Sunday, December 30, 2007

Song of the Potato

I empathize with the potato. What cuts the potato cuts me. I don't believe the potato has a mind. Therefore empathy does not require that the empathic person has a theory of mind (or ToM, as some scientific types put it). The empathic person does not posit but simply feels. Were science to discover that minds do not exist and that everything currently attributed to mind represents some other phenomenon or set of phenomena, the problem of empathy would remain what it is: what does it mean that a person can intimately feel what happens to the body of another living entity? (The problem of the autistic person's purported lack of empathy might appear differently were science to disbelieve in minds, but that's another story.)

What does empathy for the potato mean? There's a russet potato with some other russet potatoes hanging in a basket in the kitchen. I'm going to peel off its skin, cut it into chunks, toss the chunks into a pan with some onion, pepper and garlic, rub oil on the lot of them, and put the pan into the oven. Once it's good and roasted I'm going to eat the potato. Should I feel nauseated? If I reflect upon it perhaps it is just a little bit nauseating.

I'm not going to liberate the potato. What would that mean? Growing more pototoes? Just throwing it away? Although I have thrown away food, some force within me rebels against throwing away food, and I can't help but think of the potato as food. It would be better to be just a little bit nauseated than to throw away food. Empathy with the potato is thus a delicate balance between throwing up and throwing away food.

Am I worthy of this potato? Is my life so wonderful that I can just assume that I'm worthy of any potato, including this potato? I suspect that living my life fully means that I must interrogate my eating of this very potato. How am I going to live that I should eat this potato?

Why this potato and not another? Is philosophy capable of talking about the accidentality of existence, or must it abolish or suppress the accidental? Adriana Cavarero says that the accidental needs care, and she says, "To tell the story that every existence leaves behind itself is perhaps the oldest act of such care" (Relating Narratives, p. 53). How would you like it if I roasted you for supper, told the story of how you came to end up on my plate, and called that caring? Let's be honest for a moment about the psychology of kitchen stories, about the nausea and the brutality they conceal.

Is it really proper for me to celebrate this potato? Would it be too poetic to call attention to its chthonic existence? What about the stickiness of its milky blood on the blade of the knife? In my dreams I'm drawing close to Proxima Centauri. Were I to tell you about the dreams of this potato, huddled up against the stars in the Idaho night, you would be right to suspect me of prevaricating, of covering over a great catastrophe of being. So I shouldn't live for my dreams?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:59 AM. 17 comments

Friday, December 28, 2007

Le Goût du Néant


Sartre spells out what the imaginary means for an existential phenomenological ontology:

We are now at the point of understanding the sense and value of the imaginary. The imaginary appears 'on the ground of the world', but reciprocally all apprehension of the real as world implies a hidden surpassing towards the imaginary. All imaging consciousness maintains the world as the nihilated ground of the imaginary and reciprocally all consciousness of the world calls and motivates an imaging consciousness as grasping the particular sense of the situation. The apprehension of nothingness cannot occur by an immediate disclosure, it is realized in and by the free succession of consciousnesses, the nothingness is the matter of surpassing the world towards the imaginary. It is as such that it is lived, without ever being posited for itself. There could be no realizing consciousness without imaging consciousness, and vice versa. Thus imagination, far from appearing as an accidental characteristic of consciousness, is disclosed as an essential and transcendental condition of consciousness. It is as absurd to conceive of a consciousness that does not imagine as it is to conceive of a consciousness that cannot effect the cogito.

(The Imaginary p. 188)

If ontology is worth discussing then I too want to talk about how nothingness is lived. It's not that easy. When I examine my own experience of imagination I'm not sure whether I encounter anything like nothingness. Sartre says I don't apprehend it directly, but I'm unsure about the hidden surpassing towards the imaginary and whether that must proceed by a negation of the real world. If I accept that there is something like transcendence, does that really commit me to recognizing such an apprehension of nothingness? Most surpassings towards the imginary in my life are inchoate, and probably my grasp of the real is pretty loose. I desire a beautiful woman, which Sartre says I can't do; I am not routinely nauseated by the real.

A day went by. One of the days as the year dwindles down, neither belonging to the new year nor possessing the feel of the old, neither a holiday nor a workday, neither brilliant nor dismal. Staring out on the horizon, I might have been nauseated had I learned of a tsunami on the other side of the world, or an assassination. But there on that shore on that day I was not nauseated.

Indoors again, I imagined a trawler out on the horizon. In fact I imagined imagining a trawler on the horizon before I sat down and imagined one. I knew I would be confronting this issue of nothingness, trying to apprehend it, or what it means for the trawler as imaged to be absent. So my imagination of the trawler is suspect. And again, my imagination is not static. There is a crew on board the trawlers, characters. One of them is a Jack Kerouac-like figure peeling potatoes. Jack Kerouac was a romantic figure in my youth, yet he was also a real person who wrote stories about his friends and their travels. Everything about my imagination is suspect, infused with snippets of memory, culture, film, psychology, an ethos of compassion for all living things that is hard to live up to. What is the imagination itself? How would that differ from the imagination as it is lived?

I want to agree with Sartre that "the existence of a psychic phenomenon and the meaning it has for consciousness are one" (p. 19), yet I become aware that consciousness is something I must allow to happen, and that if I don't allow it to happen I am not really conscious, my conscious life has no meaning. Should I be nauseated at the discovery of a moment of meaninglessness? I have no reason to believe meaninglessness is benign. To feel its repulsiveness, though, I have to imagine this meaninglessness is Reality, or that the taste of nothing is really the taste of my own death, a death I am morbidly living. Morbidity may be the ultimate Neither/Nor, or the one we learn to live with. What then should we take from convalescence? It should be possible to imagine a meaningless one encounters as other than Real without being Irreal; it should be possible to recognize a situation as not yet having sense without meaning that one is therefore mired in or threatened by morbidity. Is the not-yet-sense of a situation really lived? Is the just-was-sense of a situation lived?

