4.07.2020

On, TV, Schitt's Creek, the Addams Family, & Don't Trust the B*itch in Apartment 23


TV as a drug — as per Terence McKenna — that finds value in how we relate to it.

I noticed that "Schitt's Creek," a show many I love love, offers a common formula: a family that's not like the others is funny but they learn to be like everybody else. I find this disappointing.

And makes me miss "The Addams Family" — an outsider family that's privileged over and against the square world.

"Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23" is a modern Addams Family in which outsider ethics are privileged over and against Mid Western banal morality. This only lasted for the brief first season but it was something.

4.05.2020

On the Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell



This is a good one. We had an incredible conversation which I hope comes across. I think it does. And it turns out I'm bald. Who knew?

Watch and listen as Thaddeus and I cover a lot of ground including:

- What is sophistry and why I call myself a sophist

- What kairos is and ecological, embodied decision making (For ex, how do you know when to leave the sauna? When do lean in for that kiss?)

- Classical vs. Modern Rhetoric, or Fred Astaire (monumental) vs. Gene Kelly (anywhere, any time)

- The middle voice

- Psychedelics & hallucinations

- The plenum of affect (with reference to Leibniz) 

- The icky way of adamance or in defense of Socratic irony in the age of Twitter

- I confess that I voted. Egad!

- Romance and marriage refracted through the infinite

- Love and the way of attraction

- Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the Beats

- Crypto and the rise of the Information Age of Abundance

- And take my class on Nietzsche








3.30.2020

What and How is Affect?



Here I talk about a figure that runs through Deleuze: affect, a notion that changed how I think, assess, and live. This is my definition of it, not Deleuze's per se.

* Affect is the invisible state of things. Things have spatial extension but they also have affective extension which is no less real for being invisible. 

* We sense affect with senses other than the five we know so well. Just as light makes an impression on the eye, affect makes an impression on our affective faculties. 

* Affect is objective, not subjective. It is "out there," not inside us. Like all things, affect is perspectival: we experience affect from our perspectives (a glass on pavement shatters; on a pillow, no; so it is with affect, objective but relational in terms of effect).

* Affect is not emotion; it is a-human and interspecial. Affect exceeds the limits of things; it runs through the ether.

* The world is filled to the brim with stuff including affect. The world is a plenum. We live in a kind of affective plasma that surrounds everything including planets, suns, thoughts, events, staplers, cars.

* This affective plasma functions as a communication layer. That's how we communicate with animals, trees, as well as with each other. We are all in this affective gunk so of course we feel what others feel — not one-to-one but we feel with them because we are in the same gunk.

* Once we reckon affect, our knowledge, epistemology, and way of going change.

3.25.2020

There's No Such Thing as Language, or Rhetoric's Gestures & Events

While I hesitate to begin a post with Wittgenstein, he opens Philosophical Investigations with a fantastic critique of St. Augustine's account of learning how to speak. The Saint suggests that his elders would point to something — say, a pencil — and say, "Pencil." Little Augustine would repeat it and, voilà, the future Saint learned to speak.

 
Wittgenstein keenly notes the failure of such a method of learning language. When the elder points to the pencil and utters those sounds, how would little Augustine know said sounds referred to the pencil and not, for instance, yellow, thin stick (or any stick), or writing utensil in general? Wittgenstein suggests that this method of pointing and uttering might work for learning a second language but not for learning language per se.

It doesn't take much to realize that language is not just a set of words designating things in the world. Some words — such as one of my favorites, this — don't actually signify anything. They are functions within the act of communicating. Push at this and you'll quickly see that language is much odder than vocabulary and grammar (which is itself different than the way it's taught; grammar is not just subject-verb agreement  — I am, you are, she is — or inflection: Throw the ball to me (I becomes me when it's an object; linguists call this inflection. But more on this later).


Linguists study something called language. They break it down in different ways. The structural linguists, for instance, considered two aspects of language: langue, which is a system of references; and parole, which is the act of communicating — words spoken or written. For the most part, these structural linguists found parole so complex and unsystematic that they preferred to focus on langue, this thing they could dissect like a dead frog.


But where, exactly, does this langue — this system of communication — exist? Isn't language always and necessarily used? Give me an instance of language that is not parole, which is to say, a moment of language that is not somebody saying or writing something. There's no such thing. We make dictionaries seem like they weren't written but we all know some writer was not paid enough to write those entries. Language is always and already being used. The dead frog on the table — langue, a system of language — is dissecting itself with itself. 


This insight is the beginning of what we call poststructuralism and is how the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, made a splash with his form of deconstruction: every structure — in this case, langue — has a moment situated outside itself (parole) that undoes the structure. See his great essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play," not to mention his epic, if pedantic, Of Grammatology.


For Derrida, communication always involves this double gesture in which meaning is proffered and infinitely deferred. He refers to this function as différance (the "mis-spelling" is intentional, emphasizing the gap between written and spoken language, between langue and parole, a gap that at once makes meaning possible and impossible). This is to say that Derrida begins with the assumption that language tries to mean something, to signify something, but fails as the gap between structure (langue) and performance (parole) can never be closed.


But what if we begin from another place all together, a place in which there will never have been this dubious distinction between structure and action, between the static (langue) and the in motion (parole)? What if we begin by viewing all of life as in flux, even structures?



When my son was quite young, he started doing this funny thing. He'd speak about something as though it were a science documentary. Mind you, he wasn't offering actual knowledge. He'd use words that he didn't understand and offer facts that might or might not be related or true. But his tone was spot on. He knew the gestures of knowing.


And such is language: a series of gestures that distribute the world — facts, bodies, events, moods. Wittgenstein referred to these as language games. Learning a first language, he claimed, is not learning referents and grammar (as St. Augustine suggested) but learning which words delivered just so create a reaction. A baby crying, for instance, inaugurates a set of reactions — a mobilization of interactions. Every culture has different modes of games. Every household, indeed every person, is a player in this game and manipulates the players and action as they will. As we all know, the rules of the language game of parenting have changed dramatically since we were kids. No cry when I was a kid demanded the set of responses which, today, are de rigueur — unless, like me, you're interested in playing a different game. When two co-parents want to play two different games, we get discontent and divorce.


A word, I am suggesting, can't be reduced to its referential function. That is a misleading architecture of sense. A word is a gesture, an action, that aligns and distributes bodies in such and such a way. This gesture is at once meaning and movement, a meaning in motion, a way of taking on inherited terms and moving them about. In this model, rather than spoken language being a present tense example of an established structure of language, it is an event that distributes time, distributes structure, recreating it in the very act of using it. A word is not a tool taken from the tool set of language. A word, any utterance in fact, is a repetition of all meaning and structures. Every time I use a word, I am using it again, using it anew, forging nuance and inflection, changing the very mode of that word — what it can be, what it can mean. In the words of R.P. Blackmur,
"gesture is that meaningfulness which is moving". 

To quote 27 year old me invoking Merleau-Ponty: This gesture-event is at once meaning and movement; rather than pure immediacy, the event is itself the distributing of past, present, and future: "henceforth the immediate is no longer the impression, the object which is one with the subject, but the meaning, the structure, the spontaneous arrangement of parts."  Now, "past time is wholly collected up and grasped in the present." 

Some people, of course, prefer to copy word use — rather than repeat — to ensure that their utterances are in line with some notion of accepted meaning. They want to be in the game, "in the true," not changing the rules of the game. And some relish using words in ways that change the very terms of the game. These are poets and philosophers — although many of both in title are actually neither.

What happens when we begin with the assumption that there is no language, only rhetoric? What happens when we assume that the basic unit of communication is the gesture? In other words, why am I saying any of this?

By beginning with the gesture rather than the word, we shift the very terms of literacy. Now, rather than a learner mastering a definition, she is nudged to consider the operations of that word — its sense, its affect, how it moves people this way or that. We see some of this kind of critique coming from identity politics. Unfortunately, such so-called critics reduce a word to a fixed sense, to a univocal performance, so that any utterance of that word only means one thing: You're bad! 

