5.08.2018

In Search of an Object to Critique


The art of Marc Lafia is a persistent source of nourishment for me, feeding me objects to critique. Look at this from his recent work. It draws me in, pops from the fray, but without ready answer. It's monstrous, in the best sense, in that it's not a known quantity. That knowing comes in and with my reckoning, my writing, my critique. And that is decadent, like happening upon a feast of my favorite things.

How does one choose what to write about? I've kept this blog — is "to keep" the right verb? — for 10 years now. I've written about photography and images in general; about particular images and image makers, including films; about death, dating, tequila, Nietzsche, repetition, Deleuze, and Kierkegaard; about teaching, writing, and teaching writing; about language, words, grammar, and teaching language, words, and grammar; about therapy, the will to boring, and the pros and cons of the fact of other people.

Why these things? Well, why not. So perhaps the question is: How these things? How did they occur to me? Well, they obviously come from a reckoning of the life I'm leading. I never thought really about death until I watched and helped my sister die; I didn't write about therapy until I was in it and not about the will to boring until therapy taught me it; as for the pros and cons of other people, that emerged when I fell in love for the first time in decades.

Still, there are many things in my life I don't write about. I rarely mention noodles, for instance. And I don't write a lot about my son, despite the fact that he's the most important and present figure in my life. I suppose noodles are just not that interesting to me and my son is too interesting to me.

Interesting to me: that's a phrase that begs the question. How does this come to the fore as an object of critique but not that? I fear my answer right now is banal and continues the begging: some things just do pop to me while other things do not. We are, all of us, metabolic systems. This means we are desiring machines, filters, and processing engines. I crave noodles the same as I write about Nietzsche — I desire them, I take them up, I process them and enjoy processing them.

Of course, when I was younger — when I was in grad school — everything was interesting (which is actually the tagline for my kid's middle school). The architecture of the classroom, of my writing pad, the various speeds of my pens, the tenor of my voice in the classroom, the size of a book, this or that font, the distribution of trees on the street, even noodles. I was voracious; I could take up anything and critique it. And I did, all the time, often in my own head, too often to those around me.

That was 25 years ago, though. Today, I'm at once more discerning but also less voracious. I choose what to take up, what to process, what to critique. (Note, please, that critique here is an affirmative practice; it is not to criticize or judge. It is to flesh out, flush out, animate, extend, reckon.)

Sometimes, nothing pops to me. This can be frustrating in that I find myself mired in too much me — the same ideas, the same books, the same objects. I become a bit zombie-like. But another aspect of this is luxurious: I enjoy the things of my life, live with them as they nourish me.

Still, I usually jump at the opportunity to have a new object, something fresh to digest — a film, an art work, a book. I am grateful to my friend, Marc Lafia, who continues to make and show great, beautiful, complex art — and asks me to write about it. What a gift! He feeds me new nourishment. And this affords me the luxury of something to write about as, above all, I love writing.

Still, what is "interesting"? I think it's what is literally of interest to me, to this body, to how I go. I find something interesting that can fuel me, feed me, and as I said, nourish me. And these are things that somehow emerge from the din of the everyday, that come out of the shadows and present themselves to me as something different, something emergent, something now, something not yet known. My taking up is my process of knowing.

But it's not just that these things come to me. I go to them. It is a cooperative process of us finding each other, just as I happen upon the noodle section of the Asian market in the Richmond. It draws me in as I draw it in. I suppose it's a kind of magnetism, then. Which is itself a kind of love — and vice versa. (Love is a subset of magnetism just as magnetism is a subset of love; then again, we need not think about any of it in terms of hierarchies, of subs and such, but rather as networks of mutual becoming: magnetism as a concept and action pulls and pushes love as a concept and experience.)

Notice how all of this inquiry begs the question: How and why these objects to critique? This is perhaps the most complex thing to teach. I could tell my students the form of an essay, perhaps. But how do I tell them how to find an object to critique when this object is intimately entwined with their metabolism, their way of going? The things that speak to me most likely don't speak to them. So how do I, how does anyone, teach the finding of an object to critique?

My approach was to show. We'd read a text together — whether it was the classroom itself, an essay by Nietzsche, a Platonic dialogue. I'd literally read it line by line in class. When I think about that now, it seems insane. But that's how we did it: we'd read each line and I'd stop after each and critique everything we'd just read. Looking at it now, I think students believed I was teaching them particular things about this or that text. But I wasn't: I was trying to show them how to find an object to critique. And this meant pointing out how everything can be interesting, how everything can emerge from the fray of life, from the blindness of habit and conditioning, to be something vital, bizarre, new. I actually taught a class on watching films entitled, "Bring on the Strange." This may be the only goal of teaching, at least for me: teaching students how to see what's in front of them as something new, emergent, something to reckon anew, something downright strange.

Finding an object to critique, then, means discovering a moment of alienation, a moment in which social protocol drops and this thing stands there, odd and misshapen, and says: What about this?

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Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age

 Check out this nutty essay on this NFT/NFV that I wrote on Medium