Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies
SOMETHING IS HAPPENING just around the corner. In the expanse of an ordinary summer afternoon, people have stopped on the sidewalk to stare. Heads are turning, necks are craning. The air is annotated with the pointing of fingers: Look over there! Without knowing why, I begin to submit to the happening-thing: I move toward the center of action, as if being caught up in an energy vortex. I want to apprehend what is happening by attuning to it somehow — absorbing myself in its galvanizing force. I want to belong to the crowd, inhabit the mood — caught up within the collective rhythms, inhabiting the waves of coordination and divergence.
Even when feeling sluggish on a hot summer day like this, there is no denying the erotic pull of this absorption: at the onset of the happening-something, one’s body instantly kicks into gear. The listless gaze becomes focused, the pulse quickens, and the sensorium is ignited. The heart and breath adjust to the accelerated rhythms of the external. Yet the atmosphere plays a heavy role: the humid, sizzling air of this particular summer afternoon continues to lend a sticky, sultry feeling. One is aroused yet slightly irritated, infused with a bristly sensuality. Passions flare up, veering between amity and antagonism. In moments like this, anything can happen.
I move toward the happening-something. I join the assembling crowd, glistening with sweat and expectation, synchronized with its pace and beat. Shouting is audible, but not much is visible. I feel sparks in the air. I sense something wild, unleashed — an eruption of hostile and joyous energies. Is it a scuffle, I wonder? At the onset of this thought, I feel a rush of excitement. What is it about the potential of a fight that always whets one’s appetite? Or even better — a BRAWL? But perhaps it is nothing much, and I am merely succumbing to anticipation — that wild force, source of anxiety and thrill, that stretches torward the space of the moment, infusing it with the promise of untold adventure. Concepts can rush into this space, but they can just as well be emptied from it: one can read into it, courting words, or one can read through it, cultivating intensities.
Perhaps I am succumbing to anticipation in order to conjure its devilish accomplice: temptation. How delicious are its torments! It is a compelling anguish, this anguish of temptation: that generative mechanism through which familiar routines are destabilized by the unfamiliar, and enticements can overcome prohibitions, or at least jostle with them, however briefly. One wants to know what is happening, but one also wants to suspend the demands of knowledge and instead savor the unknown — or at least, a kind of knowingness that can incorporate the irrational. I may want to visually possess this unknown something, filling a lack, but I could just as well want to be absorbed into it, channeling abundance. Something extraordinary is brewing, something that is poised to spill over, exceed the bounds, and perhaps catch me in its wake — an invigorating gathering-something through which I anticipate a release, a discharge, dangerous and soothing.
I cannot discern anything. A spectator points in the direction of the happening-something, but I cannot see what he is pointing at. The event does not resolve to this or that. I can only sense a blur — a little maelstrom, a little cluster of chaos. A slight rhythmic divergence. A moving arm — was that a punch? (Another jolt of excitement!) How interesting to compare the gestures: on the one hand, there is the closed fist of the fighter; on the other hand, there is the pointing finger of the spectator. A fast-forward thrust; a hesitant gesture. A direct contact with a body (THUMP!); a directional indicator of its placement (THAT!). If the open hand, in gesturing, deals with meaning — a vocabulary of direction and velocity — then the closed one, in punching, cuts through it, eradicating distance and time. They often work in conjunction, in law as in crime.
Extend the middle finger rather than the forefinger and turn the forearm upward. The harmless gesture of pointing becomes an extremely hostile one, whose power is derived from its implied contact. The words FUCK YOU can accompany it, adding force. But speech is not necessary — the gesture is enough. As recipient, you feel a wave of anger, as if the finger had indeed touched you, made its intended contact with the vulnerable flesh of the ass.
Of course the inciter does not intend to actually follow through with this implied contact. It would disgust him. There is a certain hesitancy; the finger only goes so far. Yet sometimes a contact is precisely what is solicited: the gesture is intentionally geared to incite you to fight. The proffered finger taunts you. No longer hesitant, it extends an appeal. It quivers with a need for contact and expenditure. By way of the gesture, his assembly hails yours, opening itself out to you, daring you, teasing you. Come, let’s resolve this! Hostile energies swell up, demanding release. If you take up the invitation, things will get messy. Something will have changed; the arrangements may never be the same.
