Archive for August, 2014

A Recent Insight I had (The task of distinguishing)

August 25, 2014

I had an interesting insight recently. It involved this magazine I found lying around, it was kind of like a Chinese Reader’s Digest, “DuZhe”. As I flipped through it, I mean, in an entirely cursory way — in the sense of, looking over the font, the title, a few words here and there, etc. — I was struck by the sophistication of it all. It struck me as a sense of perfection — perfection, sophitication, and awareness.

I myself had the feeling, some while ago, while reading a buddhist text in classical Chinese — for school, I mean — that there was a lack of … theology there. It seemed to full of numbers, I mean. It didn’t seem to answer all the moral questions that we would expect religious texts to answer. That earlier moment came back to me in this distilled moment I spoke of above, when I seemed to have a minor epiphany. I sensed the subtleties of the distinctions being made there — I felt the extremism of being normal, or taking the middle road — as a magazine as innocuous as the one I was holding would be presumed to take. In other words, it wasn’t the middle road of a compromise — it was the subtlety of extremism — of all the theology I was missing.

It’s hard to pick up on this most subtle moment, or the most intense moment. After all, the strength of intellect is not required for easy oppositions but precisely at the moment when when one is distinguishing something form what is most apparently close to it. Ie, the moments of greatest intellectual intensity occur in distinguishing between things that are very alike. And perhaps, as in the case of DuZhe, it is not concentrated in a psychological moment — and furthermore, these categories are not given beforehand, I mean. It is hard to fathom what exactly DuZhe is proclaiming itself as being or being not — it is not given beforehand.

Let’s actually talk about passage 57 in HoD, I mean, those general passages when Marlow is taking to the candle-maker. The effort of this passage is not to set up some dynamic of manipulator and manipulated. There is here this very similar effort at making a distinction. There are various angles one can approach this, I mean, as the two stroll hand-in-hand in a kind of grandiose, mephostelian dialogue. They both end up referring to this higher authority, with Marow claiming, somehow, to represent it. The pilgrims’s world is “fantastic”, but I don’t think it’s possible to argue that Marlow’s is any less so. And Marlow leaves the candle-maker in a puzzled state, and not really one of defeat or dejection — ie, a state where, as the saying goes, one is unsure who is trolling who. The point is that it is harder than may appear at first to draw any distinctions here in this dialogue — fantasy versus reality, work versus idleness, immediacy versus distance, honesty versus nihilism, etc..

But how, then — or should we — can we continue to insist on a difference, or continue to insist on the ‘weird holism’ that we sensed in DuZhe? I don’t think I can fully defend this claim at this moment — but I believe that the insistence on this difference has to do, ultimately, with an appeal to a kind of authority, an appeal to some unifying agent in the past. I believe that there is no real structural or “qualitative” difference that can be maintained — all such differences are deconstructible — but only a unity of reference or origin — in Kurtz.

What is the Historical Moment?

August 5, 2014

One idea I want to introduce here is that I want to ask the question not of “How did this historical come about”, but “What is the historical event (that can be associated with a moment of textual analysis)?” And let’s once again take a few somewhat arbitrarily chosen passages for Heart of Darkness as our fodder:

(44) “I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company’s chief accountant, and that all the bookkeeping was done at this station. He had come out for a moment, he said, `to get a breath of fresh air.’ The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary desk-life. I wouldn’t have mentioned the fellow to you at all, only it was from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly connected with the memories of that time. Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later on, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, `I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.’ This man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order.

(45) “Everything else in the station was in a muddle, — heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.

The figure of light is a prominent one, it mostly means the “present”, or the original event, idea, the event where the understanding is equated with its happening. I’m also reminded of an earlier passage (13): “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. .
. .” The idea is that which we are separated from. The dressmaker’s dummy — let’s call him that — certainly occupies a complex logic here: he is a kind of insistence, a kind of undeniability. Yet in a kind of weird twist all these figures can themselves be pushed into the past — so that the dummy becomes, paradoxically enough, a reminder of the possibility that understanding coincides with eventness. 

