The Bare Essentials for My Political Participation

I shy away from discussing politics. Discourse is so predetermined, so overdetermined, that I find it impossible to say what I think. There's no way into the conversation except along prefigured words and ideas. So the moment words leave my mouth, I am already slotted into this position or that. Besides this being at once horrifying and exhausting, it usually gets me into trouble. People get really angry very quickly about these things! It's an unpleasant experience. 

(I'll never understand how people let the media — that is to say, politics as well as, say, sports — infiltrate their most private selves. It seems to me that I can care about other people but not harbor angst and dread about them as I go to sleep. But maybe that's because I enjoy angst and dread of another sort as I go to sleep — and all we want, in our weakness, is a bit of angst and dread to make us feel like we're alive. Which is ironic as those are the very things that kill us. Anyway, angst about Trump or angst about the infinite drift of the cosmos is still just angst. Angst is angst is angst.)

My usual response when I find myself hurled into what we call a political discussion — a mercifully rare experience thanks to my careful curation of my life — is to casually bow out (much as I casually split my infinitives). Oh, I don't know anything about these things, I coyly offer. Well, this has not worked for me. It makes people suspicious and angry. Oy vey! Even silence is predetermined — as apathy, I suppose. At least I assume that's why people get so angry at me: they think I'm oblivious and entitled (which I may very well be but that's not what propels my silence).

So why am I so averse to what we call the political? Well, I have complex feelings about government and the nature and mechanics of power (I believe Foucault: power says yes more than it says no, creating selves, not just restricting action; as for the government, I lean towards socialism but am so suspicious of the armed corporate state that I am also an anarchist).

But, in any case, I do have opinions about how the state might function more or less in its present state. Which is to say, I do have what we call "political" opinions. But I cannot, and will not, participate in a political system that is so explicitly, determinedly, obscenely corrupt. WS Burroughs said that the political is the matador's red cape: it flashes and we charge into nothing. I share this belief.

In order for me to participate in the political, this is what I'd have to see. Without these things, the whole process is a charade meant to make us feel like we are doing something when, in fact, we are ushering in our own enslavement and demise. This, then, is my initial list of things I'd have to see to consider political participation.

  • The end of all financial contributions to political campaigns. This seems so obvious. Why should I — and why would I — be forced to choose between candidates who've been bought by different interests? That's completely insane. And such an easy thing to eliminate. Just end it by saying: everyone running for any office has equal access to, say, the same web site and video conferencing service. Every candidate has access to the same amount of funds. There are no lobbyists who can contribute or withhold campaign financing. This is so obvious it seems weird that I have to say it. Campaign financing is not a First Amendment issue; that is a red herring — or a matador's red flag, as the case may be. It is flat out corruption and I refuse to participate in a system in which the candidates are bought and sold. The ripple effect on governing is exponential. See below.

  • An assumption that a dramatic reduction in military spending is open for discussion. Where are the candidates who say: Holy fuck! This is insane! I'll cut out military budget 75% and put the money to...whatever they think is most important: elections without corruption, schools, infrastructure and jobs, lower taxes, medical care for all, public art? Isn't this is the stuff of politic? Why don't they do this, you wonder? See above.

  • A suggestion that incorporation is a privilege, not a right. A corporation is a legal and tax entity meant to expedite transactions. Corporations are not guaranteed by the Constitution. So why have I never heard a candidate suggest that with the privilege of incorporation comes certain obligations — a unionized workforce and/or mandatory profit sharing? See campaign financing above.

  • Someone in the political arena suggesting a limit to the work week with mandatory overtime. Or, in other words, some discussion of creating structures — legal and practical — for labor's unionization that are akin to the corporation in their ability to centralize labor negotiation (such as tax deductions for union dues).

  • On a related note, I'd love people to make the distinction between a march and protest — two things that may or may not overlap. A protest disrupts the flow of business — traffic, capital, information. A march is a bunch of people getting together to feel better. (I was reading Nathan Heller's article in "The New Yorker" and he never really makes this distinction, even if he keeps poking at it indirectly.)