The happening-something congeals at the fulcrum of our attention. However it is not a bounded entity over there for it includes the assembled crowd here. Or rather, the crowd includes it: there is a symbiotic relation, one bound up within the other. The happening-event is a dynamic formation that can span formal distinctions like inside and outside, actor and audience. There is indeed a focus (the fight?), yet the energies of the event reverberate outwardly in all directions. Undulating, it traverses the arena of action, loosening social ties and unraveling protocols.
One finds oneself suddenly communing with strangers, brushing shoulders with them, sharing a bond with them. Absorbed in the gathering, I feel the sweat of the man next to me, his heartbeat, his anxious pleasure. I feel someone’s hot breath against my skin. A vibration passes through me, which could become a murmur. We, the gathering crowd, stand close to one another, closer than we would otherwise be. Something comes alive. A charge passes through us — a current that can suspend the dictates of language and social convention. When we disband, it fades: witness the aftermath, the uncomfortable exchanges, the half-nods, the cursory goodbyes, as if we don’t quite know what to do with this strange new intimacy that has unexpectedly opened up. Social protocols, momentarily suspended at the onset of the event, now seep back in, traversing the arena like fault lines. We go our separate ways.
After the initial rush, the ripples of attraction and avoidance ebb and flow, rise and fall. Social codes can be suspended, but they quickly seep back in, coming and going in waves. There are rumblings, disconnects, subtle breakages. Destabilizations, then convergences. A woman moves up behind someone in order to see the happening-event, but then, sensing that she is too close, she steps back a notch. The man she has bumped turns to look at her, admiringly; she half-smiles at him awkwardly and then turns away. Did she find the man repulsive? Or was she simply embarrassed at the force of her drive toward the happening-thing — the hunger of her desire for absorption? How telling are these suspensions and retreats! One always recoils from a sudden, unanticipated closeness — “gathering oneself,” adjusting the hair, smoothing the dress. A collapse spontaneously happens within the space of the everyday, as if the ground suddenly dropped out beneath us, only to be quickly patched over with a prohibition — a culturally imposed restriction. (One shouldn’t do such things! — what will people think?)
Because of the imposed restriction, the experience can linger in the body’s memory as a strange fascination. A sensation of contact, a smell, a contour, a rhythm, a texture: qualities that can stabilize as a recurring fantasy-element or sensorial motif. Qualities that can adhere in a specific form, fade away, or get absorbed into other composites. The imposition of restriction is the motor of eroticism’s enticing anguish — the engine of temptation’s torturous pleasures. It is the alluring tension of the restraining strap, the ritual, the risque.
Immersed within the happening-event, one does not talk much, as if words cannot begin to capture the enormity of what is happening, or what might be happening. Unless it is carefully modulated, speech cannot do justice to the eruptive event. Speech can cheapen it, destabilize the solmenness of its captivating unity. Speech can spoil the mood — as during a funeral or a sexual encounter, where one relies not on words so much as the intangibilities of atmosphere, movement, and touch. The sigh, the moan, the gasp: modulations that flirt with speech but stop just short of it. Mumblings, murmurs, hushed tones: modulations that spill into speech, match the situation’s rhythms and tones, amplify or diminish them, reverberate in accordance with them. Conversation is minimized; if there are words, they don’t diagram so much as punctuate, adjust flows. Expressions and gestures come alive.
Because of this suspension of mediation, the event exerts an absorptive power. One reaches out through non-linguistic forms of body contact and exchange, as if opening the body, extending it. One frowns, peers, expresses concern, worry, or frustration, covers the widening mouth, clasps the hands. Adrenaline flows, the body heats up, lubricates itself, swells. What is this but a carnal dimension of anticipation — an anticipation of some form of contact between one’s body and something else, and, correspondingly, the body’s physiological READINESS for such a potential encounter? Through readiness, the body opens out in expectation, but at the same time, through readiness, one creates a space or place for oneself — a stabilized “I.” Bound up with this is the modulation of flow and speeds — a form of rhythmic adjustment, quickening or slowing the body in relation to someone or something else.
