It's Your Relation to Things, Not the Thing, that Matters

Just because we all like the same thing doesn't mean we have much in common. I have no interest whatsoever in belonging to a Deleuze reading group. In fact, few things repel me with such vigor.
What interests me, attracts me, is the relationship to things. I may have more in common with your relation to ballet than someone else's relation to Deleuze even though I know nothing of ballet. It's all the relation, the way of standing towards things.

I read Deleuze. You read Deleuze. So it seems we have something in common. And no doubt we do. But if you relate to Deleuze by parsing his stance towards Hegel or treat him and his texts as dogma, well, I'm going to run away. What I look for in the world, what interests and engages and finally attracts me, is one's relationship to a thing — not the thing itself.

Unfortunately for me, this is not how we organize the social. For instance, dating apps ask for your interests — hiking, travel (everyone loves to travel, it seems), yoga, feminism (can you be interested in feminism but be opposed to it, whatever that means?), films, food (food has to be the oddest one — not cooking, not fine food, not Asian street food, but food). The assumption, of course, is that if you like hiking and feminism and someone else says they like hiking and feminism, then you have something in common and may be a good match. Algorithms are defined by such things. There are even dating apps that are dedicated to a given interest (the most horrific sounding one has to be Meet Mindful which begins by asking you to choose from two of the following: yoga, spirituality, volunteering, green living, mindfulness, travel, personal growth, conscious diet, meditation, fitness, creative arts. Oy vey.).

Now, this can of course make sense. I think of, say, a Meet Up for knitting: you want to share insights and experiences around it — tips, excitement, shared passion. The relation one has to knitting is more or less irrelevant in this context. What you're looking for during those weekly few hours is someone who shares this niche passion of yours so you can discuss it, learn, teach, share. And then go home.

But in a dating app? For friends? These are intimate relationships that involve entire ways of going, distributions of humor and seriousness, of passion and indifference. For instance, I like teasing and being teased by my friends and lovers. For me, it's a sign of intimacy but it's premised on an assumption of irony — that everything is finally silly as it all dissolves into the infinite flux of it all. So all my interests and quirks are tease-worthy as they're finally so much pretension in the face of the infinite cosmic flux. To the surprise of few, this has proven the downfall of many romantic relationships. My one relationship that lasted the longest — my 14 year marriage — did in fact have a shared inclination for irony.

This is to say: what matters isn't the things, it's the relations to the things. Please note that I am not saying that those in a relationship must have the same relation to life. What I'm saying is that how these relations interact with each other matters more than the fact that both parties "like" the same thing.

For instance, let's say we both "like" to hike. But I like taking my time strolling through the mountains; I stop and linger; I feel no need to get to the top. I feel alive when I do this. In fact, I feel so alive doing it I list it on my dating profile (I would never, in fact, do such a thing). You list hiking, too. But, for you, to like hiking means you won't feel satisfied until you get to the top of the mountain. And then, tomorrow, you want to get to the top of another mountain. I see the mountain as a playground; you see it a something to conquer. We both love hiking. But we have fundamentally different relationships to it. (To avoid this, I stopped saying I like to hike; I say I like to stroll. But this will to qualify with language — my particular relationship to language — is its own point of divergence from would-be lovers.) 

This is one reason I avoid people who declare they read the same things I do. I have absolutely no interest in being part of a Deleuze reading group as I have my relationship to him and his texts — which I relish as I relish art and music, as something that delights me and incites me to see the world anew. But if you read Deleuze to master his concepts, to counter Hegel, to know how he is accelerationist or not, a Marxist or not, an anarchist or not, I'm just not interested. Such conversations bore me to death. There's nothing wrong if you read Deleuze like that but that's just not how I read him. I take my pleasure; you take yours. Sharing each other's readings of Deleuze delights neither of us so why try? Deleuze alone won't save us.

Or take drugs and drinking. The people with whom I've have had the least issues are those who abstain, not on principle but from lack of appetite. But when I've dated people who also claim to enjoy drinking and drugs but have a different relation than my own, all sorts of problems arise. For example, people who "like" drugs but see them as, say, a guilty pleasure or temporary flight from "natural" being take note with how I see (and consume) them, namely, as just more fodder for living, not fundamentally different than books, kale, or hikes — stuff to be incorporated into a life of vitality as need and desire arise but are by no means necessary (I'd have problems with devout psychonauts or addicts, as well — and for the same reasons, although differently played out.)

What I am interested in is people who relate to anything the way I relate to Deleuze or booze and drugs — who enjoy it not as dogma or something to master but as something that delights and incites and, simultaneously, doesn't matter at all. The fact is I have more in common with someone who reads ballet as I read Deleuze — even though I know nothing about ballet and he knows nothing about Deleuze. What matters, what creates my connection to another person, is how their relation anything meshes with my relation to things. The particular thing is more or less irrelevant.

