Friday, March 31, 2006


I've been listening to mp3's from Cryptogramophone, the label founded by violinist Jeff Gauthier (ht Song With Orange). To describe it. Hmm. Imagine if the Knitting Factory had been a West Coast thing. There's a third-stream quality to Crypto--maybe because of all the string players on board. Electronica. Fusion. A little smooth, a little funky. On every cut I've heard so far the sound quality has been exceptionally full and clear.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:33 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Polanyi on the Membrane

Yesterday I wandered--via Phil Mullins via Peirce's Lectures on Pragmatism via Clark via something more recent by Clark--through the environs of the Polanyi Society. Browsing through some recent issues of the Society's journal, Tradition & Discovery, the idea of the "morphogenetic field" jumped out at me. I'm not able to clarify any issues of debate between Polanyi scholars on how this should be understood; I'm merely discovering (rediscovering, as the case may be) the morphogenetic field for myself, and ruminating on it.

The Society has brought together some of Polanyi's essays, fortunately for me, since I don't have any of Polanyi's books in my personal library. I started with Life's Irreducible Structure, which does indeed touch on a notion of morphogenetic fields. An Excerpt (footnotes omitted):

This missing principle which builds a bodily structure on the lines of an instruction given by DNA may be exemplified by the far-reaching regenerative powers of the embryonic sea urchin, discovered by Driesch, and by Paul Weiss’s discovery that completely dispersed embryonic cells will grow, when lumped together, into a fragment of the organ from which they were isolated. We see an integrative power at work here, characterized by Spemann. and by Paul Weiss as a “field”, which guides the growth of embryonic fragments to form the morphological features to which they embryologically belong. These guides of morphogenesis are given a formal expression in Waddington’s “epigenetic landscapes”. They say graphically that the growth of the embryo is controlled by the gradient of potential shapes, much as the motion of a heavy body is controlled by the gradient of potential energy.

Remember how Driesch and his supporters fought for recognition that life transcends physics and chemistry, by arguing that the powers of regeneration in the sea urchin embryo were not explicable by a machinelike structure, and how the controversy has continued, along similar lines, between those who insisted that regulative (“equipotential” or “organismic”) integration was irreducible to any machinelike mechanism and was therefore irreducible also to the laws of inanimate nature. Now if, as I claim, machines and mechanical processes in living beings are themselves irreducible to physics and chemistry, the situation is changed. If mechanistic and organismic explanations are both equally irreducible to physics and chemistry, the recognition of organismic processes no longer bears the burden of standing alone as evidence for the irreducibility of living things. Once the “field”-like powers guiding regeneration and morphogenesis can be recognized without involving this major issue, I think the evidence for them will be found to be convincing.

There is evidence of irreducible principles, additional to those of morphological mechanisms, in the sentience that we ourselves experience and that we observe indirectly in higher animals. Most biologists set aside these matters as unprofitable considerations. But again, once it is recognized, on other grounds, that life transcends physics and chemistry, there is no reason for suspending recognition of the obvious fact that consciousness is a principle that fundamentally transcends not only physics and chemistry but also the mechanistic principles of living beings.

And a detour. Pierce cites the maxim Generale est quod natum aptum est dici de multis. The version I am using omits Peirce's footnote--quelle horrible--so I'm in danger of losing the source to the principle of In Googlis non est, ergo non est. File under Z for zettel until further notice.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:32 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

pantes anthrôpoi tou eidenai oregontai phusei

Four items of note

This last item has me wondering. I'd looked at various translations of the first few sentences of Aristotle's Metaphysics (980a-981a, but especially 980a--and now I can't seem to get past the first few words). Already in Metaphysics there are two ways of talking about coming to be, two ways of having been born: phusis and gignomai. Looking for answers I came across the work of Xavier Zubiri. The first work I stumbled into was Socrates and the Greek Idea of Wisdom from Zubiri's Nature, History, God. Then I had a chance to look at his mildly operose The Historical Dimension of the Human Being, and now it seems I will have to make a study of his On Essence, the full translation of which is not yet online, and his Dynamic Structure of Reality. A key question in all of this: When did reality become a substance?

There are many resources at the Zubiri Foundation site, including the active Xavier Zubiri Review. One dead link that really causes problems: the true-type Greek font used in some of the translations. If I can track down that font I'll post a link here. Naturally.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:20 PM. 4 comments

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is Disposability Broken?

Brandon recently pointed to On the Mend by Richard Scruton. The piece raises questions about the practice of nostalgia which I'll sidestep to get to what really matters to my way of thinking, namely what Scruton says about wearing shoes. In Disposable Thinking I challenged the aptness of Mill's analogy of the ill-fitting shoes on the grounds that in the present world hundreds of millions of people do in fact have easy access to virtual warehouses full of shoes. Shoes here illustrate a problem of the customary, of symbolic forms, or of ways of thinking. The choice of example is not fortuituous. Wearing shoes is a common way of relating to symbolic forms, so the thinglike, economic or experiential aspects of wearing shoes are less likely to be glossed over than if we chose to examine, oh, Ravel's "Trio for piano, violin and cello," as performed in Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en Hiver, and all of the issues of character, tempo, feeling, routine, class, convention and expression and so on that are raised by perfomances of that work in that film. (It may be harder to gloss over certain realities than I am imagining--and yet it seems some silences are emphasized harder than others. Oh well.)

Scruton celebrates the culture of repair in contrast to the "throw-away culture" of cheap and shoddy goods. And so he introduces the cobbler in his neck of the woods, the "farming community" of Malmesbury.

In repairing an object you endow it with character; and when repair is the normal response to breakages, the final discarding is like a funeral. We still feel this about shoes, since they are shaped by our use of them, become friendlier with the years and are never seen as quite replaceable. Hence we still have cobblers - a few at least.

Ours, in Malmesbury, is a lover of shoes, who sees the soul in the sole, and the wearer in the worn. Shoes, for Mustafa, are the middle terms in human relations, objects of respect and signs of his own social value. He takes them from you with an intent, preoccupied smile, examines them and then lovingly describes first their defects, then the very great virtues - apparent to his expert eye - which justify the cost of mending them. And because he can live from his skills, and at the same time express himself through them, Mustafa is happy, as comfortable in an English farming community as he was in his Turkish village.

Mr. Mustafa's sense of human relations may in fact be even more nuanced than Scruton lets on. I wonder can Mustafa really live from his skills? I wonder how he feels about competition from K Shoes, or from online vendors, and how much of his business comes from making keys. Do cobblers in Turkey make keys too? But there do seem to be a great many doors in Malmesbury. And I wonder about the social composition of Malmesbury, which I understand to be pricey by comparison with other boroughs in Wiltshire, and yet not without the social tensions one associates with the metropolis. I wonder how much of Malmesbury's economy depends upon tourism? Religious pilgrims, history buffs, nudists, jazz fans, extra terrestials....

