It’s an exacting map. In a drawn-out patience, scattered with landmarks, nature writing nods to the landscape that produced it. I sit in a bright, clinical room, but my attention inclines towards mountains and pastures. Can I, sitting here, become somewhere else? Can I become something else?
I used to believe that nature writing missed the “point” of nature entirely. Go on a hike, I thought. Do not waste time. But now, I think differently: if language is a territory we occupy, why not give it a topography in both content and structure?
I read, now, of Grass Mountain (part of the Big Belts, opposed to the Castle Mountains, near the Smith River). These are places I have never been to. I have no plans to visit. But here I sit, with a map open, imagining its “generous pasture.” I notice of all the other things I could be thinking about. My mind returns to this expanse, unfurnished. Allow this strange attention to unfold, to settle into something tranquil and ancient.
I woke up before sunrise today. For the first time in a very long time, I woke up relaxed and well-rested. I felt like I was in the mountains. I had a dream about listening to Arcade Fire in a Dollar Store, while I gave two of my coolest sweaters to my friends, and we all drove away in my Geo Tracker. I only had a dollar with me, so I could not decide what to buy in the store. It did not matter because I was content with listening to Arcade Fire and hanging out with my friends.
I woke up, thinking of how absurd life has been. Yesterday I helped out on a shoot all day, with no real job there except to model for the lighting and lend a hand. The shoot, for women’s empowerment, featured an upbeat singer lip-syncing to the words, “peace, love, and happiness.” The scene was called P.L.H., written on the slate. The owner of the studio looked at the slate. He announced, “Palestine Liberation Hopelessness.” The singer mentioned that she had footage of people around the world, all singing “peace, love, and happiness.”
I learned last night that Iran joined the Israel-Gaza situation. The United States sailed one of their aircraft carriers further into the Mediterranean. That’s not good.
A man on Scruff, who I’ve been chatting with for a months, pulled my Tarot this morning. He told me that I’ve been working on a project for a while, but it’s stagnated for some reason. The best thing to do would be to chill out. The project is simpler than I think, and I should not be trying to do something new. It was helpful advice, because I feel trapped in a big project in my lighting class: it is too basic for me.
Last night, before everyone left the studio, the owner of the studio and director of the film thanked everyone for their help. “You did something good in the world today.”
I’ve lost my journal, which somehow means my emotions are more immediate. They bubble to the surface faster.
Yesterday, I made worms for a class on lighting. The worms are supposed to be carrying toast. And I’m supposed to take a picture of that. Initially, I thought that using real worms would be unfair to the worms, whom I wanted to pose. So I spent $50 on ingredients to make little edible worms. I think I messed up the recipe because the cream curdled when I poured it into the hot red mixture. I don’t know if it matters because I’m not eating them.
Apparently Israel is dumping white phosphorous onto Gaza. That’s no good. And my friend sends me an article calling Israel out for human rights violations. War is bad. I read a pacifist friend’s tweet, remembering that I was once a pacifist. A robust pacifist, not like a passive pacifist, as I learned in an ethics class or two. But I’m not sure my commitment to some ethical ideology matters at all, as I sit staring at my phone across the globe from the beginnings of a small war.
One of my friends, this morning, shared with me an Instagram video of an autistic dad who owned a bunch of matching sweaters, a bunch of matching shoes, and a collection of art books by one artist. My friend suggested that him and I have the same type of autism. I own sweaters, and own an art book or two, and mostly own converse shoes. So I took a test. I do not have autism.
One of my friends posted about attachment styles and sexual needs. It seems more and more like all relational behavior is somehow reducible to four words: Anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. I wonder if internalized homophobia is a more useful lens for viewing gay men’s relational issues than a broad identification with one of those four attachment words. I wonder why people are so quick to diagnose the differences they see in others.
