Archive for September, 2012

Wordsworth’s Creation Myth (Boy of Winander)

September 25, 2012

The word myth suggests a condition when the forces of creation are still at work in the world — myth producing cultures are also mythical places. By creation I don’t mean the creation of the world but rather the creation of the present condition, a better word might be mobilization. Now, I mainly have in mind something like “understanding” or even “doing”, the two being pretty much the same, but notably, we don’t mean technical mastery. This sounds confusing, but for example: if we think about understanding a mathematical theorem, like, “there are infinite prime numbers”, then we are thinking about what needs to be mobilized in order to understand / do. This is not merely understanding the definition of words, since that does not us allow to “do” math — so we can say that we are really talking about understanding as in, “understand as interesting“. Nor are we talking about the technical mastery necessary to “mobilize” the person towards this understanding. It is certainly true that high and low culture is separated — and this sounds cynical — by the amount of technical experience required to understand something as “interesting” — and this is something that Burke pointed out. But in both high and low, the feeling of the “interesting” seems similar.

By this understanding we should — “should” — never not live in a time of myth. Myth is not mysticism but simply the exposure to and the possibility of thinking about the self. The mythical understanding of the self — if it even exists, if it is worth thinking about — is highly non-technical and non-psychological — but nor is it mystical. It is related, in fact, to negation, to metaphysics, and to rigor. The paradox of the myth is that it is at once related to an understanding and before that understanding — we have to reach a certain point, we have to be a part of something, in order to feel the power of myth which then directs us towards the forces of creation. Yet these forces of creation, these forces of mobilization — we want to say — are not therefore merely cultural, of this culture.

One more thing about myth: it is known to us that we never get to the world as such, the world in itself. But the consequence of the above limitation is often thought to be that we live in a constructed world. We in fact live in a world where constructions are constantly being constructed and torn down: construction are fragile places ever ready to fall apart. Thus, we live in exposure, we are ever exposed to mythical elements, elements which are related to death, memory, forgetting, survival, starting anew, and so on. But the idea here is that we should not merely be content with studying the internal structure of a construction. That is, the retort would be: fine, so we live in a constructed world, but doesn’t such a constructed world, such as math, have it’s own internal order? Myth wants to think about how every construction is related to “death”, or at least, to the “forces of construction”, which are never technical or scientific — but then what? We will attempt to answer this below.

 

Let’s talk about Boy of Winander, which is really like a theory of history, by which I mean, that it is something that Wordsworth is claiming about mobilization. There are two gaps in this poem which we should point out, basically because these are the gaps that we will “fill in” via reading. First is the gap between the poem itself and the present world. This gap is also the gap between the two stanzas, between the boy and the visitor to the grave of the boy, and is the gap that we here attempt to bridge in claiming that this poem is a theory of history. That is, the question is, why is Wordsworth even writing this story? What’s the point? Let’s be explicit here that, like Bartleby, this question cannot be easily answered by feeling or by familiarity, that we, like the visitor to the grave, “stand mute” at this experience, we are haunted by it, which means that our experience is not emotional but rather metaphysical and phenomenological.

The second gap is between the hooting of the boy and the “shock of mild surprise”. The boy, in a moment of “silence” — a silence which is not really silent — suddenly, and quite inexplicably — feels a “shock of surprise” and, in probably Wordsworth’s most famous passage:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

So here, we are taken from a mythical world to one that is somehow related to it, this “somehow” being the gap. The spirits that the boy senses here are metaphysical spirits, their existence offer an understanding of one’s mobilization — a creation that is ‘negative’ (in relation to mobilization) precisely by virtue of this ‘gap’. That is, we are speaking of a metaphysical experience whose power — the gentle shock of mild surprise — comes precisely because this gap means that it *does not* concern itself with the mechanics of the mobilized, or even the ‘mobilizing‘, to the extent that this latter term indicates a history of how the mobilization reached such a state, and would therefore still be connected to the mobilized, ie, would still be teleological. Rather, the relationship would be guaranteed by the mystical process of the mind itself.

The above is a big idea: basically, creation myths must be felt *independently* and not logically, but at the same time, they are negational. We are speaking of the paradoxical *pure negational*, negational means, negative in relation to the mobilized, pure means, independent, without any relation. Consider how dark and mysterious a place the mind is, something we’ve known for a long time but which we ever have trouble living up to in our writings, where we are ever analyzing the mind (and history) as if it were a simple chain of causes and effects. I call it in my notes ‘the opacity of the mind’. The gap here is Wordsworth’s way of forcing us … to *see*, if you will (or, to stand mute before), to make this connection without reference to this simplifying chain, which is (one would hope) the same leap being made in history itself.

