What is an Art Machine? (Podcast)

Inspired by reading Guattari, I here try to explain what I mean by a machine as distinct from Foucault's discourse, Marx's means of production, and Althusser's ideological hailing.

A bit rambling, perhaps, but I'm moving towards something. That something will be, among other things, an introduction to an incredible book by the artist, Marc Lafia, that covers his career to date — over 40 years of complex image making.

I also reference one of my mentors from my undergrad days, Peter Stallybrass and his great book, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.


Don't Get Over It: Feeling Events, Now and Then

Let's say I experience something. It could be relatively small like eating some tasty pho ga at one of my favorite restaurants. Or it could be something more poignant such as watching my sister die over a six month span. What is the actual duration of these events? 

Well, my meal lasted around 90 minutes. That assumes my meal began when I entered the restaurant and ended when I left. But that's a more or less arbitrary way to demark beginning, for sure. After all, at some point I learned about meals; about restaurants; about this restaurant. I no doubt gathered expectations about such a thing beginning, perhaps, with my grandmother's schmaltzy chicken soup and inflected by all kinds of previous pho experiences. This event, then, which looks to begin at around 12:31 actually began much earlier. Now is always a before (unless you're meeting someone for said pho ga in which case telling them 1973 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan doesn't do them much good).

Now, as for when it ends: we all know too well that no meal ends when you're done eating. In fact, as we get older, we begin eating now based on what the meal will do to us an hour later, three hours later, the next day. Some meals linger uncomfortably long in uncomfortable ways. And some linger with such savory affect that you wish it would just go on and on. I still think about this pressed lamb I ate at Outerlands here in San Francisco; it was so luscious, I can feel it on my tongue a year later and salivate.

Events are rarely discrete. They happen and stretch both backwards and forwards in time. This is what we call memory. Memory is not a database of distinct things; it's where and how events continue to happen. That lamb? I may only have had it on a fork for 17 minutes, give or take, but it lingers in my mouth and body to this day. That now is still happening! Except rather than taking the form of perfectly seared flesh, it takes the form of what we call memory. 

That is how this whole thing works. We live in this world, taking it on, eating it, digesting it, processing it. These events don't disappear; they become who we are, how we go. I know how to tie my shoes, write these words, find the sock drawer, order pho ga because the event of those things is still happening right here, right now. Now is always a before and a later — an extension, contraction, a series, a fold or many folds. 

Events have vastly different intensities and modes of duration. Some don't just linger; they dominate. We can't get them off our minds, off our bodies, off our feelings. They persist with such vigor for a while. Then perhaps they dissipate, shift intensities, or rise up now and again as if from nowhere — a rock skipped across the water, touching down here or there for a moment before taking flight again.

My point — do I have to have a point? can I have a plateau? please? — is that events endure as they endure. There is no universal law — except, perhaps, that events are not temporally or affectively discrete. All events, to some degree, sprawl or contract. 

And so when I came upon Thick Slice's tweet (see above), it gave me pause. What does it mean to "get over it"? And is there a right way to stand towards the things that happen to us? Is that even something we do? Or is it something that happens to us?

My big sister dies in November 2013. Note that I use the present tense. Because the fact is every November since that November, I feel it all so intensely here and now, in the present tense. It's not a memory as we think about memories, something I checked out from the library of my consciousness and peruse out of interest. It's something I experience, still and again. And that, alas, might be the best definition of memory: events still and again.

Memory is not a repository of the past. As I wrote in this here blog in March 2011, "Memory is not a past event. It is a present event. Or, rather, it is the persistence of an event.... And is in relentless flux. After all, all those events are still happening to a greater or less degree of intensity. Some events skip across consciousness, hitting down here and there every few years. Some are tightly knit balls that rumble and roll, day after day, through our very becoming. Some are like scents that drift by.... Memory is not something that is, some static repository. It's not a library; nor is it an archive. Memory is a living thing. Memory is something that happens."  

So what does this mean for how I stand towards this memory or any memory? Well, I hope I learn some things that help me navigate this life with less fear, with greater understanding that yields greater joy. This is of course what I want from everything I do but some events are more conducive to such a pedagogy than others.

Every November is a different experience of her dying. Each time she dies, I reckon so many things — death in general, her death, her suffering, the suffering of my family, of her children, of my suffering and my death, of how I stand towards life. Isn't this repetition a good thing? Isn't that how we learn about death? When we experience the death of others, we learn how to go with death. But this is not something that happens just like that, a switch flipped; it is something that keeps happening. The word for the event of death that endures is grief.