One of my friends noticed that I was reading philosophy the other day. I read it when I’m anxious, to slow my brain down. And I posted on Instagram that I saw a correspondence between the structure of religious thought and some arguments in post-structuralist writings. It’s striking because although postmodernism and post-structuralism are not the same, many religious people critique the post-structuralist writers (naming them “postmodernists”) as anti-religious. And I posted how interesting it was that sometimes “religious” writers don’t really have a “religious” structure of thought, and that “non-religious” writers seem to have an incredibly religious structure of thought. One of my friends facetimed me, asking if I was okay.
A partial eclipse happened this morning, when I walked outside to feed the dogs. They continued to bark at me, as I stared and noticed how specular the lighting had become outside. I wondered, looking at the shadows, what made the sun seem smaller and less diffuse. The dogs barked loudly. One has a cone on his head, and he bumped into me and the other dog, blocking my way to feed him. I gave them extra food today, while staring up at the sun, wondering what was going on.
I gave my friend a life update. He told me that it sounded like a fever dream. If I continue to publish notes like this, it is because life seems disordered to me right now, and I feel an urge to report as a draft, as immediately as it comes.
The coffee shop I’m sitting in right now is playing Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog. I’m convinced I’m still asleep. None of this is real. I cannot write. I am so tired.
You know when you sit, leaning back against the wall. You become an observer. And all you can feel is your body pulsing, losing grip with every beat of your heart, until you sink back into the anonymous world.
I’m supposed to be shooting commercial photography. They keep telling me that an image must have “stopping power,” without explaining what that is. Because, the lazy argue, to explain it would be to lose it. It’s just like a religion or social movement that loses its power when explained, or it’s just like our own haunting critical suspicion of our perceptions when we subject our intuitions to social critique. How, then, can I create an image when I cannot even believe in one?
I listen to this girl next to me trying to tell her friend about a new skin care routine. She’s selling it to her friend. She rambles without a breath, like a preacher practicing for the pulpit, to an audience of one resigning its choice to speak up.
It all feels religious to me. It tastes, if it tastes it tastes at all, like a bitter water that lingers on my tongue. If I believe in anything, I only believe in an opaque language that either legitimizes itself or does nothing at all.
This is not the activated memory, but in April I bought a Geo Tracker (which is a car, by the way!). My brother and I drove up to Oregon from Southern California, leaving just before 6PM on April 4th, sleeping at my younger brother’s apartment in San Jose, picking up McDonalds coffee and hash browns in Willits, and entering into Gold Beach, Oregon (“Welcome to Oregon!”) at exactly 11:51 AM the next day. The entire trip remains a blur, because we picked up the rusty car and immediately drove back down, waving goodbye to Klamath, then Willits, then stopping for a shoot I had in wine-country Calistoga. My brother drove back to Southern California the next morning (goodbye Tracker, see you soon!) as I worked all day. The next day, I drove to my brother’s apartment, then the next day arranged a coffee date before driving down to Fresno to shoot a lesbian “not-a-wedding.” At night I drove home to eat Easter Brunch with my family the next day.
If this burnt coffee flavor activates my memory, it is not of a road trip in general. The coffee did almost nothing for the memory of Gold Beach. Maybe the McDonalds worker with blue nail polish (I regret not complimenting him!) was a barista in the past. The coffee was fine. But one moment sticks: driving down from Calistoga surrounded by foggy farmland, with a nearly empty day ahead of me. Memory, here, is not about the taste, or that bitter black drink at all, but its web of associations. It is a synecdoche abstracted to metaphorical contiguity—a memory with no concrete link to coffee anymore, but to its surroundings.
This memory is a strong feeling: it is a road trip from the past. You could choose any of them, driving through the golden foothills of the Sierras, or the San Bernadino mountains, finding little towns (with tiny woodsy coffee shops). These coffee shops named in Papyrus font, where you would order a small cappuccino, would burn your coffee. Or you could taste the grounds. Maybe it was such a bad drink that it stuck in my mind.