If we're to consider gestures, then we are considering all different modes of that word, all the ways it can be expressed. Memorizing meaning, even if this meaning is now dictated by a cohort of identity-driven critics, reduces the play of words, reduces us to mere users of a system. A gesture lives in its execution, in its delivery, in its performance. And this is what literacy should embrace: a living through, an embodiment of meaning that conjures and arranges sense, history, and structure and, in the very act of speaking, recasts the very rules and modes of communication.

To live in language with its structures is to reduce life to referencing a world that is predetermined. If all my speaking and writing is just an example of an abstract structure with a set of rules, then how can I ever be free? I'm trapped in a prison house of language! How can we ever recast our dynamics if we're all taught to use a system that exists nowhere and whose rules are set in place? 

By shifting from language to rhetoric, from words to gestures, we infuse the past with the present and vice versa. We fold time. In the act of speaking and writing, each of us takes up the history of this thing we used to call language and rewrites the rules. No doubt, many seek stricter rules; to wit, today's internet. But these word police understand that language is, indeed, a living agent that we mold, even if they wish it to be more constraining. 

We can take up this logic of words as gestures to inhabit discourse, to make it weird, to make new senses of the world, of what's possible, using play, humor, seriousness, affect, and irony to break the shackles of inherited meanings: to recreate the world in every gesture.

3.22.2020

3.08.2020

O, the Sweet Complexity of Kairos! or, May Every Decision Be a Reckoning

There are few things I love as much as standing before a bar. All those options! All those opportunities! What does my body yearn for? What do I desire? What do I need? What inflection of spirit goes well with me at this juncture? What o what shall I order?

Despite appearances, I am not a creature of habit. No, every time I pour myself a drink, I consider it — "it," mind you, is not the booze but the meeting of me at this moment and that booze. "It" is an event, a meeting of different ways of going: me in this moment (not me in general as there is no me in general) and that tequila (all tequilas are different), or that gin, with or without soda, with or without a beer back, with or without lemon, and so on. All these elements are constitutive of this ever elusive formula for the right thing right now for me.

The Greeks had a word for such a moment: kairos. Kairos is emergent opportunity, a particular inflection within temporality, a kind of seam — a word and concept I borrow from Lohren Green's Atmospherics. It's a seam in that multiple bodies run up against each other without any claiming absolute dominance. It's an in-between moment where bodies and events may go this way or that. Kairos is a juncture of reckoning.

Now, kairos to the ancients was a divine, hence rarer, event. They'd never cast kairos as the event of me choosing my booze. But this is the difference between ancient and modern rhetoric. If for the ancients, kairos was monumental, for the moderns it emerges as part of the everyday — what to make dinner, when to lean in for that kiss, when to finish eating, when to say what to whom, and so on and so on. It's not just for generals and politicians; it is the purview of all, anytime, anywhere. If ancient rhetoric is Fred Astaire, always on stage and dressed for the occasion, modern rhetoric is Gene Kelly, dancing alone on the street, in the rain, in a tenement with a newspaper: anywhere, any time.

Gene Kelly is modern rhetoric, any moment anywhere an occasion, a juncture. Kairos abounds.

When I'm at home rather than the bar, this kairotic moment begins with the flicker of a desire as my whole body registers it's cocktail hour. This rarely comes from looking at a clock. No, it's a moment that announces itself in me, as me, with me. And while I do have a drink almost every evening come 5:00, give or take, it's not habit that drives me. Which is to say, I don't move to the liquor cabinet blindly. No, I always — always — consider my desires, needs, and moods.

This is important: my movement towards the liquor cabinet is repetition, not habit. By which I mean that each visit, each pour, is a distinct event, a reckoning — and never a blind reach for the hooch. It's new every time, an inauguration.

This is not say that I don't have habits, those things I do unthinkingly by rote. Oh, but my cocktail is never such a blind event. I enjoy it too much to treat it so disrespectfully. On the contrary, my pleasure derives from the fact that my eyes — and mind, loins, nostrils — are wide open, that this is a decision I'm making right here, right now.

O, that moment! Kairos, sweet complex kairos! When I'm choosing my drink for that night, for that moment, it's when I am wide awake and the plethora of options and opportunities yawns before me in all their idiosyncratic glory as I seek my place within these flows that exceed me — things like weather and obligations, like health and the vicissitudes of desire, like the sun drenched tequila of that region. When I reach for a bottle, I am as much following as leading: I am in the middle voice, at once choosing and being chosen.  As I scan my bar, the El Tesoro Reposado may wink at me, an undeniable come hither. Or that wink may be a false seduction and the secrets of that night lay in my Occitan Gin. Or even in nothing at all. (I find that when I'm getting sick, I don't want a drink. That is not a negative decision, a saying no. In kairos, it's all Yes-saying, a creative turn of events.)

The moment  — kairos — is the arbiter of what's right. Not me, not the bottle. It's an emergent propriety. It's not the abandonment of all propriety, a wily nilly consumption. That'd be unseemly! Just because there's no exterior "right" doesn't mean anything and everything is right. On the contrary, the right thing emerges, is particular to these bodies in this moment.

What makes it right? Will there ever be certainty? No. What's right is multiple, perspectival, and ever changing. How could it be otherwise? All these bodies, all these moments, all these needs and desires, all these ways of going: there is no "right" that stands outside them all. What's right for this body in this moment is inevitably different than it is for that body, that moment, that situation. And even what's right for this body may very well be multiple, opening up different trajectories — of that evening, of desire, of existential possibilities. There are standards but they're protean (pace Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary).

Of course, what makes this difficult for some people is that there is no fixed standard, no sure way of assessing, not to mention knowing, the right thing. If there's a standard, decision making is easy: It says here to drink 1.5 ounces of Fortealeza Blanco, neat, with six ounces of Modelo Especial back. Ok! (If only all such dicta were so wise!) But, no, we have to make decisions on our own — as this body with these experiences, these desires, these needs. At some point, we all stand before the bar of life, decisions and opportunities before us, reckoning ourselves in the world.

This is the way of all decisions. We stand not as much before the bar of the world as amid the bar of the world as all these forces, factors, and desires swarm and seduce. We are in the middle of it, constitutive of it. Which is to say, the world does not offer itself to us as we luxuriously decide from afar. No, we're in the mix. We are bodies of this or that sort aswirl in a teem of other bodies all making their way. Some bodies recoil at each other; some blend into a new form, black and brown becoming yellow; some come together but maintain their identity, marbling. 

So there I am at the bar, surveying my options. It is a moment; it is now. But this now is itself a temporal fold. My decision is not strictly speaking immediate. No, all our decisions are mediated by all sorts of things, most notably, our past experience which itself opens on our understanding of the future. For instance, as I'm surveying the bar and thinking Maybe I'll have four double shots of Jack! some part of me remembers that I've done that before and, well, it didn't end well. As we make our decisions, our memory inflects the now as it projects ourselves into the future. (A great Stoic exercise to reckon the now is to imagine yourself in the future: How do you fare in that image?)

Mind you, these are not external criteria. It's not as if I really want those four double shots of Jack but know I'll feel lousy later. It's not a battle between two selves, the desiring-self and the knowing-self. That's a specious construct we see in movies and such. No, my memory is not outside the now, outside this juncture. On the contrary, it is present as part of this moment, that past shaping this now from the inside out, not as an external term.

Of course, sometimes we let our past experiences dictate our now. This is how our actions become habits. This is how we ignore kairos, ignore the now as emergent opportunity. We shut it down before it even happens. Oh, I got sick on gin in high school so never touch the stuff. This may be a memory presenting itself to the juncture of now; but it may be the elevating of a past experience to a rule that is exterior to the juncture. This is something we reckon as we reckon: when I reach for that tequila, am I relying on an external rule such as a bad memory? Or am I open to this emergent possibility? It's a meta factor that's folded into the mix.

This decision has no one right answer. Each decision opens up different selves — forwards and backwards! The now I become in my actions shifts the self I was. When someone does something totally "out of character," it makes us wonder if we ever really knew that character in the first place. What we do today changes what we did yesterday — perhaps not in "fact" but in significance. 

