Archive for October, 2012

The Evolution of Language

October 31, 2012

We’ve been talking about ‘invariances’, as opposed to ‘strength’, as that which sustains history. This can be attached to a broader effort to tell an ‘ideological’ history (as opposed to a physical, physiological, biological one). There are a lot of fancy non-fiction books out there with catchy titles (and I say this with the air of an unassuming Southern lawyer here) but all those books, well, they kind of reach the same sort of conclusion. I was reading wikipedia yesterday, about pepper (as in, salt and pepper), and the article claimed that the age of exploration could have been set off by this spice — do we even call it a spice anymore? This may be true, but not really what were after, I mean, it seems a bit too random, even if undeniably true.

Well actually we mean, not really ideological, but ‘narrative’, or ‘fractal’ — the fractal is an interesting metaphor, it suggests at once a kind of randomness in details but an overall order. But this metaphor is also insufficient since it suggests a … well, let’s not try to unnecessarily extend this metaphor — what I want to say is, we went on to suggest the ‘figure’. The figure is something *in addition* to the fractal — the fractal we associate with survival, humanism, sustaining (‘invariance’) — the figure is its counterpart: we associate it with change.

The causa prima in our story of language is the figure. The invariance has been around forever: it’s certainly around today and, I suspect, it was around before language. Note that we are not taking the ‘liberal’ or the ‘mind-expanding’ view here: we’re not saying invariance is a bad thing, even if we despise humanism. We dislike humanism because it is *wrong* (morally, or dishonest maybe) and not because it is historically stagnant. Remember, we associate the invariance with man’s defense mechanism against nature, even the women (which we associate with absence, and the figure — always the figure of absence) are stagnant. Reading the same thing everywhere, reaching the same conclusions everywhere is not a *bad* thing, whatever people want you to believe — and dogmatism does not necessarily mean being unreasonable. I never really know why people so easily accuse others of being narrowminded when they themselves know how enormously difficult it is to have any convictions at all.

… sorry for prosletyzing there, but — as we were saying, the *figure* is the causa prima. Even animals, the higher animals, experience invariances and figures. I suspect that the figure is the original way of in which we are able to find consistency in the world by reducing the mnemonic overload of the world. Understanding a book, as I realized a few days ago, is negative: it means suppressing to stimuli of a book, it means focusing, which also means, suppressing everything else. The figure is some unifying, recurring element in our reality that allows us to deal with the information overload. With the figure, we can in fact reach a new stability or a new invariance, it becomes like an organizing thing.

The implication here is that language developed only around culture or even around power and religion. Language can almost be conceived of as, perhaps, culture’s first brutal act of engineering, which was how Nietzsche understood it. Actually, let me rephrase the last paragraph, since as it stands it sounds like the figure is part of our defense mechanism. The invariance is the means by which we survive the onslaught of sensual or mnemonic activity, but it need not involve the figure. The figure is this cultural thing (it need not be one thing for all, it could be, say, the mother) this cultural thing that then fundamentally changes the ‘phase’ of the invariance, as if from a liquid to crystal — the metaphor here including the ‘seed’ of the crystal as the figure itself. It forms around stable cultural structures. We can also include *transmission* (which recalls what we called last time, ‘exportability’) as a component in this formation, especially the transmission from parent to infant. There is a coevolution of mind and culture…

But as we were saying, the figure fundamentally changes the form of the invariance. … well, this is what is so odd. I always want to say, that there is no *psychological* difference between, say, men and women, or between the invariance without or with the figure — and there isn’t. Well, morally, there is something unbearable about the ‘totalizing’, but the difference is not essentially moral. The difference is essentially ‘cultural’, and yes, women do tend to live in their own world, just as motherhood is its own sphere. The figure, from last time, is the possibility of *reference*, which means that, conversely, it also supports that power in culture …


Women and Absence

October 30, 2012

What’s really interesting is not man’s struggles against other humans, but rather man’s struggle against ‘nature’. By ‘nature’, we actually mean the the experience of reading or other forms of memory overload — I still recall the memory of lying dazed and realizing just how little I understood of what I read as a valid insight. Women — as we encounter them in literature, present an interesting oppurtunity, in the books we’re interested in they are characterized by a kind of domesticity which means that they never really go out and experience things. Experience is actually a bad thing, convention tells us its how we get at the essence of things but actually its merely the tendency to turn the natural into the interpersonal. Sports are a good example, there is too much hero worship in sports, too much emphasis on competition, too much humanization and not enough psychology. I honestly believe that certain people are stuck at a certain level because of an ideological impasse: it’s not that they have bad coordination but rather that they have wrong ideas about how to improve or what athletic activities involve, they lack an understanding of their own minds or their own bodies. Atheleticism is awesome, it’s an exploration that each person has to take by themselves — which no one can teach you — of the technical abilities of your mind (understood as pure technical control mechanism) and body. And there is no shame in being slower, weaker, smaller, dumber, since it’s a matter of how you play the cards you are dealt — your mind and body are the same, your … soul, let’s call it, is the gambler we refer to here and that’s what emerges in athleticism. On the other hand its incredibly annoying playing with someone who disagrees with (read: doesn’t understand) this basic philosophy. But, less proseletyzing and more on topic … there needs to be a shift away from conventional narratives of interpersonal competition towards these narratives of mind, body, and risk — which is actually far more pragmatic as well — in sports. But we can’t really stick with sports because in the end it is rather limited as it is a purely technical activity. The relationship between man (or rather, here, women) and nature that we have in mind can be far more jarring, it is not merely the confrontation of mind with information — well, it is, of course — but it cannot be stabilized into these opposing categories: last time we compared it to settling on an ‘invariance’ as opposed to the ‘immobile’, something that remains the same even under continued transformation.

