Monday, December 29, 2008

A Nonassertion of the Breach

}∅{ should not be asserted; non}∅{ should not be asserted. }∅{ must be taken as a suspended sign, understood in the sense Kuzminski gives that term (Pyrrhonism, pp. 96 ff.). To explain this we must first note a difference between commemorative or recollective signs, which refer to things temporarily nonevident, and indicative signs, which point to things nonevident in a variety of ways other than temporarily. (I'm not sure there's a Pyrrhonian term for the type of sign that refers to things plainly evident; perhaps this isn't the most useful typology. Anyway....) Because "indicative sign" has other meanings for students of the sign, it would be clearer to call indicative signs credulitive, or with fewer negative connotations, creditive signs. The language is clumsy but you can discern the meaning in saying "creditive sign" or its pupal morph, "suspended sign." Kuzminski further explains the idea of the suspended sign:

Even if we understand the soul as evidently nonevident [like the wind perhaps, FtY] , as present to consciousness but indeterminate, our sign for it necessarily remains empty, can literally have no content, no determinative, distinguishing character. Nor can we even say it signifies nothing, since the evidently nonevident seems to be something, though nothing determinate. A sign for the evidently nonevident has no efficacy, therefore, and can only mislead by suggesting some kind of determinate content. A sign for the evidently nonevident is a sign for a suspended judgment; indeed, it is a sign which itself should be suspended. Terms for the evidently nonevident, such as "soul" or "emptiness" are inherently selfdefeating if we think they can be of any use at all. Sextus no doubt would agree with Nāgārjuna, who advises us that "'Empty' should not be asserted. 'Nonempty' should not be asserted. Neither both nor either should be asserted." At the end of his Tractatus, in an oft-cited passage, Wittgenstein makes the same point as follows: "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following [w]ay: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

(pp. 96-97).

I like silences but I won't pretend to mandate them. Suspension I will recommend. "Psyche" should be suspended, as should therefore "the unconscious" and various other modalities of the psychic. "Imagination" should be suspended. "Repetition" should be suspended. Insofar as suspension may be regarded as an entity one might form beliefs about (and this is clearly the hazard with "}∅{", or more colloquially, "the breach"), "suspension" should be suspended. "The question" should be suspended: this could well be the same problem as the problem of repetition, however with different repercussions; I'll touch on repetition.

In suspending belief in repetition don't we risk pulling the rug out from under Pyrrhonian skepticism? (Obviously many people are more credulous about repetition than I am; though I have not been convinced of its existence I remain open to hearing evidence, to which it must be added an openness to contrary indications and negative experimental results is clearly desirable for anybody who seeks to understand repetition nondogmatically.) In acknowledging the commemorative sign, the Pyrrhonian accedes to memory, to the collection of evidence over time and therefore as well, implicitly, to cogitation as a modality of consciousness or sense, and in some sense he thereby escapes arrhythmia and inferences based on the premise of arrhythmic existence, such as those that arise from the intellectual error of occasionalism identifed by Bourdieu. If we suspend judgment about repetition, for the sake of putting it into question, to name one reason for doing so, are we are then obliged to also suspend commemoration? If so, and I'm not saying it is so, that shouldn't preclude us from talking. Crudely, to start things off, and breathlessly, we could say something like "repetition:commemoration::}∅{:improvisation:::}∅{:repetition::improvisation:commemoration;:}∅{::}∅{}∅{}∅{:}∅{}∅{:::...}∅{:::{}∅{:}{}∅{:}{...}∅{:::}{{...}∅{:::}}}∅{}∅{}∅{}∅{," and be talking about "repetition," "nonrepetition," "commemoration," "as," "just as," ("analogy," ("chiasmus," a shadow discussion)), "shadow discussion," "and so on," "could be otherwise," "substitution" or "alternation" (""shadow alternation" or "parenthetical shadow alternation"") and """""not" "really"" ""finally" "or" "primarily"""" "or" """really" ""really" ""finally" "or" "primarily"""" "}∅{,"" where """" means something like "being talked about." Everything can be balanced against }∅{, but ("but" itself being an alternative which may or may not appear according to }∅{, used here to introduce another alternative that as well may or may not appear according to }∅{) it could be otherwise. What is the structure of this "could be otherwise?" Starting from a primitive association of the "and so on" with repetition it appears that the "could be otherwise" functions as a contrary principle, a disruptive force or a technology that could have been expressly designed for the purpose of upsetting the "and so on" and, practically, problematizing repetition (as if "and so on" weren't properly disruptive–these are gross simplifications); however, we are talking here about a primitive association. Alternatively, we could begin with a more sophisticated coupling of the "could be otherwise" with repetition, a coupling that opens the door to an alternative metaphysical belief about time; this reversal doesn't demand that one must then accept a belief in repetition as "could be otherwise," or repetition as dually structured, or that one must accept any belief at all about repetition; indeed, the sophisticate's coupling of repetition with the "could be otherwise" invites us to hold in suspension the idea that repetition refers to anything that could actually be brought forth, anything that could actually be made evident. That is to say as well that the "could be otherwise" could be otherwise, that it could be sequenced in other tonalities, but in offering }∅{ as a "could be otherwise" of the first principle no assertion is made beyond the implicit assertion of the value of conversation, even in some of its weirder modes. One needn't have beliefs about the breach, which is neither rule nor nonrule, neither inclusion nor exclusion (nor inclusively "neither inclusion nor exclusion" and so on) in order to pursue an improvisatory practice of the breach, of keeping conversation going, conversation being one of several modalities of the breach. Perhaps repetition also has such a nonassertive value. It may yet be shown to exist, and it may then give itself as the key to understanding the commemorative sign. The commemorative sign might then be viewed as something other than a heuristic device, though one shouldn't infer from such a statement that heuristic practices lack worth or validity or fail to touch on reality in the same way one might criticize speculative practices for their disengagements with what really really touches thinking. So, if the Pyrrhonian commemorative sign does not hinge on an unsubstantiated belief that repetition is among the things that can be pointed to, does it then hinge on merely a hope that repetition may exist? On a related note, would this reliance hope unveil heuristics as principally a hopeful mode of engagement with the real? I'm ambivalent on that point. Does one hope for an end to repetition–isn't that one explicit meaning of the wish, hope's dear friend, a symptom of a belief that there may yet be a way out of a rut of suffering, a chance to undo? (Are we being confused by an oafish grasp of a cinematic idea of love? Heuristics relies upon conversation. Does one in engage in conversation hopelessly? I'm not sure.) On the other hand, under what conditions does heuristics depart from a concern for the reliability of experimental results, a concern which would demand a possibility of repetition? Imagine all that could be undone if we suspended "repetition." Now, what would a suspension of "}∅{" undo? (So we return to undoing, undo it and so on.)

