Monday, October 20, 2008


The word by way of preface which seeks to break through the screen stretched between the author and the reader by the book itself does not give itself out as a word of honor. But it belongs to the very essence of language, which consists in continually undoing its phrase by the foreword or the exegesis, in unsaying the said, in attempting to restate without ceremonies what has already been ill understood in the inevitable ceremonial in which the said delights.

(Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, p. 30)

It can't be denied that these very words have a ceremonial quality to them. They ceremonialize the break with ceremony they attempt–or perhaps it's not so much that they themselves ceremonialize as they are embedded in a history of ceremonial deceremonializations. Ceremoniality already imbues them before they are said. We can see Levinas' unsaying of that idea, and even perhaps the whole thrust of these words which attempt to unsay more than was said in the passage above, or to say the left unsaid that imbued the saying–by virtue of leaving, perhaps, a withdrawal from saying.

He inspires, Levinas. I aspire to do ceremony unceremoniously, to express an unceremonious style while carrying out life's daily rituals. Why elevate the routine to the ceremonial? Why risk being pompous at all? Why risk being ill understood? It occurred to me to say nothing today, to let silence further unsay Levinas' unsaying, as if that were still vital to me (which it still is today though it's intrigued me on many previous occasions). But the quotation would have been a ceremony even without explicit comment. The reading of Levinas has commenced! Sound your funky horn! The reading of Levinas has commenced! I protest against the solemnity of a silence. I attempt to unsay its pregnancy of unsayings with an abundance of arrival, and so to reiterate the unsaid profusely. I leave these words.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:13 AM.


Blogger Andrew Louis said...

Isn't this just an example of, "talking about how we talk", or did you really loose me here?

October 20, 2008 5:28 PM  
Blogger Andrew Louis said...

metapanguage in other words

October 20, 2008 5:34 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

What Levinas says is just marvelous talk about talk. It falls under the rubric of things an existential philosopher would say about talk, but even upon rereading it says something unexpected. It is informed, I imagine, by a sense that language is always spoken by transcendental beings, if "being" is the right word. Perhaps infinities, or selves. I can't say yet. That idea is linked to the idea of talk being ongoing.

This morning I turned to Michael Moerman's Talking Culture: Ethnography and Conversational Analysis because I recalled him saying something about the ongoing nature of conversation, which he kind of does though I cannot find the exact passage I had in mind. He takes a view that language itself is mute, which I rather endorse. And he reaches a provocative conclusion: "The solidity of everyday reality stems from the shoring up and re-plastering we constantly give it as we talk about the world and inspect it for the materials which that talk requires. Beneath our busy scaffolding there may be nothing at all" (p. 120). Quite a speculation, that last bit. Again, "The world we unite our minds by talking about might not exist outside of the interaction that attends to and therein constructs it" (119). Now, commenting on Peter Berger's work on the social construction of reality, Moerman says, "noting locally occasioned discontinuities of consciousness suggests that one need not suppose a person's view of reality is constant. It is subject to being re-called, re-affirmed, or re-constituted in the course of interactions" (117). So tying that in with his conclusion, is there a contradiction? Is there nothing there or is there some quality of reality that we can talk about, perhaps an observable quality of consciousness such as continuity of the self or, in a context of face-to-face interactions, discontinuity, or even the correlate of such an observed quality or an abstraction inducted from such observations. Just curious.

Does Levinas posit the indubitable existence of a transcendence there being talked about? Perhaps its being is less important than the fact that we are bringing our minds together to talk about it. I think Levinas does posit such a transcendence. I suspect that language for him is animated or enabled by transcendent existence. At this initial stage I'm not sure what that will mean, though I am ready to start talking about it.

October 21, 2008 9:05 AM  
Blogger Andrew Louis said...

I don't have a good response to this (still chewing on it), however the following seems to tie into this.