We are interested in women because they do not. ‘go out there’ and never develop the sense of ‘totality’ (or, ‘humanism’, as in the sports example) that we speak of above. This sounds like psychobabble, but it defensible here: there is always something ‘absent’ in women, and this absence is a major component of the invariant structure that they have formed. I just want to point out here that this absence is not, in fact, something mysterious or psychoanalytical, we are still commited to the notion of a ‘convergence towards invariance’ and the idea of ‘man and nature rather than humanism’: this applies to both men and women. The absence derives from their eternal outsider status, their self-acknowledged lack of experience (“I may not have understood all that he said” — the Intended) — it’s hard to place precisely, it cannot be said to be a single thing — we can call it even, a ‘figure’, which should not hear evoke structuralism, ie, a figure is not a category, defined by it’s difference from other things, but rather, oddly enough, precisely this absence which cannot be pinned down.

For example, for Kurtz’s ‘widow’, his Intended, they were never married, Kurtz himself becomes this figure for everything that was ‘out there’. It’s interesting what Marlow experiences shortly before his meeting: he hears the leaves whisper: ‘the horror, the horror’. The sound of the leaves have become unearthly, they are (again) able to reference things — ‘again’ because they had once referenced things — in prehistoric times, or maybe even in youth. The sound of the leaves is not at all that disimilar from the sounds of the book itself — as we know, or as I recall from my last experience reading, it’s not that we ‘understand’ one more than the other. But what’s interesting is how all things are unified under Kurtz, how the trees are able to speak because of Kurtz.

Marlow and the Intended have a similar experience but the difference is that Marlow’s is a bit more ‘supernatural’, explicitly supernatural. This sense of the supernatural he draws from his experience in Africa, ‘the night of the first ages’ and especially African culture which in fact receives very little attention in the book but is always there in the background. It’s told that Kurtz, sabotaged and stranded in the inner station, gave in to its temptations. African culture is that which mediates between man and the jungle and gives the jungle its voice. So Marlow remembers the jungle as a living thing, as we might treat ‘the bells of Christian countries’ — something full of mysterious significance. There is a mysticism that Conrad associates with women, the Intended who places her hand on the packet of letters without reading them, so that the letters would continue to have their figural power.

The argument here is that the convergence towards invaraince — and language would perhaps seem almost as a survival mechanism (I really want to write about this in the future) — takes place when it is stabilized by the figure. Well, when we speak of the totalizing, then there, it has reached a stability, but, we want to say, of a different sort. This figure is what allows something to retain its open-endedness while still being closed off, while still being an ‘invariant’…

Keats’s “Hyperion” (Violence, Totality, and Reference)

October 29, 2012

A big puzzle about Keats is that his poetry is awful! Or rather, that, in the longer poems, the sensations evoked in those poems do not describe the poems themselves — gentleness, sweetness, subtlety, immediacy, and so on. His longer poems are difficult, full of obscure allusions, repetitive, hard to remember, non-immediate, tortuous, grammatically complicated,… the simplicity of the answer to this problem surprised me when I first realized it: why should it? Why should a poem about sweetness be itself sweet? … the reason is because we are so used to a reflexive, or rather, a totalizing view of art, even if we are fiercely anti-liberal, anti-postmodern, anti-hipster, and so on — which I am. I hate liberals, I hate modern art, I especially hate Obama. But anyways, “totalizing”, I mean, the idea that art should be about itself, that art should be transparent… there is an important but subtle distinction between totalizing and reflexive. Because Keats’s poetry is indeed reflexive — he is very self aware, he knows what he is doing, he knows about himself and his surroundings, his poetry is intelligent — but it is not totalizing precisely because his poem is not about the present, the construction of a imaginative reality, because it is not sweet, because of the disjunction pointed about above.

… I had written a pretty harsh polemic against ‘liberal aesthetics ideology’ here — but I deleted it. This is a rough time for me, election time, because I hate liberal propoganda so much and I’m exposed to so much stupid ‘intellectualism’ from the left. They are so goddamn full of themselves — they are so totalizing. They treat the world as if a quick talk could reveal all its order, as if education were the answer to everything. I’m rather glad that, however liberal women may be, conservativism, not of the narcissistic sort obviously, is always a minor turn on, maybe on the order of being able to drive stick or dress a deer or something.

