In a piece called The Algorithmic Trap, David Perell writes about the difficulty of finding serendipity, diversity, and “real” experiences while traveling. In short, Google, Yelp, Instagram, and the like have made travel destinations and experiences increasingly predictable and homogeneous.
Call me old-fashioned, but the more I travel, the less I depend on algorithms. In a world obsessed with efficiency, I find myself adding friction to my travel experience. I’ve shifted away from digital recommendations, and towards human ones.
For all the buzz about landmarks and sightseeing, I find that immersive, local experiences reveal the surprising, culturally-specific ways of living and thinking that make travel educational. We over-rate the importance of visiting the best-places and under-rate the importance of connecting with the best people. If you want to learn about a culture, nothing beats personalized time with a passionate local who can share the magic of their culture with you.
There’s one problem with this strategy: this kind of travel doesn’t scale. It’s in efficiency and doesn’t conform to the 80/20 rule. It’s unpredictable and things could go wrong.
Travel — when done right — is challenging. Like all face-to-face interaction, it’s inefficient. The fact that an experience can’t be found in a guidebook is precisely what makes it so special. Sure, a little tip helps — go here, go there; eat here, eat there; stay here, stay there — but at the end of the day, the great pleasures of travel are precisely what you can’t find on Yelp.
Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love. Worse, by promoting familiarity, algorithms punish culture.
I took the photo above in the Beartooth Mountains on my recent roadtrip. This was one of the surprise highlights of my trip…I wouldn’t have known to take the road through those mountains had it not been recommended to me by some enthusiastic locals.
This is someone named Eva Strohmeier's map of the BwO. [I can't find a direct link; I apologize as I love this.]
Sometimes, I find myself talking about a concept — say, the Body without Organs — to someone who has not enmeshed themselves in philosophy (I'm trying out that they/them thing). They listen, ask a question or two — often with a hint of defensiveness — before saying: Ok. So what? What am I supposed to do with that?
This is the best question possible: What am I supposed to do with that? What can I do with that? For it —life— is always a matter of doing.
Then again, I'm simultaneously thrown by the question. After all, haven't we been taught concepts since we were kids, throughout our education both formal and informal — evolution, the unconscious, sickness from germs, holistic? Why does this one concept, BwO, prompt that question? I believe it's because the idea sounds so odd, so esoteric, that it brings the very activity of all concepts to the fore — which is unsettling. I believe the question can house a certain anti-intellectualism which surfaces in comments like: That's just mental masturbation. Which is not an accusation I've ever understood.
Here's a concept I just read in a book: You have a core purpose. What are you supposed to do with that? Presumably, you're supposed to discover, then reach for, this core purpose.
But then someone else comes along and says: I don't know about that core purpose stuff. I don't think we have a core; and I don't think we have a purpose. I think we're all just adrift and the trick is to ride it with grace. And, for a calculus of reasons, you believe this latter guy. So now rather than taking time alone and considering your core purpose, you move into the social, into the fray of experience, but without judgement or exploration you used to have. Now you seek grace as a passive subject within the Great Teem, riding this whole shindig out.
Two concepts. Two different architectures of experience. And at least two different directives on how to behave. Concepts, like many figures, organize our sense making. They have us see the world a certain way, to process the stuff of this world a certain way. (I'd argue that any figure has this power; after seeing Francis Bacon's paintings, I see the world, I experience the world, I organize the world differently.) And this processing, which we might call understanding, inflects our desires, our experience, how we interact with ourselves and other bodies.
Concepts, like all figures, have the ability to (re)order the very structures of who we are as individuals and as a social body. They famously wrote: A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window. So what are you to do with the Body without Organs? Well, like all concepts, it proffers an architecture of bodies: within this organized body there is another body, one that is run through with forces and flows, with becomings and desires of all sorts. This refers not just to the human body but to all bodies — to cities, houses, classrooms, relationships, discourses of every kind.