I really did mean to sidestep any business of nostalgia, and utopianism too for that matter, so I'll stipulate that Scruton has neighbors who live by farming and who cultivate a friendly relation with things, and that Mustafa repairs shoes for a living, expertly, and that together they all form a community that values harmonious relations between its members and with the Earth. Because there is an insight in this other notion of relating to things that I want to pick up on. "Shoes are shaped by our use of them," Scruton writes. Doesn't that provide firm footing for a healthy rejoinder to my little notion of disposable thinking? More pointedly Scruton writes "There is something ungrateful in the habit of throwing things away." Why, sometimes I feel the same way, and said as much, but that's only telling half the story. My skepticism about the class relations that inform suchlike sensibilities--which I might now broaden to include scepticism--should not be taken as an easy disdain of elite tastes and opinions, or much less an easy way of dismissing ideas I disagree with. These are also my attitudes, my tastes and opinions, or at least ones that I wear from time to time. I am invested in them, so I have an immediate interest in examining them to see if they're really fitting, to see if they need mending, or, indeed, as really does happen, even in farm country, replacing.

If one half of disposability is throwing things away, the other half is, naturally, using them. Disposability is the capacity to have a disposition towards things, or be disposed towards things, or, alternatively, the capacity of a thing to fit into our usual ways of relating to things, our dispositions. My well-worn Webster's gives as a first definition of "disposable": "free to be used as occasion requires; not assigned to any special use." I myself am too ambiguous of a character to imagine that a disposition must be either friendly or hostile, so Webster's definition suits me well enough. But, again, it's only half the story, the other half being what happens to things you can no longer use.

If friendly relations are better than inimical ones, if friendliness is a virtue and a key to happiness in life, then I'm not so sure disposability isn't at best a secondary kind of concern, insofar as it relates through things rather than directly with persons. I have a similar sense of unease regarding relations through all kinds of symbolic forms.

The symbol is, on its face, thrown together, indexing an originary brokenness. Does it call for repair? Necessarily? Under what circumstances? What significance can we attach to the aphesis that gives us the verb "to mend"? What to take away from the syncope that leads from "aphaeresis" to "aphesis"? How much of morphophonology is reducible to the work of habit, and how would we square such a view with ideas like language drift or simply structuration?

Again, the breakage of the symbol represents the flip side of its thrown-togetherness. Does our customary way of relating to symbols favor one side over the other? How is a symbol broken in? We have symbols. Abstractly, the relation of having is encoded in the phrase "symbolic form." Philosophy may have by and large discarded any connection between σχήμα (schema) and habitus, but in ordinary usage the business of forms is well understood. The form isn't simply a that which is, the shape or figure of an entity; rather the form is the giving and taking of shape, a temporary holding. The symbolic form is an ongoing reciprocity whose intermediary is having. The forgetting of the relational signified by the symbolic form begins with the hypostasization of the intermediary, which allows for the substitution of some other quality or item in place of having. Thus a condition of possibility for ingratitude, and, as well, higher order relations, procedures, typically asymmetrical, as the ability to conceal or reveal havings is put to strategic uses, delayed, stretched out, sprung and the like.

I find it's difficult to speak of what one actually has, and easy to speak of what one wants, so easy that most of the time we speak of wanting much more than we truly want. For instance, Fido's "farm country" is nestled cozily amidst a system of higher education. It conforms to something I might want to call home, not just yet perhaps, but before long. But right at this moment, what do I really have by way of a world?

"Signification precedes givens and illuminates them," Levinas argues (in Humanism of the Other). My awareness of Levinas, my ability to draw from (or draw away from) his thinking seems to be predicated upon my having a certain kind of world. But it's a bit shaky. Were I to separate the absolutely necessary from the contingent, the former might be represented by broad truths like language, the latter by a personal history of experiences, actions, feelings, decisions, moves. The real action takes place in the inbetween, and yet I can't begin to imagine the real as not having been given to possibility by my having a body, or the power of speech, or a world of experience. Going forward, does it really matter how this world has been constituted? Only inasmuch as it impacts what I can do, inasmuch as it gives form to the field of possibilities before me. I reckon "inasmuch" may be much more than I can concieve of, but I can't be rightly sure.

There's an attitude common among some academic disciplinarians that one ought not develop one's thinking on the basis of an uncertainty, that the only proper way to deal with an ambiguity is to clarify it, that imperfections must be perfected, contradictions must be resolved, and that other ways of handling ideas amount to nothing more than wordplay. It's an attitude I find myself adopting at times, but I also seriously value play, both as a method of learning and as an activity in its own right.

The chronotope of the blog gives greater room for play than does the scholarly monograph, but what the play of blogging signifies could have been signified in other ways. Indeed, it has been many times, albeit frequently from the margins of learned discourse. What the blog does is give focus to play, at the cost, perhaps, of rendering the blog peripheral to the culture of learning--for the time being.

Anyway, to answer my initial question, of course disposability is broken--originarily, and perhaps on its face as well. I daresay it isn't quite broken-in, but in a few regards its illuminations are perfectly ordinary, even dull--a terrible quality for the business end of a billhook, but a fine quality to have in shoes.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:20 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

More Thinking about Biology

In case you missed it, Chris kicked off a discussion of cognitive factors that get in the way of thinking about evolution. Brandon followed with a series of posts calling for a more critical reading of the history of essentialisms in biology. The latest installment, Intuitive Essentialisms IV includes a recap with links to the previous arguments. Meanwhile, Gary returned to the question of Deleuzean vitalism in a series of posts: Vitalism Junked, Mapping the Way We Understand Life, and Deleuze: A Non-Essentialist Vitalism? Fullstop.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:03 AM. 2 comments

Monday, March 20, 2006

Atomization of Opinion

The fissiparations of doxa yield more and more opportunities for synthetic understanding. Paradoxically, the grounds for synthesis become less available, less apparent the more it is enacted. This is not primarily due, in my opinion, to any question of the value placed on synthetic products in the intellectual economy, although one could credibly map correspondences between relations of social dominance and the exchange value of the forms of cultural capital. Rather, the synthetic operation itself obscures its own grounding, which is, in the final analysis, organic. Synthesis represents more than the joining of ideas. The apprehension of a synthesis in monothetic form occurs only on the basis of an alienation; in practice its constitution is polythetic. It may be that with the profusion of synthetic forms, the fabrication of the ideal synthetic object appears to us more readily, more transparently than it ever has, and thus its polythetic constitution seems to be an easily perceptible quality. This perception may be an illusion. We may be perceiving the polythetic categorically, by way of an imposition of a ready-made scheme that glosses over certain facts of its genesis. On the other hand, the notion that the synthetic operation obscures its own grounding in polythetic relations seems a little iffy, a little too romantic for the modern critical sensibility. The quality that endures is that of the membrane.