This same memory developed into a practice: free time deserves to be free. I’d plan for sunsets, or early mornings before class or work, driving towards the sun among the backlit grass and trees, just to feel the sense of being in a location. It is a memory of a purposeful wandering, embedded deeper than a bitter drink.
Now that I do not go on wandering road trips as often, I read more. I sit in this coffee shop with a poetry book next to me. They say you don’t have to go far to wander around. They say Thoreau lived near his family, not really far into the woods at all, while his mom brought him sandwiches! His wandering was more intellectual than physical; more idealistic than realistic. And I find that my own memory of purposeful wandering finds an intellectual analogy in the ideas I enjoy reading, articulated by Fernand Deligny or Thomas Tweed or Mark Taylor or Matsuo Basho or Mary Oliver or Byung Chul Han or Edward Abbey or the forest bathers or my priest or many of the contemplatives and meditators. Here, it feels to me like “purposeful wandering” is a literary genre also enacted in a form of life, so that the two (like Giorgio Agamben’s “Rule of Life”) are sometimes interchangeable.
If a memory sticks, returning to the present through a small gesture of coffee, then I imagine that it has secretly continued to play out behind-the-scenes this whole time. If a sip of this burned coffee returns me both to immediacy, so that its feeling gets me to look up from the poetry next to me to the cloudy skies above, and returns me to distance, so it reminds me of a wandering time in the past, then the only thing I can imagine is that the present moment is a new and detached iteration of the same road-trip wandering in the shape of a small-scale literary form of life. Memory has formed the landscape of my mind, the shaping the foothills that I continually return to, under this gray, urban, and poetic sky.
“Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation” -Mark 8:12
A few hours ago, I placed an ice cube on asphalt, under the sun. I thought you should know. I could tell you how it slowly transformed through a sad dissolution, shrinking to a fluid, disappearing. I could name it in phases like fusion or evaporation. By the time I’m finished describing it, the cube is gone, but I thought you should know.
If language’s aim is to provide knowledge, crystalized and ready-to-grasp, then its accuracy is narrow. If language is a container for information, then art and poetry and religion are not entirely accounted for. If language’s role is like an impossible lens: pure and transparent signification, pointing to meaning, then understanding should come easily. But language, supposedly, is not always meaningful, nor knowledgeable, nor accurate. Instead, language is steeped in a flow of images that enact the participation of the speaker, or reader, or whomever is engaged.
In Bruno Latour’s “Thou Shall Not Freeze Frame,” what applies to language applies to art and religion: all of these cultural objects, mediating a flow of images, enact the transformation of the speaker and listener into a sense of closeness and presence (like a nonviolent version of Georges Bataille’s intimacy). Experience (this unthinking animality), rather than a frozen and signifying meaning, becomes the priority of our statements. And to “freeze-frame” the process of transformations, or to stop the flow of images, especially in order to analyze their signification, is to miss the point. The experiential transformation of the speaker and listener is the aim of Latour’s language; to freeze a statement, categorizing it as true or untrue, misses the point entirely. Here, language bears no signification, but becomes a mute yet robust practice.
If I speak of an ice cube already gone, its impression is what I communicate to you. And you know, by implication in some chain of referentiality and transformations, that this ice will disappear. Language, like its object, flows through time, removing images from their ponticular stasis. Yet, in this instance, language relies on signification to construct its flow of images, for a single image must signify another.
What, then, might it look like to have a flow of images outside of signification? We might think of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, saying “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce’s sentence seems almost entirely like gibberish, for we expect language to carry some sort of coherent signification. But although language cannot escape its signifying function, it can frustrate our attempts to construct meaning. For Latour, this strategy, like Joyce’s imagery, of rendering images “unfit for normal informative consumption,” breaks “the habitual gaze of the viewer so as to attract his or her attention to the present state,” so that the viewer “takes upon herself to repeat” the experience of the image “in the same rhythm and tempo.”
