We Are Nothing at Bottom Because We Have No Bottom

Vertical Being and Flowing Being
How we architect, how we figure, being has profound implications for how we relate to others, to ourselves,
and to the therapeutic.

There are times I think: At bottom, I am an angry person. I may not always feel angry; I may laugh and kid and play. I may cry, bemoan, become anxious, bored, annoyed. But all those states mask and are informed by what I am at my base: angry.

And I'm not gonna change until I excavate this anger! And that means penetrating my veneer, breaking through the scaffolding, tearing down the edifice I've built on top of this bedrock of anger.

But all this assumes that I have a bottom. Which assumes that human beings are vertical creatures with, well, a bottom. And that this bottom is foundational, all pervasive, running through what I think, say, feel, and do.

In the first volume of his hilarious, achingly smart History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discovers the invention of the pervert, an invention that coincides with the invention of the self. Sure, in some sense, there have always been some kinds of selves (in another sense, there have not always been selves). But, for Foucault, the self as we know it is a modern invention that posits we have a depth, a true being inside us. To quote myself talking about "Perverts and You": "...[There] is something, deep down, that defines us. There is a real you. And, thanks to the rise of a certain fear of sexuality, this reality is often thought to exist in one's sexual proclivities, in one's perversions."

A pervert, we imagine, is a pervert. Probably, we assume this because she has done some perverted acts. How many such acts does it take before one becomes a pervert? Is there a formula? In any case, this notion has profound impact. It's how we size people up. To quote myself again: "I'm sitting there with some more or less random woman, trying to size her up and she tries to size me up. Usually, I'll say something no doubt inappropriate — or considered as such — and I'll watch as she withdraws. Suddenly, what was charming and safe about me has become suspect, refracted through the lens of being that kind of guy — a pervert, a player, a motherfucker of some sort. And, once so categorized, there's very little chance of escaping the box — "you are a pervert all the way down, you horny hebe" — and even my most generous, kind gestures become construed as perverse."

We see it in our legal system where the price paid is much more severe than not having a second date with a criminally uninteresting woman. Someone convicted of certain crimes remains a convict, even after doing her time, as she must register as a sex offender even after her release. (How this is constitutional befuddles me. If you're a legal scholar of some sort, please chime in.) Do those convicted of stealing remain thieves even when they're not thieving? It seems not. But flashers remain perverts — even after their death!

But I don't want to talk about sexuality, selfhood, and the juridical. Just read Foucault's book (it's short, pithy, and a blast to read). What interests me here is how the figure of "the bottom" creates an architecture of social relations, relations to one's self, and the therapeutic that has resonating implications.

As in my example from my old dating life — which, mercifully, is over thanks to happening upon mutual love with an exquisite genius — the figure of the bottom makes us read people through a filter. We see their tender actions but read them as perverted. We see their jokes but regard them as repressed anger. Which is to say, this bottom has a way of blinding us to the event, to the performance of the actual thing happening.

On the other hand, a person is clearly more than a series of actions. We each have a way of going (just as a rock, goat, cloud, gas, song, idea, myth does). When we meet people, we get a sense of that person. Which makes me hesitant to say a person is only the things she does as I readily dispense with all notions of self. Life is more complex than that.

But whence this sense? Well, it clearly comes from her way of going — her posture and smell, her speed, the things she says and does, and all of these things at once in conjunction and over time. If I only looked at events in isolation, I'd never come to know her — or anyone, for that matter. Life is essentially temporal, always already in motion. This means that a person is a trajectory, a differential equation: there is a limit, yes, but this limit term is never reached and the mode of never reaching it is unpredictable — within limits!

When I picture getting a sense of someone, I picture a marksman assassin leading his target. Or a quarterback leading her receiver. To get a sense of someone means feeling and looking for the trails of her actions and modes, for the shadows and projected trajectories. After all, it's rare that someone totally surprises us, especially on a day-to-day basis. Much as a shortstop gets the feel for how a baseball might bounce even though the hitter has yet to hit, we get a sense for someone's next action before it happens.

