Thursday, July 29, 2010

american association of university professors

I'm in San Diego, in a dorm at SDSU, down for the AAUP Summer Institute (their tagline: "Because FUNstitute isn't a word"). This is my third AAUP Summer Institute, all of them held at SDSU, I believe. Last time I came, I was recently elected to the California Faculty Association's Contract Development and Bargaining Strategies committee, so I attended the workshop on contract bargaining. I know, I know, my command of logic is scintillating.

This time, I've just been made a more official part of the Santa Claus CFA chapter's faculty rights team, so I'm attending the workshop on contract enforcement and grievance procedures. Logic, scintillating, etc.

We'll be role-playing a grievance ripped from the headlines for the next two days. If the bargaining workshop is any indication, it should be really intense. At least I'm on the union side this time; last time, I had to play management (though, I confess, I kind of enjoyed playing dirty tricks). I'm not sure we have a winning grievance, but I've been on the losing end before.

I realize this has little to do with either albums of the day or erotic experience (so far at least; I just got into town). I brought Michel Serres' The Five Senses with me, and might get a chance to leaf through that during down times tomorrow. Otherwise, it's going to be hard-nosed, no-holds-barred, rough-and-tumble blood-and-guts hell-bent-for-leather contractual trench warfare for the next 48 hours. (See, already it's taking a more intriguingly physical turn - there's even hints of deviance in there!)

Kiss kiss!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

album of the day: Fleet Foxes

We first heard Fleet Foxes at the Bridge School Benefit concert, which we've attended the last three years running, thanks to the invitation of our pals Jennifer and Andrew. Every year we hear at least one performer we hadn't heard before, and last year we fell head over heels for Seattle band Fleet Foxes.

To give a sense of their sound, to me the most obvious comparisons are Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or maybe the Byrds. Robin Pecknold's lead vocals are backed with tight and ethereal harmonies from the other members (Nicholas Peterson, Skyler Skjelset, and Casey Wescott) and often by lush acoustic guitar. They sound absolutely gorgeous, even when they sing about absolutely terrible things. Which they do, in "He Doesn't Know Why," as the prodigal son returns:

See your wringing hands and a silver knife
Twenty dollars in your hand that you hold so tight
All the evidence of your vacant life
My brother you were born

And you will try to do what you did before
Pull the wool over your eyes
For a week or more
Let your family take you back to your original mind

There's nothing I can do
There's nothing I can do
There's nothing I can say
There's nothing I can say
I can say

Pecknold is also good without accompaniment, singing sweetly about death, in "Oliver James":

On the way to your brother's house in the valley, dear,
By the river bridge a cradle floating beside me.
In the whitest water on the banks against the stone
You will lift his body from the shore and bring him home

Oliver James washed in the rain no longer
Oliver James washed in the rain no longer

On the kitchen table that your grandfather did make
You and your delicate way will slowly clean his face
And you will remember when you rehearsed the actions of
An innocent and anxious mother full of anxious love

Fleet Foxes make beautiful, somewhat pastoral music, drawing a lot from old folkie traditions and revivalist 60s folk-rock. They do not sound derivative. They do not sound mannered. I hope for a lot more terrific stuff about awful themes from them.

The album is very warmly, even a bit slickly produced, but don't let that fool you. They sound polished and smooth live as well. The Bridge School gig is held at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. The sound system has to cover about 76 square miles of lawn, so you can imagine the kind of sound quality one gets for acoustic music. Let's say it lacks subtlety. Nonetheless, these guys sounded beautiful at the show.

As for why they write such incredibly sad songs, well, a lot of sad things happen in the world, ya know. You might as well write songs about it.

on gender, orientation, subjectivity and description

I'm begging someone to tell me how badly I've misinterpreted Irigaray. I'm also begging someone to tell me I've got her mostly right, or right enough, or that my reply is good, or lousy.

You are living in conceptuality, somewhere between the imperceptible presence of nothingness and the inertia of a corpse. What is the rigour of your thought? The superb confidence of someone moving inside a fleshy fabric borrowed from the other. The limitless appeal of someone entrusting his survival to the destiny of mortal women. The implacable, systematic quality of an organization which has already taken from living organisms the elements it needs to be sustained and developed unreservedly. A sovereign power, miming and undermining the whole of the resources from which it draws.

The fact that you no longer assert yourself as an absolute subject changes nothing. The inspiration which breathes life into you, the law or duty which guide you – are these not the very essence of your subjectivity? You feel you could abandon your ‘I’? But your ‘I’ holds you fast, having flooded and covered the whole of everything it ever created. And it never stops breathing its own emanations into you. With each new inspiration do you not become more than ever ‘I’? Reduplicated within yourself. (Irigaray, Elemental Passions, 82f.)

There is an obvious gender-essentialist position in this book. I don’t accept that position, based on my own experience as much as my philosophical thoughts about gender. I don’t recognize myself, my sexuality, my experience, in Irigaray’s accusations. But I am uncertain of myself: To some degree, we always misrecognize ourselves.

I think I understand the challenge of Irigaray’s account of passion and the gendered differences in “feminine” and “masculine” sexuality in 20th Century northern-white cultures (let’s be honest with ourselves, Luce: that’s who you’re talking about and who you’re talking to). Most people, looking at me, would see someone “male” and to a large degree “masculine” – the beard is a bit of a giveaway for most. I was brought up into a culture that has a gigantic disciplinary and discursive apparatus to reproduce a heterosexual norm, and to gender our bodies and our experiences. One might assume, then, based on my superficially appearing “masculine,” that the norms of “masculine” and “heterosexual” apply to me in some untroubled way. One way I feel challenged by Irigaray (and other essentialist feminists, e.g., Geraldine Finn) is that, since I, by being “masculine,” have a position of privilege in our society, it’s all very well and easy for me to claim to be “liberated” from “masculine” or “hetero” norms. It’s easy because, first of all, coming from that position of privilege, there’s less obstruction to my making my gender and sexuality an issue for myself – that is, I am not forced to make it an issue, I have a kind of privilege to take it up as an issue. I think that’s probably true. I also can’t do anything about it. Does that mean, really, that I can’t “repudiate” my “absolute” subjectivity?

On another level, the way I’ve been describing erotic experience, and the erotics of sensation, is undoubtedly gendered, because I am addressing this from my perspective and understanding, with my language. Therefore, my privilege, and my gender, and my presumed heterosexuality, decidedly matter in these descriptions. One might, in fact, read them as nothing other than the outpourings of an erotic “entrusting” of my “survival to the destiny of mortal women.” But given Irigaray’s descriptions of passion, and of sex, which are decidedly gendered and hetero, I think dismissing my accounts on this basis prejudges them on the basis of a presupposition that when I describe erotic clutching, I mean by that to name and evoke heterosexual intercourse. And, to be brutally frank and overly candid, that is simply dead wrong.

For, however “masculine” and “hetero” our culture’s vast disciplinary apparatus has constructed me to be, my actual practices of embodiment and sexuality don’t fit the profile very well, and only have for brief periods of my life. Reading my evocations of the erotic from a standpoint that doesn’t presume that, for me, the erotic is limited to the sexual, and the sexual isn’t limited to the heteronormative, I hope I have been able to say something that can’t be boxed up that way. I bring this up to get at two things in response to Irigaray.

(1) If one ties subjectivity, and the mastery-sovereignty-dominance she imputes to (masculine/masquerading-as-neutral) subjectivity, on the basis of, and through the auspices of an erotic and sexual act-relation-orientation, then what one imagines to be true about sexual practices would have to factor into how that, or any, subjectivity is constructed. In short: it should matter, for the construction of my gender/sexuality/subjectivity, just how I tend to get it on. Making presumptions about it on the basis of my superficially apparent gender would substantially miss the point.

On the other hand, to account for gender/sexuality/subjectivity, I would myself have to link this back to sexual practices, disciplinary practices attendant thereto, and the entire history of my body and its orientation and gender. This could, I believe, begin with an account of those practices, histories, etc. (This is something I’ve been doing all summer, and which I haven’t posted, for probably obvious reasons.)

(2) The “absolute” subject who appropriates women and flesh as “resources” is, on my alternative account, subjected even in that appropriation, and never “absolute” sovereign. Certainly I do mean to appropriate the flesh of this peach, but I have to let the peach into me, to become (in part) part of me, for that appropriation, that enjoyment, that jouissance to happen. (I know, I know: jouissance is an ambiguous French word that means, in one sense, orgasm; I know, I’m saying eating a peach is orgasmic – but we do say things like that. I once tried to convince a grad school pal to translate jouissance as juiciness in a paper he was writing. Almost won him over, too.)

And there are all kinds of pleasures (and pains) that take place even for privileged white “masculine” types like me, that only happen by way of the commingling of flesh and my subjection to sensation. There is no “absolute” subject – I assume Irigaray understood this and was writing hyperbolically, but that skews the account.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

album of the day: Party Intellectuals

Hey, how bout some noise-art rock?

I bought this on the strength of Marc Ribot's guitar work on a couple Tom Waits albums in the 80s and 90s. I hadn't done any further research, and assumed that (a) Ribot was French, (b) his guitar work with Waits would exemplify his own music - being jazz-influenced, angular, a little distorted and reverby. So I picked this thing up, knowing nothing about it, in Berkeley, with our pals X-ina and Che.

On the way home, X-ina had the idea that we should play the music we'd bought that day in succession - a track from one cd, a track from another, and so forth. She put in Ribot's Ceramic Dog, and out came furious incomprehensible noise. This is not X-ina's kind of music. I suggested she could skip it, and I think she may have skipped the first track, but the next was even louder, and screechier, and harder to make sense of, especially in a car hurtling through - I dunno, Tracy? - at 75 mph.

