Thursday, September 28, 2006


All the psychologists around here pay homage to Monet. Monet's poppies are neither bright nor dull. In the fields around here the poppies are either super brilliant or they are sad and faded. Is it just these very poppies that are so expressive? Someday I will travel to Delphi to consult the poppies there.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:15 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Are Images Flat?

The 36th Philosphers' Carnival features a contribution from Eric Schwitzgebel of The Splintered Mind who asks, Are Images Flat? Intuitively I say no, they are not flat. Images are curved. Good discussion over there, so check it out.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:39 PM. 0 comments

To Represent through Dancing

I'm still really enjoying Grassi's The Primordial Metaphor even if I can't wholeheartedly follow him into the abyss of pleasure and pain. He says wonderful things like "This is essentially what language is about: rhythm corresponding to movement" (p. 48). And, impressively, he arrives at this insight by way of tragedy according to Aristotle, and a strict interpretation of mimesis (mimeisthai), "to represent through dancing."

If you're going to get carried away by a metaphor for language, dance is the way to go. It's much more fun than displacement, or grammar, that magical word. And it may take you farther in the end than any other metaphor, with the possible exception of walking and its cousins, depending on whether you count steps or places. But do we need to be carried away by a metaphor? My view is that an adequate theory of language–here I use theory in Grassi's sense of "a theorein, a theater that allows us to see and discover reality in its entirity" (p. 44)–must neither underplay nor overplay the rhytmicity of speech. So what then of this faculty of correspondence? Perhaps Grassi and I are not terribly far apart. It would be an error to see correspondence as a purely cognitive operation. If essences are what concern us, then its essence is dialogic.

Now, as an experiment, try engaging in dialogue with a being who has very limited capacities for abstract thought, a real birdbrain. Those little warblers in the locust tree will do. Is what you share with the warblers language? Really they're just warblers. They warble about warbler things. You can mimic an interest in warbler things, but you can't become a warbler. They will realize this too soon enough. I don't think you should be calling it language unless you have thoroughly anthropomorphized your interlocuters, or warbelized yourself, in which case all bets are off. And if you do achieve mythic communion, please drop us a line.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 3:28 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dikika Girl, some other news

  • BBC reports on Dikika Girl. Apparently her brain is smaller relative to adult A. afarensis than a chimp's would be, suggesting a slower rate of maturation–not as slow as a human's, but significant. What sort of variation is there in afarensis skull size?

  • Brandon looks at Aquinas on "actual being."

  • Dylan on the Towering Cosmopolis.

  • Chris examines the labratory research which shows conclusively that monkeys don't like Mozart. (Personally I couldn't get past Ray Jackendoff's not very musical phraseology of "Norwegian Wood," so I'm thankful that somebody else is keeping tabs on what the cognitive scientists are doing with music.)

  • Caleb is calling it quits. Congratulations to him.

  • What was Aristotle's problem with adultery (moicheia)? Michael Pakaluk looks into it here and here.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:45 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Here Grassi (The Primordial Metaphor p.37, footnotes omitted) echoes Giacomo Leopardi's praise of assuefaction (from Zibaldone di pensieri):

The sense of priority inherent in each situation or circumstance prompts us to respond to the appeal it issues forth; in other words, we must achieve assuefaction to it: "Not only do all of man's faculties constitute the single faculty of assuefaction, "but this same faculty of assuefaction is dependent upon assuefaction itself." In acknowledging the mutable nature of needs, we are compelled to discover new relationships among beings:

Having stated elsewhere that ingenium corresponds to the ease with which one achieves assuefaction, and that this implies the readiness to move from one type of assuefaction to another, to develop other forms of assuefaction which contrast with the preceding one, etc., I conclude that men of great intellect (ingegno) must ordinarily be extremely versatile (with respect to opinion, taste, style, manner, etc. etc), not on account of capriciousness born of the superficiality deriving from little intellectual and conceptual strength or from insensitivity, but on acccount of their readiness towards assuefaction and hence of their ability to develop.

What then is the origin of the world of human beings? It is neither a construct nor a revelation of reason, but rather the product of what Leopardi calls illusion, namely, the compelling force of the abyss: without illusion there is no life, no action.

For Grassi the pleasure principle corresponds to the appeal of the abyss, and this underlies his rather unusual reading of Leopardi. (Incidentally, the turn towards Freud in this chapter would seem to answer some of the objections I raised regarding organic thinking, but Grassi's reading of Freud is emphatically not psychological; as with all existential ontologies in the Husserlian tradition Grassi has no interest in psychic structures that manifest themselves, it is assumed, only from the perspective of an objective science.) So does it wash? Not squeaky clean, it doesn't.

