Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Expandable Moment

Daniel Stern holds that the present moment in everyday experience has a duration of between two and ten seconds, and is typically around three to five seconds. This is the length of a phrase (of language or music), and about how long it takes to breathe in and out (The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, esp. pp. 44-52). Stern dismisses the idea that in meditation one can expand the present moment beyond the ten second barrier because, he says, "In the meditative or flow states, the idea is to lose the sense of self and for consciousness to maintain a concentrated focus, relatively impervious to other stimulation" (p. 43). This doesn't ring true. The obliteration of self isn't necessarily a goal of meditation, and even when it is, there seems to be something to the accomplishment of expanding a moment of awareness beyond the normal range. A horn player, for example, may practice pranayama solely for the purpose of honing his or her breathing skills. He or she might also experience improved phraseology, rhythm, or the ability to concentrate. All of these skills can be put to use in crafting moments of musical experience that are longer in duration than the normal duration of the present moment. It's fascinating, I think, that there would be a normal range of duration of the present moment, but there will always be people who challenge and exceed conventional limits, even those limits apparently set by their psychological nature. This too is a reality of everyday life.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:58 AM. 0 comments

Ouisa: Being as Legacy

A little detour from Christopher P. Long entitled Toward a Dynamic Conception of ousia: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy. Here is the abstract:

This paper is an initial attempt to develop a dynamic conception of being which is not anarchic. It does this by returning to Aristotle in order to begin the process of reinterpreting the meaning of ousia, the concept according to which western ontology has been determined. Such a reinterpretation opens up the possibility of understanding the dynamic nature of ontological identity and the principles according to which this identity is established. The development of the notions of energeia, dynamis and entelecheia in the middle books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics will be discussed in order to suggest that there is a dynamic ontological framework at work in Aristotle’s later writing. This framework lends insight into the dynamic structure of being itself, a structure which does justice as much to the concern for continuity through change as it does to the moment of difference. The name for this conception of identity which affirms both continuity and novelty is "legacy." This paper attempts to apprehend the meaning of being as legacy.

Long writes, "What it means for an ousia to be is to exist as this being with this history." That's not a sense of being I typically associate with Aristotle, but I can't say Long's reading is unreasonable.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:31 AM. 0 comments

Friday, December 29, 2006

Encounter with Being

Marion asks, "Would the displacement of phenomenology from beings to (the) Being (of beings) coincide with its displacement from the 'mere phenomena' to their phenomenality?" (Reduction and Givenness, p. 46). Marion puts off answering the question immediately, but already it seems he has tipped the scales by asking whether ontology is about being (Husserl) or the Being of being and its mode of encounter (Heidegger). I'm not totally following Marion on this point. Supposing ontology could be about the mode of encounter with being, does it then necessarily follow that one must speak of the Being of beings? Is the ontological difference at all warranted by phenomenology? I myself have already spoken against the ontological difference so the scales here are not perfectly balanced; nonetheless my prejudice could be poorly grounded, so I'd like to set it aside while I look into what kind of ontology if any is called for by the phenomenological reduction.

From the outset phenomelogy sets aside the problem of being. Instead of questioning whether phenomena really exist in some way other than phenomenally, phenomenology focuses on their manner of appearing. Surely there is a kind of existence claim being made for phenomena, but it is not clear that phenomena merit the name of being. If we were to call objects that appear to conciousness from within the epoché "beings," it would have to be understood in a special sense, as a specifically phenomenological ontology. The claim of phenomenological ontology in this sense would be weaker than the claim made by ontology proper because it is only to or for consciousness that phenomenology posits the existence of something.

Phenomenology also entails another kind of existence claim: the transcendental ego must necessarily exist. The transendental ego is not apparent in the same way that the objects of consciousness are apparent. Therefore, if one wishes to speak phenomenologically of the being of the transcendental ego and one has already spoken of the being of phenomena, another designation, "Being," seems to be warranted. Furthermore, the expression "Being of beings" captures the essence of the relationship between the two designations of being.

Against this line of reasoning I wonder whether it was necessary to identify phenomena with being in the first place. That leaves open the question of the mode of encounter with being. Can this be pursued phenomologically without introducing an ontological difference? I'm not sure. What do we make of the existence of the transcendental ego, and how we do begin to describe the encounter with being?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:21 AM. 8 comments

Thursday, December 21, 2006

How does Being Appear?

Jean-Luc Marion asks, "Does the reduction lead phenomenology to see Being as a phenomenon?" (Reduction and Givenness, p. 39). A kneejerk response would be "No, only constituted beings appear phenomenally; Being itself is given otherwise." I'm not sure how Marion will answer the question he poses, but I am sure it will not be a kneejerk response. Instead, he points toward the phenomenology of givenness as such and intends to interrogate it.

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


I'll be taking a little break from blogging next week. My reading list for the new year is already getting pretty full. The list includes books that are on the way from Amazon, books that I never got around to opening, and books checked out on interlibrary loans. Here are some titles that I'll be looking into:

  • Hiroshi Kojima, Monad and Thou: Phenomenological Ontology of Human Being.

  • Jean-Luc Marion, Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger, and Phenomenology.

  • Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness.

  • Michel Henry, The Geneaology of Psychoanalysis.

  • Jacques Derrida, On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy.

  • Daniel Stern, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life.

  • Dylan Trigg, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason.

  • Jan Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History.

  • Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression.

  • Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition.

  • Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening.

