Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Music has the right to children

John from commonplacebook has at times wished to be able to say in good faith that art can stand up to political and economic power, and not merely restate its demands. This is a noble wish, and it is to John that I dedicate the following quotation from the conclusion of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. To apply it one must simply understand “biological” in a Marxian sense that includes creative production in general as part of what’s natural to our form of life.
[E]very new baby is a blind desperate vote for survival: people who find themselves unable to register an effective political protest against extermination do so by a biological act. In countries where state aid is lacking, young parents often accept a severe privation of goods and an absence of leisure, rather than accept privation of life by forgoing children.

McChoakumchild redux

Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.

I work at a quasi-rural high school as a non-salaried aide in Special Education. Viewed one way, my job is to defend cognitively and emotionally disabled students, who are—surprise—mostly poor, from mainstream teachers who don’t care, and whose main didactic function is to punish kids who are insufficiently middle-class in their manners, tastes, projects, etc. Today I am reeling from one teacher’s display of exceptional indifference and cruelty, so Alphonse van Worden’s response to my Mumford post has struck a nerve.

It should be clear from what follows that I haven’t begun to frame coherent thoughts on questions concerning education. (And certainly my work doesn’t require that I know what form of life I’m helping to shape; as Charlotte Street has recently suggested, ideology works best when it teaches underidentification with corporate aims. For a related argument that concerns the ideological function of irony in Jacksonian America and Concord transcendentalism, read this.) Anyone who isn’t up for some incoherent, unexamined raving is encouraged to return to Fort Kant another day.

In the passage from The Pentagon of Power that AvW shares, Mumford is discussing theories of the mind and its education, and how they feed into the mode of production that students are being prepared for. He quotes John Amos Comenius, a philosopher/pedagogue who framed views on education that linked a modern, mechanical picture of the mind to the factory system of production.

What, we may ask, is the present philosophical model for American public education?

I’m not asking about what the education professors say, or the writers of inspiring quotes for teachers—and it is clear that nothing we read in our afternoon workshops makes it into the classroom. Pedagogical theory is something to plagiarize a paper about between drinking binges at the state teachers’ college; it is material for a photocopied handout to be distributed by the principal for discussion at the staff meeting, which handout is promptly ridiculed and thrown out.

Professional development, further education, etc.—this is a formality to meet the demands of the state, and not intrinsically related to the practice of teaching. Teachers go after their graduate degrees to get bumped up into the next union-sanctioned pay class, and so they can insist on their “professionalism” with a greater feeling of satisfaction. Whether they are crushing young minds, closing off whole neural landscapes, etc., or the reverse—this doesn’t concern them.

Here’s what to do: hang on until you’re eligible for retirement, muddle through your canned units, pass out the worksheets (I ought to assemble an archive of mid-80s typefaces, transformed through years of Xeroxing!), show a few videos, insist that learning is the student’s responsibility, think up grades to match your professionally-derived gestalt of each student, complain about the kids in the teachers’ room to cover over your own lack of care, and speed off in your Cherokee, Explorer, or Yukon before the buses clog the roads.

So if official theory is irrelevant, incapable of changing entrenched habit, we ought to ask then, what philosophical model do our schools embody? What pentagons of power do we reinscribe daily, whether we intend to or not? What forms of life are we reproducing?

Maybe Rortian liberal irony is the philosophical mode best suited to public education. Something suitably fragmented and nihilistic. It doesn’t matter what you believe, or whether you believe, so long as you do your job; your mind is your own, so long as your body is here. Dream a private dream, but do what your peers’ “we-intentions” prescribe. Kids who demonstrate inadequate grasp of middle-class cultural norms will be punished; middle-class kids will get a pass because they show a spark of managerial talent, grasp the basics of workplace humor, and adhere to basic consumer norms.

Maybe the thing to say is this: while some students are trained to be managers, most aren’t trained to be producers at all, but consumers, and in particular, debtors—this is the big growth market. (The savvier members of ownership class are no longer interested in collecting the surplus product you produce. Or rather, they aren’t interested in collecting immediately the surplus product you produce at your work site. If you are in debt, you work for your creditor no matter where you work. The creditor-debtor relation isn’t mediated by production the same way the industrialist-worker relation is. Consider this one more way a corporation can externalize its costs; it no longer has to provide work for you in order to benefit from your productive activity.)

The poor kids get it—the official world isn’t for them, so why fake it? The stuff they do at home—hunting, fixing snowmobiles, patching rust spots on old Buicks, shingling roofs—has more to do with what their life will be like after high school than any cut-and-paste assignment they might be required to complete. And it should be obvious that what they do at home is way better geared to the development of cognitive skills—seeing commonalities, drawing inferences, framing, testing, and revising hypotheses, etc.

What’s important about “experiential” learning is not “having experiences.” It’s this: only when your will is engaged in a problem can you think scientifically about it—and I’m speaking of natural, unofficial science, performative science, the only real kind, the kind necessary for the uncoerced, spontaneous, consciously-guided production that represents what’s neat and special about humans qua humans. (I think that basic necessary structures of desire and productive capacity follow transcendentally from the idea of knowledge—only an agent who cares about her world and is able to act in it can be said to know anything about it—but that’s a subject for another time, when we’re in the mood for demonstrating the unity of practical and theoretical philosophy.)

Back to the rural poor kids. They’re way better off than their suburban and urban counterparts; the stuff they do on the weekends instead of homework—the stuff that actually gets their minds going—is at least suited to recognized, legal economies with a sort of future. But middle-class anxieties about performing well before authority don’t get a grip on their will; abstract, contentless success doesn’t motivate them. Why should it? The narrative in which such success figures—one leading to college, and then to a salaried job with health insurance, etc.—is clearly the story of someone else’s life. It is bizarre that public institutions should punish such students for not fitting into this narrative.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Amazing Mumford

Before salt, cod, coal, poisons, spice, coffee, tobacco, caviar, and mauve, inspiring and grandiose topics served as the focal point for freewheeling explanatory histories of human activity.

Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (1961) is an example of the more ambitious sort of historiography. It may lack a quirky, NPR-worthy hook, but at least the idea is philosophically interesting, for it can plausibly be argued the history of humans on earth just is the history of cities; the same cannot be said for caviar or cod, no matter how important their causal role in the sequence of human events.

John asked me to let him know what I thought of this book, since he's been curious about Mumford ever since he (John) literally tore in half a novel in which one of the characters was said to have written her dissertation on him (Mumford).

In place of a summary or evaluation of Mumford’s text, I substitute a selection of entries from its index, along with the passages to which they refer. Obviously, this selection is organized in a highly subjective fashion, and unhelpful to anyone who would like to understand Mumfordian theses on civilization. Several of the quotations are long, so I invite you to skim for items of your interest (as indeed I have); there’s probably something for everyone. Ellipses are mine.

Archers, Scythian: “Ominously, the [Athenian] polis had need of twelve hundred Scythian archers to police the Assembly and the law courts.”

Buddenbrooks: “a last faltering glimpse of that patrician burgher life”

Defoe: “Again I must quote the invaluable Defoe: ‘Every tailor invents new fashions, the mercer studies new patterns, the weavers weave them into beautiful and gay figures, and stores himself with a vast variety to allure the fancy; the coachmaker contrives new machines, chairs, Berlins, flies, etc., all to prompt the whimsies and unaccountable pride of the gentry.’

