A Discourse that Suits Us

What you don't see is the VI Lenin t-shirt. We're all seeking a discourse that suits us.

When I was younger, I could be preachy. I believed in a certain sense of the social good and expressed it loudly, often, and aggressively. I was president of my high school student union both my junior and senior year. My platform was student power; I believed the school should be run by students. In my freshman year of college, I founded an organization called STAND, STudents Against Nuclear Destruction (we didn't have a lot of opposition; nor did we have many members). One time, Abby Hoffman visited campus to rally students to help stop PECO from building some water pump to cool their nuclear reactor. When Mr. Hoffman asked what this student group should be called, I suggested, STOP — STudents Opposed to the Pump. I had a knack for acronyms albeit within a very limited range.

When I look back at this time, two things come to mind. One, I was so sure that the things I believed were right that I found it literally insane that anyone could think otherwise. Which is so, well, icky it makes me cringe. That's the very definition of bigotry and, alas, one of the defining traits of the liberal culture in which I was indoctrinated — a smug sanctimony built on a foundation of intolerance which is all the worse for its claims to the contrary.

And two, when I picture myself back then, I see a certain decadence, a sensual pleasure. I liked being cloaked in the affect of my words. I liked holding forth in front of crowds or in a conversation.  I liked the license it gave me to speak emphatically. I could swear, get heated, jump up and down. When I really think about it, my passion was not for the ideas I was espousing but for the position this espousal afforded me. I called myself a communist, had a poster of Karl Marx and a Che t-shirt — this was 1985, before Che was chic — but had never read either (well, I read "The Communist Manifesto" in my communist teacher's class, a great detail about my high school). No, it wasn't the ideas per se that interested me. I wore my Karl Marx because I liked the way it felt. It gave me a license to pontificate with oomph.

At some point during my sophomore year of college, it all began to feel wrong. The ground of certainty began to give way as I walked into Emerson's quicksand ("Gladly we would anchor," he writes, "but the anchorage is quicksand"). I hadn't yet read Nietzsche, Derrida, or Foucault. They would come soon and begin to give me a different kind of license — a way to speak emphatically but with something else I then craved, a superiority that wasn't moral but intellectual. If before, I claimed the mantle of righteousness, here I claimed the mantle of knowing more.

Once I discovered Derrida, I just substituted my old sense of social justice (whatever that is) with the deconstruction of "Western metaphysics." When speaking, I shed my certainty about my political positions and in turn became an enforcer for Derrida. It was unseemly. I remember taking an intellectual history seminar with Bruce Kuklick who, after my second paper, told me, "You're like a meat grinder. Put anything in and it comes out 'deconstruction.'" It was a humbling moment that resonates in my body to this day. Funny, and beautiful, how an offhand comment can reverberate. Prof. Kuklick's one comment remains one of my great teachers.

And so I was still a didactic idiot. C'mon, man, how can you ascribe to that phallocentric metaphysical bullshit?? I could have been preaching anything — the Word of God, the Second Amendment, a NY Times editorial. Only now I had an air of intellectual superiority which had been absent in my moral indignation. Alas, I had yet to see that the what doesn't matter as much as the how.

Ah, youth! So much vigor, such vitality. It looks for outlets — physical, existential, behavioral — everywhere and anywhere. All that energy needs to go somewhere. And while a five year old might be able to run it all off in an empty field, an 18 year old needs something else and so is still looking for that mode of expression that serves and suits: a discourse she can wear. As a teen, I glommed onto social justice (a phrase I really dislike for being so vacuous; I use it here precisely in its vacuity (I love the word vacuity; how often does one get to use it? But I love the verb glom)). And as a college student, it was the postmodern (another vacuous word).

As I got older, I began to truly see that life was complex with so many different angles. I knew that my positions were just positions among positions. As people die around you, you get a taste for the transience of all things. But how to express that? How to speak within the flow of time, without certainty and yet without a lack of certainty: I feel this now and know it will give way? How to speak with, from, and as a position that is always already just another position and yet one that is thoroughly, passionately felt without becoming doctrine?

This is an ongoing exploration, an experiment. I keep looking for a discourse I can wear, a discourse that suits me, as it were. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I've found a promising discourse in stand up comedy and, specifically, in Jerry Seinfeld's persona in "Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars." Stand ups know to take nothing seriously and yet they hold forth with utter abandon. Seinfeld, not the most interesting comic, has emerged with one of the more compelling, inviting, and wise discourses I've happened upon. Like us all, he is in search of a discourse that suits his comportment. This Seinfeld bit, on daytime television, inspires me: it's at once sure and detached. It's a complex ethical stance that claims his position in time towards others, at once sure and slight. What better position is there?

Language is inherently social. We can't control it; it has a will of its own, a will that is collective and ever moving. To speak is to join a conversation always already in session. And that means we're always positioned. Which means we're always looking for a position that suits us, that is flexible, that lets us be funny, smart, ironic, particular, general, smart, interesting. These positions are not easily come by!

Goth, punk, Neo-Nazi, libertarian, NY Jewish Liberal, tech douche: these are positions afforded us by public discourse. Of course, we slip into these positions and reshape from within, an inevitable process of life. But the terms of the discourse are strong; they are apparati for energy expression, affect engines. This is to say, they are modes of expression as much as they are expressions of belief. A kid who gives a Nazi salute wants to feel empowered, different, enraged.

I am not dismissing the content of that Nazi salute. I am introducing the performance of the salute as an essential component of the expression. When I hear about white supremacist marches, this is my first thought — not that these people are Nazis that need to be killed but that they are angry and in search of a discourse that suits them so why not Nazism? And then rather than combat them on the level of content, I seek to approach them as I'd approach any angry, resentful person who just wants to say: Yes! I'm passionate and different and I matter, damnit! (Mind you, this might involve a baseball bat.)

Discourse is the terms of social exchange that exceed us, taking us up, positioning us — and giving us modes of affective energetic release. We slip into it on its terms and assume our position so that others can recognize us in a way that, hopefully, feels good and right. This is all too apparent on dating sites. Oh, she's just another feel good hippy liberal. She's a Marina girl. (an SF reference but substitute any city neighborhood: She's so Upper West Side), She's a Burner! Frankly, I can't imagine what they used to think and say about me... (I have been mercifully liberated from that world).

Social life is a play of cliché and emergence, a relentless intermingling of generality and particularity, of assumptive proscriptions and real complexity. We are all endlessly seeking a discourse we can wear with grace. Yes, the things we say matter. But everything we say happens as an expression that is always situated within a more general discourse of how we assume people talk and interact. How we can say this or that is as important as what we can say. We all just want to drape ourselves in a discourse that suits us.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

Yeah this is a good one. The early bit about your sophomore year abatement, that bizarre easing... gave me a rush of Nicholson Baker's Changes of Mind (which you turned me on to, thanks bub), the bit towards the end, when he notes the weird pull of a position, an idea, which has been defended, perhaps, just one time too many. And the defense relents.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Always a pleasure to see you here....when I started writing this, I wasn't sure where it was going. And, as I found myself amidst it, I felt Nicholson Baker breathing on my neck. That essay remains one of the best arguments about the nature of arguments.

jim said...

Parts of this post took me right back to Aphorism 31 in Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Brilliant.

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