I am suggesting, then, that this sense of self is different than a vertical self with a bottom. This sense has no bottom. It is made of water, of honey, not of cement or ideas. Sense makes space for flow. To proffer a bottom is to tether a person to that weight, regardless of what happens next. The bottom is a life sentence. And this just seems, well, unfair. Life is a process; life happens. Which means chance, the new, is always possible.

In the bottomed self, generosity comes in the form of tolerance and pity, those pillars of liberalism. I'll let you pervert into my house because I am such a tolerant human being! What lets me be so tolerant? Because I feel sorry for you! You didn't choose to be a pervert. You just are.

Yuck! This sanctimonious condescension makes my skin crawl. It's a bee in my bonnet, baby! (That's me channeling George Costanza and my great teacher, and love, Kia Meaux. This is them flowing together through me at this moment. Because what we are at bottom is ever in flux.)

A sense of self begins with an architecture of flow where temporality is constitutive rather than a static architecture of vertical edifice in which time is exiled.  In this flow, there is no bottom. There is something else: there are flows, all these affective lines, these streams running through us becoming the things we think, say, feel, do. Rather than being angry at bottom, sometimes I am angry. And sometimes that anger flows with nostalgia; other times, with spite; at still other times, with joy. And sometimes there's no anger at all.

And so a sense of self demands generosity, an openness to what comes, a receptiveness to the complexity of what it is to exist in this world. A sense is known and not-known beforehand. We anticipate and we await what we expect while expecting nothing and everything.

I'd imagine that shifting architectures of self would shift, recast, psycho-therapeutic tactics. If I'm angry at bottom then my therapy involves addressing this anger as the source. Why are you so angry? What happened when you were child? It must be the source. The source! Ha! As if a life could have one source! As if life were not always already continuously processing, digesting, expression a great multiplicity of feelings and ideas, of notions and desires, all at once! I can't even imagine what life would look like if people were any one thing at bottom once and for all.

Rather than excavating the source of my anger, perhaps I'd take on ways of leaning into different streams of my way of going, other possible ways to perform myself. I believe the great psycho-philosopher, FĂ©lix Guattari, created such therapeutic models. Rather than trying to return you to your ego or cleaning out your bottom, ahem, he'd have activities. How about gardening? Or wood working? Or writing?

In this model, life is expressive rather than introspective: it streams outwards. The self becomes itself with the world. In the bottom model, the self is defined by one thing — which in turn, is defined by one or two people — and can be isolated in order to explore one's sickness. What is the source of your anger?!? We're not leaving until we discover it! Therapy becomes an interrogation room (pace Foucault).

But in the sense of self, there's no need to interrogate any one mode. Instead, learn a posture of leaning into a different mode of going. Therapy becomes a practice of postures — yoga, if you will. And sizing up other people, as well as oneself, becomes less dictatorial: it becomes generous and fecund, always proffering something new. There's no need, then, to look for the bottom because there is no bottom. There is just this great teem we call a life.


Notes on the Anxiety and Liberation of Writing

These days, people write all the time. I know that might not sound quite right but, as we know, we don't talk much to each other. We text. Text has become a verb! And not one made up by 90s post-structural academics! When I used text back in the day, it always smacked of pretentious academia (I don't like such accusations of pretension; it seems based in a deep rooted anti-intellectualism that disturbingly lurks in Americans but that's for another time).

Yet despite this rampant writing, there persists a certain anxiety around writing. It seems that while many are more or less comfortable with this texting and its Morse code-like shorthand and hieroglyphs, once they need to write an email or an essay — what's an essay? who writes essays these days? — they stammer. (In full disclosure, I text in full sentences with paragraphs, parentheticals, citations. I keep looking for the italics option. Mind you, this is not because I believe in proper writing; I don't. It's because I enjoy such writing and, well, I don't know how to do the texting as the kids do.)

Having taught comp and humanities courses for over 15 years — at UC Berkeley, mostly — and then having participated in the online dating world which, oddly, is comprised mostly of textual missives; the only thing more anxiety producing than the written word, it seems, is meeting in person —  I am well acquainted with the anxiety and discomfort (and inability) people experience when confronted with the demand to put words on page. These same people don't usually panic when they speak. So it's not a matter of language per se triggering them. No, it's writing, the act of inscribing words visually. I see this anxiety in all walks of life, in people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and settings, personal and professional.

