9.14.2020

On the Terrible Tryanny of School


This picture is horrific to me and says so much about school: line them up! Make them sit, like little prisoners, while we harass and harangue them with some state mandated syllabi created by morons in a room far from here.


I have to be honest, when I think about tyranny I rarely think about the state. This is due, in part, to the relative luxury I enjoy being middle class and white. When I see cops, I rarely assume they'll stop and frisk, harass, or shoot me. Indeed, my relationship to the tyranny of the state is rarely so immediate. But this doesn't mean the state isn't tyrannical; it means it's masked itself as simply what we do.

I like to say that the first time I felt the strong arm of the state was when I was applying to college. Ronald Reagan was president and he'd instituted mandatory registration for the draft. The punishment for failing to do so was relatively mild but had a significant effect on me — a refusal of federal student loans. So, with great hesitation, I marched myself into the local post office and registered for said draft, writing a large "CO" in yellow highlighter over the form and, in the white space at the bottom, wrote what I'd learned I should write to build my case for being a conscientious objector: I object to all wars in any form.

But this story leaves out a more explicit coercion of my body by the state: I went to school. Every day. Very early in the morning — like, absurdly early in the morning. I left school out as an example of state tyranny as it never even occurred to me that this was the state forcing me to do things. It never occurred to me not to go to school. And that's because, unlike war, school was situated in another form of tyranny — a much more powerful, more insidious form: the discourse of my home. What we valued at home coincided, in the case of school, with the state's mandate.

Now, the state demanded I attend school for such and such a time — you had to attend until 16 in New York; but it's 18 in California — more on that in a moment. Unlike many laws that are enforced haphazardly — for instance, pot was illegal my whole childhood and yet was readily available — the law stipulating we go to school is indeed enforced. In fact, the present vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic party, a former Attorney General of California, sought to rigorously enforce these laws, threatening to jail parents whose kids were truant. The law demanding we attend school is not one easily parried or ignored without serious repercussions.

Which, you have to admit, is kind of odd: why is the state so adamant about where our children spend their days? The problem with protesting it is it sounds like I don't care about children. All I can hear is the "Simpsons," "Won't somebody please think of the children?" I do care about my child; I just can't figure out why the state cares so much — and thinks it knows better than I do what's good for my son (and better than he, at 16, knows. Sixteen! And he's forced into these re-education camps every day! It's insane).

And yet, when it came to school, it wasn't just the state coercing me. It was my family. School mattered in my house. Every night at dinner, we talked about school. I never questioned this. But I was aware that, in elementary and middle school, my indifference to academics was frowned on around my dining room table. To this day, they tell the story of how all I wanted to talk about was gym — and isn't that hilarious? Whereas the state only demanded I attend in body, my family demanded I attend with all of myself. Now that is powerful power!

As a parent myself, though, this has changed. Unlike my parents, I have a wide definition of what might be called education but see almost none of it reflected in these schools. So I don't feel my son should spend his days dealing with the ingrained idiocy and ideology of schooling.

My son is bright in so many ways. But, for the most part, none of those ways are the subject of his so-called education. This is of no matter to his schools or the state. He must attend — or we face the intrusion of the most horrible state institution, social services. Our decision not to send our son to school so he can learn and do different kinds of things — that is, be a human being — could be construed as negligent parenting, punishable by jail and worse.

And, in California, no one under 18 can legally work without having passed some state exam proving you've mastered their curricula. This is true madness to me: to deny his right to earn money without giving money in turn is downright egregious. If my son is legally not allowed to work — and I'm not taking about child labor laws; my son is 16 — then the state should be providing the income that he could be generating. The fact that this is never mentioned, never an issue, never on a ballot, never part of any politician's platform tells you everything: it is simply the norm. And nothing is more powerful that entering the status of the norm.

As parents, we have no choice in the matter. Sure, resources allowing, we can send my son to private school or, the better option, home school. But both private school and home schooling are still under the yoke of the state's force and, worse, its vehement stupidity — those darned mandated syllabi that demands my son regurgitate various forms of math equations.

Now, perhaps that doesn't sound so tyrannical. But I sometimes think of it from my son's perspective: his body and time is fundamentally controlled by the state for an alarming percentage of his life. And not only is he not learning a thing from their syllabi, he's made to feel bad about himself as the core of these curricula are reading and math, the two things his dyslexic, dyscalculiac self sucks at. And there's nothing he can do about it. The state is fucking up my kid and both he and I are helpless to do anything about it. It's infuriating.

These, then, are the lessons I try to teach my son about school. School, especially in California, is the tyranny of morons backed by a police state apparatus. Know that. And then figure out how to make your way through it without making your life worse — how to do minimal work but make it seem like you're trying; when to fake being sick so you're liberated at least for a bit; how to turn assignments into something that serves your own interests such as learning new software or starting a business. This, I tell him, is the only lesson from school: learning to operate in a system run through with idiocy and enforced by morons with real power over you.

9.13.2020

Standing before My Bookshelves & Bathing in the Delirium of Duration, Memory, & Sense Making


My new well appointed home library. Please note: I am not a bibliophile. I am not "proud" of my books; they are not signs of how learned I am or what I've accomplished. Frankly, I'd just as soon not have any — were I not me. No, these books on shelves are intensely private, my memory externalized and splayed there before me. At times, these shelves repulse me, like seeing my own entrails. Other times — and usually — they delight me, this undulating of my own becoming glittering and glimmering, all this sense making, with and without me.


I was forced to move a month ago. Such is the casual cruelty of a housing market. In my latest pad, I have lots of room. So much, in fact, that I am able to dedicate an entire room — albeit a very small room — to my books. I even added a comfy chair, ottoman, reading lamp (with a bulb whose color I can change), and small table for my cocktail and such.

Anyway, I found myself sitting in that chair just gazing at my books, my eyes scanning the spines, reading both individual titles and taking in the gestalt — a gestalt that remains radically particular to these books and me (gestalt is always the particularity of a generality, isn't it?). And I was struck, nearly knocked over, by the complexity, volume, and variety of what I was taking in — the sheer volume, yes, but that coupled with the velocity of commingling, of relationships between and among all those ideas, people, phrases, feelings, images all conjoining, colliding, cruising by, forging networks and associations of every sort and all through time, all these narratives of my becoming, of their becoming, of my trajectory, my present, all these narratives of them and me at once possible, mythical, actual, and always multiple —  a body without organs, a Matthew Ritchie painting.

 

Matthew Ritchie illustrates my experience of standing before my bookshelves — an experience which borders on chaos but is defined by a complex act of remembering and making sense. In fact, the experience marks the juncture of memory and intellect, the point at which you can't separate the two.
 

As my eyes followed the line of books, each one stood up as a thing, an object that's been in my world, inflecting it just so. I was inundated with fragments of images — how I carried it around (or didn't); where it laid its head, Husserl's "Ideas" suddenly in my back pocket (I selected it for its size), on a bar, on a desk in that studio on 22nd St. All these things crisscrossed with memories of places, feelings, people, experiences, each book a metonymy, a point continuous with other points, with a life rife with romance, ideas, bodies, things — where I was living, who I was dating, what I was drinking, what I was doing and feeling. This is of course the way of all things — books are not special in that way: they are not just reminders. They are our memory externalized, right there. (A metonymy is something that is continuous with a thing or event. In films, we see someone raise a knife and in the next shot, we see blood dripping down the wall: that blood is a metonymy, continuous with, and constitutive of, the murder via knife. Should you care, synecdoche is a part that stands in for a whole — as in "I have 50 head of cattle"; metaphor bridges distinct trajectories — rather than seeing blood after seeing the knife, the film cuts to lightning.)

But books are not like other things. For example, we put them all together on shelves so we can see them all at once. The fact is I don't have many things in general — and certainly not that I line up like this. I have a good bar, it's true, where my booze beckons; I do like to sit in front of it, too, as I consider my appetite and the possibilities for an evening. Other than my booze, though, I have a few sweatshirts that hang on some hooks; shirts on hangers I rarely notice; several works of art hung here and there; and a few knickknacks from my son scattered around the house. Books on a shelf stand out in our lives, creating this intense condensation of things and memories and more, this panoply of associations and thoughts splayed before us. I imagine that this is what some people, famously some women, must feel when they scan their closet of clothes — I've seen it in movies! — all these memories along with all these inflections of themselves, all these possibilities for the day, for the night, for life. (Books and clothes are in fact similar in the way they inhabit us as we inhabit them.) Bookshelves, like closets, are dizzying. 

Just perusing the spines, I was enthralled. Delirium lurked as this undulating, near-chaotic flow of images, ideas, and sensations poured over me. But there was this other force, this other event, happening at the same — I was sorting, connecting, making myriad connections at infinite speed, this juncture of memory and intelligence. Standing in front of my bookshelves, I experienced these two registers at once: a torrent of images and affect alongside the event of sense making. O, it's humbling to  experience the speed and prodigy of sense making that carries on elaborate operations without my control. Standing there, I remember and process — I make sense of all this data, both visible and invisible, past and present — just as I breathe. 

So many layers, speeds, and trajectories. So many arguments being made, unmade, remade. Multiple senses being forged, new and old, coherent and not — some with me, most without me. To stand there before these shelves is to be taken up by these forces and events — and, I have to say, it feels downright decadent. What a luxury, what a treat, to let all this play over me without purpose, without telos: to just  bathe in the teem.