A friend of mine once told me that he experienced no pleasure in life, not even from sex. This despite the fact that he shared the bed of the most glamorous woman in the fair city that was our stomping ground. As he was speaking it occurred to me that he might be trying to conceal or downplay the nature of his affections, but he made no secret of his feelings for this woman. I quickly realized that he was describing an aspect of his illness, schizophrenia of some kind, or perhaps a side-effect of the medication he was taking. But clearly he was describing a real quality of his experience. Psychologists refer to this condition as anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. The problem with anhedonia for Grassi's analysis is that the anhedonist indubitably exists. Anhedonia is better described as a purely psychological phenomenon than as an ontological problem.

There are of course existential implications to the condition of anhedonia. And it's the sort of thing that admits of degrees, so if one wanted to maintain a thesis like Grassi's one could tie oneself in knots trying to explain anhedonia. Occam's razor favors the generic psychological explanation of anhedonia on the face of it, though concievably a case could made for a far more thorough ontology than Grassi provides.

Thus I'm left with the feeling that any field of scientific inquiry the existential phenomenologist chooses to excide or bracket off–this may be a problem of all postmodern intellectual endeavors, yet it is acutely foregrounded by the phenomenological method–will come back to bite him, and bite him hard. This will take some getting used to.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:15 AM. 0 comments

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bipolar Haiku

It's as if spring never happened. I was flipping through my poetry notebook and noticed that I had only winter and summer haiku this year. Where did the spring go? Maybe you can figure it out. Here are a couple of winter haiku:

all the colors
of the day.

Every second
a new sense of awe–
falling snow.

And a couple of summer haiku:

Stay away
from my bicycle,

My only friend
in the Milky Way,
Big Dipper.


posted by Fido the Yak at 9:25 AM. 0 comments

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Organic Thinking

In the second chapter of The Primordial Metaphor, "The Underivedness of the Spoken Word: Phoné as an Element of Language," Ernesto Grassi breaths new life into Herder's Essay on the Origin of Language, with a little help from Johannes Müller's idea of a "specific energy of the senses," and some of the usual suspects like the Cratylus and various works of Aristotle. I might have been content to let Grassi resuscitate Herder, virtually bypassing the whole of structural linguistics, if only Grassi hadn't made use of the metaphor of the "organic." Grassi argues:

For the organic being, that is the being who manifests to himself his world through his organs, there is no sound which is not also a word, no flavor which does not correspond to a differentiated taste. Only the terrifying myth of technology, of what is mechanical can assert the aseptic nature of what manifests itself through the senses; that is, the abstract world proposed by rational thought.

The first sentence, the strong form of the argument that every sensation is already meaningful, is surely debatable, but not especially troublesome. The second sentence, however, does not follow. Inasmuch as the brain is an organ of the body, its relation to the (other) organs of feeling is surely organic, and its activities, including its proposals of abstract worlds, ought not be construed as alien to the working of the senses.

There is no one single organ of speech, not really; and consequently there is no one single organ of language, contrary to any assertions by linguists, semiologists or the like. On this matter perhaps I am largely in agreement with Grassi. However, it would be foolish to discard on that basis everything we have learned about the workings of the brain particularly with respect to language. The mechanistic description of language cannot of itself explain the origin of language or its meaning, but it does provide evidence of a remarkable similarity among all languages, even among those that have had no demonstrable historical connection during the Holocene epoch. Clearly the brain has characteristic ways of doing things, and its activity has left its mark on every human language. The brain is not the whole story of language, and a thinker would do well to be chary of totalizing myths, even those involving characters we know and love. But there it is.

Is there some structure of Being that would better explain the unity of the world's languages? Some structure of consciousness that is not the brain per se or the residue of its automatic functions? Or, following Grassi, some metaphorical praxis? Well, yes, I wouldn't say that Grassi isn't on to something. Kind of inchoate, but he's definitely on to something.

So then how would a truly organic thinking be described? How do we experience the integration of thoughts and feelings, abstraction and sensation? Or their disintegration? What's it really like to think? I don't think Grassi has all the answers, but I'll keep you posted.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 2:31 PM. 0 comments

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Yowzah Yowzah Yowzah

Ernesto Grassi (The Primordial Metaphor, p.10, footnotes omitted) muses:

Is there a tradition which offers a foundation for a conception of knowledge rooted in the historicity of ontological experience? Does the humanist tradition offer us such a possibility? A correct understanding of Humanism has been hindered by the pre-eminence of German idealism, which denied it any philosophical value precisely because it is grounded on rhetorical and metaphorical thought; by Heidegger's antihumanistic thesis; and by the interpetation of Humanism as essentially a Christian reflection on Platonism.

