Monday, April 28, 2008

Cooking and Infancy

Does anything like experience happen outside of language? Can we recognize a distinction between being outside of language and simply not being defined by language? Perhaps such a distinction is a sophistry, and yet there may be some sense to it if I can follow it up for a moment. Being outside of language amounts to being circumscribed by a ban, a rule provided by and through language. The circle inverts, as it must if one is dealing with concepts. In all probability what we are talking about in such an instance is *language, and therefore *experience, as the philologists might write, rather than language as such, which I will regard as a phenomenon that can be empirically explored, which is simply to say language is a reality one can experience. Not being defined by language then would refer to domains of experience that are marked off principally by some manifestation of activity that cannot fairly be called language.

Language of course wants to be able to describe anything and everything. That's what it does, and far be it from me to stand in its way. I will not take the position, which would amount to acquiescing to a certain rhetorical abuse, that to recognize the existence of experiences not defined by language means defending ineffability, the ineffable or the mysterious. The only limit I would place on language, preliminarily, would be to acknowledge that some things, some human activities to be precise, are not language. For instance, everyday I engage in activities that are not verbal or linguistic, activities besides reading and writing and talking: I brush my teeth, play music, run, and cook.

Let's examine the latter activity: cooking. In all probability no other genus of organism besides Homo has ever cooked a meal. When I'm in the kitchen I feel close to my knife, and it occurs to me sometimes that in cooking I have not merely acquired a skill for my own life, but that I've incorporated something far more ancient and enduring into my daily routines. I may feel that I've entered into a fellowship with all those who cook, all who will have cooked and all who have ever cooked. (A note in passing: I feel no obligations towards the dead as such; I only feel a fellowship with those who have cooked inasmuch as they have cooked.) Well, is this feeling of fellowship particularly mysterious? I will grant that it may appear peculiar to some observers, but in what way is it mysterious? More to the point, is my experience of cooking mysterious?

It would be specious of me, I think, to argue that because Homo cooks therefore everything Homo does is cooking, or is in some (mysterious) way defined by, circumscribed by, touched on by or cut by cooking. Likewise, it would be specious to draw the same set of inferences from the fact that most people eat food that has been cooked. Now, would it be specious of me to argue that Homo is an organism who cannot cook, but must acquire cooking? Might one then confuse infancy with rawness? The challenge is, as ever, to break through the definitions provided by *language, which is to say the mythological, to those that are actually useful. Agamben, whose Infancy and History I am attempting to critically engage in this post, might conceivably concede to an identification of the useful with the historical, but I will not twist his ideas to harmonize with mine.

Here is the nub of Agamben's claim for the destruction of *experience, that is, his argument against "experience," as I believe he wants to make the case: "One can, of course, attempt to substantiate an in-fancy, a 'silence' of the subject, through the idea of a 'flux of consciousness', a primary psychic phenomenon that is fugitive and intangible; but once you aim to seize and concretize this primary current of the Erlebnisse, it proves possible only through the speech of the interior 'monologue'" (Infancy and History, pp. 48). (Not for nothing I've bounced around the question of whether monologue is possible; at this point I won't deny that *monologue has heuristic value, but like Agamben, I might want to take it aside for questioning.) Well, as I've intimated, I think that Agamben is guilty of an abuse. Ordinarily one does not discuss the flux of consciousness in order to substantiate a silence of the subject, and one should not have to defend grasping the flux of consciousness in these terms. There may be some prestidigitation at work here too, though you would be wise to ask whose. In my view the meanings people attach to "subjective" cannot be whisked away in a single gesture of demytholigization, nor in a few erudite paragraphs, nor even in forty thousand monographs. Presenting a preferred definition of a word, as Agamben does—he subscribes to the me-a-name-I-call-myself theory of subjectivity—cannot invalidate the meanings others attach to or take from a word, or meanings that attach by dint of usage, which is to say factors of aggregation operate to alter meanings. While it is fun and occasionally useful to clarify concepts expressed through words, doing so does not entitle one to claim access to a superior or a truer meaning of a word than it has in ordinary, everyday use. And surely it does not entitle one to displace other, equally rigorous, conceptual definitions. So, in short, I am confident that experience and "experience" (if perhaps not *experience) have survived Agamben's destruction.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:23 AM.


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