This list isn't exhaustive. I'll probably visit a bookstore over the holidays, and I'm sure I'll be using the library in the new year.


posted by Fido the Yak at 11:34 AM. 5 comments


Here is a problem that is not unrelated to Henry's phenomenology of the lived body. Derrida notes (in "L'animal que donc je suis") an abyss between the relation to self charateristic of all animals and the I of "I think." As Bains sees it, the concept of ipseity that Derrida deploys here cannot do justice to his insight(The Primacy of Semiosis: An Ontlogy of Relations, pp. 140-141). Instead, Bains argues, what is needed is a concept of cadacualtez, a neologism invented by the school of Argentinian existential neurobiologists. Literally "each-oneness," cadacualtez stands for the fact of being thrown to experience one's own corporeal and historical circumstance instead of another. Interestingly, this concept is meant to apply not just to human existence, but to any lifeform with a nervous system.

What I take from this is an argument against any kind of impersonal philosophizing of experience. When we think, for example, of an elephant's relation to self, it is vital to recognize that the elephant is cadacualtic, that it is not interchangable with other animals or even other elephants. This obviously limits the way we make generalizations about the living world. It also places our empiricism on firmer, if more radical, ground.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:30 AM. 5 comments

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Henry asks, "Can the problem of alientation in fact be posited otherwise than in a philosophy of the first person? Is there any meaning whatever in saying that a stone is alienated?" (Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 146). This has the makings of a paradox. Can the first person, strictly speaking, be alienated? Isn't that exactly the meaning of alienation, to be at once like a person and like a stone?

What exactly is the philosophical problem with switching voices? We do this all the time in our everyday speech, in inner speech as well as verbal discourse. For a phenomenologist like Henry, the problem is in moving from the certainty of the "I think" to the dubiousness of the existence of other entities. Would he say that it is philosophically wrong to reach an accomodation with dubiousness? What kind of life would that be, a life without dubiousness?

In this passage on alienation, Henry is at odds with the Freudian unconscious. Elsewhere he says that "the task of philosophy is not to denounce illusions but rather to justify them, at least by making apparent the foundation which makes them possible and the ontological structure from which they develop" (p. 115). I don't think Henry has made it his task to justify the unconscious, which he regards as illusory. I like phenomenology precisely because all of its realities are apparent, but I often wonder whether this is the whole story.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:43 AM. 0 comments

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Demon Ego

Henry says that the immanent body and the transcendent body both have the quality of being mine (Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 115). He's obviously overlooking the possibility of being inhabited by a demon ego. When I reflect upon myself, how do I know that the mine that reflects and the mine that is reflected upon are in fact the same mine? If they are mine in different ways, which feels at least plausible, then I wonder about the possibility of at least one instance of mine not being properly and truly mine. Could my transcendent being belong to someone else? Or what if its my immanent being that really isn't mine? How horrible.

I'm joking of course, but there is a serious issue here. Henry says, "Because our objective body is only a representation of our original body, the problems which the duality of these two bodies poses and the unity of meaning which unites them are altogether analogous to the problems which stem from the relationships between the transcendent ego and the absolute ego" (p. 133). Pace Henry, and without the benefit of having read his Essence of Manifestation, this unity can be doubted, by the same stroke that separates the transcendent from the absolute egos, which, although essential to phenomenology, seems to have created a problem that wasn't there to begin with in the phenomenon of the ego. Or was it? Who exactly is the ego that can reflect upon himself?

Update. In a footnote to his Conclusion Herny says, "the objective transcendent body which we continually designate as 'ours', can obviously be that of another ego, which is what takes place in normal erotic life" (p. 216). Hmm.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 4:37 PM. 2 comments

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spontaneity and Habit

Henry's phenomenological body is both spontaneity and habit: spontaneity insofar as it is absolute subjectivity, and habit insofar as is it a power of repetition. It is also memory, but memory of a peculiar kind: "it is because the body is memory, a memory, it is true, where the idea of the past does not yet arise, that it can also be a memory which remembers the past by making it the theme of its thought. The original memory of our body is habit, our body is, as we have said, the totality of our habits" (Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 101). For Henry, habit means the "real and concrete being of the ontological possibility." He says, "With regard to the world, it is the terminus of all our habits, and it is in this sense that we are truly its inhabitants. To inhabit, to frequent the world, such is the fact of human reality" (p. 96). (NB: I think "terminus" here has a specifically Biranian meaning.)

To frequent the world. Hmm. Here's a thesis that may clarify exacly where Henry is coming from: "Things are never present to the body in an experience which would bear within it the characteristic of having to be unique; rather they are always given to us as something which we will see again" (pp. 95-96). Always? That seems a little iffy. It does seem, though, to be the nature of the habitual.

One consequence of Henry's radical present, the realm of pure possibility, is that the faculty of assuefaction, to use Grassi's language, does not appear to be a problem for him. Habit is only ontological possibility, and the question of the acquisition of habits is neither here nor there.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:56 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 16, 2006

La La La La La

What happens when we say "la la la la la"? Are we saying "la" five times, or is there a sense of doing one thing, saying "la la la la la"? If there's a sense of unity to saying "la la la la la," where does that come from? What kind of phenomenon is it?