I put it away for a couple weeks after that, until I decided it was the right kind of music for some complicated dish I was cooking. In that context, Ribot's slithering leads and blasting riffs from nowhere were absolutely perfect. If you like that kind of thing, which a handful of people obviously do, or else Art of Noise and Kraftwerk wouldn't have sold diddly-squat. (And of course they did sell diddly-squat, so there.)

So, not only is Marc Ribot a faux Frenchman (born in New Jersey), but his work with Waits didn't prepare me in the least for this. Certainly he's steeped in jazz. There are wicked solos throughout the album, and the backing band of Shazad Ismaily (who works some with ex-Soul Coughing lead Mike Doughty) and Ches Smith are excellent accompanists for him. But you really have to kind of like noise to make it through this.

That first incomprehensible blast on the album, it turns out, is none other than the Doors' "Break On Through (To The Other Side)," their first single in 1966. I was a huge Doors fan in high school, played two copies of The Doors to pieces, and I did not recognize this song. On my second listen, I only recognized it because I knew what it was - which might mean I didn't really, I'm not sure.

This is followed by the rave-ready title track, which puns on the idea of party intellectuals to the effect of imagining chic persons at a lowbrow party looking fairly stupid. Then there's "Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch," which is, I think, easily the stupidest song on the album, but I believe deliberately stupid. The song is sung by Janice Cruz in a parodically over-the-top American accent, recounting what seem to be European vacation exploits:

For lunch...
(Ribot sings: Por almorzar...)
We have gambas.
In Saint Tropez, We tanned on the beach.
Todo el mundo es kitsch.

And on and on. There's also cruelty humor directed at bad relationships, in the song "Girlfriend," in which the speaker admits that he doesn't like his girlfriend, would prefer to have sex with her best friend, "but she won't let me" (left with the ambiguous pronoun reference).

It's noise-art rock. It's high concept. This record was reviewed on NPR for crying out loud.

Sometimes, that's just the thing. (While I'm at it, I might as well admit that, occasionally, prog rock is just the thing.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

album of the day: Band On The Run

After the Beatles broke up, each Beatle pursued a solo career of markedly different direction, commercial and critical success. The most lucratively successful Beatle, Paul formed Wings in order, reportedly, to have a rock-and-roll band, and then he proceeded to record almost all parts of their studio recordings himself. Now, I'm not calling Sir Paul a liar. He doesn't need me for that, or for anything else, for that matter.

John Lennon wrote, in one of his fairly typical early-post-Beatles exercises in aggression, "How Do You Sleep?": "The only thing you done was Yesterday..." meant as a direct accusation that Paul McCartney lacked creativity, musicianship, fortitude, grace, intelligence, thoughtfulness, humanity, or any other desirable trait.

You wanna know how stupid Band on the Run is? Paul wrote a rejoinder to John for it, "Let Me Roll It," in which he grudgingly acknowledges John's contribution, then dismisses it as masturbatory.

You wanna know something else about how stupid this album is? So the story goes, the band (i.e., Paul) decided it'd be a good idea to record in some exotic location, and they chose, at random, Lagos, Nigeria. During the period of recording, they were mugged, extorted by the local constabulary, subjected to such extreme daytime heat that they could only work after about 1 am, and ultimately escaped, feeling lucky to have all their supply of limbs with them.

In addition, with the exception of "Jet," and the ridiculously precious "Bluebird," not one of the songs makes the slightest bit of sense whatsoever, and three of them are suites of unrelated sections of both music and lyrics. The songs don't hold together, they don't make coherent sense as an album, most of them are, each on their own, downright silly.

If you think any of that means I have anything less than boundless affection for this album, you'd be entirely wrong. The whole thing is great fun to listen to, and Paul had a genius, John to the contrary, for incredibly catchy tunes, melodies, and singing delivery. Paul McCartney can friggin' sell a song.

One day, for kicks, you might get two cd players in a room, play this on one of them and, say Radiohead on the other, and let them fight it out.

commingling flesh & Irigaray's kiss

Speak, all the same. It’s our good fortune that your language isn’t formed of a single thread, a single strand or pattern. It comes from everywhere at once. You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses. Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time? To seduce, to satisfy, to fill one of my ‘holes’? With you, I don’t have any. We are not lacks, voids awaiting sustenance, plenitude, fulfillment from the other. By our lips we are women: this does not mean that we are focused on consuming, consummation, fulfillment.

Kiss me. Two lips kissing two lips: openness is ours again. Our ‘world.’ And the passage from the inside out, from the outside in, the passage between us, is limitless. Without end. No knot or loop, no mouth ever stops our exchanges… Are we unsatisfied? Yes, if that means we are never finished. If our pleasure consists in moving, being moved, endlessly. Always is motion: openness is never spent nor sated.

No surface holds. No figure, line, or point remains. No ground subsists. But no abyss, either. Depth, for us, is not a chasm. Without a solid crust, there is no precipice. Our depth is the thickness of our body, our all touching itself. Where top and bottom, inside and outside, in front and behind, above and below are not separated, remote, out of touch. Our all intermingled. Without breaks or gaps. (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 209, 210, 213)

I'm out of my depth when it comes to the scholarly reception of Irigaray, or even the Merleau-Ponty bidness' reception of her. I know when I last read her critique of him in An Ethics Of Sexual Difference that I thought hers was a strained, strategic, unfair interpretation. But who cares?

I like these descriptions to a point. I was a little surprised that some of my language echoed hers to a degree. I'm not certain we mean the same things by it. I do think the note about being unsatisfied lines up interestingly with Barbaras' notion that flesh is always disappointed. There's a subtle difference in trajectory and tone in these accounts, and between them and mine, that I hope to work out usefully to understand what I mean better.

I like Irigaray's account of depth, thickness, and touching. It seems right to me because I believe in the "Whose leg is that?" phenomenon. Under what Marion called the "erotic reduction," that is, the setting aside of the mundane approach to the world that happens in erotic sensation, I believe we do lose track of "I" and "you," of distinct, separate identities and selves. (Obviously, this can be interrupted by the mundane; but it can also interrupt the mundane.)

In contrast with Barbaras' account, I think Irigaray is emphasizing the primacy of depth and thickness as lacking (numerical) specificity, or even differentiated subjectivity. I mean this as an emphasis, and the primacy as the originary point for intersubjectivity. Just a shade more than Barbaras, Irigaray seems to be saying that "we" (who aren't yet even differentiated as "we") are gapless flesh, flesh without holes to fill. Whereas, Barbaras' account of disappointment of desire seems to me to emphasize a movement of rejoining flesh to flesh.

I think there's something to both of these. "Who moves whom?" and "who moves in whom", questions I asked as a way to get at this before, are somewhere between these two accounts. Because I don't know if Irigaray is being entirely straightforward in her description, I don't know if she really means what seems to be undifferentiated flesh. If so, though, I think that's wrong on one level.

In those very key moments, in the advent of erotic commingling, "I" and "you" may disappear, and all the rest of the world may disappear, and there may be no "things" at all, just flesh, just depth and thickness, but depth and thickness are also scent and taste and... differentiation. There are penetrations and interpenetrations and grasps and being-grasped, and there is moving and pulsing of flesh with/on/into flesh. Not any longer exactly "my" or "your" flesh (I think that's not ultimately gonna mean anything), and not any longer exactly "leg" or "hand," but flesh intermingling with flesh is still differentiating. Above and below, in front and behind may not be separated, I agree, but they're still differentiated, and that differentiation is how erotic sensation is erotic.

In sensation, in subjection, in erotic commingling of flesh, we reach/are reached, we touch/are touched, smell/are smelled, taste/are tasted, penetrate/are penetrated by differentiating moving flesh, flesh that belongs to this intermingling first and foremost, whose advent precisely is this intermingling. Where are "you" or "me" in this? We're not yet, or not there right now. We're tied up at the moment. But that's something I have to account for yet.

Returning to our senses, we find that you're still you and I'm still me, or else, we separate our "selves" again into distinct subjectivities - as we tend to assume, in the natural attitude. For one thing, we begin again to speak of other things, and to speak as if those other things mattered. And they do, now, once again, crawling back into the "real" world of our intrinsic and imposed relevances, blinking and adjusting our eyesight, a little surprised or bemused to find an "I" there who has things to do, or a cramp. Where did this "I" come from? Why does it have to deal with these other things?

Friday, July 23, 2010

desire, carnality, affection

One cannot, therefore, oppose a layer of pure passivity, which would correspond to sensibility, and a properly active layer, which would appear with desire. There is a continuity between perception and desire; both must be conceived as moments of an expression which, beginning with the perceptual level, is already active to the degree that it unfolds dimensions – and which, on the plane of the relationship to the other, is still passive because, in desire itself, the other fails and the self does not know itself in it.

At the heart of carnal contact, there can suddenly be the presentiment of the unity of a transcendental subject, the transparency of a world reconciled with itself. But this harmony is still contentless, bereft of a body which is its own; sense is still carried only by the thickness of fleshes. The promise of fulfillment in desire is finally disappointed; the other makes itself absence again, interposes between itself and me the thickness of its body, and the world regains its transcendence.

There is no meaning that is not incarnated and, in this measure, affection. There is no affection, particularly in the relation of desire, that is not already the advent of a sense, an attempt to carry the world’s opacity to transparency. (Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon, 269, 271, 272)

Barbaras has good cards on desire. I want to elaborate on two aspects – that desire is “finally disappointed,” and that all perception and all meaning are incarnate and involve affection.

Desire is constant. Our erotic entanglements create pleasure, even climactic pleasure, but that moment is already surpassed, already the opening to more desire. What else do we desire in that moment but more of it? And that desire is never finally, never completely fulfilled, because that desire is basic, elemental, primal for flesh. Even as our erotic clutching ends, the “other” recedes into absence, and the world comes back into focus, desire goes on. What I always desire is more commingling of flesh. That’s not to say that I am disappointed; I may feel tremendously happy, exhausted, full. But flesh just is desirous, and I have to confess that I do feel that as well.

