Friday, April 29, 2005

Through With Buzz


Farewell to an idea … The cancelings,
The negations are never final. The father sits
In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard,

As one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes.
He says no to no and yes to yes. He says yes
To no; and in saying yes he says farewell.

Wallace Stevens, from “The Auroras of Autumn”
How might one say farewell to philosophy?

Kant imagined that the feverish hallucinations of metaphysics could be resolved into transparent principles of thought, and he undertook to expose the illusions of philosophy as the play of a finite set of articulable concepts. But Kant’s logic of mental activity inspired two centuries of speculation more wild than any he could have imagined.

The cancelings, the negations are never final.

There’s no way to quit philosophy from within philosophy, for it reinscribes itself endlessly.

Wallace Stevens knows this. He is no stranger to the metaphysical impulse, and he recognizes the impossibility of its desires—which include the desire that there be a way out of philosophy that philosophy recognizes.
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.
Philosophical problems cannot be solved, only walked away from, out into a world that is the stuff of action and not the object of thought, and this walking away cannot be rendered philosophically responsible.

“The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.” Yes, Wittgenstein, but this is not a philosophical discovery.

“There is a danger of falling into an interminable oscillation. But we can find a way to dismount from the seesaw.” Yes, McDowell, but philosophy will not show us this way.

Anscombe writes that for Aristotle, a practical syllogism concludes not with a proposition but with an action.
Dry food suits any human
Such-and-such food is dry
I am human
This is a bit of such-and-such food
Therefore… [the agent eats the food]
We shall see whether my conclusion—to let philosophy be—will be an action or just a representation. But for now I declare Fort Kant done with philosophy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Here Comes Everybody


I guess I hadn't turned the comments back on. But this time I'm pretty sure I did it right.

The picture and title wildly overstate this page's active readership. However, Fort Kant is bracing itself for more questions on the synthetic a priori.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kommentare wieder angeschaltet!


I have restored Fort Float's comments function. I hope my non-blogging Fahrenheit 451 meme invitees will use the comments space to post their contributions. (If they do, I will signal from the main page.)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Fahrenheit 451 meme

John has pledged to do my Badiou meme if I will do the Fahrenheit 451 meme that was circulating a month ago. Indeed, it was a month ago that John dared me to do it: "why have a blog if you can't do these charmingly vulgar things?"

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

(John’s clarification: "this refers to the end of the book where people have to constantly speak their favorite books in order to preserve the texts since they are gone or endangered.")

Since I’m not bringing the Critique of Pure Reason with me to the desert island, I guess that’s what I’d choose to be. It’s always seemed to me that one could rewrite it simply by reflecting carefully on one’s experience in the world.

In my old age I would hope to become the Critique of Judgment.

Mark at Charlotte Street has written well about two ways of growing old as a thinker: riding comfortably along the intellectual tracks one laid in one’s better days vs. continuing to struggle to wrest from the phenomena forms of expression adequate to them.

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant shows us (ahem) a third way to get old: develop a theoretical vocabulary so architectonically hyperdeveloped that its voice overpowers your own, so overly expressive that everything you had previously attempted to exclude—the human, the local, the communal, the imaginative—returns as the true and beautifully incoherent meaning of your project. What seemed like a system ends up a poem of everything there is.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

No. But I have fled the embrace of Walt Whitman, a fictional character who seemed to have a crush on me.

3. The last book you bought is:

I guess I should have waited to do this meme until I bought a cooler book, but it was Philosophy in a Time of Terror, in which Giovanna Borradori, the famous interviewer of philosophers, interviews Habermas and Derrida in the months after 9/11.

I intend to write a little summary of the Habermas interview, which I found illuminating.

I’m not usually one to put Derrida down—I love "Ulysses Gramophone" like I love Ulysses—but the only insight I took away from the interview is that his response to 9/11—that we must take up again the "language of English empiricism"—is somehow parallel to Hitchens'.

4. The last book you read:

The last book I read that I hadn’t already read was A Study in Scarlet.

Sadly, the best line in the book is one you already know:
There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
(Could this have come from Derrida? Doesn’t he somewhere speak of basting—a sort of guiding stitch that one uses to hold together provisionally the cloth one wishes to sew—as another supposed non-concept that does the same sort of thing as gram or supplement or trace? No, it’s from Kant: the logical forms of judgment are the "guiding thread" that leads us to the pure concepts of the understanding.)

5. What are you currently reading?

The Europeans, by Henry James. My curiosity was piqued by Leo Bersani’s suggestion that "Eugenia’s lack of a self may be the most morally interesting thing about her."

6. Five books you would take to a deserted island.

Plato was popular with many bloggers, but I must go instead with Aristotle. I trust Aristotle more than I do Plato to reward careful and imaginative reading, and he might help to identify some of the local life. (I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at The History of Animals or Parts of Animals, but their catalogs of animal life are pretty exhaustive.)

Besides, Plato’s doctrine of recollection is more plausibly and enjoyably articulated by Proust. If I ever despair of being a political animal cut loose from the polis, I will visit with my old friends Saint-Loup, Bloch, Bergotte, Oriane, Marie & Céleste, Charlus, and—most of all—Swann.

I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays How to Be Alone, but it is Wallace Stevens who can truly claim to be the author of such a manual:
If there must be a god in the house, let him be one/That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,/A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass/Of which we are too distantly a part.
I’ve never made time to read The Magic Mountain, which I’ve probably started a dozen times, but for my yet-unread gamble I select instead Bleak House.

I had intended to bring an OED, but I’m down to my last pick, and it must be Moby-Dick, the text which, more than any other I’ve read, allows reading to be what it is. I joked about Kant above, but it’s Melville I’d really want to be.

7. Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

I pass it to three of my non-blogging readers: Chris, Hilary, and Luke.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Badiou meme

With the comments function shut off for now, perhaps it is time for Fort Kant to propose its first meme.