This experience is not just memories but memory itself. That is to say, these are not just recollections; this is memory. Memory is not a repository; it's an organizing and processing of events, ideas, feelings, bodies, a mode of making relations of varied durations. Memory is not in the past per se; in fact, memory is necessarily in the present. How else could you remember? Memory is the duration of things from the past, those events still happening now. If they stopped, you wouldn't remember. Memory is the present experience of the duration of past events.

Meanwhile, the books carry on without me, indifferent to my memory, creating their own connections — Nietzsche talking to Socrates, of course, but also to Lispector, Houllebecq, Badiou, Hunter Thompson, Bruno Schulz, Frank O'Hara. Can you imagine what Ginsberg and Kant are saying to each other? Books speak with other books in all sorts of ways — through figures and phrases, ideas and notions, moods and affect. If I were not standing in front of these books, they'd still make all kinds of sense. Books always talk to each other out of earshot, enjoying conversations we can't imagine, in registers equally obtuse. (This is another way clothes and books are related, just as my books actively forge connections among themselves regardless of me, clothes in a closet don any number of ensembles to one's liking or not.)

Standing there, I become another conduit within the mix, another text with its own connective, textural, textual tissues. Some connections flow through me as I become their conduit, Nietzsche meeting Burroughs at the party that is my experience, metabolism, and sense making. My particular way of going opens up channels, flows that might not have existed without me. I am an inflection point as these connections use my flesh as their meeting ground, my neurons their stepping stones, their meeting place for mutual exploration. I am surely not the one in control here, even as I process and sense make at infinite speed — sorting, combining, connecting, rejecting.

Needless to say, books on their own — not even assembled on shelves — are odd creatures, unlike other things. Sure, they're things in as much as they're material we touch and feel. But they exist, mostly, to deliver something other than themselves — ideas, sensations, figures, styles. Which is one reason one's own books are so strange: their invisible offerings are made flesh. I know Gadamer's "Truth and Method" not just as set of ideas, not just as a style of thinking and writing, but as this particular book — this edition, sure, but this actual book with my scribbles, stains, tears. This makes my own bookshelves fundamentally different from a bookstore. 

Of course, if I lose this book, I don't lose Gadamer's ideas. Books, then, operate in multiple registers — like Jesus, books are body and soul: when their body goes, their soul persists. Each book is an object and a set of ideas, a juncture of flesh and concept, and hence enjoys different, even disjunctive, temporalities — as a thing, the book is mortal; as ideas (and styles, moods, notions), it is immortal. Books flourish in multiple registers at once. They're these dusty, more or less beautiful objects, run through with associations, soy sauce, and sweat. And, in the same breath, they fall away leaving so much in their wake — perspectives, styles, modes, moods, notions, figures, ideas, gestures. A book is a bound infinity that undulates in multiple registers that may or may not intersect each other.  

Now add the particularity of my books, these books here, and we introduce even greater temporal and affective complexity. I have associations with that particular edition of Husserl's "Ideas" that are embodied — my body, that book, these places, these situations. And while Husserl's ideas may not be fundamentally tethered to these bodies, I nonetheless do have an embodied relationship to those ideas. That is to say, my reckoning of Husserl as a 28 year old in San Francisco is a memory that simultaneously intersects and diverges from my embodied experience of this particular book's thingness. While a book's ideas may be immortal, my experience of those ideas enjoy a particular duration, entwined and embodied by me.

So when I remember Husserl's book here and there and who I was dating and what I was drinking, I also have memories of my understanding of Husserl's ideas. And this memory mixes with those other memories but also mingles in another register, constantly interacting with my embodied experience of other ideas throughout my life. I may remember thinking Husserl was saying such and such — how I came to believe that, how that understanding of that idea mingled with all the other ideas I had from other books — even as my understanding of Husserl changes. 

Now, if I were writing an academic essay, that memory of an understanding of Husserl may be more or less irrelevant. But standing in front of my bookshelf, those memories are all fluttering about. There are all these memories, these durations of things and versions of myself coming to all these different ideas, all happening at the same time at different speeds. As I stood there, I suddenly understood — which is to say, I experienced — the juncture of memory and intelligence, memory as sense making and sense making as memory, a chiasm among diverse eddies and spirals.

What an utterly odd, uncanny, and exhilarating experience it is to sit before these bookshelves, this stirring flood of flesh and feeling, of ideas and notions, the speeds and intensities of time as turns of phrase and interpretive techniques and ways of going flow through these versions of me in different registers and rhythms at once — all while the books themselves perform pirouettes of sense in my periphery. The effect is peculiar, beautiful, unsettling in the best way. Standing there, I am an active node within a vast network of networks, this precise juncture of memory and intellect, of recollection and sense making to which I am privy and not, where I am as much thinker as thought. To stand before my books is to stand with my very becoming as it vibrates with the becoming of the world — and it is sumptuous, vertiginous, delirious.

9.01.2020

It's Your Relation to Things, Not the Thing, that Matters


Just because we all like the same thing doesn't mean we have much in common. I have no interest whatsoever in belonging to a Deleuze reading group. In fact, few things repel me with such vigor.
What interests me, attracts me, is the relationship to things. I may have more in common with your relation to ballet than someone else's relation to Deleuze even though I know nothing of ballet. It's all the relation, the way of standing towards things.

I read Deleuze. You read Deleuze. So it seems we have something in common. And no doubt we do. But if you relate to Deleuze by parsing his stance towards Hegel or treat him and his texts as dogma, well, I'm going to run away. What I look for in the world, what interests and engages and finally attracts me, is one's relationship to a thing — not the thing itself.

Unfortunately for me, this is not how we organize the social. For instance, dating apps ask for your interests — hiking, travel (everyone loves to travel, it seems), yoga, feminism (can you be interested in feminism but be opposed to it, whatever that means?), films, food (food has to be the oddest one — not cooking, not fine food, not Asian street food, but food). The assumption, of course, is that if you like hiking and feminism and someone else says they like hiking and feminism, then you have something in common and may be a good match. Algorithms are defined by such things. There are even dating apps that are dedicated to a given interest (the most horrific sounding one has to be Meet Mindful which begins by asking you to choose from two of the following: yoga, spirituality, volunteering, green living, mindfulness, travel, personal growth, conscious diet, meditation, fitness, creative arts. Oy vey.).

Now, this can of course make sense. I think of, say, a Meet Up for knitting: you want to share insights and experiences around it — tips, excitement, shared passion. The relation one has to knitting is more or less irrelevant in this context. What you're looking for during those weekly few hours is someone who shares this niche passion of yours so you can discuss it, learn, teach, share. And then go home.

But in a dating app? For friends? These are intimate relationships that involve entire ways of going, distributions of humor and seriousness, of passion and indifference. For instance, I like teasing and being teased by my friends and lovers. For me, it's a sign of intimacy but it's premised on an assumption of irony — that everything is finally silly as it all dissolves into the infinite flux of it all. So all my interests and quirks are tease-worthy as they're finally so much pretension in the face of the infinite cosmic flux. To the surprise of few, this has proven the downfall of many romantic relationships. My one relationship that lasted the longest — my 14 year marriage — did in fact have a shared inclination for irony.

This is to say: what matters isn't the things, it's the relations to the things. Please note that I am not saying that those in a relationship must have the same relation to life. What I'm saying is that how these relations interact with each other matters more than the fact that both parties "like" the same thing.

For instance, let's say we both "like" to hike. But I like taking my time strolling through the mountains; I stop and linger; I feel no need to get to the top. I feel alive when I do this. In fact, I feel so alive doing it I list it on my dating profile (I would never, in fact, do such a thing). You list hiking, too. But, for you, to like hiking means you won't feel satisfied until you get to the top of the mountain. And then, tomorrow, you want to get to the top of another mountain. I see the mountain as a playground; you see it a something to conquer. We both love hiking. But we have fundamentally different relationships to it. (To avoid this, I stopped saying I like to hike; I say I like to stroll. But this will to qualify with language — my particular relationship to language — is its own point of divergence from would-be lovers.) 

This is one reason I avoid people who declare they read the same things I do. I have absolutely no interest in being part of a Deleuze reading group as I have my relationship to him and his texts — which I relish as I relish art and music, as something that delights me and incites me to see the world anew. But if you read Deleuze to master his concepts, to counter Hegel, to know how he is accelerationist or not, a Marxist or not, an anarchist or not, I'm just not interested. Such conversations bore me to death. There's nothing wrong if you read Deleuze like that but that's just not how I read him. I take my pleasure; you take yours. Sharing each other's readings of Deleuze delights neither of us so why try? Deleuze alone won't save us.

Or take drugs and drinking. The people with whom I've have had the least issues are those who abstain, not on principle but from lack of appetite. But when I've dated people who also claim to enjoy drinking and drugs but have a different relation than my own, all sorts of problems arise. For example, people who "like" drugs but see them as, say, a guilty pleasure or temporary flight from "natural" being take note with how I see (and consume) them, namely, as just more fodder for living, not fundamentally different than books, kale, or hikes — stuff to be incorporated into a life of vitality as need and desire arise but are by no means necessary (I'd have problems with devout psychonauts or addicts, as well — and for the same reasons, although differently played out.)