In my way, I want to extend that to the basic erotics of sensation in general. What follows a perfect white peach? Another white peach, of course! And when I get full, or when the season ends, the desire remains, for more. Or consider petting a cat or a guitar. Those comminglings call for constancy, but, life being what it is, we can’t pet the cat or the guitar perpetually. (Imagine a German Idealist writing a book called Perpetual Pets.)

Ask me how I’m doing, any time, and the honest answer I’ll never tell you in polite company is: I want.

The endlessness of desire is another way of saying that perception and meaning involve affection. Flesh is endlessly affected by its erotic entanglements, its touch and scent and vibration, invitation and penetration. The affect always underlies the act: to perceive is to perceive according to desire, to accord flesh to its desire. Any perceptual act, even the most mundane. Right now, I’m looking at my computer screen, typing on the slightly curved, warm keys, each keystroke a moment of contact, satisfaction and dissatisfaction of desire for contact, for the pleasure of the smooth, the delight of overcoming the little resistance of each key, the pleasant click-clack of their tap. I don’t usually pay much attention to it, but in fact, typing away busily, concentrating on the task at hand, foregrounding in consciousness a set of concerns, often extremely abstract and (physically) absent and invisible, my fingertips carry on a sordid affair with my keyboard. And don’t even get me started on what they do with the mouse!

Sensation is the undergoing of affect, the meeting up of flesh to the flesh it constantly desires, never coincides with, and always has to part ways with. This takes place for us, passively/actively, pre-reflectively. It is there in every moment.

I’ve been playing around with titles as well. In Montreal I was trying to write down phonetically some differences between typical Californicated US pronunciation and typical Ontariocinated Canadian pronunciation. For instance, the Canadian for “body” is very close to “bawdy.” That led me to re-write one of Merleau-Ponty’s key terms as “the bawdy subject.” Yesterday Barbaras gave me the phrase to complete my title: “Bawdy Subjects and Phenomenal Bodies.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

album of the day: Speaking in Tongues

Talking Heads were, obviously, iconic to the 1980s. What people think of as their distinctive sound, aside from the familiar reedy tenor of David Byrne, came about largely as a result of collaboration with producer Brian Eno, in my opinion. I refer to their use of drum machine and drums and other percussion, synthesizer and guitar fills up the wazoo, and the space they gave each song to develop. It's kind of remarkable that this album has only 9 songs on it, but in at 46 minutes. Five minutes is long for a pop/rock song, but these don't feel long, even as they meander and consider themselves. This was their third under the influence of Eno, and definitely has his stamp, but the band also work out a way to be themselves as well.

The album's hits were "Burning Down The House," which you couldn't avoid if you lived through the 80s, "Slippery People," which I adore, and, to a lesser degree, "Girlfriend is Better," which I also adore. I mean, you hafta: "Nothing is better than that. Is it?"

No two Talking Heads records sound exactly alike, even though they all sound like Talking Heads records. If you dig Merleau-Ponty's ontology of the chiasm, you might think of their music as never deviating from itself yet never coinciding with itself. I think that's what made them vital and interesting then, and what keeps their stuff sounding good, even if dated, now. You could hear development and experimentation happening through these weirdly catchy songs.

For many, I'm sure, the main appeal of Talking Heads was Byrne's vocals, especially in their middle-to-late period when he kept up that stuttering staccato and eventually took to wearing gigantic buttressed suits. Some folks even pay limited attention to his weird lyrics. "Slippery People" has a call-and-response chorus:

What's the matter with him? (He's alright)
How do you know? (The lord won't mind)
Don't play no games (He's alright)
Straight from the bottom to the top

Which is weird. Byrne was weird. Probably still is. And he's certainly a somber son of a bitch. My favorite tune on the album is the quiet, almost sweet - no, dammit, fully sweet final track, "This Must Be The Place." The opening synthesizer solo just makes my heart warm and cuddly. Then Byrne comes in, singing more softly and smoothly than on any other track on the record, to pursue a recurring theme in his work, the notion of home. I shall conclude by quoting it in its entirety:

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing

Hey, I got plenty of time
Hey, you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
Out of the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight

Home is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home, she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this where I'll be, where I'll be

Hey, we drift in and out
Hey, sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I'm just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you'll love me 'til my heart stops
Love me 'til I'm dead
Eyes that light up, eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head
Ah ooh

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

album of the day: Five Leaves Left

Nick Drake is not my hero, although he was crazy, which a lot of my heroes have been.

Drake died in 1974 of a probably accidental overdose of antidepressants (which were pretty crude in 1974), having released only three albums of his quiet, brooding music to little commercial fanfare. He apparently suffered tremendous social anxiety and had a hell of a time performing in public - to which I can certainly relate - so his studio recordings were sort of orphans left to fend for themselves in the big bad music world. And they're too quiet, too fragile, to live off the streets.

His guitar work is pretty freaking exquisite. His compositions are not terrifically complex, but with his instrument tuned mainly in various non-standard ways, the tunes come across as built funny. In any case, he played with precision and just a terrific touch. If Fahey had a genius for bent melody, Drake had a genius for loveliness.

On Five Leaves Left, his 1969 debut, Island Records gave him Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, as well as a string section, for a supporting cast. And although the strings get a little too rich for my blood, I've got no argument against the Non-Brothers Thompson - in particular Danny's work on "Three Hours" really makes the track work. Anyway, that support showed Island's commitment to Drake, in my opinion; but Drake only toured reluctantly, and, I've read, with some petulance.

You definitely get a sense of his general feeling of ill-fitting the world around him from his lyrics. For instance, the opening track, "Time Has Told Me":

Time has told me
You're a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our Ocean
Will find its shore

Then there's the autobiographical "Man In A Shed":

Well there was a man
Lived in a shed
Spent most of his days out of his head
For his shed was rotten let in the rain
Said it was enough to drive any man insane
When it rained
He felt so bad
When it snowed he felt just simply sad

So, yes, I have to confess that Nick Drake is not allowed in the house. I'm not sure how I'd feel about him being here. What do you do with a massively talented songwriter, singer, and above all, guitarist, who doesn't really want to talk to you or play for you?

While I'm at it, I'd like to say that it bugs the shit out of me that Nick Drake songs keep appearing in TV commercials. A couple years ago it was VW using "Pink Moon," which (a) makes no sense whatsoever as a commercial jingle, and (b) seems to be about being followed by a pink moon whose intent is to cause grievous harm. Lately, it's been AT&T using "From The Morning," which at least doesn't seem to be foretelling astronomical doom, but still bothers me. You know what it is? It's that the songs are used because they're pleasant, sweet, lovely melodies played by this sweet, lovely dead guitarist who was a depressed recluse his whole adult life. It's in such incredibly poor taste. It may even bother me more than John Lennon's "Revolution" being used by Nike. Um, nah.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

album of the day: The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick

Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico had no bearing on the choice of this set of live recordings of legendary guitarist John Fahey for album of the day. John Fahey is my hero, and this was a good accompaniment on my walk to campus today in the 90 degree afternoon (which, for here, in mid July, especially after the past week, is actually rather temperate).

Fahey was a mad genius, innovator of fingerstyle guitar and sometime revivalist of old folk, blues, and gospel music of the United States. No Fahey, no Leo Kottke, in my opinion.

Fahey played intricate, sometimes twisted versions of those old songs, and very often used themes from them in composing his own. You can hear bits of "Shortnin Bread" or "Bicycle Built For Two" in his tunes, for instance - as well as those songs themselves, woven into medleys. Fahey's songs often have what seem to be programmatic titles - "The Death of Clayton Peacock" or the title track of this album - but I don't think the tunes generally have much to do with the titles. (One minor exception is the title track, named after an oil spill off the coast in 1969 - and which appears only on this album; then again, the composition doesn't have a lot to do with oil.)

If the songs are arbitrarily titled, as I suspect some are, this may speak to a certain dismissive attitude toward the compositions. In fact, I've read that Fahey could be very impatient with his older material, playing perfunctory versions of his great songs like "When The Catfish Are In Bloom" or "Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt" in concert.

That's not the case in these performances, one from 1968 and the other probably a year later. The album is a strong collection and covers the range of Fahey's emotional tone, from the tranquil, to the somber, to the absurd. And he did it all with just a guitar, some funky tunings, an occasional slide, and his bizarre brain.

One of my favorite elements of this album is when he makes mistakes in "Catfish" and in "Lion," only to play through the mistake and move on to the next part of the song. Even though these are accidents, Fahey uses them to keep the tunes fresh - of course, also by varying tempos and dynamics from studio versions.

There's something extremely satisfying about listening to "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain" while jaywalking across Hawkeye Avenue in the middle of the afternoon.

Monday, July 19, 2010

album of the day: Tim Buckley

Okay, so, obviously enough I suppose, I found my way to Tim Buckley by investigating his batshit crazy son Jeff. Tim Buckley's musical career, some nine albums from 1966 to 1974, went from accessible, vaguely psychedelia-tinged, oddly mod folk-rock, to more and more experimental, inaccessible, and, I have to say, ultimately unlistenable idiosyncracy.

Today's album is his debut on Elektra, who signed him on the spectacular beauty and power of his voice, and the reasonable chops of these not overly impressive songs, described by Buckley's one-time co-writer and guitar sidekick Larry Beckett as "high school love songs." Well, I never wrote songs like that in high school. And I sure as hell couldn't perform them with the emotional maturity and force Buckley does.