A longish excerpt from Henry:

The determination of the original being of the body as subjective movement furnishes us with the principle of a phenomenology of memory whose possibility thus rests entirely on the ontological theory of the body. When a sound is heard, the sonorous impression is constituted, but the subjective movement in which the power of constitution here at work consists is originally known as such, because it is given to us in an internal transcendental experience. It is precisely the possession of the interior law of constitution of the sonorous impression which allows me to repeat this impression, to reproduce it myself again as many times as I care to, and to recognize it constantly in the course of this reproduction, because the knowledge of the power of constitution is immanent to its exercise and is one with it. That which repeats the sonorous impression is the body, and consequently, the ego–which amounts to saying that the power of constitution of the sonorous impression is the ego itself. As long as I repeat the sonorous impression, I know that I have already had the experience of this impression; I know that I now repeat it, that it is I who repeat it, and that it is the same impression of which I already had the experience which I now repeat. Actually, the remembering which is implied in this phenomenon is divided into a remembering of the power of constitution, a remembering which is the repetition strictly speaking, and a remembering of the sonorous impression which is a remembering of the repeated or reproduced terminus. The first remembering takes place on the level of transcendental immanence, it is produced without the intervention of any constitution and is known itself as such interiorly and immediately. The second type of remembering concerns the transcendent level on which the sonorous impression is constituted before being recognized and repeated there. To the first sort of remembering Maine de Biran gave the name "personal remembering," to the second the name "modal remembering."

(Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 80).

William James, by contrast, argues that strictly speaking it is impossible to hear the same sound twice (Principles of Psychology: Chapter IX, The Stream of Thought). James says the apprehension of sameness in the case of the repeated sound is a matter of referring two different sensations to the same object. It is impossible to hear two instances of the same sound with the same brain, because the brain is always changing. And so is experience. Experience for James is always in flux, "the river of life, the river of elementary feeling." What's true of hearing is also true of thinking. We can't experience the same idea twice, can't think two instances of the same idea with the same brain.

Yet we commonly do believe that we can think the same idea twice, or hear the same sound again. To explain this belief James credits language for an assist, and he speculates that if we spoke a more agglutinating language the tendency to believe we could think the same idea twice would be lessened. Having learned a couple of Bantu languages, albeit imperfectly, I don't quite buy it. I think it shows, however, how James may be failing to review all the options. If there is an assist factor, if there is something that helps us believe we can hear the same sound repeated, and grasp a unity there, it plausibly comes from a bodily capacity of remembering, from Biranian personal remembering.

Is personal memory then fundamentally illusory? Does it lend itself to illusion? The question, I think, is whether the power of constitution of sonorous impressions remains constant, or whether it is in flux, whether it develops or changes at all in the course of life. And what kind of constancy would we be talking about? Just enough to talk about what happens when we say "la la la la la"? More broadly it becomes a question of how memory works existentially.

James' view, which seems reasonable, is at least partially true to experience. I can acknowledge that every "la" is singular from the outset, but when I string together this "la" and that "la", "la la la la la," it feels like a repetition, and there is some sense of unity in it. And yet if I attend closely, the singularity of each "la" becomes apparent. What James says about the flux of experience seems to be true, but it also seems that he isn't telling the whole story. On the other hand, if we apply his insights to Henry's Biranian analysis, it seems that Henry has left some questions unanswered. At the end of the day, I can't say exactly what happens when we say "la la la la la."

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:21 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Learned Body

Does the Biranian body ever learn to do anything, or does it immediately know everything it knows about movement, everything it needs to know? Henry's Biranian children are like this, already knowing how to run and play. We say an ungulate hits the ground running, but in reality it takes a few minutes for the young ungulate to learn how to walk. What's going on in these first few moments? Does the ungulate learn to use its body, or does it learn its body in some non-instrumental way? If we accept the immediacy of the felt movement, how do we then account for the body's learning? So much of the human's ontogeny is given over to learning, I'd say the human body is the learned body par excellence, the body as it is learned. Can immediacy do justice to the body as it is learned?

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

Other than Being?

Some snippets from Henry's reading of Maine de Biran:

The determination of the being of the ego by the internal structure of a mode of manifestation truly has an ontological meaning; the positing which it accomplishes is not of "some thing," of a "being" in the sense that common or philosophical thought undestands it, viz. the positing of a being, because this "some thing" is rather constituted by its "how" and by the internal structure of its mode of manifestation.

Thus the designation of the being of the ego as identical to that of subjectivity signifies that, for Maine de Biran, the ego is not a being.

(Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 37.)

Henry will go further to say that the ego is not actually constituted. This is to be understood as a reading against Kant:

The category is identified in its original being with the very being of the ego; it is no longer possible for the latter to be a sort of object known by means of the category or constituted by it in any way whatever. The deduction has this primary consequence of tearing the being of the ego away from the sphere of transcendent being in general, which is always the product of a constitution. The ego, on the other hand, is not constituted, it cannot be so long as it is one in its being with the category, i.e. with the power of constitution in general, as long as it is itself such a power.

(p. 38.)

So the ego is not being, but it has ontological meaning, and Henry speaks of its "very being." Clearly Henry wants us to think of being in two different senses, one pertaining to the sphere of transcendence, the other pertaining to the sphere of absolute immanence. What about the question of the constitution of being? Is "constituted" to be taken in two different senses, or is this simply a contradiction?

One more passage:

The belonging of the categories to the sphere of the absolute immanence of subjectivity, which is also the sphere of the ego, leads us to the understanding of the fundamental relationship between the ego and ontological knowledge. Experience presupposes a condition of possibility which is ontological knowledge itself; the analysis of the categories is the bringing to light of the structure of this ontological knowledge. Philosophy begins with the questioning of such knowledge without which there would be nothing for us. But philosophy does not merit being called a first philosophy unless it takes this problematic as far as it can, and unless it deliberately takes up the task of determining in rigorous fashion the very being of ontological knowledge


(pp. 40-41.)