Dichtung und Wahrheit: “Goethe, in his ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ describes such a fine rear garden in old Frankfurt, so favorable to family life.”

Emerson: “Our civilization and these ideas are reducing the earth to a brain. See how by telegraph and steam the earth is anthropolized.”

Fortifications, nature of: “It emphasized the difference between the insider and outsider, between the open field, subject to the depredations of wild animals, nomadic robbers, [and] invading armies, and the fully enclosed city, where one could work and sleep with a sense of utter security, even in times of military peril.”

Great Expectations: “…the dreamful unexpectedness of suburban architecture, the sudden lift of a gable, the bulge of an oriel or a tower, the outburst of ungrammatical chatter in a foreign language, the eruption of an oasis of bewildered rocks in the middle of a velvety greensward: cheap excursions into distant lands or into past moments of history. …Dickens caricatured these private crotchets in ‘Great Expectations,’ in his picture of the Old ’Un, Mr. Wemmick’s father, with his castellated house, his moat and his drawbridge and his sunset salute with a toy cannon. But something that had been lost in the city was here coming back in an innocent form—the power to live an imagined life, closer to one’s inner grain than what the daily routine imposes. Thus in its earliest form, the suburb acknowledged the varieties of human temperament and aspiration, the need for change, contrast, and adventure, and above all, for an environment visibly responsive to one’s personal efforts, as even the smallest flower garden is responsive.”

Hegel: The Hegel reference is a dud, but on the same page one finds a discussion of a special English court charged with regulating trade at fairs and markets: “the Court of Pie Powder—anglicized Norman for ‘dusty feet.’”

Lenin: “mummified in Pharaoh-fashion after death, for worship”

Marx (and this the only listing for Marx in the index): “…hostile expropriation on one side, with seething revolt and counter-challenge on the other: in short, the class war, in which no quarter was expected or given—precisely in the classic sense that would have gratified Karl Marx.”

New England: “In the early regulations, according to William Weeden, no one was permitted to live more than half a mile from the meeting house lest, in the rigors of a New England winter, he should evade his social obligations as a member of the Church.”

Pittsburgh: “Even after strenuous efforts to reduce smoke pollution, a single great steel plant in the heart of Pittsburgh still makes mock of these efforts at improvement—indeed, so heavy is the hold of paleotechnic tradition, that the municipal authorities only recently helpfully connived at the extension of this plant, instead of firmly demanding its removal. So much for pecuniary losses. But what of the incalculable losses though disease, through ill-health, through all forms of psychological deterioration from apathy to outright neurosis?”

Proudhon: “Private property begins, not as Proudhon thought with robbery, but with the treatment of all common property as the private possession of the king, whose life and welfare were identified with that of the community.”

Rabelais: “The motto written over the door of Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelema was: ‘Do as You Please.’”

Sumer: “The Sumerian sign for slave is ‘mountain woman.’”

Vico: “These forms of legalized violence were not holdovers from an even more vicious previous regime, as the old apostles of progress liked to believe: they were rather, like war itself, a new kind of ferocity peculiar to urban culture: what Giambattista Vico properly characterized as the ‘barbarism of civilization.’”

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Trading tapes

Among the many things changed by digital technology is the hobby of trading bootleg recordings of the Grateful Dead. Time was when tapes were measured in generations of dubbings receding linearly to their source, and each generation’s loss of musical reality was buoyed by an increasing aura of static, the low all-frequency buzz of uncountable nightshapes. Somewhere between the soundboard original and the flanging boombox remaster was an ideal of undefined sonic color, a state of play between responsibility to the event and openness to the oceanic wash.

Digital archiving of Dead shows is clearly less romantic, though it’s way easier these days to find a clear copy of, say, “Fire on the Mountain” from set II of the May 8, 1977 concert at Cornell, and to make it available to others.

Digital reproduction is a sort of Hegelian reconstruction of the world; the specificity of acoustic sound is reborn in abstract representation that can again cause acoustic sound. Digiphiles insist that no audible information is lost in translating content into digital formats with high sampling rates—the absolute idealist can give back to you a world indistinguishable from that of the unreconstructed materialist. What we thought we heard in analog playback was just compression and distortion forced by the peculiar physical properties of the media of reproduction.

It may have been easier to be a gnostic before technologies of reproduction were mastered. A recent trip to the Maine State Museum (of which Hilary is a Friend) confirmed this. Looking at handmade rifles and woodworking tools from colonial times, one can see the rudely determinate matter of which they are composed protesting against the forms that were feebly pushed onto it. It’s not just that these objects themselves don’t know what they are, but that it seems as though the craftsmen who made them didn’t have a clear idea of what they were making. The objects’ variation is too great, their opposition to geometrical regularity too strenuous for us to believe that the objects were created from abstract representations. These things seem to approximate form, to attempt to be real, but the baseness of their physicality negates any claim to generality. Their crass causal history is visible on their bodies. These tools are so many individuals in a world of individuals knocking about, conceptually unmediated from the start, existing without the coherence or reality that abstract representation could have guaranteed. The products of earlier times are unknowable in their excess. For us, they may represent freedom.

These days, though, production is carefully monitored by experts who track the statistical deviance of actual products from mathematically determinate specifications. The weirdly shaped ones are identified and dumped. Slugs won’t work in Coke machines anymore. (We can begin to see, with Heidegger, that conceptual thought—the subsumption of particular things under general representations, and the successive approach of these latter toward the world in its supposed determinacy—is in its essence technological.) Having the look of repeatability comes to constitute the real for us. (Baudrillard: “The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction.”) We begin to feel that this is true not just of commodities and cultural goods, but also of human lives. (Horkheimer and Adorno: “Individuals are tolerated only as far as their wholehearted identity with the universal is beyond question.”)

All this is leading up to another quotation from Charlotte Street, which was the original inspiration for this post.
Courtesy of Glueboot:
"Analytic philosophy often spreads the atmosphere of denunciation and investigation by committee. The intellectual is called on the carpet. What do you mean when you say...? Don't you conceal something? You talk a language that is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man on the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you. We shall teach you to say what you have in mind, to "come clear", to "put your cards on the table." Of course, we do not impose on you and your freedom of thought and speech; you may think as you like. But once you speak, you have to communicate your thoughts to us—in our language or in yours. Certainly, you may speak your own language, but it must be translatable, and it will be translated. You may speak poetry—that is all right. We love poetry. But we want to understand your poetry, and we will do so only if we can interpret your symbols, metaphors, and images in terms of ordinary language." (H. Marcuse)

Indeed. And not just analytic philosophy either.
And not just Hegel, my favored representative of the totalizing claims of conceptual power; recall that Kant pictures his critique of reason as a tribunal that will adjudicate the claims of empiricist and rationalist metaphysics. More substantively, recall his exclusion of the purely empirical from the knowable, the morally worthy, and the beautiful.

And not just philosophy. We considered above growing demands for clarity, knowability, externality, intellectual responsibility, professionalism, marketability, reproducibility, etc. in multiple spheres. (I leave it to the reader to consider whether these are so many facets of acquiescence to the power of capital.)