The next passage (45) is also worth mentioning, it is more typically Marlowian. There is a sort of long list, where we often get the impression that Marlow is sort of talking in order to cover up something — a weird Marlowian kind of exotic violence — the violence of darkness, but perhaps also of conviction. (We spoke of the “demonic” Marlow in the previous essay, I believe.) But there are also, of course, traces of other voices here. Kurtz’s voice always haunts the entire text. What is Kurtz, formally speaking, in terms of light and darkness? He can certainly be linked to the “previous trickle of ivory”. An incredily small and almost insignificant quantity, he is what everyone seems to seek, or what everyone is after, in both the senses of desire and time. Kurtz and Marlow are sometimes indistinguishable, as is here, where it becomes difficult to tell what exactly the temporality of this passage is. Or rather, more accurately, the chesspeices are there, it is a matter of waiting for them to be played, in order to form a configuration. The temporality , the intentions, of these passages are highly uncertain.

Let’s also touch briefly on the notion of dedication, which is how Conrad chose to end his book: “His last words were — your name!”. This dedication is, on the one hand, yet another complex reference, but more interestingly, it is also a way in which Marlow differentiates himself from Kurtz: for Marlow had not “stepped over the edge”. Marlow’s influence is more thoughtful, and has more to do with writing, with naming. I see Marlow as the philosophical component, I guess.

So there are all these different threads, all these different figures — voices — but I don’t want to settle on this notion of a ‘tapestry’, rather, I want to think, again, of this notion of maybe a kind of “chess game”. The point here isn’t to totally map out the infinite possibilities, but rather to the admittedly complex configuration that best crystallizes into the historical question: a matter of historiography rather than merely the explaining of history.

For this moment of crystallization — is precisely the moment when one can simultaneously (1) read closely (as opposed to see clearly), ie, understanding with pathos or conviction the action undertanken in a moment of darkness, after a moment of light, and (or the various complications of this, such as via dedication), or (2) understand this configuration as a historical power or moment — organized by the central, and yet oddly unimportant point of light

The point of light, the moment, the trauma — its role is odd here. We are speaking here, again, not of a tapestry, but rather of a configuration of voices that seems to go back to a common moment, Each voice seems to reference both each other and some prior moment of light. But what may be even more important are these figures of darkness that assert themselves in this configuration — so emptied out!




Attitude in Heart of Darkness

August 3, 2014

Let’s just analyze a passage, chosen fairly randomly, from Heart of Darkness:

(HoD 39) “I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn’t one that was not broken. It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into a gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound — as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.

I want to focus on this notion of Marlow’s “attitude”.

You know I have been lately having a resurfence of ‘confidence’, I mean, that I am going to read clsely this passage, as you wil see, but I now no longer regard it as a trivial activity. We will be reading too closely and seeming to pursue trivial questions, but they in fact won’t be trivial.

Now with this in mind — a related issue, I mean, to ‘confidence’ — one of the things that we often get stuck at, when reading a text, is, well, is the insight of a work. We understand the work to0 well. Now this understanding seems to have the advantage of vaulting us towards grander, philosophical questions. You know, just scanning the above, there are a lot of hot-button words here. Hole: that could certainly mean something. How about criminal? Let me relate an anecdote — you know, I am somewht embarassed by how many good anecdotes I am getting from my interactions with this one fellow, embarassed because I see him as incredibly misguided. Anyways, we were talking about Bartleby and I gave my argument about … well, I don’t think I wrote it down here, it was about Bartleby and the mark of writing. That’s not important, what I want to get at is that this fellow was so hung up on the phrase “I would prefer not to”, focusing too much on this word “would” as a “deferal”. Obviously those are ‘hot-button’ words. I sense a kind of annoyance welling up in me even as I recount this. Most of all there was the feeling of him trying to teach me something, as if I clung too tenciously to rosary beads or something, and he was bravely out there with zero assumptions or something. But, that’s not actually the point either, the point is that it is obviously highly limiting to read hot button words — which means, more generally, it is sort of a bad thing to read too closely, to agree too much with it — hopefully you see the reading I am trying to avoid here.