That's not to say there aren't some pretty twee moments, utterly unnecessary chimes, thoroughly pointless backing orchestration, and so forth. But on balance, there's way more to recommend it. For instance: the driving rhythmic force of "I Can't See You" or of "Aren't You The Girl." There are also some strong lyrics in a few of the songs, for instance, probably my favorite on the album after "I Can't See You," this slightly impressionistic, and interesting synaesthetic bit, from "Strange Street Affair Under Blue":

You'd be touched if you would touch
But you only reach and taunt
Will my taste stay grey and blue
If I try to turn from you

The whole record was meant to be commercial, and although it wasn't as commercially successful as Buckley's second album, Goodbye and Hello, nor as adventurous in some respects, I think it scores over Goodbye and Hello for that very reason. Sometimes commercially savvy singer-songwriter pop with catchy tunes is really satisfying, when it's done well, conceived well, and especially sung well.

Like father, like son, I think. Both batshit crazy, tremendously talented singers and songwriters, both met tragically early ends.

on a method of evocation

I’m developing a vocabulary for attempting to evoke sensation. The terms I’ve started to deploy include erotic, flesh, commingling, intermingling, foreign bodies, rhythm, vibration, thickness. I’m hoping to avoid making these the terms of analysis of sensation, but instead to have them remain primarily evocative words. Obviously that’s not entirely possible. Flesh and foreign bodies are directly borrowed from Merleau-Ponty and Lingis, respectively, and for any reader of theirs, they would resonate with their own use of the terms. I definitely play upon that.

But more to the point, repeating the words in multiple evocations develops their sense within my discourse, in ways that I don’t think I can or should claim to control entirely. They’re turning into something like an ontological vocabulary for me, which is fine, as long as it’s understood that this is in the way of Merleau-Ponty’s indirect ontology. They do not address being directly or unequivocally. They do not capture any kind of essence (as though an essence was the kind of thing that could be captured by any language; as though sensation had an essence in any traditional metaphysical sense). I don’t believe in capturing essences, and I don’t believe that language speaks Being.

I tell myself this is phenomenological. The precise way it is could be a lot clearer. After all, the most basic steps in phenomenological method are the reduction and description. Have I made a phenomenological reduction? To some extent I have set aside presuppositions about what is proper to erotic sensation, since I’m including eating peaches. I do have something in mind when I say “erotic,” though – and although I’ve arrived at that based on evocations, if it’s become almost a category, then I have to admit the presupposition of this category’s integrity, perspicacity, scope, etc. There is “something” I consider erotic. I haven’t named it pretending to be able to be unequivocal, but there still is this “something.”

The evocation of the “something,” the words that evoke it, and the somewhat hazy presupposition, have a way of cycling around one another, habituating to one another in my vocabulary exercises. I think that can’t be helped. No description is pure, final, or a capture. No understanding is total. No reflection or reduction is without its prereflective, its irreducible.

I avoid calling what I’m writing description, because to me, description names a kind of naming, stating how some experience feels. In the phenomenological tradition, especially from Husserl, description has been said to lead to die Sache selbst, the ends of our conscious acts, that “something” of which consciousness is always consciousness of. I am not sure that the erotic, that sensation, is at the end of our acts, or is a something in this sense - one that strikes many commentators as objectifying the ends of our conscious acts. My attempt is to evoke how something becomes perceived or experienced: we do not experience “the erotic,” but we experience something “erotically.” I'm pursuing the adverbial dimension, rather than the nominal, if you'll excuse the expression. (This is another way this is indirect.)

I’m going this route because I’ve read so many accounts of flesh as “openness,” or “intercorporeality” and so on, and to me, these are not evocative of how it is, and to what, sensation is open.

Friday, July 16, 2010

album of the day: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My grad school pal Dave "Dave" Koukal turned me on to Wilco years ago by playing their 1998 album Summerteeth when I was visiting. I immediately bought the album. Some time after that my college pal Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer sent me a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I think Summerteeth is marginally better, but there are few albums by any band of any stripe that have as much of a damn-the-torpedoes feel as YHF.

This effect is due largely to the screechy guitar riffs that lacerate many of the tracks. I am not at all sure what Wilco were thinking of, other than to try something different - and that, I think, is related to the band's history. Emerging out of the breakup of alt-country-rock Uncle Tupelo, Wilco's frontmen Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett consciously and conspicuously made Wilco sound different. What's interesting about this is that they tried to sound different from themselves, or from an earlier incarnation of themselves. Making this record just about scuttled the band, as I understand the story. Bennett split; the rest of the band ended up having to buy their way out of their contract because the label hated it so much.

Wilco have good genes. Tweedy's songs have depth, humor, humanity; and they all clearly have deep connections to the history of rock and popular music. It shows up in their solid ensemble play and their soloing, but in particular in the compositions. On YHF, my favorites, in no order, are "Jesus, Etc.," "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." "Jesus, Etc." (I'll bet you a thousand dollars it got this title because of the first line, and nobody having a good option for naming it) has a repeated couplet and chorus that I adore:

you were right about the stars
each one is a setting sun

tall buildings shake
voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
bitter melodies turning your orbit around

"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is (I hope) a tongue-in-cheek bit about how crappy people tend to treat one another in relationships, for no reason at all. "I'm the Man Who Loves You" has freaking horns on it, as well as a highly-distorted fuzz guitar solo that irritates neighbors at 100 feet.

I suppose what really makes Wilco is Tweedy's distinctive, slightly nasal tenor. At least, that's what I expect makes Wilco most recognizable. Either that or Tweedy's Eeyore-esque lyrics and (frequently) delivery. I think what makes Wilco great could also represent a catastrophe for rock music. They're sort of rock classicists, or mannerists: the stuff that makes rock rock, especially 60s and 70s rock, is, in Wilco, appropriated and distilled into an oddly matured music. Which might make Wilco Tchaikovsky, I'm not sure.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

album of the day: Brilliant Corners

Thelonious Monk is my hero.

This is one of the most challenging jazz records of its era. Listening to Monk is always challenging, because of his odd angular approach to melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, life, etc. Backed by his own stride-inflected left hand, Monk's solos tinkled and tripped around in ways that seem, to the untrained ear, accidental, whereas, in many cases, it is. (In the documentary film produced by Clint Eastwood, there's a snippet of Monk playing on Japanese television. In the middle of "Just A Gigolo," Monk clearly surprises himself by a missed chord, then picks up the accident and uses it as a figure for several choruses.)

In fact, words like surprise and tripped are about the best way to describe Monk's music. There's really nobody like him in modern jazz. I do love an iconoclast.

The musicians attempting to perform this music include major heavyweights Sonny Rollins on tenor, Max Roach on drums, Oscar Pettiford on bass (Paul Chambers spells Pettiford on one track), along with lesser-known altoist Ernie Henry and, on one track, Duke Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry. That's an extremely impressive lineup.

I have read what might be an apocryphal story about the recording of the title track. The tune has an odd rhythm and multiple changes of tempo, very strangely shaped spaces for solos, and an unusual interval. Supposedly, nobody could play it straight through, so the track on record is actually several takes taped together. (Though this is the story told in the Wikipedia article, so obviously this is gospel truth.)

Following this is a slow-tempo, loping blues called "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," which is more standard, except that Monk plays about 13 dozen choruses of solo that make no sense, which I love, before passing off to Rollins, who slaps the tune silly.

Then, "Pannonica," named after Monk's long-time companion/friend/erstwhile lover Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. A happy accident led to this strange performance: Monk found a celeste in the recording studio, and positioned it next to the piano so that he could play the celeste right-handed and the piano left-handed. The chiming celeste is, to me at least, disconcerting, in a very nice way. There's a curious tension in the horns' harmony throughout the head of the tune, which never really resolves - also somewhat off-putting, but I like Monk's off-putting. (I guess it's not really off-putting in that case, eh? Language fails. As usual. Stupid language!)

Monk plays without accompaniment on the only non-Monk tune on the album, "I Surrender, Dear." I tend to think Monk sounds better with at least a bass and drum kit, but there are several solo performances among his recordings that knock me he heck out. This might not sound very nice, but I mean it in the nicest possible way - what Monk can do solo is project a kind of desolation, which I mean in an existential sense: an abject and lonely despair at the fact of being, the futurity of not being, and the gap between. This track comes close to that as well, but remains this side of it, I think by way of staying inside a performance space, a thoughtful and virtuoso space. Interesting bit.

The album wraps up with the gloriously kooky "Bemsha Swing," co-written by Monk and drummer Denzil Best in the 40s. Max Roach plays drums and timpani on the track, gleefully pounding away and giving the tune an off-kilter rhythm that works very well with the composition.

There's an old Steven Wright gag that helps explain Monk's music as well as my love for it. He would ask the audience if they know that feeling you get when you lean your chair back too far and are just about tip over, then say "I feel like that all the time." That's Monk's genius.

flesh, pleasure, tastes, habituation

If flesh is primal, originary subjection, embodiment of affective, erotic sensitivity, sensibility, sentience, and sense-ability, then what emerges from this thick depth, enacting, moving, and projecting this flesh, is the subject, the “I can.” What Merleau-Ponty is fond of pointing out is that traditional philosophy and the psychology contemporary to his time forget this subject’s inherence in subjection – either focusing on subjection as a matter of external forces, internal forces and drives, or on the subject as sovereign, prime mover. In a note to VI, describing the emergence (dehiscence) of subject from subjection as a “chiasm,” he says, “every relation with being is simultaneously a taking and a being taken, the hold is held, it is inscribed and inscribed in the same being that it takes hold of” (266).

When I say flesh is primal and originary, I do not mean to say that it is beyond or beneath perception and consciousness as acts, to the point that it is not subjected to those acts. We act upon our flesh when we act upon the world – to perceive is also to subject oneself to sensation. Not only my body, but my flesh as well, undergoes its own history. The pleasures and pains I have undergone over the course of my projective, wide-awake life are also the pleasures and pains of my flesh, “inscribed,” or embedded, scratched into, my flesh.

