Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Recently the United States Department of Interior listed the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision has caused some consternation among politically conservative commentators. I point to Jonah Goldberg's column because I take him at his word when he says "I like to think I'm something of a conservationist." It's good to know that caring about wild animals is a normative value among educated Westerners, though obviously mouthing the norm isn't sufficient to conserve habitats or prevent extinctions.

We shouldn't be oblivious to the fact that caring for the polar bear has brutal consequences for the ringed seal. Care for wild animals is, on its face, not without contradictions. Is skepticism a reasonable way forward here? What if skepticism were to prevent us from living wisely? Or ethically? Is skepticism as adaptive as we would like our thinking to be?

What does ataraxia mean in this case of caring about polar bears? Should we want to reach an equilibrium with the polar bears? Would that be a basis for achieving a state of equanimity? Should we cease to worry about equanimity altogether?

Can the skeptic place too much value on equanimity? Do we want to meet every situation in life with the same measure of equanimity, or would that in fact be dogmatic, and hence, for the skeptic, contradictory and foolish? Perhaps it would be unwise to allow an idea of equanimity to interfere with equanimous conduct, including, of course, the equanimous conduct of the mind.

A deeply skeptical thinker shouldn't want skepticism to be misused as a cloak for irresponsibility, nonfeasance or foolishness. We need to be wary of pseudoskepticism, and to recognize that not all expressions of doubt are equally meritorious. Debates over matters of life and death don't warrant an ordinary skepticism. If they warrant any skepticism at all, they warrant the deepest skepticism.

The designation of the polar bear as an threatened species, being a matter of life and death, warrants a deep skepticism. Mr. Goldberg's skepticism in this matter cannot be disentangled from an ideological movement known as global warming skepticism, a movement which thrives on a mixture of reasonable doubts and ideological scotomata. Perhaps this mixture of reason and blind spots is the way of all ideological movements. I don't mean to be dismissive, though obviously there are areas of disagreement. Adherence to any doctrine of skepticism is deeply problematical, no less so when it can be seen as concomitant to other, more entangling, faiths. Here the point is to question how a skepticism might be properly conceived so as to address the designation of the polar bear as a species threatened with extinction. Does global warming skepticism provide us with as deep a skepticism as we should want in this case?

The best case for global warming skepticism, which I neither endorse nor dismiss, goes something like this: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Human activity has increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This increase in carbon dioxide has led to a degree global warming; however, the amount of global warming caused by human activity is insignificant in comparison with other factors that affect the climate. There is no cause for alarm. There is no imminent catastrophe. At this juncture we needn't engage with all the various skeptical arguments against the recognition of anthropogenic global warming; it will suffice to grapple only with this smartest argument. In doing so two related notions should be examined: the first is the notion of insignificance, the second is the notion of catastrophe.

Insignificance in this case is largely a question of scale, though it has an undeniable moral or ethical import. How many extinctions does it take to make an anthropocene era? How many biomes must be altered or destroyed before we can attach significance to the alteration and destruction of biomes? Of course habitats are destroyed and species are killed off by means other than global warming caused by increased atmospheric CO2. At issue here is whether the evident diminishment of pack ice which the polar bear relies upon to make its living will lead to its extinction, and whether this loss of ice cover is due in any significant measure to human activity. In ethical terms, the question concerns the human responsibility for the polar bear's habitat, as it exists now and as it will probably exist in the future. That responsibility is not simply a question of what has been done, but also one of what can and will be done, or not done as the case may be. The issue cannot be settled by science alone, though science can aid us in making decisions. Honest and well-meaning earth scientists of various stripes might all agree that the extinction of a single species is not an event of great significance in the history of the planet, and yet as people who care about wild animals we might be justifiably concerned by a threat to the polar bear's livelihood. If insignificant means negligible, as in able to be neglected, we may still have, after science has registered its neglect, an ethical, which is to say philosophical, call to examine the consequences of translating such intellectual neglect into a more profound neglect.