When I say that consciousness must be allowed to happen or that, pace Sartre, an imaginative consciosness may be surprising, while at the same time maintaining the Sartrean position against the existence of an unconscious that would bestow upon consciousness any meaning other than its own, it seems as if I must entertain the thought of a pre-existing morbidity, of a consciousness that is not all there, not healthy, not meaningful. This idea is perplexing because it is hard to fully grasp the truth that the not-yet-sense is pluripotent and senses are plural; we are not fully aware of the many ways we have of allowing consciousness to happen. The free succession of consciousnesses–which must too be allowed, and which also may then have its senses and its non-yet-sense–reveals neither nothingness nor a neither/nor that could be assigned to either morbidity or convalescence; rather it testifies to the abundance of consciousnesses, and that abundance is what's at issue in the as such. (It was a mistake, then, to think that allowance of a consciousness was preceded by a morbid consciousness.) This means that the cogito should not be conflated with the vivo, and one should avoid choosing one type of consciousness as a model for consciousness in general; the model of consciousness as it is lived is the free succession of conscious moments, and there may well be no consciousness in general or consciousness as such. I am taking a stand then against the existence of annihilation as such, and I am doing so on the basis of the abundance of the as such as such. I think we misrecognize the abundance of the as such as annihilation because fundamentally we identify consciousness with our vital existence. Well, to be honest, I would have an attitude about annihilation as such even if I weren't aware of the abundance of the as such. I am curious to know what it means to be conscious. It's still a little mysterious to me.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:12 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mah Soumano

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:59 PM. 4 comments

Goethe's Flower

It's looking like my efforts to imagine and Sartre's depiction of the imaging consciousness will not be reconciled. Sartre writes, "Goethe claimed he could produce a flower as a bud, make it grow, blossom, open, close, shed its petals, etc. But it seems to me that these affirmations that contradict my thesis are not absolutely sincere" (The Imaginary, p. 134). Why would Sartre question Goethe's honesty? When I read that sentence I suddenly became suspicious of Sartre, as if only a dishonest person would accuse Goethe of lying about his own imagination. We're on dubious ground here, but since the topic of the imagination fascinates me, since Sartre has a few things to say on the matter, and since I assume you can put some of these ideas to the test by imagining things for yourself, let's turn to another idea of Sartre's. He emphatically insists that strictly speaking there is no imaginary world (p. 167). He explains this position:

When we speak of the world of irreal objects, we use an inexact expression for greater convenience. A world is a dependent whole, in which each object has its determinate place and maintains relations with the other objects. The very idea of the world implies for its objects the following double condition: they must be strictly individuated; they must be in balance with an environment. This is why there is no irreal world, because no irreal object fulfills this double condition.

(p. 132)

It is very easy for me to imagine a world around Goethe's flower. I imagine many possible worlds, many incarnations of the flower. I can fix in my mind one flower, a tulip, and its world, from the stones in the foundation of the house outside of which the bulb was planted to the lace pattern of the doily under the vase where it spent its final days. And there are feelings, loosely attached, but they too could become fixed. I must conclude then that in the case of imagining Goethe's flower it is possible that the irreal object has a world, and that this world is also irreal or imaginary.

Is Sartre then mistaken about the imagination, or is he mistaken about what it takes to make a world? Is he lying? It must be asked. He might be lying if, for instance, he wanted to say something about being-in-the-world being related to freedom and decision, and he had already decided that the imaginary "world" was the "inverse of freedom" (p. 169), so rather than contradict himself he chose to lie. However, he didn't have to back himself into this corner where insincerity seemed like the least worst option to him; had he let his imagination flow and let this activity suggest what can be said about the image, he might have discovered a capacity for surprise–again this would be hard to reconcile with an idea that consciousness (and only consciousness) is existence while at the same time consciousness must also be an act. Well, have you ever been surprised by your own actions, your own capabalities? Sartre could have imagined action otherwise than he did. He could have imagined the world otherwise, and that of course brings up the other possibility, that Sartre is simply mistaken about what it takes to make a world. I don't have a problem with a world enveloping objects in indeterminate places, with a world of vague objects, or worlds of objects in various states of equilibrium or disequilibrium. It would be fruitless at this point to compare my experiences with mescaline to Sartre's, my dreams to Sartre's, or my psychotic episodes to Sartre's descriptions of psychotic cases. If you can imagine Goethe's flower then you can say whether it is worldless, or, upon reflection, whether it would be possible for it to have a world.

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Ghost of Nancy's Intrus

The narratable self that listens to her story, and is one because of the familiar, narrative structure of memory, transfers this irreflexive unity, even in the most manifest fragmentarity of the text. Moreover, it is above all the autobiographical impulse of memory that produces discontinuous and fragmentary texts, which, although untrustworthy and elusive, can nonetheless never be exchanged for someone else's story–as happens in the magnificent textual games of Jorge Luis Borges. This everyday certainty of the self, which comes from sensing oneself to be 'this and not another,' indeed continues to resist both the inimitable pleasure of Borges' inventions, and the more refined enticements of contemporary theory–which continue to impose upon the self the pleasure, if not the necessity, of the infinite dissolution of her internal and multiple alterity.

Signigicantly, with this spontaneous resistance–which seems, at first sight, to be based upon the banality of good sense–the narratable self ends up doing a good service for philosophy. Indeed, philosophy ought to be more cautious in playing around with the endless game of the other. By continuing to transport the category of alterity into the intimacy of the self, contemporary philosophy in fact produces the inevitable consequence of impeding every serious naming of the other in so far as he/she is an other.

As Arendt teaches us, a unique being is such only in the relation, and the context, of a plurality of others, which, likewise unique themselves, are distinguished reciprocally–the one from the other. The story of a unique being is obviously never the monotonous and monolithic story of an idem, but is always the unpredictable and multi-vocal story of an ipse. Although it changes in the course of its life and in the course of its story–even to the point of no longer seeming or feeling the same–this ipse, like Oedipus, is 'this and not another' from the beginning to the end of this life and this story.

