Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Logophile

I'm putting my logophilia to good use playing Free Rice.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:39 PM. 0 comments

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. 0 comments

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Benson Again

Cynthia Nielsen has given Bruce Ellis Benson's The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue a warmer reception than I have. I've said enough about the book for now. If the topic interests you, you may find Cynthia's posts edifying.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 3:10 PM. 0 comments

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Crapanzano's Tuhami

After twenty years I remain enchanted by Vincent Crapanzano's Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (University of Chicago Press, 1980). It can be read as a work about the ethical dilemmas of friendship, social inequality, difference, the quest for humanistic knowledge, mental illness, empathy and the imagination. I recall Crapanzano taking a stance that we can know the reality of another only by what he says. However that's not exactly what he says. He says, "I have forced myself into the theoretical position that we can know the experience of another only by what he says (as though a text can be understood without the assumption of intersubjectivity), and, at the same time, I have made a plea for a more immediate intersubjective understanding" (p. 152). Crapanzano regards this as a paradox. I don't quite see it that way because I'm coming at the said with a different set of as thoughs. Anyway, now the question arises for me as to why Crapanzano should feel that he has forced himself into the position that we can know the experience of another only by what he says. Before addressing that let me add some nuance to Crapanzano's position. I begin with a lengthy quotation:

Some phenomenologically influenced sociologists, like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), have suggested that the psychological theories at the disposal of an individual realize themselves in his experience.

If a psychology becomes socially established (that is, becomes generally recognized as an adequate interpretation of objective reality), it tends to realize itself forcefully in the phenomena it purports to interpret. Its internalization is accelerated by the fact that it pertains to internal reality, so that the individual realizes it in the very act of internalizing it. [P. 178]

I have suggested this, too (1973, 1975)—and suggest it here—but with one caveat. What the ethnographer or the psychologist is provided with is either an immediate or a mediate verbal text and not a direct access to the mind of his informant or subject. The extent to which such texts accurately report the experience they purport to describe, the extent to which they "realize" themselves in the experience, must inevitably remain open questions. They must not be dismissed, as some of the behaviorists have dismissed them (with a vehemence that is somewhat suspect), nor should they be ignored, as some of the more soft-minded humanistic psychologists have done by the simple assumption that what a subject says he has experienced is, in fact, what he experienced. In our everyday transactions we act, indeed we must act, as though the experience an individual reports is, in fact, the experience he experienced, unless of course he is being duplicitous or self-deceptive. In other words, in everyday life we collapse the conceptualization of and phenomenology of experience. Without entering here into questions of the temporality of experience—immediate utterances versus retrospective accounts—it is important to recognize that the two, the conceptualization and the phenomenology, must be analytically separated if an epistemologically valid science of man is to be achieved.

(pp. 20-21)

I suspect that the analytical separation of the conceptualization and the phenomenology of experience may engender a professional self-deception, and that we have good, which is to say valid, reasons for collapsing the two in daily life. On the other hand, I can see the distinction Crapanzano draws and I can acknowledge that his questions remain and must remain open—why must they? Here I am particular keen on leaving open a question of how a symbolic interpretation of experience finds its truth in an experience. Why must this question be denied closure? I lean towards thinking that an ethical imperative keeps this question open, but I won't rush to that conclusion.

The distinction between fantasy and reality agitates Crapanzano. Tuhami, as Crapanzano reconstructs their encounter, helps him to a realization that fantasy is not untruthful, which suggests that the difference between fantasy and reality shouldn't be pinned down too neatly. Here, though is a twist: Crapanzano says, "The fantasies of the Other, even when we ourselves invent them, are always more real than those we attribute to ourselves" (p. 59, my emphasis). What exactly is meant by "fantasy"? Crapanzano says something provocative about fantasy: "One of the characteristics of fantasy is the blurring of narrative performance and subject matter" (p. 66). Does this contention betray a dismissal of fantasy, or, perhaps, a wish to do away with an entire episteme? Oh, let's be ambivalent for a moment. Here Crapanzano describes what he believes to be Tuhami's sense of their encounter, and points to a conflict of views:

Tuhami responded to our encounter, as I have said, with an ease of fantasy and self-reference. It was often impossible to distinguish what was real from what was dream and fantasy, hallucination and vision. His interest was not in the informative but in the evocative aspect of language. He contradicted himself so often that even the minimum order I bestow on his life belies its articulation. What I take to be real (and, at least heuristically, I must take something to be real) is my assumption.

(p. 14, my emphasis)

One can vacillate between the two attitudes towards language in an encounter, call it a negotiation or some such, but this raises a question of whether the parties to an encounter must respect each other's fantasies about language, or each other's linguistic realities—can we honestly say at this juncture that we know our inventions of another's fantasies to be real, even in the sense that the real is a metaphor for the true? I don't want to get hung up in a disagreement about language just yet, and yet it appears at every turn. For instance, when Crapanzano expounds on the meaning he gives to the term "Other," he brushes up against the question of whether the language of the interpersonal encounter is essentially a mode of symbolic representation, and whether symbolic representation so dominates the encounter as to mute alternative evocations, that is, to mute personal voices.