Suddenly, the decision of what to order at the bar takes on this almost unspeakable complexity. So many factors, bodies, weights, moods, possibilities, experiences, desires all commingling, ricocheting, harmonizing in an impossible calculus that, we hope, ends in an order — unless you're in a Beckett novel.

Every decision is made amid a teem of factors, bodily and temporal. Every decision is an embodies inflection point within the becoming of you and the becoming of the world.

Writers know kairos well. As you begin every sentence, you are inaugurating a certain flow of sense. Such is the way of grammar: begin as such and you end up here; begin like that, and you end up there. Every adjective, every tense shift, every paragraph break, every mark of punctuation shapes the whole in such radically different ways. Mood and meaning are on the line with every inscription. As writers and non-writers alike know, this can be maddening: how do I write this?! ? As we write, we seek a secret sense that reveals itself, moving us to write this, then this, then that before deleting that whole chapter and beginning again. In writing, these kairotic junctures are so apparent. In life, it's less so: I choose tequila, I choose gin, so what? Maybe I'm a bit hungover the next day. But writing, once inscribed, persists to infinity. You can't just shake off a bad page with some hair of the dog. No, writers — like painters — see their decisions writ before them at every turn, a now carved into eternity.

The declaration of this — the ordering of a drink, the writing of a sentence, leaning in for that kiss, ordering the Mu Shu Pork, voting for Bernie — is a teeming multiplicity. It is a nexus in which so many factors come together and are inflected, each factor changed, each trajectory sent this way or that. Tequila leads me one way; gin, another, bourbon, another; no drink, another; and so on. Each decision reorients me towards myself, past and present, forging a new trajectory (even if of an ilk with existing trajectories; radical discontinuity happens but is rare — and may be undetectable from the outside, anyway).

Of course, most people make most decisions absent kairos. They live out of habit, doing the same things day in and day out because they've done them before, because their parents or a book or a guru told them to. No action is in and of itself right, healthy, good, or true. Having that smoothie, doing that yoga, going to that therapist: none of them are in and of themselves right.

Kairos, then, may emerge at every turn but only if you beckon it and, in turn, let it beckon you. You may wear gloriously chic blinders — this job, lover, apartment, shoes — but you're still wearing blinders. Which may very well be working for you! Sometimes, I wish I could succumb to a current that carried me along. Sigh. Kairos, while available for the asking, doesn't rear its head without your participation, without a summoning — and willingness to be summoned. We come to kairos not as masters but as participants, as much ingredients as the tequila, ice, or cabbage in the Mu Shu Pork.

Of course, we all get carried along to greater or less degrees with our blinders gladly on. Not every moment is kairotic for anybody. Many, if not most, of the things we do are rote as I plop in front of the TV to watch "30 Rock" for the 53rd time. Which, thankfully, rarely disappoints! I could watch Liz Lemon all day and be happy! Some habit, then, is necessary and can even be good, carrying us along when we lack the wherewithal to reckon the emergent now. This is what we mean by good habits: those behaviors that don't hurt us when we're not heeding kairos due to sickness or weakness, physical or otherwise. Sometimes, you just need to put your head down.

But to treat the moment as kairos is to beckon divinity, to enter the becoming of you-in-as-world. It reveals the seams that open onto new possibilities of living. It turns the mundane into the epic as each decision reverberates throughout the cosmos, at once stretching backwards and forwards in time. It's to lead a lively life in which every moment is a reckoning, every decision an opportunity, every action an inauguration. El Tesoro Reposado neat, please, with a Pilsner back. Thank you.

3.01.2020

To Be Afraid of Songs, or Art Projects a World We Enter



Preface
A former girlfriend — who I hope is reading this: Hi! — always seemed so put off when I'd say this or that song scared me, as if I were so meek that a mere song could instill fear in me! From that perspective, my fear does indeed seem unseemly. But meanwhile, I was put off by her put offness! How could she not ever be afraid of a song? 

This essay, then, is a post facto explanation that opens onto the kinds of sense-making, the perceptive and interpretive architectures, that have always interested me. That is to say, how am I standing towards music that it can scare me while not only doesn't she share my reaction, it confounds and irritates her? How are we standing towards music, with what posture and what assumptions, that we have such different modes of reaction?

***

I clearly remember the first time I heard Ween. Sitting on a living room floor in San Francisco, my good friend put on his CD of "Guava" and the opening track, "Little Birdy," started playing. I can still feel the fear that pervaded me that day.

My mind yelled, muttered, queried: What is that? What is happening? That distorted drag on the rhythm as if the song itself is on codeine or mentally bereft — or living in a world with a fundamentally different sense of time and physical movement. And those baritone vocals: whoever is singing doesn't seem well at all. And then the vocals dramatically shift registers. Is that a different person? Or the same person in a different mood? In any case, the vocals are suddenly a kind of demented, childlike giddy that begins to give way, as if this new person can't go on singing this simple melody. And yet he's laughing! Meanwhile, the lyrics are so sweet — perhaps too sweet: I saw the little birdy sing / He sang with glee and everything / He sang for spring, and sang for me / And everything was so happy.... Rather than this tempering my fear of this drug addled drawl of shifting, collapsing identity, it only magnified my anxiety.

This was not weird people singing a crazy song. No, the song was normal, too normal, while the delivery was all slurry and askew. It's a Lynchian affect, and effect, as everyday signifiers are suddenly imbued with the weird — as your most benign signs circulate in an utterly distinct, alien economy of meaning.


David Lynch makes the most terrifying films — not because they're strange but because they promise an entirely new world order lurking within our own. And this world order will always be unknowable and menacing to our way of going.

At first, it might seem as though my fear is of the monstrous, in my inability to categorize this music — its genre, I suppose. It eluded my ability to label it. Oh, that's just trip hop! That's folky prog rock! That's burner techno dance trance! Kant claims that such is the nature of anything beautiful: it can't be categorized, can't be known per se. And, sure, that could make me afraid as this thing comes to the fore, belying categorization: a monster.

But that wasn't the source of my angst (and I suddenly realize that I'm conflating fear, anxiety, and angst which are three different experiences, if at times overlapping; listening to this Ween song triggered all three in me). No, there was something else going on: this song proffered a world in which its way of going is the norm. This was so different from, say, punk which is clearly confrontational with an existing world order. Ween offered no such thing. There is nothing confrontational about it. On the contrary, it has a self contentment which is all the more disconcerting for being so, well, odd and seemingly ill, distressed, or loaded.

And yet this Ween was not so far off that I could just say: Oh, that's some foreign genre that I'll learn more about (or not). Complete otherness is reassuring in its way in as much as it's clearly not me. But "Little Birdy" is awful close to the music I know and love — rock-folk-pop-arty-indie — and yet so far from being something I can place.

Freud called this experience uncanny, unheimlich or unhomelike. It simultaneously sounds familiar and foreign. And this is disturbing: I reach for a foothold only to have it give way. Ghosts are uncanny: they're people yet not. If they were so different from us, we wouldn't give them a second thought. But because they seem kind of like us — only, you know, without blood and such — they're disorienting, disconcerting: uncanny.

Hence my fear: it's not that I couldn't place this music, that my own faculties failed. No, it was that this music was indeed knowable, even pedestrian — but in a thoroughly different world whose rules I had to learn and — and! — I couldn't tell if that was a world I wanted to be part of — or if I even could! Were I to participate in that world, in its set of values and aesthetics, what would become of me? How would I, how could I, operate there? Which me? What is my value, my meaning, my place in such a world?

But such is the way, and the power, of all art. It doesn't re-present the world; it's not a drawing, recording, or facsimili of the real. Art is the creation and projection of a world, a logic and science, a mode of ethics and identity, an entire economy of significance and meaning. There is not first the real world and then art: all there are are projections, mutations, repetitions, revisions, versions, edits, rewrites, mixes and remixes — all the way down.