(Relating Narratives, p. 43, Cavarero's emphasis, my bold)

Nancy's intrus has been haunting me. As I've been doing physical exercises the body I call mine has been changing. What makes this body a body, what gives it the consistency of a body? The heart–but Nancy's intrus haunts me, stands between me and the heart–and yet I feel the heart grow stronger. It doesn't feel disembodied, yet I can't precisely give it boundaries. I drink water prodigiously. It feels like water is also my body, woven in with my muscles. Pumped. A realization about my watery body came to me Monday night after forgetting to take my meds. I couldn't sleep. It was as if a demon possessed me, the mirror image of a beast that comes to me sometimes in nightmares. The beast is not exactly familiar, since it always frightens me, surprises me, it takes many forms, and still I am familiar with its force and its anger, its refusal to lie down. It feels like I'm repressing a tremendous rage, and also something more vital. Joy perhaps. Who is this person who refuses to sleep? How can I have an everyday certainty of the self in this situation? And is it really so unusual to be uncertain about the self? Whose thoughts are these? I don't imagine I'd want to give Nancy a big wet kiss, but I take his words (translated mostly) and put them in my mouth, allow them to circulate, allow them to go to my head. I read a description of psychasthenia and think oh yeah, this too describes a reality. Under the right set of circumstances it could be my reality. The psychasthenic self would be no less of a self than Cavarero's narratable self with its everyday certainty. In counterpoint to this certainty of self, Cavarero notes an unpredictability and a multivocality of the self. Could my familiarity with my unpredictable and polyvalent ipseity be anything but a desire? If I recognize the uniqueness of existents I wouldn't want to say that estrangement draws its boundaries in and around me exactly as it does in and around you. The boundaries of estrangement are negotiated in the context of a plurality of others. In our life together there is the remains to be seen. I have my doubts about the exposure of the existent, chief among them the sense that the existent is exposed in an instant, or already always exposed. If there is a desire for narration of one's life story, perhaps there is also desire for the remains to be seen. Oh yeah, and ghosts.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Agoraphobe

I am taking a critical posture towards Pierre Bourdieu's On Television (trans. Priscilla Ferguson, The New Press, 1998) not because it is passé–obviously it is, while at the same time it isn't inasmuch as the world wide web hasn't really changed everything and the fragmentation of the old media is not complete, such that the journalistic field that I know today resembles the journalistic field Bourdieu assaults–but rather because the antidemocratic attitude he expresses in this tract disturbs me. This variety of antidemocratic sentiment resonates with a set of antipopular sentiments that the academic classes direct not merely against television viewers, but against any expression of taste, opinion, feeling or indeed knowledge that differs from the expressions of elite intellectuals. I'm not going to win many friends by taking this position. Nobody's good taste will be validated, and at best we might be able to see limits of invalidation suggested by etiquette or eudemonia, though of course we are always free to question those. My position is neither anti-intellectual nor populist nor popular, but anti-anti-popular. I speak against a phenomenon of demophobia, and in Bourdieu's case acute agoraphobia with demophobic indications.

Naturally Bourdieu is aware of the charge of elitism. He has his defenses. He believes his position is genuinely democratic, that the people are best represented collectively; at stake, as he sees it, is the right to articulate the interests of dominated individuals. In his utopian world (he does in fact call his vision utopian) opinions deemed hostile to the interests of the dominated, for instance xenophobic sentiments, would never be allowed to be expressed and debated in the public sphere. For Bourdieu genuine political freedom means that sociologists–as positive scientists, for he would let positivists define his field to the exclusion of other voices–must determine what opinions and worldviews are inimical to the interests of the dominated, and what views are serve their interests, and must then ensure that these insights lead to action. I will let Bourdieu's own words make the case for esotericism, for it is a strong argument and oughtn't be lightly dismissed.

It is essential to defend both the inherent esotericism of all cutting-edge research and the necessity of de-esotericizing the esoteric. We must struggle to achieve both these goals under good conditions. In other words, we have to defend the conditions of production necessary for the progress of the universal, while working to generalize the conditions of access to that universality. The more complex an idea–because it has been produced in an autonomous world–the more difficult it is to present to the larger world. To overcome this diffuculty, producers in their little citadels have to learn how to get out and fight collectively for optimum conditions of diffusion and for ownership of the relevant means of diffusion.

(pp. 65-66, my bold)

Bourdieu appears blind to the notion that ideas might be formed in dialogue, between individuals and between intellectual worlds. His production model of intellectual life depends upon there being something like an uninitiated, uninformed, disempowered mass of people, people whose ideas couldn't possibly be complex and couldn't really be original because they have been planted in their heads through mass communications (p. 18). These masses are people in need of class enlightenment. A boutique model of intellectual exchange would be as alien and ugly to Bourdieu as an intelligent discussion about sports. The absolute disdain with which Bourdieu greets discussions about the weather (p. 29), as if phatic communion were a form of symbolic violence, reveals the depth of his antipathy towards other people, and also a sense of entitlement, as if people in his class should be entitled to put thoughts in the heads of the masses. After all, what is the purpose of having masses if they are not to be lead, and who better to lead the masses than those who have been charged with studying them, and indeed, mobilizing them?

Bourdieu puts his critics at a disadvantage. Apparently unaware of Godwin's law, Bourdieu points to a danger of collaboration among those who are not ensconced with an autonomous discipline. I will accept that risk. My position is heteronomous, which means that I am a "failure" (the quotes would be Bourdieu's) and am prone to certain self-deceptions about my intellectual capabilities. For the sake of argument I will accept Bourdieu's intellectual superiority and the superiority of his position, which he cherishes above all. It still strikes me as wrong to disrespect people for expressing popular tastes or opinions. Intellectuals kvetching about television is not as reproachful as teachers kvetching about students, but it can be unseemly. It often belies an emotional immaturity, and in that sense it represents a failure of academies of learning. It is difficult but I think necessary to be able to criticize the markets, the public spaces, without fearing and ultimately despising the people who participate in them. Despite Bourdieu's professed interest in liberating the masses, which might represent the sentimental outlook of a caring person, he is betrayed in his endeavor by his misanthropy and his agoraphobia.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:22 AM. 0 comments