So, “close but not too close”. Towards this end we have to resort to an older and seeminglyoutdated practice, ie, humanism, understanding, and intention a person — Marlow, in this case. I actually have a draft here about the “demon”, Marlow. We sometimes forget that he is demonic simply because he sounds like such a sensible person, but it is there. I mean, here is someone with zero attachment to family, land, status, the future, etc. The point is we must remember not to get too close to Marlow, there is something inhuman about this person.

(The point here isn’t, of course, “accuracy” — ie, to have a somehow a ‘more accurate’ reading of this text. Yet this is what it sounds like, isn’t it? But as I said I am “confident” here, confident that this line of thinking will allow us to arrive at greater stakes. I don’t want to go over them here, at the moment — I can, but I don’t want to right now, for the sake of focus — so bear with me for awhile longer!)

So let’s just revisit HoD 39, which I have chosen somewhat at random, I mean, based on certain heuristics. There is a lot of talk about being ‘apalled’ but Marlow is not apalled in retelling it, I mean. Nor should we take the obvious route of saying that he is trying to instill us with a kind of abstract uncertainty. There is something highly intentional here. The attitude is, oddly enough — in contrast to the content — one of work or methodical progression — something is being done here, by the demon Marlow. As with Bartleby we can speculate that this work is driven by an earlier moment of trauma, or perhaps “absolute clarity” — conveniently enough, the events in the story. But actually — and this may seem obvious — not the events in this very passage. For one thing, we can remember that Marlow said something to the effect that: “I honestly don’t want to bore you with personal details, but in order to talk about Kurtz, I will have to tell you how I got there, and my experiences.” Kurts seemd to “throw a kind of light” onto the whole affair, that was nonetheless “not very clear”. Basically, I’m just saying that the events in this passage don’t directly influence the work that is being done in writing it, but rather, seem to reference some other event.

We can say the same thing about Marlow, as we did about that demon Bartleby — the sense of industriousness is there but it is hard for us to relate to. But we can almost relate to it — as so many have, to Kurtz, I mean. We are sort of like goldfish, I mean — or, we are like what Marlow said about that old man who believed there is life on Mars — we are capable of conviction even if we don’t know the heart of the matter. In fact, the anecdote I gave about the annoying fellow and Bartleby certainly serves to illustrate this. I was annoyed at him, in particular at his industriousness, at how he is trying to teach me. I remember another component of our discussion now: I told him, moments earlier, that the watchwords for my understanding of Bartleby was “Epic storytelling, exotic violence.” Hopefully you know me well enough to know that I despise being interesting just for the hell of it, but nonetheless — the violence, the work, has to be exotic. It has to be an interesting, and unusual kind of work, and what annoyed me was just how banal the work he was doing was — teaching, demystifying — despite whatever exotic concepts he had taken up. I used to say: “The most pernicious power is convincing the strong that they are weak.”

So my point is that we can understand labour with a kind of clarity even if we do not understand the trauma. In this case, the labour appears with a clarity despite the fact that the past event, upon which it is based, is bracketed off, bracketed off sufficently, I mean — I don’t know, with sufficient carefulness so that it doesn’t overshadow the labour, I don’t know. We will basically be doing the same thing that the fellow in my story is doing — talking about something without knowing the details of its very heart, but of course there are also many differences, including our awareness of this. (The common experienece of reading is certainly that the book alternates between being close by and distant. The closer we draw to the book the more we can read it, but getting too close and our endeavor becomes merely teaching. At the correct distance we can, it seems, understand the demonic labour which is the true heart of the issue. This may seem like metaphorical grandiosity but I mean — I am confident, I have become confident, that this is basically how great historical events come about. In the last essay we talked about transmissibility in history, and it can be said that here we are paying closer attention to how this transmission takes place.)

… All the above still felt too much like an introduction. But let’s actually say a few things about this passage. The cocentration on holes, and on digging is interesting, and highly concrete. It is the pratctice of placing marks on the ground. This is an allegory for work that occurs after the event. It is interesting, I mean — vaguely misguided, but also startlingly concrete. There is something undeniable about a hole, like there is about a punch to the face. But Marlow also associates this with “accounting” — holes can be enumerated, I mean, it is work undeniably done — and with the “philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”. The ravine is yet another mark, but in this case its intention is uncertain, as does the word “scar”, which suggests another kind of ambivalence.