There is a mimetic component to this. Sometimes one simply imitates the gestures of another. Someone points, gasps, murmurs, and I do the same — as if to say, I understand you, I am with you. I synchronize rhythms in the service of a social standard, covering ambiguous states of affective stimulation with culturally acceptable fronts. I filter my jouissance — my unadulterated, a-categorical arousal. These gestures are not about meanings so much as modulations — valves that can channel readiness, calibrate its flows. As with the suppression of the laugh: worried that I might exceed the acceptable, I cover my mouth, adjusting the intensity of the guffaw.
Gesture: a directional indicator (sign), or a modulator of flow (valve). A gesture, whether unconscious or intentional, that is bound up in whirlwinds of language and affect, desire and convention, or signification, rhythm, and intensity. A sign-valve of anticipation or avoidance — between opening up to potential contact or limiting the connective glow, lest it be too much, too soon: overflow. A directional indicator; a modulating interface. Moving forward in anticipation; retreating in aversion. A concept summoned or evacuated; an intensity amplified or diminished.
The contacts that we anticipate are like those that we have made before. We know the score. The body remembers, responds accordingly. Even while learned and mimetic, this is not just about language. It is about an affective reproducibility: a sensory experience that hardens into a template. An affective template, or a formula — coalescing somewhere between the imposed and the emergent.
Resonance, coding, and formulation: the bonding and stabilizing axes of the happening-something. Affectivity, language, and reproducibility. Energies, signs, and standards.
The happening-event, pulsating with attractive energies, draws me in, harnesses my attention, my desire. I move toward it, submit to it. It is like being drawn to an alluring person, and feeling the stirrings of arousal as they well up in the body. And yet here, within the dynamical pulls and eddies of the happening-event, it is not really a person that one desires. It is a combination of things: people, parts, event-components, and atmospheric elements. Actors, whether organic or inorganic. What excites us is a mood, a quality of movement, a way of being. When you desire a person, you focus on specifics — the lips, the breast, the quality of the skin — however it is the entirety of the situation that matters. A sensory composite, intangible and grand like the weather.
When was the last time we fully grasped that enormity? As a creature of discernment, one frequently misses the forest for the trees. As a young child, much to my parents’ horror, I would escape the confines of the house during a summer thunderstorm, running out to the most exposed place I could find — an open field, a street, a roof. Once in place, I would remove my clothes and stand with my arms spread wide, as if inviting the storm inward, allowing it to swallow me, pass through me, while at the same time extending myself outward, as if to become its voluminous and fiery presence. The glistening rain mixed with sweat conducted a liquidation of the body and generated a lubrication: everything interpenetrable, wet and sliding. There was no sense of danger (being struck by lightning). There was only the flirtation with it: the activation of a deep level of readiness, where desire and fear commingle and sensory activation, intimate and majestic, is all that matters.
Perhaps it is a submissive experience of a certain scale, intensity, and rhythm that I seek, in order to lose myself and find myself again, extended, elsewhere — the anticipated fight (or brawl!) providing one interface, one modulation of the maelstrom. So it is at this moment, as I stand, in varying degrees, both within this space of this essay and the space of the street, on this humid summer day, restless and sticky amongst the assembled — the glistening, undulating mass, quivering with sweat and expectation, which yearns to experience the happening-something. Feeling its power course through us, we submit to it, and it submits to us. The desire, like wind, sweeps us up.
But wait — could the ambiguous thrusting of arms, jutting outward from the center of the happening-thing, belong to dancers rather than fighters? Rather than a fight, with its particular brew of hostile and joyous energies, might the happening-something instead be a frolic? The gestures of the dancer can at times resemble the pointing finger of the spectator and the closed fist of the fighter — the indication and the punch; the hesitant gesture and the fast forward thrust; the interval and its evacuation — as both are subsumed within larger, rhythmic whirls of signification and intensity. Immersed in the dance, one is overcome by the rhythm, hips swaying, arms lashing, hands wild with gestural flux. Hair and breasts abounce, one joins the pulsating, writhing mass, synchronous and dissonant, at times riding the beat, at times turning it, breaking it. Appendages sprout from, swing through, and motor the convulsing crowd like cranks and valves. Gestures signify through rhythm and reference, but they also contour flows, celebrating meaninglessness, as if poking through the bubble of language.