We learn pleasures and pains as well as undergo them. A certain sexual pleasure, a certain delicious taste, a certain delight at being held or petted this way – these are upsurges of desire that are not under the sovereign command of the subject, but that a prudent sovereign will take up and dedicate action and resources to. I can never say wherefrom this pleasure arose, other than to say it must have been latent in the flesh. And now that this pleasure has been carried out as a practice, habituating desire into an institution, an orientation, it is more difficult to comprehend or remember that initial, surprising upsurge. But that upsurge is still there in the flesh.

How do I know? Because tastes change, pleasures shift or wane, habituation works upon the flesh and heightens or lessens its particular sensibilities for this or that. There is no determined or definite parallelism, no perfect ratio between the disciplined subject and the habituated flesh. I roam about in search of what pleases me; meanwhile my flesh is ready or not for it. To be habituated just means: the flesh is more often ready than not.

(I realize I should also write something about pain. In fact, when I got started along this route in late May, I intended to read and write about pain. But isn't it much nicer to consider pleasure? The erotics of pain can wait...)

(I also intended to write more of the history of my body, in particular my history of pleasure and pain, habituation, and movement. For instance, I still may write about my experience of remedial gym class, playing hockey and tennis, getting into fist fights in 4th and 5th grade, about how badly I walk, how gracefully I cook... Instead, I seem to be spending all of my time writing about how voracious my body is for peaches and sex!)

(Still, you can't beat my low, low prices!)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

album of the day: Twin Cinema

I wandered into New Pornographers somehow a couple years ago, on a spree of bootlegging finding music on teh Interwebs. I was transfixed by a song called "Jackie Dressed in Cobras." There's a driving energy to the verses, and sharp power chords and soaring piano in the bridge, all backing the tingling vocal of Dan Bejar. The chorus is what first caught my ear lyrically.

on a train devouring the land
there's a kid going insane over her man
insane over her man
insane over her

And then the second verse and bridge, which go:

look, we've seen this kind of thing before
four kids hanging from the reference door
and if he hollers let him out
cause he's gonna shout
something in the way she moves
just shouldn't be allowed

left on the jungle floor
Jackie's dressed in cobras
givin me ideas
what I really need now is ideas

I can relate, and I don't even know Jackie.

New Pornographers turns out to be a Canadian Supergroup. I was taken aback by that when I first discovered it. Supergroups tend to rub me the wrong way (with the exception of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) - they tend to be ego-driven vanity projects badly in need of someone to pull the reins (actually, it could be argued CSNY needed this, but they're just that much better than those other Supergroups). Though certainly capable of some excellent work, I think it holds that most stuff by Supergroups is mediocre, and only captures public attention because of the principals involved - viz. The Traveling Wilburys.

However, New Pornographers are different because (a) hardly anybody knows who they are, (b) hardly anybody knows who the members are, (c) Neko Case. This is a Supergroup in the basic sense of being a group formed by people who are more usually or properly "in" other bands, but since none of them (except, arguably, Case) are prominent on their own or in their other bands, I expect the circumstances of their coming together make the ego-vanity thing a little less important. That is to say, it should, and I think it does.

10 of this album's 14 tracks were written by Carl Newman, who led a band called Zumpano. Three others - my faves, actually - were written by the erstwhile hirsute Dan Bejar of Detroyer. Heard of them? No? Me neither.

The band swap vocal lead duties as the tracks progress in album order, and that's one reason I became more interested in them - I was looking for bands that had male and female singers. Bejar I've mentioned; Newman himself has a smooth, reasonably rich voice that he writes very well for; Neko Case is just sorta wonderful and attention-grabbing, and her voice has what you might call the depth of experience in it. Bejar gives the band some grit, but Case gives them some substance.

I hate to agree again with the All Music Guide review, but this album does sound like a loose but unusually successful jam session, and that's to its credit. The informal feel gives what are basically pop-rock cookies the right kind of tone - not too serious, just, you know, cookies. Cookies are wonderful, but there's something wrong with the idea of serious cookies (though I submit "Serious Cookies" would be a pretty good name for a band).

Friday, July 09, 2010

album of the day: Mouthfuls

I don't know how you feel about ethereal, vaguely psychedelic hippie-folkie bands. For me, they can be just the thing. Of a Saturday morning, raw from the vile treachery of the prior work week, putting on something like the Fruit Bats' Mouthfuls can be like sliding into a nice warm bath for the central nervous system.

Guitar-based, with tight vocal harmonies, you could almost think Fruit Bats were recording in 1969, except for the odd bits of electronic instruments. The music is matched well to the lyrics, so let me start with part of one of the better tracks on the album, "The Little Acorn":

Saving all the waitresses 'cause they've all got longing in their eyes,
The little acorn becomes the mighty oak
The oak throws its seeds into the sky
Drive your car up to the pole
That's as far as you can go
Take your coat off when you know
To warm your bones in the northern snows

Um, yeah. The music isn't non sequitir the way the lyrics are, but is the kind of music you need to make a non sequitir sound (a) deep, (b) innocuous, (c) interesting, or (d) unintended - e.g., as the result of the ingestion of certain substances. Mostly, Fruit Bats accomplishes (b) and (d). Writing duo Eric Johnson (not that Eric Johnson) and Gillian Lisée have a lot of the whimsical spirit of people like Syd Barrett (when sane) or Robyn Hitchcock, and a very large portion of the - how to say it - sedated tone of early post-Barrett Pink Floyd.

However, they seem to have some rather mythological notions of local astronomy, as evidenced in "Seaweed":

martians built canals to bring water
and to sail their vessels down

No, they didn't. Perhaps it would be nice to think so. I'm not sure why.

Fruit Bats do possess a reasonable amount of musical subtlety - some interesting chord progressions and harmonies, that you might lose if you get caught up floating in the overall hippy-dippyness. It repays some close attention to those, even as it more directly induces drifting. In a way, as the All Music Guide review of this album suggests, the laid-back feel, wandering lyrics and just-off-center tunes all have a similar effect, of taking you somewhere... else.

thickness, commingling flesh, co-perception
with a methodological excursus

More on thickness as a dimension of the encounter with flesh. Your thickness is not identical to mine, is not given identically to mine. Of course I feel my own thickness from the inside as well as at the surface. I feel it viscerally, and variably. I feel your thickness from the surface of the skin – though I do feel thickness within, sense density and mass of you, it is from the skin inward, or even beyond the skin, in the air of you. This thickness is an interior dimension that gives weight and gives presence, but is not itself presented as such, except, to a certain extent for oneself, of oneself. It is a dimension of my embodiment for myself.

I can artificially induce this self-presentation by doing something we don’t often do, like gripping my own thigh. It isn’t far different from gripping your thigh, but it is different. Obviously, the feeling of resistance to my grip has, of me, within me, a correlate feeling of being gripped, that I don’t feel in your thigh. And there is always something surprising in my grip of your thigh than of my own, an awakeness to touch that your thigh induces in my hands, not only and not because of some sexual meaning of my touch or the situation, but that the thickness of your thigh lacks auto-affection of the grip itself, that is, it ratifies or affirms your presence in the flesh, as flesh. And there is always something surprising about your grip on my thigh, that I’m subjected to being gripped, that I’m in the flesh as well. Merleau-Ponty puts the matter of the other’s presence paradoxically as bearing an originary absence, a non-presence. Thickness of flesh describes this non-presence, the unpresentable that awakens my touch to your presence in the flesh.

I tend to want to sort out, disambiguate, or positively restate Merleau-Ponty’s numerous paradoxes and double-negations (neither… nor…). This unpresentable being that makes the other present bugs me like all the rest do. For one thing, it’s also true of myself and my being for myself, though at a different level, and with the proviso that I’m always potentially viscerally present to myself. While it may be true that proprioception and perceptual narcissism are always closer to me than my perception of others or the world, sometimes this is made too much of. Against this tendency, I want to emphasize that something like a co-perception or narcissism à deux takes place.

The closer we are, for instance inside one another, the further we are from the asymptote of absolute differentiation or self-containment or self-possession, and the closer we are to the asymptote of coincidence, identity, or to abandonment, self-dispossession, possession by the other. Asymptotes because neither of these is possible, we remain somewhere between total self-possession and total abandonment. The imperious “I can” and the enslaved – er, “I do”?? no, that ain’t right! – are both impossible states of being. They would be like absolute wakefulness or endless sleep, and neither of these are proper to the being of a critter that is still sentient, conscious. What I’m describing – in particular in erotic entanglements – are moments of closer coincidence of our experience, of our flesh. We are never a single, shared body – desire would cease to exist if that were to happen. Our flesh commingles, and its boundaries are fluid for us, especially if we pay attention to flesh being a metaphor or evocation and not a literal signification. “My” flesh is, as it were, borrowed, and not strictly mine. “My” flesh is “mine” only insofar as the flesh “of the world” provides flesh for “me.” In our erotic clutch, we borrow from one another’s flesh, we give our flesh to one another, exposing, opening to and for one another, and it makes little sense of the situation to rend flesh into separated bodies. (I very much doubt I’m the only one who’s had that “whose leg is that?” experience, for instance. And: who moves whom? who moves upon whom? who moves in whom? Rather, there is moving flesh, flesh moving along flesh, into flesh). I’m not generally thinking much about thickness or phenomenology at those times, to be honest, but my reflection is that this commingled flesh is thick with us both – as your touch penetrates my “interior” thickness, now I am thick for myself as through you, as through your touching. Who touches whom? Whose “body” do “I feel” then?