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:23 AM. 2 comments

Friday, December 19, 2008

}∅{ as a Horizon of the Improbable

Recalling my statement that "[i]mprobably the plus one, as in 'infinity plus one,' will be revealed as something other than thought," I now read that Levinas defines infinity as the desirable, which he explains as "that which is approachable by a thought that at each instant thinks more than it thinks" (Totality and Infinity, p. 62). In pointing to the improbable I expressed symptomatically a desire to escape a noetic enclosure I will now call metaphysical, knowing too well that our understanding of that term could quickly come undone. If I wanted to steer a philosophical discussion away from metaphysics would I not be aided by the desirable? Escape is not so easy, I know–or so experience has taught me so far.

Is language easy? Language is so plainly multifarious we might well point to its improbabilities. Hmm. Here Levinas reveals (which according to my grasp of English is synonymous with saying "Levinas discloses," a grasp which doesn't fail to realize that Levinas draws a meaningful distinction between his idea of aperspectival revelation and Heidegger's thinking about "disclosure") a key to his dialogism:

One can, to be sure, conceive of language as an act, as a gesture of behavior. But then one omits the essential of language: the coinciding of the revealer and the revealed in the face, which is accomplished in being situated in height with respect to us–in teaching. And, conversely, gestures and acts produced can become, like words, a revelation, that is, as we will see, a teaching. But the reconstitution of the personage on the basis of his behavior is the work of our already acquired science.

Absolute experience is not a disclosure; to disclose, on the basis of a subjective horizon, is already to miss the noumenon. The interlocutor alone is the term of pure experience, where the Other enters into relation while remaining καθ αύτό, where he expresses himself without our having to disclose him from a "point of view," in a borrowed light. The "objectivity" sought by the knowledge that is fully knowledge is realized beyond the objectivity of the object. What presents itself as independent of every subjective movement is the interlocutor, whose way consists in starting from himself, foreign and yet presenting himself to me.

(p. 67)

My views on teaching are way more relaxed than Levinas'. Apparently my views on the difference between writing and speech also differ from Levinas', not merely because I favor the trismegistic over the magisterial, I reckon, but because I don't regard writing as an act of simply representing spoken language, and this permits me to be cautious about the kind of qualities or deprivations of qualities I attribute to writing. Notwithstanding our differences, Levinas may have something to teach me about language. The following passage (it's long, but worth studying) occurs as an elaboration of a response to Buber's philosophy, which Levinas reads as a corrective to a kind of "neutral intersubjectivity" (p. 68) he finds in Heidegger. Again the field is language:

The claim to know and to reach the other is realized in the relationship with the Other that is cast in the relation of language, where the essential is the interpellation, the vocative. The other is maintained and confirmed in his heterogeneity as soon as one calls upon him, be it only to say to him that one cannot speak to him, to classify him as sick, to announce to him his death sentence; at the same time as grasped, wounded, outraged, he is "respected." The invoked is not what I comprehend: he is not under a category. He is the one to whom I speak–he has only a reference to himself; he has no quiddity. But the formal structure of interpellation has to be worked out.

(p. 69, Levinas' emphasis)

Hi. It's me again. Sorry to interrupt. I wonder if the best antidote to the notion that one understands before one listens is the notion that, in conversation, one simply does not understand the person to whom one listens. I have a few books on the topic of listening on my wish list, including Nancy's. We'll see where that leads in the coming year. To continue with Levinas, then:

The object of knowledge is always a fact, already happened and passed through. The interpellated one is called upon to speak; his speech consists in "coming to the assistance" of his word–in being present. This present is not made of instants mysteriously immobilized in duration, but of an incessant recapture of instants that flow by by a presence that comes to their assistance, that answers for them. This incessance produces the present, is the presentation, the life, of the present. It is as though the presence of him who speaks inverted the inevitable movement that bears the spoken word to the past state of the written word. Expression is the actualization of the actual. The present is produced in this struggle against the past (if one may so speak), in this actualization. The unique actuality of speech tears it from the situation in which it appears and which it seems to prolong. It brings what the written word is already deprived of: mastery. Speech, better than a simple sign, is essentially magisterial. It first of all teaches this teaching itself, by virtue of which alone it can teach (and not, like maieutics, awaken in me) things and ideas. Ideas instruct me coming from the master who presents them to me: who puts them in question; the objectification and theme upon which objective knowledge opens already rest on teaching. The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification. The object is presented when we have welcomed an interlocutor. The master, the coinciding of the teaching and the teacher, is not in turn a fact among others. The present of the manifestation of the master who teaches overcomes the anarchy of facts.

We must not say that language conditions consciousness, under the pretext that it provides self-consciousness with an incarnation in the objective work language would be (as the Hegelians would say). The exteriority that language, the relation with the Other, delineates is unlike the exteriority of a work, for the objective exteriority of works is already situated in the world established by language–by transcendence.

