Monday, February 25, 2008

Meme 123-5 Variation

This is a variation of the 123-5 meme which involves tagging five other bloggers. I've been tagged by Dylan. Here's the deal:

  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  2. Open the book to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five bloggers.

I picked up Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch (Princeton University Press, trans. Carolyn Abbate, 2003).

And more still: even in this "moment," the musical-ness of music will often be due to an even briefer conjunction, the briefest instant within a brief moment, an opportune minute, one beat of a single measure–like the ravishing chord in Chabrier's Sulamite, like the captivating harmonic sequence in Chaikovsky's Dumka, or the Gregorian cadence at the end of Fauré's fifth piano prelude. The Charm hangs on the impoderable musical-ness of a brief occasion, a lightning strike of an event.

But can one install wisdom on the seat of this delicate imperceptible point in an ephemeral instant?

I reckon old Vladimir was asking the question posed by music which is also a vital question for thought. Generally I'd say it was the question of the present moment, though as Paul might want to point out, my inclination would be to jump to the question of how one experiences the present moment–and so perhaps you can see one reason why the question appeals to me as it arises from thinking about music rather than, say, calculus.

I tag Nick,Matt,Roman,Yusef and Keith.

Whew! I made it without crashing. I'll be on shaky legs until next Monday or so.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:50 AM. 10 comments

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Technical Difficulties

My computer has been crashing. I will be up and blogging again hopefully some time next week.

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:15 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Going to Wave My Plastic Flag High

Miguel Leal writes, "For [Catherine] Malabou, the essence of plasticity resides in its dual substantive condition that designates that which is capable of giving but also of receiving form, or, to be more precise, in the 'double movement, contradictory and thus indissociable, of the emerging of and of the annihilation of the form,' thus taking its place in a between-two in which the very idea of creation is at play" (On Plasticity: Sound Cartographies). As I peek into various senses of the plastic I feel I should say again that I don't look to etymologies for originary meanings but rather for alternative meanings or perhaps varieties of a meaning in the anticipation that, if I am fortunate, a conflux of meanings or thoughts will emerge to stimulate further thought and discussion, even if it is only discussion amongst myselves. Today I seek to momentarily develop, to borrow a term from Dominique Païni (whom I just today learned about from Leal's essay) a plastic awareness of the plastic awareness, the latter of which I will identify with the imagination. The idea of the oscillation of the emergence and the annihilation of forms calls back to Nancy's thinking about the metamorphic force of the image and the rapport with the image. There is some cause for linking the idea of the plastic with the idea of the image. The word plastic comes from the Greek πλαστῐκός which means "fit for molding" and also, when said of persons, "gifted in sculpture." (I'm relying upon the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott for the meaning of Greek words.) It is related to πλάσσω, which means "to form, to mold" and, in one of its senses, "to form an image of a thing in the mind, to imagine." (Mold, btw, comes to us by way of the French mouler which means "to hug the figure.") Another meaning of πλάσσω is "to mold or form by training or education." A πλάσμα is, among other things, an image or figure. The Greeks thus help us think of the image as something shaped and also, perhaps, shaping. What qualities must the sculpted possess in order to sculpt the sculptor? Leal touches on the idea of a thickness necessary for any plasticity. He says that "in order for matter to show its plasticity it is above all necessary to grant it thickness." The double movement of imagination hugs the figure and draws out the form, unfolding in a milieu the emotional thickness of Play-Doh or the temporal thickness of the plasmatic stream. It is perhaps utlimately the thickness of metaphor, which, in kindness to Leal, I will regard as a πλαστῐκή τεχνῶν.

What do we want matter to say to us? Does the giving and taking of shape happen outside of shape? Is a plastic awareness of plastic awareness necessary for plastic awareness in the first place? Would the plasticitiy of the plastic awareness of plastic awareness be metaplastic or hyperplastic? How far can we stretch plasticity? Is there a point to deformation, or is it all just a stretch? Is the give and take of shape essential to shape? Is formlessness capable of receiving form or might it be only give-and-take that formlessness gives-and-takes, never merely taking nor merely giving. Is the imaginatively gifted also the imaginatively taken? The imagination is necessarily always formless in one aspect, a form having been taken, even if we are unsure of the exact point in the exchange of forms at which imagination begins. To be imaginatively taken is to be absorbed in the exchange of forms, which for practical purposes means cultivating a plasticity with respect to the question of origins. One thing I think we want matter to say to us is that it isn't exhausted, that it's ready to play some more.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:16 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Success of the Word Milieu

The name Georges Canguilhem popped up over at Wildly's. The Oxford University Centre for the Environment School of Geography Technological Natures Research Cluster has made public Graham Burchell's rough translation of The Living Being and its Environment from La connaissance de la vie by Georges Canguilhem. In this essay Canguilhem reviews the history of the word milieu and the concept of the milieu or environment of a living being.