Of course, this description is based on a particular sexual practice. It’s only for purposes of illustration. Although issues of gender, sexual orientation, sexual practices and disciplines are raised by and relevant to this description, since I’m not here interested in the sexual practice itself, I think I can let this rest for the time being. I’m not sure how to deal with these issues in this investigation of erotics of sensation, though I have no real doubt that they matter for how and through what we engage sensation erotically. As various commentators have suggested, about various of my descriptions: we learn to play an instrument, we get a taste for whisky, we become gendered and sexualized — and in so doing, “thinking with our hands” or “thinking musically,” “orientating,” etc., we indeed discipline desire and orientate our erotic entanglements. From the standpoint of this investigation, that’s akin to saying that my erotic entanglements are different from yours. Your version of this descriptive account could be tremendously different. That's fine, even if your sexual practice involves steel bars, chains, pain and punishment, or sensory deprivation, or no actual bodily contact at all. You still draw desire from flesh that you draw from the flesh of “others” and “the world” – from what I’ve stolen Lingis’ term “foreign bodies” to name.

The really problematic case would be someone who experiences no erotic desire, no desire for flesh. I find this genuinely unimaginable. I know there are people who describe themselves as asexual, which I do find profoundly hard to understand, but I’m not meaning erotic desire to refer only to the sexual (the examples are just very powerfully illustrative and provocative, so I prefer them). Erotic desire is the desire of flesh for flesh, for sensation. Maybe I’m being too Aristotelian about this, but I think all sensible flesh desires to sense flesh.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

album of the day: Life's Rich Pageant

I would argue that Life's Rich Pageant is R.E.M.'s last alternative record. It definitely marks a transition from their early jangly-guitar sound, and many more of Michael Stipe's vocals are intelligible. (Actually, you can still hear the picked arpeggios, buried pretty deeply, in songs like "Flowers of Guatemala" and "Hyena," which I think testifies all the more to the move away from that sound.)

When I say Stipe's vocals are intelligible, I don't necessarily mean decipherable, just that you can often tell what actual words are uttered. The lyrics to one of my favorite songs, "Fall On Me," apparently go something like:

There's a problem, feathers iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air
Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky
Fall on me (what is it up in the air for)(it's gonna fall)
Fall on me (if it's there for long)(it's gonna fall)
Fall on me (it's over it's over me)(it's gonna fall)

... which seems to bespeak forthcoming doom related to cheap construction?? But this is what I liked about Stipe's lyrics, when they made any damned sense at all - he was good at impressionistically evoking moods or moments. "Flowers of Guatemala" is another one, where there's a lot of talk about pretty flowers and happy people, sung by Stipe in a tense, petrified falsetto, and which music critics and fans took to be about death squads then running amok in the Guatemalan countryside.

I would also argue that this is R.E.M.'s best album, but that's probably because I still think of them as an alternative band. (I found it very difficult to forgive them turning into a rock and roll band, but figured that they were still doing good stuff. When, briefly, they became a pop act, I gave up.) Many of the songs have political sensibilities to them, though, typically for Stipe, not of any clearly ideological bent. Stipe seemed to be pro-people and anti-killing people, more or less.

Every album after this - and I mean every one - is more of a rock or pop record, has more straightforward and deliberate lyrics, and hence lacks the two things that I always thought made R.E.M. great: the alt sound and Stipe's impressionism. I read an interview with Stipe some time ago in which he noted that there are songs they just won't play any more. More of them he listed were on this album than any other.

Perhaps strangely, I would not argue that this is the indispensable R.E.M. album. If there is one, I think it might be Fables of the Reconstruction - even though everyone else will probably say Murmur, and they could be right.

I played this thing endlessly relentlessly back in college, especially on a walkman while stomping around the campus in my torn up jeans with a woven Guatemalan sash for a belt, lizard-skin boots and battered straw hat. (Uh, a "walkman" is a sort of primitive iPod.) I still associate this record with the mood I was so often in those stomping days, my youthful angst, hunger, and predation.

thickness of flesh

I'm trying to get at why I don't accept Merleau-Ponty's assertion in The Visible and the Invisible that vision is the key for there being a world, and that we would not "make a world" on the basis of scent or hearing. That doesn't square with the account of flesh, I think. I may be reading "visible" too literally, or I might just be prejudiced against vision since I don't see well - who knows. But I do think there's something missed by this emphasis on vision.

I'm reading Barbaras' extremely dense but very good book The Being of the Phenomenon. His stuff on flesh keeps employing the word thickness, and that's been very evocative for me.

Consider sleeping together. Our inter-corporeality, the very “togetherness” of flesh to flesh, is an advent of co-presence. We are skin, curve, texture, sensible, sensing, sensed, heat, breath, rhythm, vibration. And something else – thickness, beyond surface, beyond “what appears” at the surface. This, all, is flesh to my flesh, how you are there/here with me, for me, visibly and invisibly. I hold you, holding your living flesh — Leib from Husserl’s German being the source of this term for Merleau-Ponty, carrying a compound of meaning – alive, body, “live” for one there, in the flesh.

Holding you, being held by you, our bodies take up different shapes and are availed to grasps that can’t happen standing or sitting. Skins touch, slide, and rub variably, multiply, at varied textures (which is the wrong word, somehow). Curled around my back, holding me with your arm over my chest, but also with the top of your foot on the bottom of mine, but also with your leg on the back of mine, your belly on my back – a kind of grip by what we usually don’t think of as having a grip. You are there, thickly, alive, breathing, heating me, cooling me, scenting me. Your scent is also thick, a flesh to smell, a flesh for the sense of smell, “live” in the flesh, the advent of your corporeal presence. You lie thick at/on/upon/against my back, or I at/on/upon/against yours, or thickly, overwarmly, side to side.

Flesh is neither visible nor invisible in the literal, mundane sense of these terms. If it were, then there could be no flesh for scent or taste, and there could be no flesh for the blind. Flesh is how it is that we are live for ourselves, for and in the world, and for one another – how we come to be thick with scent, taste, sound – and “live” in embodied copresence.

There'd be an erotic sense of thickness as well - not thickness in erotic "experiences," but the erotics of the senssation of thickness - its pleasure and pain (some thicknesses are painful, after all), its eruption of desire... Desire of flesh for flesh, of the entry of the foreign body, draws in the thickness of that body, thickens us as we draw in the "other" body. Consider "feeling full" or "feeling filled" in this way. There, now, "live" in the flesh, here comes the thick body of the "other."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

album of the day: Speak No Evil

Wayne Shorter emerged as a vital jazz composer and saxophonist in the mid-60s, in particular in a series of albums recorded for Blue Note. Speak No Evil, the third of these, carries forward a new approach to jazz composition, and to a certain extent performance, that for me is always simply "Wayne Shorter."

In part, that's because, as distinctive as his music is to me, it's also difficult to express. I'll start with positioning him in modern jazz, and see how that goes.

If we take the transition to Bebop as the start of modern jazz, then we can trace out lineages of "cool," "hard bop," each taking aspects of Bebop and working out their musical ramifications. Hard bop, for example (which I adore), took mainly the riffs of Bebop as building blocks for a funky, rhythmically driven, very macho, muscular jazz.

By the mid-60s, "free jazz" and whatever one might call what Coltrane was doing then, were carving out their territories, in marked contrast to, or even belligerent opposition to, earlier genres. For instance, rejecting the quartet and quintet set-ups, and fairly predictable header-solos-coda pattern of hard bop in favor of something more like chants or more like traffic accidents (sorry, but free jazz sometimes sounds like a traffic accident to me).

Meanwhile, Shorter had spent his time playing with the very peculiar Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey's long-term working band, whose identity shifted with the coming and going of different musicians, musical directors, and composers. By the time Shorter was reaching his mature form, he'd really come up with a new approach to jazz, and the only thing I can think of that it resembles closely is late 1800's-early 1900s classical music, a lot of what gets called "Romantic" music. He always sounds more like Erik Satie or Jean Sibelius to me, than like the people he was most often compared to at the time: Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. There's no mistaking that this is jazz all the way down, and no mistaking the blues influence in Shorter's stuff, but he has a lyrical approach, and a rather broadly, orchestral concept.

This is sometimes blatant and avowed: "Dance Cadaverous" on Speak No Evil contemplates Sibelius' creepily pretty "Valse Triste," which Shorter, in fact, recorded himself some time later. Otherwise, it's a more subtle influence, a delicacy and elegance to his solo lines (and - this is the kicker - the solos he draws from the other musicians based on his compositions).

A noted characteristic of Shorter's playing - and, I would argue, one of his key influences on jazz since - is the varying of technique, timbre, and emotional tone. On this album, there's fairly aggressive start to the solo on "Speak No Evil," which settles into something more contemplative and searching; on "Infant Eyes," Shroter begins with a breathy, dreamy tone, then warms and continues in a sound that I think it's fair to call adoring (the tune is basically a tribute to his daughter).

During this same time period, Shorter began his reasonably long tenure with Miles Davis. While Miles was (of course) the leader of that band, Shorter was primary composer, basically the musical director, and also convinced Miles to hire, basically, Shorter's side men. And who wanted to play with the young Wayne Shorter back in 1964? Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Nobody ever had a rhythm section like that. These guys completely changed what it meant to be a rhythm section. And I, for one, give some credit to Wayne Shorter for helping that happen, by way of his compositions. (Williams is not on Speak No Evil; that's Elvin Jones.)

*gong!* Start again!

The conclusion of Marion’s book leaves me totally suspicious of the entire text, and most troublingly of the integrity of the phenomenological descriptions throughout – including those I found compelling and harmonizing with my own. I’m very concerned about the appearance of any affinity between this completely corrupt and intellectually dishonest account and my own.

I was suspicious of Marion’s start. He developed his account of “the erotic phenomenon” and “the erotic reduction” (my emphasis – and I’ll get to that in a bit) on the basis of the question “Does anyone out there love me?” and the threat of futility. That seemed rather dichotomous (i.e., either someone loves me, or life is futile), but did seem to me to evoke the risk of erotic love, and the contingency and ambiguity of erotic experience.