Let's take massage. You're getting a massage as your shoulder really hurts. One therapist massages the body with organs so focuses on your shoulder, on the muscles and tendons and what-have-you. Another therapist massages the body without organs so feels around for different flows and connections, moving from that right shoulder down across the back to the left side lower back before gliding across the glutes, back up, and then over the other glutes down the leg. I'm not sure which will "work"; I, for one, would prefer the latter. But preferences aside, the point is: different architectures of the body due to different concepts become different practices — and different experiences for you-of-the-sore-shoulder.
Now take your living space. Sure, there's a living room in which you do certain things; a dining room where you eat; a kitchen where you cook; and so on. It's a highly organized space — organized before you ever set foot in it not just by architects but by discourse, by the things we're taught since birth about how space is organized. But there is another space within that organized space, a schizo space, a space of different flows of action, of different possibility.
Ever since I've lived on my own, I've had this practice in which when I find myself frustrated with my living space, I wait until night and then I turn off all the lights, open all the windows, shed most or all of my clothes, and then move room to room feeling for what it wants and how the space might go together. I might play music; I might even dance. I'll sit on different things to get different vantages; I'll lie down on the floor, on the table, over the back of the couch. Sometimes, this ends up in a reorganization of the space — couch here, table there. But that's not the point; I'm not redecorating. The point is this ritual of experiencing the space outside of its organized body, inviting its BwO to play, to think the space, to enjoy the space, to have it move me through it.
I took a class in college on ethnicity in which the professor told this incredible story. There was some controversy in upstate New York where there are Native American reservations. It seems the residents were living in these makeshift homes of oil barrels and tar paper. So, to save the day, some state senator built houses on the reservation. A few weeks later, the residents had taken sledgehammers to the walls. The state was, of course, befuddled so hired my professor to figure out why. Well, it seems these Native Americans lived in wide open common spaces — the oil barrels and tar paper; walls were strange and disruptive to them — ergo, the sledgehammers, like a good conceptual brick, at once breaking down and building up. Within any space, other spaces lurk — spaces of radically different flows. A house enjoys a body without organs, too.
BwO, then, refers to any body — spatial, social, discursive. But what about the human Body without Organs? What do I do with that in my life besides choosing a massage therapist?
Over the past two years, I've thought about, read about, and practiced some meditation (not a lot, mind you). What do I, what does anyone, want from meditation? Practitioners of Transcendental Mediation (TM) talk about simply sitting and experiencing one's deep inner peace. They use a common figure in this world: the ocean. At the surface, there are waves crashing and moving this way and that. But under the waves, deep down in the ocean, there is a great stillness. This, we are told, is how we as human beings go: on the surface, we are waves of errands, work, worries. But we also house a great stillness which we forget about. Meditation doesn't just remind us; it is an experience of a stillness that lurks in all of our bodies.
This is quite different than the Body without Organs. BwO doesn't proffer stillness; it proffers a veritable flux of movement, of flows. BwO is not still or passive; it is active, emergent, vital, seething — not with the anxieties of the everyday but with the forces of life, of the cosmos.
Well, why access such a body? Isn't life complex enough? Maybe. But maybe the organization of the body with organs is the source of the stress and anxiety. Maybe exerting so much energy to hedge and control the Body without Organs is precisely the source of stress, of sickness, of dis-ease? Maybe accessing the BwO is a way to health. That rather than the BwO creating greater complexity, it creates less. In any case, BwO is a not a way to stillness but to ecstatic movement (internal and external).
I think there is a meditative practice to access the BwO that is different than TM. Which is not to knock TM at all; that stillness is beautiful, important, essential. To me, TM's oceanic body is another body alongside the bodies with and without organs. It is to say that there is perhaps a meditative practice of listening not to the silence but to the teem and flow of the BwO. This meditation might not entail sitting quietly; it might entail moving, writhing, yelling, muttering, rolling about.
Maybe we don't call it a meditation. But to me it's a meditation in that it's a disruption of everyday habit in order to allow whatever comes to come — whether silence or screams, stillness or writhing. What I imagine is a listening, not for silence, but for the myriad, affective flows and sensations.