(pp. 69-70, Levinas' emphasis)

By transcendence. Is it so unrespectable that I should want to emerge from metaphysics, or that I should want to emerge from metaphysics and still have something to say about the journey, something honest, if that's not being too assertive? Let's back up, take a look at this world established by language, and see what, if anything, distinguishes it from other worlds. Speaking of temporality, Levinas says, "This world that has lost its principle, an-archical, a world of phenomena, does not answer to the quest for the true; it suffices for enjoyment, which is self-sufficiency itself, nowise disturbed by the evasion that exteriority opposes to the quest for the true" (p. 65). It's my opinion that one should not put antipluralism ahead of the quest for the true. }∅{ presents an opportunity to listen to questions that come from other worlds (as many as it takes); so, following my own advice, the world of dialogue that exclusively identifies the quest for the thing itself with the quest for the true, indeed creates an opposition between "evasion" and this quest, as if there could only be one true path, this world of dialogue commands respect as a place where ideas are put into question. Surely one emerges from this world with the power to improvise. What of this power? Has one called upon this very power in order to come to the assistance of instants of dialogue, utterances really? Did it never cease? Was it never held in abeyance? Should we not apologize for the incessance of our improvisations? If we do have to reason to apologize, however, if we must put our powers of improvisation on hold for the sake of the quest for the true in this special world of dialogue, don't we then at the same time call upon those powers in order to put thought into question? Or could it be that our entrance into this world of dialogue entails–a cutting to shape–a transmutation of the power to improvise into a power to question. Two points then: such a transmutation would provide a reason for understanding the work of this world as maieutic in a meaningful sense, though the malleability of this power would teach us to be careful of conflating the transmutational with the permutational; such a transmutation would be accomplished by virtue of an abiding power of improvisation which belongs to a world ordered not in line with the arch but in departure (starting) from the breach (}∅{), as far as departure (starting) goes. That is to say, this special world of dialogue is not one but many. Hasn't Levinas already said as much, already spoken of plurality, and in particular the plurality "required for conversation"(p. 59). But he also said, "The inner life is the unique way for the real to exist as plurality" (p. 58, Levinas' emphasis). Shall we put into question then the idea that plurality pertains to worlds? And why not? Is there a question of plurality not enjoying itself with our conversation? Does our respect for plurality obey a principle or are we free to put our respect into practice, free to extent that it's meaningful to speak of freedom, to the extent that we can depart from plurality, that we can go so far as to disrespect it. Is it plurality that's an entailment of freedom, or freedom that's an entailment of plurality? How do we question these sometimes premises apart from each other? Transmutation? And aren't we free to distrust transmutation?

Levinas says, "The distinctive characteristic of forms is precisely their epiphany at a distance." Does the transmutation of this δυναμις–perhaps we could say faculty if we knew what to make of the question–this power of improvisation into this power of questioning, a transmutation that itself is not beyond question, but only appears in this world of dialogue, does this transmutation occur at a distance? Well, it appears at a distance in our case. We observe our experience of dialogue.

The absolute experience is not disclosure but revelation: a coinciding of the expressed with him who expresses, which is the privileged manifestation of the Other, the manifestation of a face over and beyond form. Form–incessantly betraying its own manifestation, congealing into a plastic form, for it is adequate to the same–alienates the exteriority of the other. The face is a living presence; it is expression. The life of expression consists in undoing the form in which the existent, exposed as a theme, is thereby dissimulated. The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse. He who manifests himself comes, according to Plato's expression, to his own assistance. He at each instant undoes the form he presents.

(pp. 65-66, Levinas' emphasis)

How will I come to the assistance of my persona when he comes asking about the unformulated question, brings it into conversation, opens it to incessant deformulation? Is this not a true inquiry, this deformulation of the question? It too may have as its horizon the }∅{.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:54 AM. 0 comments

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Mandé Variations

Toumani is absolutely correct that The Mandé Variations represents a new door opened for the kora, though it may not be starkly apparent to every listener in this age of the electric kora. I was particularly struck by the elegy "Ali Farka Toure." I am also enjoying the more classical album Kaira which carries the disclaimer: "This recording was made entirely live and unaccompanied by Toumani Diabate. There is no double-tracking and there is no accompaniment by another kora." Such praise.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:51 PM. 0 comments

True Confession

Now that it's winter and the snow is falling we can think about what happened. We can think about it from a distance. It happened in the springs, where the water springs from the earth. That's where we killed metaphor. We slapped its head against a rock like a poet taken out of his element.

We didn't have a plan going in. It was inspired, and yet it seemed natural. Metaphor stood for everybody we hated. One word was enough to send us over the edge. It shouldn't have opened its mouth. But it did. That's how it happened. That's how it started. It said something and we sprang on it. It didn't stand a chance.

There's kind of a contradiction in how we've handled it, an unspoken contradiction. It was a noble cause, a blessing in some ways. We did it for truth, a kind of higher truth, a magisterial truth. We drew from our commitment to this truth the sense that we had to surmount plurality at any cost. Paradoxically, then, it also seemed natural that metaphor should die, that is, it seemed as if metaphor died of natural causes and not for the cause of our allegiance to conviction, to the community of overcoming, the community that is our only protection against myth and falsity, thought's mortal enemies.

I don't know how to explain the silence around metaphor's death. Everybody knows that metaphor didn't really die in a boating accident but nobody wants to debate it with us. After all, we killed metaphor. That's just how things stand.

Whenever I hear the word "spring" I think about what happened. I don't feel guilty or anything. I just wonder what it all means. I wonder what it means now that metaphor is dead.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:29 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cathedral Walk

It was the snow that drew me in under the trefoil neon illuminations on Nevada Avenue, or the shelter from the snow that drove me in. An apostate from repetition. An enigmatic thought that equivocation might only be possible on the basis of a surreptition. A clear thought. No. Vestibulary thoughts. Between the perpetual and the maginational I knew I was leaving something out, or turning things around all widdershins for some crazy reason. Was I seeking poetic closure? In any event my way was made inside.