  • Of course, I'd love to see political discourse that is not mired in predetermined camps based on this or that reading of Marx. But that's for another discussion. (It seems to me that the 20-somethings I see slog to work on Google buses every day are as exploited and soul murdered as industrial workers of the early 20th century.)

I welcome critique and contributions as I will wholly and unabashedly admit that I know very little about such things. Of course, no one really cares about or wants my political participation. Anyway, with that, I tentatively hit publish.


A Worthy Witness

The pool and deck at Sierra Hot Springs.
The other night, I'm at the Sierra Hot Springs with my sweetie. It's Saturday night; I've only been to the springs twice and this was my first Saturday there. We were in the main pool which sits on a deck overlooking this incredible valley floor. Only it's at night. So we can't see the valley of cows and grass. But we can see the sky. The moon is quiet, yet to rise, making the sky teem with stars. The pool is, for me, shockingly full of people: a wet, naked cocktail party. And everyone is standing at one edge, staring up at the sky. There was a low hum of naked party banter punctuated every few minutes by collective gasps. Oh! Ahhhhhh! Wowwwww! There were shooting stars, it seems. (We positioned ourselves away from the crowd, choosing to float and cuddle under the pool's canopy, muting the explosive sky.)

What happens in this collective experience? Why do we — and why would or wouldn't we — turn to others when experiencing something poignant such as a meteor, the Grand Canyon, a car crash? Why do we want or seek a witness — or, in my case, neither want nor seek a witness?

Few things are as disheartening as a photograph of a shooting star. Still.
I remember the first shooting star I saw. It was the first time I took LSD and I was lying on my back with two friends in a field in my home town in Westchester, NY. Holy moly, the sky was awesome, this great labyrinth of light and shadow. And then: wooosh! My heart jumped. My whole body jumped. That was over 30 years ago and I can still feel that sensation resonating through me, teaching me the power of the universe, giving me a taste of my non-I, my becoming rather than my ego.

I don't remember sharing that experience with my cohorts, verbally or otherwise. I know they were there; I liked having them there. But the experience excluded them, the event summoning me and me alone: Behold! the universe commanded. In one fell swoop, I knew the movement of the cosmos, its big banging, its flair and flare, it explosive accelerations (most things in the sky appear stationary; clouds and meteors give us a glimpse of cosmic power, cosmic flux).

What do we want from the one sitting next to us? Well, confirmation: Did that unusual, intense thing actually happen? But that confirmation can be more existentially profound: not only did that just happen but am I still here? In a world in which something like that happens — the sublimity of a shooting star — am I still me? This mode of witness is fundamentally ethical; it seeks to bond human beings in a society. We are here together.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite beautiful, a calming salve for existential angst, a way to stand amidst the tumult. But when I experience something that resonates deeply, that takes me out of myself, I often don't want to be brought back to myself, at least not right away. I want to be stretched.

There is another look we can give each other, another mode of witnessing sublimity together. The universe declares itself with a certain virtuosity — a rock hurls through our atmosphere traveling eons and epochs at nonsensical speeds — and it rings out, sends a ripple, a Doppler of affect taking up all willing participants in its wake.

And suddenly I too am hurling through the atmosphere, burning and screeching with that space rock. I turn to you and together we say Yeah — not as confirmation of the known, not as a way of bringing each other back into the fold, but as the universe seeing itself, creating a conductive circuit, letting the wave flow between us, each of us edging it on as we flow with it. Yes, we look at each other seeking acknowledgement — You see that, right? — but this is not an ethical acknowledgement, not a social agreement: it's a cosmic acknowledgement. We are not agreeing to go back to the norm; we are edging each other on into the great teem of life. It is a downright giddy experience.

In that mutual nod, in that one look, we create a circuit that flows through us. We all know this experience of looking someone in the eye — a stranger on the subway or in a bar that hints at imminent violence or sex. This is a living circuit of energy we can open up or close down, the universe mining itself for energetic flows. Usually, we close it down, look away, look down, look anywhere but at that stranger. The force is too much, threatening the social order and our egos with sudden blows of love or hate or both.