I am immediately reminded of the pleasures and anxieties of dancefloors past, with their captivating assemblages of dancers, lights, undulatory motions, desires, and rhythmic vibes. Poised at the edge of the dancefloor, I experience a longing for attunement — for the sense of being synchronized with the writhing bodies, caught up in the undulations of the collective throbbing-thing. A common attachment, a belonging, a seamlessness that can toy with the boundaries of the body. I want to give in to the dance; I want to let go. And yet I hesitate, comforted by my inertia in the face of the moving, my observational status in the face of the displayed, my discipline in the face of the indulgent: my assumed mastery of the situation. The position that allows me an authorial and authoritative voice — the voice that I adopt in the space of this essay, as it overlaps with the space of the street. I am at the edge, standing on the curb — the sidelines of the action. To relinquish this position is to be exposed, made vulnerable, put on display — subordinated.
I could be at any nightclub, or an assembly of all nightclubs, but here I am: standing at the periphery, just outside the arena of action, affirmed by my sense of control. I feel that I am in control of the situation. The situation involves not only how I see, but how I am seen. It involves not only an image of control but a sense of it — a sense that arises by way of proprioceptive circuits, as it coalesces in a form of corporeal apprehension and manifests in subtle qualities of posture and movement. The situation is the apprehended totality of the happening-event — the assembling-event as sensed and known. It includes not only my subjective position, but my own sense of self-in-movement; not only my objective position, but my moving self as sensed by others. It includes not only my position but my sensory-corporeal movement as sensed from within and without: my passage.
I assume power by way of my being staged — visually and sensorially — as empowered. This staging is manifest in how I hold myself, how I move my eyes, how I move my body.
I think I know the score. I sense the conditions of the game that I think I’m playing, and I stage myself accordingly. I try to apprehend the conditions according to which the gathering plays — its constitution and its disposition — and I adjust myself, modulate myself, in accordance with that. A potential role emerges. What role do I play? When I adopt a role I take a position and move convincingly in an intensive or expressive way. I endeavor to “pass” as something or someone, whether for myself or for an other. My role is subjective and objective, material and expressive; it involves both positioning and passing. To adopt a role is to sense what is at stake: to trust the assembling-event’s constitution and the integrity of my potential role in it.
Whether on the street, on the dancefloor, or in the essay, the initial unity of the situation always breaks down. I look to my left, and one person, fully surrendering to his desire, has become unhinged, hurling himself through the crowd, arms thrashing about, head abob. A loose bundle of uncoordinated and undisciplined movements, I think, and this judgment somehow makes me feel better: I am not that. A renegade sentence potentially invades this paragraph, and I immediately reject it: I would not say that. Fault lines traverse the event — some actors attract me, others repel me; I align with some, but not others. I may want to belong to the happening-something, submit to it — but not all of it. I can understand this belonging in terms of subjectivity and identity (a distinction to be made, a difference established), or in terms of alignment and acclimation (a modulation to be made, a flow amplified/diminished). A lack to fill, or an abundance to channel. Or both.
I yearn to experience this happening-event, this extraordinary something brewing. It promises to fulfill a lack in me. And yet my desire is not to possess it, in such a way as it would fulfill some fundamental loss. Rather, this happening-thing, rife with excess energy and potential, activates the abundance already within me: it shows me what I already have. I don’t want to gain — I want to lose. A concentrated eruption of abundant energies, whether understood as hostile or joyous, the happening-something is that which might spill over, exceed the bounds of the norm — and this possibility fills me with excitement. It is. I feel a delicious anticipation of an overflow, a discharge that releases and extends me. I expose myself to it. And I modulate myself in the face of it: I modulate how much of it I want to absorb, how much of it I want to channel and release. I modulate how much I want to show — how much I want to stage of it.
One assumes the position (in language) and solicits attention. One modulates movement (in sensation) and channels extensibilities. My subjectivity is constituted in this conflux: an assumed center of being.