The alfaqui told me that there are no chairs in the hypercathedral, the Cathedral of a Thousand and One Refuges, only doorways and aisles. For that reason it is also called the Cathedral of a Thousand and One Aisles. The clerics in the cathedral are well-versed in the archeology of perpetual flights. They study the pigeons several hours a day, the alfaqui assured me. "All the doors here are in the vernacular," he added. He didn't look like the type who would intentionally deceive.

The alfaqui pointed me down the corridors towards the asymptotic doors. I passed through the corridors, and I never passed through the corridors. I was joined along the way by an epopt of the Ogival Mysteries.

"What have you witnessed?"

"We study the pigeons several hours a day," said the epopt. She pulled me aside into a zero-gravity intrados where no pigeons could be seen. She touched a voussoir with the palm of her hand, and it touched her. "This is the Cathedral of a Thousand and One Refuges," she explained.

"Can you tell me more?"

"The cyma reversa represents the union of the concave and the convex." She illustrated this with her hands.

"Are all the doors here metamorphic?"

She became a pigeon.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:30 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Museum of Forsaken Books

To begin with I want to not forsake a certain book by an uncertain author. Though there are reasons to assert that Pierre Bayard is behind How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read in much the same way he is behind Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?, there are also reasons for me to confine my discussion to the book Bayard's translator, Jeffery Mehlman, has created, chief among them that this is the book I have access to at the moment, the book I am able to read and to comment upon in a way that suits me. A sucker for fidelity, I quote passages as if to say, "Thank you for these words." I am happy with them. My "poetics of distance" (p. 29) my readerly distance, thus stands aloof from Bayard's, the putative author behind Mehlman's work, though I too insist on my own "reasonable distance" (p. 31) from the work under commentary. I risk being "lost in the details" (p. 29) but I contest lostness. I contest any preliminary injunctions against attentiveness, or any decision that these printed words of Mehlman's are to be exculpated from "what is interesting about a text" (ibid.). These words are culpable, I assure you.

"Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters" (p. xxi). Conjury. What kind of swearing is Mehlman's text? A swearing to? With? For? A forswearing. A forswearing of the physically addressable. To conjure the spectrality of the manly garden–or is that the manly library?–is to forswear explicitly addressable memory, or, better, to forswear any act of translation between the manly and the natural, to forswear cartography. In the museum of forsaken books there are no reference librarians, only piecework catalogy with no connections to ()readers. Thankfully Mehlman's book is in no danger of finding itself in the museum of forsaken books.

"The museum of forsaken books" is found in the world of phantom creation, screen creation. It is not a token of inventiveness, but it does re(as)semble an inventive reading, the shadow of a reading, the mereness of a reading and more, a screen inventiveness that we could mistake for an inventive reading of Mehlman's unreliable author's text if only we weren't so enamored of the words themselves. We could lose ourselves here, or a few phantom hours, around the corner from the horologist's workshop, the horologist who gives us these hours on loan.

Mehlman's Bayard more than invents. He reads. He reads Wilde and Valéry as agreeing that "to read well is to turn away from the book" (p. 177). I read disastrously, circling in on the book, circling patiently until the final plummet. Sit a while on a granite bench. It could be at the lip of a deep well, or in the hallway of the museum of forsaken books, at the side of a fountain. Manly gardens, womanly gardens: these are places of turning into.

It is only the forsaken book that addresses "timeless questions" (p. 54). Like the forgotten book, the forsaken book has no place in memory, except of course on the shelf in the museum of forsaken books, which, it must now be confessed (conjured), cannot be located, except, could we retrace our steps, by reference to the horologist, who will soon demand his due. Such memory as we find in those halls is piecework, naturally. "While reading is enriching in the moment it occurs, it is at the same time a source of depersonalization, since, in our inability to stabilize the smallest snippet of text, it leaves us incapable of coinciding with ourselves" (p. 55). How many hours elapse before it is realized that reading itself is on display? Or is it merely a display of reading? We trust the custodian of these halls to sweep away our most prosaic thoughts, but we don't speak his name, as if it were engraven in immemory and therefore had no call to be spoken. It is whispered that even the brooms are gravid with details.

The displays in the museum of forsaken books are the mirror images of Mehlman's "falsified remnants of books" (p. 56), only there aren't even the ghosts of falsified remnants to be reflected, and the museum of forsaken books is anything but a hall of mirrors. The inner paradigms of the museum, pace Mehlman's unreliable author (p. 85), communicate, if labyrinthianly: they are paradigmatically alongside one another, while paradigmatically communicating through doorways which are in fact their raisons d'être, passageways. Out in the inner courtyard the gardener bends the vines of openness, practicing the new curatics, new incubations. It's okay to wave to the gardener.

This is a wave:

But the images and fragments of text that are the stuff of our inner books are so singular to each of us that only through an indefinite extension of time might two inner books find communion–for to do so is to achieve a melding of two people's private worlds. In the slow-motion existence Phil [Connors] is living, language is no longer an uninterrupted and irreversible flow, and it becomes possible, as in the scene of the toast to the groundhog, to stop every sentence and examine its origin and value, connecting it to the biography and inner life of the other.

Only such an artificial halting of time and language would allow someone else to reproduce the texts buried within us; in real life, these texts are caught up in an irresistible movement that transforms them constantly and renders all hope of overlap impossible. For if our inner books, like our fantasies, are relatively stable, the screen books about which we speak endlessly are perpetually being modified, as we shall see, and it is futile to imagine we can put a stop to their metamorphoses.