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tango en Skaï

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:56 AM. 0 comments

Paradox of Ulysses

Adriana Cavarero speaks of a paradox of Ulysses, by which she means the situation that we recieve our own stories from the narrations of others (Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, trans. Paul Kottman, Routledge, 2000, p. 17). In other words, we are the protagonists but not the authors of our own life stories. Cavarero's perspective, suspicious of autobiography, contrasts with László Tengelyi's (The Wild Region in Life-History) emphasis on a life history that one tells oneself, although on the question of the irreplacable uniqueness of the existent there is perhaps some agreement. Where does the unicity of an identity come from? It is tempting for me to think that experience has a unicity, that all of my experiences seem to belong to me alone, and thus perhaps my consciosness could be a source of my identity. Cavarero (and in a different way Tengelyi) will have none of that. In her view the unicity that pertains to identity is given by others; identity is not substantial but rather relational and expositional. On the topic of the expositional character of identity, she is of course interpreting Hannah Arendt, which is her strong suit. When discussing the self-disclosure that pertains to action, she says that identity is expressive. It is not then consciousness which exercises an esemplastic power over experience; rather, relations between singular exposed existents constitute identity and, if I'm reading her correctly, give meaning to a course of life events.

When Jean-Luc Nancy says "birth" I'm not sure if he literally means birth from a womb. Cavarero, who reads Nancy affectionately, leaves no doubt that natality is about birth from the womb. The mother, she says, "embodies the ex- of existent" (p. 19). She says appearance is "rooted in the materiality of the context" (p. 21). I think maybe she means "the context of exhibition," which doesn't really say much, but the mere acknowledgement of a context is perhaps important, and of course there's the question of its materiality, which primarily interests me. Cavarero's thoughts on materiality are fleshed out in For More than One Voice which argues against the primacy of the visual that she posits in Relating Narratives. In any case, she appears to be committed to a kind of materialism. We might call it an expositional materialism, though it is also a materialism of natality. Here is a display:

The expositive and the relational character of identity are thus indistinguishable. One always appears to someone. One cannot appear if there is no one else there. It follows, to say it again with Nancy, that 'the un-exposable is the nonexistent'; that is, existing consits in disclosing oneself within a scene of plurality where everyone, by appearing to one another, is shown to be unique. They appear to each other reciprocally–first of all in their corporeal materiality and as creatures endowed with sensory organs. Put another way, the language of the existent assumes the bodily condition of 'this and not another' in all of its perceptible concreteness. Starting from birth, from the 'naked reality of our originary physical appearance,' [Arendt, The Human Condition] each of us is who appears to others uniquely and distinctly.

(pp. 20-21)

"[T]he language of the existent assumes the bodily condition of 'this and not another' in all of its perceptible concreteness." I find this intriguing, but I wonder about the distance between language and the existent that has been opened up in the paradox of Ulysses. Whose story is the Odyssey, or the story told at the court of the Phaecians? I'll quote another paragraph at length which shows, I hope, why the paradox of Ulysses is a paradox, or at least an irony.

To be sure, by emphasizing heroic action, the constitutive unmasterability [impadroneggiabilità] of the 'who' is made hugely evident. No one can know, master or decide upon identity. Each one of us is only capable of exhibiting it, of exhibiting that unrepeatable uniqueness which he is, as he appears to others in the actual context of his exhibition. Our Ulysses, who interacts with his peers on the Trojan plane, is thus not an extraordinary case at all. As happens not only with heroes, but also with all of the other actors, he does not know who he is because he could in no way know it. The one who is revealed never knows whom he reveals. Given that everyone's identity lies completely in the exhibitive character of this whowho the agent reveals is, by definition, unknown to the agent himself.

(p. 23)

Is the narrator a master of identities in any way? A master of anybody's language? When Cavarero goes on to speak of a desire for one's life to be narrated, I rather doubt she will be thinking of a desire to be mastered. What exactly is the power that the narrator holds? Who speaks the language of the existent?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:54 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Figure Skater

Jean-Paul Sartre traces a figure eight with his finger and he sees an eight, as if ink poured out of his finger and the figure hung before his eyes. He has a kinesthetic impression of the figure, and an affectivity towards it, but the kinesthetic impression is feeble in comparison to the visual image which totally dominates his consciousness. The differences between Sartre's imagination and my imagination are so great that I question whether anything can be determined about the imagination in general. To begin with there's the proposition that in actuality movements, knowledge and affectivity are one in the imaging consciousness (The Imaginary, p. 92). The image is a synthetic consciousness, not composed of parts like a physical mixture, but equally kinesthetic, affective and intellectual. Perhaps the image shows us a "a certain way that an object has of being absent within its presence" (pp. 72-73). In Sartre's work there is no unconscious, but rather a profusion of consciousnesses, and a metaphysics of presence (and absence). "If we start from knowledge," he says, "we see the image born from an effort of thought to make contact with presences" (p. 67). I'm unsure of whether my imagination will confirm this, or confirm anything Sartre says about the imagination.

I trace a figure eight with my finger, and I don't see an eight as if ink poured out of my finger. I keep tracing. I feel the eight. I see a young woman skating a figure eight, but she is not directly superimposed on the eight traced by my finger. From this angle she looks like she's skating a figure of infinity, though the image is unstable. She skates towards me. She appears vague to me, but I can make out little pompoms, the blue lines of the design on her sweater, the edge where the skate cuts the ice, her powerful calves. It is Terpsichore. I hear her skates. I cease tracing the figure eight with my finger. The sound of her skates persists. It is slow to fade. I can still see a figure, her hands moving behind her back. Just a blur. She becomes more vivid if I shut my eyes, but she fades. The whole of the image, anything but stable, anything but given all at once, fades into the snow. I can still feel the eight in my arms. Hours later I can still feel the eight in my arms and it helps me recall the sound of her skates. I am skating vicariously, and I feel it in my muscles, and in my sense of balance.

