So I’m standing outside a bar in downtown San Francisco waiting for a friend. A man is standing there, too. He’s white, turns out he’s 39, dons a Giants baseball cap. He starts talking to me, asking if I live upstairs which, I learn, is a shelter for veterans. (I don’t.) We’re making very small talk — this shelter is recently renovated, it’s very clean, mostly occupied by Vietnam vets who are, in his words, docile. Fair enough.
And then he asks if I know what’s happening September 23 — the Day of Atonement. You know, when the skies will open and the rivers will run red. He then continues on about how the Navy is microwaving the ocean and keeping rain from California and how the Colorado River is already running red.
What’s interesting is that he doesn’t ask me as if he knows something I don’t; he asks me as if he assumes I already know. Which is exactly how people in San Francisco will speak to me about, say, George Bush or Donald Trump — as if I know what they’re talking about. Which I don’t. Because I never, ever read a newspaper or watch any news. Everything I “know” about public discourse comes form my Facebook and Twitter feeds. And I skip the posts about Democrats and Republicans because, well, it’s just all the same old nonsense — as Burroughs says, it’s the red cape of the matador, making us charge at nothing while the sword is wielded from above.
There is, I realized, no real difference between what this guy is talking about — days of atonement, microwaving oceans — and what all the more gentile, middle class whines on about — Republicans and such. It’s all just stories, stories framed and repeated by various media sources. This vet — he’d been in Afghanistan, it seems, delivering mail — simply reads different websites than the well employed Googlers. But both regurgitate the same old nonsense as if it were “news.”
Now, I know that most people in my world would consider this guy a nut job. But what bummed me out was that he was not all that nuts (well, he might be but not in what he was saying to me). All the stuff he was telling me about the Navy boiling the ocean is simply not that weird. In fact, I found is disappointingly familiar.
This is the problem with the ready dissemination of “news” and conspiracy theories (which, to me, are the same thing): the weirdness of people is culled. So rather than hearing something truly bizarre, I hear the same old conspiracy nonsense about the Illuminati and the dark secrets of the US government and days of freakin’ atonement — which we’ve been hearing about for millennia!
I want to hear something that I couldn’t have imagined someone saying to me. I want to hear the weird and the wonderful and the scary and the hilarious. This is why I can’t stand news sources. They’re anything but new! They tell me the same old nonsense in the same old banal tone of voice.
When I was in college in Philly in the late 80s — an exceedingly depressed and depressing time for that sad little city — there was this older white dude who roamed West Philadelphia. He was often shirtless and in jean cut offs (not Daisy Dukes, mind you); his hair was grey — he was probably in his mid to late 60s. I don’t think he was homeless as he was, despite my description, not totally ill kept. But he was seeing things and thinking things and, lucky for me, saying things that were of an alternate world. The line I remember the most, that still brings me pleasure, is, “I will raise an army of lesbians and take over McDonald’s!” Now that’s strange! I could not have seen that one coming.
I’m guessing he was schizophrenic or something related and equally delusional. And I by no means want to make light of that. But I do want to suggest what Deleuze and Guattari suggest: that there’s a strain of schizophrenic thinking that is refreshing, that finds lines of flights out of the same old discursive hegemony. Again, this is not to make light of those whose lives are crushed by schizophrenia. I’ve seen what it can do to people firsthand and it is often terrifying and awful.
But there is something to this figure — this concept, this function — of the schizo who is not constrained by the frames of discussion media dictate so vigorously. And it’s not about dressing up wacky or piercing your nose or doing a cabaret with your friends. This is what San Francisco often thinks is weird. And while all those things might or might not be fine, fun, and delightful, they’re not weird precisely because they’re what we already think of as weird. They’re already known, accounted for, categorized. The weird is not a what but a mode of forging the new.
Weird is surprising in that it neither goes with nor against the grain. It doesn’t try to break the mold; it casts new molds. Or, perhaps, doesn’t care about molds at all but rather enjoys meandering — the schizo stroll. Weird slices through discourse, categories, and common sense. It scrambles — not for the sake of scrambling but because it operates and lives in a world you cannot yet imagine.
The regurgitation of the same old nonsense — whether it’s wacky conspiracy theories or the all-too-banal politics of presidents — is zombieism. It’s people walking around under the insane delusion that they’re alive. But to be alive is to forge new flows, to follow new lines of flight — to say things that others don’t already know — and couldn’t have even imagined. Life flourishes in the weird.
Daniel Coffeen looks around for freedom in a world of networked conformity. He holds a PhD in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley where he taught adjunct for many years, but now Coffeen works independently, writing about contemporary art, film, language, Deleuze, perception, Uni, capitalism, emergent shapes, pleasure, new media, and tequila. He founded the once-exquisite ArtandCulture.com and makes money by naming products, writing copy, and branding companies.