Even if I don't learn anything, the fact is her dying persists in me, with me, as me. I am a fundamentally different person, her death an inflection point — a huge rock dropped in the sea of me. And the Doppler that I am, I feel that event in different ways all the time, each year a little differently — I'm different, the world is different, and hence that ripple is a little different. Maybe there's nothing to be learned per se; maybe there is just a living through.

As the day of her dying approaches, I find that I get increasingly emotional. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to "get over it'? What would that even mean? As we know, events don't just end. They keep happening. 

Perhaps "getting over it" means responding to it, metabolizing it, in a "healthy" way — whatever that means. Less crying? Less intensity? Is that healthy? The fact is, I've come to see that day as a gift — from her and from the universe. I get to feel all that, experience all that, have my whole body reverberate with the intensity of her and her death. That's awesome — even if I'm hyperventilating on the floor, screaming into the fullness of the void, screaming so loud I hope she'll hear and come back. Would it somehow be better if I had a few brewskies and binge watched "The Wire" for the seventeenth time? Maybe. But to have the opportunity to experience life altering events is one of life's great gifts.

I suppose a November will come one day and I won't find myself screaming into a pillow. And that will be ok, too. There are no rules; we are not in control. Events are as much something done to us as something we do. Every event has its time, its mode of endurance, the way it will live in me, with me, as me. It might very well be quiet for a time before screaming again. It may change shape, especially as I get older and approach my own death.

I feel for Thick Slice who tweeted about the memory of her now defunct marriage. Some times, the pain of those past events still enduring is too awful and we wish it away. And there is a beautiful place of forgetting, a way to forget that forges wisdom rather than avoidance — forgetting as a creative act. Nietzsche says forgetting is the essence of man; we have to forget the totality of nature in order to function together, live together, love together. One day, after whining about my family for a while, my brilliant shrink turned to me and said, "Ok, whatever. Forget all that. Now is now."

To forget takes incredible strength. And can be an important, creative thing. But so can letting the past endure as it will, letting it fill me up. Sure, I don't want to be defined or confined by my past, replaying my youthful dramas ad infinitum. That would be absurd and, yes, unhealthy as it would prevent the fullness of now, the joy of now, life now.

But letting an event from the past endure and feeling with it now, having it become part of the fullness of now, is glorious. Indeed, I've found that as I get older I relish these moments, these events that flare up even as they seem to wrack my very constitution. They are sumptuous moments amid the everyday hum.

Such is life. We are temporal creatures. Like the moon's craters, we wear our scars in our bodies, in how we go in and through the world. We don't get to just erase the events that have happened to us. But we can stand towards them in different ways; we can learn from them, learn with them, to be more joyous. They will persist as they persist, do what they will do. Rather than feeling a need to get over them, I want to relish them.


Explaining Ourselves Beyond Family (Inspired by Guattari's Ecology of the Self)

“Familialism consists of magically denying social reality, and avoiding all connections with the actual flux." 

Why do people do what they do, feel what they do? What makes a boyfriend sharp tongued, a girlfriend jealous, a boss petty, a mother anxious? Every day, in a variety of ways, we assess the motivations of ourselves and others — from brothers and lovers to Jimmy McNulty and Daenerys Targaryen to presidents of united states and half-talented rappers. Mind you, I'm not asking why people do the things they do; I'm asking how we explain the things people do.

We are constantly assessing ourselves, reciting tales of our existential development to no one in the dark, to shrinks in comfy chairs, to lovers over pillows and friends over drinks, tales that explain why we keep dating the same kind of woman, won't leave our job, longingly linger as we pass the woman's shoe store. 

What's surprising is how limited our explanations are. The overwhelming majority of the time, we blame family and parents. His mother was so overbearing...so of course he's shy. His father was abusive...so of course he's abusive, too. The incredible thing about these explanations is their flexibility: the same ascribed cause can have radically different outcomes. On the one hand, He's abusive because his father was. On another hand, He's so gentle because his father was abusive.   

As parents, we feel this as we pore over our every move, our smallest gestures scarring or, when deluded, preparing our kids for life. It's a joke parents casually, albeit anxiously, bandy about the playground. I know showing him those movies will scar him for life....ha ha ha. This is the stuff that eats at parents, keeps us up at night, lingering in the back of our minds, the guilt a miasma in our consciousness like a hotdog in a burp days later: I know I'm doing something that is going to fuck him up...for life! 