Recalling that Henry has already claimed that "experience is its own source," I now wonder whether Henry isn't talking about an inflected form of experience. Call it "experience on trial." Or maybe he simply contradicts himself. Or maybe I'm too oafish to appreciate his subtleties. In any case, it's going to be difficult for me to draw conclusions from his work.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:33 AM. 0 comments

The Incorporeal With

Nancy writes:

The "with" is neither a foundation nor is it without foundation. It is nothing except for being-with, the incorporeal with of the being-body as such. Before being spoken, before being a particular language or signification, before being verbal, "langauge" is the following: the extension and simultaneity of the "with" insofar as it is the ownmost power of a body, the propriety of touching another body (or of touching itself), which is nothing other than its definition as body. It finishes itself there, where it is-with; that is, it comes to a stop and accomplishes itself in a single gesture.

(Being Singular Plural, p. 92.)

I'm perplexed. What is it about the as such that allows for this kind of negation? Is it only a case of the with of the being-body? For Nancy being is primordially being-with. That necessarily complicates the question of being embodied. But does he really mean to align the plurality of being with not having a body? Don't expect me to answer that. I'm perplexed.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:04 AM. 0 comments

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Origin of Experience

Henry writes:

Against rationalism we must say that all knowledge is derived from experience because the condition for the possibility of experience is itself an experience. It is because the [Kantian] category was precisely for him an experience, and a specific experience, that Biran was able to circumscribe an absolutely original ontological region which, while being the source of all experience, was no less phenomenologically given and known.

(Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 25.)


Actually, what Maine de Biran requires of us is an identification of science with existence, i.e., an understanding that existence is already a science, not an imperfect or a provisional one, but the origin of all science, the origin of truth. The source of experience is not situated behind it but experience is its own origin.

(p. 26.)

This is like taking experience on faith. The argument "x is its own origin" precludes serious consideration of the question "How is x possible?" One might say that experience is different; experience is self-evident, not a matter of faith. But don't you still want to be able to ask, "How does experience come to be?" Naively, without any preconceptions. Isn't that a question worth asking?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:00 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Primordial Contingency

Michel Henry asks:

Is not the fact that a consciousness has a body contigent fact, the contingent fact par excellence? Moreover, are we really in the presence of a fact? Rather, if the relationship sui generis of the body to consciousness rather proves to be the foundation of our idea of contingency, and more fundamentally, of the very fact that such a contingency and even contingent facts in general are possible for us, then does not this relationship truly constitute a structure, which is not only rooted in human nature, but which must further serve to define it?

(Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, p. 2)

Where is Henry going with this? The question of the body leads toward a critique of the transcendental ego. Henry suggests that one way of proceeding is toward an existential realism that would have the courage to acknowledge and confront contingency, finitude and absurdity (p. 7). Another approach is to follow the Biranian discovery of the subjective body, the body which is an I. This latter approach is the path Henry will take.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 3:11 PM. 0 comments

The Body of Language

Concerning Maturana and Varela's approach to language, Bains notes that in their view "although language requires the neurophysiology of the participants, it is not a neurophysiological phenomenon. Language takes place in the flow of consensual coordinations of actions, not in the bodily materiality of the participants" (The Primacy of Semiosis, p111). I think I'll take issue with that formulation, with the proviso that the body of language is not exhausted by its neurophysiology. It's not just that the bodily leaks into language, which I think is demonstrable. Its a question of how language is possible. Our bodies does more for us than to serve as "nodes of operational intersection" (p. 112). They enable language (and action, for that matter) in such a way that the bodily is never quite completely forgotten.

In any case, I don't think the interesting claim here is the one against the body, but rather the one for the field of social interaction. (In that regard surely the body of a hypothetical single organism is not sufficient to enable language.) This view of language leads Maturana to the notion that the self is a product of language.

For Maturana the key feature of languaging is that it enable those who operate in it to describe themselves, thereby generating the self and its circumstances as linguistic disctinctions of the self's participation in a linguistic domain–that is, a domain of recursive consensual coordinations of actions. Meaning arises as a relationship of linguistic distinctions. Thus, words are distinctions of consensual coordinations of actions in the flow of consensual coordinations of actions–they are not symbolic entities–and meaning and languaging become part of the medium in which the participants exist contingent on the conservation of the social system.


What do we do with that now that we have evidence of mirror self-recognition in dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants? We could just cast Maturana aside on this point, but that would seem to be ducking the crucial issues. Are we willing to allow that elephants, for instance, have something akin to human language? If we can admit to having been just a little bit wrong about the capabilities of elephants, how deeply then are we willing to probe into our own ignorance? Is there not an ethical problem with defining language in such a way that excludes elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins? Even if we ultimately set Maturana aside, we cannot do away with the social dimension of language and the implications this has for human relations with other self-aware social mammals.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:39 AM. 0 comments

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nancy the Dialogic

Nancy says:

Language is essentially in the with. Every spoken word is the simultaneity of at least two different modes of the spoken word; even when I am by myself, there is the one that is said and the one that is heard, that is, the one that is resaid. As soon as a word is spoken, it is resaid. As such, meaning does not consist in the transmission from a speaker to a receiver, but in the simultaneity of (at least) two origins of meaning: that of the saying and that of its resaying.

(Being Singular Plural, p. 86).

In these passages on language Nancy is principally in dialogue with Heidegger. I don't know the source of his dialogism, if any. It does feel like a resaying–a singular resaying to be sure. Again, Nancy touches on meaning:

Meaning is the exhibition of the foundation without foundation, which is not an abyss but simply the with of things that are, insofar as they are. Logos is dialogue, but the end of dialogue is not to overcome itself in "consensus"; its reason is to offer, and only to offer (giving it tone and intensity), the cum-, the with of meaning, the plurality of its springing forth.

