On the Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell

I had the supreme honor and pleasure of talking with a brother from another mother, Thaddeus Russell who wrote this book.

This book is a sheer joy for me as it gives these sharp, smart, hilariously surprising and refreshing interpretations of American history. His book grew out of frustration with both the Great Men of History — presidents, wars, corporations— and it's so called improvement, the Great People of History — civil rights leaders, important women, productive African-Americans. For Russell, both models focus on people who want power and ascribe to disconcertingly similar forms of good behavior, good citizenship, good workers (eeesh!). And hence neither talk about pleasures — sex, booze, music, leisure — or more involved understandings of freedom.

This is what interests him: freedom and pleasure. So Russell looks and focuses elsewhere — to the pleasures of sex and booze and jazz and so to prostitutes, slackers, drunkards, and gangsters. And finds that it's these people who have, for the most part, defined and created the American freedoms we cherish such as having sex (other than in marriage) and weekends off from work.

That's all I'll say for now. I highly recommend it for the supreme and all too rare pleasure of reading someone who's lit up and talking about things you think you know but in such a fresh, generous, and surprising way.

And if you read his story about his run-in with academia, you'll begin to understand my excitement over crossing paths with him.



Massage is a surprisingly complex art. You may know everything there is to know about the body  — muscles, tendons, and ligaments; joints, fascia, and nutrition — but that doesn't tell you about this body lying naked before you. How do you know where to touch? How deeply? With what intensity and speed? When do you move on to somewhere else? How do you know? How can you know?

Now, I don't know squat about anatomy. But I love giving massages for precisely this reason: it demands an immediate mode of knowing. I don't rely on textbooks or specialized knowledge. Of course, I know bodies in general; I know my body; I've touched many bodies. And that forms a kind of general and historical knowledge. But other than my history, all there is is me and you — preferably naked. I have to lean into the demands and desires of your body, feeling for what feels good and right to me as well as you. And then I do indeed know how to touch you, where to touch you, with what rhythm, speed, and intensity.

Sure, at times my attention may wander and I'll dig into a scapula too intently or linger too long or too lightly on your neck. At these moments, I am not reading your body; I'm thinking about tomorrow or Nietzsche or if my bananas are too mushy. When I am not heeding the moment, I rely on knowledge — it's good to always massage the scapula — rather than immediate knowing. We all know this experience from getting massages — when it becomes mechanical and rote. Ah, but when I'm present, there is a silent yet audible conversation that takes place between your body and me, guiding my hands here then there. And we both know it.

Ever watch a hitter step to the plate in baseball? He knows that pitcher is going to be throwing such and such pitches at such and such a speed. But then that hitter has to take that knowledge and be ready for whatever comes his way. Watching a great hitter is incredible. You see how his body moves with the pitch, feeling for its trajectory, how it's going to break. He participates with the way of the ball coming at him.

This is knowing rather than knowledge — an act rather than a fact. If knowledge with its categories, genus, and species is three-dimensional, this mode of knowing is four-dimensional. It's an action, a doing, a reckoning of this moving world while moving oneself. It is temporal. And while invisible, the information I am reckoning is not esoteric; on the contrary, it is radically empirical, tending to experience as it's happening. There is no reflection and little associative thinking. There are, however, demands and requests of bodies.

Two modes of knowing, then. One that is categorical, general, and static; and one that is immediate, particular, and active. I am calling this second kind, intuition.

Intuition is knowing of, and within, the invisible world, the play of energies and forces — cosmic, animal, vegetal, geological, atmospheric — that stream through all bodies. This includes affect and mood as well as linkages, the modes by which a body assembles itself — the style of a body, how it goes in the world, its rhythm, speed, and shape, its tendencies and propensities, the manner in which it carries these limbs, ideas, words, scents, desires through the world. These are essential pieces of information that express themselves all the time in all bodies. So while I see your body, its skin and limbs, I also sense a wealth of other information that is at once invisible and palpable — your affective state, your mood, your style.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist, claims that when we perceive something, we entwine with it. So when I see, say, a pear, I take up the pear as the pear takes me up. Which is to say, perception is not a cold process; it is friction filled, a palpation. Sight, too, is a mode of touching the world. For Merleau-Ponty, the very possibility of perception is that I am not distinct from the world — a subject with consciousness who sees objects. No, I see objects because I am object, too, because I am something that can be seen. Seeing, as with all perception, is what Merleau-Pointy calls a chiasm, an intertwining in which seer and seen swap places over and over. Perception is immersive.

This is true of invisible states such as energies and affects. When we perceive something, we entwine with the mood and way of that thing at that time, in those conditions. We're always doing this. We say, This place has a funny feel; let's get out of here. Or we feel a distinct attraction to certain places, things, people, ideas, a pull that cannot be quantified or even seen but that is no less real for it. On the contrary. We feel our way through this world as much as we know our way through this world. Intuition is this feeling-as-knowing.