Let us consider the enumeration of the varieties of enforced commensurability an open-ended project (and one whose irony is not lost on me—clearly this is an expressive project undertaken in the interest of knowledge). We will contribute to this list from time to time, as we notice new forms of translation, reduction, and destruction.

Mankind cannot remain indifferent to its monsters

Today’s meditation on the extraordinary case of Terri Schiavo comes to us from Pierre Boaistuau, the author of Histoires prodigieuses (1561), by way of Bataille:
Among the things that can be contemplated under the concavity of the heavens, nothing is seen that arouses the human spirit more, that ravishes the sense more, that horrifies more, that provokes more terror or admiration to a greater extent among creatures than the monsters, prodigies, and abominations though which we see the works of nature inverted, mutilated, and truncated.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The unforced force of reason II

SquirrleyMojo [sic] has replied to my recent post, “Critique of Violence,” which suggested that some uses of language are motivated by a cynical anti-rationality that is formally the same as the intent to use violence to shape minds. SquirrleyMojo:
but language _is_ psychological force; those who know how to "play the game," as Derrida would suggest, know this . . .
(1.)One might reply that deconstruction acquiesces in those features of language that anyone interested in consensual social change would reject; that, as many have suggested, it can’t generate a constructive political discourse; that its quietism tacitly endorses whatever forms of power are in place; that, untrue to the Spirit of ‘68, the institutionalization of deconstruction helped replace engaged campus radicalism with a scholastic witchhunt for hegemonizing texts; that it might make sense to invoke Derrida in defending the linguistic practices of Bush and friends, and so on.

(2.) It is obvious that language has psychological effects. Whether it should additionally aspire to more is a question interesting not just to philosophers, but to anyone who cares whether the addressees of language are called on as interlocutors, as potential contributors whose contributions might matter. You don’t have to be a raving metaphysician to care about how language is used, or whether it constitutes its listeners as subjects.

I have suggested that we can distinguish two attitudes one might take to the use of language: one on which discussion is impossible, and language is a series of sounds that produces psychological effects, and another on which the aim of discussion is rational persuasion.

On the first view, the only way to use language poorly is to cause undesired effects. This view probably doesn’t count as a view—if language is just one part of a continuum of physical effects, it doesn’t have enough distance from the world to have a view on it—but it at least counts as a strategy. Certain sounds have certain effects and are produced to achieve them. There’s no interesting normative question whether certain sounds ought to have certain effects. Contempt for the listener’s ability to reason releases the speaker from responsibility to the listener as a subject.

On the second view, language can run afoul of rules of logic, relevance, grammar, use, mechanics, and so on, and its sense depends on the permanent possibility of its doing so. It can provide reasons and explanations that are more or less adequate to the epistemic and inferential standards of people who think about what they hear. It is consistent with this view to regard consensus as an elusive and unrealistic aim, though one constitutive of discourse itself. While recognizing the empirical difficulty of identifying uncoerced, rational agreement, this view insists that it’s worth trying to achieve consent without employing fear and confusion. A speaker must offer her listeners the opportunity to say no, for consensus depends on the right to reject what is proposed. This much is applied Kantianism: you ought to treat your interlocutors as ends in themselves, and never as a mere means.

The humanist stain

Viewed in the context of the scholasticism and religious orthodoxy that once ruled European thought, humanism is a novel view of things and an impressive achievement.

That human beings were suitable subjects for honorific generalization, and not mere debased matter, was an interesting and improbable thesis. It was OK if the sun didn’t revolve around the earth, so long as the center of the moral universe was the human subject. Thought was equal to the world’s diversity, and imagination had the power to create forms as knowable and beautiful as those revealed in nature’s book.

At present, the notion of humanism is rather out of fashion, and it is widely recognized that invocations of “the human” typically provide euphemistic cover for the degradation of actual humans. (For a recent demonstration of this, compare the theory and practice of Clintonian humanitarian intervention.) It is clear enough by now that praise of the nobler features of human beings has an ideological function, and that generalizations about the human are rhetorical tools in the service of power that is uninterested in human lives.

Charlotte Street rails against the abstract and empty humanism of those who, in the name of life, would keep Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube pumping indefinitely. Here is the theoretical prelude to his critique:
“You see that you don't love them,” says Roquentin. “You wouldn't recognize them in the street. They're only symbols in your eyes. You are not at all touched by them: you're touched by the Youth of the Man, the Love of Man and Woman, the Human Voice.”

In Sartre's Nausea there is a famous attack on the Humanist. He is, says Roquentin, interested in people only as illustrations of an abstraction called 'The Human, ' he feels pity, concern, etc. for them only via his concern for this bloodless generality. In its negation of actual humans, Humanism is anti-humanism.
While I think it’s right to recognize that the pro-life defenders of Terri have a truncated sense of the sort of life that might be appropriate to human beings, it’s plausible to see their protest as based more on a misplaced, projective empathy than on the deployment of an empty concept. (This latter might apply more to the opportunistic Congressmen eager to earn pro-life cred.)

Thus, while I agree with the spirit of Charlotte Street’s post, the assault on humanism strikes me as rather unnecessary, a bit like producing arguments for the non-existence of God or taking a stand against Cartesianism. Might it be more interesting to try to recover something useable and true from unfashionable forms of thought? Doesn’t Charlotte Street’s argument for giving Schiavo a break turn on a comparison between human flourishing—what it is for a human to live well, in a sense of “live” that is appropriate to our species-being and that, true to Aristotle, implies active, cognizant participation—and whatever sort of sub-eudaimonistic life she is living? Whether one considers this sort of speculation humanistic or not is perhaps a merely verbal affair. But fear of the ideologization of our language shouldn’t prevent us from trying to say what we mean.

The orthographics of space

Hilary reports today on an installation she saw at the local art college. “Attic and Cellar” consists of a ramshackle farmer’s ladder ascending to a loft built out of grainy, distressed wood. Beneath the loft are gathered several plaster mock-ups of feed bags, painted in black and red, and a gaslight glows on the platform. The artist’s statement situates the project within the theories of “the philosopher Gustav Bouchelard.”

Monday, March 21, 2005

To the whistlehouse

Like the President, one of whose constitutional duties is to report to Congress “from time to time” on the state of the Union, I pledge to report from time to time on forts in Maine.

This weekend Hilary and I visited Fort Williams in the coastal town of Cape Elizabeth. In its heyday, Fort Williams guarded a narrow channel from the ocean into Casco Bay. During wartime, mines were laid in the channel, and large guns defended against minesweepers.

Battery Henry Hobart housed such a gun during the Spanish-American war. The weapon was shipped to Pearl Harbor during WWI, and little remains of the battery today—a few bits of foundation, some crumbling steps, and what looked like a weapon mount.

Battery Erasmus Keyes, built in 1905, has fared better, and one can explore its dark chambers and ascend to an upper level that overlooks the channel. The graffito “SLIM ANUS” is painted on its outer wall, a reference to an Eminem lyric, and more generally to lower-class US white males’ obsession with sodomy.