We speak of doxa as a horizon of being situated, or of being a person, but doxa is itself already more than one (if singular in construction). The usage implies that one doxis will be essentially connected to another doxis, and so on, to a matrix of opinion. Doxis is not a singular occurrence, not completely. The odd opinion presents itself as an opportunity to reassess one's place in the world, to call into question usual ways and means of judgement. Furthermore, doxis itself would seem to be an emergent property, a schematicization of elementary fields of attraction and repulsion. In this way, in being schematic, doxis lays a foundation for its plurality.

To imagine doxa as inherently fissiparous misattributes agency (yet again), and thereby risks confusing causes with effects. However, if the fissiparation of doxa is generated by way of the praxis of situated agencies, it nonetheless possesses--it has, as a tertiary implication of the kind of having embodied schematically as doxa--a vital function, which appears under ordinary circumstances to act as a vitality of its own. This implied vitality is in fact essential to the way doxa is experienced, and to its fissiparations, to the extent they are folded into the synthetic operation. Functional vitality, reiterated through the movements of the synthetic operation, engenders a response. That is its raison d'être. Inasmuch as the synthetic operation reiterates the conditions of its genesis, its responsiveness to the fissiparations of doxa always says more than it means to say. Were we to encounter expression in its birthday suit, as it were, we should have to acknowledge its ineffibility. Poetry will neither confirm nor deny this fact. That alone speaks volumes.

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:57 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Relaxin' with Joseph O'Leary

Is there such a thing a Madhyamaka groove? Check out Joseph O'Leary's Time and Emptiness.

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:30 PM. 4 comments

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Divisions, Scaffoldings

The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is in the process of being superseded (superceded if you'd rather) by feminism. There are naturally retentions, so one may speak of analytic feminisms or contintental feminisms, intersections between analytic and continental feminisms or intersections between pragmatist and continental feminisms and the like. By contrast academic philosophy has its ranks, overwhelmingly represented by males, overwhelmingly represented by a single philosophical metanarrative.

Academic feminism, which has gone by many names, is paradigmatically interdisciplinary, its necessity become a virtue. In the future feminism may also be known as "Western thought," "philosophy" or "logos" because the feminist discourses better exemplify all-embracing universal investigations of the self than the discourses which exclude women by dint of the way they narrate or imagine their own histories. At present, we simply acknowledge that these terms may be contested.

By treating the question "What kind of sexism is academic philosophy?" as if academic feminism were irrelevant, we may see signs that whatever it is today, it is not the same kind of sexism that it was a century ago. We may choose to speak of vestigial sexism, institutional sexism--though that too will require acknowledging historical discontinuities-- or hegemonic sexism, that is, sexism attributal to broader cultural realities which transcend philosophy as a profession, but inhere in philosophy departments because philosophers are, after all, bearers of culture. Hegemonic sexism is, in short, unexamined sexism. We might expect hegemonic sexism to wither away as the years go by, but it's improbable that academic philosophers will, en masse, be leading the way to more egalitarian, more self-critical ways of doing academia.

One of the issues that concerns me is the possibility of maintaining cultural ties between different generations of women thinkers. We might conceptualize this in terms of interpretive traditions, or more prosaically mentoring relationships, which will be instrumental to the institutional transformation of academic philosophy into something other than sexism. In that light, the picture of top ranking philosophy departments is not utterly bleak, not devoid of all hope. And yet, the frequency with which leading philosophy departments leave feminist thinking to affiliated faculty, visiting faculty, joint appointments and the like testifies to a weakness of commitment to women students.

I sometimes find myself wondering what happened to the students of Grace de Laguna, whom I've mentioned a few times. I wonder what her students did with what they learned. De Laguna taught at Bryn Mawr College, a women's college in Pennsylvania. Her (rather more influential) daughter Frederica attended Bryn Mawr, but chose to pursue a career in anthropology, recieving her Ph.D from Columbia under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. This was round about the time Harvard denied a petition to award an honorary degree to Mary Whiton Calkins, who had studied under William James and Josiah Royce.

Some people are likely to see the case of Calkins as evidence that things really were different then. Sure they were. But what was the historical impact of Harvard's sexism? Did it just suddenly come to an end? If the effects of an institution are so easily erased, we have no business calling it an institution. Surely the problem of sexism is a problem of generations.

I'm not overjoyed with this train of thought, feeling as if every step is getting off on the wrong foot. I'm neither an academic feminist nor an academic philosopher. This strikes me as a rotten disadvantage given my current interests, though I'm not sure why it should be, beyond missing the obvious sorts of qualifications to speak intelligently to the issue. (Lack of qualifications has yet to stop me from blogging.)

If this sort of thing interests you, the future of thinking that is, take a look at Julia Kristeva's address to the Modern Language Association, translated into English as Thinking in Dark Times. A selection (with some minor editing):

If it is true that the "intellectual" bases his thought in the human sciences, what is his place and his possible power in our troubled world as we enter the third millennium?

In taking over from theology and philosophy, the humanities replaced the "divine" and the "human" by new objects of investigation: social bonds, the structures of kinship, rites and myths, the psychic life and the genesis of languages and written works. We have acquired an unprecedented understanding of the richness and risks of the human mind; and this understanding disturbs, meets with resistance and censorship. Still, as promising as they are, the territories thus constituted fragment human experience; heirs to metaphysics, they keep us from identifying new objects of investigation. But the crossing over of these compartmentalized fields does not in itself suffice to reconstruct the new humanism we need. What matters is that from the outset the thinking subject connects his thought to his being in the world through an affective, political and ethical "transference." My practice as a psychoanalyst, my novel writing and my work in the social domain are not "commitments;" rather these activities are an extension of a mode of thinking I look for and which I conceive as an energeia in the Aristotelian sense: thinking in action, the actuality of intelligence.

Moreover, in my experience, the interpretation of texts and behavior, notably in the light of psychoanalysis, opens up a new approach to the world of religion. The discovery of the merely unconscious by Freud showed us that far from being "illusions," while nevertheless being illusions, different beliefs, religions and other forms of spirituality shelter, encourage or exploit specific psychic movements, which allow the human being to become a speaking subject and either a seat of culture or conversely, a center of destruction. To cite just a few examples, I’ll mention the importance of the law, the celebration of the paternal function, or the role of maternal passion in the child’s sensorial and prelinguistic scaffolding.1 My work as an analyst has convinced me that when a patient is committed to psychoanalysis, he is coming to ask for a kind of forgiveness, not in the sense of erasing his malaise but in the sense of finding psychic or even physical rebirth. It is the possibility of this new beginning, through transference and interpretation, which I call for-giveness: to give and to give oneself a new time, a new self, unforeseen ties. We can henceforth recognize the complexity of the interior experience that religious faith cultivates, but also bring to light hate which takes the guise of lovers’ discourse, as well as the death drive channeled to political vengeance and merciless wars in the same religious context.