(pp. 86-87).

"Not an abyss but simply the with of things that are." I recall my troubles leaping over the abyss with Grassi. Though Grassi is not without courage (and elegance), Nancy strikes me as the more courageous reader of Heidegger, at least by the measure of his willingness to contradict him.

It is not enough, then, to set idle chatter in opposition to the authenticity of the spoken word, understood as being replete with meaning. On the contrary, it is necessary to discern the conversation (and sustaining) of being-with as such within chatter: it is in "conversing," in the sense of discussion, that being-with "sustains itself," in the sense of the perseverance in Being. Speaking-with exposes the conatus of being-with, or better, it exposes being-with as conatus, exposes it as the effort and desire to maintain oneself as "with" and, as a consequence, to maintain something which, in itself, is not a stable and permanent substance, but rather a sharing and a crossing through. In this conversation (and sustaining) of being-with, one must discern how language, at each moment, with each signification, from the highest to the lowest–right down to those "phantic," insignificant remarks ("hello," "hi," "good" ...) which only sustain the conversation itself–exposes the with, exposes itself as the with, inscribes and ex-scribes itself in the with until it is exhausted, emptied of signification.

(p. 87).

Personally, I prefer the term "phatic," which has the advantage of being in my English dictionaries. If "phantic" is to be allowed, it shouldn't be on etymological grounds ("phatic" already does the job), but only because Nancy is setting up a play on the Heideggerian apophantic.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:29 PM. 0 comments

Mirror Self-Recognition in an Asian Elephant

A new study by Pltonik et al. finds Mirror Self-Recognition in an Asian Elephant (pdf). (HT Peripersonal Space.) Here is the abstract:

Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. In both phylogeny and human ontogeny, MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species. We exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants' heads to test whether they would pass the litmus "mark test" for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:15 PM. 0 comments

The Being Proper to Experience

The objectivity of the Umwelt is semiotic. This is what I took from Bains chapter on Umwelten (The Primacy of Semiosis, pp. 59-84). It requires just a little explanation. There is more at stake, however, than a question of how the environment is interpreted. It becomes a question of the nature of experience, whether experience is, as is claimed, primarily semiotic, and if so then what sense of being is proper to experience.

What does it mean to say that the objectivity of the Umwelt is semiotic? Jakob von Uexküll's basic insight is that the Umwelt, or environment, is specific to each species of organism (an idea I first encountered via Lewontin), and that furthermore, the relationship between an organism and its environment is one of interpretation. This is where Peirce's semiotics comes in handy, because it allows for the effects of a sign to be energetic as well as ideational, and thus, pace Uexküll, to see the Umwelt as an objective world. "Objective worlds," Bains writes, "are not in binary opposition with the modern sense of the subjective. Objective worlds as experienced include a shifting amalgam of mind-dependent and mind-independent aspects (or the 'psychical' and 'physical') through the univocal being of sign relations"(p. 74).

Well, now we're in the thick of it: The univocal being of the sign relation. Bains takes the view, following John Deely, that the being of the sign relation is the being proper to experience. (See also Deely's The Basics of Semiotics, esp. chapter 5; and Gilles Deleuze, Sur Anti Oedipe et Mille Plateaux, Cours Vincennes, 14/01/1974: English translation.) The heart of the argument is that the semiotic approach is truer to experience than other philosophical alternatives. "Experience is not locked into realism or idealism; it is neither/nor, for it is univocal in its being, including both the constructions of the mind and elements that are not reducible to the mind's constructive capacity" (p. 74). And similarly, "Semiotic reality is an interpentetration of the mind's own constructs with aspects of a mind-independent environment woven seamlessly together in the ontological univocity of the sign relation" (p. 77).

It occurs to me that there are other ways of navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of idealism and materialism, but the semiotic approach seems promising. It's been my task over the past twenty-four hours to examine my experience and see whether it resembles a semiotic reality. So far it seems plausible, but I am withholding final judgement pending further study.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:21 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 09, 2006


An excerpt from Mihhail Lotman's, Umwelt and Semiosphere (pdf), a contribution to the workshop Cassirer, Lotman, Uexküll: between biology and semiotics of culture:

Nevertheless, Lévinas' phenomenological language which seems to be mighty and adequate enough to define the existential necessity of the existence of the other can not in principle transmit the content of meeting. In order to that we must return to Buber, who summarized it with a simple phrase: "you and me". As Émile Benveniste showed, such words as "me", "you", "here" and "now" differ from usual words which signify objects not because they are different words, but because they belong to a principally different sign system. Benveniste tried to mark this differentiation by using such terms as semiotics and semiology, as well as speech and language. Namely, deictic words are the ideal form of semiotics of speech, differently from semiotics of language which is oriented towards objects and situations (Benveniste 1966). It is a very important differentiation, although in my opinion not quite adequate: deictic signs belong to the field of speech as well as symbolic ones. But here is another aspect which was overlooked by Benveniste: we are not dealing here just with speech (i.e., e.g., with monological speech), but necessarily with dialogue. Beyond the situation of dialogue deictic words are just meaningless.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:09 AM. 0 comments

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Rhythm of Thinking

Under the heading "Thought tends to personal form" William James offers the following insight (from Principles of Psychology: Chapter IX, The Stream of Thought):

The universal conscious fact is not "feelings and thoughts exist," but "I think" and "I feel." No psychology, at any rate, can question the existence of personal selves. The worst a psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob them of their worth.