I believe the co-opting of "mindfulness" by industry — health insurance companies, tech companies — is to make our bodies that are being torn apart by the conditions of capitalism more productive, able to keep working, keep buying, not go to the doctor. Which is to say, this form of meditation has the ability to stall and hide the symptoms of modern life rather than heal.
Needless to say, this need not be the case. It seems to me a mindfulness practice opens you up the world beyond work and consumption, to the world of the weird and vital within the everyday. In this case, meditation becomes a kind of access to the BwO.
Of course, the risk of opening oneself up to access the BwO is a certain madness. It's certainly not always pleasant; it's not just jouissance. But it's also jouissance. One issue, it seems, is how to move between and among one's different bodies, how to have the ecstatic states of one body not just hinder the other but to have them propel each other. This may be a misguided wish; some messiness, some conflict, some pain might be inevitable, even good.
I'm still trying to figure that out for myself: Do I want only quiet peace? Do I want to be the depth of the ocean and only the depth of the ocean? I don't think so. I have energetic flows in me that want out, that don't want to be suppressed like a tantric ejaculation, holding back my reserves for internal power — even if that is fantastic, powerful, and beautiful. It's just not the only way I want to come. I also want to writhe and moan, I want to scream, to feel my body disintegrate only to reform along new and strange lines.
Mind you, it's not an either/or. All these bodies intersect each other. All these bodies exist — the angular body with organs; the writhing Body without Organs; the deep oceanic body. All these states exist — dealing with the anxious everyday; bleeding, moaning, and coming in different directions at once; resonant, quiet peace. But we can lean a little more this way than that. (Which body decides which way to lean?)
This is what this esoteric sound concept, BwO, does for me: it multiplies the bodies I find operating in the world and within me. I, for one, don't think we have a core. Or, rather, I believe we have a core but we also don't. Burrowing to one's core is only one mode of living, even if beautiful. But there are other bodies in me. To live, it seems, is a little schizo.
Notably, almost all the foreign programs that American social democrats envy were enacted during Europe’s long post-war economic and demographic boom. That meant that the initial cost of these systems was fairly low — young people don’t need much in the way of health care or pensions, and economies at full employment don’t spend a lot on unemployment insurance or job retraining. As incomes soared, it was comparatively easy for government to skim some of the surplus for their new social insurance schemes, because even as their taxes went up, workers still got to take more money home every week. Governments ran into problems when the boom stopped, of course, but by then, political sentiment had cemented those programs in place.
What was easy in 1960 looks herculean as 2020 approaches. Economic growth has slowed, and populations are aging, which raises the cost of any proposed program and requires you to fund heavy losses on someone to fund it, either workers in those industries, or taxpayers. As psychologists tell us, people are “loss averse” — they care much more about losing something they have than about equivalent potential gains. Given the mammoth cost of socializing the U.S. economy now, and the huge number of people who face substantial losses, I’d argue that we should probably change “herculean” to “impossible.”
The art of Marc Lafia is a persistent source of nourishment for me, feeding me objects to critique. Look at this from his recent work. It draws me in, pops from the fray, but without ready answer. It's monstrous, in the best sense, in that it's not a known quantity. That knowing comes in and with my reckoning, my writing, my critique. And that is decadent, like happening upon a feast of my favorite things.
How does one choose what to write about? I've kept this blog — is "to keep" the right verb? — for 10 years now. I've written about photography and images in general; about particular images and image makers, including films; about death, dating, tequila, Nietzsche, repetition, Deleuze, and Kierkegaard; about teaching, writing, and teaching writing; about language, words, grammar, and teaching language, words, and grammar; about therapy, the will to boring, and the pros and cons of the fact of other people.
Why these things? Well, why not. So perhaps the question is: How these things? How did they occur to me? Well, they obviously come from a reckoning of the life I'm leading. I never thought really about death until I watched and helped my sister die; I didn't write about therapy until I was in it and not about the will to boring until therapy taught me it; as for the pros and cons of other people, that emerged when I fell in love for the first time in decades.
Still, there are many things in my life I don't write about. I rarely mention noodles, for instance. And I don't write a lot about my son, despite the fact that he's the most important and present figure in my life. I suppose noodles are just not that interesting to me and my son is too interesting to me.
