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.

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