of our childhood, seeing and hearing her as a young girl galavanting around, so vital and beautiful, coupled with images of her decaying in her deathbed, that sickening sweet smell of cancer thick in the air.

Yet it was more than that. It was the pain of the past being gone — which is strange, as here I am saying the past was present. That pain is the fold, tearing my tissues, fracturing my bones. That pain is a certain weakness, an inability to stand strong, to be present to the folding of the here and now. But that pain is beautiful, too, letting it tear me asunder, flooding me, feeling too much: the sublimity of time, of life (which is to say the same thing).

This density I experienced owes something to the terrain. Those old trees, that lush vegetation, holds time more closely. This is why I loved The Blair Witch Project: it captured, and performed, the way old forest groves keep ghosts alive, memories caught on branches, the brown leaves so much deathly affect.

And yet it was the terrain that offered me a glimpse of a now. The sky and that Hudson river, both flowing, clear the cobwebs. They offer a now that is forever now — a strange and exhilarating affect. They erase the banality of the ego and its memories, its pains and weakness. They offer respite from the fray and fold of time.

But I don't want to be free of my past. I don't want the cleanliness of the now. I want that sky, yes; I want that river, for sure; but I want my sister alive, too; I want the Jewfro of my youth, my relentless hard ons, my drug induced euphorias, my epiphanies, my fucked up household. I want all that, too. That is so much of what makes us, what makes us interesting, what makes this whole thing difficult and beautiful.

I just don't want to be subsumed by it, devastated by it, blinded by it. I want to live with my past and be present. I want to take all that up — all those images, sounds, and affects — and roll them into me, with me, as me. And then hurl myself forward. This is what Kierkegaard calls repetition as distinct from recollection. If recollection lives backward, repetition lives forward.

And as Kierkegaard notes, this is impossible — and yet actual (to paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon, of all people). It is the call of life: to take all this and move it forward, into the new, as the new. I have yet to summon the strength to repeat in, with, as my hometown; to repeat my past with all its pleasures and pains. The backwards still dominates me. Or else I deflect and parry, wax nostalgic, make the past an object to be looked at, not something lived through. As Tony Soprano says, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." To make the past an object is to avoid it by trying to master it.

Repetition is something else entirely; it lives the past anew. For Kierkegaard, this is the promise of the modern, its miracle: to live again anew. Alas, repetition doesn't come easily.



If I had to create a cosmology — well, I did actually create one a few years ago — so if I had to create a new cosmology — something, in a way, that I am always doing in some way to some degree — anyway, were I write a cosmology akin to, say, Leibniz's Monadology, I think I'd begin with this: Everything is a metabolism. What I mean by that is that everything is a function of taking in, taking up, pieces of the world, processing and distributing said pieces in more or less complex ways, and then making something of it all, namely, itself.

Everything makes itself. But this making doesn't begin from scratch. I'll listen to Lear on this one or, better, Lucretius — Nothing from nothing ever yet was born. There is only so much stuff in the world. There's a lot, sure, but there's only so much — so many atoms and particles, words, images, ideas, colors, bugs. Which is all to say: the amount of stuff in our world — and even in the cosmos — is enormous, yes, but it's still finite (even if if each thing, and the universe itself, is infinite). Which means that everything is made of some or other of this stuff. In other words, something else always comes from something else.

Yes, the difference between things comes from which things this or that takes up. I take up air, gin cocktails that are dry and spicy (just a hint of sweetness), baseball, blood, English words and, on a rare day, a few French and German ones, too. Meanwhile, this keyboard takes up plastic and electricity and some kinds of metal. I suppose I have some metals in me (my cavity fillings; some zinc; some colloidal silver). And I certainly have electricity, too, but it might be of a different sort than this keyboard. But the amount differs drastically, for sure.