By personal selves, James means "organized selves with a memory, habits, and sense of their own identity" To Dylan Trigg's question, Does the cogito remember?, I would add, "Is the cogito a creature of habit?" This seems to have been my obsession lately, but it's not bringing me any closer to understanding the connection between frequency and thinking.

Another tack then: Does the cogito have rhythm? More simply there's the question of whether the cogito has a pulse. But I don't think it's that simple. I don't have reason to believe that thinking is any less complex than elementary forms of musicality. If I say the cogito has rhythm, I mean that it has an on again, off again relation to pulse, that it builds on pulse. And the pulse is what? The cycle of day and night, the beat of the heart, the pulsative function of the unconscious, repetition.... Any experienced duration becomes rhythmicized by the cogito, including, perhaps primarily, its own durations.

Can we separate the experiential from what thought accomplishes on its own, or is this question of how exactly thinking recurs necessarily a question of the experience of thinking?

Am I afraid of thinking? Afraid to allow for what its recurrence might mean? What would it be like to have a completely tychistic personality? Or to be a person completely open to the event of thinking at each and every moment? I have a sense of myself as sensible, as a person who sleeps at night and during the day thinks about things now and then. I also have memories of thinking as lucubration, as manic, intense and incessant. If thought could go on without a person attached to it, would it ever want to rest? Would it be afraid to? These are questions of personality.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:40 PM. 0 comments

Hodiernal Unheimlichkeit

The following essay by Renee Tursi keeps cropping up in my googles: William James' Narrative of Habit, most recently while searching for the word "tychistic" (prompted by Clark's recent post, Peirce and Consciousness).

Here's a passage from James' The Meaning of Truth:

Are they [theoretical needs and intellectual satisfactions] not all mere matters of consistency--and emphatically not of consistency between an absolute reality and the mind's copies of it, but of actually felt consistency among judgments, objects, and habits of reacting, in the mind's own experienceable world? And are not both our need of such consistency and our pleasure in it conceivable as outcomes of the natural fact that we are beings that do develop mental habits--habit itself proving adaptively beneficial in an environment where the same objects, or the same kinds of objects, recur and follow "law"? If this were so, what would have come first would have been the collateral profits of habit as such, and the theoretic life would have grown up in aid of these. In point of fact, this seems to have been the probable case. At life's origin, any present perception may have been "true"–if such a word could then be applicable. Later, when reactions became organized, the reactions became "true" whenever expectation was fulfilled by them. Otherwise they were "false" or "mistaken" reactions. But the same class of objects needs the same kind of reaction, so the impulse to react consistently must gradually have been established, and a disappointment felt whenever the results frustrated expectation. Here is a perfectly plausible germ for all our higher consistencies. Nowadays, if an object claims from us a reaction of the kind habitually accorded only to the opposite class of objects, our mental machinery refuses to run smoothly. The situation is intellectually unsatisfactory.

In Tursi's narrative, this passage means that "habit gives us footholds in the morass of the unknowable by emptying experience of its uncanniness. Only then do thoughts truly feel sufficient and at home." Well, I'm not totally at home with Tursi's reading of Jamesian Unheimlichkeit. Neither can I say that it's far afield.

More and more in my daily reading I discover that I really don't know very much. I don't know for example what the unconscious is, nor do I have a solid grasp on consciousness. How could I even begin to compare Freud to the Americans James and Peirce? It's just a little unsettling, that's all.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:57 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The To Somebody of the Sign

Peirce defines the sign: "A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (quoted in Beuchot and Deely, Common sources for the semiotic of Charles Peirce and John Poinsot). Pedro da Fonseca defines to signify as "to represent something to a cognoscitive faculty." Beuchot and Deely treat these two definitions as equivalent. I'm not so sure Peirce didn't say exactly what he meant, no more and no less. What are the conditions of possibility of a cognoscitive faculty? What are the conditions of possibility of a somebody?

What can we say about the cognoscitive faculties of the cephalopods? The capacity for semiosis is abundantly evident within that class of organisms, but they do not possess "the cognitive system of a human being," as Beuchot and Deely would have it, and the nature of their cognoscitive faculties remains rather opaque. Is "somebody" then precisely as vague as it needs to be to describe semiosis, or do we need to say more?

John Poinsot gives the following definition: "a sign is that which represents something other than itself to a knowing power." Now I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Poinsot didn't have primarily octopuses in mind by the phrase "to a knowing power." The theological question ("Does God read signs") is not one I'm prepared to deal with. I'm looking at the semiotic question, "To whom is a sign addressed?" and wondering what the bare minimum requirement is for semiosis. Now, does Poinsot's definition imply that in using signs we can't be truly misunderstood? What kind of knowledge/power are we talking about?

Peirce of course says elsewhere that the interpretant is the somebody to whom a sign is addressed, and he describes that sometimes as "thought," that is, the sign represents something to thought. But this use of "thought" is not transparent: Peirce means by it the "mental effect" of the sign. "A representation is that character of a thing by virtue of which, for the production of a certain mental effect, it may stand in place of another thing. The thing having this character I term a representamen, the mental effect, or thought, its interpretant, the thing for which it stands, its object." Surely "somebody" is the clearest way of saying things, but now I can't be sure what is really meant by that.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:23 AM. 2 comments

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Complexe significable

Bains asks "Who was Gregory of Rimini and why would Deleuze refer to this almost totally ignored thinker" (The Primacy of Semiosis, p. 32). What is meant by the complexe significable, and how does this contribute to a logic of sense?