Why is it that Terpsichore smiles upon me and not, apparently, upon Jean-Paul Sartre? Is it her being as a presence I contact in my hearing, in my sense of balance? It feels more like she contacts me. The effort is hers, not mine. My effort was misdirected. Sartre's muse did not come to me when I needed to imagine a figure eight. Sartre says that "the existence of a psychic phenomenon and the meaning it has for consciousness are one" (p. 19). Here we must distinguish between the image of Terpsichore and the muse herself. How is the muse's presence like the presence of anything else that appears to consciousness? I may grant that muses are psychic, but are they phenomena? What could they themselves mean? What knowledge can I have of the muses? Their moods are mysterious to me. They come and go as they please, like and dislike whom they will. Perhaps they have a way of being absent in their presences, but I couldn't say what that might mean. The muses are neither consciousnesses nor unconsciousnesses, neither to nor of nor from but perhaps for consciousness. They are visitors with stories of travels far and wide. The best one can do is to be hospitable, to cultivate a hospitality of the imagination.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:11 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chiasmus Tree

He, Odif of the Far North, drove out to the cut down your own Christmas tree farm. A man in overalls handed him a saw and pointed out a row of pine trees. Odif tromped over to the trees, inspected a few of them, and then chose one to cut down. He sawed into the trunk and after a few moments of sawing the tree jumped up in Odif's hand. The flesh of the stump stared up at him. He smelled it. A sudden horror gripped him. It was he who went into the light. It was he who flew away. And then just as suddenly he was standing there, brutally standing there in a field of pine and fir stumps, a dying tree in one hand, a saw in the other. As he tromped through the snow on his way back to the parking lot the smell of his own flesh rose in his nostrils, a smell he associated with the snow. And he couldn't tell the tree's juices from his own. Paul Kottman, one of Adriana Cavarero's translators, says she uses a word that means "to have a taste of oneself" or "to recognize one's own scent or flavor." The word is assoporarsi. Maybe it's related to assporarmi. A word like it should exist in English. There should also be a word for the sudden awareness of a chiasmus of self and pine tree, a short brutal word like "life" or "pain."

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Memory Lane

Attali says, "Memory and courtesy are conditions of survival for the nomad, and for that of the future inhabitants of great urban labyrinths" (The Labyrinth in Culture and Society, p. 60). I rather suspect people sometimes follow discursive pathways in order to exercise politeness, or in order to exercise memory. To suggest that the furtherance of a way of life is a question of survival is to devalue it, to misapprehend its integrity. (Are furtherance and discursion truly at odds?) What explains the romance of the labyrinth? Boredom? Memory? Deep down in the deepest deep down do people yearn to remember? Would it be a question of longing for the attachments that memory creates? Do we feel that memory yearns to be enacted, or is the yearning we feel some other power that demands the enactments of memory? Don't we sometimes make paths to follow our yearnings?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:38 AM. 0 comments

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Symbolic Movement

schematic drawing

Do you see a human face in the above schematic drawing? Sartre says that "the representative elements in the consciousness of a schematic drawing are not the lines properly so called, but the movements projected onto these lines" (The Imaginary, p. 34). To imagine a face in these lines it is absolutely required that the body "adopts a certain attitude, plays a certain mime to animate this ensemble of lines" (p. 31; Sartre's ensemble of lines differs slightly from the one I've presented, but the point remains the same.) To see a face the white space on the left of the top lines must be different from the white space on the right; an absent line, in this case the line of a jaw, is enacted to separate figure from ground, to make the face appear as a face. This argument applies not just to schematic drawings but to all imagination. The image, according to Sartre, is "an act that aims in its corporeality at an absent or nonexistent object, through a physical or psychic content that is given not as itself but in the capacity of 'analogical representative' of the object aimed at" (p. 20, Sartre's emphasis).

Do you have to have a feeling about the face in order to imagine it? Can it be imagined without feeling? Sartre is concerned with something called "intuituion," and he says, speaking specifically of an affective sense that unites the signs of an imitation, though he means to make a broader point about imagination, that affectivity substitutes itself "for the intuitive elements peculiar to perception in order to realize the object as imaged" (p. 29). Sartre identifies two correlative elements of the mental image: matter and knowledge. The matter in the case of the face seen in the schematic drawing above would be something like a quasi-face. What of the knowledge? Sartre says:

Knowledge is not substituted in its ideational form for the failing matter. As such, it cannot fill the gaps in intuition. It must undergo degradation, to which we will return. It passes to the intuitive in the form of mime; it flows in movements. An new phenomenon appears: symbolic movement, which, by its very nature as movement, is on the side of intuition and, by its signification, on the side of pure thought.

(p. 51, Sartre's emphasis)

Perhaps it's telling that Sartre regards symbolic movement as a degraded form of knowledge (as I read him), and he didn't identify feeling as a primary element of the mental image. Would he be saying also that feeling is a degraded form of knowledge?

I very much like the idea that the body imagines. However, I've been playing around with the idea for a few days and I'm not sure it holds up. I imagine music all the time. It's easy for me to hear irreal sounds. I don't think my ears move to imagine music the way my eye moves to enact a face in a schematic drawing. When I try to hold perfectly still and imagine music, perhaps there is movement in my lungs, but it is not obvious. I will have to reflect on it some more.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:21 AM. 0 comments

Friday, December 07, 2007

Of the Emissary

See if you don't see a contradiction here: Nancy says that there is nothing either philosophical or literary in writing, but rather "writing traces an essential indecision of the two, between the two, and consequently, an indecision in each one"; then he says that "[w]riting is of the community or it is not writing" (The Experience of Freedom, p. 152). I assume that there are different communities of writing, some of them more literary, others more philosophical, and there would be no sense in calling them communities if they lacked boundaries, identities or differences as you prefer. If writing must be of the community it must then be at the same time, if it is to trace an indecision between the literary and the philosophical, not of the community. Well, this may all be nonsense, or it may touch on a paradox of community. Are communities trismegistically sealed? Some communities are more trismegistic than others. A completely closed off community would perish with its members, but it would still have been a community. An age cohort would be an example. What social groupings deserve to be called communities? Who decides among whom obligations to each other exist? A commensality, at least, has discernable boundaries. Does a community finally decide on itself?