It must be conceded, I reckon, that the number of polar bears on the planet, as estimated by natural scientists, has not decreased in the past thirty years. During this same time the polar ice where the bears make their living has been receding. Has receding ice had any effect on the polar bears? What have been the effects of restriction on the hunting of polar bears, or of eases in those restrictions? The global warming skeptic avoids calling attention to an evident decrease in body mass of polar bears, but we cannot reasonably call ourselves skeptical conservationists and not be concerned by a decrease in polar bear biomass, by a scrawniness of bear. On the other hand, this scrawniness may be significant but we might hesitate to say it foretells a catastrophe. What do we really know about what the future holds for polar bears based on these meagre facts? Unfortunately the global warming skeptics have not provided us with any models of pack ice recovery, which they sometimes seem to imply will naturally occur at some point or another. The scientific models that we do have tell us that further melting is probable. Time will tell if these models are correct. Meanwhile, what's a deep skeptic to do?

There are catastrophes all around us that probably have nothing to do with anthropogenic global warming: cyclones, earthquakes, dirt pies, which represent a kind of global economic catastrophe, a "silent tsunami." Personally I worry about aftershocks felt in Sichuan. I wouldn't know how to survive in the wild, out of doors. Do I worry about polar bears for the same reason?

If you are blessed with equanimity do you have an obligation to ease the worries of others? Even if that means actually doing something?

Just as we shouldn't allow ourselves to be worried for no reason, we should be skeptical of people who respond to our worries by presenting us with false dilemmas. To acknowledge another's catastrophe is not itself a catastrophe. So I am worried about the nanooks. I fear that they may be killed off by people who would never say that they wanted to kill off the nanooks. How would that not be a worse catastrophe than, if you will allow a moment of anthropomorphism, anything the earth could concoct by itself?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 2:38 PM. 1 comments

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Synkairotic

Does the synkairotic have an inception?

Agamben helps us to say about time what has been on the tip of the tongue. He begins:

Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to 'change the world', but also—and above all—to 'change time'.

("Time and History," Infancy and History, p. 91)

Agamben finds in pleasure an experience to accompany a revolutionary conception of history. What is the time of accompaniment? Should we also look for it in καιρός, or the kairotic grasp of time. Agamben says, "within itself the cairós distils different times ('omnium temporum in unum collatio') and within it the sage is master of himself and at his ease, like a god in eternity" (p. 101-102). If the kairotic (rather than the thinker—as usual the sages have all the fun) actually does bring together all times, or all conceptions of time, then it would not only be useless to speak of the synkairotic, it would be absurd. Surely there was a paradox in this conception of the kairotic to begin with: how can kairos bring together all times and be a time itself? And further, oughtn't we historicize kairos? Oughtn't we question whether kairos/καιρός belongs equally to the Ancient Greeks, the Stoics and the Post-Industrial Europhones? At this moment, when it is uncertain whether the kairotic can carry all that has been put upon it, dare we anticipate that the synkairotic will fare any better, that it will after be able to carry what we need the moment to carry? Oh, but according to one reading of Seneca to totally inhabit the kairos would mean to anticipate its future, and to dwell in that anticipation; yet perhaps it is in the nature of the moment to allow the future to be. Should we worry about a revolution of the moment sliding into a revolution for the moment? Any time now the whole affair might be dismissed as vicissitudinal, and we ourselves might collapse into vicissitudinarianism. Indeed. Well, the synkairotic is necessitated not merely by the wobbliness of the kairotic but also at the same time by the wobbliness of the synchronic. Amidst all this wobbling superfluity may be the least of our worries.

If the kairotic is a bouquet of times, the synkairotic is the economy of cut flowers. From gardens to homes and every boutique (apothec/ἀποθήκη) along the way: snip, snip, snip. The synkairotic brings together, but it also cuts, and it lays away. The synkairotic neither merely anticipates nor allows the future to be, but it also lays it away.