But there is still a lesson to be drawn from the absolute and unqualified use of the word milieu definitively established by Comte. In Lamarck, the equivalent of what the word will henceforth designate was circumstances; Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in his 1831 report to the Academy of Sciences said: the surrounding environment (le milieu ambiant). The terms circumstances and ambiance or surroundings suggest a particular intuition of a centered or focused formation. In the success of the word milieu the representation of the straight line or indefinitely extendable plane, both continuous and homogenous, lacking definite shape or privileged position, prevails over the representation of the circle or sphere, forms which are still qualitatively defined and, if one may say so, hitched to a fixed center of reference. Circumstances and surroundings still preserve a symbolic value, but milieu forgoes reference to any other relation than that of a position forever denied by exteriority. Now refers to before, here to its beyond, and so on without cease. The environment is truly a pure system of relations without supports.

(pp. 4-5)

I should pause a moment to take note of Canguilhem's rather semiotic view of the environment. He says, "[Kurt] Goldstein says that 'the meaning of an organism is its being'; we can say that the being of the organism is its meaning. . . . Biology must therefore consider the living being first of all as a meaningful being, and individuality not as an object but as a characteristic in the realm of values. To live is to spread out, to organize the environment from a center of reference which cannot itself be referred elsewhere without losing its original meaning" (p. 13). Then, in a discussion of Pascal's "Disproportion of the Human Being," Canguilhem lays out three senses of the word milieu: median position, sustaining fluid (a sense inherited from Newtonian mechanics), and vital environment:

We know what became of the idea of the Cosmos with Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, and how dramatic the conflict was between the organic conception of the world and the conception of a universe decentered in relation to the Earth of living beings and man, the privileged center of reference of the ancient world. Starting with Galileo, and also Descartes, we had to choose between two theories of the environment, that is to say, basically of space: a centered, qualitative space in which the mi-lieu is a center; a decentered, homogenous space in which the mi-lieu is an intermediary field. Pascal's famous text, Disproportion of [M]an [§72], clearly reveals the ambiguity of the term in a mind which cannot or does not want to choose between its need for existential security and the requirements of scientific knowledge. Pascal knows full well that the universe has fallen apart, but the "eternal silence" fills him with dread. Man is no longer in the middle (au milieu), but he is a "mid-point" [un milieu]) (a mid-point between [milieu entre] two infinities, between nothing and everything, between two extremes); the "middle station" (milieu) is the condition in which nature has placed us; we drift over a vast milieu ["we are floating in a medium of vast extent"]; man bears a proportion with some parts of the world, he has a relationship with all that he knows: "He needs a place to contain him, time to exist (durer) in, motion in order to live, elements to compose him, warmth and food for nourishment, air to breathe . . . everything in short is related to him." We can see therefore three senses of the term milieu interfering with each other here: median situation, sustaining fluid, and vital environment. In developing this last sense Pascal sets out his organic conception of the world in a return to Stoicism beyond and against Descartes: "Thus, since all things are both caused or causing, assisting and assisting [sic], mediate and immediate, providing mutual support in a chain linking together naturally and imperceptibly the most distant and different things, I consider it as impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole as to know the whole without knowing the individual parts." And when he defines the universe as "an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere," Pascal paradoxically tries, through the use of an image taken from the theosophical tradition, to reconcile the new scientific conception, which makes the universe an unlimited and undifferentiated milieu, and the ancient cosmological vision, which makes the world a finite totality that refers back to its center. It has been established that the image Pascal uses here is a permanent myth of originally Neo-Platonist mystical thought in which the intuition of the spherical world centered on and by the living being is combined with the already heliocentric cosmology of the Pythagoreans.