I say more or less because, sure, the thing matters. I know very few people who share my love of Deleuze and have a relationship to him that I enjoy. There were three such people but one of them just died — a death that resonates all the more as the connection is so rare. I cling to the remaining two for, should they disappear, I'll be left alone with my Deleuze. That is not the end of the world but it can be, at times, a cruel fate — to love something in such a way and not be able to share it with anyone. That said, if I had no one, I'd still not join a Deleuze reading group.

This is all the more reason to focus on relations, not things. What grabs me at a party or first date is not that someone loves this or that; what grabs me is how they stand towards those things. If they're very serious about their Buddhism, I am immediately turned off. This doesn't mean she can't love it, be deep into, take classes, read everything. But, for me, I want my partner to have a fundamentally ironic view of things — to love whatever it is but believe, at the same time, that everything gives way, including the ol' Buddha. If she thinks said Buddha is the one that matters — or Jesus, Nietzsche, hiking, yoga, veganism — and, in turn, finds my irony heretical, I have no choice but to turn away. To deny my relationship to things is to deny my very life for we are not just what we consume but how we consume.

And, in turn, the seriously religious — whether it's Buddhism or Judaism — have to turn away from me and my irony to maintain their way of going. If she's so serious about this Buddha and has no irony, she not only has no interest in me — even though I'm fond of the big old fat laughing Buddha — she is metabolically repulsed. Sure, we both "enjoy" reading Lao Tzu and contemplating being here now. But that's irrelevant as life is not a series of thing; it's a way of taking up things.

I hesitate to enter this territory but we see this insistence on things rather than relations in the ascendancy of identity politics. What matters, we're told, is that someone is a certain color, gender(s), sexual orientations, religion, nationality. And, sometimes, these do matter. But, for example, does the fact that the president is a woman more important than how she stands towards, say, abortion rights, war, the police state, the tyranny of mandated school syllabi?

Oh, having an ironic relationship to life can be lonely! I'd sure enjoy having an ironic president, regardless of race, gender, or religion. I'd love to see an ironic Kirk steering the Enterprise. I'd welcome an ironic lover into my life. Because if the president, Kirk, or my would-be girlfriend all love Deleuze, I might be intrigued but that, alone, does not suffice. What I relish is their relation to life. Now I'm not exactly sure what a dating app for ironists would look like but I'm definitely curious. My assumption is there'd be no one on it which, in the end, might be the perfect dating app for me.

Life is not things. Life is how we stand towards things. Life is an event, a happening, a way of taking things up, of consuming them, making sense of them: life is 4D, not 3D. Life is style, manner, modes of going. Things may entice, repel, incite, inspire, kill, educate. But such things still pale in comparison to the wonder, beauty, and joyful complexity of how we relate to things.


TomG said...


This resonated with me, and I'd have to say I was with you for a long stretch in my life. Who wants to discuss their pearls with pigs so to speak. But with the virus lockdown, I actually forked over $150 AUD for an online course in Deleuze's "What Is Philosophy?" And I have to say I was, and still am stunned. The professor has extensive knowledge of Deleuze, his works, and his history, and that after all is what I pay for. I'll do the thinking, thank you. What I'm paying for is the scholarly work that I don't want to do. He's pretty straight-forward, no-frills in his presentation. But, what makes the class so engaging is his audience and their questions afterward (definitely not during). They are all there striving, actually straining, to understand. I guess some of them know the professor and/or each other, but they are not there to socialize. Nor are they there to be entertained. And, I have to say I haven't been in or seen a class like that since I went to school in Canada in the 1970s. I think our problem is not with reading groups in general, but with how so many groupings, online and off, have degenerated into popularity fest. In that sense I would agree with you; joining such groups isn't all that conducive to thought.

Anonymous said...

How do you stand towards forest fires? I suggest social distancing,maybe Nevada or Mexico. Hope you are well.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Tom: Yes yes yes. Of course there are no nonsense Deleuze groups. There are probably even some great nonsensical ones I'd love. It's just that groups organized around a common topic miss the main point that interests me: how we relate to things. I'd be interested in a meeting group of ironists...I think. On the other hand.... In any case, thanks as always for reading.

@dg: Thanks for the well wishes. I am pinned inside, the air outside trying to kill me. I'd flee if it were not for my son and his mother. Such is my fate.

Anonymous said...

Good to hear. Take care. I have an escape property in the middle of nowhere up here if things go bad. It's safe from the fire for reasons I'm not sure I understand. Nature is amazing. Won't cross borders.


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