But at that moment when a screaming comes across the sky, when that meteor tears through the atmosphere in a billowing wave of intensity, we are that billowing. We go with it, not as witnesses but as so much cosmic stuff. Such is what it is to see. Vision is a taking in, a taking up, a metabolic function. When we look each other in the eye and holler as it's happening, we are not just two people watching a shooting star as if the sky were a stage and we were its audience. No, as elements in the universe moving along with everything else — with sun and moon and stars and light and whales and wind — we become a productive propellant, a live circuit that amplifies the energy, like looking into your lover's eyes as you come.

These two modes of seeing together — the ethical and the cosmic — are not always distinguishable from the outside. Or even from each other: a look, a witnessing, is multiple. And, no doubt, there are many other modes of seeing together, of bearing witness. I imagine an elaborate litany of such gazes (including the phallic and Bracha Ettinger's matrixial).

In case it's not obvious, the idea of a witness is new to me so excuse my flailing about. I'm still feeling my way through as I write this. Because the fact is I always felt any remnant of the social impeded my revelations, my becoming — all those obligations, judgements, prejudices seeing me in a box before I've even had a chance to express myself (we are hailed, as Althusser says, before we're even born). And so I imagined I had to be alone or with the clouds to be wisely, intensely, passionately at peace with the universe — Kierkegaard's Abraham on Mt. Moriah, alone with his faith (well, except for Isaac who was probably freaking out), infinitely far from the social. Or Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air too cold for most people's lungs. Indeed, all my great moments of revelation have been alone, even if others were around me. How could it be otherwise? Wisdom — Kierkegaard's faith, Nietzsche's self overcoming, Buddhist transcendence — is an internal movement. Something shifts inside me. So why a witness?

And then something happened to me this past Fall, an intense internal movement as I found my ego scaffolding collapsing quickly and violently. What once worked for me to get me up and out — a concoction of ideas, words, meds, gin, and shtick — no longer sufficed. I was in a glorious, if painful, free fall. Yet all I had to do was wipe the tears from my eyes and no one knew what was happening to me. I was disintegrating incognito. Or, rather, my scaffolding was disintegrating as I was reconstituting myself. It was a violent and necessary internal movement.

What astonished Kierkegaard about Abraham, among other things, is that Abraham could return to his life, to his wife and community, after his experience on Mt. Moriah — and no one was ever the wiser. The knight of faith, Kierkegaard tells us, is incognito just as Jesus was incognito: the son of god, which we all are, runs errands like everybody else. There's no glow, no halo, to declare him. With every step, he walks into the infinite and back, beyond the ethical and back. (See Fear and Trembling, as funny and delightful as it is poignant and sharp.) And so I imagined that this call to faith, all done incognito and beyond the pale of the social, meant I had to reckon this alone.

But this internal movement that blew through me did not leave me alone. On the contrary, it repositioned me in such a way as to welcome, or even demand, a witness. I suddenly saw that, alone, I could not ascend that mountain. I could not make that infinite leap of faith. At times, for sure, I knew great peace and certainly even greater pleasure when alone. And no doubt my revelations were and would remain solitary affairs. But, solo, I can't summon the energy to take me up and out and beyond myself. Maybe this movement was just me being lonely, a social desire for others. But this internal movement was greater than a sense of loneliness, more than a middle aged curmudgeon forced to reap what he's sown (although it was that, too). This opening to a witness had an ontological weight, a whiff of necessity. Or perhaps another way to see it is as a matter of physics: I simply need the energy from the gaze of another to move me along.

When I was a young teen, I used to lie in bed and try to come without touching myself. Oh, I'd get so close, my whole body straining, twitching, every cell at the brink. But I could never do it. In order to come, in order for that little death and rebirth, that temporary disintegration of ego that is orgasm, I needed touch. Sure, it was by my own hand. But the point here is that the internal movement alone did not and could not suffice to carry me along, to move me past my ego and into the great cosmic seethe. I needed a nudge.