A path leads from Fort Williams to Portland Head Light, a lighthouse commissioned by George Washington in 1790. This path—the “Cliff Walk”—is sponsored by Gus and Marjorie Barber (not Garber), and it is lined with memorial benches, most still half-buried in snow. One bench is dedicated to Captain John Libro and Myrtle Libro, a duo that belongs onomastically to the domain of Thomas Pynchon.

A whistlehouse stands on a cliff before the lighthouse, and a sign warns of the noise.

The lighthouse itself has a small, triangular window one story up through which is visible a gingerbread house.

A large bell—PLEASE DO NOT PUSH BELL—acknowledges the lighthouse’s 1901 entry into the U.S. LIGHT-HOUSE ESTABLISHMENT, and a faint, stippled inscription on the bell indicates its weight.

A plaque notes that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow regularly walked from Portland to visit the keepers of the Head Light, and speculates that it inspired his poem, “The Lighthouse.”
"Sail on!" it says: "sail on, ye stately ships!"
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man neared unto man.
A second plaque reads:
JULY, 1982
A large group of dark-haired school children approached the lighthouse as we were walking toward the road. In the parking lot was parked an oversized GMC van belonging to the RUSSIAN EVANGELICAL CHURCH, WESTFIELD MA, which is coincidentally the city in which I grew up.

Thus concludes my report.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Critique of Violence

Recall that Fort Kant is a misspelling of Fort Kent, which denotes a town in Maine, and a fort within that town.

If one proceeds in the opposite direction and conducts a search for Immanuel Kent, among the many misattributed quotations the search engine turns up, one will find a page that includes with a brief biography a list of several so-called common misspellings of Immanuel Kant. Presumably the intent is to attract students who misgoogle the master’s name while working on a report.

I cannot begin to unpack all that is inherent in this strategy, other than to note that it treats graphemes as though they operate in a space of physical force rather than a space of orthographic norms. This phenomenon is parallel to a trend in contemporary national-level political discourse, in which language is treated not as the medium of rationality but simply as a force that has psychological effects (see my remarks on Bush’s second inaugural, which remarks John was kind enough to post at commonplacebook). Indeed, such an attitude toward the public use of language is not uncommon in the history of political discourse.

Here’s the list. If you are interested in the source, you know what to do.
Common misspellings
kanti mmanuel, kantt immanuel, kant immannuel, kat immanuel, kant immanule, kant immanuell, kant immauel, aknt immanuel, kantimmanuel, kant immanuuel, kant mmanuel, kant immnauel, kan immanuel, kan timmanuel, kant immaanuel, kant imamnuel, knat immanuel, kant immaneul, kant immanel, ant immanuel, kant immanuel, kant mimanuel, kkant immanuel, kant immaunel, kant immanueel, kant immanue, katn immanuel, kant immmanuel, kant immanul, kant immnuel, kaant immanuel, kent immanuel, kant iimmanuel, kant imanuel, kannt immanuel, knt immanuel

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Young Hegelian

The real Young Hegelian has apparently concluded his blog. (Presumably the author hob sich auf and vanished in a puff of logic.)

However, some remarks by Charlotte Street give me occasion to speculate crudely on New York and its suitability for Hegelian philosophy. The immediate topic is the difference between thought and experience, or between representations of the future and the lived present, starting with a quotation from Bergson.
"No matter how I imagine in detail what is going to happen to me, still how inadequate, how abstract and stilted is the thing I have imagined in comparison to what actually happens! The realization brings with it an unforeseeable nothing which changes everything."

Bergson, The Possible and the Real

Scragg, a small animated acquaintance who was once mistaken for a marmoset by a child in the street, reports on her recent visit to New York –‘It was exactly as I imagined it, exactly.’ ‘Oh, come on,’ I replied, ‘nothing is exactly like you imagine it, not even the next room, isn't this the very mark of reality, that it always exceeds our imaginings?’ ‘No’, she insisted, obviously not having read Bergson, ‘I'm telling you it was just the same as the image I had of it.’ I wasn't prepared to grant this at all. ‘The only way it could have been exactly as you imagined it, I retorted, was if you'd imagined that it would exceed your image of it,’ at which point she disappeared in a puff of logic.
Charlotte Street’s metaphysical claim is probably correct. As Kant might put it, our kind of understanding is discursive—it operates by means of concepts—but our experience of the world has a non-intellectual, sensuous component that is given only in perception. This sensuous component is the empirical counterpart of the category of “reality”—that’s the upshot of the “Anticipations of Perception” chapter of KdrV. Only a deity could enjoy intellectual intuition—the spontaneous presentation of objects that are both fully empirically determinate and fully amenable to conceptual manipulation. And Scragg probably isn’t this sort of being.

But if we can resist the urge to recast Scragg’s speech in an obviously unintended philosophical register so that we are finally able to put our learning to use and procure the philosopher’s buzz of robbing an ordinary speaker of their right to think—if we can resist this, we may recognize something important in what Scragg said.

The surprise that New York (well, Manhattan) is quite a bit like what one had imagined is not grounded simply in the subject. New York is uncannily like the idea of itself—so much so that through contemplation of its example I began to feel as though I understood Hegel. New York feels like the most real city because it is the most cognizable city; it is the ideal made real; it is the source of the real, as well as its symbol. It is schematized in advance to translate well into abstract representations; its urban array is as suited to our powers of knowing as, say, the alphabet, geometrical figures, or rhythms in 4/4.

In New York you feel as if you were walking around in your own mind, as if its contents were made concrete and visible, available for examination in three dimensions. The reasons for this are many and varied. The city’s narrative templates and Benjaminian character types are well-rehearsed in popular entertainment, and since the agents on the ground who reproduce these templates are also guided by them, they are able to play their parts well. Money itself conveys a sense of reality, and the massive sums required to sustain the city’s knowability are inscribed everywhere. The best restaurants, the best music, the best movie theaters, the best (new, though not used) bookstores, etc. give us what we’d always desired but couldn’t find elsewhere, or could only find in crumbling, simulacral versions; they are the immanent forms from which the shameful replicas in lesser cities derive. As many have noted—and some quite conspicuously—the city is the ultimate product of our capitalist age. It is a powerful demonstration of the value of hyperbolic accumulation of wealth and the power of semi-coerced labor. In it we feel the deepest tendencies of our form of life confirmed and justified.

Friday, March 18, 2005

(Wish I was) homeward bound

I postpone the next installment of Pynchon notes in favor of a discussion of basically the same thing, the problematic of transcendental philosophy and its reflection in political thought.

Let’s begin with the suggestion that transcendental philosophy is animated by a sort of paranoia; in attempting to articulate the conditions of the possibility of experience, we seek the absent, constituting other of our lived world. Its traces are everywhere—everything bears its form—but it can be known only in its effects. Any attempt to reveal it as an unmediated presence neglects its constitutive role in presentation as such; what we think with cannot be contained in thought; thought’s performance cannot be held in its own representation.