What I am interested in is people who relate to anything the way I relate to Deleuze or booze and drugs — who enjoy it not as dogma or something to master but as something that delights and incites and, simultaneously, doesn't matter at all. The fact is I have more in common with someone who reads ballet as I read Deleuze — even though I know nothing about ballet and he knows nothing about Deleuze. What matters, what creates my connection to another person, is how their relation anything meshes with my relation to things. The particular thing is more or less irrelevant.

I say more or less because, sure, the thing matters. I know very few people who share my love of Deleuze and have a relationship to him that I enjoy. There were three such people but one of them just died — a death that resonates all the more as the connection is so rare. I cling to the remaining two for, should they disappear, I'll be left alone with my Deleuze. That is not the end of the world but it can be, at times, a cruel fate — to love something in such a way and not be able to share it with anyone. That said, if I had no one, I'd still not join a Deleuze reading group.

This is all the more reason to focus on relations, not things. What grabs me at a party or first date is not that someone loves this or that; what grabs me is how they stand towards those things. If they're very serious about their Buddhism, I am immediately turned off. This doesn't mean she can't love it, be deep into, take classes, read everything. But, for me, I want my partner to have a fundamentally ironic view of things — to love whatever it is but believe, at the same time, that everything gives way, including the ol' Buddha. If she thinks said Buddha is the one that matters — or Jesus, Nietzsche, hiking, yoga, veganism — and, in turn, finds my irony heretical, I have no choice but to turn away. To deny my relationship to things is to deny my very life for we are not just what we consume but how we consume.

And, in turn, the seriously religious — whether it's Buddhism or Judaism — have to turn away from me and my irony to maintain their way of going. If she's so serious about this Buddha and has no irony, she not only has no interest in me — even though I'm fond of the big old fat laughing Buddha — she is metabolically repulsed. Sure, we both "enjoy" reading Lao Tzu and contemplating being here now. But that's irrelevant as life is not a series of thing; it's a way of taking up things.

I hesitate to enter this territory but we see this insistence on things rather than relations in the ascendancy of identity politics. What matters, we're told, is that someone is a certain color, gender(s), sexual orientations, religion, nationality. And, sometimes, these do matter. But, for example, does the fact that the president is a woman more important than how she stands towards, say, abortion rights, war, the police state, the tyranny of mandated school syllabi?

Oh, having an ironic relationship to life can be lonely! I'd sure enjoy having an ironic president, regardless of race, gender, or religion. I'd love to see an ironic Kirk steering the Enterprise. I'd welcome an ironic lover into my life. Because if the president, Kirk, or my would-be girlfriend all love Deleuze, I might be intrigued but that, alone, does not suffice. What I relish is their relation to life. Now I'm not exactly sure what a dating app for ironists would look like but I'm definitely curious. My assumption is there'd be no one on it which, in the end, might be the perfect dating app for me.

Life is not things. Life is how we stand towards things. Life is an event, a happening, a way of taking things up, of consuming them, making sense of them: life is 4D, not 3D. Life is style, manner, modes of going. Things may entice, repel, incite, inspire, kill, educate. But such things still pale in comparison to the wonder, beauty, and joyful complexity of how we relate to things.

8.29.2020

Nietzsche, Socrates, Foucault, Larry David: On the Philosophy of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"


"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a philosophical show. It deploys a certain vision of how the individual stands towards the world — towards its written and unwritten rules, towards other people, towards friends, towards romance. It's a show of ethics.

No doubt, one could argue that every show does this. "Friends," for instance, deploys a vision of the world — what a friend is, what romance is, what work is and how to stand towards it. But unlike "Curb," "Friends" never explicitly addresses its stance, never goes out of the way to question other stances, never offers any alternative ways of going. "Friends" offers us the ideology of what we might call a heteronormative, achingly dull way of life — which may involve a philosophy but the show is not philosophical per se.

"Curb," on the other hand, focuses on one character who stands towards the world in a clearly different way  — and that difference is precisely what drives the show. If "Friends" gives us characters acting on a stage of accepted terms, "Curb" moves those terms to the foreground. "Friends" is propaganda, offering its ideology as the norm; "Curb" is philosophical, opening up fissures within the normative ethical while proffering a different ethical stance. (And, yes, I am conflating "Curb" and Larry David just as I'm conflating Plato's dialogues with Socrates; more on this below.)

Like Plato's Socrates, "Curb" gives us Larry, a character who interacts with the world in a fundamentally different way. And, like Socrates, Larry refuses inherited terms, questioning them at every turn and even more adamantly when he confronts someone who is so sure of themselves. But whereas Socrates is really only concerned with big ideas about truth, morality, language, politics, Larry takes on the micro interactions of the social.

This is a dramatic break from Socrates. David is not concerned with big questions. On the contrary, he solely focuses on the stuff of the everyday. When he's in front of Nancy Pelosi, the big issue for him is dry cleaners — who get away with all kinds of things! For David, "philosophy" is no different than anything else — it's a way of standing in the world driven by desire, stupidity, appetite. In this sense, David channels Nietzsche who also rejects big questions for the matters of everyday life such as diet, weather, and recreation. It's this world that matters, David and Nietzsche tell us, not the philosophical life or after life.

Like Nietzsche, David is a radical individualist. Which is to say, he avoids what Nietzsche calls the herd or mob mentality. The show skewers those who take stands, who take sides, whether they're the Ayatollah or zionists. He is not on anyone's side — which is often the source of conflict with a world that tends towards mobs, tends towards fixed belief systems. I think of Kramer in the AIDS walk, refusing to wear a ribbon — and being beaten up by this mob of "do-gooders." That's the David position (even though he didn't write that episode).

Or this scene from "Curb" in which Larry, not knowing what a baptism is, tries to save a man he believes is being drowned — and triggers a war of sides. Note the particularly vile portrayal of both sides, Jews and Christians. And then look at his face at the end: it's a look that implicates himself: What have I done? But if that were all it expressed, this would be a sit com about a buffoon. As it's a philosophical show, his look says: What's wrong with these people? And then: I don't care either way. Can I just go home? This is ugly. In this one scene, we are given an entire ethical philosophy.



This episode, in what is seemingly a small moment, reveals the depths of Larry's individuality and, finally, his social isolation. He and Cheryl, his wife, are packing for the wedding — he's yet to disrupt the pre-wedding baptism. Larry is trying to understand the Christian will to proselytize the world, comparing it to demanding others eat lobster. Eat lobster! Eat lobster! You should eat lobster! Cheryl, in a devastating look of dismissal I know all too well from my own life, utters, "Lobster and religion. I really don't see the similarities."


But that's Larry's whole point! They are the same!!! This life is nothing but things we do, driven by desire and will, not truth or holiness. Eating lobster and believing in Jesus: for David, they are not different in kind. They share a fundamentally common fabric of existence — namely, an all too human will and action. Life, he tells us, is what we do not what we believe. What seems to be a casual, even heretical, conflation of lobster and religion is in fact a profound philosophical reordering of the world. And Cheryl's absolute lack of understanding leaves Larry out on a ledge, utterly alone.

If I may offer a personal aside, this is an experience I know all too well from my own life and failed romances and fundamental social isolation. Parrying the dominant discourse which masks itself as self-evident truth is exhausting and, finally, isolating. But David, unlike myself or Nietzsche or Zarathustra, insists on social participation. He does not offer or seek a line of flight, no mountain top where the air is too cold for others. No, he remains within the social fold despite never fitting in. And while Buddhist detachment might offer him a way to exist within the social with greater peace, that fails him too as we are run through with the social, all the way down. There is no outside.



And so, as there is no outside, Larry operates at the limits of inherited social discourse, finding his freedom, as it were, in the rupturing of assumption. All rules are up for grabs. When he and Cheryl are told there might be a terrorist attack in LA and she says they have to stay in the city anyway for the NRDC fundraiser, he suggests maybe he can leave — and, from the look on her face, we know he's broken some rule about romance and eternal love, as well as about political commitment, a double faux pas. This comes up again when they renew their vows and Larry wants exemption from the eternity clause. Many no doubt feel he's just being an unromantic lout; I am sure no one blames Cheryl. But Larry is in fact making a radical move, breaking the terms of inherited romantic discourse even at great risk to his emotional well being.


In many ways, David takes up the mantle of Michel Foucault, revealing the terms of discourse that dictate our lives. For that is where power exercises itself: in the everyday, the ways in which we are coerced by custom and assumption. There is no free exchange of ideas, say Foucault and David: we are always already enmeshed within the micro-mechanics of power. Indeed, that's where we feel power most intimately — in the ways we unknowingly conduct ourselves, assuming that's just the way things are, what Foucault calls being "in the true." David refuses such inherited rules of social behavior, offering other modes, other logics, different ways of standing towards each other. He is a freedom fighter, refusing to acquiesce to the terms of the social majority! He is the social assassin.