Art can be more or less aggressive in its proffering of a different world. Most romcoms give us a world that we already know, a world in which our identities may not always be confirmed but the conceptions of our identities are. Mind you, I tend to feel more alienated and afraid watching such things as I think to myself: Do I have to participate in that world's values and meaning? I am, at best, a monster in any Jennifer Aniston movie; at worst, exiled all together, excluded from its line of sight: I become invisible, Arthur Fleck.


Most of what we call great art is indeed aggressive in forging a new world with an immanent logic. Consider Picasso's cubism: it operates with a different sense of dimensions in which the hidden is always revealed, splayed, and in which faces and bodies hence rarely align. His world is not the everyday world we operate in. I mean just look at that! We can say the same of Van Gogh for whom the ether is viscous; of Francis Bacon for whom flesh falls from the bone in a ghastly spotlight, over and over; of Warhol who removed the artist from the equation and put images themselves into circulation, transforming all of us from human beings into image beings.

Of course, we can stand sure and proud in our known world and let art come to us as we decide if it pleases us or doesn't, that egregious thumb up or thumbs down. This is art as confirmation of the known. And it's often how I do in fact interact with media as I am too tired, too bored, too distracted to care to give myself over to the new, the alien, the wondrous. And so I sit on my soiled couch in my pajamas and watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" for the millionth time as it confirms my identity in the most comforting way. There is nothing wrong with that; it is part of survival. But it seems to me it is only one way — and a rather limited way — to stand towards art.

Rather than having art enter our world, we can enter its. We can give ourselves up to the art, become discoverers of new lands, laws, and logics. This no doubt puts us in the position of perhaps evacuating ourselves or transforming ourselves so that we are no longer who we once were. This certainly happened to me when I read Nietzsche: he didn't confirm me and my world. On the contrary, he remade me as I moved into his world, made sense according to his revaluation of all values, his criteria of judgement. I stopped asking if things were right and true and began asking: what does this do to me? To those around me? Does it serve my health, my vitality, my peace, my well being? I was a new me.

I am, however, not suggesting we become disciples or obedient citizens of these new lands. While I abandoned much of my old self to move into Nietzsche's world, I was also operating in the worlds of Derrida, Foucault, Kierkegaard, LSD. After all, we are multiple. And as a generous reader, I like to travel across different lands, sometimes — often — pilfering as I make my own world gathered from these other worlds.

In any case, I am interested in an architecture of sense-making that seeks difference and the strange, one in which subjects no longer simply view objects on the wall of their homes. I am interested in something else entirely, an architecture in which our very identity as viewers is up for grabs as we participate in these strange, unknown lands with their different ways of going. Art, then, as emergent propriety, proffering different laws of operation which we need to learn. Which is to say, I don't want to live in a world which I decorate with art. I want to live in a world in which art invites me into its new, strange domain and decorates its world with me.

Art is an education. It asks us to learn its way of going, its mode of operation, its values and physics, its desires and mechanics. It is our job, our delight, to learn this or that art's way of going — and see what happens to us, to the world around us: to risk becoming other — which may, now and again, make me tremble with fear.

2.25.2020

Making Sense in the Age of the Argument, or Rhetoric Saves the Day!


The amount of information means to persuade us to buy these or those eggs is absurd.

Are you seduced by the font? By the claims? Do you think it's all a ruse and choose the cheapest eggs? Is any one of those decisions more or less rational? More or less "right"?

When I was much younger and buying eggs, there were pretty much two choices — white and brown. I always chose brown because, well, brown is the color of the natural. Duh. The white ones, I assumed, are somehow turned white by some unseemly source. How do I know this? Well, I don't know it. I don't know anything about eggs — except how to cook with them, at least a bit.

And yet when faced with this decision, I came to a ready conclusion. Based on what? Well, I suppose based on nothing other than some trickle down branding in which the natural — a vacuous modifier, at best — is brown — you know, like dirt and tree bark. But for all I know, the "natural" lobby turned the white eggs brown!

Today, buying eggs has become vastly more complex. At my local store, there is a robust chart with brands down one side and a list of qualifications down the other along with telling dots where the two intersect.


I have to tell you, this chart clarifies nothing for me. On the contrary, it introduces all kinds of terms that confound me. I assume I'm supposed to want those eggs that have all the dots filled in. But how do I know the value of those categories? To wit, this chart seems to imply that I want my eggs to be fertile. But when I think about that, I'm not so sure. In fact, it sounds kind of icky. As for beak trimming, that sure seems like a bad thing. I, for one, don't want anyone trimming my beak! But for chickens on a farm? How do I know? Maybe it makes life on the egg laying factory — oh, farm — much more pleasant: no cranky sharp beak pokes! 

Besides the questions of significance, what is the perspective of this chart? Is it solely representing the interests of the chickens? I get that, for the most part: why inflict any unnecessary pain on chickens who are already imprisoned to serve my needs for a tasty breakfast, fluffy turkey burger, moist muffin, or frothy whiskey sour. 

Which makes me wonder: Do any of these categories and qualifiers qualify taste? After all, I'm the one buying the damn eggs! You'd think they'd give me a chart that helped my find the tastiest for my needs! At the least, I'd love to see this chart — presumably corresponding to the pain of chickens — mapped to the taste or use of eggs by those of us buying them.

Meanwhile. it seems the farmer has been left out of these considerations all together. How does beak cutting affect the farmer's life and livelihood? I assume it drives up their costs. Of all the interests in this equation, how'd we end up choosing only the chickens'?

Don't get me wrong. I'll all for chicken rights, I think. But how do I know what chickens want? And how and when do I consider the farmer in all this? Not to mention my own taste: I want delicious eggs! (Are there certain eggs that are better for this or that — some for baking, some for scrambling, some for whiskey sours? Where's that chart?)

Such are the times in which we live: so much information, so many perspectives. And I'm only talking about buying fucking eggs from the market! Throw in literally everything else from toothpaste to gender to medicine. Nothing these days is given. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is busy proffering a position — be this, eat that, do this! It's as beautiful as it is maddening.

When I was a kid, I trusted the pediatrician my mother had selected. He told me to do something so I did it. Why? Because he was the doctor. Today, I trust very little of what comes out of my doctor's mouth; it seems like she's just following the same decision tree I can find on WebMD. Most of the time, I go to a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor for herbs and some acupuncture. A friend of mine was recently taken with Ayurvedic herbs and diagnostic tools; I love the idea of Western herbs as they're local; another friend practices Reiki; and on and on.

So many options, so many ways to consider the body and its disease. Is disease, as Western medicine maintains, a pugilistic affair — viruses and such that attack along with cells and medicines that defend? Or perhaps my sickness is immanent to me. Maybe it's trauma or, rather, how I've handled trauma. Or how I sit on my chair: if only my buttocks were thrust the proper way? Is my disease a mist over my liver (as an acupuncturist once diagnosed me)?

It seems to me none of these and all of these are right. Each one offers more than a remedy: each one offers an entire world view, an architecture of the body in space and time. How do I choose which practitioner to visit? For me, Traditional Chinese Medicine with its talk of qi and flow feels right; it gels with how I understand matter. But sometimes I just want some good ol' penicillin to kill my bloody sinus infection (bloody, in this case, is used in its British sense) or Xanax to quell my angst. Fortunately for me, I can choose (within certain limits; it drives me apeshit that I need a doctor's prescription to get medicine to heal myself; this paternalism gives socialism a bad name).

Such is life in the Age of the Argument. Sure, there's a lot of talk these days about "fake news" and fabricated facts. But that's a red herring, I believe, as there have always been liars, people who fabricate facts from scratch. They may not always be easy to discern but they have a clear status within decision making.

No, what makes this the Age of the Argument — and hence makes things more complicated — is not that people are lying but that they're operating with different world views, different distributions of forces, facts, bodies, and ideas. In the Age of the Argument, everything is perspectival, everything a position, everything an argument. Gone are the days when there were institutions we simply trusted as the master term — medicine, the government, "The New York Times." Today, all we have are arguments trying to persuade us to do, believe, or buy this or that.