[F]or Gregory the object (or "conclusion") of a proposition is not self-reflexive. One's attention is not on the act of concluding, but goes directly to the meaning of the conclusion. What is designated is what is signified, and this is neither the extra-mental thing nor the act of thinking the conclusion. Ockham, however, reduces the direct intellectation of the prepositional act to a reflexive form of intellectation. Gregory understands "objectively" what Ockham understands subjectively, For Ockham, it is the proposition itself that is known–it does not lead directly to something other than itself ("only propositions are known"). For Gregory, the object of a proposition is what the proposition signifies–that is, its "total complex signified"–and the intellect gives its attention to this directly, not self-reflexively.

In Difference and Repitition (DR, 156), Deleuze gives a brief account of Gregory's complex theme as "sense": "It is distinguished from the proposition itself because it relates to the object as though it were its logical attribute, its 'statable' or 'expressible.' It is the complex theme of the proposition, and, as such, the first term of knowledge." Sense is extra-propositional.

(p. 36, endnotes omitted, my typography)

Bains clarifies a bit further:

Now what is the being of the complexe significabile, or the signified of the proposition? It is not a physical thing, but it is nonetheless aliquid (something) that is more than a psychological act. It has the being of an "object," esse objectivum, which constitutes, for Duns Scotus, the being of the known in the knower; and it will be Poinsot who shows how this esse objectivum can be understood in a relational rather that an entitive sense–as an interface of pure relation, rather than an obstacle or impenetrable screen between mind and matter. It is what Deleuze and Guattari will call the "outside" of thought, which is not the external world but rather that from which the opposition external/internal can even arise.

(p. 37)

See also Logic and the Sachverhalt by Barry Smith.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:12 AM. 4 comments

Other Occasions

"Monism allows for no such things as 'other occasions' in reality -- in real or absolute reality, that is" (William James, Pluralism, Pragmatism, and Instrumental Truth). Is the kairotic a special problem for philosophical monisms, or is it only a problem against them?

What's to be gained by comparing the kairotic now to the chronic now? Assuming that James isn't totally out to lunch, the comparison shows that the chronic now glosses over the eachness of nows, that it doesn't allow other nows to be originally nows. What does the kairotic now gloss over?

I can easily say "I can do without transcendence" but can I put it into practice?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:20 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Origin of the World

An origin is not an origin, Nancy writes, "in order to hover over some derivative succession in which its being as origin would be lost. An origin is something other than a starting point; it is both a principle and an appearing; as such it repeats itself at each moment of what it originates" (Being Singular Plural, p. 83). If the world is its own origin, he continues, "then the origin of the world occurs at each moment of the world."

So is the world its own origin? Is the world its own appearing? (To say as much at least seems familiar.) Is the world its own principle?

In a footnote to another passage (on the agreement between technology and the "with"), Nancy notes that if physis is defined as "what presents itself and what accomplishes itself by itself, then the 'with' is of a different order" (endnote 61, p. 202). To which order, then, does the world belong?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:11 PM. 0 comments

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Nomadic Ego

I am abidingly the yak who thus and so yakked. There's no getting around it. But in what way am I the yak who wandered here and there? Abidingly? I used to imagine that the interesting thing about the nomadic way of life was transhumance. Now I'm not so sure. Still, I should not be surprised if, ultimately, there is no place for nomadism in any worldly egology. And yet what would life be like without wandering? I shudder to think.

Can newborn infants experience non-organization, a lack of relatedness between experiences? Stern replies emphatically in the negative (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, p. 46). The state of relative undifferentiation should not be hypostatized. When diverse experiences are in some way yoked, the infant can experience the emergence of organization. What then becomes of wandering? Is wandering the perpetual emergence of organization, or is it something more radically at a distance from the self?

Stern presents a four dimensional model of the infant self: emergent self, core self, subjective self, and verbal self. The model has two plain virtues: (1) it appears to be empirically warranted, and (2) the development of one sense of self does not obliterate the previously attained senses of self; all are available to experience throughout the course of life. In theory one should be able to introspectively identify one's emergent sense of self. So what about non-self? Is this available to introspection? Search me.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:19 PM. 0 comments

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The World of Pure Experience

Bains' distinction between relatio secundum dici and relatio secundum esse, between transcendental and ontological relations seems to be headed toward a kind of pluralistic realism. He takes note of William James' radical empiricism that places conjunctive relations on the same footing as disjunctive relations: both are immediately given to experience (The Primacy of Semiosis, p.20). So now I've been reading James' A World of Pure Experience. I see its relevance to the semioticians, and I see what his pluarlistic philosophy means vis-a-vis plain empiricist or rationalist philosophies, but I am really taken with the way describes experience. Does it wash? It depends a lot on how we interpret "quasi-"–but I'm getting ahead of myself here.

James explains radical empiricism:

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as "real" as any thing else in the system. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.

Now, ordinary empiricism, in spite of the fact that conjunctive and disjunctive relations present themselves as being fully co-ordinate parts of experience, has always shown a tendency to do away with the connections of things, and to insist most on the disjunctions....

Radical empiricism, as I understand it, does full justice to conjunctive relations, without, however, treating them as rationalism always tends to treat them, as being true in some supernal way, as if the unity of things and their variety belonged to different orders of truth and vitality altogether.