Tbc

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This Living Hand (and haunting)

September 18, 2012

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

John Keats

TLH is really a cool poem. It seems to be about violence, but it is a kind of violence in passivity, my nights will be chilled precisely because I do not yet feel it, because I am not touched or violated — or at least warmly touched. It is not coldly touched either — it is held out.

With Rose for Emily, we never got to actually reading the text, unfortunately – I admit I haven’t read it in like 6 years or so. The figure of the corpse is very interesting, it actually suggests something that wants to come alive (as is the point in TLH). But we can never bring it fully “to life”, ie, by “life”, I mean, “the virtual”. Life we understand here as something useful, pragmatic, something evokes or provokes something. Let’s return briefly to the case of my black coworker, his name is Elijah. Now, he claims that he “is not really that into hip hop” but the stuff he writes nonetheless can pass, thematically, as “standard fare”. He conceived of his work as sort of laying a trap for the listener. But, not getting into specifics, really, this is what I would call “life”, it is something that happens “in the world” even if it is virtual — this is not a paradox. Our contact with mediums of memory — speech and writing in this case — has the effect of giving us a “second life”. If rappers rap about how they became rappers, that is not surprising because of the enormous time spent working, composing, etc., so that writing becomes an “event”, or perhaps so that all life events become filtered through writing. This is the argument being made in “Why I am an amazing writer”. But all this is still “life”.

The difference between what I or Elijah write and TLH & RfE is subtle but at the same time enormous. In the past few days, I’ve often paused in wonder at how enormous insights have often such subtle formal ramifications, or how enormous differences express themselves so subtly. This is because formalism is in some sense not adequate to insight. Because, really, in the end, formally speaking, all the works mentioned above are tied to issues of violence, eventness, reflexivity, and so forth — for example, can certainly understand Homer in RfE as referencing a tradition that has been slayed. But I assert here that the main point of interest in those works is way in which these works withhold violence, their violence comes from their very withholding (the strange “passivity” of TLH), which is not “meekness”. TLH here announces that “I am dead”, or, “this work has failed”, this work has not (must not, will not) yet reached “life” — one can only misunderstand it by calling it life. I remember saying a few months ago that the hardest part about reading Bartleby is not overreading it (and so death or failure is an insistence and not merely an inability, it is the strength of the text) — and here we can speculate on what this means:

We must begin with memory. Memory leads to the arising of virtual worlds, but that’s not what it is essentially, or rather, that’s not all that it is. In the last entry we said that we hardly know what metaphysics is, and here I think I have a response. Metaphysics is that which remains after failure, it is that world of possibilities opened up, not in the height of the virtual or within the virtual, not of new communities, new techniques and so forth, but rather with the departure of the virtual, which we can associate with the “deathbed vision” and not necessarily with the end of an era in history. Thus, metaphysics is indeed not holistic since it arises from a set of possibilities thus opened up. It is, strangely enough, related to a beginning that comes after the end, it is associated at the same time with death and with starting over. And this is really what I mean in saying that “we have not yet begun to read RfE”, I mean, even though we’ve provided vague sketches or outlines, we have not yet attempted to understand how RFE is something that requires our participation. We’ve laid out the formal outlines and intentions but we have yet to understand the work aesthetically, which requires our participation, we have yet to be haunted.

Participation is a very interesting word. We are perhaps better off talking about TLH here as it is much more explicit with these concepts. It is related to familiarity — we are haunted by something that we think we know well. It is in fact very radical in it’s thinking of familiarity, knowledge, it seems to hearken back to the idea of knowledge as know how, which familiarity does not necessarily suggest. Because with haunted participation, the departure or the absence of that which we are familiar with means that we are absolutely uncertain whether our knowledge of something is in fact correct. This uncertainty we can call speculation, to speculative aestheticswhich sounds oxymoronic but not all that paradoxical, since most of what we experience aesthetically is based on memory. The action that it speaks of — haunt thy days, chill thy dreaming nights — is entirely indirect and this is what separates TLH and the “Elijian” or myself. The action that TLH or RfE speak of, their historical action, their radical break with tradition, is not formally given, is not based on crisis or on another perspective on the world but rather on the way in which it leaves us haunted, renders us incapable of going back to that tradition.

Again, the thought in my mind here is the wonderment at just how little, formally, these works differ, how conservative they are formally. Because, from here, everything can be reconstructed, the project of reading TLH — which we haven’t undertaken yet, we are not yet haunted by this poem — must be philosophical or metaphysical, but it would have to focus instead on particular words rather than on formalism events. Perhaps formalism will return (and by formalism I really mean, a visible eventness, a historical form, a definite intention), perhaps certain definite events will seem to occur, but this will come only from the “starting over”, the thinking, theoretical rather than pragmatic (cf, “life”), the reflection on the bare beginnings of the reconstruction of intention. The idea here is that formalism will be absolutely cut off from the haunting that is the experience of the text.