But let’s talk about Hyperion. The poem is interesting, it is ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it almost seems like a figural presentation of aesthetic theory. But for the poem the aesthetic is always something ‘out there’, and this is fascinating. Maybe out there is love, or softness, and so on? It’s about — well, we should rather say that it ‘takes place’, since there’s almost no action in it — it takes place after the fall of the Titans and the rise of the Pantheon of Greek Gods we are used to, and which is associated with an age of… passion, or freedom, or something. The Titans have this debate about why they fall, why they can’t arise, and so on — and Keats is ‘on their side’. For example, we might wonder even about ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where there is that famous line about truth being beauty: is this poem Greek or Titantic?

This is not merely ‘complaining’ of course, as if getting over a writer’s block, but it has to do with a struggle against the totalizing. Apollo is described as this youth of incredible lightness and beauty or something, but this is besides the point — that’s not what were interested in.

… let me put this another way, since I don’t want to suggest that we are instead after the ‘subversive’ or something. The totalizing is not the ‘violent’! — the problem with the totalizing is that it is weak and not because it’s imperialistic or strong … note that there is also the issue of the lethargic, the frozen, listless, as the titans are, but this is yet another category: this is a kind of defeated, tyrannical strength we will want to address below. But we often view the totalizing as a kind of imperialism, but no, the problem is really that it is, you know, useless. … this might be more of an expressive effort rather than anything I want to defend rigorously, but — you know, there are kids wearing Slayer Tshirts in Iraq. And Hollywood, for a long time, was viewed as a kind of ruthless, parasitic invasion around the world. And they’re still reading Stendhal in China. But there is no way that the hipster shit they come out with these days, including stuff like Family Guy, can be exported in such a way, can take hold of immature teen minds, and this is because they are ‘white’ in a totalizing, reflexive, self-aware, playful, ironic sort of way — they are somehow ‘about white people’ even though all the things I listed above are about white people too, at least on paper, even if the latter can be said to be more ‘sophisticated’ (well, except for Stendahl) than the former. However ideologically worthless anime is, there is still something to be said about its export value — and it feels awkward saying this since I would consider myself one of the last people to equate value and appeal in art.

The question is, what is the relationship between violence and reference, if violence does not stem from totality nor even from the reference? That which is referenced doesn’t matter much…..

* * * *

The big idea here is (1) that the value of a literature is not in its aesthetic imagery but what it is able to reference, and that (2) this referencing is a mode of violence, in itself, and not the image of what is being referenced. There is a lot we can do with this, and we can also stick with Keats. Keats was aware of this, which is why Hyperion seems a particularly cool poem. The defeated Titans are figures for referencing, they are the figure for the poem’s referencing. The Apollonian gods, which are always outside of the picture, are figures for imagery. There is a sense of blindness that has always been Keatsian but is particularly … vivid … here.

The question is how reference, and not imagery, functions as power and as violence, or how reference influences the form of violence. Violence is real, it is often undertaken blindly, which is quite apt — while reference is harder to grasp. When reference ceases to be the production of images (as in a totalizing system), then it is more directly applied to violence.

The Fixed Point of Survival

October 24, 2012

Well, I want to talk about engineering, and also, “getting strong”.

Engineering, I propose this word as the summary to our difficulties. I acted out the drama of returning to reading, and how confused I was, and how dangerous a thing reading was, but also took care to note ( — I don’t think I’ve every actually made this “error”, I had always been aware of this) that this reading was not an experience, it was not the experience of confusion. Reading presents us with an engineering problem — that of surviving or emerging intact. One of my favorite tropes is the warp, we can imagine reading to be such a space. Movies such as “Event Horizon” or “Space Odyssey” remind us of the dangers of interstellar travel, which is probably not unlike the attitude towards early naval exploration. Yet the emphasis here is not on foreign lands but rather the voyage itself. It’s not at all a stretch to include “Heart of Darkness” with those two movies. Engineering, then, is involved to enter the warp and emerge intact.

There is actually one thing I forgot to mention, which is, that there is the difficulty of recognizing the warp to begin with — to recognize a transport for a transport, to recognize the problem at all. Or, to be able to expose oneself to the warp.

Actually, the engineering metaphor may be misleading. The only way to survive the warp intact is, actually, not to be intact in the first place.