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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:25 PM. 0 comments

Monday, February 11, 2008

Touch and Go

Agamben writes:

While scientific experiment is indeed the construction of a sure road (of a methodos, a path) to knowledge, the quest, instead, is the recognition that the absence of a road (the aporia) is the only experience possible for man. But by the same token, the quest is also the opposite of the adventure, which in the modern age emerges as the final refuge of experience. For the adventure presupposes that there is a road to experience, and that this road goes by way of the extraordinary and the exotic (in opposition to the familiar and the commonplace). Instead, in the universe of the quest the exotic and the extraordinary are only the sum of the essential aporia of every experience. Thus Don Quixote, who lives the everyday and the familiar (the landscape of La Mancha and its inhabitants) as extraordinary, is the subject of a quest that is a perfect counterpart of the medieval ones.

(Infancy and History, p. 29)

Is there no method, elenctic or otherwise, for reaching aporia? Is there no unsure path? The question before us seems to be whether experience, if it has about it an essential aporia, must also therefore be unmethodical or completely disconnected from any method whatsoever. I'm unsure of how to answer the question directly. Before attempting to answer the question I would like to investigate the etymology of method. There is a Latin methodus (mode of proceeding, rational procedure) which is not too distant from the English method. There is also an ancient Greek word μἐθοδος which we should analyze. Its two parts are μετα- and ὁδὀσ. It is ὁδὀσ of course which means way, path or travel. The curious bit is μετα-. The OED says of this prefix, "Cf. Mycenean Greek me-ta ‘together with’, which is perh. the original sense in Greek. In ancient and Hellenistic Greek μετα- is combined chiefly with verbs and verbal derivatives principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change (of place, order, condition, or nature), in the last sense freq. corresponding to classical Latin words in trans- prefix." So we are brought around to the idea that the μἐθοδος might be thought of as a quest for a path (or, golly, even a path about a path). I would prefer to think of it a little differently for the sake of investigating the question at hand. Μἐθοδος is in a vital sense the quest about a path. Its relation to the path may be touch and go, and the path, for its part, may reciprocate. The touch and go is the mode of being together of the path and the quest (which may possibly be the path as such). Μἐθοδος puts the question on the path at the same time it puts the path into question. The transmigural quality of the discursive does not leave method to go on its way unscathed, but rather transmiguration infuses the method and gives it an essential meaning. To answer the question, then, experience is indeed methodical, or it presents an aspect that is identifiably methodical, though its relation to pathways is always touch and go. It remains to be decided whether aporias must be absolutely cut off from all pathways, or whether they might represent the go phases of the touch and go of experience in its methodical aspect.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:53 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nihil Potest Homo Intelligere sine Phantasmate

Jacky had pointed out the following passage from Agamben's Infacny and History:

Nothing can convey the extent of the change that has taken place in the meaning of experience so much as the resulting reversal of the status of the imagination. For Antiquity, the imagination, which is now expunged from knowledge as 'unreal', was the supreme medium of knowledge. As the intermediary between the senses and the intellect, enabling, in phantasy, the union between the sensible form and the potential intellect, it occupies in ancient and medieval culture exactly the same role that our culture assigns to experience. Far from being something unreal, the mundus imaginabilis has its full reality between the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intellegibilis, and is, indeed, the condition of their communication–that is to say, of knowledge. And since according to Antiquity, it is the imagination which forms dream images, this explains the particular relationship to truth which dreams have in the ancient world (like divination per somnia) and to efficacious knowledge (like medical treatment per incubationem). . . . Within the formula with which medieval Aristotelianism defines this mediating function of the imagination ('nihil potest homo intelligere sine phantasmate' [the human being can know nothing without imagination]), the homology between phantasy and experience is still perfectly clear. But with Descartes and the birth of modern science, the function of fantasy is assumed by the new subject of knowledge: the ego cogito (observe that in the technical vocabulary of medieval philosophy, cogitare referred rather to the discourse of the imagination than to the act of intelligence). Between the new ego and the corporeal world, between res cogitans and res extensa, there is no need for any mediation. The resulting expropriation of the imagination is made evident in the new way of characterizing its nature: while in the past it was not a 'subjective' thing, but was rather the coincidence of subjective and objective, of internal and external, of the sensible and the intelligible, now it is its combinatory and hallunicinatory character, to which Antiquity gave secondary importance, that is given primacy. From having been the subject of experience the phantasm become the subject of mental alienation, visions and magical phenomena–in other words, everything that is excluded by real experience.