 

A Rose for Emily (and metaphysics)

September 17, 2012

The main reading I want to make is that the body of Homer presented by Emily should be considered “art”, and I want to go from that to my main point. I don’t want to get into a discussion here on how decadent art is or whether a corpse can be art. This corpse is not the same as that corpse of a shark or something that was causing some controversy awhile back, in particular since the people bursting into the room more or less expected a corpse — or at least expected to find something crazy in that house, some remnant of a bygone age – and this is what Emily gives them. But it is “art” in the sense that it is not precisely what they want, it seems to be almost too perfect. Let’s recall that Emily, post murder, did not actually spend her entire life in seclusion, she briefly taught painting on china to neighborhood girls, and I think this is the kind of art art that Emily has in mind – technically masterful but nonetheless disturbing. I wrote on Facebook two days ago that “My biggest recent misreading was (unwittingly) thinking that Emily was some sort of romantic floozy”. My biggest recent misreading was understanding the corpse of Homer as modern art, along with all the idiocy that entails. (Indeed, Emily could very well be a figure for Faulkner himself and for the kind of “pulp” novels that he wrote or for that distinctly Faulknerian combination of violence and history – which is fine.)

But my big idea involves actually the possibility that culture can anticipate something, or that culture can be smart. This in itself is not a new idea, but it is often linked with “oppression”, since it is equated to the way in which culture seems to guide everything along a predefined path. But this view cannot be sustained – the sense of cultural anticipation I want to talk about here involves the a kind of scattered prescience, which is how we want to understand RfE. In other words — I want to think of cultural anticipation not as conformism but rather as prescience, as a rare moment when art seems to recognize what the people want — violence — and be able to work off of that.

That is, the people crave violence in two senses: (1) they want depictions of violence, and (2) they want violence done to them, they expect art to challenge them or be violent to them in some way. And Emily, who seemed to have despised the townsfolk, in fact, surprisingly, gives them exactly what they want — so that this surprising “benevolence” (pandering?), if you can call it that, begs to be explained. And I sense here that the explanation — or, the real reading of RfE / corpse of Homer — involves an attempt to speak of the mode of violence. But this attempt to speak of, I sense, will not be full complete, it will also be an attempt to bring forth something.

Jumping topics, but this is related to our main point: I’ve been training for a new job, and I’ve been talking a long time to my black coworker, a fellow whose at the same time philosophically inclined and pretty deeply involved in black pop culture. As I was talking to him, I made the argument — I don’t know if this will stand — that there is a vague fundamental form to the violence of different cultures, his and mine. My “culture” I would not say is Chinese – I get annoyed at people who say so – but actually, my violence involves the word “error”. Violence, recall, is basically, well, “wasting somebody’s time”. This is not simply an arbitrary choice of words here. Physical violence is closely related to ‘teaching’, to teaching somebody the ways of the world. When you perform a violent act on someone, you hope to alter them, to give them what can only be called a more philosophical understanding of the world. My violence is pretty much summed up in that passage about “why I am an amazing writer”, it’s something that sounds like a greater state of truth or awareness but is in fact useless to anyone else (different from me).

My comment, then, does not sound all that interesting– different cultures have different forms of violence — fine. Culture itself may be nothing but violence. You may have heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger” — well, the relationship between violence and growth is assured only within a particular culture. Violence, otherwise, is merely an unfulfilled promise. And even when the promises of violence are fulfilled, that fulfillment is not of the promise itself but only in a nihilistic, pragmatic sense. But I believe that there actually is something interesting about my comment, but precisely in the sense that it doesn’t want to go too far. Different cultures are different is a tautology. But what if, instead, we were talking aobut the metaphysics of violence or the mode of violence? Then we are talking about violence as cut off from all that it establishes. But at the same time: this word, “mode” or “metaphysics” is not something that’s “actually there” – it is not in fact any essence of cultural violence. Violence is related to the promise, is related to otherness, to profundity, to another world. But what I sensed there at that moment, I believe, was an understanding of violence that also seems to alter the object being understood.

I mean, we really dislike culture, we hardly leave our house, and we are filled with bitterness. But there is now, I sense, a “metaphysics” to culture that is not, in fact, any essence of culture but rather the purity of culture, or the purity that we impose onto culture. This purity would avoid all the endless complications and figures that arise, that we called “the virtual”. But it would not really explain the virtual, nor is it even a study of the virtual. I hereby suggest here that we hardly understand what metaphysics is: like all good analyses, we can start: “It is first of all a practice, it is not defined structurally…”

Let’s actually return to RfE and see if there’s anything we can say about it. What’s surprising here is the combination of bitterness and pandering, Emily dislikes the town she lives in and yet in an act of apparent generosity leaves them with a parting gift. This “generosity” is the anticipation which is based on the intuition into the metaphysical form of violence. And yet, this gift is something like a Trojan horse, but without merely being another (eg, “feminist”) form of violence. But rather — and we will have to continue this — the violence of the corpse of Homer is a kind of “pure art”, a kind of “pure mobilization”.