So now I not only welcome a witness to my own becoming but see this witness as necessary. Practically speaking, I need those eyes to invite me to taste the world outside of my all too comfortable zone of smart guy-Jew-drinker and then take me farther, take me further, to propel me into fearless bliss. My ego can't seem to disintegrate on its own. It needs the force of another, a force that comes from being witnessed.

Which is why not any witness will do. My witness is not the traditional witness; it is not a call to the ethical I primarily seek, even if I do enjoy a lovely, loving companion. No, it is that productive circuit, a witness outside the fray, capable of fomenting the frenzy, willing and able to see and be seen without the all-too-human encumbrances of reason, ethics, and ego, someone who can stand there naked with me naked and not turn away, not become shy or, worse, coy: a witness who can see what I'm offering, what I'm doing, how I'm going as I scream through the atmosphere.

We usually have a friend or two who can play this role. But friendship is often tempered by a beautiful letting be, especially as we get older. Ah, he's all right, we say and get back to our business. Family is of course mired in the ethical, constantly calling us back to the very thing we're trying to shed — our selves. A therapist could be a way to go but, alas, the therapeutic industry is run and dictated by the worst impulses — a return to work, to ego, to the basest bourgeois institutions and, of course, meds. (I found one, however, who makes no claim to being a therapist, not anymore. But he's a rare find, perhaps the only one.)

A lover is an ideal witness, someone who actually loves you so is open and wants the best for you without ego, someone who's around a lot, and someone you fuck so you can visit that place beyond the pale together and often. Alas, most relationships do anything and everything but bear witness. They judge and block as two people try to keep each other tethered within the other's petty grasp. We all know this all too well.

A worthy witness, for sure.
But sometimes a witness comes along who can look at you with a gaze that doesn't seek to own, that doesn't seek to master or even know you with a probing interrogation (isn't this the horror of dating and jealousy — that look across the table that doesn't open up but judges and shuts down?). A witness who looks at you with the eyes of the cosmos itself, the world streaming through her, with her, as her, a look with the vital surge and seethe of life itself, open and generous and abundant, at once indifferent and passionately engaged, a witness who in turn knows how to be witnessed, who invites you to see her just as she sees you.

This is the only way the circuit can be created, a circuit capable of summoning the non-I: a mutual gaze that forges a propellant with a look that doesn't judge but that doesn't let me be, either: a look that edges me on, whether I'm standing naked before a meteor shower, before myself, or before her. It's all cosmic surging asking for a worthy witness.


Favorites, Or Relative Absolutes

At any given time, I will pronounce — inevitably, with a certain emphatic umph — this or that film to be my favorite. Life Aquatic is my favorite, the greatest American film of all time! Moments, days, weeks later: PTA's Inherent Vice is my favorite, perhaps the greatest American film. And then, at any given juncture later, Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels is my favorite film of all time — it changed everything for me. And on it goes: Inland Empire, In Praise of Love, The Big Lebowski, Faces have all, at some point, been singled out as my favorite film of all time.

Other people often find this frustrating. But you said Band à  part was your favorite movie they challenge me as if they've caught me in a lie. Which always throws me off a bit. What's wrong with having multiple or even shifting favorites?

Well, favorite is presumably an absolute. Every time I offer a different favorite film, it must mean that either a) I've changed my mind — in which case I'm fickle; or b) I am insincere and that which I say is my favorite is, in fact, not. In either case, I am not to be trusted.

What confuses them is that I seem so sincere, so sure, so reasoned and impassioned in my declaration. How, then, do they reconcile these two things — my lack of trustworthiness and my apparent sincerity?

I've finally understood that this is particularly difficult for women with whom I share intimacy, women to whom I seem present and loving, women to whom I declare my love (well, the woman to whom I declare my love). I say Godard is the greatest filmmaker, then Tarantino is the greatest filmmaker, then Wong Kar Wai, then David Lynch, then Cassavetes, then Marc Lafia, then Bunuel....and she's left wondering: Oh, hmn, maybe he tells many women that she's his favorite! 