A new conception of the human is thus in the process of being constituted with contributions from the fields in which we work, the new "humanities," where transcendence is immanent. This conception is synonymous with the desire for meaning, which is inseparable from the pleasure rooted in sexuality and which commands both the sublimity of culture and the brutality of acting out.

It is clear that today the intellectual is confronted with a difficult, historic task commensurate with the crisis of civilization: it is neither more nor less than a matter of coaxing this new type of knowledge to emerge progressively. We should not hesitate to use technical terms, but without reducing them to their strict meaning which is always too narrow. By positioning ourselves at the interface of these diverse "disciplines" we give ourselves the chance to clarify, even if only a little, that which remains enigmatic: psychosis, sublimation, belief, nihilism, passion, the gender war, maternal madness, murderous hate.

1 I believe the term "étayage" which Kristeva uses is the French rendering of Jerome Bruner's concept of "scaffolding." As a technical term, "étayage" is also associated with the ideas of Lev Vygotsky.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:10 PM. 2 comments

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Joint Attention

Two items brought to my attention via Online Papers in Philosophy:

A bit of synchronicity, see Chris's recent post on Human Infant and Chimpanzee Altruism.

Update: Chris points to the work of Michael Tomasello. I'm currently looking at a paper he coauthored, Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (pdf). This work may be thought of as going a step beyond neurological studies of social cognition in primates (which I looked at briefly last fall). What it's about (emphasis mine):

We propose that human beings, and only human beings, are biologically adapted for participating in collaborative activities involving shared goals and socially coordinated action plans (joint intentions). Interactions of this type require not only an understanding of the goals,intentions, and perceptions of other persons, but also, in addition, a motivation to share these things in interaction with others--and perhaps special forms of dialogic cognitive representation for doing so. The motivations and skills for participating in this kind of "we" intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children's developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.

For a different use of diagrams (-; , see Jon's latest post at posthegemony.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:45 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Beauty, Anxiety, Selves and Shadows

Yet another example of erudite, sensitive blogging from Juan Galis-Menendez: Carl Jung on Selves and Shadows. I appreciated his references to Rollo May, perhaps the most lucid exponent of existential psychology the English-speaking world has known.

Speaking of which, I've been meaning to comment on Merleau-Ponty's World of Perception, a series of six popular radio lectures in which he lays out his basic philosophy. The lectures are no substitute for The Phenomenology of Perception, but they are insightful, enjoyable and lucid. I may post a commentary for each lecture--kind of odd, since the lectures are rather concise. We'll see.

posted by Fido the Yak at 7:29 PM. 0 comments

The Poison Spreads

Eugene posts Nick Kristof's latest report from Chad, where the genocidaires of Sudan have been wreaking havoc. The concluding paragraph:

The present Western policy of playing down genocide and hoping it will peter out has proved to be bankrupt practically as well as morally. Granted, there are no neat solutions in Darfur. But ignoring brutality has only magnified it, and it's just shameful to pretend not to notice the terrified villagers here, huddling with their children each night and wondering when they are going to be massacred.

Some weeks ago there were reports of thousands of people fleeing into Darfur to escape being slaughtered in Chad. Laugh or cry. Or scream. This is the insanity lurking beneath euphemisms like "complex emergency."

posted by Fido the Yak at 7:00 PM. 0 comments

Hier sein ist herrlich

Janus Head presents Memory, History, Forgiveness: A Dialogue Between Paul Ricoeur and Sorin Antohi (pdf), in which Antohi prompts Ricouer to talk about his move away from a philosophical anthropology of fallible man. Here are some excerpts (endnotes omitted).

Sorin Antohi: This philosophical anthropology was defined by a modesty, a humility that is quite rare in the human sciences. It was telling us to accept that man is not all-powerful and omniscient, but that he is prone to err. He is fallible by virtue of his very nature. But then...

Paul Ricoeur:...Yes, this is a notion that I have been trying to transcend. In the intermediary book between Memory, History, Forgetting and Time and Narrative, namely, Oneself as Another, the central concept is man insofar as he is able and capable. What man can do: I can speak, I can narrate, I can act, I can feel responsible. The evolution of my thought has gone from the culture of guilt of the 1950s and 1960s to the Gifford Lectures, which I gave in 1986, at the center of which was capable man. And therefore my last book on memory, history and forgetting is related not to fallible man but to capable man. This is to say that man is capable of making memory and of making history. The very distinction, which I owe to Pierre Nora and to Michel de Certeau, between "doing history" and "making history," revolves around the idea of ability: incapability appears only negatively, whereas fallible man was almost the positive side of man. I do not renounce or deny this. I have written all this, and I perfectly admit that people might say, "Listen, when you speak of fallible man, I am with you; but when you speak of capable man, I no longer do so, nor do I follow you when you produce a grand theory on the representation of the past." I have even invented a word, la représentance, which is about the ability of the historian to give us a credible equivalent to what the Germans call Darstellung--that great concept of the German historical school, of Droysen in particular. For me, the problem of history is the problem of Darstellung, which is related to the idea of truth. And I will tell you why I hold on to it. I hold on to it because of the moral discussion surrounding the question of knowing whether there is a duty to remember [un devoir de mémoire] vis-à-vis such or such group of victims. If we were not certain of what the witnesses report and of what the historians within a fairly large consensus have begun to establish concerning these crimes, if none of it were true, we would not be under the obligation to remember. Therefore, we are under an obligation to seek truth before we are bound by a duty, by a debt of memory.

And further:

Paul Ricoeur: Yes, man can within limits, those of fallibility. Fallibility reappears, in a way, within the inabilities of capable man. But I devote space to four sorts of abilities in this book. First, language. All beings capable of language do not have the same access to language. Cultivated people are better able than others within the order of language. Friends of mine who work as judges tell me that they see people who are accused but are unable even to understand the word "stealing." I think of these boys who have been arrested and who are dragged through the courts ten times, thirty times...We are not equal within language. There are inabilities. Take now the ability to act. It is greater among people with power, whereas in the history of the miller, Menocchio, in microhistory in general, we see weak people, who dwell in uncertainty, and who ask themselves whether they will be arrested by the Inquisition, and so forth. There are degrees of ability, therefore. For example--and we may have to reconcile ourselves with this, including with Hayden White--this marvelous ability to narrate. Because it is universal: everybody has narrated. We are trying together to narrate a path and it is with small narratives that we are now progressing in our discussion. And one must be able to narrate in order to have this next, fourth ability: accountability. That is to say that I can feel, as one says in English, accountable. For this, one must be able to give an account.