Rather than situating himself as a member of the herd blindly following the rules, David, like Zarathustra or Neo seeing the code, operates at the level of rule making itself. He sees that the social is dictated by rules that are more or less arbitrary and driven by some combination of idiocy, greed, and desire. When he walks in a room, he doesn't assume what everyone else assumes. Rather, he assumes that because rules are arbitrary, he can call them into question and even rewrite them. Needless to say, this makes him anathema — whether to Gil's wife or to the Ayatollah (in Season 9, the Ayatollah puts out a fatwa on Larry).



From one angle, Larry is a kind of ethics police. He considers a rule, assesses it, then decides if it's a rule worth following or not. As such, he runs the risk of being an ethical enforcer himself — a bit like Socrates who roams the city looking for people who think they know things then argues with them until they no longer think they know things. Both David and Socrates are kinds of cops, policing the world for transgressions. They are certainly both what my mother would call a nudge.

But, like Socrates, David is an ironist. Sure, he takes positions, but he's not a zealot, even if his behavior often becomes zealous. This is where the role of "Curb" comes in: it renders even his most zealous moments not serious. At his most adamant, the clown music kicks in. Larry's position in the show, like Socrates' in Plato's dialogues, renders him fundamentally ironic — making claims and undoing them in the same gesture. (The greatest irony of Plato's Socrates: he says not to write — in words you're reading; hence Socrates writes and doesn't write at the same time. And, let me say, George Costanza is a poor interpretation of Larry as George lacks irony. George has Larry's refusal to follow inherited rules, yes, but unlike Larry, George is never ironic; his face and expression remains univocal whereas Larry's is always double — saying it and not saying it.) 

The David philosophy is fundamentally an ethics — a posture of standing in, with, and towards the world. We live in a social, he tells us, that is inevitably defined by the micro mechanics of power driven by all too human idiocy and herd mentality. But David tempers that Nietzschean-Foucauldian position with echoes of Socratic irony. Where Nietzsche proffers the strength and health of the individual as a remedy to the herd, Larry offers a relentless contestation and rewriting of social rules. And yet rather than those rules being the birth of a new order, they are ironic as they, too, are inevitably idiotic. 

No one, not even the viewer, thinks Larry is ever the one who is "right." Such is how thorough this show is: it's never serious even as it proffers a radical ethical philosophy. No one believes he is the ethical one, a social freedom fighter, or a philosopher. The show ensures that he is never taken seriously. It's irony and idiocy all the way down.

8.20.2020

Life's Too Short: In Memoriam of Felipe Gutterriez & in Honor of Mentors


I wasn't going to share this as it seems so personal. But two things occurred to me: One, many of my former students were also students of his. And two, and perhaps more importantly, I want to introduce the figure of the mentor into our vocabulary, our discourse, our thinking. For it is an all too rare yet profound experience.

The fact is as we've privileged "democracy" so much, the whiff of hierarchy seems distasteful. And with this shift, the very possibility of the mentor has been moved to the shadows — if not all together eliminated.

I had good, even great, teachers in high school and college. I learned to write solid, lucid expository, critical essays in high school from the great Chuck Aschman. In college, I learned Foucault from the brilliant Peter Stallybrass and his TA, Gerry O; and Gadamer from the generous brilliance of Stephen Dunning. But none were mentors; none heeded me and considered me and lead me this way or that. They gave me the goods — great goods, mind you — and were done.

When I first met Felipe at Cal, he did not imagine himself as anyone's mentor. It was his first year as a professor having just finished his doctorate in that very program. So I imagine he saw himself as a friend, a cohort. But I didn't give up as I knew he had things to offer me — his calm yet wry disposition; his quick, hyper articulate mind; his breadth of knowledge all enticed me.

And, eventually, he'd become my mentor — offering me advice and suggestions without my asking, steering me actively towards texts, ideas, and opportunities. As we both got older, he became more paternal towards me. After not having talked to him in ages, I was fortunate to reconnect with him over a series of decadent dinners where I was sure to nestle up beside him to bask in his wisdom, insight, and generosity — and to eek out more from my mentor — more consideration, more attention, more love. I was, and remain, hungry for it.

Mind you: it's not that he'd tell me what to do, like a stern parent. It's that he'd participate in my thinking, seeing where it might lead, how it might go. He'd not command me so as to shut me down. On the contrary, he leaned into my thinking to open it up.

The fact is: I was reborn via Felipe. I came to grad school so cocky, so sure of myself. And, for years, I sailed by like that. Slowly but surely, though, he led me to understand that I in fact did not understand, that my thinking was too closed — and my certainty too self-oppressive. He introduced me to autopoiesis and Deleuze and my life changed so radically. Meanwhile, for others, he introduced Stanley Cavell. But not me. Sure, I like Cavell. But Felipe knew what I needed and it was Deleuze. And by the time I was done with my formal education with him, I was no longer the same person. I was better — less cocky, more open, more generous, more playful. I am the thinker, reader, writer, and person I am today thanks to Felipe.

I know many of my former students and I wrestle this. They can't decide if I'm their friend or teacher; we both act like both. And I am surely to blame as I've always bled that line, acting chummy and intimate in a way one would not imagine a mentor to act. But as I've gotten older, I've become more comfortable with offering my two sense (yes, I know it's cents) without qualifying it with, "Well, in my opinion...."

But I fear I'm not very good at it. I like to imagine I'm a great teacher. I can get people excited about ideas and texts and explain them well. But as a mentor, I've fallen short. I too easily lean into friendship as, frankly, I don't see myself as wise, as insightful, as being worthy of the mentor status. But I'm trying. And I have Felipe to thank for it for he was everything a mentor can be.

I love him dearly; I miss him intensley; and I am so very grateful to him, in perpetuity.

8.14.2020

All These Images of Time: On "Mad Men"


I could begin anywhere. For instance, with the persistent theme of the "return of the repressed" — the way Don's and America's pasts make themselves known as they disrupt the shiny glean of a consumerist now. Think of Don's "meltdown" in the Hershey pitch: he just can't tell that narrative of the happy childhood they need so badly to sell their chocolate. Instead, they get Don talking about a darker America, born in violence and neglect. The return of the repressed is a fold in time, a past rearing its head in the now, often indirectly and always according to the ways of this or that person.

But I choose this one scene — Megan singing Zou Bisou for Don's surprise birthday party — precisely because it's so well known and yet the drive of its drama is complex, exceeding the casual thumbs up and down, the offhand, "She looks so great...." And so I ask you this: What is the drama of this scene?

We could say it's Megan's lack of propriety, that she's so socially oblivious and self-absorbed that she can't read the room and becomes a clown — a kind of Michael Scott (from the American version of "The Office"). But that doesn't seem right at all; Megan has none of Michael Scott's pandering insecurities fueled by a sense of propriety gleaned from mass discourse, making him oblivious to his immediate situation. The comedy in "The Office," which is dark, is someone so desperate to belong but the only way he knows is from watching movies, making for so many mishaps. That's not Megan.

Nor is it the architecture of this scene — or show. There is no fixed ground here, no Jim mugging for the camera with that unbearable, knowing smirk. "Mad Men" is fundamentally decentered, free of a ground that knows once and for all. So while the drama of this scene does indeed turn on modes of propriety, it is not a matter of her obliviously breaking rules while the rest of us look on in horror. Rather, the drama these temporal trajectories refusing to coalesce, these modes of becoming moving along lines of different speed, rhythm, and intensity. In this scene, we are witness to all these different times at once expressed in faces around the room, each a different image of time lived through — Bert Cooper, the British Pryces, the gay black emcee. These modes of going inevitably intermingle as they do and will every day in this living — coalescing, clashing, folding, and sometimes just passing each other, each oblivious to the travels of the other. What makes this scene so poignant is not that one character is acting without propriety; it's that we see all these different ways of going that don't as much clash per se as yield shimmering dissonances.

Megan is not oblivious. She simply, or not so simply, inhabits a mode of becoming that is different. Of course, that's possible in any social setting. I spend much of my life inhabiting a different mode of becoming than those around me, making for tragic-comic events all the time. But what this scene, and "Mad Men" in general, gives us are these disjunctures of, in, and as time. It's not just a case of different propriety, a spatial matter of two different modes occupying the same space. No, it's the dissonance of rapid change among these varied modes of becoming, each with their own distribution of sense and propriety, all under conditions of rapid change now known as "the 60s."

We know this experience personally from dealing with our families — parents but also grandparents and sometimes great grandparents, although, as we spawn later and later in life, fewer and fewer of us get to enjoy great grandparents. My great grandmother died at 101, in Co-Op city in Bronx, NY. My mother had her three children by the time she was 27;  I was the last. We'd go to great grandma's little apartment in this housing development where she inevitably made kreplach which my mother always described as delicious but such a potsch!

My point is not that we all live with different customs because, well, duh. I'm saying we live in different times, different temporal trajectories that distribute time as they distribute bodies and mores. There's a Jerry Seinfeld joke that whatever parents were wearing at their last great moment becomes what they wear all the time as time slows to a near halt. I felt that that in that little, kasha scented apartment in Co-Op city: of all the places in the world this Jewish woman from Poland had been, time dragged to a halt here. And so of course she made kreplach for everyone.




Now, more often than not, time is presented to us as spatial, something people live on rather than as. Think of "All in the Family." Archie is from one univocal time; Meathead from another; and so they fight, like warring nations. In that show, time is a place one inhabits. Conflict is the most common mode but there's nostalgia, too, à la "The Wonder Years." In both cases, time is a place we visit, not something we are.