The assumption of these familial tales is that childhood determines who we are. And that parents are the main shapers of that childhood — not institutional expectations of race, money, and time that determine our senses of value, what it means to age, to participate, to live; not the overbearing terms of the socio-sexual economy that privileges this or that body, this or that mode of masculinity and femininity, as we look at ourselves and others and judge relentlessly; not a Society of the Spectacle that's forever seeking to determine how we feel about this and that as "news," brands, politicians, and film studios buy our emotional lives. Nope: it's all family, we believe. 

Ah, if only that were so! If only the sole madness my son had to negotiate was me and his mother and not the plethora of bodies, forces, images, ideas, institutions that situate us all, saturate us all, defining our very motives, feelings, and words. I, for one, would welcome such power. 

Freud of course raised family drama and its explicative prowess to the mythical as Oedipus' nutty shenanigans become at once primal and pervasive. Privileging childhood so much  speaks to a cultural shift away from lineage and bloodline. We no longer say, I'm a Schlosser! We say, My parents got divorced. This was supposed to be our liberation from aristocratic assumptions of power.

Granting so much existential value to childhood is indeed compelling. Within our culture — whose culture? mine? yours? isn't this what's precisely at stake: the particular historical, geographic, economic, and affective economies of meaning in which we participate? — anyway, within our culture, childhood enjoys extraordinary pathos. We take this as a given but I'd venture to say that not all cultures and not all times revere childhood so obsessively. In my socio-economic world, we believe children to be innocent and frightened as the father screams and breaks things and we think, shedding a tear or two: Of course that shaped the little boy's life! How couldn't it? How does one come back from that? This is what psychoanalysis asks of the analysand: Tell me, when you were six and heard your parents fighting, how did you feel? It imagines that the road to well-being is empathizing now with the child we were then. 

This is an insidiously specious move. It has the now-you, with all your emotional understanding of the world, empathize with six-year-old-you. But six year olds don't feel or think the way we do. They remember, and more importantly forget, in ways we can't empathize with. Their emotional economy is not a 48 year old emotional economy. 

This is not to say that our childhoods aren't seminal in shaping who we are. Of course our childhoods matter. What I'm saying is that, empirically speaking, the family is only one element within an elaborate web of networks and forces that define and inflect who we are, how we think and feel, what we do.

Our obsession with childhood is not a given. It's neither natural nor universal. It's created, taught, reproduced, propagated, deployed, internalized. And as childhood is so pathos ridden, it becomes difficult to argue against. Just mentioning that, perhaps, we afford childhood a slightly less significant role in the creation of identity or grant children a less central role in family conversations makes one — ahem, makes me — a heartless monster. 

The fact is I definitely lean all too readily rely on family drama to explain my idiocies and idiosyncrasies. I'm a son of Portnoy, after all. And the so-called product of not just divorce but abandonment. So I must have a fear of abandonment because my father abandoned me! There's a convenient symmetry there; it almost seem self-evident.

But after reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in my late teens, I began to craft new tales. No longer were my mother or father solely to blame for my neuroses. Now it was my fear of death. Or my reckoning of the sublime infinite.  Or my fear of leaving social propriety as, approaching enlightenment, I detach from worldly concerns. My explanations for the motivations of others as well as myself began to assume a philosophical bent — a metaphysical, rather than bourgeois, drama.

But in either case — familial or metaphysical —my explanations for the motivations and determinations of character ignore the overwhelming empirical reality of cultural, institutional, social, and economic forces that flow through us, always and relentlessly. It's as if by focusing on family and metaphysics, I believe I am seeing the real stuff — deep, resonant, trans-historical, trans-cultural. And all this other stuff — money, TV, class — I brush off as so much distraction.

Writing it now, it seems absurd. With a moment's consideration, it's so patently obvious that the decisions and considerations about what I can do and feel, the things I care about, the things that motivate me and define me are inflected as much by family and a fear of death as by how I am positioned within the economic, social, and sexual economy. Duh. (The most poignant revelations are those right under my admittedly robust nose and hence are best punctuated with a duh.)

Yes, perhaps my son's anxiety —along with his posture, slinky gait, casual aplomb, and sense of humor — stems from his parents' divorce or from my overbearing New York-Hebraism. It'd be ridiculous to ignore that. 