From Logic Sin & Love:

In response to a student who complained that he didn't understand quantum mechanics, Von Neumann is supposed to have answered: nobody understands it. You just get used to it. Of course, quantum physicists have a set of mathematical tools that -- though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements -- and so they have something to work with which helps in "getting used to it".

Believers, in response to arguments against religion from non-believers, claim that such arguments do not take mystical reality into account -- that God, or more generally, the transcendent, is real, but ordinary language is incapable of dealing with it. The non-believer responds with charges of obscurantism, that the believer is evading the issue by taking refuge in nonsense.

But there are two issues here. The first is whether or not there is anything that is real but where all attempts at description -- staying within the confines of common sense language and Aristotelian logic -- fail. The second is what we do about it. I would argue, first, that the subatomic world is such a reality, though that alone does not grant license to the believer to believe (in God or whatever). To the objection that there is a mathematical language (which of course obeys Aristotelian logic -- the laws of identity, contradiction, and the excluded middle) for quantum physics, I repeat that this language does not describe the reality -- it just allows the physicist to make predictions. Hence there are a multitude of interpretations of that world, all of which are metaphysical positions, not scientific.

But, secondly, I would argue that there is an even more obvious reality that qualifies, namely plain, ordinary, everyday consciousness. The reason it qualifies is that the "now" is not an instant -- a point on time's continuum, but instead is extended over a small stretch of time (and space). Because the now is extended, I don't see any way that it could emerge from a strictly spatiotemporal process. In a spatiotemporal process every event is separated in time and/or space from every other event. Consciousness, on the other hand, puts together zillions of these separated events to form the "now". Within the "now" is the experience of time passing, but how is that possible? Consciousness somehow connects those zillions of events into one flowing whole, while within a strictly spatiotemporal process there is no way for events to aggregate as experience of anything larger than a single event. As I see it, this means that consciousness transcends time (and space), and so cannot itself be a consequence of a spatiotemporal process.

Granted, the argument in the preceding paragraph is no more than arm-waving. But there is enough of a mystery to consciousness that it leads a diehard materialist like Colin McGinn to assert that he doesn't expect there ever to be an explanation of consciousness, and another (David Chalmers) to hypothesize what he calls "naturalist dualism" to account for consciousness. What I propose instead is to assert the reality of the non-spatiotemporal (which in theological language is called the eternal -- not to be confused with time everlasting). What if the reason that quantum reality defies comprehension is that it too is non-spatiotemporal? That would "explain" how an unobserved electron could be in a superposition of states, that the position/momentum uncertainty is there simply because -- unobserved -- quantum particles are simply not at definite spatiotemporal locations, because at that level there is no space and time. And, of course, it would "account for" the non-locality observed in the Aspect experiments. But note that I put the words "explain" and "account for" in scare quotes, because appealing to non-spatiotemporal reality is not an understandable answer. But the point is that if one buys into this line of argumentation, then one should not expect one. Yet something definite has been argued for: that there is a reality for which our ordinary language fails.

What clinches the argument for me -- and is the reason I became religious -- is that mystics have been saying for millenia that fundamental reality is not spatiotemporal. And they have said so, or so they claim, by virtue of knowledge (of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality), not by metaphysical guesswork. Should we believe them? Given the argumentation above I have no problem believing them. But it should be pointed out that mystics also say something else, that just arguing from consciousness and/or quantum physics does not, and that is that the eternal is not merely real, but also Good, and that it is possible to realize that Goodness. It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion.

This, then, is my answer to the first issue: there is a reality that defies common sense language, and why it must be dealt with.

October 21, 2008 12:09 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

If we propose that there's something like a reality of metalanguage, and point to an experience of talking about talk as an indication that we are being reasonable in saying so, should we then revisit the notion that we talk about realities without knowing whether or not they really exist apart from our talking about them? No, I suspect we are still talking about them in seeking to confirm or deny their reality. Metalanguages are spoken by precisely transpersonal nexuses of realization. Is this a condition of the genesis of thinking that cannot be transcended? Well, it's just a thought on offer.

October 22, 2008 1:45 PM  

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