"The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination." (We'll see where Arom takes Jakobson's (and Bachelard's) ideas soon enough.) There is yet another need for the emergence of the synkairotic. Pleasure and enjoyment must be joined, as must jouissance and orgasm. At the same time, any genuine revolution must be synorgasmic. The syncherotic function projects the enjoyment of polyvalence from the axis or selection into the axis of combination. Or something like that. Times change as fast as play. Ultimately I may come to embrace the vicissitudinal, without resentment if not without a tinge of sadness. How will I begin to describe the embrace of the synkairotic?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:38 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Meontic Renewal

Can a harmony be renewed? Renewal may be the only temporal mode of existence open to harmony, if that's possible. Here I'd like to think renewal beyond a reiteration of the dubiousness of repetition and, what goes hand in hand, a reaffirmation of the evanescent. The thinking of renewal must itself be renewed. We really should be speaking of a double evanescence here, and asking whether an evanescence can be evanesced, for as surely as every tone eventually fades away, the harmonies a tone wends through and wends again through also fade (which is not to pre-emptively deny harmony's wendings and wendings again). When we ask about the modality of a harmony's evanescence, and question the play of transitivity in its relation to tone, we are on the verge of revealing a terrific fact of evanescence, which might have eluded us had we approached evanescence directly. That evanescence must be renewed? No, we are only beginning to glimpse what evanescence has in store for us. Is the evanescence of the evanescent, the evanishment of the evanid, primarily a mimetic operation or a meontic operation? You see, once repetition has abandoned us and mimesis reverberates merely as the reverberation of reverberation, we might turn to meontic renewal as the remaining possible modality of the evanescence of the evanescent. Well, by all means let's not make too much of a fuss over τό μἠ ὅν, the meon(t)ic. If meontic renewal is the way the evanescent is evanesced that's not to say it's all that and a bag of chips, any deflation of mimesis and such notwithstanding. If the evanescent in particular is partial to meontic realizations (irrealizations, if we don't mind being twisted around), that tells us about the evanescent; we cannot be sure it tells us anything about all things touched by evanescence.

Harmonies captivate us because they are felt. Try to say what those feelings are, and the thought may sneak up that harmonies are felt because they captivate. The rational position is to remain agnostic on the question of whether evanescence liberates or imprisons—but are our feelings there to be ignored? Are our ordinary encounters with harmonies predicated on sedimentations? That is, are our experiences of harmony experiences of sedimented beauties, beauties we did not ourselves arrive at through our own intuitions? Well, there's no denying that sentimentalism is a force in the world of harmonies. If we do say that harmony can happen only as renewal do we mean that all the forms of harmony that may be experienced are already sedimented? Without going so far as to claim that Occidental music theory has exhausted all possibilities of harmonizing, we might recognize that we don't quite feel anything in the total absence of the sedimentary. What would it be like to feel sedimentation at its source? Would it be like a fading away, a renewal, or maybe a synchrony of both feelings? There's no denying that sedimentarism is a force in the world of harmonies. But is re-activation of the sedimented all that could be meant by renewal? Another possibility remains to be explored: perhaps our ordinary encounters with harmonies are predicated on fadings.

What if instead of the durations of tones (and harmonies) we spoke of intensities? I share Bachelard's skepticism of durations, and seek to explore gaps in the harmonic, though I have not quite internalized his metaphysics to the point where my talk of intensities would dwell in the same habitat of meaning as his. Since I am brushing up alongside Bachelard here, dig what he says regarding temporal consolidation: "the posing of a form and material intercalation are the two inevitable moments of all coherent or rather cohered activity, of all activity that is not purely and simply made of accidents. Only this kind of cohered activity can be renewed and can constitute a precise temporal reality" (Dialectic of Duration, p. 96, my bold). Well, you see what my initial question attempts to renew. I don't regard this matter as settled. So the question of what sort of activity can be renewed persists in the question of the harmonic evanescence of intensities. Are gaps in intensity felt? Coherently? Does meontic renewal have anything whatsoever to do with forms? (Are feelings and forms opposed, or do they perforce work in tandem, coherently?) What can we say about the temporal reality of harmony? Is harmony an activity, and, if so, is it an activity in the way thought is an activity?