The philosophers and mathematicians of Moritz Schlick’s “Circle” (later known as the “Vienna Circle”) studied Wittgenstein’s Tractatus by voting on the truth or falsity of its key propositions. A copy of the voting results from these sessions—taken by Carnap, if I remember right, in scrupulous colored pencil—was passed around in my first-year philosophy of science seminar, under strict conditions specified by the Special Collections department. The group voted on selected propositions, read the entire book aloud, voting as they went, and voted a third time when they were finished. (The charts were labeled: Vor dem Tractatus, Während dem Tractatus (dem not des, because während takes a dative object in Austrian German), and Nach dem Tractatus.)

It is in a similar logico-positivistic spirit that I propose to consider the truth or falsity of each of Badiou’s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art. Here’s the meme: cut and paste the theses from this link and vote true, false, abstain, or write-in candidate for each. Multi-part theses can be divided and considered separately; they can also be confronted with a single vote. Explanations optional.)

Before I begin, let me note that there’s going to be some friction here. Badiou states, “All the 15 theses have as a sort of goal, the question how not to be formalist-Romantic. That is, in my opinion, the question of contemporary art.” By now it ought to be clear enough to readers of this page that Fort Kant is primarily concerned with the opposite question, how to be formalist-Romantic.

Having noted this, we proceed:

1. Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.

True; false. The infinite series couldn’t be subjective—what kind of subject could comprehend an infinity of contents?—but it could be objective; the work refers endlessly outward, but we finite knowers light on only this or that constellation of referents. Material subtraction: if what we are subtracting from in creating the means of an artwork is everything there is, I guess I can agree with this.


2. Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone.

True; false.

3. Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.


4. There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.

Write-in, from Wallace Stevens in The Necessary Angel:
There is a universal poetry that is reflected in everything. This remark approaches the idea of Baudelaire that there exists an unascertained and fundamental aesthetic, or order, of which poetry and painting are manifestations, but of which, for that matter, sculpture or music or any other aesthetic realization would equally be a manifestation.
Maybe the write-in candidate fails to describe contemporary art, but I think it says something true about the unity of the formal imagination in its manifold presentations. (Not all imagination is formal, and not all art is concerned with aesthetic experience.) In any case, having Baudelaire—an expert on psychedelic syntheses of experience—on one’s side is powerful evidence for one’s claims about the imagination.

5. Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.


6. The subject of an artistic truth is the set of the works which compose it.

False. The work is necessarily composed of other works, but they aren’t its (only) subject. This can be seen as a Kantian point: to confuse the constituent parts of something (e.g., a judgment) with its purport is a crude empiricist mistake.

But: true if you take “the works which compose it” to refer to everything there is, i.e., “the works.”

7. This composition is an infinite configuration, which, in our own contemporary artistic context, is a generic totality.

False, but only on account of the dependent clause. Maybe it’s perverse to use a Leibnizian monad as a counterexample, but we’ll try it: a monad is an infinite configuration, but not a generic totality. Each monad contains in its complete concept everything in the world, but it apperceives these various contents with differing degrees of vivacity—these differences in apperceptive vivacity are what individuate monads. Totality, yes; generic, no. I intend this to be a recasting of a point Alphonse continually helps us to understand: a concept/representation/product may contain its own negation, but the self-negation isn’t thereby granted an equal claim to truth.

8. The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.

True; false (there are no raw materials); false. Maybe the last proposition says that art aims to make a novel form out of prior forms—I think that’s true and innocuous. But those prior forms, taken collectively, do already have a form over and above their individual forms. And that form is…

9. The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial. This also means: it does not have to be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.

False, whether the first sentence is taken as descriptive or normative.

10. Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense: it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.


11. The abstraction of non-imperial art is not concerned with any particular public or audience. Non-imperial art is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic: Alone, it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people.


12. Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.

True. (And if you take off “non-imperial,” this could be Wallace Stevens.)

13. Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn't exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art : the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn't exist.

False. Too optimistic about the existence of a starting place Empire hasn’t claimed in some way—isn’t Thesis 5 clear enough about this? And it seems bizarre that such a starting place should be claimed for art—isn’t the economic shape of the gallery world sufficient proof of the aesthetic flexibility and omnivorousness of Empire? Art may or may not succeed in going somewhere, but it begins in the middle of things. And the measure of whether art goes somewhere can’t be whether it can be appropriated by Empire, for all the best things can be.

14. Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.

First proposition: true.

Second proposition: false. (Busted again for liberal irony! I can’t hide it.)

Third proposition: abstain. I agree to a certain sort of caution, but “we should become the pitiless censors of ourselves” just sounds like the sort of thing one would eventually come to regret having said.

15. It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.

False. Get over it—Empire knows. Empire recognizes it in advance, and Empire can handle it. But don’t let that stop you.

And now I’d like to pass the mic…

Friday, April 22, 2005

That Each Singular Substance Expresses the Whole Universe in Its Own Way...

...and That All Its Events, Together with All Their Circumstances and the Whole Sequence of External Things, Are Included in Its Notion

Fort Kant has temporarily become a monad; its windows onto the outside world have been shuttered. The drawbridge has been hauled up and the portcullis lowered down.

On account of persistent harrassment I have disabled the comment function. Because of the limitations of my computer, it's not easy for me to delete comments from home, so this seemed to me to be the best move. Old comments have been saved, and I hope to find a way to display them. Those of you who know how to contact me are welcome to do so, and I will gladly add your comments to my posts, though I recognize that it's absurd to mediate communication in this fashion.

A stronger person might try to take back the night, but for now I accede to intimidation. This might be disappointing, but it can't be surprising. Violence gives power to whoever wants to use it; we knew this. No matter how we deal with it, intimidation reorders our choice situation, for we make decisions in light of probable consequences rather than ideal scenarios. And at this point it seems to me that leaving the comment function on is trouble than it's worth. When I am technologically in a better position to sort through comments, I may reconsider. For now let us meditate on the Leibnizian hope with which we began.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

National Library Week betrayed


I had long wondered about the source of the above illustration. A photocopy of had it been passed out in a graduate seminar I took on concepts and properties, though I don’t recall its (the illustration's) purpose. But its apparent topic—how to understand the formal variance of functional objects over time—is fascinating enough on its own, and it is impressive as a piece of visual organization of information.

Thus, I was elated when, searching for a receipt yesterday morning, I found among old notes a citation of the source: The Critique of the Theory of Evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan. But without access to a university library, where was I to find a copy?