"Mad Men" gives us a show about the 60s that takes a whole other tack, proffering a fundamentally different conception of time. It doesn't give us a show about conflicting modes of going but of changing modes of going. It's focus is not inter-generational conflict, even if that arises here and there, mostly between Peggy and her mother. No, the show is this experience of rapid change in which said change happens at different paces in different ways for different people. The ensuing swirl is the very stuff of the show, its drama and pathos.

In "Mad Men," time is not external to living. On the contrary, time is all these lives happening at once, each in its own duration, rhythm, and intensity. If in "All in the Family," characters are either then or now — here or there — in "Mad Men," they are distinct temporal trajectories playing out this change according to their circumstances and metabolism — what Henri Bergson would call their duration.

Take Roger. He drops acid and has orgies with young hippies. But it's clearly not that Roger has left his own land and moved into this new territory. After all, Roger refuses to work with Honda because it's a Japanese company — and his friends died in the Pacific theater, dammit!  Look at the scene below: he's an acid in the roaring 60s but what does he see? The 1919 World Series. Time, here, is a fold.


Change, "Mad Men" argues, is not a uniform progression or march forward (or backward). Most of Roger's cohorts do not drop acid. Change, the show argues, is a process of different strata moving at different speeds, folding temporal trajectories at odd angles. These strata, these different layers and streams, flow through us; we are this assemblage of these flows, each of us multiple times just as we are time. Roger is not old or new; he is this time, Roger-becoming.

To wit, Roger's old school decadence folds neatly with the 60s drug infused free love, even if an abyss yawns between them as they get it on. It's not that Roger now lives in the new world of swinging hippies, saying yes as Meathead does in "All in the Family." Rather, Roger's particular mode of entitled decadence meshes with these aspects of hippy play, forming local harmonies while never quite merging per se. He is multiple; time is multiple. One stream of his multiplicity — his landed wealthy decadence — flows well, to a point, with newfound hippy decadence (which is itself a going backward as it goes forward, a return to Eden and even further back for, as Joni Mitchell tells us, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the Garden).

History, the show tells us, is lived through. It's not something that happens outside us; it happens as us. Each of us bears history in our own way, in our own time. Picture Pete's old money, his inherited entitlement, and his father's disdain for the new world of advertising just as Pete falls in love with LA and sideburns. Or Betsy's adamant clinging to a way things were — even as she begins taking psychology classes. Take the Heinz ad from Megan: beans spanning back to the Stone Age and on to the moon. And the moon, again, where Hilton wants to be — capitalism as spatializing time, all the better to occupy it. Betsy's father dies and returns, in the eyes of Sally, as her little brother, Gene. Joan wants nothing but a husband and, in the end, chooses business over a would-be marriage. It's not that she's liberated; it's that the possibility of this way of going finds expression in her, with her, as her. And, of course, Don — a man so thoroughly haunted by his past that he's never really present but as a symptom.

Such is history. It's not continental drifts and tectonic shifts — from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond! No, it's these different speeds and modes, all these rhythms and trajectories, at once.

The brilliance of "Mad Men" is that it breaks with the all-too-familiar narrative of the 60s in which we're all supposed to be catching up with this newfound enlightenment, even as some cling to their Dark Ages mentality (and even if Manson is a warning). I've been watching "The Great" on Hulu, a show about Catherine the Great, and while it is beautifully produced, the show has a position it doesn't question: the Enlightenment is good while the brutish, sexist, violent ways of the past are not. "The Great" is grounded by and with its assumption of Enlightened liberal good will which is a uniform march, a new land you either live in or don't. "Mad Men" offers no such thing.

The show doesn't have a position. It's not arguing for or against newfound sexuality, the 50s mode of child neglect, or racial integration. It is simply, or not so simply, following these different temporal flows as they play out. The show doesn't offer a fixed perspective; this is not a tale of humanity's progress or regress. Like the "Sopranos" on which he worked, Matthew Weiner assumes complexity as the basis of character and story.

"Mad Men," however, is much more complex in its relationship to time. "Mad Men" takes on Tony's return of the repressed — via Don but also via America — and offers so many other streams and trajectories, so many other temporal distributions and folds. For "The Sopranos," morality is lived through, local and complex, as fits its explicit subject: the mafia. "Mad Men," meanwhile, is nominally about advertising — and what is advertising but narratives, organizations of time, of cause and effect, stories of the past, present, future, and how this product and your desires fit into that tale, that temporal organization?

"Mad Men," with seeming ease, presents the complexity of time as ever multiple and lived through. It doesn't just give us a changing "culture" to which characters react. Rather, it present us characters as individuals becoming as a certain speed, rhythm, and intensity of time, of change. Culture, it argues, doesn't happen to us; we are as much agents as constituents. We are time, each of us, in our own time.

The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that time is not exterior to matter. Which is to say, there is not first the world of three dimensions to which time is added. Matter is four dimensional (at least) to begin with: it occupies space and time in such and such a way — length, width, height, duration (which includes rhythm). Clock time is spatial, the movement from this notch to that. But Bergson's time is all these durations at once, enduring as they do and will. All these images of time.

This is the great brilliance of the show: time is not an external term that characters react to. Time is their various and shifting modes of behavior, their embodiment of time and time as their embodiment. "Mad Men" revels in the complexity of time, the shifting speeds of change that each character embodies and performs.



This all makes me think of the achingly brilliant "Deadwood." Like "Mad Men," the series presents us a time of great change, namely, the imminent statehood of the Dakotas. But, like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" focuses on the ethical strata and complexity of its situation — frontier America — and all the ways people can and do interact when there is no clear top down order, when accepted propriety holds little water.

But then, 13 years after its third and final season aired, we watch "Deadwood: the Movie" and see that David Milch has changed the terms of the image from ethical to temporal complexity. To watch that film is to endure so many times at once, dripping with all the attending pathos (I, for one, cried throughout, time all so much to bear). I'd call it all unspeakable were it not for Milch's demand and gift for the effable. The film is something to behold — all these times lived through by characters we've come to know and now see again, time passed in such and such a way for each. As Jonathan Englander writes, "with the few scenes he could spare for each character and storyline, [Milch] delivered a pointillist meditation on time — all the great, yawping changes it brings, all the things that stand immutable, and pretty much whatever lies in between."

The time image is not a flashback. All too often, the flashback is linear, univocal time: I am here but remember that over there. It's a spatial pointing to. No, the time image is duration itself writ on screen, as screen, a living through of each element in its own time, even within the same image. The time image is an assemblage of time, all these durations at once.

Look at pretty much any scene in "Mad Men" and you'll see all these times in their own speeds and rhythms. It's bewildering, a temporal kaleidoscope. Such is time, history, change: always multiple, always lived through. We are, all, images of time.

8.06.2020

The Ethics & Architecture of Pleasure (& the Dying Art of Enjoyment)


Pleasure marks a complex juncture in the world: it's intensely private and yet to experience pleasure is precisely to be occupied by something else — in this case, chocolate ice cream.

When we experience pleasure, what's our posture towards the world? How are we standing in and among the things, people, and forces of this life?

Imagine someone in a state of pleasure. Their eyes may be closed; they're unto themselves. But what's so incredible about this self-satisfaction is that it stems from being open, from feeling that nudge, the push and pull, of something else — the sun's warmth, horizon's expanse, lovers' lips, a song, image, thought, meal. To experience pleasure is, in some sense, to be occupied by something else.

Pleasure's a funny thing. It's an intensely private experience. It speaks to who I am, fundamentally: I am he who likes this; often these; sometimes those; never that.  In many ways, the discernment of my pleasure carves out my very space and trajectory through this life — these roads to these places with these people eating these foods with this soundtrack.

But, simultaneously, my pleasure is precisely the thing that undoes me as I am drawn first here, then there, seduced by these friends, these books, these ideas, these dumplings. My pleasure comes from my desire for, of, and with something — a something that pulls me, draws me to it, coerces me, seduces me, assaults me, beckons me. I am in the orbit of those things that bring me pleasure, that attract me. (Sometimes, the orbit can't keep and I crash into the things that bring me pleasure, swallowed by their metabolism. I believe this is what we call addiction, our subsumption by the forces that attract us. Sunburn, too.)

We are made and unmade in our pleasures. We are these machines of selection and delectation, these appetites being pulled this way and that as we eat our way through it all. Pleasure is not after-the-fact. It is of the fabric of existence. (It is not the only thing, of course; many things and forces make and unmake the world.)

Meanwhile, my pleasures are themselves made by bodies and forces other than me. Such is the basis of the Frankfurt School and other modes of ideology critique. Our desire, and ensuing pleasure, are created by often nefarious, or at least interested, and usually greedy forces. We don't come by our pleasures honestly, as it were; they're slipped to us by ideology's institutions such as the media. For instance, we may feel pleasure when we're skinny; but that pleasure, we're told, was sold to us by a patriarchy.

What an odd mode of criticism! Someone tells you that the pleasure you're experiencing isn't really your pleasure. You think you like Disney movies but you're just a foil of patriarchical ideology! Or: You think you like McDonald's but you're just a foil of the cow industry! 