To a rhetorician like me, this is all there's ever been: arguments to infinity. Uncertainty is where we thrive. It's the very conditions of life — and it's beautiful! All these swirling views and possibilities nudging each other, forging surprising harmonies, dissonances, even melodies. (I might call this "the postmodern" but that word seems to've taken on all kinds of associations — such as with identity politics which, it seems to me, is a conservative movement opposed to postmodernism. So I'll refrain from using that word and, as these conditions are familiar to those rhetoricians among us, I'll stick to the Age of the Argument.)

The sophists of old knew this. It's not that these sophists believed there's no truth. It's that they knew there are many truths. And — and! — that there are factors other that truth that might matter more such as, say, health, vitality, beauty, humor (see: Nietzsche, the great sophist, the teacher of rhetoric long before anyone called him a philosopher). Truth is one possibility among possibilities — and, frankly, is rarely the most appealing criterion for my judgements.

And this is what interests me at the moment: amid all these competing arguments, all these possible ways to go, how do I — how do you — choose what to do, what to believe? No doubt, many people refuse this Age of the Argument by summoning positions and beliefs that they insist are true. If you have a penis, you're a man! (Why such things irk some so remains a puzzle to me. Who cares what anyone wants to be? Sure, when it comes to certain sports, there are complicated decisions to be made. But is that really enough for someone to reject the very idea that one may have a penis and be a woman? Jeez.)

Such gestures are a call to rational certainty: there are clear facts that establish the way things are such as penises! But what's odd about this, among other things, is it's often the same people who refuse to believe that climate change is caused by humans. Where's the absolute proof, they say? Rationality is funny that way: follow it and it recedes to infinity. This is why Leibniz just short circuited the whole thing with God.

Of course, god is seductive for those who seek certainty. It's so because God says so! Of course, such a will has been rather disastrous for many over millennia. And, of course, invoking god-as-certainty is an absurd position to maintain within the public sphere. (Unless we all ascribed to Leibniz's god who is supremely generous.) No, neither god nor rationality offers respite from the relentless teem of arguments that is life.

So how do we make decisions? Why do we buy these eggs but not those? And how are we to stand towards our decisions when certainty will never come if, for no other reason, it's impossible? What of our convictions? What of our passions?

Needless to say, these questions exceed this blog post. Which is why I'm writing a book on precisely this: these questions need room to sit, to move, to breathe. But I will proffer some things I've been thinking.

The rubric in which we often imagine decision making is misleading. We think: I am a rational person; the world is filled with information; I will gather this information then make an informed decision. But this very flow begins with the premise that we, as decision makers, are not constitutive of the world. That is, we imagine ourselves to somehow sit at a remove and hence are able to survey all the mechanics of life and come to a rational conclusion.

Alas, this is not the case. We are the world (wait, that came out wrong!). We are constitutive of the world — which means we don't sit at a remove and make decisions. Rather, we inflect all sorts of forces that flow through us. We don't make decisions rationally; we make decisions metabolically. We process a wealth of information in a breadth of ways — we are moved by certain logics, desires, and drives that work in an ever shifting calculus that is the action we take and the things we believe.

We buy eggs — or choose a candidate, a philosophy, a lover — according to the same mechanisms. Information flows through us — information of a wide variety that includes facts but also the pain in the our side, memory of that girlfriend's nape, the time your father slapped you — and is then processed according to so many different forces, drives, and desires.

Logic and rationality are no doubt possible, and often influential, components of decision making. But one person's rationality is another person's madness. Consider the OJ Simpson verdict. To much of the world, which turned out to be a predominantly white world, OJ was obviously, rationally, guilty. But to African Americans, there was a different rationality, a different logic, at work — one in which police corruption is the dominant factor. Both positions are therefore rational!

Every argument is first and foremost a selection of evidence that it deems relevant — one's desire to be rich, one's experience, the things one's read. How could it be otherwise? Arguments are first and foremost a cutting out, a forgetting: not that, not that, not that. To wit, a predominantly white America never considered everyday police violence against African Americas in their presumed rational consideration of OJ's guilt. A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, or some such thing.

And, as everyone who's taken an intro to rhetoric course knows, arguments are made of up logic (logos), sure, but also emotion (pathos) and what we consider the argument's authority (ethos). All fo these things differ person to person, culture to culture. There's no such thing as an argument that considers everything — every data point, every desire, every cultural position. That would be Leibniz's God. No, as we rhetoricians have always known, positions and their truths are local and circumstantial (I called my introduction to rhetoric class at Berkeley, "Circumstantial Propriety", a title meant as a pedagogy unto itself.) While we imagine rationality and truth to be a fixed standard, they are in fact protean: what's rational and true one day, in one place, is madness another. Life is flux.

In the face of such flux, one instinct is to try and exile emotion and to be exhaustive: let's be really thorough and rational! But that's a red herring as it's as impossible as it is absurd. The world, mercifully, isn't rational: it's exquisitely complex and driven by so many factors including attraction, desire, love, hate, smell, hunger, that annoying itch in the back of my throat, gluten allergies, the powerful music of Led Zeppelin, the angle of the sun (don't we talk about seasonal affect disorder?), the movement of clouds, the stress of an asshole landlord, boss, or lover, and on and on and so it goes. There is logic; there is mood; there are cosmic forces; there are desires and drives.

We make decisions, we act, without certainty. And I am saying that rather than seeing this as problem and desperately seeking certainty, we gladly embrace our uncertainty — or, better, our a-certainty. We don't need it! Which is lucky as we can't possibly have it! Don't seek it.

Seek a more local criterion: yourself, your vitality, your health, your well being, your desires. Rather than quoting some blog post you read (uh oh!), some Jane Brody article, something your nutritionist told you, try reckoning your decisions as an embodied being. This embodied being of course considers all those articles and anecdotes. But such external data will never suffice, will never be a final authority. You, methinks, are the final authority.

We make these decisions and take actions as embodied beings inflecting flows — of data and forces — that exceed us. We don't need any proof or certainty: we need to act as empowered and embodied inflections of the world. So when I'm standing before the eggs dumbfounded by the incoherence of the chart stuck in the refrigerator glass, I reach for this or that box based on factors that will never be certain or final or rational — I like the font; I don't want to be duped by the "organic" ruse; I'm broke this month — and I buy myself some freakin' eggs.

2.16.2020

Essay as Conversation, or A Flow of Thisness with Reference to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Blanchot, Tequila, and Me

These are the pads I use to write my thoughts. The medium is the massage.

Often, I have flickers of ideas, quick spins on this and that. Twitter is great for such things. Indeed, despite my infrequent use, I love Twitter. I like the constraint even if I preferred 140 characters to 280. One-forty demanded severe editing and so fostered pith, forced one to consider form — to begin sentences repeatedly in search of the proper rhythm. And I like that Twitter is not about friends and family; in fact, there's no implied tether to real identity. Pith and play: these are the great figures forged by the medium — the rules — of Twitter.

But, right now, I want the space of this page. I want an idea to go as long as it needs. And I want the space of a page to forge connections between ideas should such connections emerge — essay as conversation.

Conversations proceed according to their own emergent flow and logic; there is no one sitting on the lifeguard chair or judge's booth to step in and redirect the action. They go as they go. Discussions, on the other hand, follow external constraints: Today, we're talking about the effects of psychedelic drugs and pedagogic efficacy. I really don't like discussions (although that one sounds pretty good!); all the participants are supposed to adhere to a common topic. But there's no such thing! We all have our own perspectives, world views, and assumptions that make discussions, at best, impossible; at worst, incoherent striving for conformity. I love conversations for their immanent grammar: the logic of flow, of how we get from one point to the next, emerges from within and is only visible after the fact.

Discussions adhere to external terms. Conversations are immanent flows that emerge between and among those involved.

The things and modes we use to communicate shape the things we think and shape the kinds of things we even consider communicating to the world. Without space, how or why would I give a detailed analysis of John Cassavetes' "Faces"? It'd be absurd.