Let us rewind a few weeks.

Hilary and I discovered that a local artist was leading a large-scale art project in which artists would be permitted pick through the books in storage at the Portland Public Library and take home whichever ones they’d like to create "artworks" out of. The modified books were to be returned to the library, where they would be on display beginning April 16. (Note: National Library Week was April 10-16.)

Naturally, we were incensed by this project, and we wrote letters of protest to the library. Without judging the art of book modification (which I’d be inclined to judge negatively), I think it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t belong to the mission of a public library to sponsor the destruction of information. To preserve information for possible future scholars—even if those scholars never arrive—might be a more appropriate aim. If more space is needed and some books just have to go, a library could donate the books to another organization, hold a book sale, put out free bins—all of these options preserve the information for at least one more potential reader. (And simply putting the books in the Dumpster would at least have been a more tasteful means of destruction than turning them over to self-styled artists.)

Now, at the time, I thought that my main argument against the project was rather abstract, since the possibility that some future scholar would seek one of the books in question seemed vanishingly small.

Back to yesterday afternoon. "Long Overdue: Book Renewal" had gone up, and the products were on display in a special room of the library. (Posters advertising the show are all over town, bearing the lame slogans "THIS IS NOT A POSTER" (false) and "THIS IS NOT A BOOK" (false of the poster, true of the books). Riffing on Ce n'est pas une pipe—especially when no interesting questions about representation are posed—is one of my pet peeves, but this is a minor matter compared to what the posters advertise. (This complaint registered, I invite readers to share "This is not a..." scenarios of their own invention in the comments; no interesting questions about representation need be posed.))

Hilary and I were at the library for other reasons, but we thought we’d challenge ourselves and check out the exhibit. I was a little bummed out to see that the pages of a nice hardcover Gulag Archipelago had been glued together and carved out, but the book’s a dime a dozen, and I figured the library had probably bought some new translation with added scholarly goodies, so I could handle it.

Hilary picked up an attractive and slim orange volume, and I read the spine with horror. It was The Critique of the Theory of Evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan, the very book whose identity I had accidentally retrieved just that morning! I flipped it open and instantly found my array of pole arms; next to it was glued a National Geographic-style photograph of an Arab with a machine gun. Dozens of other photos were installed throughout the book. (I wish now I had looked at them; at the time I was only interested in finding those illustrations that were still intact.) The artist, Wolfe, had inked his own title onto the title page; I don’t recall what it was, but it concerned Hiroshima and September 11 (an absurd comparison, from any political perspective).

Wolfe has taken The Critique of the Theory of Natural Selection (minimally $40 at addall) out of circulation; I wish him or her ill.

Marxian education sought

I'm interested in (the early) Marx's claim that man is a "species-being" (Gattungswesen). Is there someone out there who can help me understand this?

Monday, April 18, 2005

Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday


Thesis on the philosophy of history


Saturday, April 16, 2005

Care of Cell 44

What is a political prisoner? Do we have political prisoners in the United States?

Activists, lawyers, rubberneckers like myself, and at least one former US political prisoner gathered today to discuss such questions at a minor campus of the state university system.

The conference—"U.S. Political Prisoners and Their Families"—was held in a small auditorium familiar to me from childhood. My earliest memory of the room has me sitting with a friend and his family and listening to an expert storyteller read scary stories during Halloween week of (I think) 1987. Of these stories I remember only "The Cask of Amontillado."

The parallels are obvious. Ray Luc Levasseur, a self-described (and probably genuine) former political prisoner who spoke this afternoon, read from his prison writings this description of solitary confinement in the Colorado "Supermax" prison:
Society reflects itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically-driven, racially-motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes—a set of boxes decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest box.

I am in Administrative Maximum (ADX) prison, the Federal government's latest boondoggle to contain prisoners' rebellion and dissent. I am in a "boxcar" cell. Picture a cage where top, bottom, sides, and back are concrete walls. The front is sliced by steel bars. Several feet beyond the bars is another wall. In this wall is a solid steel door. The term boxcar is derived from this configuration: a small, enclosed box that doesn't move.

I am confined to the boxcar cell 157 hours of each 168 hour week. Eleven hours each week I'm allowed into the barren area adjacent to this cell. Each morning begins with the noisy rumble of the steel door opening. A guard steps to the bars and slides food through a small slot. Feeding time. The guard steps back and the door slaps shut with a vengeance.

The purpose of a boxcar cell is to gouge the prisoners' senses by suppressing human sound, putting blinders about our eyes, and forbidding touch. Essential human needs are viewed with suspicion. Within the larger context of a control unit prison, the boxcar cell is designed to inflict physical and emotional isolation that wears down a prisoner's will to resist. When this regimen undermines a prisoner's health or distorts his/her personality, it's considered the cost of doing business.
Ray Luc Levasseur, a native of Sanford, Maine, spent twenty years in our worst prisons for charges related to the bombing of various corporate and government sites in the Northeast. (No one was killed.)

Though he has never admitted the particulars of his involvement, Levasseur defends the actions of the groups with which he was associated—the United Freedom Front and the Sam Melville/Jonathan Jackson Unit—which robbed banks and staged politically symbolic bombings in the late 70s and early 80s. Their targets were picked, Levasseur claims, to draw attention to US government/corporate support for South African apartheid, US actions in Central America, and other colonial/imperial crimes.

Levasseur was released last August, and he now lives in Portland. (I've run into him a couple times at the public library.) He continues his activism within the confines of his parole, and he has recently begun speaking about his experiences.

I'd rather not take a stand on Levasseur's claim to be a revolutionary hero—I don't know what to think about armed activism in general and the UFF in particular—but it is clear to anyone who's seen him speak that he is a heroic human being, and this is something. I won't attempt to tell his story myself, for he tells it so well.

I recommend these two pieces of political autobiography: Levasseur's trial statement and closing statement from his 1989 federal trial on sedition and racketeering charges. Levasseur had been in prison since 1984 on bombing charges, but this was a big-budget trial meant to showcase what the FBI had spent so much time and money pursuing. (Levasseur, who had been "underground" for several years, was on the FBI’s Top-Ten list.) The statements are this good: the jury acquitted Levasseur—who defended himself against federal prosecutors—of sedition; they came to no decision on the racketeering charges.