Now, the question arises: can we read without exposing ourselves to the warp? I actually want to say, “no”. Or, actually, I want to say no to the implication of this question: are the mass of people brainwashed, does culture tend to brainwash? This is what I’ve been implying, when I (1) say that the entire purpose of culture is to suppress paranoia, and (2) when I complained — “why had no one warned me about reading?”. The implication was that people had somehow dulled themselves to reading. But — however possible this may be psychologically — I believe that people do not really “dull themselves” to this paranoia, but rather, have developed sophisticated strategies for dealing with reading. You will notice, for example, that people (and especially teenagers) often reach these impasses when dealing with literature, that they describe this experience in the same way, or seem to get the same thing out of every book. This may be an impasse, but it is not really insensitivity — and in fact this impasse is quite interesting — and maybe we are in fact impassologists? — it reflects some engineering construct, in the mind, made to handle the warp.

But, as we said, the only way to survive intact is not to be intact in the first place. I actually have, as a kind of mental image, a mapping that maps something onto itself. For example, something that has rotational symmetry, such as a circle, would survive this distortion intact. More exotic examples of retaining identity under increasingly exotic transformations would be the fractal. A person can survive the warp if their very existence is … permeated with the warp. This basically involves two things:

1) The retrospective understanding (and we can call this part, “engineering”) of some event in the past, of some disruption. Remember that this is a personal understanding, and not merely conventional heresay — it is the retrospective attempt to deal with some event of profound disruption.

2) The shifting of one’s identity (and we can call this part, “becoming stronger”) so that one is haunted by this event in the past, so that all one’s actions is sort of shrouded by this past event. We can actually call this, “being traumatized”, too.

… just to give a more concrete example, from the heart of darkness. We made reference to the “jungle”, which is a kind of mnemonic overload, or the warp — the jungle is this profound disturbance. But it is actually too general. One is indeed warped by the jungle, but the issue here is in fact surviving. An implication of what we are talking about here is that what remains is not so much the strong (unless, of course, we were to define strength simply as such, but in which case, we would have to equate strength with flexibility) but rather the invariant. What survives is almost least common denominator. The quote from the manager comes to mind — “In order to make it out here a man needs to have no entrails.” This is very interesting, the manager does very well in the jungle. Kurtz fares far worse, and we might imagine him to be an example of strength, but there is a sense that he survives too, or rather, that his ghost survives, but this ghost is in fact detached from his existence as a person. My point is simply that Kurtz survives as a central figure, as an invariant, even though he does not survive as a person.

In the jungle, one clings to survival, one clings to the invariant. In the jungle where everything is overturned, the only thing that remains is, well, by this metaphor, the axis of rotation, the origin. Suddenly Marlow discovers that he is “just a big a lier as everyone else out there”. And in the final pages of the book, the scene with the intended, we realize that this entire book may be a lie — “his last words were your name.” That is, this entire book is not so much (but we knew this already) a factual account of what has happened (nor is it, on the other hand, fantasy)but rather the point of stability, a tainted account of what has happened but one that is unfalsifable. In fact, this is what stands out about every passage that one reads, that the book is haunted — well, the story is about haunting but in order to tell such a story the book itself is necessarily haunted. (Ie, “Why are you telling me this?” “Because I am haunted.”) Every passage is paradoxically at once indefinite and intentional. And this is because this is part of Marlow’s survival strategy.

That is, even though the jungle acts as a kind of general disruption, the survival strategy is what allows each person to retain their identity. The world is stabilized, for Marlow, not because he knows the final answer to everything but because he knows about the mystery, he knows that he is haunted, and he knows that his own words will haunt.

TBC: The Specificity of haunting

Historical Evocation in the Heart of Darkness

October 23, 2012

I’m continuing my over-dramatic foray into reading — “the jungle of reading” — again, carefully, heeding my own warning, for the first time in a few months. Last time I spoke in an over-dramatic (but not sarcastic) way about how easy it is to lose oneself when reading. This is true, what this means that it’s so easy to get overwhelmed and leave thinking you’ve actually understood the text, it’s easy to be washed into the sea of interpretations and believe that you’ve discovered something unique or gained some insight. It’s very easy to “love” a book, so that one “agrees with” the author — which the vast majority of the time means emerging with a gross misunderstanding. The book is inhuman, it is not your friend. One rarely leaves with what one wants to find, and this is in fact, contrary to what romantics believe, a bad thing. And yet this very simple task is what we aspire to do here — to leave with what we are looking for.

In other words, we do not seek to have an experience with the text. This is an error (or maybe an erroneous implication) of our overdramatized last entry — this notion that somehow the correct or the true understanding of the text was confusion. Yet if we were to enter the text looking for that, I believe, we would not depart with it. Not that we would return to clarity, but we would at least depart with an impression of just how inadequate or full of erroneous presumptions our notion of confusion was. As another example, I wrote on Facebook the other day:

The Emperor’s New Clothes is backwards (compared to reality), the boy was the only one who saw the clothes, while the rest of the town had, under various sorts of pressure, been insisting on nakedness.

This is an interesting inversion, but it itself can be again inverted. So I become the boy who experience the “flash of insight” into the clothedness of the emperor, into the inpenetrability of the text, but obviously this insight itself is wrong (in its current form) since this clothedness is just another form of nakedness.