Interesting to me: that's a phrase that begs the question. How does this come to the fore as an object of critique but not that? I fear my answer right now is banal and continues the begging: some things just do pop to me while other things do not. We are, all of us, metabolic systems. This means we are desiring machines, filters, and processing engines. I crave noodles the same as I write about Nietzsche — I desire them, I take them up, I process them and enjoy processing them.
Of course, when I was younger — when I was in grad school — everything was interesting (which is actually the tagline for my kid's middle school). The architecture of the classroom, of my writing pad, the various speeds of my pens, the tenor of my voice in the classroom, the size of a book, this or that font, the distribution of trees on the street, even noodles. I was voracious; I could take up anything and critique it. And I did, all the time, often in my own head, too often to those around me.
That was 25 years ago, though. Today, I'm at once more discerning but also less voracious. I choose what to take up, what to process, what to critique. (Note, please, that critique here is an affirmative practice; it is not to criticize or judge. It is to flesh out, flush out, animate, extend, reckon.)
Sometimes, nothing pops to me. This can be frustrating in that I find myself mired in too much me — the same ideas, the same books, the same objects. I become a bit zombie-like. But another aspect of this is luxurious: I enjoy the things of my life, live with them as they nourish me.
Still, I usually jump at the opportunity to have a new object, something fresh to digest — a film, an art work, a book. I am grateful to my friend, Marc Lafia, who continues to make and show great, beautiful, complex art — and asks me to write about it. What a gift! He feeds me new nourishment. And this affords me the luxury of something to write about as, above all, I love writing.
Still, what is "interesting"? I think it's what is literally of interest to me, to this body, to how I go. I find something interesting that can fuel me, feed me, and as I said, nourish me. And these are things that somehow emerge from the din of the everyday, that come out of the shadows and present themselves to me as something different, something emergent, something now, something not yet known. My taking up is my process of knowing.
But it's not just that these things come to me. I go to them. It is a cooperative process of us finding each other, just as I happen upon the noodle section of the Asian market in the Richmond. It draws me in as I draw it in. I suppose it's a kind of magnetism, then. Which is itself a kind of love — and vice versa. (Love is a subset of magnetism just as magnetism is a subset of love; then again, we need not think about any of it in terms of hierarchies, of subs and such, but rather as networks of mutual becoming: magnetism as a concept and action pulls and pushes love as a concept and experience.)
Notice how all of this inquiry begs the question: How and why these objects to critique? This is perhaps the most complex thing to teach. I could tell my students the form of an essay, perhaps. But how do I tell them how to find an object to critique when this object is intimately entwined with their metabolism, their way of going? The things that speak to me most likely don't speak to them. So how do I, how does anyone, teach the finding of an object to critique?
My approach was to show. We'd read a text together — whether it was the classroom itself, an essay by Nietzsche, a Platonic dialogue. I'd literally read it line by line in class. When I think about that now, it seems insane. But that's how we did it: we'd read each line and I'd stop after each and critique everything we'd just read. Looking at it now, I think students believed I was teaching them particular things about this or that text. But I wasn't: I was trying to show them how to find an object to critique. And this meant pointing out how everything can be interesting, how everything can emerge from the fray of life, from the blindness of habit and conditioning, to be something vital, bizarre, new. I actually taught a class on watching films entitled, "Bring on the Strange." This may be the only goal of teaching, at least for me: teaching students how to see what's in front of them as something new, emergent, something to reckon anew, something downright strange.
Finding an object to critique, then, means discovering a moment of alienation, a moment in which social protocol drops and this thing stands there, odd and misshapen, and says: What about this?
In every off-season teams in every sport begin a strange ritual. Prospective coaches are flown in to meet with management about open positions — sometimes they convene at the stadium, in nondescript conference rooms, or the cabin of the owner’s plane. Whatever the locale, the scene is usually thus: The ambitious coach strides in, sits down, and reveals themselves to be one of two types.