And finally:

Sorin Antohi: ...And by the way, it seems to me that the passage from fallible man to capable man includes this idea that we are responsible, accountable. At the limit, fallible man could have been excused, exonerated...

Paul Ricoeur: One should not exaggerate, however, since this little book on "fallible man" does come after the book on the voluntary and the involuntary, where I have nonetheless tried to give much to the voluntary since I speak of the possibility of managing emotions, managing habits, and then of assuming mortality. This book concludes with an avowal concerning what I call the "absolute involuntary," which includes the unconscious and the fact of being born. For there is, after all, and since the beginning of my work sixty years ago, the idea of mortality which traverses everything through and through. At this time, I was welcoming this... I would not say joyously, but I had concluded my book with the idea of assenting to finitude. I was an avid reader of Rilke, and I ended with this verse: Hier sein ist herrlich: "being here is sumptuous, wonderful, magical." Now, in my old age, with the proximity of death, I repeat again: Hier sein ist herrlich.

A number of creative translations of herrlich spring to mind. Another day, perhaps.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:58 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ali Farka Touré

Ali Farka Touré has died in his sleep.

Update: The Times of London has an obituary. Radio France Internationale has a biography. (I've forgotten the blogger who pointed to that, but thank you.) NPR has a remembrance or two, with links to full length cuts and previous stories. Afropop has some appreciations, and their podcast has now been updated to include Ali Farka Touré live from Niafunké.

I saw Ali Farka Touré and his Groupe Asko once in concert, about ten years ago. I remember him as being friendly and down to earth, but I couldn't even fake a proper greeting in any of the languages he spoke, so it's just an impression, and a shallow one. I took some pictures. He's smiling in every one, sincerely it seems to me. On stage he was charismatic, energetic, a great improvisor, and good at managing rapport. That's how I remember him.

His recorded music has been a constant source of joy in our home. I haven't yet listened to In the Heart of the Moon, for which he and Toumani Diabaté were awarded a Grammy. I've moved it to the top of my wishlist. (Toumani is a wonderful musician, by the way.) The Source and The River are my still my favorite albums by Farka. Talking Timbuktu is nice, and Niafunké is pretty enjoyable too. Radio Mali and the Red and Green Albums are maybe best left to fans. I don't know, it's hard to imagine not being a fan.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:55 AM. 0 comments

Monday, March 06, 2006

Disposable Thinking

I've been dissatisfied with some of my arguments in favor of agnosticism. If I wanted to explore a tension in the relationship between handling philosophical questions and making affirmative statements, I could have done a better job of it, seen things from other angles, more towards their essence, held off from drawing some conclusions. The prospect that one might examine ideas without undergoing any serious transformation especially bothers me. Conversely, I think it's informative to entertain a variety of ideas, without setting out to become informed, edified or illuminated, but simply following thoughts where they lead. This is a dilemma for bloggers, perhaps especially those who dabble in philosophy.

Heraclitus said χρὴ γὰρ εὖ μάλα πολλῶν ἵστορας φιλοσόφους ἄνδρας εἶναι (DK35), which I will render as "Men, as philosophers, are destined to be well acquainted with the many." The Burnett translation is "Men that love wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed" (see DK35 according to Hoyt, or Philoctetes), which is similar to the majority of interpretations I've seen, though some scholars seem to think that many (πολλῶν) itself is a category a philosopher ought to look into, and there is not widespread agreement on exactly what kind of knowing ἵστορας is meant to signify. As Greek is nearly absolutely Greek to me, I've permitted myself to imagine that Heraclitus might actually be saying something like "Philosophers are destined to repeatedly make inquiries."

Heraclitus has been on my mind more than usual since I rescued Ernst Cassirer's The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (trans. S.G. Lofts, Yale University Press, 2000) from a bargain bin. Cassirer says of early Greek philosophy, "In the place of the undetermined multiplicity of mythical attempts at explanation, which turn sometimes toward one phenomenon and sometimes toward another, steps the idea of the general unity of being, to which the same unity of cause must correspond. This unity is accessible only to pure thought" (pp. 4-5). Naturally Cassirer credits Heraclitus with taking the first step. (Oh, that was an attempt at humor.) "Ever since this thinking," Cassirer writes, meaning Heraclitus' idea of logos, "went through the school of Greek philosophy, all knowledge of reality has, to some extent, been bound to the fundamental concept of logos --and thus to "logic" in the largest sense of the word" (p. 5).

What sort of logic is it that allows us to juxtapose Carl Meinhof's Comparative Grammar of the Bantu Languages with Hermann Wyel's What is Matter?--and not, if we may be so bold, unintelligibly? The logic of jumping around? Let's do.

There is no fixed, self-enclosed "I," which puts itself in contact with an equally fixed and self-enclosed "you" and seeks to penetrate its sphere as if from the outside. If we begin from such an idea, we discover again and again that the challenge it sets itself is unattainable. In the world of spirit, as in the world of matter, each being remains, as it were, riveted to its place and impenetrable for the others. However, as soon as we no longer begin with the I and the you as two substantially separate entities but instead place ourselves in the center of that mutual communication that realizes itself in language or in any other cultural form, this doubt disappears. In the beginning is the act: always, in the use of language, in artistic formation, in the process of thinking and research a specific activity expresses itself, and it is only in this activity that the I and the you at once find each other, and separate themselves from each other. They are in and with each other, as they preserve in this way their unity through speaking, thinking, and all kinds of artistic expression.

(pp. 50-51.)

But wait, there's more.

In an earlier consideration we sought to show that the "I" does not exist as an originally given reality that relates itself to other realities of the same kind, thus entering into contact with them. We found ourselves obliged to grasp the relation differently. We found that the separation between the "I" and the "you," and likewise the separation between the "I" and the "world," constitutes the goal and not the starting point of spiritual life. If we hold on to this, our problem [of cultural alienation, "the tragedy of culture"] assumes another signification. For the consolidation that life undergoes in the various forms of culture--in language, religion and art--constitutes not the simple opposite to that which the I requires by its very nature but rather a prerequisite for it to find and understand itself in its own essence. Here we encounter a connection of the highest complexity that cannot be correctly expressed by spatial imagery, however subtle. We are not permitted to ask how the I can "go beyond" its own sphere and reach over into one foreign to it. We must avoid all these metaphorical expressions. To be sure, in the history of the problem of knowledge one has continually made use of such defective descriptions in their efforts to characterize the relation of the object to the subject. It was assumed that a part of the object must enter into the I in order for that object to be known. The "theory of idols" of the ancient atomists is rooted in this conception; the "theory of species" of Aristotle and the Scholastics continued to adhere to it, only transposing it from the material into the spiritual sphere. But even if we assume for a moment that such a miracle can take place--that the object can migrate in this way into "consciousness"--the main question obviously remains unsolved; for we do not know how this trace of the object that imprints itself upon the I becomes known as such. Its simple being-there and being-thus by no means suffices as an explanation of its representative significance. This difficulty becomes even more acute when the transference is not from object to subject but is to be realized between different subjects.