So that our desire to find what we are looking for, when reading, seems almost an attempt to overcome this problem — the deconstructibility of the text, when we always return either in a kind of drunken stupor (Kurtz?) or with our views radically changed (as in the BBC Office — “So you traveled to Asia … to find yourself.” “– and China”). So that this desire to maintain the self in the jungle of the text is not, actually, a form of dogmatism, nor is it a kind of historical accuracy, nor is it conquering the text — as I imagine it, the idea here is to enter sufficiently prepared, since we have to adapt ourselves to the text beforehand…

Two figures spring to mind here: first is this notion of historical evocation: this is obviously not merely nostalgia or a kind of copying the styles of an earlier period, and this is because we hardly know what history is. The text itself is haunted by the history, we are not the first ones to have walked here. The text is paradoxically enough inhuman in the very midst of the human: that is, it is
(1) (falsely) human because the very purpose of culture is … almost … nothing but the elimination of paranoia and the instilling of the belief that we intuitively understand the text — something I myself am severely guilty of. I say “almost” because in another sense culture is quite aware of these defensive actions, and perhaps this is sentimentalism.
(2) Inhuman, because the actual experience of reading causes us to lose ourselves
(3) but human, again, because there are traces of the human in the text: not merely or even primarily the author, but rather what I term “historical evocation” — maybe, metaphorically, the remnants of earlier times, other explorers who have wandered here, etc.. And this reading of possible signs in the midst of the jungle is really what I imagine reading to be.

The second is the river: this figure hits close to home, the river is that which Marlow follows, “rigorously”, in the jungle in order to maintain his identity. The river is the source of a kind of historical imagination at the beginning of the book, and perhaps throughout — the figure itself is already very interesting. Constantly flowing, forever changing, entirely amorphous — well, almost — it is said to have the form of a snake, at times — but, at the same time, occasionally it calls out like the “speech of a brother”, it is what sailors call “home”, or it is that which takes one away to distant lands.


The Danger of Reading

October 18, 2012

Let me apologize for quoting myself, but at least it has the advantage of being more dramatic. They sum up pretty accurately my experience of reading again, the first time in months. Before I read, I wrote:

America, educate yourself about book safety and observe the following precautions: Do not overestimate yourself. Know what you’re looking for. Take frequent breaks to reorient yourself. Maintain a safe separation of identity at all times.

And afterwards:

The following is a true story: I just tried reading Keats again for the first time in months. Everything seemed fine, but then I blacked out and woke up a disoriented mess, with no conception of where or who I was or what I was doing. And then I was like, “Good lord — I had forgotten about book safety. Does no one else know of this? I must warn then.” But, somehow, it was too late.

So I’m trying to be funny but the experience is quite accurate. It’s dangerous to read without knowing what you’re looking for — this is opposite of the usual advice that people give about reading with an open mind. I think PBS encourages to immerse oneself in a book. But there is too much to think about in a book and if one is not careful one quickly becomes overwhelmed. The trope of making a sudden and horrifying discovery, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is not just a throwaway joke — no one really tells you about what a book does to your memory, people still regard books as safe rather than the effort of pod people trying to take over your mind. (This is not the specific experience of the book, this is rather a kind of mnemonic overload.)

Or rather, the sense of disorientation comes from not being able to absorb it all. Books were written for a contemporary audience that is probably more in tune with this sort of thing. Contemporary audiences can read safely, perhaps, because there is actually very little for them to absorb, new. It would wrong to believe that the only way to understand a book would be to absorb it in the way that a contemporary does.

Well, there is an interesting introductory passage at the beginning of one of Keats’s long poems, Endymion, that struck me. What struck me was that Keats was writing to “an equal”. There are two introductions, an earlier one and a later one, the later one is the more apologetic, it asks the reader to judge the intention, to judge the work as an effort rather than as a completed thing. This actually goes well with an argument I had earlier today: I said, and this is crude — this was in the locker room, after a pickup hockey game — that “my job in a discourse was not to penetrate you and to inseminate you with my ideas!” This was after someone told me that they weren’t “convinced” of my theories — and so I, feeling pretty irate at that point, well, called them a pussy. Rather than merely being “receptive”, then, it was the task of the person to be an equal, to judge intentions. (If this sound misogynistic let’s remember that the whole argument of feminism is that women aren’t women, since the very definition of women — the second appearance of “women” in this sentence — has been corrupted.)

That was what struck me about the Keats introduction too — it assumes a reader that was an “equal”, so that, despite the heavy emphasis on imagery in the poem, the poem was addressed to someone who would not be “penetrated” or “inseminated” by these images, but rather could recognize the intention there, that is, was more aware of the gaps or inadequacies of the poem! So, although offering an apology in the forward could be seen as banal or even insincere, I think that it can almost be viewed as being similar to the comical but not sarcastic warning I gave in the beginning, even though the former seems to ask for more patience while the latter seems to ask for less — they both emphasize the role of the reader as an independent, equal participant. Yet this is a very odd thing for Keats, the writer of lyrical poetry loaded with imagery, to request from a reader — it’s almost as if he were writing to two audiences.

