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.

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