Tact: Negotiating Dinner Parties, Facebook, And Old Friends
When I’m at a party or dinner party — let me say, I loathe dinner parties as food and conversation are mutually exclusive, both demanding the same apparatus and both being quite demanding: when I’m eating, I want to reckon my food, my digestion, chew and appreciate; ibid for conversing — anyway, when I’m at such a gathering — which, fortunately, is a rare thing for reasons that will soon be apparent — so when I’m there and some stranger asks, How do you know the host? my whole being recoils.
Well, it might involve an interesting story — I met him one morning on the face of Everest, naked hugging a goat. But usually the answer is: We work together. Or, Our kids go to school together. What good does knowing that do anyone? Where is conversation — where is life! — supposed to go after such an exchange? What can I possibly say: Oh. How do you like working at Google? Or: What grade is your kid in? Jesus, it’s life draining, life halting, soul stalling. It’s a question that looks backwards, at the confirmed, the banal, the already happened, the socially pre-determined. It’s an exchange whose very foundation is nihilistic, backwards looking, soul murdering.
I’m absolutely serious. Consider that question for a moment. What purpose does it possibly serve other than to place you in the class social order? OK, ok, I suppose people are socially nervous, don’t know what to talk about and so cling to the most obvious, safe thing. But, c’mon, we’re standing right in front of each other and the only thing in common you can find is that we both might know the host? What about this moment, right here, right now?
When I first saw Chatroulette, I was blown away. Go to the site and, voilà, you’re face to face with a stranger who could be anywhere in the world. No names, no “likes,” no friends, no education or job or wall of posts. Just a person, right in front of you. What do you want right now, right here? It was very intense. Suddenly, the social was stripped of all meta-narrative, all explanation, all orientation. There was no way to place people in the social order, to size them up according to the familiar markings of education, employment, taste, friends. It was just you and your desires at this moment.
It made Facebook look like so much bourgeois, state apparatus nonsense. On Facebook, you declare your social status as if you’d been asked for your papers — where you grew up, went to school, where you work, the state of your romantic relationship (as if you have one and not many; such is the way of ideology: it works silently, as assumption rather than declaration). Social interactions are mediated by the ideological trappings of bourgeois culture.
This is how I feel about interacting with old friends. I never want to “catch up.” Life is not about accumulation or going some proverbial distance. There’s no need to catch up. In fact, nothing is as boring as catching up (unless said friend is doing something wildly interesting — in which case, it’s not catching up but moving forward). I don’t give a shit what you do for a living. I want to live here and now. I want to live forwards, not backwards. I want this moment to glimmer, to surge forward, backwards, sideways, to seethe and moan. I want this moment to live and breathe.
I went over 10 years without talking to my best friend. One day, I called him. I didn’t ask what he’d been up to; I didn’t ask about his job or girlfriends. And he didn’t ask me. We just started yapping away, laughing our asses off about this and that. Then, when the conversation ceased to be interesting, we said bye and hung up.
When I do find myself at a party — a rare, rare event — I tend to refuse accepted party etiquette (which is the reason I am rarely at parties: no one invites me, and rightly so). If someone does indeed ask me how I know the host, I use a bevy of obnoxious replies: I don’t — just heard the noise and wandered in. Or: AA.
My desire is not to be obnoxious but to shift the focus from the past to the present, from the irrelevant to the right here, from them to us, from the dead to the living. If my fellow party goer is game, he or she will quickly engage and we are done with soul numbing protocol. If said party goer is annoyed, our exchange quickly comes to an end and I am liberated from the toils of joyless conversation. In either case, everybody wins.
Needless to say, not everyone sees my social vetting as generous. And, yes, is it selfish as I am just too bored and annoyed to have such banal conversations (mind you, not that I’m interesting to everyone; but I am, sometimes, interesting to myself — lucky for me!). But I am also trying to rescue the party goer from what he or she might see as protocol. I don’t need that nonsense, I’m telling them, we can get on with it, with life.
In his fantastic My Education, William Burroughs writes: “Brion Gysin was the only man I have ever respected. One of the attributes that I respected was his unfailing and dazzling tact…” Tact, Burroughs tells us, is often misunderstood by “the haute monde” as being a matter of determining “the stranger’s ‘social position’.” But “the source of tact” lies not in determining the situation according to pre-established rules; rather, the source of tact is “discernment and perception.” True social protocol, then, is not what’s inherited or determined by others but through the skills of tact: reckoning the here and now by perceiving and discerning.
Tact is a matter of properly heeding a situation, not according to fixed laws or established protocols, but according to circumstances. Tact is a matter of doing what is appropriate to this situation, of heeding these bodies here. Tact demands attention — to oneself, the situation, to others. It is fundamentally ethical even if it brazenly breaks established rules of order.
In his great book, The Process, Brion Gysin writes: What are we here for? We’re here to go! Which is to say, we’re not here to accumulate or catch up. We’re not here to follow rules or show our papers. We’re here to move; we’re here to live, here and now.
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