The central issue of this passage seems to be the connection made between the apparent industriousness of the written or spoken mark — the undeniable work of Marlow — and the uncertainty of the marks on the ground — these wholes, scars, ravines, etc. To further complicate the matter these holes were presumably dug by the natives themselves in a Bartlebyesque sort of manner, I suppose. There is work here but there is also the signature — a demon, or of various demons — both Marlow and Kurtz, I mean, we have not yet gotten to their differences.

The most important thing here, which is a question that we cannot fully answer with a single passage, is the relationship between the past and the “present”, I mean, the labour being done. The relationship that will allow us to reach, not so much a moment of clarity, but rather, at least, of conviction. Marlow detected a note of pathos to the sounds of the natives, but that is not the direction we will want to pursue here. The attitude here is one of industrious progression, a la Bartleby, rather than pathos, lingering, and stillness. Yet this may soon give way to other voices.. (TBC)


Bartleby and Inheritance

August 1, 2014

OK, so Bartleby is about passing on something, from Bartleby to the lawyer or to the reader.

Passing on becomes a problem only when we consider the question of “guaranteeing”: Ie, how can a mourner be sure that he is mourning the right thing? He can’t be, which means 2 things:

(1) Mourning is only half the process: well, it is writing, and the other half is reading

(2) The matter is not the object of trnasmission but rather the transmissible. It is not, in other words, a matter of the specific violence that I (eg, Bartleby) have faced, but rather, any trauma which is capable of being transmitted.

Bartleby can only, in a sense, transcend the human limitation of forgetting what he mourns, and can reach a kind of absolute objectivity, even, only because he transmits the transmissible, and because of our participation.

Let’s just go all the way here! Let’s consider transmission in the most concrete of senses, social transmission, transmitting a person, or an event, transmitting some moment.

… Now, what is the original event? Even though we sense it may not matter that much, we still have to consider this problem. The original event is basically the humanity of Bartleby. It is the … multiplication of life, the building of a society — but for our purposes the society needn’t be actually built, I mean, it need not be fact. I guess you can compare this to the origin of dead letters. The original event is some moment of trauma, some notion that Bartelby is onto something: well, he is perhaps a christlike figure? Somehing about individualism?

We will have to think about the the entire world that seems to spring into existence about Bartleby, about his insight (which will remain unspecified). “There must be clerks,” was how Conrad put it, there must be people who sort of make all this real. The fact of living, for Bartleby, is how this original event becomes manifested.

I guess Bartleby himself can be considered a clerk, one wo copies legal documents, who sort of lends a kind of — well, I called it “epicness” — but perhaps even objectivity to all this. “The difference between good and bad literature,” I used to say, “is the epic story in good literature is in the subtext.” So I called it “epic” there, but we might as well call it “ojectivity”, the objectivity of an imagined clerk working for some mysterious organization, in the weird facticity of remaining alive. … the nonchalance of a clerk that is epic in precisely the banality with which he treats this remarkable affair.

Bartelby is basically the limit, the logical limit of Melville’s own performative enterprise. With Bartleby the story we are talking about an epci subtext. But with Bartleby the person we are talking about someone for whom the content has entirely been subsumed by the … “subtext”, so that it does not matter (but it matters a great deal!) whatever documents he may copy. The text is so thoroughly fagmented — and do not think, in this case, a new “phenomenal” understanding of reading, maybe we should rather say “ironized”, err, become ironic — that *each word* matters. Think of Bartleby as writing an absolute glossary. So epic and liminal as to be mundane.

Well, we need not reach that absolute state, I mean. And we wonder — I mean, as in the introduction — whether such an absolute state is even possible, I mean, how much it would make sense for someone to always “have their eye”  on the origin in that way (it isn’t) — or basically, I mean, it is impossible to maintain sucha  gloassary in such a way without reestablishing coherence once again, and reestablishing grammar, content, structure, etc. And so the real issue, I believe, is thinking about the … particular vibe of Bartleby, and how this vibe is reflected in the attentiveness of the text to certain words: TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT PART