I don't blame them. Writing is disconcerting. You sit there in front of your screen thinking this or that; you tap your fingers across the keyboard and, boom, there are these words over there on the screen which, despite marketing that suggests otherwise, is not smart. And yet it's suddenly saying things, making sense (or not), assuming a voice and tone. Is it my sense? Is it my voice? If so, what's it doing over there? What is my responsibility for it? To it? In the Phaedrus, Socrates calls writing an orphan that rolls about without anyone to defend it: And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not; and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

In this sense, writing is akin to cutting your nails or hair. This stuff which was you, or seemed like you, is no longer you. I distinctly remember that uncanny sensation of seeing my hair lying on the bathroom floor after my mother had snipped away. Ever see human hair in the garbage? It's creepy. Seeing words I thought were mine on the page in front of me is uncanny in the same way: me and not-me are over there, to be disposed of any old way.

But perhaps a better analogy is shit. Words and ideas are food and writing is their digestion: we take them in, process them, play them back. Shit is considered grotesque, of course, but then again that's how many people feel about their writing: it's all so much ick. We are taught at a young age to shit in a toilet and then flush it away — woosh and it's gone. I see the fear in toddlers' eyes. Isn't that part of me? Where is it going? Why doesn't anyone talk about it? Ahhhhhhhhhh!

And so some young 'uns cling to their making, preferring to defecate in their diapers. They don't want to relinquish control, give up their creation to the great violent plumbing infrastructure. So they hold on to it. After Freud, we call this anal retention.

I've seen this same hanging on in the faces — feces? — of my students. They just can't seem to write the paper and, even if they do, they resist handing it in. It's scary shit! These words and ideas come out of them but then there they are, on a wrinkled set of pages, being tossed in my dirty backpack. Ahhhhhhhhh!

There's something hilarious about this. On the one hand, it's an attempt to tether identity to a process we call writing that, by nature, unmoors identity. On the other hand, the use of that "as" suggests that I can post as anyone but just happen to be posting as Daniel Coffeen, that writing doesn't secure identity but proliferate it.

Writing undoes us. It's us but not us. In fact, it's emphatically not us. I am this — this ridiculous nose, this ridiculous body, this excuse for a beard, these thoughts and feelings. The words I write are other things over there that are shared all willy nilly by anyone and everyone,  passed around, coming in and out of the mouths and fingers of any ol' person with desire. There are a lot of Daniels. To write, then, is to move out of oneself. It's to have one's sense making, one's most private thoughts, meld with this mysterious common body we call the written word.

If only the page were as clear cut as a toilet! (I do love italics; note the name of my blog — the emphatic figures prominently.) A toilet's flush may have a resounding finality to it that's scary but when I write, there's no toilet. On the contrary, now my words are out there, floating around the universe for anyone to see. Usually, I want — or need — someone to see it. For many people, I believe, writing is akin to shitting at a party and the toilet just won't flush.

And not only is writing an orphaning of one's words, it has so many complex rules. To express yourself, you can't just spew words any old way. There is an order — nouns, verbs, prepositions, tenses, pronouns, sequence. And, to make it worse, these rules aren't absolute. It's not like I have an idea and then choose my written expression from a list of options. Oh, I'll go with Option A and, boom, your writing is done Nope. In writing, there are so many different ways to express an idea, so many ways to begin a sentence, so many options at every turn — from word choice to voice to which rules to adhere to (I, for one, love ending in prepositions and splitting infinitives; much of school room grammar is arbitrary and silly.) And then, once I make a decision, all kinds of new choices emerge.

I'm going to the store.
To the store I go!
The store is being gone to by me (eesh!).
I am going to the store.
I'm going to the corner store.
I'm going shopping.
I'm headed to the shop.

All these word choices! All these constructions! Writing is rich with internal logics, limits, ways of going that determine sense as well as mood, little of which you get to determine. Once you enter the written page, you are no longer the master.