(pp. 108-109)

Somewhere in the adversarial process, the process that led me to take refuge on this bench, I realized that the author called to be acknowledged in his fragility, in his uncertainty. He spoke in the voice of a carillon, or, when the chimes have wandered on and the courtyard is empty, the voice of a lost timepiece, a timepiece restored. Without so much as a word the horologist announced that his hour had arrived.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:08 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Multitudo that Inheres to the Power of Thought as Such

Agamben says, in Form of Life:

I call thought the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life. I do not mean by this the individual exercise of an organ of a psychic faculty, but rather an experience, an experimentum that has as its object the potential character of life and of human intelligence. To think does not mean merely to be affected by this or that thing, by this or that content of enacted thought, but rather at once to be affected by one's own receptiveness and experience in each and every thing that is thought a pure power of thinking. ("When thought has become each thing in the way in which a man who actually knows is said to do so. . . its condition is still one of potentiality. . . and thought is then able to think of itself.")

Rancière comments, "Lyotard contends that the task of the avant-garde is to isolate art from cultural demand so that it may testify all the more starkly to the heteronomy of thought" (The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy, p. 134).

Improbably the plus one, as in "infinity plus one," will be revealed as something other than thought.

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

Monday, December 08, 2008

Phraseology of the Incognitive Question

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that incognitive means "destitute of the faculty of cognition; unable to take cognizance." In speaking of "the incognitive question" the question arises whether one can question in such a way as to, momentarily to be sure, make oneself unable to take cognizance. Still more deeply there is the question of whether taking cognizance requires us to relinquish the question, if it is indeed possible to hold onto the question in the first place. I think this notion of the incognitive question is perfectly logical, but I know it doesn't appear that way to everybody. Let me propose then an experiment to test whether it makes sense to speak of an incognitive question.

When I first approached the imaginary question I was led to imagine a question by making a gesture of questioning. I'd like you to enact a nonthought experiment along these lines. You may not need to make any gesture. You may find that the breath alone is enough to guide your incognitive passage through the question–oh, I've begged the question; just try to separate the posing of the question from thought and pay attention to what happens to your thinking. You may feel called by the question into gesture. If so, go with it. Study that process too. In the simplest terms just try to pose a question without using words.

No doubt thought isn't coextensive with language, language isn't coextensive with words, nor words with concepts, and the possibility of momentarily and/or partially decoupling questioning from cognition doesn't imply that cognition and questioning are, in the round, decoupled. We must be cautious in our interpretations of the results we have obtained. The conditions of the experiment must be considered. Minimally I hope this little nonthought experiment indicates that there is some phenomenon of consciousness being discussed in my use of phrases like "the phraseology of the incognitive question." The posture that doesn't quite pose–throughout this discussion I will pretend not to have read Vallega-Neu's The Bodily Dimension in Thinking chiefly because I haven't yet found the opportunity to actually do so–the expression that presses without rising to stand out of the pression, the vehicle that never delivers its tenor–I won't be caught equating metaphor's pure vehicle, which perhaps appears only in experimental conditions, with the senseless. The incognitive question has horizons, orientations. Attend to your breathing. Sustain the incognitive question as long as you can, weave a coherence into the posing of the incognitive question while attending to your breathing, bring all of your skills at making phrases to bear on the posing of the incognitive question all the while making observations of your conduct. Well, perhaps I am speaking of the *question, or the question as it belongs to *language; if so any ambition to explore the question apart from a logomachic culture would have to be questioned, a questioning I may well have invited when I asked you to perform this little nonthought experiment. Play along.

Sooner or later I will have to look at the relation between the question and the expectation. Possibly the incognitive question traffics in blind expectations, the sense of which might be determined under experimental conditions.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:11 PM. 8 comments

Escape from Powell's

A list of books I may get around to reading next year, in no particular order:

  • Material Phenomenology, by Michel Henry (trans. Scott Davidson, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). This one didn't actually escape from Powell's but came in the mail while I was at Powell's. Page 123, sentences 4, 5 and 6: "In representation, the ipseity of the I is inscribed in the following way: I represent myself. That is to say, I present something as myself, as my ego or yours. But why is what is put before me a me or you?"

  • Difference and Subjectivity: Dialogue and Personal Identity, by Francis Jacques (trans. Andrew Rothwell, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). "As we can see, the terms of the interlocution–the agencies, or positions, of utterance–are determined in the first place by speech, for their determination forms part of the meaning of the proffered messages. It therefore follows, rather than precedes, the establishment of the dialogue. Once the principle of the primum relationis–or primacy of the relation–is defined in this way, we must resist the temptation to ask: relation between what and what?"

  • Loneliness as a Way of Life, by Thomas Dumm (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008). "I had a gnawing fear of her. She seemed to pay attention to me only when I caused trouble, so I guess I caused as much trouble as I could. When I threw tantrums, she would lock me away in a cubbyhole closet under the staircase in the dining room."

  • Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, by Adriana Cavarero (trans. William McCuaig, New York: Columbia University Press). "In choosing him as the instrument of horrorist destruction, Verloc basically counts on this very factor. It is worth emphasizing that the paradigmatic innocence of Stevie has both an ethical and an intellectual valence. An eternal child, he is not only excluded by definition from the realm of responsibility and guilt; he does not know what he is doing because his mental retardation–and not casual, or arranged, innocence–prevents him from understanding it."

  • The Ethics of Memory, by Avishai Margalit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). "Although it takes (at least) two for sexual relations, the defeated partner can declare, like Baudelaire: 'I am the wound and the dagger.' Baudelaire did not necessarily believe that he is the Alpha and Omega in bringing about the wound. But he had an important part in bringing it on himself."

  • Human Posture: The Nature of Inquiry, by John A. Schumacher (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989). "Let us now consider the same experiment in a quantam mechanical context: [a figure is shown]. We suppose that the microscope is an electron microscope, and that the deflected particle is an electron. What must we say in quantum mechanical terms?"