When I'm thinking out and about, I use a tiny pad without lines and a roller ball pen. Lines are too limiting; I need my ideas to be able to move at an angle and perhaps be punctuated with a diagram or doodle. And as I think fast and write fast, I need a pen that flows fast. The very thought of using ball point fills me with dread. I couldn't think or write with any grace. Our thinking and our mode of communication are inflected and shaped bt the tools we use.

I think of Nicholson Baker's essay, "Rarity," in his incredible collection, The Size of Thoughts: "Has anyone yet said publicly how nice it is to write on rubber with a ballpoint pen? The slow, fat, ink-rich line, rolled over a surface at once dense and yielding, makes for a multidimensional experience no single sheet of paper can offer." Everything about this is delicious: the relishing of everyday sensuality; the pitch perfect tone of tempered yet emphatic wonder; the qualifications — "publicly," "dense and yielding," "no single sheet" — that reveal live thought at every turn. That is to say, say the same line without those qualifications:"Has anyone yet said how nice it is to write on rubber with a ballpoint pen?" That one word — publicly — lets us know that Nicholson Baker assumes that it's been said privately. And, suddenly, we see this world of people talking in their living rooms about the erotics, if you will, of minutia: the everyday things that adhere to themselves, radiating a quiet complexity of self-constitution — thisness or haecceity. (If you don't know that word, click on the link; you'll be pleased that you did.)

Some things taste like nothing else. Tequila, for me, is just such a taste. What can you possibly compare it to? Whiskey tastes like wood and syrup. Steak tastes like other meats. Chocolate tastes like sweetened earth. Sea urchin — Uni — tastes like spoiled sea (I love it). But tequila only tastes like tequila. Pistachios, too: they taste only like themselves. I'm attracted to things that insist on themselves, that emanate from the inside out, as it were.

I considered writing my dissertation about Maurice Blanchot's fiction (if that's the right word). His odd, short books are spectral, living in the invisible realm of events. We never really know what anyone or anywhere looks like. All we get are events, shifts in mood and relation: all the action is invisible. This is how one book, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, opens:

I sought, this time, to approach him. I mean I tried to make him understand that, although I was there, still I couldn't go any farther, and that I, in turn, had exhausted my resources. The truth was that for a long time now I had felt I was at the end of my strength.

"But you're not," he pointed out.

About this, I had to admit he was right. For my part, I was not. But the thought that perhaps I did not have 'my part' in mind made it a bitter consolation. I tried to put it another way.

"I would like to be."  

Anyway, I was going to write about Blanchot and the way his books insist rather than point. His writing seems to lack symbols or any will to reference. I was going to use his books as a way to discuss reference and insistence in language.

But I never like using books as examples of anything other than themselves. In my book — buy it already!— I refer to this as exemplary reading: the text becomes an example of something broader, more general such as category, concept, or idea. And this just seems, well, rude to the text which seeks to create the world, not fit into a preordained bucket.

Flyer - Intro to Nietzsche - 1500x1500
Tale my Nietzsche class online, please.
So I wrote a mess of a dissertation proffering a model of communication that is not fundamentally referential but is insistent, gestural rather than symbolic, creating the world rather than commenting on it. I still love the title of the messy tome: Read This Text*. I was proud, perhaps too proud as befits a cocky 28 year old, not to have a colon and sub-title. Mind you, all this ensured I'd never have a job in academia. In what department would I teach? Such is the failing of the insitution: it demands all thinking fit into pre-existing buckets that we refer to as departments and areas of expertise. Thinking per se has no home in academia; it is where thinking goes to die under the ugly conditions of scholarship and ressentiment. And so, in the end, my institutional suicide wasn't a bad thing. And I'm now truly proud to be teaching with Renegade University. Take my Nietzsche class! More classes coming soon!

I like books that begin mid-conversation. After all, conversations don't have origins. Sure, they have beginnings but said initiations will always be multiple and preceded by other forces. There is no absolute beginning point. There will never have been origins of anything, only "the dissension of other things" (that's from a great essay by Foucault on history — and was the title of my undergraduate thesis which explored Foucault's historiographic method.)

Look above at how Blanchot opens his book. As readers, we're stepping into a river that's flowing — and has been flowing. We are situated in the middle from the get go, without orientation, without any vista to let us know where we are, where we've been, or where we're going. In dissertations, grad students are supposed to write an introduction that frames the discussion and domain so readers knows precisely where they are and what's happening. This suggests the possibility of mastery — and certainly privileges it — when, most of the time, we're always already enmeshed in forces, eddies, tides, and conversations already in session. You can't call time out. You have to learn the rules of the game from within the game (pace Wittgenstein).

Deleuze begins his books mid conversation. To wit, this is how The Fold opens: "The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function. It endlessly produces folds." Difference and Repetition opens thus: "Repetition is not generality." This no doubt can be off putting. What the heck is a fold? Who thought repetition is generality? To whom is this guy even talking? The effect can be seen as disorienting but it's really more a-orienting — an unseemly neologism — in that it doesn't as much make you dizzy as refuse to give you a balcony from which to survey the action below. You just have to go with the flow, a performative pedagogy.

Balconies were invented for the landed nobles and, later, bourgeoisie to survey the rabble below from safety. They let you be voyeur, enjoying the sight of whores and drunks, of abject poverty, all from the luxurious remove of your balcony that protrudes over the street from your luxurious living quarters.

Introductions in books are balconies:
they offer a view on the action while keeping you at a safe remove, a bourgeois invention.

Deleuze and Blanchot don't offer such sanctuary, ever. And while this may seem rude it's actually just a disregard for readers' will to control, to mastery, to taking it all in from a safe remove. In this sense, their books are revolutionary, overthrowing the safety of such mythological positions, immersing the reader in the stew of it all. These books ask different things of you as reader — to be less comfortable. To be willing to be destabilized. To be forced to operate without fixed orientation — which, really, is the existential challenge of life. Which is all to say: Don't blame Deleuze if you're not sure what's happening. Shift your expectations of reading and you'll be duly rewarded with new kinds of literary pleasure.

When I'm teaching, I do offer temporary points of survey — but only so as to remove that sense of safety later on. I use introductions as a way to move my students, and readers, from the known to the unknown. These intros, then, are a ruse of sorts: it looks safe and secure but it soon gives way. Mind you, I rarely rely on horror as a pedagogic mechanism. I prefer seduction: Come hither to this world that looks and feels odd but, trust me, once here it's oh so delectable! Which is to say, I try to offer the promise of new pleasures.

Pedagogy is one of the oddest, most difficult tasks. How do you get students from the known to the unknown? Why would they ever leave their position of safety, security, and ego orientation? To teach is not to relay information; it's to introduce ideas and operations that students could never have even imagined. The movement of learning is logically impossible. This is why Socrates claims that all learning is, in fact, recollection: you already know the truth but forgot it and so it's the teacher's job to remind you. I don't believe that. I believe learning is a movement across infinitely distinct planes of existence. This movement demands something other than understanding, memorization, and recollection. It is the movement of repetition, an impossible yet actual movement of being reborn, of effacing oneself only to reemerge somewhere else as something and someone new.

Kierkegaard argues that Christianity replaces Socratic recollection with Christian repetition. Jesus is the beginning of what Kierkegaard considers the modern age, marking a radical break from antiquity on precisely this point. If Socrates ushered in knowledge through recollection, Jesus creates knowledge — new selves — from repetition. As Kierkegaard writes,  "Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward." (Once that quote makes sense, you'll be reborn.)

Nietzsche argues that Socrates was not, in fact, a classical thinker. For Nietzsche, Socrates is continuous with Judeo-Christianity in disdaining life — the body, the flux of it all — for the beauty of the divine. This, for Nietzsche, is nihilism, a will to nothing. Such is the Socratic method that universities love so much: Socrates would ask anyone who claimed to know things question upon question until that person admitting to knowing nothing (or stormed away; there's a reason they killed Socrates — he was a nudge! I started a screenplay about precisely this years ago....). All Socratic inquiry ends in nothing, in not knowing.