With regard to the concept of knowledge, Western philosophy rejected, from the very beginning, the speculative function of rhetorical language for its being anchored to the here and now of existence; consequently, it expressed a negative judgement on metaphor, since metaphor transfers and transforms the meaning of a word and, in so doing, destroys its rational precision.

We would like to propose a different thesis: That which is–namely, individual beings, participants in and participles of being, for only as such do they exist–manifests itself in reality exclusively in a concrete historical situation, defined by the here and now of existence. All beings, in their openness to being, are expressions of a call, an appeal that must be answered in the urgency of every moment. The appeals, in whose realm we exist, are everchanging and new, and the meaning of beings is transformed according to the modality of our responses to the appeals.

We shall reformulate our question: Is there a tradition which allows us to identify a nonrational foundation of knowledge, by virtue of which metaphor and rhetorical language acquire a philosophical function? I have tried elsewhere to reconstruct this tradition and here I shall summarize it with references to De Laboribus Herculis by Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406).

Although Salutati holds that knowledge is enabled by the activity of the Muses, not just one, but all nine, Grassi considers only six of them, excluding Urania, Terpsichore, and, if I'm not mistaken, Calliope (the passage in question seems to describe Thalia, though she is not named).

So what's it to me if Grassi neglects to mention Terpsichore? So she doesn't appeal to him, so what? Does a defense of erudition–for that's what Grassi offers, its urgency unmistakable if you travel in certain circles–require anything like a Terpsichore?

Terpsichore, in any event, never seems to get any respect. If you live in the Bay Area of California, you can see a painting of Terpsichore hanging in the Fine Arts Museum of San Fransisco (which, incidentally, has claimed for itself the domain ""). The painting, by Jean-Marc Nattier, shows Terpsichore with one breast exposed. Her cheeks appear a little rosy. her eyes glazed over. She's a little tipsy. But this isn't precisely what I mean by no respect, not the all of it. The very idea of a museum is an offense to the Muses, especially Terpsichore. Who dances in a museum? It might as well be a mausoleum for the narrowness of the inspirations it permits. And I say this as one who loves graphic arts, one who loves the feeling that comes after being in a good art museum.

I know that many fine art museums have made attempts to cultivate an appreciation of performance art, hosting poetry readings, jazz recitals (ahem) and the like. It's just not the same as permitting people to dance. The seediest discothèque provides a more fitting tribute to Terpsichore than any museum ever will. Is this perhaps at the heart of the reason why Terpsichore gets no respect? Is the company she keeps just a little too democratic for modern sensibilities?

The promise of human order, or culture, concieved without room for dance is revolting. Always, in every historical epoch, the people will revolt with their feet. Kwassa Kwassa is but one example, the greatly maligned and misunderstood Chic another. The denigration of Terpsichore is unacceptable to the masses of humanity, yet every political movement that claims to speak for the masses or to represent a perfection of humanity begins and ends with the denigration of Terpsichore. What's up with that? It doesn't speak well for intellectuals, to say the least.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:15 AM. 1 comments

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Soul Eyes, Geri Allen

One of the best all time jazz ballads is Mal Waldron's Soul Eyes. I'm currently listening to Geri Allen's version from her 2004 release The Life of a Song, but in my head I hear Coltrane, especially over the first chorus, before Marcus Belgrave comes in. (I have a chart from an old fake book, but actually I learned it by playing along with Coltrane's recording, so even when I'm using the chart I hear Coltrane.) I've treated "Soul Eyes" as an "intense ballad" à la Mingus, but it also works as a straight jazz ballad. The changes are really sweet.

Geri Allen has been on my radar for about two decades, because the first time I heard her I knew she had a radical sense of time and a powerful urgency in her left hand. Her adventures in odd time signatures sounded both sure and edgy at once. The Life of a Song is a more traditional piano trio outing, with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. (Incidentally, DeJohnette must be a much better drummer than I give him credit for, because whenever I hear him he's in good company and he's solid.) Allen's sense of swing is remarkable on the standards "Lush Life" and "Dance of the Infidels," but these tunes don't stand out so much the way her original compositions do. They do point to where Allen is coming from, suggesting paths, arcs, crazy directions. The original tune "The Life of a Song" may also serve that way, as a gentle introduction to Allen's angularity. And isn't she sounding a lot like McCoy Tyner on this recording?

And the moment passes. Now I'm off on a Junko Onishi kick--man, nobody goes all Mingusoidal on the piano like Onishi. Those old Blue Note cd's may be a bit rare if Amazon is to be believed. I'm going to try placing an order from Double-Time soon enough--they also have a few Geri Allen cds at reasonable prices.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:48 AM. 0 comments