This architecture of ideology critique mimics the Church and it's moral condemnation of sin. You think you like this or that but that desire comes from a nefarious place — for the Frankfurt school, it's capitalism; for the Church, it's the devil. In both instances, someone claims to know more about your pleasure than you do — and seeks, rather rudely, to disrupt it (which is truly a perversion — to get off stopping other people from getting off). Who are you, Adorno or Pope, to tell me my pleasures are false?

What's so poignant, so loaded, about pleasure is that the experience is private and thorough. I take pleasure from, in, and with the things I take pleasure from, in, and with. These may or may not overlap with everyone's, or anyone's, pleasure. But my pleasure remains my pleasure. It's not a choice I make; it's an experience that emerges from my body going with other bodies — Nietzsche, dumplings, gin, the ocean. As such, my pleasure is constitutive of me.

Pleasure marks this complex juncture, this ornate architecture of historical, libidinal, cultural, and metabolic forces and operations coalescing into a moment: this pleasure in me, of me, here and now (this ignores, for the moment, Freudian displacement in which the now is a performance of the past). And yet I am attracted to other bodies just as planets and other space stuffs are. We are pulled into the way of other things with varying degrees of intensity. We don't choose the things that bring us pleasure.  This is why we invented the unseemly figure of guilty pleasure.

The very notion of the guilty pleasure stems from this disjuncture between what we deem our choice and what we experience as our pleasure, a force that belies our presumed free will. We are drawn to things despite ourselves. We feel guilty because our pleasure doesn't coincide with our proclaimed moral tendencies or, more likely, our conceptions of ourselves. I am this kind of person so how and why am I so turned on by that?!? It may be a cinephile delighting in Bridget Jones, an indie music aficionado who gets jiggy with Britney, a Master of the Universe who likes to dress as a little girl, or a feminist who yearns to be tied up and spit on. 

While as a culture we tend to denigrate pleasure, feeling guilty about it, we love those with drive — Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, CEOs of all sorts. We consider them strong, dominant forces, those masters of the universe as Tom Wolfe might say. But what is drive other than a strong pull to something, an utter domination of that thing over us? Basketball occupied Michael Jordan so thoroughly that we can't even think them apart; he is occupied by the game.

This is no doubt true for perception in general. My senses are not active, despite our grammar which insists that I see. It's not as much that I see the flowers as those flowers wind their way into my body despite me: I can close my eyes, sure, but then I'm still under their yoke. But pleasure per se is particularly poignant mode within the perceptive experience. The flowers are not just winding into my body: they are moving me in a most intimate way. Pleasure is intertwining with this aspect of the world at a cellular level in which I cannot separate myself from that thing.

We may come by pleasure despite ourselves but we can learn to enjoy the things that attract us. Enjoyment is an art, one that is neglected — a neglect which I'd argue is indeed ideological. Modern consumerist capitalism — I hesitate to use this word as it's so loaded and nebulous but I assume you understand what I'm talking about — proffers so much pleasure. Everywhere we look, tasty things abound— burgers, cappuccinos, lovely blouses, enticing AirBnBs, TV out the yin yang, porn, that new car smell, and so on and on and on to what seems like infinity. And all of these things are more or less disposable, affording immediate pleasure then passing. So we seek it again and again and again. We all know someone who calms themselves by online shopping. It's the lure of pleasure that happens behind our back. And it's over in the flash of an Amazon unboxing. This is what propels our economy. We even have a name for it: the consumer index.


Just consider that word consumer for a moment. That is what has come to define our culture's path to pleasure — the ingesting, purchasing, and using up of something else. By casting our pleasure in light of consumption, we reduce the ecology of pleasure, that sumptuous intertwining, that being taken up by something else to a violent blip. Our consumerist culture moves from attraction to pleasure as quickly as possible: see the shiny thing, get it, fast! Barbara Kruger's piece articulates this perfectly: our identity — this pleasure that is so deeply our own — comes from shopping, from consuming.

Consumption is an attempt to wrest control back from the lack of control attraction demands. And it serves the needs of capital by propelling us to buy and buy again. But this consumption-pleasure architecture quashes the complexity and ethics of pleasure by skipping over the intimacy of intertwining with things. For between attraction — which happens behind our backs — and pleasure, there is another beautiful possibility: enjoyment.

To consume is to cast us in the light of active body, the agent, taking in the stuffs of the world. Enjoyment, however, speaks our intertwining with said stuffs: in the very word itself, we can't separate our private experience, our pleasure, from our going with this other body. To enjoy is not just to consume but to take pleasure in and with something else. And, as such, enjoyment is an ethical act — an opening up to the other with supreme generosity, respecting its every gesture, its every inflection, its texture, tone, timbre, style. To delectate is to respect the way of something — and to respect this encounter, the experience, this exquisite wonder of bodies taking each other up in the cause of pleasure.

With consumption, we are actors on a world that is there for our taking. But with enjoyment, we are going with the world, constitutive of it. When we enjoy something, we are this moment of the world, taking in things as a plant takes in sun and water; enjoyment moves us from agents on the world to aspects of the world, going with it, taking it in as it takes us in and on we go, making the world together. Consumption uses the world up. Enjoyment produces the world.

At a fundamental level, I respect people's pleasures. You like McDonald's, eating popcorn during a movie, Steven Spielberg, getting spit on? Beautiful, truly. I would never deny someone their pleasure — even if I reserve the right to condemn and prevent certain actions which may bring them pleasure such as, say, mutilating cats. But I see pleasure as your own business, even if your actions are not necessarily. Which is why I loathe both the Church and the Frankfurt School as they seek to judge my pleasure, a vile and insidious act.

But I do want to condemn the way the art of enjoyment has been neglected. We don't teach our children to delectate, to savor, to open themselves up to the textures of the world. We don't privilege the slow speed of enjoyment, the time it takes for something to wash over, in, and around us as we resonate with pleasure. No, I don't want to get between you and your pleasure. In fact, I want to amplify your pleasure by encouraging you to enjoy things more.

7.11.2020

On Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling



Just talking about one of my favorite books of all time as I discuss:
  • Kierkegaard's strange authorship
  • His stages on life's way — the aesthetic, ethical, religious one, religious two
  • Faith as the suspension of the ethical 
  • The knight of infinite resignation vs the knight of faith 
  • Kierkegaard's beautiful reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac
I cannot recommend this book any more ardently — it's so funny and smart and profound. Oh yes.

5.24.2020

Making Decisions in the Age of the Argument (video and audio)






Or audio, if you prefer:



In Part 1 (see below), I proffer the conditions of the contemporary moment, what I'm calling the Age of the Argument. There is no clear source of truth, no ground of certainty: all there are are arguments. It's not that some are false and some true; it's that all of them make claims, all of them are "true." So how do we make decisions?

That's the subject of this video. We're always making decisions without certainty — about what to eat, what films we like, what sex position to indulge in the moment. Things like what to believe about the corona virus are no different: we make decisions as individuals based on emergent factors and the needs and wants of our bodies. Rather than seeing truth or certainty, we make decisions based on our health and vitality, what serves us best (I borrow this from Nietzsche).

This, in turn, yields a different way of standing towards what we believe and towards others' beliefs. There is an ethics of rhetoric, an ethics of argument, that is dramatically different than morality. It's time, I believe, to use new tools of making sense that befit our times. By relying on antiquated tools of sense making that rely on certainty, we are creating a violent, bile filled culture.

5.21.2020

The Violence of Recognition

I had a conversation recently with a student of mine from 15 years ago. She rather casually, and not necessarily meaning to be provocative, referred to me as an asshole. This gave me pause — but not for the reasons you might think.

The fact is, for many years, I considered myself a certain kind of asshole. And, no doubt, I was. I was often flippant with feelings, my own and others. In any conversation, I quickly tried to prove myself smarter and more socially perverse than to whomever I was speaking. Somebody would say,  "I'm so excited I'm going to India for a month!" To which I'd inevitably reply, scowling, "Of your own volition?"  Yes, I took a certain pride in being an asshole — and wore it, like an asshole, as a badge of pride.

But people change. I've changed. I got older and less interested in being much of anything to anybody: I no longer need to be the smartest or most provocative person in the  room. In fact, I spent a year purposefully trying to be the most boring person in the room (which taught me a lot but was, well, boring). And I've experienced some things that have humbled me, made me more acutely aware of the pathos of life, the pain of existence many people carry. Where I never used to cry, now I cry all the time — and I love it. I love feeling deeply, resonantly, with all the joy, fear, loss, and pain of existence. This isn't depression. This is joy, an affirmation of the world's pathetic becoming — Spring's buds, Fall's decay, Winter's dearth, Summer's dehiscence. Anyway, I stand towards myself and others in a fundamentally different way than I used to.

And yet this young woman, in a gesture of social complicity, called me an asshole as a way to recognize me. She didn't mean anything bad. On the contrary, she was looking for easy complicity. Such is the presumed power of recognition: it articulates a seeming intimacy. When we turn to someone and say, "Oh, you in particular will love this," we are claiming to know that person so well we can become an extension of their taste.