And we haven't even discussed the audience which, oddly, isn't ever here. That's the whole thing about writing: it's asynchronous communication. When I speak to you, you respond. The words are not as important as other things, as our being together and what feels like. But when the same words are written, isolated on a screen, the words take on a different role. When speaking, mood and social etiquette comes to the fore — so much so that people often don't even notice what you've said. In writing, words take center stage.

To wit, I used to do this obnoxious thing (I used to do, and probably continue to do, all sorts of obnoxious things). I'd ask someone — a barrista, a casual acquaintance on the street — a conspicuously personal question. You get any lately? Almost every time, the person would reply. Uh, huh? Uh, yes... Why would they reply when my question was so clearly out of place? Because a question is a social contract and people in America are loathe to confront face to face yet love to when enjoying the absence writing affords. See: Yelp reviews, Thought Catalog comments, Twitter trolling. Were I to ask the same question in an email, they'd ignore it or tell me to fuck myself.

The time and context of the writing — the rhetorical milieu, if you will — is so different from the time and context of speaking. There is a spatial and temporal gap between when I write and when you read. I don't know what mood you'll be in. Maybe you're grumpy after a hard day's work. Or you just met another fella who's caught your eye and my missive feeds your doubts about me. When I'm writing, I don't know how you'll take a particular word, if you'll know I'm joking, if you'll know my references.

And this is all assuming you're the one reading what I wrote. As we know, once set to page, writing is set loose in the world. I may have only emailed you — which you remains to be determined — but the fact is the writing is out there for all to see. The now-act of writing is hence inflected by a future audience that is unknown in size and mood. When we write, in some way, we are always writing for all people across all time. In this, writing is a photograph: when we pose for a picture, we get uncomfortable because we're being looked at by unknown eyes at an unknown time. With writing and photography, the now is never quite the now.

And, damn, the things I wrote in that now are still now! I may have changed my mind about this or that but that piece of writing keeps saying the same things over and over. To infinity! The written word never changes. It's a now that's never quite a now and yet remains stubbornly now. Writing can't all of a sudden change its mind.

Yep, writing is scary. You have to give up control to this strange body with all kinds of rules and modes of operation. It's an inherently public act so you are on display — and you don't even know to whom you're on display. It's not surprising that writing causes anxiety.

And yet the very thing that makes writing scary is the very thing that makes writing liberatory. It demands we leave our egos behind, that we lean into this morass of forces and rules that is written language in order to recreate ourselves in the world. That we face the often inchoate stream of moods and ideas bouncing and streaming through our bodies and try to inflect them with this incredible thing, these written words and their grammar, in order to make some kind of sense, to at least express a desire to others if not to introduce new ways of going in the world.

A great hindrance for would-be writers is that they think they need to express themselves. That somehow, somewhere, there is a version of themselves in writing that they've yet to discover. But finding your voice in writing doesn't mean discovering something that's already there. It means happening upon a rhythm and mode of going with language that makes you feel great. If writing unmoors identity, the response is not to try to moor. There is no mooring to be had. The trick is to play in the waves and love it.

The surf analogy is apropos. Just as the ocean has tendencies but is always changing, written language has propensities but it's not a fixed thing. It is a way, not a house. There's no hidden room where your voice lives. When we enter writing, we let go of ourselves. That's the whole point!

As in surfing (he says not only never having surfed but not even knowing how to swim), the writer has to lean into the fray, into the surge, the tug, the swell of the ocean of language and mood and ideas. When you write, you are no longer in the realm of the true and sure. You enter the world of becoming, a place that is never a place once and for all, where nonsense becomes a new kind of sense only to teeter into nonsense once again. Writing is not a matter of moving thoughts from point A to point B, even if it often feels like that. No, writing is a matter of playing at the border of chaos and order, at the ever emergent junctures of sense where the self gives way to the world.


Horizons, Anxiety, and Being

Where do we look, spatially and existentially, when we make sense of the world? Do we focus on our thoughts? On the space around us? On the sky, the atmosphere, the cosmos? What happens when we shift our horizons, as we shift the limit terms of our thinking what is possible?