Absorption and integration. Absorption and release. At times there can be a loss of self, dissolved within the shifting material and sensory composite. In these moments, when I am “inside” it, I can say that the happening-something appears to be unified, inclusive — stabilized. Yet the loss of self is temporary. A constellation of provisional platforms sprout, wherein one momentarily stages oneself — perhaps, strikes a pose. The rhythmic waves are those of unity and disunity, stability and instability: absorption, integration, staging, and release. I absorb and incorporate something of the happening-something, in order to retool or enrich my self. I stage myself as someone or something. I separate or release in order to shore up my individual boundaries. On the one hand there is a soothing: I am OK, I belong. On the other hand there is a productive friction: I do not belong. Through this pushing and pulling, banding and disbanding, a sense of self stabilizes, playing out in terms of both signs and energies: linguistic distinctions and the calibrated interfacing of flow.
In linguistic staging, one accepts or rejects. In intensive flows, one absorbs or releases. One negotiates a play of position-in-movement: here and there, this and that; open and closed, forward and back. In staging: revealing and concealing. In flows: availability and withdraw. This stabilizing and destabilizing dynamic is the very essence of eroticism: the desire for a disassembling, a mingling, a flirtation with continuity, as it is always bound up in a dance with its opposite. I want to be intimate, so close that I can touch the happening-something, feel its pulse and sweat. Hold it, stroke it, lick it. But not too close. I unloosen, but not so much as to lose.
I might open one button, but not two.
When we desire someone, what is it, exactly, that we want? To possess them, consume them, belong to them, be like them, or be like the way they are? One says things like: “I’m so into you”; “I could just eat you up”; “He’s mine”; I see someone alluring, and I am fascinated by how that person moves — how they are in the world. Perhaps I just want to absorb something of them. Not to absorb him, but a way about him. Not to possess her, but to attune to her atmosphere — and through that, to the other atmospheres of which she is a part. What I find desirable in others could well be their own embeddedness in social atmospheres that I want to be in. Or, the simple fact that they are in them at all — that is, that others desire them. What is desire then but the drive to be incorporated into a happening-something — an eruptive collection of actors, parts, and atmospheric elements? To absorb an atmosphere, and get absorbed, in such a way as to draw out the movement, activate the senses, and reaffirm the (neglected?) body. To get absorbed, in order to prompt an affirming rearrangement, setting forth integration and expenditure. To destabilize, if only to consolidate, extend.
In spatial terms, this is the labyrinthine dance of seduction: a dance of revealing and concealing, advancing and retreating, stabilization and destabilization. A swirling, recurrent choreography that plays out like a striptease. Desire is fueled by the reassurance of ritual and the promise of untold adventure — recurrence and potentiality. It needs its routines, but without the cultivation of the unknown it evaporates. It is the very dynamic of the dramatic form, where the protagonist must be challenged, must overcome an obstacle that poses a threat to the self — a process that subsequently changes her. Desire is fuelled by duration, characterized by an element of friction: anticipation’s expanse. A prolonged venture into the twisting corridors of the unknown. I want to know, but not too soon. I want to wait for my object of desire, work for it a little bit. But not too much. Temptation has everything to do with time: too little and it cannot take root, too much and it turns into frustration.
The assembling-event never coalesces as a knowable thing but rather facilitates a kind of unknowable-ness. It harnesses the absorptive power of knowledge, fueled with its promises of mastery, but it does not deliver: it harbors not a truth but a formula. It cannot be relied upon to resolve to a specific outcome, but rather to continually engender a set of possibilities whose outcomes we anticipate. Its absorptive power is the very dynamic of seduction. The negotiation of stable and unstable meaning (or knowing and unknowing, signification and sense), as attuned to the rhythmic contours of the assembling-event, is the source of the dancer or fighter’s allure.
A man frequents a sex club in New York City. It is dark and mysterious, with twisting corridors, alcoves, and chambers. For some it is a menacing construct, no less for its smells — sweat, semen, poppers — than its sense of lawlessness, its potent mixture of desire and threat. Yet one always seeks a generative danger, and who knows where and how it will materialize. A low-level porn soundtrack plays continuously, punctuated by heavy breathing and groans of pleasure. In the twisting and turnings, in the forward movements and the retreats, the man loses himself.