But Socrates also introduced irony as a mode of negotiating this life. After all, if we're part of this life, we need to operate with each other, make claims, carry on with our business — even though we know it's all silliness that pales in the face of divine sublimity! So how do we speak? Ironically: we say what we say but efface it at the same time.

Irony can therefore be viewed as nihilistic, effacing the stuffs of language and this world and deferring to the invisible, infinite, eternal divine. But I choose to see irony not as a hierarchy but as ambivalence, a way to speak in two fundamentally different registers at the same time, an impossible harmony of the human and the divine, the temporal and the eternal, the finite and the infinite. To me, irony need not claim the divine is better, that it's the human that is effaced. I see irony as effacing and affirming both positions in an infinitely fast alternating, like electricity that generates itself from movement between positive and negative modes. Irony is not inherently nihilistic. On the contrary, irony is the mode that allows us to speak the multiplicity of life.

And this, for Kierkegaard, is the challenge of life (and what he sees as the demand of being Christian, of having faith in Jesus — something he feels perhaps no one alive actually does — certainly not the church). To be an individual, says Kierkegaard, is not to be a unity of the human and the divine but to hold these two mutually exclusive modes at the same time. This feat is what he calls faith and is the challenge thrown down to us by Jesus, a skinny Jew who claims to be the eternal god. There is no way to prove this; Jesus' miracles don't prove anything. You either believe it or you don't (ergo, his book, Either/Or). For Kierkegaard, the struggle and challenge of being an individual is living as an either/or, of holding both positions at once without uniting them.

This individual is, for Kierkegaard, the truth. It is a site of radical difference than cannot be subsumed by a concept, category, or in this case, the Hegelian System of dialectics. Which is to say, for Hegel Jesus is the apogee of the dialectic, bringing the human and the divine together. For Kierkegaard, it is the radical discontinuity, the failure of the dialectic, that Jesus puts before us. "The yardstick for a human being," write Kierkegaard, "is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others."

Such is the beautiful challenge of life: to be this, without the orientation of the crowd, without any possibility or will to mastery — just a going, an experience, an infinite trajectory of connections forging itself in the moment, an electric current: an essay, a conversation, an haecceity.

_____________________________

* I found the abstract to my dissertation, written in 1997 — so excuse the youthful hubris: More often than not, the difference of this or that text is avoided: it is read as disruption — as we see in Jean-Francois Lyotard's sublime — or as derivation, an example of a pre-determined structure, e.g., "patriarchy," "metaphysics," "history," "culture," "desire," etc. as is found in Toril Moi's sexual/textual politics. In all these instances, a certain propriety is at work prior to the reading of the particular text. Such reading practices find themselves operating within a linguistic model of language in which there is a virtual system — Saussure calls it "langue" — which allows and determines the meaning of the particular utterance, what Saussure calls "parole." ;What I offer is an alternative to such models; I call it rhetoric. Rhetoric is often read as difference is read, as something which is done to language. Even sophisticated models of the trope, such as those of Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom, repeat the symptoms of a linguistic language: they avoid difference . I therefore turn to Nietzsche's early lectures and essays on rhetoric and the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Here is a different model of language — if "language" is still the proper word — in which there is no pre-established propriety; rather, in each utterance, propriety is established. And it is the trope — as a process, as an event — which establishes the propriety of the world: a different model of language with a corresponding set of functions and concepts. Each text is a re-configuring of the world, irreducible to a prior concept. This is in fact how Gilles Deleuze, with and without Guattari, reads: texts are autopoetic machines, engendering their own truths, forging their own concepts, configuring their own propriety. A critical reading practice, then, in which the difference of a text is neither a deviation nor a derivation: here, difference is articulate and articulated. Here, we read this text.

2.06.2020

Psychedelics, Hallucinations, and Learning to See


Psychedelics teach you to see what's there — materially and affectively. To see intensity. To see intensely. Which it to say, to hallucinate is not to see what's not there (an absurdity): it's to see what is in fact always there.

One night in the Fall of 1989, I found myself alone on my college campus in lovely, apocalyptic West Philadelphia tripping on LSD. I sat on a bench that, oddly, faced away from the parodical Ivy League campus behind it. With nowhere else to look, I cocked my head upwards and could suddenly see with utter clarity that the Earth was moving, fast. I could see it. And, more importantly, I could feel it. There I sat in my makeshift cosmic cockpit, steering the entire blue planet through the ether. Wooooosh! I was giddy.

Yes, I knew I wasn't actually steering the Earth. That was just a goof. But I did see, and feel, the planet's movement. The giddiness was different in kind and degree from any giddiness I'd known before from, say, laughing with my brother or seeing Jethro Tull live for the first time. This giddiness vibrated with the rhythm and intensity of the spinning Earth. It's a giddiness I would come to know more intimately, a giddiness that persists to this day — not as a recollection but as a live experience when I'm seeing as I've been taught to see by LSD. This giddiness is still happening to me, in me, with me, as me. (Ah, prepositions: they locate us, position us, in the universe and can therefore be tricky as all get out: how do you stand towards, in, with the world? This remains my dominant line of inquiry as I consider the world; it's not a philosophical query per se as it is, finally, the question of rhetoric: a question of position and perspective.)

Hallucinations have a bad rap. Or, rather, a wrong rap. I mean, just think about it: How can you see what's not there? That's as absurd as it is impossible. So what are these so-called hallucinations we experience with psychedelics? (I can't, so won't, speak for hallucinations experienced by the psycho-divergent, a word I prefer to "mentally ill" or any other such pathologizing of psychic states. But I am curious if the things I say here resonate with such states; I welcome input from those with more experience and insight.)

Let me tell you about an experience from a few years ago. I was sitting in my apartment, on my shaggy red rug, with an old friend. It was night and we'd turned the lights off as we smoked Changa — a mix of herbs and DMT. Unlike the usual DMT experience, smoking this Changa was more relaxed, allowing us to interact with each other and the world around us. Which is to say, we were relatively lucid. At one point, I saw these swimming strings, for lack of a better word, of light. Which was kind of funny as it was dark. Still, I could see quite well thanks to, among other things, dilated pupils and ubiquitous urban lights; the room glowed with the red of my rug. And, sure enough, I could see these strands or strings just sort of wafting through the ether. I put my hand out to touch one and, yes, I could hold it in my fingers, stretch it, let it drape and twitch in the air. I turned to my friend and asked if he saw them. Without hesitation, he said yes and then we proceeded to pass these strands back and forth. 

We were not seeing things that weren't there — which, again, is an absurdity. We were seeing what was there, presumably, all the time but which we normally can't — or won't — see. In this sense, to hallucinate is to see what is there: to see the becoming of the universe, to see the stuffs that flourish between, among, and with the stuff we're trained to see, all the knickknacks of consumer life, objects in space, egos and identities. But, with psychedelics, we see other stuff, what we imagine to be negative space, the flesh of the universe, the plenum of cosmic becoming, this teem of energy, light, affect. And process: we see the how of life happening, the manner and mechanisms by which the world constitutes itself out of itself.

Psychedelics amplify what we take to be our senses and/or they introduce us to senses we're not used to using. This is not just about seeing the strands of light but seeing the things we usually see but seeing them anew, in a more robust sense — in their milieu of becoming. We participate in the affective swirls and eddies that are always streaming about. I want to call this empathy in that we feel with the things we see. 

Anyone who's smoked or eaten marijuana knows this well. What we call being high is the freshly introduced perception of affect — the moods of a room, of music, of your roommate, a glance, a TV show. We listen to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and are astounded as we utter a most emphatic Whoa! Movies and media casually mock this whoa as stoner vapidity. But what is that whoa other than a reaction to affective intensity, that is, a greater, richer perceptive processing? What is it other than the perception of what's always there but which we habitually ignore? This life of ours with all its distractions, stresses, and burdens of work, relationships, traffic, and the so-called news has little space for the affect of Joni Mitchell — not to mention of our rooms, bodies, clouds, food, people. But we smoke a spleef — or, these days, hit a vape or eat a gummy — which opens our senses and allows us to reckon what is already there. Getting high is not a false or silly reality as the media would have it. It's in fact a most empirical and amplified reckoning of life, of all the invisible stuffs of the everyday. The stoned sees more, processes more, reckons more.