The Other includes not simply the concrete individual who stands before one but all that he stands for symbolically. At the most abstract level, he is the transcendental locus of meaning; he is also typified by social roles, conventionalized perceptions, culturally determined styles, and a whole array of idiosyncratic associations that may be less than conscious. He is, to use the language of psychoanalysis, the object of transference.

(p. 9)

An interesting juxtaposition. If I may be permitted to separate the who of the other person from the what of the other person, to which domain would a transcendental locus of meaning belong? Does meaning belong to whats? Does transcendence? Are the whats of the world only animated by transference? Is is possible for a who to exist without any element of what whatsoever? Crapanzano warns against an obsessive desire to know the Other fully (p. 134), which is apropos here. Is the meaning of the Other itself ever fully known? (Is meaning itself?) If the meaning of meaning needs to be worked out, is that the business of the encounter? Might the meaning of meaning be the play of the encounter? Yet I wonder whether there aren't some meanings that shouldn't be played with. This too must remain an open question.

Having recognized that our knowledge of other people must remain partial, imperfect really, it must be added that there are limits to the partiality of understanding. "To understand the Other," Crapanzano tells us, "the ethnographer must come to participate as best he can in the Other's reality" (p. 141). A significant reason for this is that participation in another person's reality cultivates a capacity for empathy, and without empathy understanding suffers. Arguably understanding without empathy should go by some other name. However doubts must be raised as to whether we are surreptitiously giving "understanding" a special meaning in order to wiggle out of a difficult debate. Possibly it is an ethical imperative, difficult to defend (particularly within given disciplinary contexts, and the context of everything a monograph symbolically represents), that requires that our understandings of other persons be immersed in care. That is, understandings of other persons must be empathic. And they must be careful.

So what of my initial question? Crapanzano's discomfort appears to be epistemological, though there are ample grounds to question its roots. My discomfort is a little different. Can it be ethical not to take a person at her word? We do of course allow for situations in which people don't quite mean what they say. People joke around, for instance. Duplicity may be found out. Contradiction may be pointed out and logically discussed. What do we make of self-deceptions generally? Is it proper, ethically or otherwise, to say that another person deceives himself? Under what circumstances? Are there questions that belong to the encounter, questions that become improper when posed to third persons? Understandably intellectuals will chafe at the notion that the encounter may set boundaries of propriety around questioning, or around saying. Well, there remains a question of deceiving oneself about the self-deceptions of the Other, the possibility that one has confused one's own inventions for the Other's fantasies. As far as I can tell this doesn't get wrapped up.

Not wrapping up then, does my curiosity about other people's experiences militate for placing trust in the utterance? Could a convocative humility, if knowledge can know such a thing, actually be intrinsic to certain manifestations of curiosity?

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:31 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Noble Form of Memory

Merleau-Ponty discusses the painter as one who carries on a conversation with himself, with the things of his world, and with pre-existing works. Perhaps this conversation is the triple resumption he is referring to when he says:

This triple resumption which makes a sort of provisory eternity of the operation of expression is not simply a metamorphosis in the fairytale sense of miracle, magic, and absolute creation in an aggressive solitude. It is also a response to what the world, the past and the completed work demanded. It is accomplishment and brotherhood. Husserl has used the fine word Stiftung—foundation or establishment—to designate first of all the unlimited fecundity of each present which, precisely because it is singular and passes, can never stop having been and thus being universally; but above all to designate that fecundity of the products of a culture which continue to have value after their appearance and which open a field of investigations in which they perpetually come to life again. It is thus that the world as soon as he has seen it, his first attempts at painting, and the whole past of painting all deliver up a tradition to the painter—that is, Husserl remarks, the power to forget origins and to give to the past not a survival, which is the hypocritical form of forgetfulness, but a new life, which is the noble form of memory.

("Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence," in Signs, p. 59)

It might be useful to think of Stiftung as also endowment or donation.

Metamorphosis must be a kind of response, either a response to forms or a response to some meaning or expression carried by or through forms. Well, this isn't altogether clear. We can ask whether metamorphosis responds directly, or indirectly, to forms; alternatively we can ask whether it is actually forms that are given to responsive metamorphosis. Or form itself. (I like for my questioning to recognize a variety of mental bents.) Metamorphosis may be, always or in certain instances, a response by way of forms to expressions that weren't previously given in the form of forms. Why forms? Here we need to ask about what it means to be given. Would it be possible to give and take form in a single gesture?