If not the place, one knows the dynamic: the ambiguous glances signaling both availability and withdraw; the dark folds of clothing that both expose the body and cloak it; the combinatory stance, hips forward but head turned away. The qualified sense of arousal: does she want me or not; in what way; to what degree? The foundational desire to know: what does he want of me? What is it about me that is appealing or repulsive? In response, I check myself. Mirror, gauge, valve. Reflect, calibrate, modulate. Comb the hair, straighten the clothes, smooth the self. In response to an imagined query, which envelops me like moisture in the air, I define my contours.
For hours on end, one wanders the metaphorical corridors, blurring one’s sense of time and place, yet doing so through a reinforcement of the physical — the igniting of the body’s libidinous energies. Fired up and ready for action, I blur the body, mingle with something else, only to affirm it by accelerating and maintaining a state of arousal. I am not here, yet I am relentlessly, passionately here. I know myself by way of my desire, the way my body swells and lubricates in the anticipation of contact. Through readiness, I open myself to contact, yet I solidify myself, center myself. Quickened pulse, flash of heat, warm shiver: this is how I know that I occupy this band, this spot. Something may happen; maybe I will get laid, but more than likely not.
One rarely admits to engaging in such prolonged states of arousal. Partly, one does this to save oneself embarrassment — how shameful, wasting all that time in the pursuit of pleasure, reducing yourself to the state of an animal, giving yourself over to an unseemly desperation! Or, worse, demonstrating a particular pathological condition! But partly you don’t even know why you did it. Words fail. The desire to be aroused and attuned to the happening-something takes place as a vaguely felt expectation that does not necessarily resolve to a conscious thought.
Further, if one does manage to summon an explanation, it will derive from a basis of spectatorship, not exhibition. Called to give an account of oneself, one reaches for a convenient vocabulary, and spectatorship always wins out: the voyeuristic condition of the observer is nearly always emphasized over that of the displayer. Yet the sense of wanting to be “in” the happening-something — to touch it, taste it, surrender to it, absorb its force — cannot be dealt with in terms of visual mastery. It is not about possessing something from a distance, but about the evacuation of this distance: an extreme intimacy, a mingling. It is not about relation so much as synchronization. One does not look from afar, fortifying the self, but rather enters into the fray, exposing the self.
This is not to say that spectatorship disappears entirely; rather, it gets resituated, diffused within the absorptive arena, where it unfolds within a condition of exposure. Could one suggest that the drive to be “in” something is more constitutive than the drive for separation? Sameness more than difference? Immersive exposure more than voyeuristic detachment?
If we answer the question with words, then we will have responded firmly in the negative. Let us forestall a response and stretch forward the space of this moment, cultivating a bit of instability — a little chaotic ball, a little fight or brawl! Concepts can rush into this space, but we can also hold them at bay. We can cultivate intensities; we can show more than say! Let us undress, slowly, undoing the customary dualities we make of the world: between observer and participant; inside and outside; clothed and unclothed. Or even between the button and its undoing. We can conjure up a little happening-something right here — an assembling of various actors, whether human, technological, or environmental. A happening-something that, as always, constitutes both the event and the arousal.
Turn the lights down low. Tune into the vibrations. Allow the mood to coalesce. Offer permissive expressions. Anticipate contacts.
In the aftermath of such an encounter, a wave of stabilization always comes. One rights oneself, lights up a cigarette. One may not talk much during the unfolding of the happening-something — but afterwards words certainly rush in to fill the void. One chats. Cleans up. Restores order. The lights come on, the clothes come on, and the hair is straightened. As with the aftermath of the fight or brawl: one tends to one’s wounds, smudges, and torn clothing.
Indeed, temptation is all about timing — and now it is time for the payoff. Standing here on the hot pavement, in the midst of the gathering onlookers, caught up in the dynamics of the volatile happening-something, my patience is wearing thin. The anticipation is bordering on frustration. Curiosity vies with a sticky irritability. Is it indeed a fight that is happening, or is it something else (a dance)? What has drawn us here and assembled us in a holding pattern?