P.S.: I might note that TV and newspaper reports of Ray Luc Levasseur's release last August invariably stated that his group, the United Freedom Front, was "linked" to the May 1976 bombing of Central Maine Power's corporate headquarters in Augusta, Maine.

This was interesting to me in part because Central Maine Power is my father's place of employment (though he didn't start there till a decade later), and I had often heard about the bombing when I was growing up. It formed my early and somewhat European picture of what terrorism might be. When visiting my dad at work, I'd examine the building and imagine which sections might have been blown up. (I thought of the PBS children's program Powerhouse, in one unforgettable episode of which a bomb went off in the headquarters of the crimesolving kids. (If you watched PBS in the early 80s, and you want to explore the recesses of your memory, in every sense of "recesses," see if you recognize the rainbow logo at this site.)) I'd sign in with the guard at the front and wait for my dad to come down from his office. This procedure, like the laminated security photo my dad would unclip from his shirt each evening and set on his bureau, was part of the strict security system that had been implemented in response to the bombing.

None of the reports suggested what Levasseur's "link" to the CMP bombing might have been, and my casual on-line research has been equally unhelpful. The terror analyst Konrad Kellen has written that "a Fred Hampton Unit of the People's Forces [not to be confused with Col. Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit] claimed responsibility" for the action, but I haven't found any connection between that group and Levasseur's. But it is clear enough why the popular media would frame the story of Levasseur's release in terms of "domestic terrorism" and advertise him as a security risk for the citizens of Portland.

P.P.S.: Speaking of aquarium rescues.

According to Konrad Kellen—and I can’t help imagining that Konrad Kellen is shaved bald and wears expensive, silver suits—the Fred Hampton Unit demanded that CMP sever its connection to nuclear power.

Possibly they were thinking of Maine Yankee, Maine's only nuclear power plant, which had gone on line in 1972. A tax-boon to the coastal town of Wiscasset, Maine when it was in operation (evidence: the high school's band program had cymbals that were unbelievably good), Maine Yankee has been closed since 1997, though practical problems concerning the disposal of its spent fuel rods persist.

These fuel rods are easy for me to imagine, since, on a field trip to Maine Yankee in the fourth grade, my classmates and I were given black plastic pellets that represented them. A guide—and John could probably tell you more about this sort of thing—took us through a model of the facilities and into a simulated control room. (That night at the dinner table I mistakenly referred to this as a "stimulator.")

Thus, it was with great interest that in the course this evening's reading I found in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a narrative account of a visit to Maine Yankee.
"Be careful not to drop anything," Oddell reminds me as we walk to a railing at the other side of the platform. I press the radiation meter against my chest and peek over the railing. Here it is, the source of all the controversy: 1,434 spent nuclear fuel rods standing at the bottom of an enormous pool of crystal clear water.
P.P.P.S.: A different sort of aquarium rescue.

Ray Luc Levasseur is often asked whether the actions he undertook were "worth it," and he often responds with the story of the reef:
But the way that I look at anything I've done political through the course of my life, whether it was underground or in a community setting, I kinda look at it in terms of . . . the analogy that I like to use is with a coral reef. Coral reefs are such that they begin with something infinitesimal, called a coral. You can barely see it. It's no bigger than the head of a pin, and that coral by itself is relatively nothing, but what happens is, as each coral progresses, and goes through its entire life cycle, their contribution to that reef comes about through the course of that cycle, and as they die that miniscule limestone skeleton gets left behind. It drops to the bottom of the sea, followed by millions and millions of others. Gradually the base of the reef forms, and then from that base the reef develops. As you know, a reef is a living organism, and as the reef grows it sustains and nourishes all kinds of life, from fish to crustaceans to plant life. And it grows larger and larger, and it essentially develops its own ecosystem. One could say it is an affirmation of life, deep within the depths of the ocean. And when it gets to a certain size, like with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, it has taken a form that has the power to change the course of the sea, which it does.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Every sickness is a musical problem

Some entries from Novalis’s Enzyklopädie on my sick day:
Das Wesen der Krankheit ist so dunkel als das Wesen des Lebens. §390

Krankheiten sind gewiß ein höchst wichtiger Zustand der Menschheit, da ihrer so unzählige sind und jeder Mensch so viel mit ihnen zu kämpfen hat. Noch kennen wir nur sehr unvolkommen die Kunst sie zu benutzen. Wahrscheinlich sind die interessanteste Reiz und Stoff unsers Nachdenken und unsrer Tätigkeit. Hier lassen sich gewiß unendliche Früchte ernten—besonders, wie mich dünkt, im intellektuellen Felde—im Gebiete der Moral, Religion und Gott weiß in welchem wunderbaren Gebiete noch.
Wie wenn ich Prophet dieser Kunst werden sollte?
Krankheiten zeichen den Menschen vor den Tieren und Pflanzen aus—Zum Leiden ist der Mensche geboren. Je hilfloser, desto empfänglicher für Moral und Religion.

Jede Krankeit kann man Seelenkrankheit nennen. §392

Schlaf ist ein vermischter Zustand des Körpers und der Seele. Im Schlafe ist Körper und Seele chemisch verbunden. Im Schlafe ist die Seele durch den Körper gleichmäßig verteilt—der Mensch ist neutralisiert. Wachen ist ein geteilter—polarischer Zustand. Im Wachen ist die Seele punktiert—lokalisiert. […] §387

Der Traum belerht uns auf eine merkwürdige Weise von der Leichtigkeit unsrer Seele in jedes Objekt einzudringen—sich in jedes sogleich zu verwandeln. §420


The essence of sickness is as obscure as the essence of life. §390

Sicknesses are surely a most important condition of humanity, for they number so many and we must contend with them so often. Yet we know only imperfectly the art of using them. They are probably the most interesting stimulus and matter for our reflection and activity. Surely endless fruits can be harvested here—especially, it seems to me, in intellectual fields—in the spheres of moral philosophy and religion, and in God knows what other wonderful spheres, too.
What if I were to become the prophet of this art?
Sicknesses distinguish the human from animals and plants—the human is born unto suffering. The more helpless, the more receptive to moral philosophy and religion. §391