Bachelard revisits an idea presented by a certain Georges Urbain that melodic sequence is completely dependent on harmonic sequence, that even in monody there is no note that is not accompanied if only in the aural imagination (p. 130). Well, maybe this is both completely true and completely false. We need to ask what it means to accompany, and what it means to renew a harmony. We have really just begun to test the possibilities of harmony, and we might be well served to wait a few millennia before reaching any conclusions. The fact that harmony is comping—we don't deny it—in no way dims the insight that harmonies may be arpeggiated or even melodized, that is, we needn't forget that the synchronic/diachronic is a two-way street. The synchronic intensifications sounded within a harmonic irreality do not at once cease being melodic for having been brought under a coherence, if such they are. Perhaps Bachelard is not in disagreement? He says that "a homogenous process cannot ever change. Only plurality can have duration, can change, and can become. The becoming of a plurality is as polymorphous as, despite all simplifications, that of a melody is polyphonous. The duration of sound is dialectical in every direction, on the axis of melody as on that of harmony, in intensity as in timbre" (ibidem, my bold). Is a harmony merely a felt coherence, or the form of a coherent activity, or are gaps in intensity also felt, providing a silent accompaniment to every harmony? Is the intensity of tone dialectical in every direction? Again, we wouldn't want to make too much of a fuss about meontic renewal. My feeling is that sounds sound in every direction, fade multivalently, intensify polymodally. Given the plurality of modes of the intensely irreal, the meontic gesture oughtn't be reduced to a unidirectional negation, though of course we would need to say something about the irreal and perhaps how it got that way. If the irreality of the harmonic act acquired its irreality from a process of renewal, then neither negation nor affirmation will get to the bottom of harmony, if it indeed is not bottomless, at least so far as we may speak of its meontic renewal.

What's it like to feel a harmony exactly at its vestige? We're going to have to return to the gap in intensity and think it through in light of Dylan Trigg's Aesthetics of Decay. For now can we begin to describe an intercession between a gap in intensity and its experience as a gap? What sort of repercussions should we be listening for? Is the proper analysis of harmony hermeneutics? What would a pure meontics of harmony sound like?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:17 PM. 0 comments

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

(Rhythm)2, and So On

It was a mistake for me to have said that isochrony is wrong. I should have restricted my criticism to a characteristic abuse of time, or of a way of being overcome by measurement. Surely isocrhony has its uses.

Bachelard says, "The time of thought is in fact so superior to the time of life that it can sometimes command life's action and life's repose" (The Dialectic of Duration, p. 102). One can disagree with this statement readily enough. However, isn't the modern discomfort with isochrony predicated on just such an intuition? On what grounds would one object to the superiority of the time of thought? Is it the mind that revolts at the proposition of such a superiority?

One of Bachelard's riffs on Pinheiro dos Santos' unpublished Rhythmanalysis:

If a particle ceased to vibrate, it would cease to be. It is now impossible to conceive the existence of an element of matter without adding to that element a specific frequency. We can therefore say that vibratory energy is the energy of existence. Why then should we not have the right to place vibration at the heart of time in its original form? We do so without any hesitation. For us, this first form of time is time that vibrates. Matter exists in and only in a time that vibrates, and it is because it rests on this time that it has energy even in repose. We would therefore be forgetting a fundamental characteristic if were to take time to be a principle of uniformity. We must ascribe fundamental duality to time since the duality inherent in vibration is its operative attribute. We now understand why Pinheiro dos Santos has no hesitation in writing that 'matter and radiation exist only in and through rhythm' (volume 2, section I, p. 18). This is not, as is so often the case, a declaration inspired by a mystique of rhythm; it really is a new intuition, firmly based on the principles of modern wave physics.

(p. 138, Bachelard's emphases, my bold)

Is existence capable of revolution? The question What is capable of revolution? strikes me as wrongheaded in that it would be better to ask who revolts (and who commands), yet we should wonder what is meant by "existence." We should take it upon ourselves to existentialize rhythmanalysis, to follow that path whithersoever it leads, or to lead it whithersoever it follows. Shall we resist dipping our toes into the cosmos? Water symbolizes mystique. Does it also provide a means for comprehending clarity? Tremendous experiments will be conducted. Toes will be dipped.