  • Metamorphosis and Identity, by Caroline Walker Bynum (New York: Zone Books, 2001). "The response is not imitatio or even love but admiratio, a reaction that to Bernard conjures up distance and strangeness, the word for what we feel when we cannot approach or be like. These themes are also reflected in the fourth sermon for Christmas Eve, where Bernard, again referring to Christ as physician, connects the miraculous mixture of the virgin mother, fertile yet uncontaminated, breached yet intact, with the fertility of the world and the hope of resurrection. Thus for Bernard, the mixture–whether hybrid or marvel–is double, twofold, a joining of contrarieties."

I'm still in the midst of Casey, Levinas and Kuzminski and have a few books kicking around from the library.


posted by Fido the Yak at 7:09 PM. 4 comments

The Wild Critic

I'm going to quote an extended passage from Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, and your first reaction is going to be like, Man, he doesn't get it. People are telling him as plain as day, but he just doesn't get it. Actually I think he refuses to get it. He has it in his mind that it's his calling not to get it. In this respect he is a dedicated professional and must therefore be taken seriously. He is in fact putting himself out there. He knows the music, in the sense that he has studied recordings, observed performances, talked with performers, and read various studies of the music. He is an interpreter of the music, yes, but above and beyond that he is a critic. He values the act of making judgments about music and about musicians. He is anything but stupid about what he does. Your response to what he does, a response I am sympathetic to, is something he has already thought about, albeit perhaps not in a way that you and I would agree with, but he has thought about it. Here's the passage, concerning John Coltrane's practice of inviting young musicians up on the stage:

But Coltrane seemed not to be able to help it. Rashied Ali tells a story on the subject. He remembers playing at the Village Vanguard with Coltrane in 1966 and being asked by Coltrane, in the club's back room before the gig, what he thought about Frank Wright, the young free-jazz tenor player. He knew that Ali and Wright were friends, and Wright, who had come to the club that night, had independently approached Coltrane about the possibility of sitting in with Coltrane's band at the club. Ali reacted skeptically.

I said, "Aw, man, he ain't playing shit."

He looked at me. I said, "Man, he ain't playing shit."

We go out on the bandstand and the first thing he does is say [to Wright], "Hey, man, come on up."

In the dressing room, after it was over, he said something I never forgot. He said, "I don't care what a cat plays. If you're into music, there'll be something you hear [in that musician] that you might like. One note, one sound, that you might like."

How does one react to such a deeply impractical statement, coming from an artist at the top of his game? Do you laugh? Do you tell him that he is wrong? (No, some musicians really aren't worth wasting time on.) Do you argue with him? How can you do anything other than try to take his advice, even if you fail? As an addendum to that story, Ali added, "From that day to this, I've never put a musician down for anything."

And what of Frank Wright? Until his death in 1990, he distinguished himself as almost the last of a breed by his devotion to the principles of power, loudness, maximum nonmelodic screaming-through-the-horn. He adapted a small part of Coltrane's sound himself, and that was enough for him. Later [presumably not later than his death], he said: "No motherfucker can tell me what I have to play, and I know I'm right because what I do is countersigned by master John Coltrane who accepted me at his side by calling me 'little brother.'"

(pp. 106-107)

The critic's inegalitarianism with respect to making sounds apparently underwrites an egalitarianism with respect to criticizing sounds, but this is not the whole story. Criticism itself must be enabled in a gesture that violently disfigures the object of criticism, a gesture that places music in the category of art rather than life. "If it's [art's] truly good and powerful, it deserves to engender a thousand misunderstandings" (p. 174). This is how the sophisticate says "let a thousand flowers bloom," but we mustn't let the modesty of saying "misunderstandings" obscure what is claimed by the conditional clause. What is being implicitly claimed is that no musician, not even John Coltrane, is, through the practice of making sounds alone, in a position to determine whether any assemblage of sounds truly rises to the level of being good and powerful. It's saying as much as that truth is decided upon, because there must be a decision behind any truth, on the model of an adjudication of verbal contradictions, through criticism, and though the critic might claim an allegiance to poetic truths, indeed a fondness for poetic truths, it is criticism that governs truth processes in his book.

Ratliff dismisses the view that "this music requires new inventions of selfhood" as Romantic in the most uncritical way one can hold Romantic views (p. 172). Calling an aesthetic viewpoint Romantic hardly suffices as a critique; the statement "this music requires new inventions of selfhood" is not invalidated so easily, yet I recognize that in making this point I risk misunderstanding or, what may be worse, misrepresenting Ratliff. He himself tells us that Coltrane is not on record as ever having used the word "art" to describe his life's work (p. 60), which again reinforces the point that Ratliff's criticism is anything but ignorant. Consider this maxim: "whenever Coltrane either started playing more notes or fewer, something was happening inside him" (p. 47). Ratliff sees such changes as "signs of growth," growth as an artist, naturally, but indeed growth, and, it must be pointed out, inner growth–whatever that could mean. Or consider this statement: "even some great artists must endure their own tedium"(p. 31). Isn't there some confusion here between artist and critic, I mean in saying that Coltrane had to endure his own tedium? And why shouldn't there be this confusion? Artist and critic are cut from the same cloth, verso and recto of the same process of decision. When Ratliff says that any musician's sound is a "full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality," a definition he qualifies, in an elegant turn of phrase that decides for us what truly matters, as "a mystical term of art" (p. x), and then turns around and criticizes an philosophy–before saying "aesthetic" we should want to explore the feeling of music and let that guide us–which takes seriously Coltrane's ambition to be a force for good by requiring that listeners reinvent themselves, then we know that he is being anything but uncritical. Criticism is the soul of his enterprise. Does criticism then intrinsically do violence to egalitarianism, even as it says let 998 flowers of misunderstanding bloom (for the artist and the critic have been exempted from the tedium of a thousand flowers, the latter for having an understanding, the former for being subject to criticism)? Is criticism intrinsically uncharitable–on the one hand of course not, for there is some charity in Ratliff's criticism, arguably a modicum of charity towards Coltrane. Yet how do we do charity to panecastic methods of expression?