The thing is, for me, absolutes are relative. Yes, that seems contradictory: an absolute is an absolute, fixed and sure, sitting steadfast on the ground, never budging. But when I look around, when I experience my world, I don't really see or feel or know a ground. I experience a world that is in motion all the way through, always and already.  As Bergson says, time (which is to say, motion) is not added to things; it is constitutive of them. Everything in the world, from the sub-atomic to the astronomically large, is not just changing but everything is shifting relations with everything else, a relentless reorienting of everything. Significance and meaning are not fixed; they're relational. As relations shift, so does significance and meaning. Of course. How could it be otherwise?

This is why Derrida liked crossing out the verb "to be." After all, if everything is always changing, how can anyone ever say something is anything? This seems particularly true of taste. If forced for some insane reason to declare my favorite food, I'd say steamed pork dumplings. But does that mean I always want dumplings? Of course not. My body desires different things at different times. I've eaten chicken salad sandwiches which were the greatest thing I'd ever eaten: my new favorite thing! Or a flourless chocolate cake! Oh, no, chocolate mousse with a shot of espresso over it from the old Ti Couz on San Francisco's 16th Street. 

Reading what I just wrote, I sure sound fickle. And a women to whom I declared my undying love would certainly be justified in doubting my sincerity. If my favorites change as my body changes and my body is always changing, then it follows that I must change my favorite woman just as I change my favorite food.

But, for me, a favorite is something that saturates me. It is absolute in that it is at a limit of me: it permeates, thoroughly, even exhaustively. When I say Life Aquatic is my favorite film and then Chunking Express is my favorite film, both claims are absolute — but from my perspective of each. Or, rather, from the perspective of our mutual encounter. When I declare something a favorite, it's because that thing has run all the way through me, extended me, stretched me in some luscious and surprising way. For that's my favorite film to leave my mouth, it means an exquisite event has transpired: I've tasted the infinite — but not any ol' infinite, this infinite: the infinity of Life Aquatic, the infinity of Band à part, the infinity of Chungking Express. I have resonated through the cosmos with those films; they've inflected my becoming all the way and in just that way, the way particular to them. These films resonate just so with these vibratory strands that I am creating a kind of harmonic convergence, an orgasmic détente in which I cry "Yes! This is my favorite!" How could only one of those be my favorite as each carries me all the way through the heavens and beyond?

Calling something my favorite is different than saying I like pumpkin seeds. Sure, I like pumpkin seeds. But I'm not going to say pumpkin seeds are my favorite food. No, to say something is my favorite, it has to give me a taste of the infinite, extend me and my trajectory in a new trajectory.

There is no best painting ever. That's ridiculous. But it's not because taste is subjective; it's because each painting redefines art! Recreates art! There is no center of things precisely because everything is moving, all at different speeds and rhythms. Or else everything is the center! We can begin anywhere and find our way to the infinite. Every asana is yoga; no one pose promises closer proximity to enlightenment. In a world in motion, there is no center. Or there are infinite centers. In either case, there are no fixed points and there are absolutes. Isn't that amazing?!?

In "The Solar Anus," (yes, that's the title, perhaps my favorite title of all time), George Bataille writes, Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things. / And if the origin of things is not like the ground of the planet that seems to be the base, but like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle.

For me, there is a world in which I live in which Life Aquatic is my favorite film, a world in which that is the center, the apogee, the ground. There is also a world in which Band à part is my favorite film, a world in which I see everything through its lens, as it were. I live in both these worlds and more, in a world in motion with a mobile center.

So does this mean I love all women — or many women — each from a different perspective? Perhaps. (Then again, the ethics of human love and the ethics of art love are different. But I think that's a tangent I won't explore now.) Sure, I can imagine a world of worlds in which each woman is the love of my life, each woman offering and extending a different me, a different infinite trajectory. But only certain women, like certain art, resonate with my skinny hebe self. This resonance happens quite rarely for me. In fact, it happens so rarely that I can say it only happens with one woman.


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 ...