To begin to meander in an out of Bachelard's text, is the following formula too uncomfortable for vamping (or imaginary vamping as the case may be): ((rhythm)2(rhythm)3)2? If emergent rhythms are comfortably achieved (with practice), would that be precisely because one can assume tacit isochronous pulsations? Or, would it be the case that a stricture against making isochronous pulsation explicit enables the synchronous expression of alternative isochronies? Does a polychronic facility signify a mastery of disparate isochronies, or does it follow its own path? (I'll be rereading Simha Arom's African Polyphony and Polyrhythm shortly so I'll get back to the idea of isochronic pulsation in music in future posts.)

How should we question generic isochronic periodicity, if there is such a beast? The freedom to vary tempos in daily life is essential to good living. For all the good that regularity can accomplish, to live life at a single pace amounts to passing the time under hypnosis. Is life lived within a single horizon, on a single plane without superiorities or inferiorities, also a kind of hypnosis? Would we be able to endure a life totally stripped of hypnotic moments? That is to say, perhaps rhythm is only possible as (rhythm)2, and so on.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:05 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Putting the Synchronic on Hold

Shahar draws our attention to the works of Itamar Even-Zohar, who has worked out a semiotics he calls polysystemic theory. The other day I sort of casually let it slip that I would be reclaiming synchrony from the structuralists on behalf of language and good sense. Well, now I have a project on my hands because Even-Zohar has given the matter a lot of thought and he intends to do some reclaiming of his own. He says that once we recognize that semiotic systems do not exist outside of history we are led to certain conclusions:

First, it must be admitted that both synchrony and diachrony are historical, but the exclusive identification of the latter with history is untenable. As a result, synchrony cannot and should not be equated with statics, since at any given moment, more than one diachronic set is operating on the synchronic axis. Therefore, on the one hand a system consists of both synchrony and diachrony; on the other, each of these separately is obviously also a system. Secondly, if the idea of structuredness and systemicity need no longer be identified with homogeneity, a semiotic system can be conceived of as a heterogeneous, open structure. It is, therefore, very rarely a uni-system but is, necessarily, a polysystem--a multiple system, a system of various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap, using concurrently different options, yet functioning as one structured whole, whose members are interdependent.

("Polysystem Theory," p. 11).

Of all the things there are, which of them should not be called a system? I'll turn the question on myself: of all the things there are, which of them should not be described by metaphor? Well, what is preliminary to a study of synchrony? I intend to approach synchrony as such (a metaphor, no doubt), schools and poetry in abeyance. (There's only so much a single person can do, I know, and for that matter collectives too have their limitations.) If synchrony means to abolish history, though I may disagree, I will not hesitate to report it. And if it were to emancipate itself from anti-systematicity I won't keep that under my hat either.

I take to heart Evan-Zohar's point that structuralism has been misinterpreted, even by some of its champions, as a statics. I am cognizant of his position that the polysystem is an open system. However, I must reiterate an objection to a structuralist view of culture, and I believe my criticism applies as much to Evan-Zohar's polysystem theory as to structuralist thinking, whatever degree to which the latter has been misconstrued. Evan-Zohar subscribes to cultural holism and he maintains that the literary (poly)system, his primary interest, is isomorphic with the cultural (poly)system. This peculiar idea of isomorphism should be referred to thought rather than to the field of cultural anthropology in order to sort out what exactly we should want it to mean. The doctrinary ideas of cultural holism, functionalism, structural-functionalism, on the other hand, should definitely be referred to cultural anthropology, as that discipline has put these ideas to the test (and, I reckon, has ultimately found them wanting in various ways). For my part, I am uncomfortable with an appeal to a phenomenon that is purported to stand above and beyond one's immediate field of inquiry. Whether that phenomenon would be Mind or Culture, as the case may be, one should be able to interrogate it directly as well as in its relations, or set it aside altogether.