The Delirium of Empiricism

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture is an empirical project, delirious and brimming with information of every sort. While she is categorized as a poet, she seems to hail from an empirical tradition that is part of a science and philosophy of old.

Hear the word empiricism and you probably conjure images of scientific rigor, of rationality. I don't believe in god or qi or mysticism. I believe in what I see, in what I experience. That is a parody, perhaps, a straw man. But I'm not convinced it's as parodic as I'd wish.

In any case, it seems to me that empiricism creates a delirious experience. After all, by definition, empiricism awaits the perceptive experience, not judging by theory or concept but by letting the experience dictate. And, in my experience, experience is rarely orderly or rational. In fact, the more I analyze an experience, the more complex it becomes until I am no longer sure of anything — including myself.

Perception takes us out of ourselves, introduces us to the swirl of things and sensations that teem all about. That is how perception takes place. Think about it for a moment: When you walk down the street and see this and that — faces, fog, trees, detritus, sky, squirrel, cars — are you seeing them? Or are they filling your eyes, your head, your mind? Is seeing active — you as the subject, the world as an object? Or is seeing passive — you sitting there while the world fills you to the brim?

Or does seeing happen in some entirely other way, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive? Can we say that seeing happens in the middle voice in which neither you nor the things you see are subject and object but in which the two swap places at infinite speed — seer become seen becomes seer becomes seen — so fast in fact that the two begin to blur, to marble, to intertwine at the most fundamental, ontological level? I am not just seer; I am seen. To say one is to say the other. (See Merleau-Ponty's incredible essay, "The Chiasm," in The Visible and the Invisible.)

We can say the same about all perception — tasting, smelling, touching, hearing. We don't sense the world as active subjects, even though we are in many ways active. And we don't sense the world solely as passive objects, the world thrust upon us — although it often feels like that. We are inflection points pushing back as we receive (we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest).

Picture a pebble dropped in a lake. Picture those Doppler ripples. Now picture that same pebble dropped in a river, in an ocean, in a bowl of pudding, in milk, in honey, against the pavement, in a wine glass, against your hand, your back, your tongue, your eye. All these different effects, all these ways of going with that pebble. This is perception: an exchange of vibratory intensities, mine and the many, many things of this world as I move about.

To experience the world empirically — that is, through my sense experience — I am necessarily taken out of myself, taken astray of myself. I am now made of the world as much as I am made of me.

This is rarely a uniform, rational, orderly experience. There is so much happening at once at different speeds and intensities — the shrieks of birds, babies, brakes, sirens; the smells of shit, sweat, sewer, soil; the textures of fog, wind, and humidity; the sights of bums, beauty, and bathos. Experience is ambivalent, multifarious, multivalent. It's nutty and complex, like a good single origin chocolate. And it's morphing, always morphing — albeit with patterns of some sort, patterns that are more calculaic than geometric, patterns that repeat but always with difference, patterns that are part of other patterns and part of no pattern at all, patterns that never cohere once and for all, that remain unpredictable, emergent yet somehow a pattern nonetheless and are all the more beguiling for it.

And we haven't even discussed all the invisible effects we experience at every moment, the teem of affect, the myriad moods that fill the air with impossible density. Yes, there's the persistent tug of gravity — as we age, we feel it more, our knees and feet less confident in their ability to rise — but there's also the tug of sentiment, of the ominous, glorious, seething feeling of everything everywhere. The air is thick with mood. There is no place, no moment, no particle that is not mooded.

It is impossible to strip experience of its mood. To say I see these two animals behaving this way but not to take into consideration the mood — your mood, the mood, mood in general — is not to experience those two animals behaving. It is to turn a blind eye to the very thing you, as an empiricist, are claiming to be be open to: the fullness of experience. 

All this sensual information taking me out of myself, twisting and turning me as I lean into it all, parry, duck, and embrace it all, all this swirling and morphing, all these feelings and sensations all happening at once at different speeds, temperatures, intensities, all in different timbres and rhythms, different terms of chaos and coherence: Empiricism is delirious.

There are any number of ways to operate as an empiricist. A scientist finds formulas, patterns of repetition that become strange kinds of laws, terms for how this and this and that and this usually or often or under certain conditions go together. This empirical scientist, it seems to me, would consider mood as much as weight, quality as much as quantity.