I won't say, not even in so many words, that it is egalitarianism that would lead me to be charitable in my reading of Ratliff, nor will I claim that a desire to be charitable has broken through my own tedium as a reader. How should I name my studies in such a way as to show they are not irrevocably estranged from Ratliff's criticism? There's a wildness to Ratliff's criticism. I acknowledge it knowing only too well that I cannot possibly properly acknowledge it. At the same time there is an assiduousness that I recognize as belonging to my world, one might even say a sedulousness in the sense of being devoted to expression if not in the name of logomachic truth then expression in the absence of deception, plain expression, plain poetry. Some of Ratliff's judgments lead me to ask whether Ratliff must free himself from this assiduousness in order to practice his criticism, but I don't mean by that question to grossly imply that his judgments are unstudied, instudious if you will. I resist making that judgment myself for my own good, for my own practice of assiduousness, our shared assiduousness. What is this distance between my intellect and the antagonistic impulse that might be called critical? Is this distance also critical? Studious? Is study in the end only so much rigamarole, or does studiousness demand that we, that somebody, break through the rigamarole of study? It must be thought that we could be seduced by our own devotions, beflummoxed by our own plain truths. Must it be studied?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:29 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Around Burnside

Portlanders are justly proud of their city. They would be the first to realize that I'm talking about Portland, Oregon and not Portland, Maine, though they have only the kindest regard for the Portlanders of Maine, somehow believing that if Maine Portlanders were to discover Portland, Oregon, they would of course feel at home there and instantly make preparations to set up a new residence, if not year-round, then for an uncommonly lengthy season.

Portland is wonderfully hospitable to pedestrians. You probably don't need an automobile to get around downtown, and in most cases you wouldn't want one. In fact, public transportation is free downtown in an area known as fareless square. There are numerous buses and a light rail train, called Max, that you can freely ride up through town and across the river all the way to Lloyd Center, a shopping mall in Northeast Portland. Max riders are courteous, indeed kind, even to shoppers with bags from Lloyd Center or Pioneer Place–these kind of shopping bags easily mark one as a tourist, perhaps from Gresham or Tigard, or points further out, and probably not the most discerning tourist at that. Portlanders as a rule are about as far from hostile to tourists as one can imagine. They harbor suspicions about anybody who would not instantly pack up and move to Portland, but they would never let their suspicions rise to the level of discourteousness. On the Max they hold doors, make way, tuck in elbows, swap seats, don't stare, avoid crowding as much as possible, talk quietly when there's talking to be done, and so forth. They practice an ethos of civility in every situation, but it is a rather situationist ethos, a kind of ethos that calls for the liberal interpretation of laws in each situation in order to discover and put into practice an almost utopian civility. Portland's urban planners know this ethos, know that it flowers in nearly every citizen, and plan accordingly. On the Max there are seats reserved near the doors for elderly and disabled passengers. However, anybody is free to sit in them until they are needed by somebody who is old or physically impaired in any way. It is not believed that the practice of civility could be improved by extending courtesies to those who are not present, or would not be able to appreciate the gesture. On this ground it is obvious that Larry David would feel at home in Portland. Surely the reason he hasn't yet moved to Portland is because he would rather satirize the mores of other cities than live in a city that suits him. It's his profession that keeps him away. Portlanders recognize that as a reasonable excuse, though, in the most civil tones, they might entertain a few doubts about what the business actually requires, you know, the business, the business Gus Van Sant is in.

Every city has its own unwritten rules about crossing streets. Portland is no exception. Whereas jaywalking is strictly frowned upon in Seattle, for instance, in Portland jaywalking is widely practiced. However the Portlander does not jaywalk willynilly. At every intersection or between intersections the unwritten rule is that if your crossing the street won't bother anybody you are free to cross the street. Otherwise you give way, or simply abide by the suggestion of the lighted traffic signals (red suggests stop, green suggests go.) The law applies when it needs to apply. It's almost as if you were required to interpret the law at every step. Almost. In practice you learn to categorize situations as requiring such-and-such kinds of interpretation: hearing sirens calls for a cautious interpretation, seeing a friend may excuse an obtrusive jaywalk, partially. Although many store fronts have awnings, Portlanders are in actuality ambivalent about whether escaping the rain excuses anything, even anything so trivial as improperly jaywalking. After all, one wants to live in Portland. On the other hand one mustn't be unkind to the bedraggled, and Portland is home to many bedraggled people.

Every day I like to drink espresso made with organic, shade-grown, arabica, dark roast beans. Stumptown Roasters–every decent city needs an abundance of appellations to suit various moods and styles–roast organic beans, but they won't make you an espresso with those beans at their coffee shop downtown. I called Kobos on Market (this is kind of between Forecourt Fountain and Lovejoy Fountain which is a nice place to walk during the day, though for most people pretty far to walk from Burnside; you can take a bus to Forecourt and then walk) and Kobos likewise would sell me the beans but not make me the espresso. I was beginning to think that I would have to break down and purchase my own espresso cart, but the nice woman who answered the phone at Kobos began to make inquiries on my behalf and learned that I could get what I was asking for at the Coffee Plant on Washington between Broadway and Park, a shop I had ruled out because they use Stumptown beans, but of course, there's no reason they can't grind Stumptown organic beans and make espresso from them, which they are happy to do. Another strategy for drinking espresso I have learned in my travels is to order a mocha because it can mask the flavor of a less than pleasant bean, and because I love chocolate as much as I need espresso. At Pioneer Place you can get a dark chocolate mocha from Moonstruck which is pretty delicious, but the standard is one shot of espresso. You have to ask for two.