I continue to scan the component objects of our absorptive desire. There is a man who looks angry, disheveled, unruly — perhaps he is the instigator! There is another who stands on the street — is that his antagonist? However nothing else affirms this. A woman walks down the street with a shopping bag. A pigeon swoops down to devour a breadcrumb. A bicycle is chained to a post. A red traffic light pulses. A cluster of balloons sways in the wind. A wayward child bounces. A truck honks. A car idles. A dog is wagging its tail. A cluster of magazines is scattered on the sidewalk. There is the smell of hamburgers and exhaust fumes. A fluttering leaflet. Did something coalesce into a something — and I missed it? Or is the “glue” due to some faint expectation that something might coalesce? Either the ingredients, once operative, have since brewed over and transformed into something else, or the ingredients are still brewing. Expectation is still in the air. But it might well turn to disappointment, or something like that.
I spot a cafe across the street with only one person sitting there. A tiny woman quietly sipping a cola. She is the only person who has not run toward the happening-something. A holdout. She reminds me of someone: a visitor from a small town in the American Midwest, who once came to visit a friend of mine living in Hollywood. It was her first time in Los Angeles. When she arrived, she could hardly contain herself. The dazzling Eden of celebrity, at last! But what did she actually want to do once there? She did not want to “see the sights.” Instead, every day, for the entire day, she simply installed herself at the same cafe. Once installed, she would proceed to sit there — watching, waiting. She did not want to do anything in Hollywood, she simply wanted to be in it. Her desire was not that of the mobile consumer, strolling through the glittering colonnades of stardom. Her desire was not to move acquisitively through this world. It was simply to sit in it.
She’s a spectator, but her spectatorship is not primary. It is not about difference, repression, or voyeuristic enclosure. Her spectatorship is diffused within the absorptive arena. It unfolds within a condition of exposure.
The happening-something can take place as a brutal interruption of the norm. One can encounter it unexpectedly, like an accident. Something’s happening over there! But it is also something that one can anticipate, and patiently await. It is also something that could take place over a longer time frame, as a continuous band of low-level activity. Something like a background hum. One can position oneself so as to inhabit it continuously, like listening to a jazz station or floating in a pool.
A dissolution or dispersal of the self is temporarily achieved, and one is “at one” with something larger, in composite with it, however momentarily. Like catching the wave, being in the zone or in the groove. Such a state is not about surrender, but the cultivation and navigation of a productive friction. One is in the flow, in such a way as to be able to negotiate differentials, respond to discrete changes. Not so much a meditation as a state of being skillful or tactful — a submissive, unselfconscious grace. Afterwards, one gathers oneself and stumbles on.
As you watch, others watch you. The perpetual cafe-sitter: she stares, others stare at her. How odd, her blank, lingering stare, hours on end. As we stand awaiting the happening-event, others wonder why. They point at us and murmur, What are those people doing over there?
A man and woman walk by me, holding hands. A beautiful woman crosses their path. The man wants to look at the alluring woman, but he does not want his wife to know that he wants to look. So he sneaks a glance. Momentarily, the beautiful woman catches his eye. His wife catches this moment; angered, she shoots a hard glare at him. The man’s gaze softens in appeasement: his attempt at modulation. Someone else — someone who knows the couple — witnesses the scene from afar. This witness will subsequently convey to his circle of friends the following observation: the marriage is in trouble. The marriage-assemblage volleys between stability and instability, depending on the other social formations onto which it opens and within which it is contextualized. Location, scale, timing, intensity, degree of stability and materiality — all have to be taken into account, for there is no meaning that can fully capture this occurrence.
Every one and every thing is an actor, or at least a potential one, in some happening-thing. Something always has the potential of coalescing into a something. If only one person is there, staring, we may not stop to look; however if many others have gathered, looking in the same direction, then we might stop. At that point, a critical threshold has been crossed: we say, Oh, something is indeed happening over there. An event coheres, accompanied by, and seen by way of, a collective atmosphere. The strength of the happening-something could be understood in terms of the number, quality, and function of the actors that it is able to corral into it — and who desire to be corralled into it. It is not just about mass, but a certain level of internal consistency that arises through the quality and intensity of the gathered, at whatever scale.
If no one gawks, the event could simply run its course, unnoticed, and therefore not become a happening at all. Without the mood, the event does not exert a pull. But there is no mood without the event. The gathered actors constitute the event, but they also serve to channel it — acting as its indicators, its conduits, its gateways, if only by stopping to look at it, or point at it.