(pp. 24-25)

Agamben's aside about cogitare reminds me of Hiroshi Kojima (Monad and Thou) putting the old college twist on the cogito, which had rekindled my interest in thinking about the imagination. Some of the reading I've been doing has focused on the image or imagery. Imagery, however, seems rather to be choreographed by a faculty of imagination, a power of imagining something as something. This power seems intimate and strange to me at turns, like the power of the muses. The footprints of the muses are ubiquitous over the fields of the imaginary, and of course on the pathways of the oneiric. Anyway, this passage of Agamben's has resonated with me, and I reckon I will retain an impression of its sounding as I plunge deeper into a study of the imagination.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:13 AM. 0 comments

Friday, February 08, 2008

In the Garden with the Peacocks

Forgive the paralipomenal quality of this post–if a story that's always never quite being told can be said to have paralipomena then welcome to my blog, dear reader. I'm reading Merleau-Ponty's "The Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence" (in Signs) at the same time I'm reading Nancy on the image and Agamben on infancy and while I wish to dwell on the topic of silence (and entwinement, the as such, nothingness and that whole business) here I'd like to briefly touch on a reverberant passage:

Language does not presuppose its table of correspondence; it unveils its secrets itself. It teaches them to every child who comes into the world. It is entirely a "monstration." Its opaqueness, its obstinate reference to itself, and its turning and folding back upon itself are precisely what make it a mental power; for it in turn becomes something like a universe, and it is capable of lodging things themselves in this universe–after it has transformed them into their meaning.

(p.43, Merleau-Ponty's emphasis)

Kaleideation unfolds under the sign of the peacock. It may as well be the sign of the anole lizard, and that "may as well be" may as well be the unraveling of its meaning, the deciphering of its labyrinth. But I will tarry and loaf a while in the garden with the peacocks. (As it happens not everybody is enraptured by peacocks but lizards poop too so what are you going to do?) Although many appreciate a flamboyant display, few appreciate the faculty of display. It is like looking into the mirror and not seeing the mirror, or it's like knowing how to tie one's shoelaces. Display may as well be the cosmos–I'm now prepared to let Arendt have this point–for display is certainly a cosmos and one cosmos is as good as another in the garden with the peacocks. In this cosmos kaleideation transforms things as they are into their beauty. Wasn't their beauty intrinsic? This is touchy. If beauty touches on forms–a florid if, albeit oft taken for granted–what needs to be said about how forms touch on beauty? And what of the lure of the something else promised by the transformative, the something else that may simply be the as such of thing as it is or silence. Is silence presupposed or might it rather be a kaleideation?

Do you present yourself to me as kaleideation, dear you? Through kaleideation? Does the aleatory encounter take the (trans)form of a kaleideation? Oh how I have distorted you, my beautiful you! It's not so much that I balked at the formless encounter; I have allowed myself a crumb of nostalgia and it has been my unraveling, or an unraveling, as be as that may well. My mood is subtrist as I sit in the garden with the peacocks, adding to a story that's never quite being told.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 5:03 AM. 4 comments

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Homo sapiens loquendi

Giorgio Agamben writes:

If everday thought can be classified according to the way in which articulates the question of the limits of language, the concept of infancy is then an attempt to think through these limits in a direction other than that of the vulgarly ineffable. The ineffable, the un-said, are in fact categories which belong exclusively to human language; far from indicating a limit of language, they express its invicincible power of presupposition, the unsayable being precisely what language must presuppose in order to signify. The concept of infancy, on the contrary, is accessible only to a thought which has been purified, in the words of Benjamin writing to Buber, 'by eliminating the unsayable from language'. The singularity which language must signify is not something ineffable but something superlatively sayable: the thing of language.