There is the type who expects to be asked a number of questions from management. And then there is the type who expects not only to do most of the asking, but to put on a presentation. It is the first type that sees the situation as an interview, and it is the second who sees it not as an interview, but as an audition.
In 1994, the relatively young Nick Saban, then the defensive coordinator under head coach Bill Belichick for the Cleveland Browns, presented himself at 5 pm sharp to a conference room at the Detroit airport. Inside, Michigan State Spartans key personnel had one question on their mind: Is this our guy? Saban’s biographer then explains what happened: “He placed a yellow legal pad filled with pages of handwritten notes on the table, and immediately took control of the interview.” Saban was in charge and detailed exactly what he was planning to do, to the point of specifically listing the assistants he was going to hire. It was all part of the elaborate program he had in mind for the team.
Similarly, as Ray Didinger and Robert S. Lyons write in their book about the Philadelphia Eagles, coach Andy Reid showed up to his interview with the owner and president of the team with,
“a six-inch-thick binder full of detailed notes on everything from how to organize a training camp to what players should wear on team charters. Reid collected the notes over his 16 years as a coach, starting in 1982 as a graduate assistant at Brigham Young under LaVell Edwards and continuing through his seven seasons in Green Bay […] Everything those coaches did well, Reid wrote down and studied, hoping one day he would have a chance to run his own show. When Lurie called, Reid was ready.”
Needless to say, both men got the positions.
Ramit Sethi has called this the “Briefcase Technique,”saying that the best job applicants wait for a moment right after the pleasantries have ended and the basic information about the position has been explained. It is here, after they have answered just enough questions to establish comfort and trust, that they reveal how much research they have done prior to showing up, by explaining all the things they’ve learned about the business, how they intend to improve it and exactly why they’re the right person for the job. This move, done politely but confidently, immediately separates them from all the other potential hires.
Why? Because most of those hires just showed up and sat in that exact same chair and did nothing remarkable. They did what most of us for most of our lives do: wing it. They reacted. They made up their answers on the spot. They let the interview dictate events rather than seize control of it — rather than earnestly make a pitch for what they think they can do.
I think another part of this is that we are often afraid of putting ourselves out there and being rejected, so we think, “Well, I’ll just go and see what happens, but I won’t really try. I’ll wait until they hire me.” None of this is conscious of course. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to prepare too much because we have other things going on, or we tell ourselves we’re not going to prepare because we haven’t been paid yet. Better to improvise, to tell yourself you don’t really care either way, and then see what happens, than it is to really wantsomething, to prepare and fail.
Yet the fact is that our lives can be defined by these moments of earnest ambition.
When researching for my book Conspiracy, which details a nine-year conspiracy by the billionaire Peter Thiel to destroy a media outlet, I was shocked to find that this nearly incredible process was put in motion by a 26-year-old taking out and opening a metaphorical briefcase on a table at a fancy restaurant in Berlin. It was on April 6th, 2011, that a young man (who I refer to in the book as “Mr. A”) lucked into a meeting with Peter Thiel. As soon as the food had been ordered and the butterflies had settled, he seized the moment.
It would have been an intimidating moment to grab ahold of. He’s sitting down for a one-on-one evening with a man worth, by 2011, some $1.5 billion and who owns a significant chunk of the biggest social network in the world, on whose board of directors he also sits. Thiel is a man who is notoriously averse to what a friend would deem “casual bar talk.” He’s a critical thinker, a certified genius and a wily contrarian. With his stomach tight and every nerve and synapse firing, Mr. A would go for it.
Unlocking that figurative briefcase on the table, he begins, “Okay, I know what you think about Gawker, here’s what I am proposing. . . .” Ambition and opportunity have collided and the kid in front of Thiel is proposing a solution to that problem that Thiel has set upon trying to solve: Peter should create a shell company to hire former investigative reporters and lawyers to find causes of action against Gawker, the media outlet in question. Gawker has written thousands of articles about thousands of people; it must have made a mistake somewhere. Mr. A’s proposal is more than just an idea, it’s a comprehensive, structured plan: he has researched some names, he had a timeline and a budget.