But there is an aggression, a violence, in this recognition. As the word itself tells us, to recognize is not to see a person; it is to know a person again — to re-cognize. By definition, recognition is backwards looking. It takes up what's in front of you and rather than seeing how it's going right now, how it might go differently than you anticipate, you place it in a pre-existing category. When I was in grad school, I was suddenly delirious with Deleuze — an excitement I'd express. My fellow grads would casually mutter, Oh, that's just rehashed Bergson, or some such equally vacuous utterance. Grad students are taught to recognize, not to reckon.

This is in fact the cornerstone of our dominant epistemology. We teach classes on Freudian psychoanalysis and then ask students to recognize Freudian concepts in the films, books, and art they see. Look, there's Oedipus! There he is again. I see penis envy over here. Suddenly, the world of art is no longer actually seen, no longer proffering new worlds, forging new relationships, new ways the world can go. On the contrary, it is already known, examples of a world that's already happened.

This is what I refer to in my book as exemplary reading — making something an example of something else that already exists. We watch movies and define their genre: That's noir! Or we see them playing out patriarchy or the Oedipal complex or colonialism— things that pre-exist the film and are themselves not up for grabs, not to be interpreted. The film, then, is no longer something that creates its own school, its own concepts, its own set of associations: it is an example of something else. This is how we control the chaos of the event, of life as it transpires: we rely on anchors — buckets of things we take as true that we can then put new things into. This is postmodern; that's Renaissance; that's neoclassical. In this way, nothing is ever new. Everything is recognized.
 
Of course, recognition is not necessarily violent or even reductive. We can recognize things in surprising places, see ourselves or things we love in a work of art in such a way that we think about ourselves differently. Deleuze finds Francis Bacon in Egyptian bas-relief. In this case, recognition inaugurates the uncanny — the point at which we know and don't know something. We don't know it already; we know it again, that is to say, anew (repetition rather than recognition).

There can also be something comforting about plain old recognition. The flux of life is often difficult. I, for one, can feel lost, dazed and confused, not sure of who I am. It's a disconcerting feeling, to say the least. At such times, it can be so nice to be recognized — even by myself. Perhaps I'll put on some music I've always loved to recognize myself in that love (mind you, this can backfire when you don't feel that love anymore). The recognition can come from someone else, too. I've definitely lived through a few personal spiraling outs and been rescued by a friend telling me who I am, telling me things I already know about myself, giving me my legs back.

So I am not disparaging recognition per se. I am, however, trying to displace it as a cornerstone of how we know things — whether it's a film or another person. Because it can be so particularly violent to recognize another person. When this young woman, meaning no harm, so casually referred to me as an asshole, I felt suffocated. If she thinks she knows me as such, is there anything I can do to bring her — and me, us, our rapport — to the present? If all my behavior is already seen as an example of my assholeness, what can I possibly do? The true violence of recognition is that, because it already knows, it never questions itself — and everything new gets filtered through its murderous gaze.

And this is the violence of recognition. It denies a thing its life, its ability to be in time, to be in flux: to change. Imagine no matter what you do, what you say, it is already interpreted as you being an asshole. Or a partier when you're more sober than you've ever been. Or as a mean guy who manipulates people when you've worked hard not to be like that anymore. It is such a wretched kind of violence as you're still alive, still doing things, but everything you do is already accounted for. It's a particular kind of horror: a living, breathing suffocation.

We do this to ourselves, too. At the risk of being too personal, I was a bad parent when my son was a baby — too quick to anger or indifference. And, as is my mode, I made casual self-deprecating references to my lousy parenting; it became part of how I identified myself, how I recognized myself. But I worked hard to change, to be a good parent, to be patient and demonstrably loving and interested. Frankly, I've been pretty successful (it is one of only two things I am proud of in my life; the other is my divorce). And yet, at times, I still try to recognize the bad parent in myself. Even writing that I've changed gave me pause as I still don't recognize myself as a good parent. I

Recognition, of course, is deployed as a mode of social control. Stop doing that! That's not you. This is a common theme in films. Think about "Mad Men"'s Peggy Olson. She is at first recognized as a secretary from Brooklyn which comes with a whole series of assumptions and expectations about what she wants in life. Everything she does is read in terms of this category of woman; her every action is an example for which she is judged. Don't hide those ankles! You'll never get a man. The show does a great job of letting us see this from her perspective — and it is horrifying. Then, after working hard to be seen differently in the workplace, her family refuses to see her with soft eyes, to witness her flux. This is how social groups — from the nation to the family to a group of high school friends — maintain control: they insist on recognizing you. Try to act otherwise and you are shamed or rebuffed.

Small groups of friends do this all the time. I think about this scene from "Grease." The look on Travolta's and Stockard Channing's face are so telling, so complex, so heartbreaking. To stay in his group and maintain his social capital, Danny has to be recognized as a certain kind of cool. Of course, by the end, he wants to recognized otherwise — as does Olivia Newton-John's Sandy. This is a film, in many ways, about the power and violence of recognition.



So how are we to see others? Isn't it another form of violence to not recognize your friends? To have them constantly assessed, reconsidered, their identity obliged to keep meeting some more or less elusive criteria of judgement? Imagine every time you saw your lover, your best friend, your mother and they asked: Who are you? It'd be disorienting. You want — need — them to recognize some of you.

I want to suggest that there's a way of knowing, of seeing, that is tethered neither to recognition nor to the ever-alien. It is not just generous to the now; it takes more than soft eyes. It's an historical mode of seeing that is historical all the way through — where history is not just what's happened but what is happening. The image I keep returning to is the act of leading the other the way a hunter leads the running deer. But while we might conjure images of assassins with rifles, we might also think about leading your teammates in soccer or hockey — a generous collaboration.



There's something generous and beautiful here, a feeling for the way someone is going. It demands a coming to know — not of an identity but of a way of going, feeling for the speed, rhythm, and intensity of a living body. It's a feeling for style. Style is a how, not a what, and so demands a different mode of engagement — a temporal sense making. Sure, we might still try to recognize someone's style even though it's changed. I was just watching the new Jerry Seinfeld stand up special and his comedy has changed— not just his content, but his style (thankfully, he's shed his "affable" banality for cranky misanthropy). And, no doubt, many feel betrayed, confused, annoyed.

Which makes me think of Dylan going electric. He was met with aggression everywhere he played, the audience would booing and walking out. That audience was so focused on his what, not his how. They viewed him as a folk singer and protest singer. But Dylan was showing off his style, his mode of engagement with the world. When he went electric, it was not discontinuous per se; he offered a how (relentless protest, relentless change) that refused the tyranny of the what (acoustic folk music). His style is precisely the refusal to be recognized (this is the very basis of Todd Hayne's movie on Dylan, "I'm Not There"). At one show, someone rather famously yells, Judas, at which point Dylan and the Band promptly launch into a loud, rollicking version of "Like a Rolling Stone" — a song all about change without a direction home.



To lead someone, to anticipate them, is to recognize them while remaining open to what's happening, to what may come. It's a look that sees the past and the present while leaning into the future, the way a batter in baseball follows a pitch. It's an engaged, lively mode of seeing, certainly not for the lazy. It's a mode of seeing that doesn't seek identity but engages repetition (pace Deleuze) — the way something forges itself ever anew along a more or less complex series.

This can be disconcerting. Often, we want certain people to stay the same — our parents, our professors, our therapists, our oldest friends. We may rely on them as an external anchor so we can define ourselves by them. My mother's conservative but I'm radical! That gets complex if your mother is no longer conservative. But that's on us, not them. Limiting these figures to what they were is cruel.

If my former student — with whom I hadn't spoken in a decade — had led me rather than recognized me, she'd have given me room to become, to be different to myself and her. For better or worse, I'd not be the person she knew but someone living here and now like this — a this she'd yet to reckon. A person who perhaps has metabolized life in such a way that he's something else. In which case, she might have called me something other than an asshole. Then again, maybe not.

5.18.2020

The Age of the Argument


Perhaps the least flattering frame in the video. Go figure.

This is part of one of a longer essay entitled, "Making Sense with Pleasure in the Age of the Argument."  This video focuses on establishing what I mean by the Age of the Argument—and what I mean by an argument.

An argument is not based on proof. In fact, arguments begin where proof leaves off. If there's proof, there's nothing to argue about! Arguments assemble data and the relations between all the data points. They slice and dice the world—inevitably ignoring most of the world—and create a little engine that makes sense. That's what arguments offer—not certainty, not proof, not truth, but sense.

Sense is a local shape of things, a way things can hang together. It is a nebulous form but a form nonetheless.

Arguments don't lack certainty. They're just not interested in it as certainty is impossible (in this case). It's not that we're uncertain; it's that we're a-certainty.

So how do we make decisions without a ground? That's part 2! Hold tight!




5.06.2020

The Grammar of Liquid in the Films of John Cassavetes

I came to the films of John Cassavetes relatively late in life. I was 30, maybe, and some new friends were ardent fans. I'd tried when I was  younger but could never find a foothold, a way in. I came to realize that that's because Cassavetes operates with a vocabulary and grammar of film that doesn't offer footholds or a ready way in. His films ask for a different mode of engagement, a different rhythm of sense making than anything I'd been used to — which, admittedly, wasn't much.