One can call every sickness a sickness of the soul. §392

Sleep is a mixed condition of the body and the soul. In sleep, the body and soul are chemically bound together. In sleep, the soul is distributed evenly through the body—the human is neutralized. Waking is a divided, polar condition. In waking, the soul is punctual—localized. […] §387

The dream teaches us in a peculiar way of the ease with which our soul penetrates into every object—even transforms itself into them. §420
Far from being a prophet of sickness, I spent the day alternately sleeping and staring out the window with my mouth open. Birds flew by quickly, causing discomfort; planes flew slowly and pleasantly, and their forms were easily assimilated to those of other objects. From the kitchen window I saw at sunset the silhoutte of Mount Washington, a magic mountain in northern New Hampshire, at whose base sits the Mount Washington Hotel, the site of the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, where the allied powers met to secure the future of global capitalism. When Hilary and I stayed there a year ago, our floor was under renovation, and we were able to spy into the room where Keynes had slept. What objects had his soul penetrated, what objects had his soul become? Tonight I can remember none of the day’s dreams, only the yuletide constellations that patterned the walls when I awoke.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

We have never been Old Hegelians

(I dedicate this post to John who has recently wondered whether he might, deep down, be a liberal ironist.)

One doesn’t ‘take’ what one knows as the cutlery at a meal for cutlery; any more than one ordinarily tries to move one’s mouth as one eats, or aims at moving it. (Philosophical Investigations, Iixi, p. 195)
Wittgenstein writes this in the context of pointing out some asymmetries between first- and third-person attributions of aspect seeing or “seeing as,” which asymmetries, I believe, cut to the quick of the deepest philosophical problems about representation, a recurring preoccupation here at Fort Kant.

But what interests me here is this remark’s rejection of a mode of philosophy that sees propositions everywhere, that cognitivizes the experience of having a world (as if “having a world” were a sort of experience; as if “having a world” had a sense!), that analyzes habits into beliefs of a certain sort.

As I read the remark, its point is this: it is peculiar to speak of our ordinary actions as embodying beliefs about things, as if our movements in the world were packed with crypto-propositions that a linguistically overcharged phenomenologist could decode.

When I step forward, I “take” the floor to be solid. The proper response to such a remark is either No, you don’t or I don’t know what you’re telling me.

While it’s best not to try to get too philosophically specific about it, what someone does can show something about how they see the world, whether they know they see it that way or not. And sometimes it is useful to treat someone’s embodied sense of how the world is as a sort of text and subject it to ideological critique. (John does this forcefully in his post on Malcolm Gladwell and the Amadou Diallo case (“The power of thinking without thinking about ideology”), where he argues that "perception is not innocent"and that it makes sense to hold someone morally accountable for how the world shows up for them.)

Mark at Charlotte Street, like the sovereign individual who "hold[s] his kick in readiness for the frail dogs who promise although they are not permitted to do so," reserves a swift kick for those who would be judged on the considered beliefs that represent their conscience, instead of the inverted-comma beliefs that make up their practical identity in the lifeworld. Professed beliefs cover over the embodied beliefs we’d rather keep out of sight, but they don’t reflect what is most deeply the case about us.
Belief as stated is one thing; but more stubborn is that belief incarnate in practice - I.e., ‘materialized’ in what we do. Teaching for example, will involve certain implicit ‘beliefs’ about power, pedagogy and so on, which inhere in things as seemingly trivial as the layout of chairs etc. Belief circulates in objects and actions as much as in (or before) the mind of the individual teacher. If belief resides in, has its ‘proof,’ in the behaviour, the practice, then what we think of as ‘beliefs’ – i.e., articulated propositions – are often defences against, or ways of evading the actual belief.
(This is a deeply Platonic thought, parallel to Socrates’ denial of weakness of the will: if you know that x-ing is good, you’ll x. If you say that x-ing is good but fail to x, your avowal is nonsense, and you don’t know from living well.)

I wonder if we are to see Mark’s post as an endorsement of theory—the activity that susses out the structural or lived belief that professed belief masks—or a criticism of it as so much professed but unlived belief, a display of engagement in excess of the theorist’s real engagement. Let us turn to Marx to sharpen our thinking on these matters.

Anything calling itself political theory might ought to respond to this:
Since the Young Hegelians regard concepts, thoughts, ideas, and all products of consciousness, to which they give independent existence, as the real fetters of man—while the Old Hegelians pronounced them the true bonds of human society—it is obvious that the Young Hegelians have to fight only against the illusions of consciousness. In the Young Hegelians’ fantasies the relationships of men, all their actions, their chains, and their limitations. This amounts to a demand to interpret what exists in a different way, that is, to recognize it by means of a different interpretation. The Young-Hegelian ideologists are the staunchest conservatives, despite their allegedly ‘world-shaking’ statements. They forget, however, that they fight them only with phrases of their own. (The German Ideology)
“But interpretations and phases are things, with material histories and material effects; there’s no principled way to mark off intellectual labor from other kinds of labor, to mark off theory from practice. Only a liberal idealist would still try to maintain a distinction between words and things.”

Let us grant without resistance this point about the ontology of language and proceed to ask, if theory is a practice, who practices it? For whom is it practiced? What is changed by this practice? Who gains by this practice? Quaeritur.

The answers to such questions are embarrassing only if we had high hopes for theory. But if we aren’t overly moralizing, if we don’t wear jackboots and fatigues to lecture, if we don’t make noise about our peers’ being insufficiently radicalized or engaged, if we don’t pretend that a deluded friend of humanity is more dangerous than an enemy of humanity, if we don’t get too uppity about left-vs.-liberal, if we don’t act as if revolution could spring from the armchair—in short, if we are properly ironic in our theoretical activity—and by “ironic” I mean something like “trusting” or “open to inspiration from anywhere” or “honest about the dynamic nature of mental life, and not unrealistically insistent on ideological perfection or austerity (‘out of crooked timber…,’ after all!)” or “underenthused about the project of eradicating humanism”—then we can freely theorize without looking silly if we fetch up as academics writing for other academics. (And perhaps we’ll be less susceptible to the neo-conservative pendular swing that Young Hegelians seem to undergo later in life.)

