The Delirium of Kairos, or Feeling for the Right Now

How do they know when to draw? What conspiracy of factors is at work? With what sense do they feel for the right moment?

I was at the Kabuki Springs & Spa the other day shvitzing in the dry sauna with a bevy of naked men. The sweat is dripping down my face among other places. I've already sat in the hot tub and steam room. I'm there with a friend who sits a few feet from me. As the heat begins to pervade my very fiber, I experience a change in the state of my being. I want to gasp. I may collapse. And I believe that soon I may enter that unique state of ecstasy brought on by extreme physical conditions — in this case, heat and dehydration.

If I stay too much longer, I'll probably faint. But if I get up now, I won't have hit that point of ecstasy. So when do I leave? How will I know? What is the right or opportune moment, what the Ancient Greeks called kairos?

The right moment is elusive, emerging from a set of physical, existential, metabolic, and social factors. I can add them up — when and what I last ate, how much I've slept, how much water I've had, what's happened to me in the past. But it's not a matter of arithmetic or algebra. Or perhaps it's a perpetual algebraic equation in which the unknown variable cannot be derived arithmetically as it's not a quantity but a quality: X = Kairos, the emergent moment that whispers, screams, laughs: Now! X is a moving state of being amid a flux of bodies and forces and, as such, can't be determined once and for all.

And yet I have to do something. Oh, if only life were as simple — and boring — as doing what you've done before. But how and when I left a sauna a week ago, 57 weeks ago, four years ago only matters so much. This moment is different.

So how do I reckon this moment? What are my criteria? How do I make sense of a moment that is forever uncertain, has no fixed term of success, and is always moving? How do I know when to enter the conversation and, more importantly, when to shut the fuck up? How do I know when it's the right time to gently touch her knee, reach in for a kiss, go down on her? Even if I surrender kairos to the madness of today's demands for verbal consent, how do I know when to ask for a kiss?

The propitious moment amid the erotic is downright delirious. There is an incredible vertigo to leaning in for that first kiss, a ridiculous proliferation of signs, waves of information, not just coming from her but from me, from my past, from my desires and hesitations, my history since I was a kid as well as what I ate that afternoon — we all learn to leave burritos behind — all conspiring, ricocheting, parrying, colliding into a now that is never just one thing but is always, always multiple.

Often, we don't heed that moment. We don't believe it. We doubt ourselves. Notice that I say "we" when I mean "I." As a younger man, I would find myself swept up in the swirls of erotic kairos only to pull away. It can't be, I'd think to myself, she can't possibly want me to kiss her!

Of course, too often men get swept up in their own self-motivated desire and think it's the moment beckoning when, in fact, it's just their  hard-on. She doesn't want that hand on her knee, those lips on hers. But these men are not heeding kairos; they're heeding their erection.

Kairos, like desire, is delirious. But it's not solipsistic or subjective. On the contrary, kairos is always a juncture, a meeting of bodies, forces, and flows of all sorts — cosmic, metabolic, affective, bodily, capitalist. We heed the alarm clock, our bladders, our hunger. But we act all the time heeding all the forces that swirl about us, that nudge us, prod us as we nudge and prod back. Kairos emerges from the intermingling of life. It always and necessarily emerges between and among. It is a reckoning of this world from within this world as this world. There's no right answer for the right moment lurking within you. Kairos always comes with the world.

We are always already enmeshed and entangled in the world, forces of all sorts nudging us this way and that as we nudge back. These are the conditions in which kairos emerges and we act.

What makes the right moment right, anyway? Well, it's not a matter of finding the right answer within this morass of signs, flows, forces, bodies, desires, and needs. This right moment might be mis-named as there is no right.

And yet there is something we can say is right and wrong — the pitcher threw a fastball when he probably should have thrown a slider. What, then, makes the right moment right? Like kairos, the answer is forever uncertain and unsolvable beforehand. You did such and such. How do you feel now? What makes it right is some state of affairs, some state of being that feels, well, right. Or, in the case of a gunfight, if you're still alive (unless you're suicidal, I suppose).

Everything might be relative but that doesn't mean everything's equal. What's right for me is usually what fuels health, vitality, and peace. What's right for you now? How about now? How about three years ago?  How about when you're 48? "Right" is in flux along with everything else in life.

The problem with using this word "right" is that it smacks of morality. Just look at how we talk about it: I should have kissed her or, for that matter, I shouldn't have kissed her. Which is to say, we run into the language of morality, of should.

And yet kairos undoes the strictures of any morality. Its right is always and necessarily particular. Morality, on the other hand, is general, that which doesn't change. Don't covet your neighbors wife, ever!

Kairos is a nifty concept in that it lets us speak of right and wrong — that values — outside of a moral discourse. In his astounding Poetical Dictionary, poet and sophist Lohren Green proffers a different mode of assessment for feeling out the sense of a word: a protean standard. That is, whereas a traditional dictionary makes the same sense for different words, Green uses the standard that suits that word — bleak is bleak, glee is gleeful, purple is purple. A standard, yes, but one that keeps changing. And even within that local circumstance there is no certainty. Green is a dictionarist of another sort, a rhetorical sort, at once untethered and enmeshed.

Such is kairos: there is some kind of standard within life — something right or wrong about leaving the sauna too early or too late, throwing this or that pitch, leaning in for a kiss or not — but this standard is never fixed. It keeps moving along with everything else. Just ask a dj.

The dj is a great rhetorician, always heeding the moment. How does she know what to play? Think of all the factors she considers as she drops her needle.

For the Greeks, the ancient ones, kairos was as elusive as it was momentous. Me, I see its strange logic and demands at every turn — at the sauna, in conversations, with my lover, every meal, when to go to sleep, when to get out of bed, how much ice to put in my cocktail. At every turn, we are asked: What's the right thing to do in this moment here and now?

And without certainty, without sure criteria, we act: we walk, talk, eat, love, kiss, write. We make sense of so many factors all at once, feeling our way into some whiff of demand from here or there — from work, from our bowels, from a text but also from somewhere else, from something else, from some ever elusive, ever changing protean state of being that prompts us, propels us, incites us to do this or that. And so I ask you this: with what sense do we feel for that moment?

The Posture of Things

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