Perhaps comparing myself to a computer keyboard is silly. So I'll consider  friends of mine. All take up blood and air, electricity (in differing amounts), hair (in differing amounts), fingernails, food. But some take up wine (oy!) or beer (I don't take up either, or very rarely); Kate Atkinson; Burning Man; soccer. Different like things take up different like things, or at least in differing quantities.

But the difference between this and that or me and you is not only what we take up but how we take it up. After all, we are not three-dimensional figures, bodies with a list of ingredients. We are four dimensional (at least). That is to say, we are temporal; we extend across or, better, as time. You and I may take up the same things, even in the same quantities, but that doesn't make us the same precisely because we do different things with the same things. We are, each of us, a how. And not just a how but a particular how, a distinctive and adjusting algorithm of desire, fear, lust, love as well as Yo La Tengo, gin, and Nietzsche.

I remember in grad school, I was coming up with my bibliographies for my exams (before you start writing your dissertation, you have to take an oral and written exam in three fields you've determined with three different professors; together, or not, the books that define those fields are, uh, defined). One field of mine was called, 20th Century French Literary Theory; my examiner and advisor was the inimitable Charlie Altieri (I really liked, and miss seeing, Charlie). He suggested, among other things, one essay by someone I'd never read: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's great essay on Cézanne . So I read it and, well, it did something to me. I went on to read thousands of pages by Merleau-Ponty; it felt like necessity of the best kind.

Anyway, I go back to see Charlie a few weeks later (when I'd knock on his office door, he was inevitably asleep on the floor, behind his desk; he's wake up disheveled and grumpy. This enamored him of me enormously). I tell him: Whoa! Merleau-Ponty! I've read nearly everything now! He hesitated, furrowed his brow, leaned back in his chair and said, Really? That's not what I told you to do. Don't you find him....priestly? (or something to that effect).

A similar thing happened once when my good friend played me Broken Social Scene's "You Forgot It in People." I went nuts. I bought everything they made; I bought everything everyone in the band made. I did the same thing when my big brother played me Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" when I was, like, 10. I went on to buy every album and see the band live over 30 times.

Charlie Altieri, my friend, and my brother: we all shared certain things — Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, Jethro Tull. But what I did with those things and they did with those things was very different.

There are many ways to explain that difference. I like to think of it as a matter of vibration, of harmonic convergence. I vibrate at just the right speed and intensity as Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, and Jethro Tull; they turn the bridge I am to mush.

Which is to say, there are a series of other concepts, figures, and functions that come into play when we discuss style and differentiation — speed, shape, intensity, convergence, health. But there is another figure, another function, that in some sense supersedes them or, better, accompanies them: metabolism. The system I am knows how to make sense of those things; and, even more, wants to make sense of those things. They fuel this local system of input, process and distribution, and output (me!).

As a philosophic figure, if that makes sense, metabolism does a lot of things for me. It provides a function of differentiation, a way that this body differentiates itself from that body when they take up quite similar things. It provides a distinctive how within the uniformity of what.

But it also makes sense of the differences in the what. My metabolism doesn't like — can't process — very cheesy things (at least in food; it does enjoy some cheesy images such as Michael Bay's Armageddon; I cry every time when Bruce Willis says goodbye to his daughter, Liv Tyler).

Which is to say, metabolism is a great figure in that it is situated at the juncture of this and that, of inside and outside. To say everything is a metabolism is to say everything is a productive consumption: it is at once a taking in of other things and a mode of self creation. It always already breaks down any rigid distinction between self and other, between inside and outside, without erasing it all together. If a thing is a metabolism, it is a process of making itself by taking up these things, at once inside and out.

And it works at every level. Galaxies are a metabolism, taking up stars and gasses and asteroids and assembling them so. But a star is a metabolism, too, taking up heat and gas and whathaveyou (that's the scientific term for it, mind you). A cloud is a metabolism as is a single water droplet in that cloud as is the hydrogen in that water were you to extricate it. The universe, then, is a system of systems — all these systems operating at different scales, systems intermingling within other systems to greater and lesser degrees, all of them relentlessly, ceaselessly, making the world.

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 ...