“But irony is complicity. Worse: it appropriates the surface of revolution and guts its substance, simply to make the ironist feel comfortable in acquiescing to something monstrous.”

I guess it depends what it is toward which one adopts an ironic attitude. Theory as a form of discourse—no sweat. The dehumanizing effects of capital—more alarming. The welfare and dignity of human subjects and communities—this where the solidarity kicks in, and where we might be better off worrying about projects than theories. (Here is a doubt that haunts the ironist: projects may be more important, but I’m better at playing with theories. Perhaps the liberal ironist's motto might ought to be this: Let us be the party of ideas, in every sense of “the party of ideas.”)

P.S.: The double modals are dedicated to my friend Matt Weiner, soon to be one of “the boys back in Lubbock.”

P.P.S.: I have just read Henry's post on Radical Literary Theorists at Crooked Timber ("Look, he vomits crooked pins!"), and I have become ashamed. I pray that if this post has a conservative streak, it is at least conservative in a marginally more interesting way. I would like to think that I'm not defending something pre-theoretical against theory, but rather defending theory—by which I mean free-ranging, raving, roving abstraction that's not afraid to try to frame thoughts that are still too big to think—against the monological sham austerity that it can adopt.

Monday, April 11, 2005

What calls for thinking?

Most thought-provoking is that we are still not thinking—not even yet, although the world is becoming constantly more thought provoking. (Heidegger)

For it is owing to wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize. (Aristotle)
If what we mean by philosophy is defined by the sort of epistemological and metaphysical questions that would seem to be the special property of academic philosophy, then Aristotle’s thought is at least true of the intellectual experiences of young adults. Epistemological questions can cause adolescents deep stress, and they may entertain the wildest skeptical and idealist possibilities. Intoxicated by the dawning powers of abstract thought, the teenaged mind builds fantastic models of its place in the world, and its feelings of metaphysical puzzlement are existential and real, not manufactured according to the demands of the academic philosophy industry. The teenaged philosopher doesn’t need to cultivate intellectual eccentricities that fit a particular professional niche; everything is source and text. Books needn’t be fashionable to be worth thinking about; another era’s mass-market bestsellers in psychology, religion, or politics—whatever you can get cheaply at the library book-sale or used bookstore—can inspire thought that ranges way farther than the books’ content, thought to which only the books’ psychedelic cover art is adequate. Moral questions seem genuinely open-ended. Imagination and will are boundless. Sets of abstractions compete to describe the world, and each alteration and negation poses afresh the question of the meaning of being.

For most of us, epistemological questions lose the power to implicate us existentially once we get used to the power of thinking and incur responsibilities that we don’t dare to doubt.

Yet there is a different experience of wonder that is available only to those who already have in place a relatively stable way of dealing with and thinking about the world, and its call for thinking is perhaps more urgent than that of philosophical problems. This is the wonder that accompanies thoughts—in the rare moments when we can sustain them—that the way we carry on is not OK, that our practices and the world that demands them, justifies them, and gives them sense are not natural, necessary, or good. All at once, one sees the trail of wreckage, human and otherwise, that progress leaves in its wake, what comes out the true tailpipe of our drive forward, the wave of externalized costs that buoys us up. One knows in a flash the material price of a form of life previously considered to be self-contained and self-supporting; one grasps that the systems we operate enact a formulation of the second law of thermodynamics; that money represents a sum of entropic acceleration; that sustaining our comfort and security requires the projection of a moving, growing black hole, whose pull we are increasingly unable to resist; that what we perceive as presence is marked out by the negative space of entropy’s shadow; that there is no true autotrophism in nature; that the will to life is the will to reinterpretation, to violent appropriation, to heterotrophism; that our form of life represents the top of a human pyramid the bottom of which is submerged below our conscious representation and is only vaguely perceptible even in extraordinary and unsustainable moments of economic vision.

To the metaphysicians: forget about number, negation, inference, perception, properties, and identity. Think about conditions of the possibility of affordable and diverse consumer goods. Think about carbon. Do what philosophers do—strenuously separate the logical from the psychological, the intelligible from the imagistic—and recognize that third-worldism doesn’t definitionally require bright clothes or tropical weather; that fascist systems of social control don’t definitionally require uniforms, emblems, pledges, or dictators; that the primary forms of world political power don’t definitionally require flags, capitals, governments, or geographical locations. Recognize that the possibility of massive error in our cultural, moral, social, political, and economic representations is not just real but likely; that the falsity of our stories about ourselves is becoming impossible to ignore; that the violence in which we are complicit is real, even if its effects are distant, and that these effects are in fact increasingly proximate. (It can strike one as curious that those who want to understand what flashes on us in these moments of horror and recognition can pursue the content of these flashes in departments of history, economics, political science, sociology, or literature, though not in departments of philosophy.)

Saturday, April 09, 2005


Hey Robb,

Can you help out with this one?
perhaps you could tell me how exactly a rule about nature could be a priori
(Direction of a provisional answer I might give: I guess it depends what you mean by nature. See the early sections of the Prolegomena, where, if I remember right, nature is glossed as a way that our experiences can be synthesized into a knowable, rule-governed whole. I will check and report back on this. (One might also politely suggest that knowledge of nature is, if it counts as knowledge, backed up by reasons, which rattus rattus might not be in the position to give. Rattus rattus can make do with statistically constant conjunctions, but Reason demands more. And R.Eason demands more.))

(Does Sellars care about Kant's thoughts on how the mind can have scientific knowledge (in the weighty, Stoical sense) of nature? Is he only concerned with Kant's views on perception? (I would tend to think that these latter would be unintelligible if one didn't keep in view Reason's (and R.Eason's) goal of systematic knowledge of nature.))

If you go here and scroll down, you'll find the original question in full.

Thanks, Robb!