The last time I talked about the prefix μετα- I was drawn to its sense of signifying a quest. Now if I ask whether form and change relate sibsomely or unsibsomely—or both together in some manner, which would have the status of a possibility (kaliedeation/monstruation)—am I giving new life to questioning itself? Surely questioning doesn't need to be given anything, and not by me. Does the question take the form of an endowment? Do you see where this leads? Towards the provisory, perhaps.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:29 AM. 0 comments

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Gap in Experience

Since becoming acquainted with the word ostranenie, I've been dying to put it down here, dying to talk about it. The other night I was watching Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love and it occurred to me that all of Wong's films are saturated in ostranenie, or, to hew to the particular, in Mood ostranenie is the doorway where desire passes languishingly. Anyway, Wong's films are a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about a certain "gap in experience" that Giorgio Agamben deduces from his brief examination of poetry and experience (Infancy and History, Chapter Three). He says, "It is experience that best affords us protection from surprises, and the production of shock always implies a gap in experience. To experience something means divesting it of novelty, neutralizing its shock potential" (p. 41). I disagree. Experience can't fully divest a thing of its potential to surprise without becoming something other than experience. Of course one must question what a thing is and what it means to experience a thing, and so we approach the question of what it means to be surprised by a thing. We have to imagine that this being surprised by could be other than a discovery of the surprising essence of a thing or one of its surprising qualities, that the potential for surprise may be something vested by experience. Yeah, well we haven't settled what a thing is, and that's a problem here.

Agamben may be well aware of my commonplace thoughts about experience, the ones I carry close to me without allowing them to be examined too closely. After all his essay means to destroy experience (for reasons that would matter to me to the degree I care about dialectics). It's hard to say to what degree I've been anticipated. In any case I'll try to keep alive for a moment the idea of a gap of experience and relate it to ostranenie. Agamben says, "Estrangement, which removes from the most commonplace objects their power to be experienced, thus becomes the exemplary procedure of a poetic project which aims to make of the Inexperiencible the new 'lieu commun', humanity's new experience" (p.). A quibble: estrangement does not remove from things a potential to be experienced so much as it makes the experience of things strange, or, since we have things on the back burner, makes strange experience itself. We oughtn't forget that the work of estrangement is foremost making strange, or perhaps more precisely a drawing into the strange. Quibbles aside, it occurs to me that I may have in the depths of my soul taken the Inexperiencible as experience. Just a thought.

A final detour, if you please. I recall from my readings that László Tengelyi, for whom an element of surprise is very much essential to experience, holds that experience, in its primary sense, has a characteristic poignancy. I'd like to say then that ostranenie intensifies the poignancy of experience, or even that it reminds us of the poignancy of experience. Would a gap in experience intensify the poignancy of experience, or function as a space for remembering the poignancy of experience?

Agamben's "gap in experience" may serve as a corrective to the notion that experience covers everything at all times equally. Why, even were we to agree that experience were downright essential to all that there is, we might still want to allow for gaps in experience, if only to keep some modicum of distance between you and me, for example. Quite possibly being is intermittent, which is to say, being lets go now and then. It allows for betweenness. In light of this intermittency what then would we want to say of experience, our way of being, if I may presume for a moment? Would we want to say under any circumstances that experience refuses to let go? Well, I couldn't naysay somebody who sensed a resistance there, a pull in experience against the intermittency of being. If the poignancy of experience arises from its resistance to intermittency, would that mean that experience would somehow be posterior to being? It's a vicious circle, I'm sure. Or a silly circle. Take your pick. In either case it may be that a gap in experience remains a gap in experience, that it is something that experience, however painfully, relinquishes.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:53 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Nancy says that "there is doubtless no saying that is not in some way imaged" ("Distinct Oscillation," in The Ground of the Image, p. 67). No doubt. Conversely, is there any image that does not in some way say something? This is a question of ekphrasis, I guess.

Are text and image primitives of showing? That seems to be the drift of Nancy's oscillation, insomuch as an oscillation can have a drift. I would question that, but I don't have a ready answer to the question of whether images that say nothing actually exist.

Let's put it another way. Are there images that go without saying? The philosopher may want to say that while uneducated persons allow images to go without saying, philosophers insist on making them say something. Perhaps what they say is questions. Do you suppose that is why images are beloved? I don't. I would look to whom what the saying that goes with the image is said for answers. And questions. Oh, but there is this business of ekphrasis. Does ekphrasis speak to anybody? Just anybody?

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. I might suppose that rules out a certain kind of ekphrasis, but I am not so quick to suppose. Is it fair to call my imagination of sunyata an embrace? Haven't I, in previous posts, exactly embraced the formless? Well, it wouldn't be difficult to misidentify things. Doesn't the formless resist identification?

Can it ever be truly said that one has found the image that says nothing? Shall I draw you a picture of finding? (Naturally, I am missing the point here.)

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:45 AM. 1 comments