Here, I would like to make a quick shift to thinking about photography, because the medium, as one that freezes a world continually shifting, is fucked. Photography has no “pulse and tempo” that gives language its transformative power. One image cannot be a flow of images! And, in order to construct a referential flow from a single image, a photographer risks, in Latour’s language, fitting their image into the realm of “normal informative consumption,” relying on tropes anachronous to a stream-like perception of life. Photography’s only salvation, which might also be its downfall, is to become a mute yet robust practice, engaging the viewer and (implied) photographer into an exchange without words. If photography takes up narrative or story, which are techniques of signification, it must also break the habitual gaze of the viewer (beyond mere signification as information) into that present state we call “experience.”
I cannot tell you how to do this, for it is the perpetual and difficult challenge of culture to be continually renewed by expereince. Latour gives some hints: that we must try to understand images “without searching for a prototype;” that it is iconophily to pretend an image has meaning by itself; that an image must also suggest that we move on and not linger; and that an image must allow us to be seized, in order that we break away from the habitual passage of time. If an image is communication between a photographer and a viewer, then the photographer must move on from their habits; a photographer must, at the very least, try to be seized; a photographer must not search for a prototype; a photographer must not take the image more seriously than the experience that they are immersed in. Here, by forgetting itself, photography ends its role as a preservation of memory, as a static carrier of knowledge, and begins an impossible challenge to direct our attention away from the image and its significations, into the mute presence of experience.
We’ve had our Rothko. We’ve had our Joyce. We’ve aimed at silent experience, entered the world shrugging off its signs, achieved our modernist mysticism, and were left wanting. We’ve come down from the mountain, untransfigured, tabernacleless, instructed “tell the vision to no man.” We’ve moved on. I cannot tell you of the ice exactly. I must move on.
For the mute presence of experience is just that: it is mute. Experience cannot name itself. We cannot take its picture and we cannot correspond it to signification. Yet, this whole time, we have been pretending that the knowledge, information, and meaning that are bound up in language and signification are, in a way, escapable and purified by their imaginary tether to experience. We’ve been rused into thinking that no matter what, experience (like language without signification!) becomes the intangible and legitimating point of the world meanings. Here, experience, according to Robert Sharf, is becomes like an “irrefutable” and “indubitable” epistemological foundation that gains its strength at the expense of signification or discursive meaning. More pointedly, “The category experience is, in essence, a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning. And this is precisely what makes the term experience so amenable to ideological appropriation.” If experience is a mute placeholder, it is signification, disjointed from pure experience, that gives experience a character and style, or, in Sharf’s case, ideology. So, to follow Latour’s suggestion (and he resides within his own Catholic tradition, hinting that it should be unproblematically renewed through the transmission of experience), would be to be seized (like it or not!) by the language and imagery that stylizes our experience (once we remove our blinders) by carrying, even implicitly, knowledge, information, and meaning—all of which can (and should!) be freeze-framed and analyzed. For if Latour prizes the experiential transformation of the speaker and listener through language, then, unless ignorance is a virtue, we must also ask, transformed into what?
To question the transformation would be to freeze-frame our discourse; it would be to break the spell of experience. The photographer would stumble over their own self-consciousness (would we realize that we’ve been reproducing a prototype all along? Or realize to take the experience seriously would be to put down the camera entirely?). The only way out, overlooked by Latour, is that knowledge, signification, and information extend the flow of images in new and challenging ways, and that freeze framing enacts an experiential transformation of those engaged in communication. For we have never escaped signification, although we have tried. We have heard, against instruction, of that vision of transfiguration.
Here, a slight change to the Latour’s hints. The photographer constructs the experience that they are immersed in, so that to take the image seriously is to take the experience seriously, and vice versa. An image demands that we linger, for it, too, is frozen. For one image of one moment to be selected over any other, for its capacity for meaning is prioritized, would be iconophily (but who cares?). We will never entirely break away from the habitual passage of time, but only integrate different habits into time. And the mute presence of experience is merely a “well-meaning squirm that will get us nowhere.” But really, an image does not care how we participate, and I, unlike Latour, do not want to walk through life in constant seizure.