Thursday, April 07, 2005


An anonymous reader has recently demanded answers to questions on apparently Kantian themes. I quote:
Mein Herr, I have a question. I have been rereading the Critique, or at least some amusing sections of it. One of the arguments for the synthetic a priori is that scientific rules which are not analytical, such as "every event must have a cause" could not be a posteriori. Is that true?
And since I was too slow in replying:
Pynchon is a good sort and COL49 is entertaining if unfocused, but I asked you a pregunta; how can a synthetic a priori knowledge of nature occur? And can the SAP be read as innateness (genetic?) or is it necessarily "noumenal"
I am personally unequipped to respond to these questions; I read Kant not so much for arguments as for phantasmagorical effects, as Virginia Woolf read G.E. Moore to feel the blood flow to previously undiscovered regions of her brain.

But I have forwarded these questions to Dr. Kriegfried Ueberallgemein, who has gleefully set to work, and I will post his reply. In the meanwhile, I suggest that my anonymous reader reconsider The Crying of Lot 49 as a work of transcendental philosophy, and look elsewhere for a defense of Kantian literalism.

Fort Kant, though occasionally haunted by the spirit of Kant, isn’t really meant to be a site from which Kant will be defended. So what is it?

We may recall my introductory post, and we may say provisionally:

Fort Kant is a Martello tower, Remedios Varo’s tower, and the uralter Turm of the monastic life. It’s a mead hall and a beer cellar. It’s Penshurst. It is a Lime-Tree Bower, an octagonal room, a suite in Baker Street, a Black Mail House, a Victorian playhouse advertised under “Free for the Taking” in Uncle Henry’s and hauled off on a flatbed. It is Wemmick’s suburban Castle. It is an Old Manse with ring-engravings in the glass; it is Coverdale’s leafy hermitage and Coverdale’s window post. It’s a bed at the Spouter-Inn, a try-works, a button-like black bubble. It is the Great Heidelburgh Tun; it is a university building in Heidelberg graffitied by Tim Clorius; it is Jacob Robichaux’s studio and Robie’s Greenhouse. It is a Place-Name without a Place; it is a room at the Great Hotel with a window onto the embalmed summer sun; it is Nr. 34. It is the air it causes to circulate between its screens; it is a china porcelain city sent from Rome; it is a TARDIS stuck in the form of an Ionic column. It is the outline of the Roma Quadrata; it is a maze of little streets and squares. It’s the loggias of Berlin and the loggias of Sand Hill. It is an Astrosphere. It’s the Caves of Altamira, the Marabar Caves, the Marble Hills, the Marble Cell of the Compendious Snayl. It’s Bron-Y-Aur and Paisley Park and Kitchen Studio and Camp Studio and Campo Formio. It is a study desk on the fourth floor of Hillman with a view onto the Towers; it is the 10th floor of the Cathedral, and the 14th, and the 17th. It is a space of reasons and a space of causes. It is a bed in a cardboard box with cut-outs of Egg Mountain on the walls.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Pynchon notes II

Language hat has recently hosted a discussion of the psychiatric concept of apophenia, “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena.”

The interesting part of the discussion concerns whether apophenia might solve some usage problems with paranoia. Apophenia captures the core sense of paranoia, it is claimed—the apparent perception of an order of ideas that is pervasive, non-obvious, and important. And it leaves out the less tasteful stuff—delusions of persecution and conspiracy—that forms the average understanding of paranoia.

Apophenia suffers a little, since it’s more as a term of art than a word in our language, but it would be a welcome addition to the lexicon of Pynchon and DeLillo studies. Bucky Wunderlick is paranoid; Murray Jay Siskind is apophenic. The Names and Libra are paranoid; Mao II and Underworld are apophenic.

(The Body Artist and Cosmopolis might be something else entirely. Neither is primarily concerned with orders of ideas (except negatively). The former is preoccupied with questions concerning the possibility of immediate, pre-semantic experience, and the liberation that such experience (or the idea of it) represents. The latter is preoccupied with the kind of reality to which the body remains connected even when conscious agency is sleeping furiously in empty semantic experience. Maybe atavism is the concept one needs for these recent novellas, a regression to some lost way of being that is scary and raw. (For a more substantive treatment of Cosmopolis, consider John's review, some parts of which he has since disavowed.)

Let this, then, serve as a warm-up for my second post on The Crying of Lot 49. (Here is the first; it is about apophenia, though I didn’t know that word at the time.)

1. A mind is a beautiful thing to WASTE

Perhaps the novel’s only paranoid in the vulgar sense, Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius, renounces his Freudianism as he realizes that his own demons cannot be exorcised with a talking cure.

Driven down “into the darkened oubliette” of his conscience by the experiments in insanity he conducted on Jewish subjects at Buchenwald, Hilarius had placed his hopes for forgiveness and mental survival in his submission to the “literal truth” of Freud’s rationalist doctrine of the intelligibility of unconscious desires:
And part of me must have really wanted to believe—like a child hearing, in perfect safety, a tale of horror—that the unconscious would be like any other room, once the light was let in. That the dark shapes would resolve only into toy horses and Biedermeyer furniture.
Freud imagined that explanations of the workings of the unconscious were in principle no different from common sense explanations of manifest human action. But no narrative of the unconscious, teased out over however many sessions, could give reasons for, among other things, Hilarus’s enthusiasm for Nazi psychiatric experiments.

We can’t explain away our fantasies and horrors and perversions; nor should we want to. Oedipa goes to Hilarius hoping that he could convince her that her belief in the Tristero system is a mere projection, but he insists that only fantasy can save us from anonymity and dissolution.
What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.
I imagine that Pynchon is speaking in these Emersonian lines. He may not have, or encourage, much sympathy for the characters in this novel that have names, but the nameless ones, the disinherited who wander the margins of the text as they wander along our highways, the “drunks, bums, pedestrians, pederasts, hookers,” the lost and lonely whose great hope is that their WASTE mail might be delivered and their severed connections restored—they and their fantasies are handled with care.

Our prospects for knowing the minds of others and holding them in language are dim (and we’re not much better off when it comes to our own minds), but that others have minds, fantasies unknowable to us, untranslatable and unrepeatable, vivid and fragile and complete, and that for this reason, those others are valuable—this is the conviction that rescues The Crying of Lot 49 from its solipsistic tendencies, and the core of Pynchonian humanism, such as it is.

2. God Save the Village Green

If you only made it as far as page 5, you might guess that Lot 49 is the used car lot where Mucho was once a salesman, and that the crying, if not actually Mucho’s, belongs to the aura of the place in a way that Mucho was best equipped to understand.