Nancy says, truly, that writing issues from reading, and also that writing is for reading and for other writings. I would stress that writing isn't merely for its own reading but for other readings. Writing is a gobetween. It has an emissary function with respect to communities of the literate. Nancy says, "Writing is the movement of meaning in the suspension of signification, which withdraws meaning in giving it, in order to give it as its gift" (ibidem). How very generous. In fact the gifts of writing are most frequently trade items, and its gifts must always be understood in the context of the emissary function, as the gestures of an emissary. Its meanings are emissary meanings. The community gives but it does not give meanings. It gives the suspension of meanings, which may or may not be a refusal of meanings. The community gives neither decisions nor indecisions, but entrusts them both to emissaries. What writing requires, to present meaning and also to be sent forth, is immunity, or rather immunities. It must be for and from other readings without obligation, or, precisely, without the decision of an obligation. This as I see it is the paradox of community: it covers what it refuses to decide with an immunity; it allows emissaries to partake of its indecisions with immunity for the sake of its self-interepretation; it is of the emissary. In this sense, then, all communities are trismegistic.

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

Bad Hexis?

Is there such a thing as a bad hexis? If not then hexis should no longer be translated as "habit" or even as "disposition." In the Theatetus, maybe the loveliest work of ancient Greek thought, Socrates uses the word hexis in two parts of the dialogue. In the second instance (197b) he says hexis means something like holding, as in holding knowledge immediately as opposed to owning knowledge and keeping it tucked away, like pigeons or the like in an aviary in fact. The first time he says hexis (153b) he means something like being in shape. He asks whether the bodily hexis is destroyed by idleness and preserved by exercise. And he asks about the hexis of the soul, whether the soul is preserved through learning and practice and whether through idleness it forgets what it has learned and learns nothing. The concept here is like a hold or fastness or even constitution in one of its senses, which is a translation one encounters, although one can speak of a sickly constitution; I'm not sure one could speak of a sickly hexis. Assuming I'm correct, and there are yet a few reasons to think I might not be, I sort of admire the Greeks for not imagining a bad hexis or an ugly hexis.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:22 AM. 2 comments

Whose Transcendental?

Deleuze says, "The error of all efforts to determine the transcendental as consciousness is that they think of the transcendental in the image of, and in resemblance to, that which it is supposed to ground" (The Logic of Sense, p. 105). I don't undertsand this idea that transcendental consciousness must ground anything, but I must allow that Deleuze has a better grasp than I do on the phenomenology of his day, which is the primary target of criticism in this section. This is what Deleuze means by the transcendental: "Only when the world, teeming with anonymous and nomadic, impersonal and pre-individual singularities, opens up, do we tread at last on the field of the transcendental" (p. 103). Whose world? Whose transcendental? I'm a little perplexed.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:21 AM. 11 comments

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Attali's Sensualto Guide to Life

Jacques Attali's The Labyrinth in Culture and Society: Pathways to Wisdom (trans. Joseph Rowe, North Atlantic Books, 1999) has something to say about the nomadism of the global elite and those who emulate their lifestyle. (I will likely have more to say about the nomadisms of the imminent future in the more imminent future.) I get the sense that Attali is looking to the labyrinth to make sense of his own not quite sedentary life. One of the things he feels uprooted from is the Enlightenment, which he, unobjectionably it seems to me, associates with an aggrandizement of the straight line. Attali feels that life, the world, time and perhaps being do not move in straight lines. In the first place then his study of the labyrinth is a celebration of the meander, and the philosophy of the meander must be understood as a critical alternative to an inherited metaphysics of straight lines. Attali tells us that "time itself does not flow but is spread out in space with comings and goings, with spirals and blind alleys, and distant proximities as well as illusory distances," and he goes on to say that "nothing is more urgent than the learning of patience and the pleasure of losing oneself, of ruses and detours, dances and games, so as to discover oneself as capable of fashioning one's life as an ironic work of art–before one is able, if ever, to pass on its secret" (p. xxviii).

Sensualto has not previously existed as a word except as a typo. Henceforth it describes a style of movement that meanders or gently wavers, and also a style of warm melismatic singing. It also describes anything suggestive of sensualto forms or gestures, for example, "A sensualto minotaur was engraved on the ewer." As a direction in music it means exactly "softly, with gusto." It connotes sinuosity and masonry. The philosophy of sensualto reveals that it has no end; it's history is labyrinthine and has nothing to do with its origin. For all that, sensualto is frequently unicursal.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:02 AM. 0 comments

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dynamics of the Imaginary

Jean-Paul Sartre claims that introspective reflection on the imagination yields a statics of the image and nothing more (The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, Routledge, 2004, p. 15). Based upon my own intropection I dispute this claim, and therefore I also question some of the distinctions Sartre has drawn between imagination and perception which presume that images in their rawest form are isolated and static.

Imagine a chair. I imagine a chair like an egg cut on the bias with a pedastal or base. The base narrows, and then widens to encompass the whole of the body of the chair. It narrows again. The chair swivels on the base, then it wobbles, then it is fixed. The base is black, then off-white like the chair. It emerges from the wall instead of the floor, and then the ceiling. It is a net. It is an electrogravitational field of some sort. The chair materializes when Pierre drops his butt into it. It is ecru, egg-shell, winter white, bright white, mushroom white. The chair is a mushroom. The chair is an off-white recliner. The sections drift apart and spring back. It is soft as a baby's bottom. Pierre is embarrassed that I spotted him carressing the upholstery. It has little bumps. The arms of the chair are flanges, wings. The chair flaps its wings. They are flanges again. A control panel is set in the right flange to adjust the chair's dopamine levels. A wicked thick needle emerges from the head rest. An internet jack at the base of the skull. On the flange is a tray for the dental equipment. A bright light shines in Pierre's open mouth. Molars you could sit in. The chair trembles. It rattles. It clasps Pierre's ankles and wrists and then lets go. Hoppity hop chair. Bouncing pony saddle with gold stirrups. And so on.

