What I find immediately interesting reading your three letters is this: there is enjoyment here. It is at once the reader’s enjoyment, the writer’s enjoyment, and the enjoyment of the texts themselves.
Of course, this “themselves” is an amalgamation of others things, a network of traces and allusions from Lacan and Zizek to Woody Allen and Doctor Who. What binds these diverse elements? What holds this network together? Your writing: your essays are little engines that assemble and stitch sense together.
Why do I find this interesting? Well, we are discussing the possibility of enjoyment in this here life of ours, what we might call late stage capitalism but in any case can definitely call 21st Century America.
As you suggest, we live in overwhelming times, a time of anxiety, without a collective narrative to orient us. We search for a semblance of certainty in the nostalgia of Instagram, something to protect us from the “bewildering strangeness of this improbable world.” You conclude: “We don’t need to enjoy ourselves or to make sure that our predetermined projects come off just right, but rather we need to get a sense of how our world is uncanny and unreal. We need to find or manufacture a new kind of space, a new gaze, a new normative principle, that will allow us to live with our anxiety.”
I want to suggest, however, that it is indeed enjoyment we need. Enjoyment is not the same as pleasure. To enjoy something is to live through an event whether it’s good or bad — it is a thorough way of moving through time. Pleasure is an effect; enjoyment is an action. And this is the task at hand: to live through this life without being subsumed by the spectacle or overwhelmed by the vertigo of it all.
So how do I find enjoyment in your writing? Your writing is — as all good writing is — a movement through disparate spaces — I might say “improbable” spaces — that makes sense as it goes. Your writing is a living through the network as you make connections here and there, across time and media and culture, across a network that by definition is not linear and hence is not strictly speaking historical: everything is all at once, a seething simultaneity. Where you find in Instagram a craving for nostalgia to help ground anxiety, I find a liberating vertigo in which the real of yesterday becomes an effect of today, another gesture in the endless proliferation of affects and effects that defines our lives.
The orienting narratives have indeed collapsed and given way to the delirium of the network. The way through the network, the way of the network, is the operation of writing and the proliferation of new kinds of sense. To write the network is to enjoy this life.
This remains cryptic. I will expand in my next letter.
Part 5: Politics From the Inside Out
Politics, at some point, necessarily entails a “we”: What is it we are to do? And how shall we go about this?
This “we” leads to a certain abstraction as the individual falls away, slips out of the equation. But “we” is always a group of individuals; “we” is not one but is many. And yet the tendency of this “we,” as with any categorical abstraction, is to erase the many, ignore the differences.
So much of what we think of as the political is premised on such abstractions — what is justice, what is the right economic system, what are the collective narratives, how will we rid our fossil fuel dependency.
My fear of such a tendency stems from two related effects. One is that any thinking that erases the individual tends toward violence, toward erasure of the difference that is you or I. The “I” has a difficult time fitting in the “we” and the “we” can be downright nasty in its response. I think of the Seinfeld episode (not to mention the Chinese Cultural Revolution) in which Kramer, marching in the AIDS walk, refuses to wear a ribbon and is pummeled.
And, two, thinking of the political as abstraction makes people believe that politics is elsewhere instead of right here in what he or she does and thinks day in and day out. And this is what matters — not what we do but what you and I and he and she do and think.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the self is a life unto itself, that it’s not created by the collective, by culture (whatever that is). Of course it is: the limits of my thought are defined by a collective discourse. So I am not suggesting that we just focus on the individual and ignore the structural and discursive issues. But I am suggesting that rather than beginning with the abstraction, beginning with “we,” we begin with I. I’m suggesting a kind of inductive politics.
Let’s think about it this way. There is a great mobilization around oil and the exhaustion of the world’s resources — all these people spending money and personal energy trying to rid our dependence on fossil fuels, looking for alternative sources, etc.
Meanwhile, the fuel of human existence is being extinguished right before our very eyes. Americans are dying — or, better, they’re dead: we are zombies. We work 70-hour weeks and barely make enough to pay the debt on their house, car, 98-inch TV. We are, literally, an impotent society — we need a pill to f-ck.
But still some moron from Greenpeace wants me to give money to save some seal — which will mean I have to work more, further draining the resource that is me.
Our deductive politics keep us at the corporate level, thinking about things in these abstract, dehumanizing ways. But inductive politics, politics that begin with me, what I do every day, what I can do every day, the limits and possibilities of my time, my freedom to think and act and f-ck, then we get the seeds of a truly radical, transformative politics.
Capitalism demands so much of our time — all our time, in fact. We have become indentured servants to the Citis and Chases and Googles of the world. And none of that will change as long as people think politics is over there, in Iraq or Washington or Wall Street.
If each person considers his or her life, what they are obliged to do just to survive day in and day out, then the shape and functioning of our political structures will emerge. They’ll begin to see what McLuhan calls the environment, the invisible conditions of life.
Being political is not knowing the issues and voting for some creep. Being political is demanding the time to lead a healthy, beautiful life. Being political is demanding basic dignity and civility. Being political is demanding the right, and the time, to enjoy this life.
This is politics from the inside out.
Part 6: A Politics of Experience, or Cassavetes vs. Ron Howard
I wrote to you last time about an inductive politics, a politics from the inside out. I’d like to flesh that out, as it were, by talking about this very strange thing I will call “experience.” (I’ve been rereading Georges Bataille recently and in particular, “Inner Experience.”)
What’s so strange about experience is that, in many ways, it’s invisible. It’s what an individual lives through. It’s not what happens to someone because the same thing, more or less, can happen to different people. For instance, all of our parents die eventually. But to say that we all experience the death of our parents doesn’t say enough in that that experience will necessarily be different for each of us.
There is this radical particularity to experience: is that how this distinct body happens in the world. It is irreducible and at the same time multiple: I experience many things all at once but it is this particular configuration of multiplicity.
I want to say experience is interior but I don’t want that to mean it is “deep.” And if I say it’s private, I don’t want that privacy juxtaposed with what’s public. Which is to say, I don’t want to create a public/ private or inside/ outside dichotomy. What I do want is to reserve this special space, this special category, for what an individual lives through.
Experience ruptures. It tears at categories and cliché. It will never fit neatly into a bucket and it can never be known beforehand. The problem with Hollywood films is that they present experience as a common event — as a cliché. This is why I come back to Cassevetes again and again. In his films, people experience things in absolutely distinct, unique, and strange ways. This is as true of his viewers as it is of his characters.
Cassavetes doesn’t unite us in a common wave of good feeling or nostalgia the way Ron Howard does. Cassavetes gives us a vision, and an experience, of difference: we don’t walk out feeling elated and sharing a common experience. We walk out of the theater feeling as we feel, each of us distinct.
And here, in Cassavetes and Ron Howard, I see a fundamentally different politics. On the one hand, there’s Howard’s desire to create a grand American narrative: We all lived through the hopes, fears, and dreams of Apollo 11! On the other, is Cassevetes, who honors experience over collective narrative, difference over sameness.
I see Cassavetes as a great politician, trying to change the way Americans live and interact with each other. And it’s not by isolating us through experience — because experience, while happening alone, does not isolate per se: it merely happens. No, Cassavetes gives us a different kind of politics: a common viewing of difference. It’s not every man for himself. Rather, it’s: every experience is valuable. Live through it!
I suppose my point is this: By focusing on enjoyment, I want to create such a politics of experience.