He then turned this question and this dichotomy toward the desire for eternal assurance of love, which struck me immediately as a strange and phenomenologically ungrounded move, but I took it in stride to let him have his word. The “lover’s advance,” the expression of desire, Marion determined, is properly an advance that is eternal.

He then turns toward failures of love: lying, deception, flirtation, infidelity – as my previous post noted, by imparting ethical ideas into the phenomenon of the erotic, without identifying the context of these ethical judgments, admitting them to be judgments, or admitting to the arbitrary normativity of this account. At that point, he’s clearly gone far beyond the circumspect bracketing necessary to a phenomenological description.

In the final chapter, Marion resolves the paradox of the desire for eternal love (the same desire he imposed on the erotic phenomenon in the first place) by saying that love between two lovers is vain, futile, a lie, unless they have a child – flesh of their flesh, yet not their flesh; an ongoing extension of their love beyond their love and their deaths. So add to the normative, imposed, anti-phenomenological account of the erotic phenomenon the necessity that the only properly erotic encounter is a procreative one.

Not content with that, Marion then goes on to mark how hopelessly contingent the issue of a child is. The couple may be barren (thus, their love futile and a lie); the couple may choose not to procreate (thus, their love futile and a lie); the child may die, or may not love them back, or they may not love the child (thus, their love futile and a lie). So the only way that love can be true, and avoid being a lie, he says, is in the… Wait for it…

final judgment, which can only be by…

God, whose love is so great that obviously, God’s the best lover.

This is not a phenomenology. Note that, from the start, the entire project takes as its focus “the erotic phenomenon.” There is only one, because Marion construed love, from the start, strictly and only from the cultural tradition of Catholicism. That makes this a theology of heterosexual child-bearing love in service to God, and not a phenomenology.

So, unless he just got lucky with some of his nicer descriptions (the description of faithfulness is really very good, for instance, even though its totally insincere), how can I take up any of these descriptions? All of them are infected by this ideology, and the fact that he never admits of it makes the infection all the more pernicious. The book is rotten to its core.

Or, in the immortal words of David Mamet, “fuck you you fucking fuck!”

Incidentally (no doubt), the book was translated by a professor from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Back in Pittsburgh, I was briefly involved in the local chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League. Catholic Pittsburgh was a battle ground in the nasty early-90s anti-abortion-rights crusade, and every week Franciscan would round up folks from Steubenville and bus them 50 miles or so to Pittsburgh to harass and yell at the women entering Planned Parenthood and other clinics. The more of this book I read, the more I thought about those people from the place I used to call Stupidville.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

on what an erotic phenomenon might or might not be

I'm really starting to part company with Marion's account. I'm not even going to touch the stuff on addressing the lover in speech and the connection he makes to theology and to the New Testament. Suffice to say that it seems really strange to claim a connection between the erotic phenomenon and a religious text that's not even 2000 years old. Nobody had erotic sensations before then?

What becomes painfully evident is that Marion's account is incapable of phenomenologically evoking or describing the erotic phenomenon, because it is chock full of presuppositions about the kinds of sensations that can be erotic (sexual, specifically, and heterosexual, and normatively, intercourse), but also the kinds of desire and erotic encounter that can be regarded as legitimately loving.

That said, he does some very interesting stuff about “lying,” which covers, for him, the ways we deceive one another about our love... by which he means, again inscribing the account with heavily normative presuppositions, heterosexual, monogamous relationships. So, one kind of “lie” is “sweet talk,” by which one proposes to another all the signs of love (which he says don't signify anything), thus evoking desire, which the sweet-talker does not carry through with. This could be exemplified by flirting. So, how is flirting a “lie”? Only if our love-talk, our erotic talk, always necessarily morally intends to offer one another the desire, arousal, and encounter of flesh to flesh. But he must mean flesh here in a totally literal, non-phenomenological sense. Sweet talk is a lie only if the moral standard for arousing talk is that it issue in the literally physical consummation of desire in intercourse. There's more: still worse than sweet talk is actual infidelity, when not only is the arousal a “lie” because ... er, because now the lie is that one loves, when one already has a lover.

So: it's as though the only kind of erotic connection we can have is in actual physical co-presence, and also that the only legitimately erotic encounter we can have (note!) is monogamous sexual intercourse.

And then, he says, we sometimes go even further outside of these boundaries, when, for instance, we become erotically interested in being, say, tied up or spanked, or, still worse yet, when we “transgress the borderline between sexes” (165). So now, the only legitimately erotic phenomenon, and the only love that counts as love, is monogamous, heterosexual, “plain vanilla” sexual intercourse (did I mention, to orgasm, and no further? cuz, that too).

From Marion's perspective, then, all those random arousals we undergo, and that we sometimes provoke and enjoy; and all non-monogamous, non-intercourse erotic encounters; are not really erotic phenomena, because, according to Marion, we cannot love in those ways (maybe you thought you were, but you were wrong, apparently. Thanks for the tip, Jean-Luc). Which tells us exactly the boundaries of his concept of love.

Monogamy, fidelity, flirtation, excitement, desire, and perversion, are far more complicated phenomena of human love, as well as of erotic experience, than Marion gives them credit for, to be sure – to say nothing of orientation, for crying out loud. Or gender! Or peaches!

If you wanted to account phenomenologically for the erotic, you would bracket all that you regard as real or settled about it. That's the basic step in phenomenology - the bracketing of the "natural attitude." Marion hasn't done it. I haven't done it completely, but I think I'm in a better position than he is. (He's even presuming that flesh means flesh of bodies that are human, for purposes of this account.)

Monday, July 05, 2010

naked arousal, eroticized flesh, orgies, food, etc.

As flesh, I take on a body in the world; I become sufficiently exposed so that the things of the world have an advantage over me, such that they make me feel, experience, and even suffer their dominance and their presence.

But, as soon as it is a matter of feeling, and feeling in my flesh not just things, but another flesh, there is no longer anything to perceive, and the flesh can expose itself without translation, immediately to a flesh. And the flesh that exposes itself to another flesh, without a thing, without being, without anything as intermediary, shows itself naked – the nude-to-nude encounter of one flesh with another. This modification of the flesh, which passes from its perceptive functions to its nude phenomenality, eroticizes my flesh and thus radicalizes the erotic reduction. (The Erotic Phenomenon, 111, 113)

More good stuff from Marion, as usual with some other stuff (not discussed here) that I could do without, and missing some dimensions I think are crucial. Marion rightly says that a double passivity eroticizes flesh - I become my flesh when the flesh of the other passively accedes to my flesh, and in so doing, delivers me into my own flesh. But his notion of the erotic reduction is, I think, too specific to a dimension of human experience, as though "the erotic" and love can only be interhuman, and, really, inter-couple. Again, I'm approaching the erotic as the element of our foundational intimacies, of sensation and subjection.

So I would say that we are naked, exposed, feeling immediately the dominance and presence of other flesh always, and that our perceptual competence never fully overtakes or reduces this encounter to active perception and grasping. Not our reach, but our naked flesh exceeds our grasp. Of course, we spend a lot of time and energy covering our nakedness, protecting and preserving our bodies, exerting what we imagine is sovereign authority and control over our persons. But as the saying goes, we’re all naked under our clothes. Some of us are even quite embarrassed by our more intimate and naked pleasures (even more than our pains, is my observation of our typical social behavior). Then again, few people would probably really want to watch me eat a peach in my wanton arousal.

To go even further, I confess to getting a lot of enjoyment from other people’s enjoyments, and, yes, arousal from their arousal. (Usually I express this in socially acceptable ways, unlike, for instance, now.) When you recline in your arousal and pleasure, passively acceding to your flesh and the flesh of the other, you are naked to me – whether or not I am, in that moment, “the other” in the “nude-to-nude encounter;” to be in the presence of your arousal, and to be open to your arousal, means I join in that encounter, too.

This is (a) HoooooT!, and (b) an account of the intimacy of shared pleasures of many kinds. It certainly makes having dinner together pretty exciting.

The thing is, we know this, don’t we? Eruptions of arousal and intimacy happen all the time, all over the place. Some dinners we call “orgies” for this reason, especially more voluptuous dinners, the ones after which we sigh with the fatigue of pleasure. When I described the erotic joy of teaching, what else was I describing but those moments when so many of us in the classroom become nakedly aroused at the contemplation, the sensuous encounter with an idea, especially a beautiful and seductive idea. (And there are beautiful and seductive ideas. Stop looking at me like that.)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

the lover, becoming amorous, seduction

To qualify as a lover, I do not have to perform love’s perfect advance: by definition no one can promise that, since it depends on no cause whatsoever, not even my will; but in order to be qualified as a lover, I have only to decide to perform love’s advance, a decision that depends solely on me, even though it always plays out at the limits of my abilities. (The Erotic Phenomenon, 91)

In deciding that I love in advance and without reciprocity, without knowing what the other thinks of it, or even if the least other knows anything about it, I have the sovereign freedom to make myself a lover – to make myself amorous. I become amorous simply because I want to, without any constraint, according to my sole, naked desire. (The Erotic Phenomenon, 93

Among the many problems with Marion's book so far is, I think, a problem of level of description. In my view, his account of the lover and the decision to "perform love's advance," remains egoistic and voluntaristic in ways that miss something about the erotic. I'm finding odd points of connection in his account and what I'm fleshing out myself (hah!), but also occasionally exasperating points of disconnect, and this is becoming one of them.

I do like the description of how to become a lover, if what we're talking about is the decision to act, the decision to profess or to pursue, the decision to open to the other. I’m suggesting that, sensuously, we’re already erotically entangled prior to some such “decision.” Consider: how did you decide to become amorous? did you decide? Or did you find an entanglement already underway? I wouldn’t deny we do have to make a choice about what Marion calls “love’s advance,” but I don’t believe I decide to love peaches (I doubt he’d allow that I could love peaches); I believe peaches overtake me. I can forego them, and I suppose I could try to despise them, but at that point, we’re not talking about a decision to become amorous, so much as a decision to act. I didn't decide to desire white peaches, and in that way, I'm at a loss to explain it, to myself or to anyone else. Others who love white peaches just smile knowingly and nod; others who don't look confused and shake their heads.