Did I imagine one transmogrifying chair or forty different chairs? (The number forty is rhetorical. It could have been forty thousand. This is important when one considers the putative infinite inexhaustibility of perception and how this compares to the repletion of the imaginary. If forty won't cover it, perhaps forty thousand will.) Does the imagination deal in static images, or does it deal in imagery, projects of imagination, or, indeed, phantasmagoria? I think it's easier to imagine that the image is wrested from the phanstamagoric flow than to imagine that the phantasmagoric is composed of pasted-together static images. Is the consciousness of the chair as imaged static or dynamic? To answer such questions I can only recommend that you yourself imagine a chair and study your imagination.

Some further questions arise from Sartre's investigation of the image. He says, "An image is not learned: it is organized exactly as the objects that are learned, but, in fact, it is given whole, for what it is, in its appearance" (p. 9). By learning objects he means multiplying possible points of view on them. (Hmm.) He says that things in the perceptual world are characteristically overflowing while things in the imaginary world are impoverished. The image, he says, contains only what is put there by consciousness. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I would question whether imaginative putting is typically exhausted in a single act, like a snapshot.

Let's hone in on the immediacy of the image according to Sartre. He says that in imagining something that moves "there will never be the smallest time-lag between the object and the consciousness. Not a second of surprise: the object that is moving is not alive, it never preedes the intention. But neither it is inert, passive, 'worked' from the outside, like a marionette: the consciousness never precedes the object, the intention reveals itself at the same time as it realizes itself, in and by its realization" (p. 11, Sartre's emphasis). Sartre remarks in an endnote that hypnagogic imagery may be an exception to this, that hypnagogic images resist consciousness. I wonder though whether hypnagogia doesn't teach us something essential about the imagination, and whether we have in our wakeful lives the capacity to be surprised by our imagination. I believe that if I allow my imagination free rein (again with the horses) I can be surprised by images. Since digging into Sartre's study of the imagination I can't be certain about whether this is true for others.

Now Sartre says something about the imagination that I think must be partially true (or, in fact, mutably true). He says that the imaging consciousness "is spontaneous and creative; it supports, maintains by continuous creation, the sensible qualities of its object" (p. 15, my emphasis). Of course in this post I am questioning whether or how the imagination maintains or conserves the object as imaged. I would argue that precisely because it does operate by continuous creation the imagination does not have conservation or maintenance as its goal, and because the image springs from a "deep spontaneity that cannot be assimilated to the will" (p. 18, my emphasis) it has surprise as one of its possibilities. However, I must confess that my imagination of the chair this morning is in part a remembering of an episode of imagination that occurred on Thanksgiving, an episode that has been relived, in parts, since then. Though I am able to imagine newly–at this moment for instance the chair is a red button–I also imagine oldly, which suggests that indeed the imagination does maintain sensible qualities and in various aspects conserve the object as imaged. Remembering is generally part of my writing process, as I often think in bed, in the shower, while reading, exercising or otherwise occupying my mind away from the computer, and I typically write in the mornings when my mind is clear and strong, as far as that goes. So there does appear to be an element of maintenance involved in the imagery of the chair I've given. Is this the work of memory completely separate from the work of imagination, or do the imagination and the memory operate on the same wave lengths? Do they produce the same sort of results? Sartre says that imaging consciousness "feels itself to be consciousness through and through and homogenous with other consciousnesses that have preceded it and with which it is synthetically united" (p. 14, my emphasis). I remain uncertain about the relationship between imagination and memory.

(I will take the opportunity to announce here that I will be devoting some thought to Mnemosyne, and thinking memory as a mindfulness of something other than la même, though perhaps la même cannot be avoided.)

Finally, does the imaged object give itself as a nothingness? Well, Sartrean nothingness may be especially replete. It may make sense to speak of irreality and a transversal consciousness that has no object. I don't know what this nothingness has to do with certainty though, and it is certainty that Sartre is claiming to uncover in these opening chapters. I don't doubt that Sartre was imaginatively conscious of some objects or that he reported honestly on what he observed. Nevertheless, I can't share his confidence in the certainty of the data of introspection. I am certain about the imagery of the chair that I've had, and I suspect that my imagination does traffic in uncertainties, but I have no illusion that I therefore know how the imagination works in every instance, for everybody. What is the relationship between the phantasmagoric faculty that I've discovered and your own imagination of a chair? And how would such a faculty actually relate to memory or to other consciousnesses? Is perception really the arena of inexhaustibility, or is it the imagination that supplies the forty thousand aspects of a thing?

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Improvising Improvisation

I credit Benson's The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue with being an ambitious undertaking. One difficulty posed by the attempt to understand all music making as a process of improvisation is the question of how exactly one defines improvisation. Some of the traditions Benson is most conversant with (classical and "classical" music) don't present themselves as traditions of improvisation, and practioners of these forms of music often explicitly say they are not improvising. This is just one of the areas where the difference between what musicians think and what the musicologist thinks are sharply at odds. In the area of jazz improvisation, for instance, Benson is rather more comfortable with Adorno's celebrated opinions on jazz than he is with Sam Rivers' description of his own musical process back in the heyday of his free jazz period. There is no thought on Benson's part of privileging the understandings of the music maker. I point this out because it bears on an issue I would like to dig into for a moment. How much spontaneity is there in an improvisation? How many strings come attached to musical freedom? (The metaphor is that of a puppet, not a violin. Just thought I'd point that out, perhaps to think about polysemy, or homonymy, as you prefer.) Benson views practice and tradition as strings that make music dance, yank it around and all that. He needs a definition of improvisation that is not too precise (remember, he lists some eleven major senses of improvisation with minor variations, but does not tackle free improvisation head on) because he is going to apply it broadly. At the same time, he seems to feel that he cannot account for genuinely free improvisation because that would tip the scales towards musical freedom in general, and then then he would have no purchase on the genres he's truly conversant with. One might then be led to consider whether "classical" and classical musics, with the exception of modern early music movements, really have all that much to do with improvisation. Well, it's not for me to decide whether the whole endeavor should be sent back to square one. I do see another option, which is to regard improvisation as never having certain degrees of freedom or unfreedom, but always being improvised in its relation to freedom. That is, what improvisation means is always decided concretely, freely, in the moment of music making. (The moment relates to a musical practice in no set way, but is simply an opening for improvisation. ) To really see this, I think, one would have to seriously attend to a particular practice of improvisatory music, to know the difference between free variation and variations on freedom that could fundamentally alter a musical practice. And in general one might have to allow for a negative improvisation, for dispensations of liberties that are not quite egalitarian, and for liberties that are meant to negate the liberties of improvisation. To study musical improvisation in general would then be a monumental undertaking, requiring many monographs, many tomes.