Mucho “had believed in the cars,” not in the sense that he stood by the quality of his product—just the reverse—but that he saw vividly the material reality they documented, the way that each poor family’s trade-in encoded in the junk left under the seats and between the cushions a whole history of private oddities and desires and attempts to make things right for a time:
clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that were already period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for a drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes
For Mucho, depression takes the form of a sort of sense modality, a retrospective second-sight that holds in view the material lives that his customers have jettisoned, a visionary reconstruction that briefly preserves each family’s unique sadness from the entropy they come to Mucho’s lot to hasten.

Mucho watches the “endless rituals of trade-in” unfold as his customers cannot, as each lines up “to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life.” The transaction represents progress to the customer, but for Mucho, who grasps whole the entropic succession of these transactions, it is just another pictorial station in sort of a frieze or timeline of “[e]ndless, convoluted incest.”

In his depressive-materialist vision, Mucho is the sort angel of history Walter Benjamin imagines:
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.
Pynchon’s primary figure for impossible preservation is of course Maxwell’s Demon, the novel’s true and unthinkable angel of history. The Demon would flout the second law of thermodynamics and preserve improbable concentrations of energy from entropic decay. It would know the position of each molecule in a closed system and separate out the high-energy molecules from the low-energy ones, thereby reforming diffuse waste heat as useable energy.

All kinds of thermodynamic and computational problems attend the concept of such a being, and this is part of the point; the fantasy of a permanent archive of the real is incoherent, flawed in its nature, and the concatenations of atoms into dream and flesh that mean so much for a time cannot be held permanently together even in the wildest projections of science.

That this fantasy is what moves Oedipa, and that the experience of its loss is inseparable from the experience of caring for others, perpetually dying in life (you see what kind of transcendental philosophy we conduct here!)—that will be the subject of the next installment of Pynchon notes.

For now, however, let us turn to a related and probably more urgent concern—the fate of libraries and archives in war zones. A friend has collected links on this subject here.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Supershielded umbrella antenna installed

Hilary reminds me that the internet is “the number-one place to meet killers and nutcases,” but I have done it anyway, in response to one reader’s query.

Fort Kant can now be reached by means of the magnetic links of a Bellini-Tosti coupling system with a vitaltone speaker, capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittences, key clickings, vaticum cleaners, &c. (FW, wo denn sonst?, 309). Und zwar: [My e-mail address was formerly here; apologies to anyone who had hoped to reach me.]

I believe I am about to be invited to England:)

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Ill communication

Our linguistic habits lead us into error. For example, we are apt to say, “I imagine,” when what we should have said is, “The curtain was lifted that I might see.”
I wish I had posted this quote on April 1, for it parodically reverses what we've come to expect from a treatment of “our linguistic habits.” Such an invocation typically announces that we’re about to read something reductive and deflationary, not something ampliative and psychedelic. But Aldous Huxley suggests that ordinary language misleads us by being too modest rather than too suggestive. Since we’ve missed April Fool’s, let us instead match Huxley’s phantasmagorical investigations to our spring forward, whereby we lose an hour of activity and gain an hour of light.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Rules of engagement

A reader has asked my opinion of a recent Adam Kotsko post on issues in paternalism and pedagogy. My response is, I think, predictably Kantian. Or Fort Kantian. And since I’m afraid I’ve been rather uncharitable to Adam, I decline to include it on my main page. Instead, my response is to be found in the comments following a recent post. Obviously, however, I am not above advertising it here.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Perpetual retreat and reference

In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.
The apparent spontaneity of thought resolves into regular patterns if we follow its movements long enough. Successive passes define the object but liquidate its content. Corners are smoothed, edges dulled. Performance becomes playback as musical memory lengthens to hold the whole sequence of tensions and resolutions before it at once. Each approach is steadier and more confident. Each hermeneutical retread further destroys the desire to know and reveals understanding as a kind of boredom. What seemed a living principle shows itself as a rule; productivity shows itself as reproduction. Exploration traces so many paths to a home that is increasingly everywhere, senselessly.

As Emerson notes, one of the things experience teaches is the shape of one’s own mind in its inevitable circlings. The lords of life, once unknowable and obscure, fetch up wearing our own face, and we vaguely regret the loss of the difference that had once opened us to wonder and charged us with desire.

What is alarming in self-discovery, however, can make for fascinating reading. In rereading Leibniz, I find that I enjoy immensely the consistency of his writings. A scholar would doubtless note important variations, but this reader is impressed chiefly by the uniformity of Leibniz’s texts over his lifetime, both in their philosophical content and in their expression. It’s a nice biographical analogue of the idea of the elegant philosophical system, and stylistic evidence for the coherence of Leibniz’s views. One feels that there must be real thoughts behind his phrases, compelling and colorful enough to sustain decades of repetition. (Consider by contrast the case of Wilfred Sellars, whose increasing reliance on arcane diagrams in the unfortunate last years of his life is prima facie evidence that his philosophy was retreating into realms private and unknowable.)

I will share one passage from the Monadology. (Among other things, I think it shows that philosophy doesn’t have to be unclear in order to incite us to dream.)
[E]ach organized body of a living being is a kind of divine machine or natural automaton, which infinitely surpasses all artificial automata. For a machine constructed by man’s art is not a machine in each of its parts. For example, the tooth of a brass wheel has parts or fragments which, for us, are no longer artificial things, and no longer have any marks to indicate the machine for whose use the wheel was intended. But natural machines, that is, living bodies, are still machines in their least parts, to infinity. That is the difference between nature and art, that is, between divine art and our art.
Maybe this is the difference between divine art and our art. If so, literary art is divine, and not ours alone. A finite act creates an object infinite in its implications and resonances, where no constituent part has a definite, static shape, and where life is infinitely analyzable into life.

If this is so, then maybe we can begin a response to Emerson. Experience teaches idealism; it reveals in increasing clarity our own impress on each patch of the world that comes into view; it reveals a world that gets a little smaller each time. But when we set free the product of our experience and give over to the world a text composed of words owned by no one and uncontrollable in their total effect, then we open again what our inbent self-tracings would enclose.