Someone stares, dumbfounded — does the event produce the expression, or the converse? The question is not that of linear causality (which came first?). Nor is it a dialectical question concerning the relation of part to whole, element to system. Rather, it is a question of critical mass: when one cluster of elements stabilizes, crosses a material threshold such that it becomes something else.
There are always a series of smaller happening-somethings within the larger one — mini-scenes, small groupings of people, some very small (a woman and child, spanked) and some large (about ten people, a dog, and a ditch). The role one plays in one assembling-event may be different than the role played in another, even if they overlap. Technological actors allow the incorporation of other actors, in varying degrees of material and expressive presence. A woman points, and several others look in the direction of her finger. A picture is taken with a cell-phone, shared with a friend, and then transmitted to another. Two women kiss, to the dismay of a third. An ugly dog snaps at a stranger. When someone asks, What is happening?, that person doesn’t expect a name in response so much as an indication of where the event is, its scale or intensity, and the rhythm of its occurrence. Its degree of stability. The question refers to the event that has galvanized the most people’s attention — the one that is of a remarkable scale and resonance.
Even though all of the event-clusters, whether large or small, have stabilized with some degree of coherency, they might just as well destabilize, disband, their components re-assembling into new clusters, larger or smaller, more intense or less intense. Someone steps on someone’s toe, apologizes, and is subsequently drawn into a new conversational composite. A fight between two men erupts in a bar. Others quickly jump in, joining the whirlwind of blurred bodies, fueled by the swell of aggressive energies and emotions. An all-out BRAWL — at last! One gets sucked in or stands at the precipice, modulating energies, weighing repercussions. Someone is hailed and cedes to the call; another runs away. The bouncer attempts to restore order. A gasp; a shout; a scream. Thwack! Thump! There! Punching, pointing. Bruises, cuts. A lamp tumbles over; a glass object smashes. Groups may bond together — the kind of bonding that only an immediate threat can produce. But then the swell of intensity subsides, and people extricate themselves. The warring camps have dissembled, the clusters rearranged.
What is happening? Well, surely not that, because it’s over. What’s happening always exists in the present, with a remarkable degree of stability. An indicator — a stare, a pointing finger, a scream — might tell us where it is, and give us a hint of the intensity of the occurrence. There is the hesitant, polite gasp, with hand over mouth. There is the higher degree of amazement, with the finger pointing. Then there is the all-out screech, with eyes wide and arms aflail. We might align with the event, share in it, and conduct it too. We might vibrate with it, but we might just as well miss it: by the time we look, it might well have disbanded.
There is the prank you pull on someone when you abruptly say, LOOK! and point up to the sky. The forefinger again, but this time with arm raised completely skyward in one intense vector, straining toward the heavens. With this gesture and its verbal accompaniment you can generate a momentary destabilization, a temporary rift, during which you can rearrange the elements of the familiar. You can slap a sticker that says KICK ME to the back of your victim’s shirt. Even though he has now stabilized, gathered himself, he has in the process become something slightly different: he now (inadvertently) anticipates a contact, generates a back-door appeal, invites a bit of chaos.
Perhaps, through a bit of ventriloquism, this gives voice to a shared, unspoken desire: the desire to be ravished by the irrational. The delicious anticipation of something, anything, that could shake up our world. Something like the desire to be “swept off one’s feet” in love. It is a question of degree: the level of intensity and stability. One does need to collect oneself and go on. One needs to go on routinely anticipating the something-happening that can disrupt us from the routine! The banding together of new composites. The generation of new incitements!
In the expanse of this essay we have moved between radically different hand gestures, all of them marking different kinds of actors and capacities, and different combinations of signification, modulation, rhythm, and intensity. We have moved between the FUCK YOU and the KICK ME as incitements to assembly. “Culture” is usually understood in terms of the signifying modulations of the former. Power is thought to come from there: a confrontative frontality. Yet we end with the unconscious solicitations of the latter.
To call for a productive destabilization: the working of the ass-end of things. Or, as a popular dance tune would have it, to “shake that thing.”