Anyway, strictly for educational purposes, here's Sam Rivers in a later incarnation rehearsing his big band:

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:27 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Transhumance Jive

Transhumance is the habitation that passes between at least two distinct terrains or grounds. Habitation is the activity of dwelling. "Activity of dwelling" means an ensemble or a project of actions that lend themselves to dwelling. Dwelling is, among other things, the constitution of places. Constitution itself is a kind of intensive placement. Thus the concept of place is the most difficult of all to grasp, the most likely to lead in circles, and we should therefore add to the definition of habitation a concrete element so that it doesn't slip through our fingers. Habitation is also the placement of memory, which is not the emplacement of memory within a terrain, but rather the giving of place to memory. Still, it may be said that habitation places memory. Habitation constitutes place and places memory in a single (habitual) gesture. Memory is but one faculty that is given place by habitation. We might also speak of an erotic faculty given place by habitation. We should push against the boundaries of the psychic and be so bold as to imagine the gustatory as its own faculty with its own meanings, for example. However, in view of the various affordances of the different faculties, they cannot be regarded as equal. Memory is an exceedingly powerful, that is to say enabling, faculty. It is an important fact that habitation gives place to memory.

A place is not the same as a location, though in everyday usage the two terms sometimes appear interchangeable. A locus may be similar to a place, but location is given by a different ensemble of processes than place. Location is given by territorialization. It's tools are the map and the satellite, and it's methods are governed by its tools and a generic territorial intention. Territorialization appears to require habitation (I'll question this in a minute), but habitation does not require territorialization. Locations have recently proliferated faster than places, though places too proliferate. (By "recently" I almost always mean in the past few millennia, though sometimes, as in this case, my thoughts are honed in on the latter half of the past millennium.) The faster proliferation of locations relative to places means that coincidences of place and location may be regarded as evidence of a nostalgic worldfeeling. (A "worldfeeling" is a way of feeling about the world that affects every other feeling, though perhaps not with the force of a Cause). Nostalgia is one of memory's responses to violent displacement. I question whether the "nostalgia" that would result from a hypermodern degradation of habitation can be equated with a modern nostalgia that results more directly from displacement. In either case it feels like the memory suffers a loss. The loss of location means very little for memory. The loss of habitation would be most profound.

Places are also called topoi. The usage is not "merely" metaphorical. Places and topoi result from similar processes, which can be lumped under the rubric of habitation. In any field, on any terrain, a topology is a study of habitations through given places. Well, that's a transhumanist definition of topology, for what it's worth.

Transhumance in the context of hypermodern existence may be colored by a nostalgic affect. I'm not talking about transhumance in order to assuage any pains or to re-cover any meanings, and therefore rather than speak of a hypermodern degradation of habitation I would speak of a crisis of habitation, if that really describes a recognizable situation. I will not take a position on whether transhumance has been outmoded by modern and hypermodern modes of habitation, as it is much too soon to tell what will become of transhumance, and how conflicts between modes of habitation will be negotiated in the future. In any case, transhumance allows us to critically appreciate the difference between places and terrains, and it allows us to understand habitation transterritorially, though one can expect transterritorial assertions to be contested, and people will in fact kill each other over differing constitutions and reconstitutions of places, which is what is at stake in confrontations between territorial and transterritorial worldfeelings. I wouldn't want to valorize either side in such a dispute.

It is not because places can be remembered that they can be reconstituted, but rather it is because places are reconstituted that they can be remembered. It would not be possible to remember a place if place had not been given to memory as replacement, as reconstituted place. Memory would not know how to recieve place unless it were given as replace, or replacement if you must. This is the first important lesson of transhumance. Habitation replaces memory.

Once it is understood that constitution and placement are reconstitution and replacement the prefix becomes redundant. It should not be thought there is something like Repetition standing behind constitution waiting to be instanced, or giving force to an instantiation. We could say that there is no originary place, but it would be just as true to say that every place is originary, which is to say that it wouldn't be true at all. Originary simply never enters into it. Habitation, which is especially clear in the case of transhumance, constitutes place as reconstitution without ever making a copy of place. This is why attempts to copy place on any ground feel false. Such "places" always feel unlived in, at odds with any worldfeeling that would accord with a habitation. There may however be no reason to feel to nostalgic about habitation amidst copies of places; one simply has to recognize how one lives, or how one might be able to live.

Where do places come from? It might appear that habitation takes from terrain in order to give place. This is deceptive. Habitation is ingenious in its manipulation of the gift economy. It can give and take in a single gesture, regive and retake without once violating the gift. The gift of place is virtually inexhaustible. Habitation might appear as the source of all giving of place. This too is deceptive. Habitation gives without being the source. Before there can be a source source must be given by habitation, but habitation never has the status of a source, and is never itself a gift. Places, then, do not pass through habitation on their way to becoming places. They are precisely given by habitation.

Does transhumance give place less deeply than intranshumance? Absolutely not. Transhumance gives place to memory to the same extent as any other mode of habitation. Transhumant places are as intensely placy as intranshumant places. There is no quality or essence of place lacking from the transhumant place. Thus everything received wisdom tells us about knowledge will have to be upset. That's all I'm going to say for now.

Oops. Almost forgot to say that territorialization has essentially nothing to do with habitation. To say that territorialization requires habitation is to implicitly support a claim. I won't do that.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:53 PM. 5 comments