The early Lukács frames the matter this way:
What is the problem of the transcendental locus if not to determine how every impulse which springs from the innermost depths is co-ordinated with a form that it is ignorant of, but that has been assigned to it from eternity and that must envelop it in liberating symbols?
Lukács contrasts the alienation and exile of the transcendental philosopher with the pre-philosophical experience of ancient men of Homeric times, for whom meaning was immanent in the world. When forms were coextensive with things, meaning had no other and needed no origin. This is the world of Auerbach’s Homer:
Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear—wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor—are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved.
Nietzsche, as Arendt points out, places the yearning for this fictive past at the center of German idealism:
One is no longer at home anywhere; at last one longs back for that place in which alone one can be at home: the Greek world! But it is in precisely that direction that all bridges are broken—except the rainbow-bridges of concepts.
Transcendental philosophy is preoccupied with the myth of a return to the presence of original intelligibility. If you are a Heideggerian, you fantasize a return to this home, but you recognize that the rainbow-bridges of concepts are just as broken as the bridges themselves. Your philosophy expresses your hatred for automobiles and radios in a reverence for earthenware jugs and peasants’ boots. A return to ancient times is impossible, but a (suitably purged) rustic regionalism may return you to a sense of the immanence of meaning.

If you are a Hegelian, you demand that everything again be speakable, that the real again be coextensive with the ideal. Content resolves into form; the beautiful, the true, and the good emerge in a social order that brooks no privacy. The internal is extruded; the external is held in thought’s embrace; mind is redistributed over the collective. Language speaks its other.

If you are a Kantian, you view the myth of the return as the natural dream of self-conscious beings who want to know themselves, and you are content to regard it as a noble hope best articulated in literature and religion; you set it outside what can be known and controlled. You say what you can about the structures of thought that analysis and inference reveal in experience, but you acknowledge that the power of reason is limited, and that the ultimate shape of the self isn’t for us to know; you stand in awe of the unfathomable subject and recognize that respect is the proper attitude to what cannot be harnessed in technology.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Prolegomena to any future metaphysics

John (the keeper of commonplacebook) and I have considered attempting a joint read-through of Gravity’s Rainbow, and we read The Crying of Lot 49 as a propaedeutic to this activity. Here is a post he wrote in response to that book. The first part of my response to the book (though not really to John) follows; I shall post it in installments. Certain readers of this page may find my essay insufficiently engagiert, especially given that it concerns a book that so obviously foregrounds social and political themes. As I shall read it for the purposes of Fort Kant, Pynchon’s text argues for the unconditional value of subjectivity, and in this respect defends a sort of deontological ethics, which, if you go in for this sort of thing, must be the starting point of any just social arrangement. (I think this is what the Chávez quote from yesterday's post is suggesting.) The mode of The Crying of Lot 49 is not philosophical but archival; its care for intelligent life is expressed in the sadness of knowing that the subjective and imaginative lives of others cannot be preserved. To be sure, what circulates through individual minds is largely borrowed from social discourses that have real effects in terms of power. But however it is mediated and determined, whatever images and fragments of discourse constitute it, the phenomenon of having a world is real. Its content cannot be reduced to the subject’s role in economic relations, and its value is absolute.

1. Let us make some connections, though our conclusion may be that our capacity for making connections is more interesting than any particular connections we might make

I’m the sort of reader who stars and returns to those passages of a novel that suggest that it has a symbolic order, and that this order is immanent in the world; passages broad enough in their reach to suggest that one can see through their gels the whole of creation, but open enough to suggest that the constellation of their connections can never be completed; those passages where the author, following an impulse more poetic or philosophical than novelistic, spirals off from the narrative into a phantasmagoric succession of images that overloads the part of our brain that makes sense of figurative language, a rhapsodic moment of vision that promises the truth of the novel but ranges too far into the unsayable for us to bring home any stable, sentence-shaped meaning, that, like psychoactive drugs, allows us to make too many connections at once.

It is natural, then, that I am drawn to Thomas Pynchon, who both indulges the desire for such experience and thematizes it in his multiply iterated texts, any careful reading of which enacts those movements of self-consciousness and visions of surplus meaning in which thinking touches but cannot hold on to its own essence, in which we seem to glimpse the place where metaphor is made, only to find that our representation of it is another figurative construct, the transcendent agent of which we can depict in so many forms but never lay bare.

The Crying of Lot 49is such a concatenation of overlapping, heterogeneous visionary moments, with little non-visionary matter outside of their kaleidoscopic view that could confirm or falsify the patterns they suggest. Our experience as readers is formally the same as that of the protagonist: “Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knows how many parts.” Our attempts to synthesize the text’s proliferating meanings might amount to nothing, each dawning gestalt dissolving back into mere data.
Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.
The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t assign this sort of experience a stable value, either epistemologically or morally. Critics make much of the problems of knowledge that the book poses, and we can debate the veridicality of Oedipa’s experiences of connection, speculate on what grounds their apparent coherence, and, by reflexive extension of these concerns, speculate on own position as interpreters of texts. But what’s I’m interested in here is the book’s concern with the place of such experiences in the life of human beings.

The text has a misanthropic mode that pathologizes experiences of meaning, as well as a humanistic one that affirms them as life’s sole value. The compositional strategy of the book’s misanthropic mode is sinister metafiction, and it effects a psychosis of recursion that leaves us as bleary-eyed and overwatched as Oedipa after her night of revelatory encounters and discoveries in the Bay Area.

But the private eye sooner or later has to get beat up on. This night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of beating up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.
In this passage Precision Pynch puts himself forth as the sort of evil genius (though not a Maxwellian demon—more on that in the next installment) that Joyce famously aspired to be, packing Ulysses with almost-but-not-quite coherent goodies to tantalize the professors for generations to come, enacting a nerdy kind of bullyism that befits the failed scholar (one subspecies of the man of ressentiment). He knows the ganglia of our optimism (because they are his, too, though he’s found a more tasteful way of dealing with philosophical temptations than producing criticism), and he has crafted through malignant, deliberate replication the perfect object of theoretical literary criticism; a book that has in excess all the markings of something knowable and masterable but that eludes coherent summary or explanation; a book that promises to confirm all conjectures and to falsify none; a self-decomposing and -reconstituting work that suggests as many possibilities as it closes off. (And unlike those purported metafictions that dwell on the situation of the writer and recursively reinscribe the MFA candidate a dozen different ways in the course of one photocopied short story to be distributed for next week’s workshop, and that suggest that the only fictions worth being anxious about were those produced by writers, I think Pynchon’s text succeeds in erasing distinctions between the fictional and the metafictional.)

The book is cruel to critics not just in the sort of reading it enforces but in what it asserts about them. It expresses fondness for conspiracy theorists, and a great deal for ordinary spinners of extraordinary fantasy, but none for the literary scholar (though its suitable unsuitability to scholarship must be interpreted as a sort of gift). This contempt is expressed in several ways, but Randolph Driblette, the director who stages the version of The Courier’s Tragedy that Oedipa watches in San Narciso, gets in the worst dig against those who would interpret literature. He chastises Oedipa for her persistent and literal-minded and “scholarly” interest in what the original text of the Wharfinger play says about the Trystero assassins: “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible.” The play doesn’t exist in the text, but in Driblette’s mind, he claims, and though he lends his cosmic vision to the audience for a time, his intellectual property is ultimately inscrutable and unavailable for research.

