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.


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.


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!


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.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...