(Infancy and History, p. 4)

I would separate the unsaid from the unsayable. Consequently, I would challenge the notion that language must presuppose the unsayable in a different way than I would challenge a notion that language must presuppose the unsaid were I to challenge it all. Does language understand the negation of an ability to speak as its own presupposition, and, if so, does it understand correctly? Perhaps "understanding" is too kind a word for the claim that is being made. Against whom might a claim be made? Perhaps a claim is made against a voice, similar to the subject of Agamben's parergon on the human voice and yet dissimilar in that one still might ask "Whose voice?" and that question may contain not only an acknowledgement of the person–I ask you to take the words I write in all their meanings, by the way–at the ribbon of enunciation but also a plea for an ethics that is not grounded upon or shrouded in an ism of the intellectual. In that spirit I ask "Whose ability to speak?" and hope the question sparks a thought about what an ability to speak means to relations between you and me and anybody else me might wish to include in our world. For me at this time the question becomes: How should one live with an ability to speak? And that translates into: How should one give meaning to a balance between the display of one's abilities through speech and the demands of coexistence? Well, I sense that line of questioning may have become a banality at this point, but I'm not finished questioning the ability to speak or its negation. Here are some of Agamben's thoughts on the question of a faculty of speech:

The double articulation of language and speech seems, therefore, to constitute the specific structure of human language. Only from this can be derived the true meaning of that opposition of dynamis and energeia, of potency and act, which Aristotle's thought has bequeathed to philosophy and Western science. Potency–or knowledge–is the specifically human faculty of connectedness as lack; and language, in its split between language and speech, structurally contains this connectedness, is nothing other than this connectedness. Man does not merely know nor merely speak; he is neither Homo sapiens nor Homo loquens, but Homo sapiens loquendi, and this entwinement constitutes the way in which the West has understood itself and laid the foundation for both its knowledge and its skills. The unprecedented violence of human power has its deepest roots in this structure of language. In this sense what is experienced in the experimentum linguae is not merely an impossibility of saying: rather, it is an impossibility of speaking from the basis of a language; it is an experience, via that of infancy which dwells in the margin between language and discourse, of the very faculty or power of speech. Posing the question of the transcendental means, in the final analysis, asking what it means 'to have a faculty', and what is the grammar of the verb 'to be able'. And the only possible answer is an experience of language.

(p. 7, Agamben's emphasis)

The faculty of speech as sovereign ban? Hmm. Well, I am attentive to the apportionments that follow from a division of dynamis from energeia. The thought that sticks in my mind is that they can't be separated in practice. They are entwined. If one approaches the problem as an intellectual, as one must (being urgently tasked at this very moment and all that), the entwinement, or better perhaps, the articulation of dynamis and energeia makes salient a certain fragility of the conceit, a vulnerability of the intellectual point of view. In order to avoid lapsing into narcissism or one of its guises, thought must be able to do its thing beyond its own reflections, and so the question arises, Is transcendence merely a conceit? (If one minds the conjunctive articulation of dynamis and energeia one cannot regard the ability to transcend as the essential conceit, though it may be merely a conceit as well.) How is transcendence articulated?

Look again at the phrase Agamben has emphasized: "an impossibility of speaking from the basis of language." Is it just the way Agamben has presented his argument, or is there a truth here we must acknowledge: the transcendent is in fact all about the possible? One can't question the possibility of a thing without raising a question of transcendence? Well, I am cautious about accepting any apportionments here, and I'm hesitant to cede the faculties in general to the intellect, even the noetic faculty, which, far from being a master faculty, nonetheless might appear to belong the intellect as its own possibility.

It must be obvious by now that I'm nervous about my own thinking. I'm running into and running away from my own thinking at every turn. I'd like to think gingerly but I recognize myself as ungainly. Here I am stumbling through Agamben's thoughts about infancy when perhaps I should be striking out on my own. I will tell you about a kind of infancy that I dread: a state of being unable to say anything unpreprared. Questions prepared by my own style of thinking are not merely inadequate but frightening; they deaden. I am adrift amid a flotilla of dead questions, cold and numb. It is the prepared that is unsayable because it says nothing. The urgency of being able to articulate a transcendence grips my chest, though I have no faith in transcendence. I have no faith that is beyond interrogation. Even the ?-being strikes me as dubious. How is it possible that I could be living an illusion of speaking while at every moment I awake to a new infancy? Who is Homo sapiens loquendi if not me, and how impossible is that?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:06 AM. 0 comments