That is, with my coworker, the emphasis was on how speech led to a mode of thinking that emphasized repetition, reiteration, etc. – such as in sampling, jazz, etc.. This can lead, obviously, to the development of virtual worlds. But the mode of violence avoids virtuality, it instead contents itself with the mode of intention itself, with cultural fragments. (All this only makes sense if we recognize metaphysics as itself a historical event, and not merely the summation of the virtual.)

TBC: What is metaphysics?

Ground and Negation (Bartleby)

September 14, 2012

Let me briefly summarize the claims we made in our post about Kant on his deathbed. The conclusion was quite interesting and involved a claim about memory and feedback — which I want here to (eventually) relate to “negation”, as two approaches that are in fact closely linked.

Now, there, the claim was that writing was a kind of “new virtuality”. — I’m not going to summarize that essay exactly or anything —  So writing is involved in virtual worlds in two ways: first, as “dematerializing”, which we relate to “violence”, and which we claim characterized the early Kant. But in the second half of the essay, we made the claim that there was a kind of “pure writing”. Let me just quote something I wrote down somewhere (very vain, yes, doubly so when you consider what the quote is about):

WHY I AM AN AMAZING WRITER — I’m an amazing writer because because of my ability to accurately keep track of the last few minutes when I write. This accuracy of memory, as if it were a single linear experience, derives from the richness of the repository of different intentional states of the self. My writing is dramatic, contradictory, and conflictual without trying to be — ie, without resorting to cheap tricks like style, diction, character, pathos, etc. (This also means that I the only one patient enough to read it.) That’s the illusion of criticism anyways, or perhaps can be called “pure style”, the illusion of a single progression or uniform purpose. Pure style is a variation of memory or condition without the need for external markers, it’s pure movement without appeals to nostalgia.

So this is the second form of virtuality, which we contrasted with the “violence” of the first form. The second form is “pure”, it doesn’t make reference to “external markers” as violence does. Nonetheless, to those in the know, apparently, it is “dramatic, contradictory, and conflictual”, it is full of a kind of violent movement. But this movement does not occur in time but rather is merely due to a “rich repository” — the passage of time is illusory. In fact, the argument made about writing with Kant was that there was a “feedback”, where one is able to form accurate memories only because writing allows us to have those memories. This can be viewed highly pragmatically — ie, it is still, in the end, an expansion of mnemonic capability, which can be used in various way. Of course, the argument made here is not all that revolutionary, the idea that the material of memory is the very possibility of experience.

The question being begged here is whether there is something specific that links writing and the form of memory that is thus formed, between writing and “culture”, if you will. The preliminary answer is “No”, at least, not non-trivially: I mean, trivially speaking, we obviously have to be seated when we write, we could make references to the various institutions that spring up with writing — but that’s not really of enormous interest to us. The second answer is “yes, but only historically”. I once made the argument that language could only evolve with the aid of religion. That is, language does not give enough benefits as a communicational medium: you don’t need language to communicate, to put it bluntly. We don’t even have to talk about wolves — even bacteria can cooperate, ask for help, warn — even lie. And, to put it bluntly — I’m feeling tough, I know — language could only evolve with the aide of genocide –– by the systematic exclusion and elimination, whether violent or non-violent, of those who aren’t in the language club. Thus, what interests us here would be the morality or the metaphysics of this society that is based on language — ie, not the pragmatic but the metaphysical benefits that it affords.

Let’s talk now about negation — it is really a different way of approaching the same problem. With negation, we are thinking about the deathbed vision, but we must emphasize here that it is a kind of work, that is, a continuous sustained effort. It is very hard to say no. Again, we are dealing with the two virtual worlds. One says “no” to all claims to violence, or, one says “no” to all attempts to decipher intention. This always reminds me of Bartleby, where really, the lawyer, nice guy and all, is trying to figure out just hat Bartleby is doing. Is he sick? Is he trying to make a point? Is he being rebellious? Is he taking a stand? The answer is always no. Importantly, Bartleby is most certainly not “liberal”, not about, you know, trying to tell us that he has unalienable rights or something. What’s most striking about the book is how much of a jerk Bartleby is at the end, when the lawyer goes to visit him in the prison — or rather, throughout the book, since the lawyer is not an awful person — he tries to help. But Bartleby — without this being his ultimate intention of course — sort of puts him on a guilt trip. The lawyer is doing something wrong, something that Bartleby is saying no to — something having to do with writing. The lawyer is living in the virtual world of writing — I mean, we obviously would not call the law offices, you know, the world of substance — law is not substance — but the lawyer is doing things with writing, he is setting foward events, sealing deals, etc.. Law is really the figure par excellence for the performative, virtual, functional aspect of writing. But here, Bartleby insists on this second world, in this pure world, a world that I can only vaguely understand but cannot fully grasp, cannot reincorporate into intentionality.