You could fall in love with me, you can talk to my shrink, you can hide a tape recorder in my bedroom, see what I talk about from wherever I am when I sleep. You want to do that? You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several […]. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That’s it.
The force of this last accusation ripples through the rest of the novel: you could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Driblette’s intentions are unavailable, to Oedipa, to us, and to himself—this is the meaning of his suicide—and Oedipa would never get closer to them than she already was in watching the play. Whatever truth there might have been in The Courier’s Tragedy was spent in its performance, a temporary staging of meaning, and it cannot be recovered or reconstructed, made present and made whole again.

The same, of course, is true of human life. In the next installment, we shall consider further the suggestion that the capacity to see meanings in things is not a form of psychosis, but the basis of any possible authentic experience.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Give 'em hell, Hugo

Demonstrating that pro-poor policies have massive democratic appeal; expropriating the so-called private property of foreign investors to establish agricultural collectives for peasant farmers; posing the “threat of a good example” to neighboring countries—Hugo Chávez has hit the trifecta. Exceeded it—Venezuela additionally stands accused of providing material support to Columbian guerilla forces considered terrorists by the US. Oh, and by the way, Venezuela is a top-five exporter of oil.

Chávez’s Bolívarian revolution is pushing some dangerous buttons; today’s FT reports tthat Bush has requested adminstration officials to develop a policy to “contain” Chávez and curb the growing influence of his movement over other South American countries. “We have reached the end of the road of the current approach,” says one Defense Department official. In a separate article, FT reports that Venezuelan authorities recently took note of US warships poking about the Netherlands Antilles, not a hundred miles from the Venezuelan shore. A “routine manoeuvre,” to be sure, but let us remember the Maine, and the Tonkin Gulf, too.

And Salvador Allende. Though Chávez started out as a populist reformer, he’s now an open advocate of socialism, an outspoken critic of imperialist neoliberalism and its “Third Way” masquerading, a friend to Fidel Castro and the people of Cuba, a model of successful egalitarian change, the subject of a US-backed military coup in 2002 that failed because of a popular uprising, and, he reasonably alleges, a current target of US assassination plans. Did I mention tbat Chávez was democratically elected? (Condoleezza Rice: The Organization of American States must hold accountable "leaders who do not govern democratically, even if they are democratically elected.")

It would be irresponsible for me to endorse his government and what it calls a revolution—I know far too little about either—but I watch their reforms with interest, and US intervention with trepidation and shame. Here’s Chávez speaking at the World Social Forum in January:
We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Don't call it a comeback

I must have been in a dotcom bubble when I suggested a couple posts ago that the computer was cold-war defense spending’s greatest gift to capitalist power; obviously our nuclear arsenal deserves this title. This is argued persuasively by Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, which reminds us that our ongoing nuclear strategy is the frame within which any threat to US interests must be understood. The rarely spoken N-word is the lullaby of the investor class, which sleeps more soundly knowing that its overseas investments are insured against nationalization by the ultimate policy. Our nuclear potential and our unique willingness to actualize it have been historically demonstrated by great liberal presidents like Truman and Kennedy; renewed for the alleged post-cold-war world under Clinton, whose US Strategic Command rearticulated in Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence the madman-theoretic value of our nuclear dominance in reshaping the choice situation of any would-be threat to US interests abroad; and reassuringly affirmed for the allegedly post-9/11 world by Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002, the audacity of which lies not so much in its principle that the US will brook no challenge to its global hegemony as in its willingness to endorse publicly this former trade secret of bipartisan US foreign policy.

Thus, I read with interest in today’s FT a review of Bryan Appleyard’s Aliens: Why They Are Here, a work of kremlinological Traumdeutung that sets Americans’ very real belief in extra-terrestrials within the context of dimly perceived but omnipresent nuclear anxiety. On the face of it, interest in accounts of alien abduction seems belated, a throwback to the preoccupations of the 90s, but a casual glance at the newspaper will confirm that everything old is new again: Condoleezza “The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948-1983: Uncertain Allegiance” Rice is the representative of what is called US diplomacy; our relentless, extravagant, and contrascientific pursuit of National Missile Defense is recharging an arms race, though with a wider field of players, for whom nuclear armament is just another part of industrialization; Russia is experiencing some sort of atavistic—and probably rational—nostalgia for superpower and nuclear prominence, as exemplified this week by the news of their recent threat to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, a disarmament agreement between the U.S and the Soviet Union that is widely considered the keystone of late-cold-war arms reduction; most obviously—and most distractingly, and probably most influentially with respect to the psychic life of average Americans—there's the don’t-let-the-smoking-gun-be-a-mushroom-cloud redux, Persian edition, that is echochambering through our media.

Appleyard, a journalist who apparently specializes in how science figures in contemporary culture, has written a part-psychiatric, part-mythographic study of western belief in encounters with alien forms of life. Appleyard suggests that like magic and shamanism, UFOism is psychologically real, and that the commonalities in reports of UFO experience aren’t due to mere copy-catting, but rather are independent, parallel responses to anxieties and social pressures that bear on us equally; a shared dream-shape reflecting in fantasy what we deeply feel but aren’t able to say about the forces that constitute our world; spontaneous glimpses of the true nuclear Tristero of disinherited America. Like Jung, Appleyard makes much of the fact that the first UFO sightings came two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he suggests that UFOism developed parallel to Cold War nuclear anxieties. As the doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ticks toward midnight, we dream of grey men with almond eyes suspending us in a ray of light, rotating us on a gurney, and dumping us in the backyard.

Don DeLillo has suggested that the bomb is at the center of all conspiracy theories, their sense and telos; Fox Mulder’s paranoia is Noam Chomsky’s is Jim Garrison’s is Oedipa Maas’s. The history of western metaphysics may have run its course, but logocentrism is alive and well; if political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, then the logos is mounted atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, within whose arc alone intelligibility is possible—this is gravity’s rainbow, the spectrum of coherent experience preserved within the parabola inscribed by a nuclear projectile. Call it the madman theory of meaning: the prospect of annihilation is the condition of the possibility of semantic coherence; the bomb is “the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified” (Lacan, quoted out of context but not really).
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
Postscript: the Slavophiles who would reanimate the taxidermized Lenin with the spirit of ‘48 and redact the embarrassing bits of Stalin might also consider rehabilitating Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who, when his proposals for deescalating the arms race were rejected by Eisenhower, embarked on unilateral reduction despite strenuous military protest, and whose policies were known to Kennedy and ignored in favor of the US strategy of overwhelming build-up rather than reciprocal disarmament (Chomsky, 224-25). And no rehabilitation is needed to praise as a hero Vasili Arkhipov, the “Soviet submarine officer who blocked an order to fire nuclear-armed torpedoes on October 27 [1962], at the tensest moment of the [Cuban missile] crisis, when the submarines were under attack by US destroyers. A devastating response would have been a near certainty, leading to a major war” (Chomsky, 74).

Informed consent

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno trope on Kant’s schematism of the categories, a crucial feature of his theory of mental activity, in order to say some things about false consciousness; that is the topic of this post. If you’re not interested in a digression through the Kantian background, please scroll through the following until you read again the names of Horkheimer and Adorno. You won’t miss much, I promise, for what follows is not so much a gloss of Kant’s schematism as a personal attempt to remember what it was I thought I was thinking when I used to read Kant, which, in spite of an impression one might reasonably derive from this page’s name, I don’t do very much these days. (An upcoming post might address the poetics of this name and adduce reasons for rejecting several others.)