An artist might focus elsewhere, at the perceptive patterns, at pushing back at this multipronged experience or capturing it or hedging it to let this part in and not that. Think of Jackson Pollock writhing over his canvas watching his drips of paint fall: he is an empirical painter who hedges the forces at play, just a bit, with the flick of his wrist. Or Julie Mehretu who maps the flows of the cosmos, visible and invisible alike. Or Matthew Ritchie who illustrates it.

Julie Mehretu maps the empirical swirl of the visible and invisible cosmic experience.

It's funny that we imagine that information is in experience when, in fact, experience is information — and vice versa: information is experience, is experiential, is of and with experience. Somehow, empiricism went from surrendering to experience to the extraction of hard data from experience, letting all the soft data fall by the wayside — the moods and intensities, the histories, the ghosts, the trace presence of forces and bodies from afar, all the delicious complexity of experience.

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture, which I've written about here, is an empirical reckoning of this world. She is as much scientist as poet: Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. (Buy her incredible book.)

I like to imagine, then, a different world of science and information, a world in which knowledge is indeed empirical, in which poetry and science blur as experience is given full voice in all its dissonant, messy, multihued splendor.


On Self-Deprecation

I self-deprecate, often. I come from a people who transact in self-deprecation — Jewish New York of the 1970s, my household in particular, and my adored brother specifically. With a certain emphatic umph, I make note of my big nose, bald head, general lack of fitness, my string bean body, my tendency to act the know-it-all despite my pronounced ignorance, my ardent laziness, my fear of many, many things, my list of failures personal, professional, and sexual.

Socially, it's an aggressive move, all the more so for being couched in the veil of the meek. How is my interlocutor supposed to respond? Is she supposed to nod along? Doesn't this suggest agreement with the low assessment of myself? Yeah, your nose is quite big. How rude!

Is she supposed to counter or qualify my claims? I like your big nose! I think bald guys are sexy! This can be awkward as she may not actually feel that way but simply feel compelled to say it — as if I need cheering up. Which, in this case, is certainly not my intention. But, as I let loose my string of presumed self loathing, I am well aware that, to the goyim, it may look like such is my intention. Poor Daniel! He thinks so lowly of himself! Doesn't he know that having an enormous nose doesn't really matter? And that some women find it sexy? (You can see how this could open a Pandora's box. Some women? But not you? What do you mean it doesn't matter? There is no way for her to win taking this route. Fortunately, cheering up is rarely my goal.)

And for her to counter my claim by suggesting that my failings are, in fact, successes creates a certain tension. Do I then counter her counter? Sure, bald can be sexy. Alas, my dearth of hair fails to achieve that Bruce Willis magic. Which then perpetuates the dynamic of point-counterpoint, mimicking an argument — in which I assume the absurd position of maintaining that I am indeed an ugly loser — where there is, in fact, no argument.

What, then, is my move? Well, the social awkwardness is in fact the key element. In this sense, my self-deprecation purposefully puts my interlocutor in this uncomfortable, perhaps impossible, position. This serves several functions. It's a kind of test as it disallows the usual soul numbing pleasant banter of the casual conversation. I mean, begin talking to a stranger at a party and point out your most conspicuous ugliness and see how they squirm! Deal with this potential social awkwardness! Needless to say, I am not invited to social gatherings often. 

Because there is a way of participating in my self-deprecation without either confirming or countering. There is the teasing continuation — Yeah, now that you mention it, did I leave my keys up your nose? This is a tough one as it is dangerously close to insult. There's the self-deprecating counter-move. Yeah, if you think that's big, you should see the mole on my ass! 

From this perspective, self-deprecation is a kind of social litmus test, an invitation to a certain kind of person to play along. Why? So that, together, we can shed our egos and agree, through our mutual play, that there is nothing really worth taking seriously in this world. 

Because the fact is: I don't care what you do or what you've accomplished and I sure as shit don't care what I've accomplished. And, in case part of me does seem to care, my self-deprecation points to the fact that I don't really care — and you shouldn't, either.