Intuition, then, is not not thinking. It is not intellectual reflection in which, for instance, you try to understand the Kantian sublime. But once you understand what the heck Kant is talking about when he talks about the sublime, this does not mean you know Kant. Because a philosophy, like everything else in the universe, is not made of facts and figures, concepts and quantities, alone. A philosophy is a way of metabolizing the world, distributing the world. It proffers a vision of this universe and how it all works. It has energy flowing through it; it is affective; it enjoys a style.

When I was in grad school, I did a semester reading Kant's Critique of Judgement. I'll be honest: I could not figure out what Kant wanted from me. I could understand what I was reading; I could even discuss his ideas. But I could not figure out his shtick, his style, his vision of the world. So one night I did what I'd often do at such moments: I'd put the book before me and smoke a joint. This allowed me to both pull back and zoom in, to see how the pieces fit together as well as comprehend the micro-movements of his thought. And I'd wait for that moment which would come in one feel swoop and there, before me, would be Kant in all his mad reasonable glory, trying to make the world into this rational machine which made his vision all the madder.

This is why Bergson calls intuition the most reliable philosophical method — not the pot smoking necessarily but intuiting what a philosopher is up to. Or what anything is up to. "Intuition," writes Bergson, "is a method of feeling one's way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it." He maintains that all philosophy stems from an initial intuition about the way of the world; the philosopher then spends the rest of her life trying to express it analytically. But the only way to understand it is to be done, at some point, with analysis and move into intuition. Shitty academic philosophy analyzes ideas, parses concepts, groups thinkers and ideas. There is little appetite for intuition in academia. That's why most academic writing is dead on arrival.

Intuition, says Bersgon, carries us into the interior of the thing. From the outside, we can analyze and size up: she's 5'3", long dark hair, hearty laugh, very flexible. But, even if I've physically entered her, this analysis doesn't carry me into her interior. This is not how we enjoy people. We feel our way through the social, pushed and pulled by a variety of invisible forces, finding ourselves face to face with this or that person and then feeling our way into them, with them, through them, of them. We entwine with their way of going and find a flow, a fit — or don't, and we move on.

As Bergson claims, this is a radical empiricism, a tending to what it is here and what is happening. Intuition demands participating in duration, in different durations, in the durations of the things at hand (duration is Bergson's word). When I go to Ocean Beach here in San Francisco, I perch myself amidst the juncture of all these different durations — the eternal flux of the ocean and sky, the steady hum of cargo ships, the frantic follies of dogs and children, the urgent anxiety of cars, the formations of pelicans, the darting of plovers. And me and my time, my speed and rhythm, my duration entwining with the times of others forging a complex temporal symphony, filled with dissonance and extraordinary harmonies. To intuit is to participate in the world, to lean into its nudges, its tugs, its repulsions. Intuition is a mode of going-with.

This is not to disparage analysis and intellectual reckoning. It is necessary and can be quite beautiful. And the fact is analysis and intuition are always inter-related, interdependent. Just look at this essay. At times, I analyze intuition, doing my darndest to explain it, to explicate its parts and functioning. And then I reach an end of such thinking and I move into a different mode of knowing as I try to intuit intuition, feel for how it operates, how it goes in the world.

The relationship between analysis and intuition echoes the relationship between the visible and invisible. There is some purely physical element of a body that we can talk about. And yet all bodies have some affective state, some invisible forces at work running through them. And while we can talk about affect and forces free of bodies, they swirl in and around and with bodies all the time.

Intuition is a mode of knowing the invisible states and forces of the world. To only think analytically is to ignore the vast amounts of information that this world offers. Isn't this why we find stock photos so boring and bereft of life? I'm sitting here looking for a picture of a massage and all I can find are these clich├ęs that analyze a massage, showing me the veneer, showing me what is visible but missing the invisible all together, what is interior to a massage, what is qualitative rather than quantitative.  Intuition is what lets an artist find that interior and create something alive, a critic reckon a text from the inside out, a student understand a philosophy's demands, a cook assemble a meal that simply flows. And it is how you learn to touch the naked body lying before you.


Walking with Moods, Curves, & Inflection Points

I just spent the last few hours walking through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park — a ridiculously, generously fecund place to stroll. As I made my way from the buffalo — yes, there's a buffalo paddock in the park — down different paths, over knolls and knells, until I came to the Pacific Ocean screaming its glory, I was struck by the continuous modulation of mood that that park, as well as any walk, affords.

Any walk, every walk, is a stroll through and with a modulation of mood. Sometimes, a mood may persist over a long stretch. I find this to be particularly true when I hike as the space tends to be less urgently variegated. But GG Park, as in a city, enjoys relentless shift of foliage, sky, curve, incline, and inflection. Which is to say, as I walk, I rise and fall, walk through a breadth of trees and plants and flowers from all corners of the globe, find myself in wooded enclaves only to turn into the yawning sky and blaring sun as a path curves this way then that. All of this shifts the mood.

