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.

4.19.2020

Witnessing Others, or Soft Eyes (video)


Seeing is not neutral or natural: it is taught. As John Berger's argued in his incredible, Ways of Seeing, men have a tendency to gaze at women, at life, with a certain will to penetrate, dominate, and such — the so-called 'male gaze.'  
To see is to be undone, necessarily. Seeing takes place in the middle voice. Ask yourself: is seeing active or passive? Do you see that tree? Ss that tree having its way with you? The phallic gaze is an attempt to wrest control from the world, a transparently absurd gesture. 
The painter, psychoanalyst, and theorist, Bracha Ettinger, posits a different gaze, what she called the matrixial gaze, coming from the womb: a pre-subjective mode of holding the other as constitutive of oneself. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mat... 
I refer to to this as 'soft eyes' which I borrow from The Wire: to see generously, without judgement. I also reference Merleau-Ponty's The Intertwining. http://timothyquigley.net/cont/mp-chi...

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.

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 ...