 — Philosophy can never not be reflexive: reflexivity and self-awareness is, well, what critical philosophy is, if the very discipline arises from a need to say what something is not, or what something is relative to the speaker rather than as object in the world or component. So Bartleby is certainly reflexive as well. But this reflexivity — and this is what negation is — speaks of the self in relation to another element, even if it can only tell us what the self is not doing. This other element is in fact the ground of memory — negation is the relating of the self to the ground of memory. The law always claims to be doing things in the world, even if “violent” things, ie, which is another way of saying, even if it works “indirectly”, in a “zen-like” way, even if it’s task is not the fowarding the cause of good or right (for what do those terms really mean? Isn’t that the very world that we are doing violence to?) but of law itself. The negation of the law — which comes after the law — can only occur by “breaking up the law”, by bringing forth the role of the pure intention.

Subjects for next time:

1) The role of theoretical aesthetics, which is probably art itself

2) The most important question right now actually has to do with our earlier comment about history and materiality: how does (or could have, if we are talking about hidden voices in history) memory affect culture, without resorting to the trivial cases?

Connections: A Radio Programme — ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial’

September 8, 2012

… the infamous Scopes Monkey trial, concerning the teaching of evolution in school, which quickly turned into a legal circus. This trial was to be fictionalized later in Inherit the Wind, which had one glaring flaw: by all accounts, it was William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor, and not Clarence Darrow, the defence attorney, who was the hero. Reflecting on the ideology of WWI, Bryan became convinced that it was misapplied social darwinism, with Nietzsche as its figurehead, that led to the corruption of Europe. Bryan had a noble goal and at least a clear purpose, it was Darrow who, on the other hand, insisted that one should listen to the scatterbrained humbug called ‘common sense’, putting aside all deeper questions of human nature and education. In an ironic twist, Darrow’s most famous case was actually the defence of Leopold and Loeb, two ivy league law students who murdered a neighborhood boy after reading the books of — you guessed it — Nietzsche — and believing themselves to have evolved beyond good and evil, so to speak. It wasn’t the Scopes monkey trial turned tragic so much as black — black comedy. The insufferable Darrow still managed to wrest a victory out of this however: in an impassioned plea, Darrow saved these two boys from being executed by once again pandering to the masses and dressing up the obvious as the weak, the common as the rare. Meanwhile, Nietzsche laughs in his grave…

“If truth were a woman …” (& the seed of history)

September 6, 2012

There’s a world of difference between what people claim to be the subconscious and, well, what is the subconscious. Let’s not even get into semantics, we have — we must have — some intuition of the difference between the two. For us, it’s the difference between success and failure. The human mind is amazingly flexible and we are constantly underestimating it. Nietzsche’s opening to Beyond Good and Evil applies here: “What if truth were a woman? Can’t we assume that the philosophers of this age have been just as incapable with one as the other?..” It’s the anthropologists’s error, when he goes into the bushes or whatnot in order to observe tribesmen and emerges with the picture that they wanted him to have — when one ends up studying not the bushmen but their culture. There’s a big difference isn’t there! I’m not talking so much about the infinite possibility of the mind as the fact that it seems to absorb everything and seems to resist investigation.

Is consciousness even capable of truth — are the two terms even compatible? Isn’t “insincerity” the conscious condition, which is not to say that it is any more tolerable? Knowledge itself, or self-knowledge, is always knowledge of hypocrisy or knowledge of a performance. Why should we ever believe that, after just one more layer or one more inversion, that we can get at the truth of the mind? This is because, on the one hand — and this is the “existential” claim — we always want to know, and the tendency of the mind is to conform to suggestion. There is a conspiracy or a conformism between the knower and the known — and this is Nietzsche’s “feminine”, or maybe, even better, this property of the mind was already addressed in On Truth and Lie.

But, on the other hand, this conspiracy is not haphazard, it forms around some seed. This seed is related to the deathbed vision, where we reconceive of our life — Well, w only live one life, thus, it is inevitable that our life take on some order, that we come to know ourselves. If we each had many lives and many memories — well, there is still the possibility that we are able to find some intrinsic order to our lives, so that our self-knowledge is … Kantian, if you will, so that we are satisfied with some fundamental intrinsic law regarding ourselves and our desires. But the deathbed vision attempts to consider the seed, which is “external”, the external seed that organizes the conspiracy between the knower and the known.