(That post-decision stuff could be worked out nicely through Ahmed's account of orientation.)

In an earlier section, Marion exasperated me with his account of seduction, distinguishing it from the (proper) erotic reduction by saying the seducer seduces only to a point, the point of leading the other to love, and thus assures reciprocity. Again, don’t buy it. Couldn’t there be such a thing as mutual seduction? And isn’t seduction built into the erotic entanglement of flesh itself? I think he’s smuggling in ethical assumptions about what seduction means or intends and the moral significance of that act’s intent. I understand the goal is to lead to a “decentering” of the ego under the erotic reduction – the move to the other as center. That’s imparting a very particular spin on the entire description, one again drawn from a set of assumptions about proper, moral erotic relations.

In contrast, and more positively, I’m using the term seduction to mean a sensuous relation of flesh to flesh. You, or a peach, or a crimson lily, seduce me – not by tricks and temptations, not to tease, not to beguile me – but by the appeal of flesh to flesh, the responsiveness of flesh to flesh, which has at its heart need and desire, pleasure and pain. I am seduced by and as flesh that would touch/be touched. This is not contrary to the (proper) relation of love that decenters. The peach doesn’t egoistically tease me and then withdraw. The peach decenters me, because the pleasure of eating the peach loses me my control.

So while Marion’s accounts for the motives of lovers – loving to love, loving to the last, loving without limit and without expectation – (1) when we love flesh, this too is expectationless and limitless, and also decentering, (2) when we are seduced by flesh, it draws from us this response, (3) as Marion says of the erotic reduction, it is not objects we love – but (I say) flesh; the flesh of the peach isn’t an object, but a foreign body that I entangle with, by eating, by inviting the other into me; your flesh isn’t an object either, but another foreign body…

See? Egoist, voluntarist. He's addressing how a sovereign I becomes the lover, through an erotic reduction of ordinary mundane life to the erotic realm of experience. He's not talking about my susceptibility to being seduced, because I am of flesh-desiring flesh and always already erotically entangled.

Friday, July 02, 2010

erotic entanglements and the mouth of desire

In The Erotic Phenomenon, Jean-Luc Marion addresses the erotic from the standpoint of the “erotic reduction” that seeks, Descartes-like, an assurance of the ego’s being loved. It asks the question “Does anyone out there love me?” (He repeats the question innumerably, along with the similar, opposite question: “What’s the use?” – the one expressing the hope, if that’s the word, for “assurance” that the other question’s proposal of vanity will be shown false. The Cartesianism of this is powerfully expressed throughout. It’s one of the things I don’t like about it.)

One way to look at the erotic, that I draw from Marion, is that it is something we await, that we dwell in fruitless anticipation for. It is not a self-creation. I cannot be my own erotic counterpart, on my own – that is, self-sufficiently as a Being-for-self or a solus ipse. Just can’t be done.

Let’s use this as an account of the erotic of sensation: sensation asks “Does anyone out there love me?” of what it senses, and we can describe the relation to the sensible and sensed as an erotic love. Our flesh loves flesh, loves to be touched and to touch, to taste, to be tasted?, to smell, to hear, etc., etc. Rather than an aesthetic approach to perception – “toward what shall I turn my (sovereign, voluntary) attention? What pleases me?” – we’d start with an erotic approach to sensation – “how can I be? how can I be loved by flesh, such that flesh sustains me?” Just like in Marion’s approach to human love relationships, this erotic attachment to flesh, to the visible and the invisible-visible (the visceral, per Drew Leder) represents our non-self-sufficiency, our need as well as our desire. Pleasure and pain are erotic entanglements of flesh. This pain happening now in my left ankle, following a couple miles’ walk to and from the farmers’ market, assures me of my fleshly being, of my fleshly non-self-sufficiency (“I need that ankle to persist in its being, for me to still have an ankle and the possibility of walking, whether it hurts me or not”; “I need the flesh of me to be, and to be sustained by the flesh of being, and this pain expresses this need”; “I desire to walk, I desire peaches, I desire sun and air”).

This can all be (all of this is) anticipated, analyzed, scrutinized, regimented, surveilled, and disciplined by scientific and social practices of all sorts. But it can’t be replaced, and it can’t be made by me. It made me. It continues to make me. I continue to await its arrival. I live always in anticipation of the arrival of flesh, and upon its arrival, I continue to await its (next) arrival. We could call this erotic anticipation something like “protention,” but that would be to treat it as the directed, self-determined, egoistic act of consciousness. Even “anticipation” is saying something distorting, but mere “openness” doesn’t provide enough of a sense of direction.

I live in the subjunctive case, with its hint of the passive voice: I would touch, I would be touched, I would enter, I would be entered… Our erotic connection to one another: we are flesh that would touch, that would be touched, that would enter, that would be entered – everyone, by everyone, by everything. To acknowledge this, is to acknowledge every way we suffer or inflict pain, every way we receive or give pleasure. Which is every way we sense anything at all.

So it’s not just that any pleasure or pain can be anticipated. If I pour a glass of whisky and set it on the table in front of me, I can begin already to have sensory responses to my anticipation. My mouth may already tingle a bit from recalling drinking this whisky in the past, or, if it’s a new one to me, in some combination recalling and searching out. My mouth prepares the way for this new visitor, whom we hope will please us. My mouth is for this whisky; it would taste it, it would encounter the whisky’s flesh with its own flesh. It awaits the erotic entanglement of drinking the whisky; it is the mouth of desire.

desire & recognition

How does desire take place between us? How do we become aware of it, in one another, for one another? How does desire arise – as eruption, disruption, constituted meaning, expression? How can I recognize desire in your look? What is shown to me in your look? How does your gaze, your face, your posture, even in concealing itself, reveal desire? How do I know how to look for it? (Why do I look for it? Why do I look for it in your gaze, your face, and your posture?)

[The following is based on a true story. The names have been - well, omitted - because it's not really relevant to the story. You can use your own name and the name of your sweetie, if you like, and see if this works for you. I'd like to know, either way, because of what I'm trying to identify. Those who know this story about me, personally, and know who was involved, will know who was involved and what happened next. Those who don't, won't. So there.]

[This also deals mainly with the visual aspect of recognizing desire. I think mutual desire of sighted people very often begins there, so I think that's an okay place to start. Caveat: the gazing, looking, etc., of this description should be taken as metaphorical. We also recognize desire in gesture, in words, in scents, and of course in touch.]

[Oh, and the next post will probably be about whisky.]

I caught sight of something in your eyes, something that momentarily paused my scanning gaze. I was looking for something, scanning inquiringly, but asking a different question. That’s perhaps what I noticed – that something else was expressed in your eyes, in your face, than in others, or in the space around. That moment of pause founded a space, itself, between and enveloping us.

And then, another time, I saw that something, or something like it, again. And again, as our gazes crossed one another, that space was founded. Again, and again. I started to wonder about this expression and this space between us, asking about its meaning, and whether the meaning that I seemed to find there was real – that is, whether it was a genuine and shared meaning, whether how it seemed to mean to me was how it meant to you. My look began to ask that question, to propose it as a meaning, tentatively suggesting to you: “Are you not, just a bit, like me, charmed?” (That’s how I recall this feeling. I recall also that it felt like something shockingly intimate was happening. Other people were around. Did they see it too? Or was I only imagining it after all?... But I know that I wasn’t imagining it; the facts are in by now.)

This meaning, this charm, how did it get there? How was it founded in these crossing looks? I suppose I could get at this by asking who looked first. I’m suspicious of that move, though, because I think it’s a chicken-and-egg question. The looks took place, is the more appropriate description of my experience. Still, where, in the looks themselves, or elsewhere, beyond, behind, beneath, and how, and through what auspices, was this mutual affection founded?

I know now, also, that our affinity grew, that succeeding looks, succeeding words, became more meaningful. The look became, as we sometimes say, “knowing.” Then, I think, it started to become evident to others. (I know it did. The facts are in.) They saw it, too – this shared emerging meaning between and enveloping us, that we both made efforts to conceal. Our efforts were clumsy, too cautious, posed indifference that was obviously affected.

How do we come to desire one another? How do our individual, inquiring looks become the shared meaning? I want to say, our expressions meet one another and find their partner in expression, find an expression to attach to or join with. I looked for your eyes to ask me what I was asking with my look, and couldn’t help my eyes widening at the sight of yours, couldn’t help myself being caught in your gaze – and for that instant, I forgot everything.

Even though, at the time, neither of us was sure, nor even really believed that we were heading this direction, we continued to express our inchoate, tacit, inquiring, tentative desire for one another: “Is this pleasing to you? Do I present to you a lovely aspect? Do you see what I would give to you?” The look asks: slightly wider eyes, which turn brighter from reflecting light, and thus shine or twinkle at one another (which is also, of course, charming); our faces open, and perhaps our lips part, just slightly. We seem to catch sight of these expressions of inquiry, and imagine, or guess, what they are asking. Meanwhile our own faces also ask.

Turning our regard turns us as well, toward one another. When we face one another it is not only as faces, after all – we turn embodied looks to one another, and the space of those looks envelopes our bodies. The space of desire has its own field of energy – so we call attraction “magnetic” and the energy of desire “electric” and so forth – a field of meaning whose energy is produced through our expression and perception. It is also uniquely our energy, which I think we also know from being with various couples and feeling the energy they themselves produce, and being able to distinguish it from others, from our own, etc. At first, too, this new energy is jolting, just because it is new, or because recognizing desire shocks us.