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.


Blogger David Fiore said...

I came to Wittgenstein through Stanley Cavell, who is a big fan of the "my spade is turned"/"this is simply what I do" formula for working out the kinks in the mind... it's certainly attractive...and I do like the idea of a text that you can take or leave at any point--does this make blogging the ideal venue for the sane practice of philosophical speculation?

but what if people (or their neighbors, anyway) are better off paralyzed by unanswerable questions? it seems to me that most of the mass protest marches away from thinking that the we've seen over the past century or so have trampled an awful lot of people...

is it really a question of staying on the couch or dropping it on someone else's head? I hope not!


3/09/2005 9:10 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Was heisst Denken?

On my understanding of social history, mass protest marches away from thinking mostly haven’t been marches away from obsessive metacritique or baroquely theoretical introspection. They’ve been more like marches away from thinking for oneself, or away from thinking about how best to live with certain others who are perceived as socially threatening. Cage, Cavell, and Wittgenstein all have deep respect for careful, original thinking, but they have recognized certain trends in (mostly academic) thought that encourage inbent spiralization and discourage meaningful engagement in one’s world. For, say, a philosopher working in Germany in the 1930s to be more worried about the difference between Being and beings than about Kristallnacht might be an example of this latter.

3/10/2005 10:14 PM  

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