What is mood?  Well, I see it as the affective state of the visible world. There are such and such leaves, lighting, scents, colors, textures. We readily record all that with our senses; all of these elements are quantifiable. But they all also have qualitative states. This leaf is soft and welcoming; that one, edgy and shy; those all play together; these others loom large as individuals. Or the play of sun: the melancholia, the exuberance, the sharp edge, the dull glows. Now combine the leaves and the play of sun — not to mention the sounds, birds, insects, decaying stumps — and you get an assemblage of qualities all working in some kind of concert that forges a certain....mood, a state that is as historical as it is immediate, the entire history of a place or thing coming to bear upon the senses and upon sense itself, ghosts playing in the leaves and shaping the now just so.

And of course there's you: you bring so much to the situation. You bring all your knowledge, history, and enculturation, all your assumptions and associations about what makes something melancholy or exuberant, not to mention how you're feeling that day. We all know that when we're depressed, it casts a pall over everything we see just as when we're joyous, everything seems to rejoice.

And yet mood is not subjective. You do not just invent the melancholia of the sun from the depths of your being. Mood is a conspiracy of states that exists out there in the world, as the world. It may run through you but it doesn't only live inside you. Mood is expressive. You are not simply subject to it; nor do you determine it. You live through mood in the middle voice — neither active nor passive, both active and passive. You only know the mood as you are a participant within it, as much determining it as it is determining you. Of course, this mutual determination is rarely equal. Sometimes, your shitty mood overwhelms a place just as the intensity of a place can overwhelm you. In any case, mood envelops as it emerges.

Every time I'm walking through GG Park, I am struck by the play of curves, both horizontally and vertically, and the way this shapes the tenor of the day. The pleats of a curve distribute time, and hence mood, very differently. Consider the straight, clear path: you can see indefinitely in front and behind you. The path stays with you, never out of sight, just as the future yawns before you without surprise. There it is! And yet you quite literally see time receding; you see and feel your past moving away from you. The effect, and affect, is a play of inevitability and all that existentially entails.

Now consider a sharp turn. You have no idea what's around the corner. It could be people, animals, oceans, a cliff, a meadow, sun, shade — you can't know until you make the turn, forging anxiety, anticipation, excitement, even if muted. And then once you make the turn, your past vanishes in one fell swoop, as if it were never there.

And then there is what I call the Hockney curve (David Hockney loves to paint this curve). It is gentle, steering you towards a future that is unknown — you can't quite see around it and yet it's coming gently, generously.  Meanwhile, the past recedes at the same clip — with no real urgency, what's behind you falls away. This curve tempers intense mood shifts.

David Hockney

On my walk today in GG Park

And then there are inflection points — dramatic shifts in mood and, usually, terrain. Picture walking through San Francisco's Union Square with its Saks and Apple and Tiffany's down Geary Street, past the fancy hotels, when you suddenly find yourself in the Tenderloin — yes, that's the name of the neighborhood — with its abundant abjection. People lying in the street, some shooting up, some lying in vomit. This is a common experience in America's city: turn a corner and everything changes.

Or walking west in GG Park and soon the road widens, the sidewalks exand, the trees reach higher and then, like a miracle, there it is: the freakin' Pacific Ocean staring at you from around the bend. Everything changes in that one moment. Every time, it simultaneously takes my breath away and fills me with its briny air. It leaves me winded — deflated and inflated at the same time.

Once I walk to the ocean, leaving the park behind, I am in a totally different moodscape as the infinite stretches out ahead of me, seething, and the sky, freed from the trees' framing, is allowed its full extension.

Inflection points abound, even if less dramatic than the ocean's emergence. We know inflection points in all aspects of our lives — that moment when water boils, when satiety hits, with coffee kicks in. And we know these inflections points in mood as we make our way. Turn this way and suddenly everything is frantic, tumultuous, hurried. Turn that way and the day takes a deep breath.

I like to take what I call mood walks. They are best done alone so I'm not distracted by the niceties of the social. But mood walks can of course be done in tandem; that might make them even more complex. In any case, as you walk, lean into the micro moods. Note the way you feel, the way the place feels, as you move past that house with its manicured lawns, then that with its broken crap on the stoop, then past that alley that wreaks of piss. Feel the way the speed and noise of the traffic shapes it all. Let the sky impinge upon you, conspiring with people and places and machines to make the day feel just so.

As Michel de Certeau writes in his incredible book, The Practice of Everyday Life — in his chapter entitled "Walking in the City": "The panorama-city is a 'theoretical' (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices." That is to say, when we picture the city, we picture pictures of the city splayed before us as if in a map. But our experience is always particular as we only see what we see from our vantage point at this moment with these things, these scents, this digestion, this dappled sunlight — what de Certeau calls this practice, this doing. Yes, our experience is historical and this history shapes our moods. But our history, like our vantage, is perspectival, local, particular, and always coming to bear within this now.

Such is all experience of walking, not to mention living. We are always enmeshed, enveloped in moods we shape and which, in the same breath, shape us. It is incredible to me how mood is not spoken of more, how it has not become a science. Lohren Green's Atmospherics is the closest thing I know to reckoning mood as knowledge. And, of course, Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles.

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 ...