There is no experience of the text, or rather, the experience is not the essence of the text. We are here talking about, precisely, avoiding an experience, avoiding getting lost in the text. I complained earlier to the effect that no one had warned me about the dangers there — but these dangers is merely a mnemonic overload. One can’t read a book and continue on with what one is doing, the book strips me of my identity or my orientation. People view this as a form of “learning”, but doesn’t learning imply aid rather than violence? The horrifying realization about the book was that it is destructive no matter who one is, or that it’s force is purely destructive. The only way the book isn’t destructive is if one had nothing constructed in the first place.

The question is, what is the specificity of the book?

… are we talking about the nature of the overall “experience”?

… are we talking about the existence of something within that event, like some figure there?

… and if contemporary audiences can understand the book — and cf, the difference between reflective and pragmatic understanding — do they come under some spell? Is there something we can say about that spell, that we can say, standing on the edge?

… and how does this relate to {negativity, substrate, culture}, to our identity?

Historiographical Problems

October 16, 2012

The task of philosophy may not be, after all, to answer questions or describe patterns but to rewrite history. That is, it is not to seek the relations between things but rather to arrange configurations that seem to give a startling image of history. This is not at all obvious. For example the first approach would be to ask about the form of culture, which is a premature question, and will always be a premature question, while the second approach seeks to reinterpret the intention of culture by laying it in a configuration.

I don’t think there is any way really to clarify this conceptually, so let’s move on to a few problems. I always have in my mind a few fixed problems that I would love to solve but I can never seem to be able to solve conclusively (or conclusively declare to be irrelevant):
1) the math problem: “what is math?”
2) the language problem: “how did language evolve?”
3) the Chinese problem: “what makes the Chinese so goddamned odd (to put it mildly)?”
4) the theory of relativity problem: “what is the theory of relativity?”

I’m always, like, for 10 years or so, thinking about these problems — I’m far from being an expert on any of these things — and occasionally write something random expositions. They’re mostly interesting because they are all linked to fundamental theoretical models and probably for the most part the same problem. Yet the idea of the “problem” itself suggests that there is something to crack open there, which is not how we should really go about things. This is a veiled or unwitting error — that I am still stuck on trying to explain the form of these things (“why are the Chinese so odd?”) while in fact the form is not given. The historiographical approach understands that the form of something only becomes apparent when placed in a … configuration. Well, the futility of forcing out a conceptual explanation again strikes us, let’s just move on to the language problem.

With the language problem, we have to acknowledge the fact that … what we can call “religion”, and some mnemonic substrate, are linked. Religion existed before language and is partly responsible for it’s development — it is related to negation. This is an controversial claim since we would be hard-pressed to say that religion formed the basis of math, as if it could develop differently, as if math could reach a different from. This is the interesting thing about the math problem: while we can easily imagine cultures developing differently, we have a hard time saying the same for math. But, anyways, the other part is the maintaining of the negative. We always take pains to emphasize that the negative is different from the inversion but it was an enormous oversight to to realize that this distinction was far from obvious. One always turns into the other, and vice versa. And yet this does not mean that this distinction is bunk, rather, the difference between the two can only be decided because the negative “lasts”. And “lasts” is in quotes here because we are certainly not talking about absolute measures of time. In the final analysis, the negative, as that which develops, has a life of its own, only when we understand it in a configuration with these other terms which are historical or beyond any kind of internal, descriptive judgment.

For the negative to maintain itself — and this is an important development in language, since one understands the sign as sign only when one understands that it is not of this world, that a sound is not what it usually means, that an image of a tree is not a tree, or, infamously, that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe — for the negative to maintain itself it must have some medium to sustain it, some substrate. This substrate is sound, the development of a “religion” of language, which has the function of distancing the sign from the world, sustains itself upon sound.

The final element of this configuration is culture. There are two things that are odd about language:
1) One need not have reflective self understanding in order to understand the “not-ness” of the sign
2) One need not understand language in order to transmit it, in the same way that one doesn’t need to understand the flu in order to transmit it.

That is, both of these things claims remind us how “independent” and mysterious language is, and how it is not, as we tend to think, contained entirely within our own consciousness, but rather seems to leak out into culture, and other things. The first one means that, although we behave as though we understand the sign, so that infants understand the sign pragmatically, that understanding is not based on some reflective understanding of nothingness but rather composed of many, peicemeal understandings of particular experiences. There is a sense that someone who is on the verge of language, and have very little practical understanding, would have a far better reflective understanding — ie, understanding the nature of language, as a unity.