If I were to take up the question of animism again, as a serious inquiry, I should definitely want to examine the prehistory of the soul (ht Dissoi Bloggoi.) I might also be interested in the idea of hegemonikon and its concatenations. I have the impression that, for all the talk about unity, the Greeks had many different ways of analyzing thought into various components, of putting the subject on trial, as it were. And from other parts of the blogosphere, I find my thoughts drawn into another set of preoccupations which might be lumped together under the heading of "libidinous attachments to immiseration" or thereabouts. And it has occured to me that Mill's analogy about shoes not fitting properly doesn't really apply to my life now that I can go online and order shoes that actually fit pretty well. And so I come to the notion of "disposable thinking," and the question of whether this is a healthy way of relating to the Logos, or just relating.

How is it that we inhabit ideas? How can we be sure that for the most part it isn't ideas that inhabit us? How do we excerise discernment, come to our own way of living with ideas? Personally I like to be at home, and I like to go visiting. I don't know if its truly better to travel, as the proverb has it, but it's an experience worth having.

Here's a metaphor: why get rid of a pair of shoes? Take the difference between retiring a pair of shoes because you've worn them for a decade and besides being ugly as sin they're pretty much beyond repair, and, on the other hand, getting rid of a pair of shoes because they never fit well to begin with and you could never break them in, or because they went out of fashion, or because they were so poorly made that they quickly came apart and it would cost more to repair them than it would buy a new pair of shoes. These latter sorts of predicament have been taken as symptomatic of the ills of late capitalism, the worst that consumer culture has to offer. One could recycle unfashionable or illfitting shoes, but not in the spirit of genuine kindness, I don't believe.

Among certain classes and mindsets, the inundation of the cheap and ephemeral is one of the great anxieties of the day. One sort of critical response would be to celebrate the cheap and ephemeral as simply being cheap and ephemeral. That doesn't quite appeal to me, though I do admire the moxy of it. However, at the present time, a little bit of knowledge about how shoes fit, gained through experience or, perhaps with the assistance of expert guidance, in conjunction with an internet connection and a modest amount of money (by the standards of middle class existence in the industrialized nations) will allow one to largely avoid the predicament of constantly replacing shoes that either fall apart or don't fit properly to begin with. That would leave fashion as a reason to dispose of one's shoes, but a little experience and a virtual warehouse can help one make sensible choices in that regard as well.

And so with ideas? Not quite. Expert guidance in the realm of ideas is hardly inexpensive, and the free exchange of ideas is not quite so free as one would hope--assuming one is either some variety of utopian idealist, social reformer, pennypincher, or just plain broke all the time. And there's a price to be paid for hanging out in the bargain basements of Western thought. The Logic of the Cultural Sciences is sensible, befitting my interests, and timeless enough for my life of ideas, but I am not so naive as to believe that Cassirer is fashionable. If there is a currency to Cassirer, it may be likened to that of Jockey undershirts or Gold Toe socks, i.e., rather ubiquitous but not fully apparent, not something one wears as a fashion statement. The vast majority of titles in the bargain basement will not be like this, but will rather be like making precisely the wrong fashion statement, conspicuosly horrid, either for being garish in themselves, or for simply being a signal that one gets one's ideas on the cheap.

If wearing shoes is a little less uncomfortable for a greater part of humanity than it has been in prior centuries, there may yet be some hope for ideas. Nevertheless, I'm in no hurry to throw away the notion of disposibility. I wouldn't want to be buried in the shoes I wore twenty years ago, and if I had my druthers I'd rather not be buried in the shoes I'm wearing today. Disposibility comports with my sense that no condition is permanent, and the belief that one could always do things differently, better even. The mythic quality of such a belief is not lost on me, but it's not completely useless. It may even in some aspects be regarded as charming, I think. It's not that I'm particularly glad for ephemerality, it's just something one gets used to, and of the various ways of getting used to it, I can't help feeling it's better to do some using of one's own.

Were I to draw a conclusion here--don't worry, I'm just blogging--I might see that freedom of thought is highly contingent upon the exigencies of an historical moment, and that the very imagination of freedom is embedded in a discursive universe (some universes being more discursive than others). And so it is that a yak who dabbles in philosophy is doomed to repeat his inquiries.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:57 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Pluralities, Singularities

When I set Mill and Kristeva side by side, I was not unaware of a certain tension, or even, one might say, a vital difference. (Mill's attack on the customary is picked up by Appiah, by the way, so I expect I'll be revisiting it in the coming months.) I've been thinking about oneness, twoness, and the question of whether we ought to regard freedom as gendered, and whether the maternal needs explaining, or whether the paternal isn't now in need of some clarification. Do we need a defense of masculine freedom as such? Well, it hardly seems to be on the verge of extinction, but perhaps a clarification wouldn't hurt.

Leaving my own inchoate musings aside for the moment, the latest issue of Culture Machine is devoted to the topic of Community. The editor, Doroto Glowacka, has contributed a rumination entitled Community and the Work of Death: Thanato-Ontology in Hannah Arendt and Jean Luc Nancy. Glowacka's interpretation of plurality and natality according to Arendt appears not to be tremendously divergent from mine (sloppily presented here) or Kristeva's. Thus I was a bit surprised to see Glowacka set aside Arendt's insight. The reason she presents for doing so doesn't persuade me that she's not missing something essential. The offending passage in full:

One might object whether, in discussing the (tenuous) future of hyphenated communities such as "the Polish-Jewish" community in Poland, one should not focus on birth rather than death as the force that fosters positive growth of the hybrid social and political space, and here recourse to Arendt is again instructive. In The Human Condition, Arendt claims that it is natality rather than mortality that should be embraced as the central category of the social. Perhaps in another attempt to distance herself from Heidegger’s existential analytic of death, emblematic of solitary existence, Arendt argues that birth, not death, is the figure in which human community is "ontologically rooted" (1958: 9, 247). Natality, as the force and the promise of the new, is the condition of possibility of community’s moving forward into the future. This is a valid and even necessary direction for future investigation; for the time being, however, the fragile Polish-Jewish communal space, just like the communal space of other hybrid ethnic units named by Nancy, including those in Rwanda and Bosnia, is being forged out of the past marred by often horrendous acts of murder, the kinds of death that, like death in concentration camps, places in jeopardy the very essence of human existence as Being-with. This is why we have to rethink death first, the conclusion that Nancy himself seems to arrive at, when his reading of Heidegger’s Mitsein leads him inevitably to the discussion of death.