Speaking of Pioneer Place, there is a real sense in which Saks Fifth Avenue ought to be about Fifth and Yamhill, thereabouts. Portlanders feel this. They know what I'm talking about. It's like Southpark, which could only possibly refer to being on the edge of the South Park Blocks, and nothing else. The world outside of Portland always provides only secondary points of reference, secondary associations. The primary associations of any term are naturally understood to be local.

Intellectuals who find themselves in Portland will gravitate towards Powell's, the City of Books–every decent bookstore needs a few appellations–on 10th and Burnside. Much as Pine and Ankeny seem to converge on Powell's, and Stark too, within eyesight, the streets themselves lead the pedestrian as if by centripetal force towards the best bookstore on the planet. Powell's is like the Smithsonian, or Disneyland. You need to set aside several days to see all the books. In truth Powell's is better than Disneyland because you can sell back your old books to fund buying new books, or new old books, though truth be told this service is of limited use to me since I both destroy the resale value of my books by writing in them, and prefer to have old books handy for rereadings or consultations at any time.

Across Burnside from Powell's is the Living Room Theater, which shows second-run arthouse films like Man on Wire. Naturally there is a market for second-run arthouse films in Portland, and it feels just as natural as a market for second-hand books. Perhaps this is a place to finally feel nostalgic for the petite bourgeoisie. Just perhaps.

I can't say anything about the food at the Living Room Theater, but I can recommend that you dine at the Alexis on Second and Burnside, if only because the service is so friendly. As for the food, the melitzano is superb, even if you think you have mixed feelings about eggplant. Definitely eat the bougatsa for desert, and trust your waiter to recommend a wine.

Portlanders, when they have to buy things, prefer to buy things made in Portland. They buy furniture made in Portland. They buy beer brewed in Portland. Alameda Brewery, to name one, makes a Black Bear Stout, which is probably what Dubliners would drink, and even Bostonians, if they only knew. Portlanders like to direct tourists to Saturday Market, even if they're not in the mood for shopping themselves. They understand that sometimes one has the impulse to buy things, gifts perhaps, and since it is possible to buy things made in Portland, or, as a distant second, things sold by local retailers, then it is acceptable to go to Saturday Market and buy a few things, just a few things, in moderation, and without a superordinate glee.

Saturday Market is located under the Burnside Bridge. The Max announces a stop at Skidmore Fountain, but everybody understands the circumlocution, the little bit of discreet misdirection. Being under the Burnside Bridge is a difficult topic, as everybody knows. The Burnside Bridge is the topographical center of the city, neither Northwest, nor Southwest, nor Northeast, nor Southeast, but dead center. For that reason it is the most prestigious place in all of Portland, and, by rational extension, the known universe. On the other hand, the people who actually take shelter under the Burnside Bridge, men mostly, having no other fixed address, are not among the most celebrated people in the city. One likes to believe, though it could hardly rise to the level of a firm conviction, that the men who find shelter under the Burnside Bridge and the environs aren't merely drawn downtown by the hot meals provided by the Portland Rescue Mission, one likes to believe that the spirit of adventure has led them to occupy the absolute center of the most beautiful city on Earth, but in fact Portlanders are aware that "Third and Burn" is synonymous with "Down and Out," or perhaps "Mentally Ill Homeless Man," and sleeping under the Burnside Bridge isn't, in the plain light of day, so to speak, all that desirable.

There was a time in Portland when one could say "Dammasch," implicitly pointing a finger at President Reagan's spending cuts, and everything made sense. Of course there was a cold-hearted Californian to blame for the homelessness of the paranoid schizophrenic or the veteran suffering from PTSD. Time has shown, however, that neither Democratic Party governments nor Republican Party governments have been willing to house people who suffer from mental illnesses such that they can't quite take care of themselves. Over time, in fact, the streets have become much more ecumenical, much more hospitable to people who suffer from a variety of illnesses, major and minor, from the horrible to the merely painful.

Although homeless people are frequently victims of violence, particularly late at night, the streets of downtown Portland are basically friendly streets. If you're down and out, and you're not too pretty, you can let your guard down for a moment or two each day. You might even find yourself on the receiving end of diverse acts of kindness. Portlanders aren't quite sure whether their general indifference to the homeless amounts to malice, but, since they mean no malice, they have no problem treating the homeless with civility and, occasionally, a kindness that couldn't in any way be mistaken for indifference. Perhaps the weave of such kindnesses into the fabric of Portland life accounts for the exceptional civility of Portland's beggars. Nobody who has been to Portland will disagree with the statement that Portland's beggars are the kindest beggars in the world. How much this overt kindness owes to an explicit law against uncivil begging cannot be determined, as Portlanders of every station in life excel at the practice of civility.

Back in the day you used to be able to sell your blood plasma at Alpha Therapeutic just around the corner on 5th between Burnside and Couch. Though selling you blood sounds quintessentially American, very can-do, you may see the blood trade described as a "global" industry. Do not be surprised, however, if in your travels you meet somebody who has no idea that the poor can exploit their own blood in this way. "Global" means such different things to different people, and there are many ways of learning about the globe, just as there are surely many ways of learning about centrifugal force. Really though, this business of exploiting oneself is only one facet of a lapidary city, the true jewel of the Pacific Northwest, the City of Bridges, and any criticism must be tempered by an appreciation of facts, such as the fact that the gentrification of the Pearl District has finally put an end to a few of the more unsightly displays of misery in Northwest Portland.

Is pride ever just? Is pride a civic virtue? You see, I lack even the basic vocabulary for communicating an intelligent critique of civic life. I leave that to you.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:47 PM. 2 comments