But it'd be equally ridiculous not to heed the apocalyptic tales he hears every day as the land around him literally burns with increasing vigor every year. Or how his skinny body fits into the discourse of masculinity. Or how ubiquitous web pornography tells him, with grotesque indifference, what sex is. Or how his class and race inform his assumptions about what the future holds — why he assumes he'll graduate high school then travel the country in a van for a year before he makes movies for a living; why he thinks he might get harassed in his new public high school; why he only needs to worry about that so much because his Ivy League-educated, PhD bearing, know-it-all father can always educate the little bugger without any school. His sense of himself, the things he worries about, the things he ignores, the way he desires and imagines his value in this life today and in the futue: these emerge as and with an entanglement of forces. 

When people tell me they think my kid is cool, I never say Thank you as that would imply I had something to do with it. And while I have something to do with it just as my insane ninth grade history teacher has something to do with how I learned to negotiate demented, stupid authority figures with power, my kid's prowess comes from his participation and negotiation with a juncture of forces that far exceed me.  So when people do say, Yo, your kid is cool, I reply, Yeah, right? — as much a witness as anyone. 

This is all to say that one's motivations and mental health — whatever that is —  are not determined by childhood alone but by a nexus of factors — geographic (after all, the weather affects us every day in so many ways), economic (not just how much money you have but how your value is situated by institutional forces, racial, gender, physiologic (different bodies situate us differently in the sexual economy), political.  

This is what Félix Guattari, the French psychoanalyst and theorist, posits: identity is created at, and as, a nexus of social, physiologic, and economic forces.  Who we are, how we become what we are, why we do the things we do, and how we explain it all: putting it all on the family — or, even on highfalutin metaphysical drama — ignores the flux in which we are always becoming. 

Our dominant modes of explanation or what, in my book, I call forms of exemplary reading: they take this or that behavior as an example of a bigger concept. Abusive father? Abusive man. The particulars are determined by general, broader ideas — the Oedipal Complex, fear of death — that encompass and explain particulars. 

This means we ignore the socio-economic conditions of life as a source of mental health or even as a contributing factor to our dementia (it'd be nice if it would be for our peace and calm!). People aren't insane because of the absurd demands of capitalist America! It's not because they're exhausted and humiliated by the demands of work, the fear of not paying rent, of having their credit score go down so they can't buy a house or car or who knows what for the rest of their lives! It's not because of an endless barrage of "lifestyles" we encounter at every turn! It's not because we feel the state might murder us for the color of our skin! No, none of these things make us mentally unsound. It's all family or fear of death.

Once you see it written, it sounds insane, doesn't it? Of course our mental health — whatever that is — is constituted by the forces that create and constitute us! (As an aside which deserves more space and time, this is why I like the American version of "The Office" more than the British one. In the British one, David Brent is socially awkward and insecure. But the explanation exceeds the culture at large; something happened to him as a kid. Steve Carell's Michael Scott, however, has a symptomology that far exceeds his clearly troubled upbringing. His madness is splayed through the Society of the Spectacle as he's constantly moving between prepackaged identities. He has no identity of his own, for sure, as none of us do. But what he's left with is nothing but a shopping cart of identities — a kind of schizophrenia induced by his culture and American capitalism, not his family or fear of death.)

What Guattari proffers is a rhetorics of mental health, a rhetorics of explanation for why we do the things we do. That is, rather than relying on broad stories that eclipse the particularities of one's life — race, class, gender, and more — Guattari asks us to look at our world as we 're living in it. To look at the different perspectives. My experience of American capitalism is different than a working class woman which is different than an Asian immigrant which is different than a black adolescent. Guattari asks us to be empirical rather than conceptual, to heed the teem of forces around us as a localized juncture of institutional forces.

This is much more complex  than relying on a big story that's easy to master. It demands we excavate what Marshall McLuhan calls our environment, excavate and consider those things we take for granted as truth. This is what excites me about Black Lives Matter — it asks us to consider everyday life outside the white perspective. It's a movement that moves beyond policy as an abstraction to think about how institutions shape everyday life. It's not insane for African-Americans to assess how they gather together on the street or how they imagine their future in this America. It's not because of the lack of a daddy. It's because the police, and white people in insidious ways (see Starbucks), wage structural war against them. And this has an impact on their mental health. Duh!

The very way we construct ourselves and are constructed, our mental well being, doesn't come from family alone. It comes from the forces that define our identities and shape how we think about ourselves in this world. To make sense of ourselves demands we look at the world around us.

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 ...