To be clear, I don't object to the analysis of death, dying or existential finitude. I feel that Glowacka brings together some keen insights, and her own thoughts on the matter are unquestionably valuable. But there is something fundamentally wrong I think with treating Arendt in terms of a "thanato-ontology," particularly when Arendt does indeed present a stark alternative to Heidegger's ontology in her concept of natality, which is one of her signal contributions to philosophy. Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism perhaps represents her most concerted effort to deal with the issue of genocide, but it's instructive to keep in mind that the original publication of that work preceded The Human Condition, and that Arendt's entire post-Holocaust oeuvre is marked by concern for the issue of genocide, including her reworking of her dissertation in later decades (published in 1996 as Love and Saint Augustine). Augustine's phrase initium ut esset homo creatus est, which found its way into Totalitarianism, was apparently not part of Arendt's original dissertation. So I think it's plain wrong to assume that Arendt's thinking about natality represents anything other than a fully informed, fully engaged reflection on the problem of the human condition.

That's about it, I guess. I haven't actually read any books by Jean-Luc Nancy, but Glowacka's outline of a rehabilitated Mitsein has piqued my curiosity. I think I'll be checking out Being Singular Plural for starters.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:26 PM. 0 comments

In Favor of Agnosticism

Some time back Michael Pakaluk asked whether Socarates held that one cannot answer a question without first knowing the answer. There's no easy interpretation of this passage, because even if the Greek were crystal clear to us and we understood the concepts at play exactly as Plato and his consociates did, the fact that Socrates and Thrasymachus are engaging in ironic banter makes it especially hard for us to discern what Socrates might really mean. But the question itself is a good one. Can we truly answer a question we don't know the answer to?

Is there a corollary like "Can we truly ask a question that we already know the answer to?" Is that a rhetorical question? Pretty much, but not entirely. Between the extremes of the purely rhetorical question and questions whose only logical answer can be 42, we ask all kinds of questions that we sort of know the answer to, or think we might probably be able to decide the answer to. if only we could clear up one or two little doubts. So if that's our answer to whether this is a corollary, then it's not so easy to turn it around again. A question by its nature partakes of the hypothetical, the dubious. Statements are different. We can hedge a statement--we usually do-- but even in hedging there is a testimonial quality to a statement. It has some flexibility, but it can only be bent so far before we recognize a statement as false, as not being true to itself as a statement. We don't need to decide whether the person who makes a false statement is deliberately telling a lie. We merely observe that in the false statement the testimonial value of the statement has been compromised. This limit inherent in the statement becomes all the more apparent when the statement occurs in the explicit form of a response to a direct question.

Bakhtin's thesis (probably in The Dialogic Imagination, passim) that every utterance is already a response would throw us for a loop, but he does provide us with an escape in his notion of speech genres. The complex genre "philosophical dialogue" begins in wonder (thaumazein), as they say, which is in itself a kind of response. Every question and every statement that unfolds within the genre of the philosophical dialogue becomes imbued with the original sense of wonder, with the intention of finding out what can be found out, following the original sense of wonder where it will lead, and a style of finding things out, which if we're talking about Socrates we can call elenctic, or perhaps something else if we mean to discuss Plato. In either case, statements in philosophical dialogues are imbued with a testimonial quality by virtue of their primary generic function, and an even starker attenuation of that quality by virture of their secondary generic function, not unrelated but neither reducible to the testimonial quality of statements in other complex genres, for instance court proceedings. And further impinging upon the statement's testimonial quality, we could consider specific issues of character development in the Dialogues, and a style of representing philosophical schools.

Leaving aside the conundrum of question and response for the time being, I meant by placing the question "Can we truly answer a question we don't know the answer to?" under the heading "In Favor of Agnosticism" to address a particular set of arguments, something that's caused me to wonder, so here goes. Agnosticism often gets a bad rap as a wishywashy, cowardly response to the question "Is there a God?" This perplexes me because as I see the agnostic response as honest and direct, more honest and direct I think than the way many thiests and athiests explain their beliefs, or their certain knowledge. Not necessarily of course, but on the face of it "I don't know" seems to be a perfectly honest and direct answer to the question "Is there a God?"

Nobody around these parts seems overly concerned to ask the question "Are you an animist?" If somebody were to take the trouble, I think the agnostic response might be highly appropriate, at least at first blush. Does one mean animism as defined by Edward Burnett Tylor? It would be relatively easy to reject holding any of the particular beliefs that Tylor assembles to make his case, but it would largely miss the point. Does animism represent a common way of thinking? Is it a way I think about some things? I can say, for instance, that I don't believe thunder has a soul, and yet I can't really explain what thunder is. Here is how the Australian Board of Meteorology explains thunder and lightning:

Lightning is the discharge produced when voltage differences between ground and atmospheric electrical charge are large enough (several hundred million volts) to overcome the insulating effect of the air. Strokes can occur within the cloud, between clouds, or between clouds and the ground. Thunder is the sound produced by the explosive expansion of air heated by the lightning stroke to temperatures as high as 30,000°C.

I don't exactly know what that means. I don't know why the ground or the atmosphere should have an electrical charge to begin with, I don't know why the air would have an insulating effect, or why the air should be something different from the atmosphere, I don't know why a quantity of several hundred million volts makes thunder while several scores of millions of volts does not, and so on. I rely upon meteorology to be able to explain what thunder is, but, obviously, not too much.

The wikipedia entry on thunder is worth mentioning because its list of thunder gods includes "Mulungu," which in fact is commonly the name given to God, i.e. the Creator, in many East African languages, Bantu languages in particular, all of which also have many words for thunder. In Swahili, the most widely spoken Bantu language, the name for God is often given as "Mungu" or "Muungu." Other common variants include "Mlungu" and "Murungu," which are easily recognizable as the same root form if not the same word.

Some people have heard thunder as symbolic of the voice of God, I believe, and still others may have taken the relationship as iconic in the Peircean sense, and yet still others may believe that thunder itself is god. Only the belief that thunder is a not a god but rather some other kind of supernatural being would clearly qualify as animistic, though holding such a belief would not unambiguously make one an animist, and the definition of supernatural may present some problems. Animistic beliefs have historically coexisted with polytheisms and the great monotheisms, in syncretic or polyglot forms, a pattern which persists to the present day. Furthermore, animistic ways of thinking, if we could presume to identify them as such, are even more widely in evidence. If we were to tease out the elements of animistic belief, for example, anthropomorphism or projection identification, it would be rather unseemly to deny that these are aspects of humanity's common psychic heritage. Therefore, we have at the outset one set of reasons to be wary of infering belief from a single myth or, indeed, mytheme.