The psychedelic experience — of LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), MDA and MDMA (ecstasy), DMT, marijuana — is not an alternate reality. It allows us — it teaches us — to perceive the fullness of information that's always happening. In fact, we might say that the sobriety of the working man is the hallucination! He doesn't see what's in fact happening all around him! In this sense, hallucination is a less rather than a more — a not seeing rather than a seeing-plus.

What I'm going to call the square is the person who sees objects independently occupying and moving through space and nothing else — not the strands of light, the flesh of the air, the affect of all things, the ways in which everything informs and inflects everything else. The tree stands, the dog runs, the kids play but the square doesn't see all the information that pervades those objects, that surrounds and creates these bodies.

The square is reasonable. And such is the terrible tyranny of reason: it smugly dismisses everything outside its purview. Reason is, alas, not reasonable. In fact, nothing is more insane — and insidious — than reason. It's insane in that it demands the world align with its rigid quantities and isolated bodies despite relentless evidence to the contrary! And it's insidious as it claims the mantle of reason which, alas, needs no other justification. There are no swirls of affect, you damn hippy! There's no empathy. We're all independent bodies drifting alone in space. Be reasonable! And yet this same person disintegrates, falling into pits of existential despair when their love goes unrequited. (I love the new use of "them"; yes, I moved from the singular "same person" to  the plural "their" love. I'm unreasonable, I suppose.)

With psychedelics, we don't just see objects as distinct bodies moving through space: we feel — we perceive — things making their way in the world. We experience the grace of that tree's branches winding and twisting; we feel the dissipation of clouds; we swell with the ocean. After tripping, you learn that to see will never have been about locating objects in space from a remove. To see is to participate in the becoming of things. To feel, and know, their modes of self-constitution. This is what I want to call scientific seeing, empirical perception, processing all the information available, not just what's readily quantified.

Psychedelics teach us that to see is to participate in the becoming of the universe.

In his book, "Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of The Noösphere," the philosopher and psychedelic theorist, Richard Doyle (aka mobius), refers to psychedelic plants as ecodelic in that they allow us to perceive the cooperative system that is the universe — the flow of processes and information between and among different life forms. Which is to say, ecodelics don't just reveal more information about what's there; they reveal the modes of world formation, the how as well as the what. Ecodelic plants have us participate in the ecology of being — or, rather, the ecology of becoming. We experience the collective nature of nature, the ecological basis of form and identity (although what we call identity becomes something else entirely after ecodelic perception).

The great French philosopher and phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argues that sight is a mode of palpation: to see is to touch. This goes against the reasonable (square) model of vision that has us view the world from the safety of our bodies and egos: I'm here, that smelly dog is over there. But for Merleau-Ponty, seeing is touching — which means the things we see touch us back, including the smelly dog. He refers to the act of seeing as a chiasmus, an intertwining of bodies that effaces the subject-object dichotomy. In this chiasmatic perception, seer and seen swap positions at infinite speed. In our very act of seeing, then, we are seen: we are touched by the world. Perception is an inherently cooperative event.

Psychedelics open up and operate in this middle voice, this in-between in which the ego and its objects will never have been discrete. When we trip, we become empathetic. What I mean by empathy is not that we feel what others feel. It's that we feel with these bodies as we are participating in a common universe of energetic, material, and affective flows. When we're high or tripping, we process more information with senses we don't usually use or foreground. We feel with the tree's every twist and turn; we feel the drift of the clouds as they arc, bend, gather, and dissipate; we feel the swells of the ocean, the joyous flight of the pelican, the frantic speed of the snowy plover. How? Not because we become those things — that would be silly — but because we are all always becoming together, inflecting each other, touching each other in the intertwining that is perception, that is identity, that is the world. Psychedelics teach us to see, to perceive, to enjoy the ecological autopoiesis of forms both visible and invisible. We see, we experience, the world forming itself from itself as itself. 

How do you see the snowy plover and not feel with it? Such reasonable seeing misses so much information the world proffers.

This education persists after the drug presumably "wears off." Which is to say, the drug never really wears off. It teaches us to see, to process, the massive amounts of information that surround us. So now, thanks to my psychedelic experiences, when I leave my house and gaze at the sky, I continue to feel with those clouds, feel the stretching of the universe into the curved infinite. I feel the flowers bloom and die, the trees wind and shed — not as them but as me-with-them. 

And this transforms me, makes me different than I was, as in the very act of perception, I take on plover-becoming, cloud-becoming, ocean-becoming, Brian-becoming (thanks, Deleuze and Guattari). In this sense, perception is no longer about gathering information from a safe distance so as to confirm my place in it. Perception becomes a going-with that inflects and transforms the perceiver — me!

“I took my [mescaline] pill at eleven ... I spent several minutes – or was it several centuries? – not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them – or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for "I" was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were "they") being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.”  
— Aldous Huxley

This is no doubt what scares people about psychedelics: perception, which is unavoidable, suddenly becomes an agent of personal change. To see is to be transformed. And so much of what we call knowledge and pedagogy is predicated on staying the same, on forging mastery over the world to make certain we remain who and what we are. The psychedelic experience puts you into the great stew of the universe, into a state of becoming with the world — with the hawks, rocks, moods, mosquitoes, and kiwis.

All too often, however, I forget or suppress this way of seeing. I find myself focused once again on my isolated ego — as if I wasn't sitting in a soup of cosmic energies and affect that are flowing through me, around me, around the birds, trees, rocks, neighbors, dogs, and clouds. As I think and see as my so-called reasonable ego — Does she love me? Is that a swallow? Should I punish my son for not doing his homework? (of course not!) — the wealth of information that surrounds me is ignored, forgotten, repressed. I forget how to see.

But, thanks to psychedelics, all I have to do is remember to use my neglected senses. This may or may not involve ingesting a drug. Sometimes, I'm so out of practice that I can't just recall what I've been taught: I need another lesson! Other times, all I have to do is lean into that practice of seeing and, voilà, there I am: suddenly, the world is brimming with all this exquisite information as I begin to participate in the great cosmic becoming.

Are there ways other than psychedelics to see? No doubt. Deep, prolonged meditation; extended silence; starvation; heightened states of fear; even love: these can all teach us to use senses we don't normally use. 

But I never want to suggest that something is wrong about using psychedelics, that they're some kind of cheating or crutch. I am saying quite the opposite: psychedelics are crucial aspects of human consciousness (pace Terence McKenna). They might not be the only teachers but they are great, highly effective teachers.

And the teachers matter. It's not that there are different paths to the same mode of seeing. The different paths — the different drugs — teach specific aspects of seeing, amplifying this or that aspect of ecological (non)ontology. DMT reveals the moving geometric structures of matter (among other things); psilocybin (magic mushrooms) instructs us on the pulsing, undulating flows of everything; LSD highlights the temperature and intensity of matter, visible and invisible; marijuana, the micro pleats and mechanics of affect between all things, especially social encounters; MD(M)A — which I believe is often mistakenly not considered a psychedelic — teaches us to feel the ecology of identity, the fundamental interconnection of all things, that is intensely peaceful (ecology can often be chaotic but, with ecstasy, it's all good. I believe this positivity is why many don't recognize it as psychedelic but, I have to say, learning the positivity of cosmic becoming is not to be underestimated).

Psychedelics don't make us see what's not there. We don't hallucinate phantom fables. On the contrary, psychedelics — each in its own way — teach us to see what is in fact always there: to see with, and as, the intertwined becoming of the world.

On, TV, Schitt's Creek, the Addams Family, & Don't Trust the B*itch in Apartment 23

TV as a drug — as per Terence McKenna — that finds value in how we relate to it. I noticed that "Schitt's Creek," a show ...