That is, it is indeed true that, since knowledge is a conspiracy, we can never get beyond this condition, we can never get at some absolute truth of the self. Or, truth in this case can only be the universality of error or the knowledge that knowledge is a conspiracy, which of course is itself an interesting claim and certainly one that can (and should) guide the life of any intellectual. But there is also the knowing of how this conspiracy can form, the vision of the very beginnings of this conspiracy without ever reaching that late stage of “hypocrisy”, and this is the deathbed vision. Remember that we are talking about self-knowledge. The encounter with the past is universal but does not have a specific form — it’s not necessarily like the movies. But, for example, the last essay oriented itself decidedly against “Hollywood” or sentimentalism, emphasizing a form of self-encounter (or other-encounter, which is much the same thing) that would be based around a moment of “speaking with the past”, based on concepts rather than on … other things. Yet, we quickly stated that concepts themselves were merely the mnemonic aids: we said that we needed to use “complete sentences” because the only the complete sentences could give us that “vision of the past”, even if it were only a few seconds or a few minutes ago. The emphasis is on an experience that is quickly swept away by time, and where one instead relies on the in fact unreliable decoding of memory in order to encounter the past.

It is indeed the case, then, that the past is in fact constructed out of memory. And what is proficiency, what is our “work”? It is, of course, on the one hand, the work of responding to society, of helping myself and others, and so on. But on the other hand, it is simply the work of maintaining myself against a current that sweeps away every single moment. The machine of navigation, even if “accurate” in some sense, is only accurate because we have experiences that can be remembered!

The Futility of My Life

September 5, 2012

My third favorite word in the English language is “error”. This word suggests (1) a precise encounter with another or the past and (2) the correcting of that moment. This is almost like a moment of rewriting history. There are many ways to encounter the past, error suggests a very “precise” encounter. One avoids romanticizing or alienating oneself but rather sees in the earlier moment almost a repetition of the current one, to the extent that one can almost speak with the past. There is then an incredible optimism to this word, “error” — the ability to reconnect with and change the past. The ability to speak about one’s own errors — not sins, failings, lapses in judgment, etc., is a point of great pride for many. There is nothing paradoxical, really, about the expression “inevitable errors”.

… I have the feeling that anyone who understands what this word suggests will use it at every opportunity, and with pride, because it is linked to clarity, it is a point of pride or pretension. It’s certainly a point that is over-dramatized in this blog.

It is incredibly hard, I feel, if you’re really attentive to this sort of thing, to have an encounter with the past, a few minutes ago, an hour ago, years ago — the actual stretch of time doesn’t matter a great deal. What’s important that one has an image of the past. As a personal example, the method that I’ve settled on for thinking is built up around this, I use a smartphone (a droid 3) and write everything down. I tell people I’ve written about 20,000 pages but this is number is really misleading because I write whenever I think, so that every hour or so of thinking I have about 2 or 3 pages. But I write in complete sentences, I don’t really “take notes” or use abbreviations — and this is because, so the feeling is, that only the complete sentence can capture that moment of thinking. If I were to go back and read something I’ve written (I almost never do), then I have to try to capture the moment, what seemed only tangentially related back then or of minor importance could be of the central point upon rereading — and this is not because we get out of the past whatever we need, but because of the nature of  at the true image of the past.

But error also suggests some kind of goal oriented activity, the attempt to readjust my life towards that goal. But I abandon everything I write. The most exciting moments are moments when I am able to talk to my past or when I am able to interact with images of the past, but I can never save the past because I can never save myself.

The only difference between aid and violence is failure. Error suggests the possibility of aiding someone, of helping the world in a far more useful (lowly is the word we’ve been using) way then ever imagined. The word “error”, we said, was a point of pride or pretension, but one based on being able to help others (or oneself). This is related to our claim with Kant that the conventional conception of materialism and idealism was in fact “backwards”, that it was idealism, and not materialism, that was always the more precise, more careful, more analytic, more “humble”, etc. — or rather, we should probably be saying “critical” rather than “idealism”, as in “critical philosophy”. But what if error cannot help? What if this word error, as we had been suspecting all along, was violent?

(In a sense we are dealing “only with definitions” here, since if we are to assume the universality of violence than nothing ever helps. The concept of error might make us better writers, or writers more like myself, but it does so only via a kind of destruction — and is that really even “help”? If something can “build a community” and make people happy, is that even help?)