The second claim is related to the first, it basically means that language is not a human skill or technique to be taught but transits itself, on its own, under the right conditions. Language seems to adjust culture, in general, to fit its needs without relying on some fragile, human, mode of transmission. I used to say that we are “language zombies”, we are infected by language in order to do it’s bidding. (In the same way that, in performing the involuntary act of sneezing, we have become “flu zombies”.)

The purpose of interpretation is not to give an internal description of the form of something but rather to give an interpretation of form (which would not therefore merely be “political”) by relating it to the other terms of a theoretical configuration…



The Time of Development

October 11, 2012

I made a big mistake two posts ago — I thought that temporal distortions of experience (“gravity wells) came from close logical analysis. This is wrong, temporal effects in fact begin, I will claim, precisely when something is no longer readable, at that point another sort of logic takes over. … this is not really a radical new development, in the sense that, if I were to hypothetically point this out to myself in the past, my past self would have slapped his forehead, but at the same time I feel it helps us advance.

In the last note we were basically talking about negation. But negation is composed of two parts: the negating of what exists and an independent life. We’ve long known that negation was different from rebellion, rebellion is simply moving from one thing to its opposite, negation is the avoidance of both terms. In this case, negation can only be something that is, so to speak, set free so that it can take on a life of its own. For example, though this may be — or better, end up being — a bad example, the “rocky orb feeling” we spoke of last time was, I took care to say, neither cynical nor uplifting. The entire note was, oddly enough, about how it could not be developed, and yet here we are referring to it again. (Add this to the fact that I have here, as a discarded draft, a note I wrote in the interim — actually a very uplifting one — about how I feel I no longer have anything to say, no experiences to share!) There is the paradoxical sense that only that which cannot be developed can, well, develop, “by itself”. There was a passage that I ended up deleting from the last note which now seems relevant — it was an introduction or a kind of apology to the reader, basically stating that “I can no longer claim not to waste your time”. I ended up cutting it because, well, I felt like it was a waste of time, I feel like I’m long winded enough without apologizing — I felt like maybe that apology was implicit and that we could only try our best to develop things as rapidly as possible. But the passage no seems very relevant — it is saying that things are no longer certain — it’s referring to this time of development which has to take place beyond logical categories. So it’s kind of like asking permission to put forth some ideas which may not be promising. The point here is that a lot can happen “about nothing”, that is, about something that can’t be logically developed, about a “logical nothing” or structural nothing.

(Kafka’s infamous passage “the Truth of Sancho Panza” story is relevant here too — in that story, he speaks of Sancho “letting loose” the demon Don Quixote to wander around in the countryside — so this wandering is this time of development.)

There is certainly a happiness to being unable to talk about anything, the writer’s block experienced not when we are overcome by complexity but rather when we feel we’re about to enter into a realm that is yet unthought. This is definitely the feeling right now as we move, finally, out of our lingering structuralism — which is really the primary error plaguing the note two posts ago, this notion that negativity would be complex — out of our veiled structuralism towards a relationship with the negative that seems to have some yet unthought order of its own.


That Rocky Orb Feeling

October 9, 2012
It's Possible

It’s Possible…

It’s possible that the virtual is not in fact all that interesting or should not be our primary concern (while it may be someone else’s). The virtual comes immediately, I mean, for example, if we get a computer and bring it home, then as we slowly explore it or play around with it the virtual life becomes constructed. But is there not also another experience (is there? — I’m not sure), what I want to call the negative? The negative seems closely associated with the virtual even as it “not” anything, that is, uncategorizable.

(The nagging thought here is, why should we be interested at all in the negative? This sounds like being authoritative, of speaking of referring to reasons and experiences that I won’t address here explicitly, but it seems to me that most of what I had been thinking about for the past few days converge on the negative, the notion of the prehistoric, before we become incurably pragmatic — for to “not” pragmatic is not the negative, it is to be to try to be not pragmatic, to attend luncheons for non-pragmatists and so on, and that notion of gravity wells, of how logic can deform history, of modes of insights and becoming cooler — all that can only be related to this not.)

As I was driving home last night I had a kind of sublime thought: “the rocky orb feeling” — I thought, why should we view space as being “out there”, beyond the sky and clouds? Aren’t we in space right now — aren’t I driving an interstellar distance when I go to the grocery store? Isn’t the earth but a rocky orb hurtling through space? I don’t know what to make of this feeling, even though I have been turning it over in my head. I am on the verge of saying something — it feels like we should be able to view everyday life from such a perspective, yet I can’t speak of this feeling without sounding to “pessimistic” or, on the other hand, too uplifting, too sublime. Eg, I read this on Facebook the other day:

The Nitrogen in our DNA, [many other examples], the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interior of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff. (Carl Sagan)

I remember hovering over that quote for a bit and wanting to complain about it (and not doing so) because it comes so close, yet so far away of course, to what I wanted to express.