While this can be born from a certain negativity — Why do you have to be negative, Daniel? — it comes from something else, too: from the understanding that everything gives way. That everything we do is necessarily puny in light of the cosmic teem. That the ego is so much silliness; that social posturing is even worse; that all we have is this moment, here and now, so let's tear down all social bullshit and stand before each other with merriment. And this might very well mean effacing ourselves before the other.

Is this negative? Sure. But there is a productivity in the negative that is not solely negative per se. This is where irony exists; this is what irony does: it effaces the things of this world, its words and postures, as it points to indifferent Nature, the merciless Divine, the seething Cosmos or the infinite cosmos, to the everything that exceeds all this. To do nothing but affirm demands clinging to the bullshit of this world a bit too much for my liking — and so I tear part of it down to show the glaring sublimity that resides below, above, and just to the side of this all-too-human nonsense we call our bodies, jobs, lives, selves.

Of course, self-deprecation is a kind of narcissism, too. It becomes a way to point myself out, even my ugliness, in order to draw attention to myself. If I really just wanted to ride the great cosmic wave, why not just keep my mouth shut?

On the other hand, there is something funny in self-deprecation. It's funny in that it destabilizes our social position, makes it weak, unsteady — and one effect of this is laughter. All the great efforts we humans attempt and endure in order to be something are hilarious, absurd, ridiculous. So why not laugh it all off?

And then there is another glaring aspect of self-deprecation: it comes, at some point, from a place of self loathing. After all, there are other ways to be ironic other than self-deprecation. For me to point out my big nose means that, at some point, I believe that I do have a big nose (which I do, duhhh) and that it is something that needs to be noted before it's noted negatively by someone else. If I own my own ugliness, I disarm those who would use it against me. This is, of course, as paranoid as it is true.

My brother and I laugh uncontrollably at what lazy losers we are. We egg each other's self-deprecation on with wild, hysterical abandon. Which, no doubt, has an effect of keeping the other in check, assuring the other doesn't get any holier than thou airs about him thinking he's all that. For us, self-deprecation is a familial warmth and, alas, existential limitation that prevents us from achieving true self love. No third eye for us. We'll go to our graves self-loathing but laughing the laugh of the universe. And that, in its way, is beautiful.

But I've discovered, lo these 48 years, that women don't really enjoy my self-deprecation. It has been delicately pointed out to me that, to women, this self-deprecation reveals an insecurity — and insecurity isn't sexy.

And, worse, the negativity of self-deprecation spreads to become a more rampant, all encompassing negativity. Really? You want me to go on that yoga retreat? Have you seen my downward facing dog? Or: Oy! You want to go dancing? Have you seen me try to move this nose gracefully? Soon, there is nothing left to do, no way to leave the prison of fear and self-loathing.

The reality is self-deprecation becomes all-too-human, as well. It is an easy crutch to avoid the true moment of reckoning face to face with another. Just as bravado and self-seriousness are so much evasive foolishness, self-deprecation has a way of becoming evasive, phony, a posturing — a way of avoiding vulnerability when its great power is in conjuring vulnerability. Everything can become an egregious social posturing. And thanks to a culture that foments self-loathing, self-deprecation becomes an easy way to participate in the social without actually being alive to the world.

What I love about self-deprecation, and why I won't just drop it, is that it creates the space for a coming to the world, what my sweetie might call an authentic moment of self — afraid, alive, a thisness in all its ugliness. The downside is that it becomes a foil, a shtick, another evasive gesture among the pantheon of evasive gestures we call American Bullshit. We all this know all too well, me most of all. I've lived this shtick, as much to my success as to my chagrin. I want what any beautiful person wants: to participate in the abundant joy of the world without my scaffolding, my shtick, my go-to self-deprecation.

And yet self-deprecation has its place. It has its moment. It remains a powerful antidote to smug social seriousness which, to me, is the greatest sin of all. For me, self-seriousness is the ultimate negativity, blinding us to the power of the non-I, the cosmic self, the beauty of the day. Because, c'mon, everything gives way. Don't you know that? (he writes, somehow imagining that he's channeling the folksy wisdom of Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo).

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 ...