This sounds pretentious, well, it is pretentious, but we are basically talking about our death bed. It’s not even that we’re dying penniless or anything, but really — well, there’s a bitterness towards the world — like we said with Kant, we may not really like the world all that much, and we are certainly not content with being remembered for merely being minor help here and there. Because we’ve never reached our goal and that we have is a collection of errors or attempts. But in our final moments of vanity, our life is reconcieved as the violence of error, where these moments of error are not really “corrections” but rather something done to the world.

TBC — The materiality of error

Kant on his deathbed

September 3, 2012

Kant should not be understood as ‘transcendental’: really, throughout history, ‘ideas’ have been an attempt to get at the very low, to get beyond the pretension of those who claim that they are dealing with real things in the world.

If Kant’s effort is therefore not really atypical (but rather the way it has always happened), what’s really interesting is his emphasis on non-violence or his attempt to deal with the world ‘as it is’ rather than explicitly seek to change it. Yet I think there is certainly an implicit radicalism to Kant.

This sounds cynical, but this would mean that a great deal of Kant’s power comes from a deep cultural (I’m thinking of philosophy, not German) familiarity, which is what makes his (apparent) non-violence or conservativism all the more striking and perhaps his most notable stylistic feature.

Let me relate an anecdote, I’ve gone through that phase when thinking felt like a hammer. It gave me a sense of power, the way in which I can denaturalize everything through concepts.  Concepts weren’t there to describe the world but rather they seemed to destroy whatever they described. In a sense, one can only bring the unnatural, the wrong, the human (and not truth) into light, whatever patterns one found were really like impasses, mechanisms for rediscovering the same thing repeatedly. I’ve been kicked out of reading circles before for being too critical (in both senses of the word), for emphasizing that literature was there to aid in self-reflection and not to discover new worlds.  Literature is medium par excellence for identifying errors — as is (over?)
dramatized in this blog — the closer one reads the more one realizes that one is not what doing one claims. To formulate this more paradoxically, the closer one reads, the more deeply one understands the human, the farther away the human deviates from the material.

The paradox of literature is that, on the one hand, it’s a stage for judgment (like, say, a ballet recital), the more experienced on is, the closer, more dramatically, and more accurately one reads. But one draws closer to the ‘material’ of the dance only by bringing the dance farther away from the ‘material’ that she hopes to reach (ie, some essence of dance, some spirit of the age, etc.).  But on the other hand, the *performance itself* is in a sense the very ‘material basis’ of the dance, but in the sense that it is what establishes the hopes that the dance has and the entire culture of the dance.  This is a vague formulation, but we will return to this point in the conclusion since we’re really talking here about the way in which close reading will eventually reveal how the dancer is in fact ‘right’.

So here, Kant takes the opposite stance (but the same approach) in the sense that he does not really criticize the dance (‘with a hammer’) but rather, in a sense, almost panders to it or celebrates it, his conclusion is not that the dance has failed but that the very order which the dancer seeks organizes the dance – that hope organizes the dance if you will.  The significant destructive violence of Kant is combined withan unwillingness to destroy the particular practice but in the process the underlying mechanisms are transformed almost beyond recognition.

So Kant (of course we’re talking about the Kant that we are familiar with, ‘Kant’ being used here almost like an adjective) never makes the second argument (the ‘on the other hand’) that we talk about above, where the dance is ‘right’ because the dance is reflexively about one’s failure, about how one’s hopes are ordered by the medium of dance (and therefore ‘wrong’ about the original effort to reach some more naive goal). Kant recognizes the naivete or the destructibility of the original goal but makes the argument that, since it is so, since there is truth to the present if you will, there *must be* some underlying structure that organizes everything in this manner. It’s like a proof by contradiction with the final line torn off.

But, as we remarked somewhat cynically in the beginning, Kant’s success probably had a lot to do with his deep familiarity with the ‘culture of philosophy’. We argued that every attempt to ‘go down low’ is really an *anti*-material or dematerializing effort. Kant’s critique of the culture of philosophy would then have to be ‘deeply familiar’ because it relies on a close (but surprisingly non-destructive, at least in the usual sense) analysis of philosophical culture.

Kant on his deathbed would have to be well aware of this cynical attitude towards his life. On the other hand, philosophers, so the saying goes, can’t die happy knowing their life hadn’t been in vain – but in a glorious way, not in the cynical way we describe above. I mean, a better way to put this is that some can’t die happy unless they knew that their life had been *violence* rather than useful to the world, this itself is a point of pride or vanity.