In college and my 20s, I was enamored of this newfound film category, "indie films" — Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, David Lynch as well as some more established folks from the 70s such as Robert Altman and Mike Nichols. Cassavetes, while certainly "indie film" if ever there were such a thing, was different. There weren't the quirky characters of Jarmusch; none of the surreal humor of Lynch; none of the cool groove of Altman and Nichols. He was up to something I simply didn't know how to reckon, how to watch, how to enjoy. 

Film viewers, in general, tend to to assume that films are made as naturally as they are watched. There are characters we like or don't like; they act together or alone as things happen. We identify with these characters as we excitedly follow the action. Will they fall in love in the end? (Spoiler alert: they do.) Will they get away with the heist? (Another spoiler alert: yes, some will, but not without a moral reckoning.) We see action from a point of view — either from a character's (think "Goodfellas") or a conceptual position (think "The Big Short"). Each scene has a point that propels the plot — some characters lost money; now they're thinking of ways to make money; they hatch a nutty plan; and on it goes. These films and this mode of viewing assure we, as viewers, know where we stand.

Cassavetes does none of these things. His films proffer the thinnest of plots — no elaborate heists here. The narrative structure inevitably turns on a shift of relations of characters to their world as well as to themselves. Even in "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" — in some sense, the most explicit action packed film of his, a genre piece in a sense — the action is not the actual killing: it's how the action creates a new relationship of Ben Gazzara to himself and, in turn, to those around him. Even this makes it sound like the film is plot driven which it is not. Like, say, the films of Wong Kar Wai, Cassavetes' films lead with affect. There is more drift than plot.




Mind you, Cassavetes and Wong Kar Wai have very different grammars of film, distinct ways of assembling sense with moving images. Wong Kar Wai privileges the affect of film whereas Cassavetes privileges the affect of human becoming.

This shifts the the very grammar of what a film is, what its basic unit of meaning is, how scenes relate to each other, the way meaning is generated and consumed.

Without a plot to drive the logic of scenes, Cassavetes' scenes don't have — or need — a center. But it's not like Altman for whom film is an ensemble which displaces the center. While Altman's camera often careens among and between characters and stories, his scenes are often centered — even if there are multiple centers.

What Cassavetes does is much stranger. His films emphatically do have stars, leading men and women who you'd think function as the center of the scene. But his scenes don't focus on any one character's emotional progression. Nor do scenes first and foremost propel a plot. For Cassavetes, a scene is liquid— to borrow a figure from Deleuze's incredibly difficult Cinema books and then use it differently. Affective relations slosh about as water in a bucket does. There is momentum but it's temporary and multi-directional.

This can throws viewer off as they literally don't know how to make sense of the film — much as they might find William Burroughs' writing nonsensical. There are different structures of sense making at work, different units of meaning and the relationship between those units — that is to say, a different grammar of film.

Look at this scene from Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight":


We know what's happening, what each character desires, how it fits into the plot. There is no doubt, no ambivalence — even if, say, J Lo's character has some ambivalence about how to proceed, that ambivalence is still the point (in this scene, she's emphatically not ambivalent at all even if she is the next morning). We know how all the pieces fit together: we know who these characters are, what they want from each other, and how the scene fits into the narrative structure of the film as a whole. (As an aside, I enjoy this film and its casual Hollywood sexiness.)

And now look at this scene from Cassavetes' "Husbands":


Sure, there's a notable difference in that this woman is a new character so of course we're not absolutely sure of her role. But that's not the point here. My point is: What's the point of this scene? What does Cassavetes' own character want from this woman? If it's sex, why does he want sex? How does it fit into the rest of what we know of his life? And how does it fit into the narrative, such as it is, of the film? We don't know as knowing is not the goal. For Cassavetes, scenes don't have a point as he's neither preaching an agenda nor explicating a plot. 

Watch how the action — in this case, the affect — moves between the two of them. And yet neither of them are a fixed point; this is not the banter of Thin Man nor the sexy repartee of Clooney and Lopez. These two characters are themselves unmoored, adrift in this event, less agents than participants. Yes, that may be the key difference: for Soderbergh (and, by extension, Hollywood), characters are agents of action while, for Cassavetes, characters are taken up by events — not subject to them per se but participants in them. They are never agents.  This is, in fact, the very plot of "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie": we watch Gazzara, the owner and MC of his own club, have his agency stripped.

And yet Cassavetes' scenes are not pointless, some affective aside amid the narrative flow. For Cassavetes, that is not a distinction that makes any sense as his films don't separate affect from plot. Affect is no dressing for the story; the flow of affect is the film. 

"Flow" makes it sound even keeled — which, rather famously, it is not. Every scene careens, the liquid in the frame bumped violently and disjunctively. And is stipulated by hard cuts. Cassavetes' transitions aren't smooth; they don't keep the logic of the narrative moving along its rails. Each scene in "Husbands" and "Faces" is a slosh of liquid that ends abruptly before moving to the next.

As viewers, we are unmoored along with the characters, participants in the event rather than its agents. His films — his camera — don't give us a point of view, either of a character or a position, concept, agenda. Consider the Coen brothers. We see and sense what the characters see and sense. One thing that makes the Coens so great is there is always another point of view, the POV of the film and of their oeuvre (one of that most fantastically ugly words): we know their disdain for human beings, their misanthropy, their disgust with it all. Ok, that might be hyperbolic but you know what I mean: the Coens operate with a grammar of perspectives that might challenge us but it never undoes us. We know what the characters in a scene are seeing and feeling and we know what the Coens think of it all.


Cassavetes proffers no such thing. His filming has a documentarian feel: it captures what's there. Cameras, of course, are stupid. They don't know what a person, chair, feeling, word is. They just take it all in without discernment: cameras have a voracious appetite! But the camera of the Coens, say, enjoys the intelligence of their point of view. Cassavetes enjoys the stupidity of the camera. His camera doesn't brush away the wash of information to give us the perspective of the Dude. Rather, it hangs back to let all that affective information pervade the celluloid. Look how the camera literally hangs back to let the plethora of information in:



Minimal plot; scenes without a point; a camera without point of view; disjunctive transitions that don't tell us where we are: so perhaps dialogue tells the tale, gives us what we need to understand, to know, to feel. In the Coens' outrageously near-perfect "Miller's Crossing," an incredibly complicated plot is delivered to us in rapid fire noir dialogue. This scene is essential to understand what's happening but it's all conveyed to us in Steve Buscemi's hilarious exposition.


But Cassavetes' dialogue is obtuse to the end. It never, ever, explains —  the plot, the action, what anyone is feeling. Look at this scene from "Faces." What do we learn from their dialogue? Nothing directly; we learn performatively of their mood.


Godard, too, deploys obtuse dialogue. He sees no need for dialogue to be expository. Even his voice overs feel no need to explain what's going on. And when it does tell you what a character is feeling, it's disconnected from the action in the film we're watching. To wit, one of the most glorious scenes in cinema.



Godard's films, and by extension his dialogue, may drift, may not be interested in narrative, but they always give us a point of view, making us feel like we're in on it — in on the great experiment of film, of what's possible. To watch Godard is to feel like a critic writing for Cahiers du cinéma.

Cassavetes doesn't give us such a place to stand. His dialogue is obtuse but doesn't have Godard's poetic reverie or playfulness, that relentless reckoning with cinema. Dialogue, in Cassvetes' films, functions as affect delivery systems — it's all mood, no exposition.

And yet Cassavetes' films are not chaotic per se. They're not surrealist or avant-garde art pieces. They are, as Adrian Martin argues, thoroughly constructed: "It was all written down, all thoroughly rehearsed, all staged and ‘blocked’ – although Cassavetes’ blockage, his mise en scène, again looks like nobody else’s (even those who most slavishly try to imitate him). It wasn’t ever the words that were improvised by the actors..." No, as Martin maintains, Cassavetes proffers a new form, not the absence of form. He invents a new grammar of film, a new way of making sense of moving images. 

Narrative constricts and reduces human becoming by making people (qua actors) serve a narrative — the remainder that is their becoming is forgotten, repressed (pace Derrida). Cassavetes, like the great writers who reinvent language in order to express the abundance of life, reinvents the grammar of film to give us the abundance of human experience — while making it look good. ("The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is so gorgeous it hurts.)

Cassavetes doesn't give us the meta cinematic critique of Godard, the Coens, and Tarantino, that love of film history — and the point of view that assures us, as viewers, that we get it. Rather, he gives us this torrent of human becoming, this great swashing complexity of what it is to be human by inventing a film grammar that doesn't seek to reduce this complexity, this seething, this tumult.

There is sense here. In fact, Cassavetes' films overflow with sense. He invented a grammar, a rigorous organization, to forge this torrent of human becoming. Rather than agents, he works with participants; rather than pointed scenes, he proffers affective billows; instead of dialogue that explains, he gives us dialogue that performs; in the place of plot driving film, he offers relations; instead of the camera's point of view, he gives us the camera's great stupidity.

To watch his films is to learn a new grammar of the moving image and its sense. As viewers, we can't rely on identification: we are forced to confront images of difference. This, in turn, displaces our sure footing as viewers: we enter the tumult, as much a participant as his great cast of actors. To watch Cassavetes' films is to swim in the ocean of becoming, to speak — and be spoken by — the grammar of liquid.

On the Terrible Tryanny of School

This picture is horrific to me and says so much about school: line them up! Make them sit, like little prisoners, while we harass and haran...