So — it seems like I’ve spoken about it by speaking about how I’ve been unable to speak about it, which sounds like cheating. There are feelings that — it feels like — we are too old to appreciate, because we are too tuned to (apparently oxymoronic, but not really) “theoretically pragmatic”, even as we believe ourselves to be free spirits of some sort. But I bring this up as a possible example of the purely negative. I don’t want to write a book detailing the various categories of the purely negative, because this negative is something, some possibility that we have to encounter individually. It is always on the verge of being metaphysically definite, and perhaps we feel we can even talk about it with others, but this aspect of individuality is always there, warping it. It is something — an event — that defeats, for us, every, all attempts to categorize it, while still appearing completely positive, while not being merely a rejection.

Can we say more about it? We can talk about it, it seems, we can publicize it and bring it forth, but only if we keep in mind that such an effort will be political rather than truthful, that we bring forth something public (and therefore, apparently, “true”) only because we have constructed it in such a way, since the purely negative extends beyond us. And conversely, we can speak of cultural clashes, where that which all cultures seem to have in common, from the outset, without any precise communication, is this feeling of pure negativity. It is not the virtual, and yet it seems related to it, it it not precise and lacks a definite form, and yet it returns, consistently.

TBC — How can we relate this feeling to particular forms of virtuality?

Gravity Wells of History (Gunshow)

October 1, 2012

“Abstract physics” is the term I came up with to name our impasses — all of them. We are too caught up in abstract physics, that is, some relational model of possibly abstract things. …I spent a long time, the other day, dwelling on and driving home the point (unsuccessfuly) that the ‘poor in spirit’ means just that: somebody who is poor in spiritual matters, spiritually bankrupt. This is pretty much the most important expression for all religion for me: the fact that religion does not distinguish between spiritual and material whealth: one is just as illusory as the other. The same goes for abstract physics: whether we are talking about ideas or tangible things, as long as we’re talking about them as though they were physical, relational things it does not matter.

Now, consider the idea of ‘existence-gravity’: the idea that the very existence of something distorts the world around it. This could certainly be said for God, Pascal’s Wager is the infamous example of this case. The fascinating thing is that we need not postulate any lines of force here — it not be a ‘real’ (abstract) physics. But things become much more interesting when we apply it to *events*. Events have existential gravity — without any postulating any abstract lines of force, the event, certain events may fold the space around it. In fact the event makes the subsequent lines of force.

This is an exciting idea: it is entirely wrong to apply existence gravity (and yes, we are being ‘idealists’ rather than idealists) to objects, since in that case we end up, again, with what we called abstract (Newtonian, we should say) physics. But what if history and memory were the traces of events? Then the entirelty of history would be distorted, there would be no possibility of distinguishing between objects and events in history — the dead arise again.

I spent a long time thinking over this — well, not that long. But the point is that, yes, I feel there is something radical here: there is much to defend in this concept. It is possible, for example, that gravity wells, temporal gravity wells don’t really ‘exist’ — that this is merely a, to put it bluntly, an ’employment hypothesis’ — like the way in which ghost hunters will need to postulate the existence of ghosts? But if we are merely talking about a possibility then this is the very possibility of the history of ideas, of how ideas can shape the world — IF ideas are to be something other than mere ‘organizing principles’ or means of concentrating power. If we are not to be more cynical than we let on. (And that’s what we hate about the world isn’t it? The amazing, stupid, extrordinary cynicism behind all people, especially optimists — we used to called nihilism.) Yet on the other hand not to, of course, fall into the positivism ideas, which is another form of abstract physics. If *ideas* are to have a presence in the world.

Let’s not remain this abstract, lest we imagine ourselves to be onto something bigger than we really are, but let’s try to give some examples, hopefully of mounting radicality. Consider this gunshow comic, which certainly seems related to many of the things we’ve been talking about, it seems even Wordsworthian. K C Green is still my favorite cartoonist out there, let’s me just say a few unplanned words here. The comic is sort of like a drug binge, one starts slow but then the chemicals start building up, you meet a space wolf and become one with god, but then you crash, vomit, and wake up the next morning regretting everything. The madness is a series of gambits in an effort to avoid conventionality, with each gambit promising more and more sophistication. But one can never live up to these gambits and eventually there is a crash, which is actually the point at which the comic ends. I think Blanchot said that mastery in writing consists in knowing when to stop.

So talk about that Gunshow comic. It is not satire, satire would be not trying hard enough, let’s remain with the word ‘gambit’. There are other comics that gambit off of this one, giving it a twist. For example, there is one where the kid at the end travels to Paris and says, “I’m OK with this!”. The gambit actually has to do, however, with the nature of the event: “If you can read this, then fucking knock it off”. It is a very interesting event that seems to conceal a great deal of complexity, there is certainly something waiting for us — as I’ve said before, there is a gap here, the story, the event, the reaction are not well connected. If they were then the artist would have failed. At stake is the license of the artist, the artist wins if he is able to produce an event that could deform history — the moment of true creativity, ie, where an idea materializes into history.

But we must examine the scene we have chosen. Micrologics is really the key to avoiding abstract physics.