But this violence cannot simply be conceived of as countless technical manipulations (‘cynicism’), but rather — well, success almost doesn’t matter at this point. What matters was that one was able to endure and to persist — the lonely dance — and this is possible only because one, personally, saw the possibility of the *medium* of literature. That is, if Kant, on his death bed was forced to critique his own life or the holistic violence of his own life, then —

1) the dancer would have to be conceived of as dealing with ‘dark figures’
2) Kant and ‘carried’

Ariticial Intelligence, Roguelikes, and Vim

September 2, 2012

I was planning on writing something about how computer programming seems essentially opposed to “AI”, which I understand as “rule based” design. That is, what we really mean by AI is basically rule-based design rather than procedural design. When we write a computer program, we are involved in creating some process that then goes off and seems to take on a life of its own. With AI, we want to order the computer to do something by setting up a series of laws. (Cf, Asimov’s ‘Laws of robotics’) The fact that (such as in ‘I, Robot’) these laws can have unexpected consequences seems to be fundamentally different than when a process has unexpected consequences, ie, bugs.

Now, it’s not really all that important that, like Siri or something, we be able to speak to it, that we can establish laws via natural language. We would be fine, for example, actually communicating in ‘code’ to AI, so long as it is able to listen. Forget about the Turing test, which states that the robustness of an AI is determined by whether we can have a chat with it — there are far less fantastic standards for robustness for rule-based systems, for example:
1) Ease of input
2) Conflict resolution
3) Complexity / compactness / maintence

So that, the idea is, even if we were sitting in front of computer,as usual, then we would feel the system we are interacting with is ‘intelligent’ based on our feelings of, well, not having to repeat ourselves.

There are always two examples that come to mind.
1) Autocapitalization — I write a great deal in a scriptable text editor, called vim, and, since I write on a thumboard, I wanted to write a autocapitalization script. It took me a long time, but I finally got one that worked for sentences, about, say, 98% of the time. The final 2% however, I realized, would be incredibly difficult. For example, should you capitalize after a parenthesis? Sometimes — depending on whether the parenthesis contains a complete sentence or merely an interjection (such as, ‘(yet!)’). There’s another case of parenthesis coming after numbers — 1), 2) — that should require capitalization — as long as this number appeared at the beginning of a line and not in the middle of a sentence — two (2) turtle doves. I realized that slightly modifying the script to account for all these cases would enormously increase the size and complexity, and so I gave up. But before doing so, I had this fantasy of a rule-based spellchecker, a rule-based grammar system — would it be possible? Note that we aren’t even talking about writing a program that can talk — rather, we’re simply wondering whether we can write a general system that would facilitate the construction of a 99% or 99.9% auto-capitalization script — short of, say, getting a secretary.

2. The other example that comes to mind is roguelikes, a kind of video game, most famously nethack — the saying goes, for Nethack, ‘The Devteam thinks of everything’. The appeal of the game is the complex way in which potions, monsters, scrolls, wands, etc., interact — ie, interacting with a complex (but ‘fair’, even if evil) rule based system. I’ve also played two other roguelikes, Brogue and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which are sort of opposites (to each other). They both involve, of course, interacting with a complex evil system. Brogue’s appeal lies in the transparency of the rules, which encourages you to formualte a strategy by yourself — it encourages solitude — it should’ve been called ‘Logue’, as in ‘Lonely Rogue’, and not Brogue. The appeal of DCSS is quite the opposite. The game is absolutely monstrous in size, and, in fact, it feels as though reading spoilers is part of the fun. It is actively being update, revisions, alterations, but mostly expansions — more monsters, more maps, more levels, more rules, etc.. The name ‘Stone Soup’ is very apt. The game feels endlessly expandable, it feels as though they have a system down for endlessly adding rules.

The emphasis is on the underlying system, and not the actual interaction. I did say, once, that playing DCSS was like a conversation — one feels free enough to say quite a lot of things, and the game usually has a clever response. But, for DCSS, the game is really quite inseparable from the community. I haven’t played the games in months but I still occassionally look through the changelog. The legend there, the image one gets in one’s head, is of some fascinating core of that game that the devteam is constantly adding onto, revising, altering.

AI, then, is not a state to be reached but rather a goal to be pursued. In a sense computer programming has never not been about AI. AI can be associated with the desire to construct some new system that would be robust enough to anticipate what the user — coder — wants to *say*. In a sense, as computers — personal computers, I mean — get more advanced, and the programming community more sophisticated, AI is closely related to the development of new programming paradigms or languages.

The hope of computer programming is to go from a procedural to a … ‘legal’, law-based, mode of design. This can occur either generally or more specifically, in some particular realm. But there is always a 98%, there will always be something unanticipated by the legal system — and this is because, in a sense, the underlying system is fundamentally incompatible with legal design, even if the latter is always the hope.

The hope of any designer always proceeds towards AI but takes on specific forms, which cannot be anticipated, but which always involves this moment of returning to the low in order to start over, in order to stop patching a broken system so that one can issue a new paradigm, so that the system can directly engage with what is *really* important…

TBC: holism of the high and the low