Easy enough (and we see incidently an argument against reducing the relatio secundum esse to the relatio secundum dici), but what exactly does James' have in mind by "conjunctive relation"? He gives an example:

The conjunctive relation that has given most trouble to philosophy is the co-conscious transition, so to call it, by which one experience passes into another when both belong to the same self. My experiences and your experiences are "with" each other in various external ways, but mine pass into mine, and yours pass into yours in a way in which yours and mine never pass into one another. Within each of our personal histories, subject, object, interest and purpose are continuous or may be continuous. Personal histories are processes of change in time, and the change itself is one of the things immediately experienced. Change in this case means continuous as opposed to discontinuous transition....

There is no other nature, no other whatness than this absence of break and this sense of continuity in that most intimate of all conjunctive relations, the passing of one experience into another when they belong to the same self. And this whatness is real empirical content, just as the whatness of separation and discontinuity is real content in the contrasted case. Practically to experience one’s personal continuum in this living way is to know the originals of the ideas of continuity and sameness, to know what the words stand for concretely, to own all that they can ever mean.

Now that's something to chew on, but James takes it a step further. He argues that the cognitive relation, the relation between knower and known, actually hinges on a kind of conjunctive relation, that knower and known represent two experiences of the same subject "with definite tracts of conjunctional transitional experience between them."

James' view of knowledge as largely in transitu is coupled with a view of the universe of experience as "to a large extent chaotic." He says, "No one single type of connection runs through all the experience that composes it." And he writes, "experience as a whole is a process in time, whereby innumerable particular terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content, are themselves experiences, and must in general be accounted at least as real as the terms which they relate." And, "the whole system of experiences as they are immediately given presents itself as a quasi-chaos through which one can pass out of an initial term in many directions and yet end in the same terminus, moving from next to next by a great many possible paths." Finally, he asserts that "[t]here is vastly more discontinuity in the sum total of experiences than we commonly suppose."

So how chaotic do we suppose the system of experience really is? From my perspective, there is more regularity than James seems to allow, though there is room for improvisation and even aleatory trajectories. The system of experience is akin to the tune "Thelonious." In that tune the b-flat in the melody functions like an inverted pedal point. At each beat its relation to the underlying chords changes. It goes from tonic, 9th, 3rd, 11th, b5th, perfect 5th, b13th, 13th, 7th and so on as the tension builds between the descending chord movements and the melodic riff. How do you play such a tune? By improvising on the riff, or on the chord changes, or on the intervals? Whatever works, baby. In experience we riff, harmonize, groove and orient ourselves on the fly. But that's not to say that experience is chaotic. When I see other people, I don't see them as moving randomly. They have ways of moving, ways of relating that serve to characterize them. They have the kind of regularity known as style.

Is there room in James' radical empiricism for personal style? I'm not sure that he isn't dismissive of the habitual, the routine, which I think is a basis for style. So the question returns, how chaotic is quasi-chaotic? And what exactly gives weight to the quasi-?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:00 PM. 3 comments

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Does the Cogito Sleep?

Dylan Trigg's latest post (Night of the Il y a) prompted me to look at Descartes' Meditations to see about the question of whether the cogito sleeps. Decartes makes a leitmotif of the experience of sleep, in particular dreaming. Rumor has it that Descartes was himself a prodigious sleeper, but the question of whether the cogito sleeps arises almost of its own from the nature of Descartes' discovery.

In the First Meditation, Of the Things We May Doubt, Descartes says that "there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep." This really bugs him, and by the Sixth Meditation, Of the Existence of Material Things, and on the Real Distinction between the Mind and Body of Man, he comes to the view that: "I ought to reject all the doubts of those bygone days, as hyperbolical and ridiculous, especially the general uncertainty respecting sleep, which I could not distinguish from the waking state: for I now find a very marked difference between the two states, in respect that our memory can never connect our dreams with each other and with the course of life, in the way it is in the habit of doing with events that occur when we are awake." Personally I don't find this persuasive. I find that my memory can connect my dreams to each other and to the course of my life. In the same way as with waking events? That I don't know. In any case, Descartes' argument here does say something interesting about the cogito, namely that it has a course of life.

Is Descartes' a thing who thinks, as in the Second Meditation, or is he a man in the habit of sleeping, as he admits to being in the First Mediation? I don't see that this distinction between the habitual sleeper and the thinker is adequately resolved by Descartes. His anxiety about the interruption of the stream of consciousness is revealing, and the fact that he associates this phenomenon of the stream of consciousness with the course of life shows his bias. Do we have here the beginnings of a phenomenology of insomnia? Does the cogito sleep?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:01 AM. 2 comments

Friday, December 01, 2006


Nancy writes:

The very meaning of the word "together," just like the meaning of the word "with," seems to oscillate indefinitely between two meanings, without ever coming to a point of equilibrium: it is either the "together" of juxtaposition partes extra partes, isolated and unrelated parts, or the "together" of gathering totum intra totum, a unified totality where the relation surpasses itself in being pure. But it is clear from this that the resources found in the term are situated precisely on the point of equilibrium between the two meanings: "together" is neither extra nor intra. In fact, the pure outside, like the pure inside, renders all sorts of togetherness impossible. They both suppose a unique and isolated pure substance, but pure in such a way that one cannot even say "isolated," exactly because one would be deprived of relation with it.

(Being Singular Plural, pp. 59-60)

Here's a question then for anybody who's read Victor Turner's "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage": How do you reckon with the philosopher's play with liminalities in ordinary language? I see two possibilities (not mutually exclusive): (1) philosophy is a kind of ritual, or (2) what's true of symbols in rites of passage is true of symbols in general. Just curious.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:24 AM. 0 comments