If the words for thunder in Bantu languages were consistently classed in 9/10, the noun class that includes animals as well as some spirits or beings of power and things that move, then, in the style of Alexis Kagame1, we might begin to wonder if there weren't some sort of implicit metaphysics in Bantu languages that would lend itself to viewing thunder as a spirit. But in fact the words for thunder are all over the map, and even if they weren't, we wouldn't be justified in assuming that 9/10 necessarily implies a spiritual belief. It might just as well imply ideas of "energy" or "life" or "motility" that could be understood as metaphysical or simply physical. And in further point of fact, spiritual entities make their appearance in all of the Bantu noun classes, which is probably best put down to the arbitrary quality of language.

Here I'd better take a moment to look at what Bakhtin is saying, because his critique of structuralism might be taken as implying a rejection of the thesis that the linguistic relationship between signifier and signified is essentially arbitary, or, alternatively, an as an elaboration of arbitrariness as one might view the semiology of Roland Barthes, to name one example, whereas in my reading Bakhtin's position with regard to the arbitrariness of signifiers is markedly divergent. In "The Problem of Speech Genres," Bakhtin explains:

When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the sytsem of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition or style.2

And further:

Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. Therefore, one can say that any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of language, belonging to nobody; as an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other's utterance; and, finally, as my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression. In both of the latter aspects, the word is expressive, but, we repeat, this expression does not inhere in the word itself. It originates at the point of contact between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the individual utterance. In this case the word appears as an expression of some evaluative position of an individual person (authority, writer, scientist, father, mother, friend, teacher, and so forth), as an abbreviation of the utterance.3

Bakhtin's critique of structuralism, even though he directly addresses certain limitations and fictions of Saussurean linguistics, and even though his understanding of language is informed by a firm grasp of the structuralist program, is not primarily an internal one. Rather, he proposes an alternative account of meaning, one that is sociological, cultural, historical and literary. His rejection of structural linguistics is highly qualified. With respect to the relationship between the phonological shape of a word and its "dictionary meaning," there is no dispute with the Saussurean thesis of arbitrariness. However, by holding that meaning is largely constituted outside of language (i.e., langue), and more to the point, independently of language, the linguist's claim of arbitrariness loses one facet of its import, namely the referal of meaning back to the linguistic system. An essential element of arbitrariness, however, remains intact: that is, the capacity to call things by another name, to choose one's words.

Here we are not talking about "mere arbitrariness," as Cassirer might say, because the expressive function of speech is understood as an engagement with the sociological and the historical, the customary, to borrow again from Cassirer. However, in referring meaning to the customary, the dialogic speaker, if you will, is not reduced to the position of being a mediator or a function, because the referal always occurs as an aspect of an intention, a speech act.

It would be a poor excuse for a language that didn't allow its speakers to say things differently, to express, for instance, an unorthodox belief. And so with the ethnophilosophical school, or certain strains of Whorfianism, we have the suspicion that what's being discussed as language or worldview is not quite telling the whole story. Perhaps the Bakhtinian insight is that one never tells the whole story, and yet there is a larger story to be told, namely, in Bakhtin's view, a critical analysis of speech genres.

The difference between primary and secondary (ideological) genres is very great and very fundamental, but this is precisely why the nature of the utterance should be revealed and defined through analysis of both types. Only then can the definition be adequate to the complex and profound nature of the utterance (and encompass its most important facets). A one-sided orientation toward primary genres inevitably leads to a vulgarization of the entire problem (behaviorist linguistics is an extreme example). The very interrelations between primary and secondary genres and the process of the historical formation of the latter shed light on the nature of the utterance (and above all on the complex problem of the interrelations among language, ideology, and world view).4

So, to return to the question of animism, I can't be sure what somebody might possibly mean by asking such a question. I can say, for instance, that I don't believe thunder has a soul, but I don't have a firm grasp on thunder itself, and, of course, we haven't even begun to discuss what a soul is or might possibly be. I might agree that anima could describe something intrinsic to animals, to humans in particular, to the psyche, or to the natural world at large. If I had a pretty good sense of what was motivating the question, how I felt about the person asking it and the circumstances of its asking, then I might be inclined to lean one way or another, to give it some thought and express a preference for the sake of discussion. But rock bottom I couldn't say at the outset that I either believe or disbelieve in animism. If I should come around to the view that by some definitions thunder indeed has a soul, I don't know that I would want to adopt that view as my own personal truth, and I couldn't say whether accepting it provisionally or more permanently would disrupt my fundamental way of looking at things. I just don't know.

1 Mudimbe's critical review of Kagame and the ethnophilosophical school is quite decent. See his The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press (1988), Chapter V, and esp. pp. 145-154.

2 Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, University of Texas Press, 1986, p.87.

3 Ibid, p. 88.

4 Ibid, p. 62, editors' note as follows:

"Ideology" should not be confused with the politically oriented English word. Ideology as it is used here is essentially any system of ideas. But ideology is semiotic in the sense that it involves the concrete exchange of signs in society and history. Every word/discourse betrays the ideology of its speaker; every speaker is thus an ideologue and every utterance an ideologeme.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:49 AM. 0 comments

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Neighbor

The world doesn't really need another English translation of Rilke's poem "The Neighbor." A couple of fine ones are here and here. But it's something I've been playing around with, and since mine's a little bit different, I figured I'd share it.

Der Nachbar

Fremde Geige, gehst du mir nach?
In wieviel fernen Städten schon sprach
deine einsame Nacht zu meiner?
Spielen dich hunderte? Spielt dich einer?

Gibt es in allen großen Städten
solche, die sich ohne dich
schon in den Flüßen verloren hätten?
Und warum trifft es immer mich?

Warum bin ich immer der Nachbar derer,
die dich bange zwingen zu singen
und zu sagen: Das Leben ist schwerer
als die Schwere von allen Dingen

The Neighbor

Strange violin, are you following me?
In how many distant cities has your lonely night
already spoken to mine?
Do a hundred play you? Does one?

In all the great cities
are there those who, without you,
would have long ago lost themselves in the rivers?
And why does it always concern me?

Why am I always a neighbor to those
who anxiously make you sing
and say: Life is heavier
than the heaviness of all things

Incidentally, I finished Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Some good ideas, but I have to say I was troubled by the notion that the risk of a few broken bones might be a good reason not to save a falling person from a certain death. It's good to have a sense of the difference between what's irreversible and what's recoverable. (Recently watched Thirteen Conversations About One Thing for about the third or fourth time now. It holds up well.)

More incidentally, I'm thinking about putting Judith Ryan's The Vanishing Subject on my reading list.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:27 PM. 0 comments