Let’s begin with a familiar question from speculative philosophy of mind: how is it that our experience of the world can be rendered in language? One form of response goes something like this: our experience is already structured in such a way as to be taken up into language; the apparent heterogeneity or difference of medium between experience and language is illusory. We don’t have worry about explaining how language could be fitted to raw sensory input, because raw sensory input is no part of our experience of the world. We may introduce original, unprocessed impressions as explanatory posits in a theory of mental activity, but that’s not the same as saying that they’re phenomenologically available elements of our perception. What we experience—what shows up for us, as opposed to what merely happens in the brain—is already conceptually articulated and as such is amenable to linguistic expression. What we don’t experience—whatever it is that physically goes on in the dark back there—is a matter for empirical neuroscience, computational theory, etc., and no concern of philosophy, which starts and stops with the experience of humans in a world of humans.

One can read the Schematism chapter of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as addressing this issue, the apparent incommensurability of perception and thought. Let us consider first an empirical judgment like the plate is circular. Our ability to hold together in a single thought the representation of a particular individual we encounter in experience (the plate) and a general concept that applies to several individuals (circular) depends on a couple things. We must have mastery of the basic logical move of subsuming the particular under the general. And there must be something common to our empirical intuition of the plate and the geometrical concept of a circle that facilitates this particular subsumption—some common content that mediates these very different kinds of representation—in this case, roundness: “The roundness which is thought in the latter can be intuited in the former.”

When, however, we make judgments that subsume particular things under pure categories of the understanding—in judging, say, that the hammer caused the piggy bank to shatter—the situation becomes a good deal stickier. What content could our empirical representation of individuals have in common with concepts that we can encounter neither in empirical nor pure intuition? This is the problem Kant sets himself in “The Schematism of the Pure Concepts of Understanding.” The solution lies in a peculiar operation of the imagination that generates special representations—schemata of the categories—that are sensible as well as intelligible. These representations, though lacking empirical content, bear on empirical things because they share their sensible form, yet they are suitably abstract for the needs of the understanding. We don’t encounter the pure concept of reality in experience, but we do encounter its schema, themagnitude of a sensation during a period of time. We don’t encounter causality, but we do encounter events that always follow upon certain other events, or, schematically expressed, therule-governed succession of experiences. These schemata are a function of the imagination, which is tasked with shaping our experiences so as to fit the forms of logical thought.

Here’s Horkheimer and Adorno on this seemingly magical operation:
According to Kant, the homogeneity of the general and the particular is guaranteed by the “schematism of pure understanding,” by which he means the unconscious activity of the intellectual mechanism which structures perception in accordance with the understanding. The intelligibility which subjective judgment discovers in any matter is imprinted on that matter by the intellect as an objective quality before it enters the ego.
Let’s not worry about whether this is metaphysically true, or even a good summary of what Kant says. What’s important to Horkheimer and Adorno is the idea of a sort of representation that mediates between the particular and the general so as to ensure that the former conforms to the demands of the latter. You see where this is going:
The true nature of the schematism which externally coordinates the universal and the particular, the concept and the individual case, finally turns out, in current science, to be the interest of industrial society.
Our particular experiences are uncannily well-served by our powers of expression, as are our desires by markets and our interests by our elected officials—and not just because the general is condescending to the particular. Rather, the particular is produced according to the needs of the general; it always already contains its directives. And since the general is partially constitutive of the particular and not an accidental part of it, the execution of its directives is in a sense a spontaneous and original action. This is the scary thought: your desires are yours, and they are real, no matter how much external work goes into their manufacture. For those who are invested in our conformity to adopt a posture of deference toward our preferences, as if they sprung freely from our hearts or rationally from our minds—this flatters our sense of self-determination (the desire for which I believe is real and basic, no matter what ideological cast it is given) at the same time it obstructs its realization.
The shamelessness of the rhetorical question “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul.
I promised last time to reconsider Kant’s definition of enlightenment, and now we’re in position to get picky about the “self-incurred” part of “the emergence of a person from self-incurred minority.” While it's got to be true that one’s own emergence from intellectual minority requires self-directed, active thought, no matter what institutions or norms are in place to support it, calling the predicament of being unable to speak authentically for oneself “self-incurred” ignores the powerful factions who take great interest in our intellectual dependence and spend massive sums to sustain it—not to mention the impersonal currents in social life that foster our minority, the shapes of which currents are way harder to trace than the motives of those agents who manufacture consent.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Was ist Aufklärung?

A few people have responded to my wonderings on John Cage and semantic freedom with the suggestion that the weblog might be a form of communication that encourages the free play and participation of its readers, who are asked to think along for only a short time before surfing away. Posts tend to be suggestive, provisional sketches, not attempts at mastery, either of meaning or the reader. The newness of posts, the immediacy of their publishing, gives one the feeling that active mental life is out there, teeming, tracing something neon in the dark, contriving novelties for our amusement and incitement that we can take or leave according to our intellectual mood.

A cultural conservative—someone like, say, David Bell, who believes that educated authorities ought to guide us in our aesthetic lives and who has only contempt for the average cultural consumer’s faith in their own preferences—such a one might consider blogging just another species of cultural fast-foodism. An atavistic return to the desperate desire one felt before the variety of miniature texts pictured in a Troll or Scholastic book order. What happens when narcissistic and morbid modernist impulses are allowed to inhabit the organic-community-destroying virtual space of state-sponsored cold-war technology’s greatest contribution to post-industrial capitalism. A consumable simulation of thought without institutional or canonical guarantees of intellectual value.

Let us consider further David Bell. He complains bitterly in the foreword to a long and (as far as I can tell from some semi-careful skimming) unrewarding book that in our post-bourgeois, modernist-infected culture of intellectual decadence, readers don’t bother to read books cover to cover but only skim to find the parts that fit best into their own habits of classification and comprehension, and to find something they can deploy semi-ironically at a dinner party.

I guess I agree that one ought to read beyond one’s present sense of what’s comfortable and interesting, but for the most part, I must disagree with David Bell’s complaint. None of us has time for non-fiction books in their entirety, and none of us will stand for such a prolonged experience of servitude. Fiction is obviously different, so long as it offers its readers freedom of imaginative movement; since good fiction asks us to share in the creation of meaning rather than to sit down and shut up, we are willing to accept its extended constructions in the order and with the degree of thoroughness that the author deems best. But in reading non-fiction, let eclectic, Emersonian reading be the rule: read deeply, often, and selfishly; read as carefully or carelessly as you must to engage your own powers of connection. The weblog may be a form of text that suits this sort of reading.

(Apologies to my college friend Dave Bell for any referential slippage; Dave Bell is a fearless reader of unintelligible texts and a defender of the living mind against stultifying academic norms.)