A man and his child walk into a coffee shop. The barista chats with the child, excitedly, as she gives him his dad’s coffee. The dad chats with the barista. The child walks over near me and tells me that the coffee is his dad’s. He’s only holding it for his dad. He’ll stop growing if he drinks it.
“Oh, that’s not good,” I say.
“Yeah. I’ll stop growing if I drink it,” he says.
The dad and the child walk out of the shop. I am drinking coffee; have I stopped growing?
Whenever a parent lies to their child, I think of my close friend’s child, and wonder whether I’d lie to him. Some, citing Kant, think that lying breaks the “categorical imperative,” and so subverts the concept of any ethic at all. Others, also citing Kant, permit it. Some Buddhists thought that lying was okay, as long as it helped you escape Samsara. Christians say that they believe liars go to Hell, although some others believe that God lied to Abraham about needing to sacrifice his son. I think I’m more concerned with finding new words to teach my friend’s kiddo, so that he can think in figures.
I read a poem about a flower. A “turbulent stasis on a blue ground,” it reads, “Fire of spun gold, grain,” “petals curling into licks of fire.” The ochre sprawls. I imagine that if I saw a real flower like this, burning and sprawling, it would be immense. Literally, it would be on fire. But, presented with a sunflower—as the poem describes—a real life, or google-image searched, sunflower, these are words become exaggerations, extending beyond the image of a real flower. That slippery and expansive language, or lies for those with truncated imaginations, hides in metaphor.
I think of a “literal” description of a sunflower, helianthus annuus. Get as close to the real thing, a stale form of flat sensual perception (if that’s what “real,” to those empiricists, means), as possible; a 34-seed spiral against a 55-seed, Fibonacci’s flower. Still: inescapable figuration, the mechanism of language.
The true sunflower stands tall and mute, outside of figuration. It would not recognize its name. Nomination turns towards those who name, to those who measure reality. It turns towards us. If this flower burns, it burns inside us.
I did not stop growing. The dad’s coffee was rigged, not mine.
Roland Barthes, an influential theorist for photographers, speaks of the flatness of images made to shock, and of his boredom with images that provoke a general interest in a non-particular subject. Against photos that are “simple” and “free of useless accessories” (think of journalistic photos that attempt to directly tell you everything in an event, with precision), Barthes prefers a “photo that thinks;” a “blind field” in other words. Barthes prefers “texture.”
Long live texture. For Barthes, any photo that contains a mechanism to “conceal, delay or distract” might be one that textures its object. Against a composition striving for some sort of clean unity, he prefers a photo that disturbs with duality and indirection, opening up a “blind field” that intrigues us. Somehow, texture is part of this blind field.
In more complex terms, from an article by Tom Gunning, this textured, concealing approach to photography allows us to shake photography from its exclusively referential, semiotic, truth-bearing role (though not entirely abandoning it). It is truth that shows our fantasies to be empty and unfulfilled, which destroys our imaginations, suggests Giorgio Agamben. So when photography stops bearing the responsibility of truth, I guess our imaginations are at play. (It is strange and problematic that the texture of an image, like digital grains and film looks, speak, for many, to the authenticity of an image. Because the image is flawed, possessing a sort-of blind field opposed to hyperreal images, it must, to some, feel authentic. So, in the inability of the image to convey perfect truth in detail, the image becomes a representation of earnestness, of that feeling of truth. But, you know, earnestness becomes kitsch with time.)
I’m not quite sure if or how texture plays the imaginative role. Maybe for photography, a textured photo reveals itself as a photograph of its object. I guess that could be disarming, to feel that something is just a photo and not an immediate reality. And because it is just a photo, our imaginations come into play, allowing us to bring a subjectivity to a silent, indifferent object that would otherwise refuse us.