Three to five years and $10 million.
And when Peter pauses to think the idea over, his initial reaction is not positive — it’s too hard, the situation is too complex, nothing can be done — Mr. A had the stones to double down and call him out: “Peter, if everyone thought that way, what would the world look like?”
Peter would tell me how refreshing it was to hear that, how he more or less decided on the spot to back this kid — to give him $10 million dollars of a budget and a $25,000 a month salary — because of that response. Everyone else Peter had talked to had been thinking incremental, they had been defeatists and Thiel had almost come to internalize their view. Yet Mr. A had a big idea, and he’d put the work into figuring out how to make it a reality.
So while this meeting is an interesting footnote in an insane series of events, it should also prompt some questioning. Or at least it does for me. When I hear stories like this, I like to consider: How differently it might have gone if he had showed up at the meeting unprepared? What if Mr. A had just thrown out some ideas off the top of his head and let that be it? What if Nick Saban had let Michigan State take control of the interview, if he hadn’t spent those hours filling out those legal pads? The answer, I think, is obvious: Their careers would have not turned out the same way. We would not be talking about them here in this article — or more importantly, on the world’s stage where their work is so often done.
The question those questions then provoke is this: What opportunities have we left on the table in our own lives by failing to do the same? I can think of an easy one off the top of my head. In college, I interviewed at a powerhouse music PR firm. I remember very vividly going and buying a suit, taking it to be tailored, asking my parents for money to pay for it all. And as laughable as wearing a suit to that interview was, the most laughable thing was that I thought thatwas what mattered. Preparing for the interview, by actually putting something together to say in the room? I don’t think the thought even occurred to me. I remember another job interview, at the talent agency where I would get my start, when I showed up (thankfully) more casually attired, but also essentially winged it. I ended up getting the job, but what if my future boss had been in a bad mood, what if he had been more skeptical of me than he was, I would have been screwed! I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this to you. Even though it worked out, I cringe now at the stupid risk I took.
More ruefully, I also think about how many dinners I’ve been to over the years with powerful and important people. I think now about the times I have been in Mr. A’s shoes, whether it was a randomly scheduled phone call or a green room before a talk. I think about the incredible people whose company I have been lucky enough to be in. In all those encounters, most of which I had plenty of advance notice of, many times did I do anything more than breeze in and hope my winning personality was enough? In how many of them did I really put myself out there?
Not that I am disappointed with where I am, it’s just that this is something we don’t think about enough. We might regret missed opportunities here or there, but rarely do we have the self-awareness and insight to see the opportunities we missed turning into opportunities because we were too lazy, too scared, too entitled to do the work to turn them into opportunities in the first place.
They were trees falling in the woods we never heard. Paths that might have made all the difference but whose forks we were too blind to see.
I love the Briefcase Technique because, sure, it’s about confidence and about knowing your shit, but mostly it’s about being willing to actually take a swing at something. To truly put yourself out there — to try.
And not just try how other people try, but to try way harder. Every day I get emails from kids who want a mentor or a job or want to know how to get those things. On the one hand I am impressed that they took the risk to send the note, that’s something. But it also surprises me how similar the notes are. They said, “I want to work for you for free.” Or “I would like for you to be my mentor.” They rarely say what the person thinks they can do, or where they think my needs overlap with their skills. They don’t have specific questions they think I could help them answer (which is what mentoring is), they just thought the note was enough. I remember one well-meaning young guy who flew to Austin from Australia to meet me. I was disturbed by that, and yet disturbed even more when I gave him a few minutes and he asked me things I had answered thirty times already on podcasts. I would never have flown across the world to unpleasantly surprise someone at home…but if I did, you can believe my briefcase would have been filled with questions that justified the trip.
Now, it’s not always going to work. You’re still going to get the door slammed in your face. You’re going to get get blown off or politely listened to and then ignored. In fact, most of the time this is probably what will happen. There are just as many stories about coaches or ambitious upstarts who were laughed out of the room or passed over for someone more qualified, more connected, more “deserving.”
But when it does work? Well, your whole life will change.