(Oh yeah—what is enlightenment? Kant: Enlightenment is the emergence of a person from self-incurred minority. Minority is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Perhaps sometime in the next few posts we'll quibble with the "self-incurred" bit.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


John Cage is pretty much unquotable, if not for the metaphysical reasons he suggests—
We need not destroy the past: it is gone; at any moment, it might reappear and seem to be and be the present. Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we.
—at least on account of the typographic features of his texts. (The text I’ll get to is presented in twelve typefaces, inked in different saturations of grey, randomly caesuraed, and variably indented.) But if we trust John Cage, we needn’t fear that we’re not doing him justice, so long as we’re not committing violent acts in his name. Here is a fragment of “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) CONTINUED 1967,” processed according to the functions of the Blogger program that is the cybernetic basis for this page:
Out of the darkness of psychoanalysis into sunny behavioral psychology (people picking up their couches and walking).
Syntactically, this doesn’t amount to much, but I take it to be a directive: replace the paradigm rather than puzzle over the contradictions inherent in it; if you’re hung up, talk less and do more; walk through a gate, perhaps; change not the topic but your mode of life; don’t worry about working out from the inside the phantasies that bug you—these are bottomless, protean, and unrenderable in the medium of language—instead, remember what it’s like to experience things non-narratively, through action driven not so much by desire as by the ease of action itself. I think of Wittgenstein on the non-solution of philosophical problems: we can demystify the words that bewitch us by looking at how they function when we’re speaking naturally—which usually means talking about things other than words—and this might alleviate our intellectual discomfort. Philosophical questions can’t be answered in a philosophical register, they can only be replaced by a different kind of activity.

This fragment on psychological change suggests similar possibilities for the practice of literary criticism (indeed, possibilities that Cage actualizes). Let’s consider the quasi-quotation in the light of a formal parallel Joel Fineman points out between psychoanalytic and critical practice in “The Structure of Allegorical Desire.” In psychoanalysis, desire is “both a theme and a structuring principle”; seeking the wishes of its subjects, psychoanalysis enacts a structuring wish of its own, namely, that the psyche have an articulable wish, a logos to work out. Criticism is formally the same; in its attempts to show what particular texts wish to express, what their allegories desire but fail to make present, criticism is moved by its own wish for signification, for some guarantor of metaphoric coherence and the knowability of semantic structures. This wish to grasp the trope of tropes is distorted into countless critical obsessions, ways of phantasizing the relation between sign and sense, attempts to find the figure that will make representation itself present in representation. For now I’m happy enough rehearsing this wish and wondering at the seeming infinity of suggestive images of the mind in its sense-making activity—I wouldn’t be writing from Fort Kant if I were not. But what would it look like to walk away from literary criticism as one would walk away from the psychoanalytic couch (or, as Cage has it, to walk away with the couch)? We might look to John Cage for a model of an alternative critical practice—something to do with texts other than stew over their meanings, or whether they mean, a practice that’s not concerned with what texts desire or how they attempt signification, but with what texts can be made to do, or what they can do on their own. The compositional mode of “HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD” is the accretion of independent mini-texts without logical connectives or figurative bridges, productive discontinuity of genre and intent, juxtaposition without exegesis, mosaic in which the fragments speak themselves as freely as they interrupt the fragments beside them. Some quotations are labeled as such, others are not. Names drop, in every sense of “drop.” Thoughts, or at least phrases, from divergent spheres of human activity appear, circulate for a time, and retreat. The potential for interconnection is immense but non-conspiratorial, free from anxiety and desire. We feel as if we can stop reading at any point in Cage's text, not because each part contains the whole, as is often claimed of great literary works, but because no part suggests or desires a whole. Wittgenstein: the real discovery is the one that enables me to break off my philosophizing when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tortured with questions that bring themselves into question.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Word or non-word

Let us begin with the Last Word, the self-presencing logos at the end of the red string, the simulacra-smashing original of intelligibility, the post horn-unmuting samizdat from the referent itself, the preserver of forms. I am referring, of course, to the Newsweek column, The Last Word, written this week by Anna Quindlen, who in reviewing Christo and Jean-Claude’s “The Gates” (it is a glowing review) comes close to saying something important about art, and whose last word, joking aside, is really something more like a grateful and hopeful non-word than a final presence. “The Gates” is neat, Quindlen suggests, because it signifies in a radically different fashion from other prominent public symbols that are presently circulating in American folk culture:
When pressed about what “The Gates” meant, the creators said it meant whatever you thought it meant, which was a relief after all the highhanded symbolic tyranny that passes for meaning nowadays.
All the highhanded symbolic tyranny: a useful rubric under which to consider certain contemporary acts of signification. Let us pick one example mentioned by Quindlen: the Support the Troops ribbons we see magneted to the bumpers of cars (often certain oversized cars). Do these ribbons signify tyrannically? It’s at least true that act of signification they attempt is tyrannical, and the crass moral self-indulgence implicit in this act is reason enough to feel existentially ill at the sight of such ribbons. Whether or not the sign reaches all the way to the intended sense—the undeviating patriotism and solemn respect of the vehicle’s occupants, I suppose—it is plausible that one might feel tyrannized by a sign whose deployment elevates the moral worth of its signer in proportion to its negation of the moral worth of the dangerously complacent and ungrateful beneficiaries of those who gave all (“Freedom Isn’t Free,” recall), not to mention skeptics, dissidents, etc. Anyone who didn’t buy and affix a magnet, I guess. One might speak of the emptiness of these clichéd symbols—and there is something horrifying about the way they seem to reproduce on their own—but what’s really grim about the ribbons, what their intended sense would cover over, is their oblique invocation of a very real referent, a rather uncouth one. I too will invoke it obliquely, by way of comic understatement, since I don’t think any of us know yet how to name it directly: we messed up.

Now, there is something tyrannical about avant-garde art, too. The militant austerity of its command, “Have an experience, unspecified which,” the enforced dislocation, the denial of absorption into preexisting meaning—all this can feel like just another way of getting bossed around, even if it’s your own agency that you’re supposedly being returned to. I’m sure many people got little but the negative buzz of alienation effects off of “The Gates” (though its mode of blankness is certainly more pleasant than seriously avant-garde stuff), and even more felt nothing but whatever is contained in the recitation of clichés. But there might be something in Quindlen’s suggestion that art that seeks to reopen our experience, and that encourages us to at least hope to have experiences that can meaningfully be called our own, is not simply decadent aestheticism but a political force (or non-force) whose time has come again. Pronominal art, art that intends to index nothing but the experiences of those who live with it for a time, art that trusts that even debased and stereotyped experience contains idiosyncratic phantasy of irreducible value, can return us to the point from which any revolution must begin. This point, too, I invoke obliquely, for even if the Enlightenment would wish to proceed by rational argument, its wishes might be best expressed in leaps of imagination.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Welcome to Fort Kant

On its map of major US highways, the National Geographic Family Reference Atlas of the World places the mysterious Fort Kant at the terminus of U.S. Route 1, along the border between Maine and New Brunswick. The atlas presumably intends to pick out the town of Fort Kent, population 4,233, whose eponym, a wooden blockhouse that stands today, was built along the Fish River in 1839 to defend forest lands won from Canada in the bloodless Aroostock War. But let's stick with the mistake. Consider this journal the product of an unslipped erratum, a fictional northern point from which we will defend the power of reason and attempt to know its limits.