Some part of me says that if you make your “living” with photography (or, really, just try to take it seriously and become a better photographer at all) you might be incentivized to do something visually compelling with your time. Which is to say, if you want to capture something interesting, you must go out and find something interesting. I think this becomes a habit. Somewhere, sitting simply close to the center of your life, develops a belief that there are interesting things happening around you. To me, that seems more radical every day, but I won’t get too polemic about it. Or maybe I’ve just got a feeling that it’s fun to make boring or pointless things look good.
These days, I leave my camera at home more often than not. That photographic principle, however, is baked in. Life around you can be interesting. So, make a movie of your life, or make a sequence of synecdochic stills holding space for some large, orchestrated life. I don’t really know. Here is an example.
I walk on the beach during sunset. The clouds are out, so the golden light is muted across the landscape. Everything looks soft and slightly dull. My friend comes along, wearing a red jacket. The wind is cold, so no one is on the beach. We stumble upon a heap of rocks. My friend climbs it, taking his jacket off and holding it up, letting it waver in the wind, and finally he throws it in the air. Here is the image: a man perched on rocks with his arms high, reaching towards a streak of red cloth unfolding in the air, in front of a limitless ocean that casts the entire background into a subtle gray blue.
It’s fiction so I have no picture of it, but you can imagine that it might look cool.
Richard Hugo, a writer, published a book of lectures on how to write. If you’re curious, it’s called The Triggering Town.On the first page, he says that one learns to write not by reading, but by writing. We only read to exercise the imagination, he says. But the imagination is much more easily excited by other things (like taking a walk?). And I thought it would be stupid to continue to read the book, so I have not finished it.
The other day, sitting at a coffee shop, I pointed to my copy of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, asking my friend, “how does this long-form kind-of experimental styled book translate to the type of content that you create for other people? I mean, this man uses hardly any paragraphs, and has a unique style…and it seems so abstract compared to paid ‘creative’ work. Maybe I’m conscious of this because I create so many short-form tiktoks and Instagram reels these days, and do not know how something longer-form and thoughtful translates to that.”
“There does not need to be a direct translation,” he said. I am not content with that, for if there is no direct translation, I am worried that there is no translation at all.
The other week, or month, I donated half of my books. Most were theology (good riddance!) and some others, like “Wombs and Alien Spirits,” just collected dust, unread. I kept some Georges Bataille books though, even the misogynistic ones (!!!). For some reason, I thought the library would be shocked and excited to receive my pile of books, while I was excited to lose that mediation between language and experience that felt so pointless to me. I even posted a short video about it.
According to some of the authors I read, there is this thing called pure experience, the void, eternity stilled, the mind empty and at ease, a place with no conception, and time with no beginning and no end. I think it’s religious, but it’s at your feet instead of up beyond the stars in heaven. And these authors point to a profane swamp of experience rather than a holy realm above the intellect. Maybe Spirit is involved too, dwelling both in heaven and below. I’m not sure. But both magnificent heaven above and this unintelligible liberated experience underneath our feet are just out of reach. You have to search for them. And I don’t think you’ll ever find them. But there’s no knowing without the search.
I work with social media often, which is a form of collective effervescence. Ask Durkheim about it. I get lost in it.
I stopped reading to do more “creative” stuff, as if I’d lose some stagnant mediation with language and just be purely immersed in “creative” “energy.” I’d get the vibe back probably. No brain just vibes. Obviously that’s stupid [sic]: becoming an ignorant participant in a world with no direction.
The thing is, I could tell you that I enjoy creativity that hovers over the face of the deep, stuck in language but pointing to that pure experience. I enjoy that limited process, for it is the only thing that can try to grasp that which is out of reach. It’s a utopian creativity, but that keeps the heart moving, I guess. I could tell you all about this creativity that reaches beyond itself, I could tell you about a language that grasps only to fail; I could tell and it would do little—it’s too polemic, it’s too prescriptive, it’s too much like an instruction manual.
Instead, you could read someone else who’s actually doing it. I’d recommend Richard Hugo, who would probably say to go outside.