So what kind of a relation is isomorphism, and what can we learn by interrogating it? Even-Zohar, in addition to avowedly presenting a jargon, also presents, in outline at least, a functionalist theory of "literature" (which is also a bit of jargon, as I'm sure you will recognize). Well, we must make allowances for those who would think productively, or, rather, technically. So when I question the use of the word "isomorphic" it must be clear that I am questioning all at once a particular item of language, a more or less systematic method of describing a parcel of reality, and a way of thinking. I make allowances because I know that in key respects I am a rude thinker and I wish to mitigate against my rudeness. I value comity. So it is with all due respect that I ask whether our understandings of phenomena have been tainted by a discourse on forms. (Such a discourse may also be thought of as technical, if that bakes your noodle.) You see, a heteromorphy or an anisomporhy would raise the same issues for me—though by no means do I wish to sweep aside the problem of equation. To use such language means being faced with a dilemma about what to do with forms: are forms anterior or posterior to the activity of thinking? And getting jiggy with that question surely means being able to say something about thinking, whether it is an activity at all, and, if it is, what can reasonably be said about what it does. Is there an isomorphism between the thought and the question? What would it mean to posit an isomorphism between the interrogated and the uninterrogated? In talking about isomorphism in any fashion aren't we left then with precisely a discourse on forms, shakily perhaps, but on forms?

What should isochrony mean to us? I'm going to express an opinion in the hopes that it will not be recieved as a substitute for supple thinking, which we should all aspire to in some measure: isochrony is wrong. It is wrong because it destroys anything approaching eudemonia. Perhaps I'm saying as much as isochrony is irrational. Perhaps. Culture is often irrational. I believe the noblest purpose of studying culture is to emancipate oneself from it, and I believe the same emancipatory impulse should motivate the study of forms, though of course I imagine I could be persuaded otherwise. So we have the question of forms, and here in the problem of isochrony we have a question of times and measures, and all of these questions fall under the shadow of a technocratic culture that, were we so bold as to attempt to master its secrets, would take the life from us in exchange. But my view here is, after all, just an opinion, a starting point, perhaps, for a longer discussion of what time means in our lives, and what it should mean, if time should mean anything.

In what sense can two anisochronic moments be synchronous? How do we measure history? Oh, is that History, "history" in a technical sense, or history in a real sense? Because history in an etymological sense could travel under the name of historiography, and that might be an everyday sense as well. Is it just any kind of thing that can (or cannot) be separated from an inquiry into that thing? I ask about kinds of things in order to ask about the essence of things. Does essence point to inquiry? (Do I have it all backwards?) Does the thing? Does the historicization of the synchronic, in analysis if not in practice, say something about the essence of the synchronic? I think perhaps, and yet we still do not know whether the synchronic has anything like an essence or even an existence and as a concept we have yet to clearly define its scope and its import.

Even-Zohar and I agree that the synchronic is not static, which is to say, achronic or ahistorical. I don't think we will be able to finish taking it apart until we explore togetherness, temporality, and the proper measure of temporality. (We might also ask whether togetherness has its proper measure, naturally). A passage of questions becomes apparent at this juncture, and it may occur to some that this is indeed our main passage forward: do we simply mean to say that the phenomena synchrony is purported to conceptualize are historical? Sure, but there's nothing simple about it. There's nothing simple about a science of historical phenomena, or a discursive history of an historical discourse, or, to borrow a turn of phrase from anthropologist Stephen Tyler, a reality fantasy of a fantasy reality. (I am profoundly indebted to Tyler for saying that "the point of discourse is not how to make a better representation, but how to avoid representation," "Post-Modern Ethnography," in Clifford and Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture, University of California Press, 1986, p. 128). In all this talk of synchrony should we want to concern ourselves with reality in any sense? Should we take the claim that synchrony does not escape the historical as a wake-up call to reality? Very tricky. What is the purpose of studying the historical?

As I was saying, I don't intend to definitively take apart synchrony at this time. I'll leave it on hold until I've thought more about temporality, togetherness and, perhaps, the imagination of meaning.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:18 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On the Reel

Bradypsyche is one of Bachelard's neologisms, meaning of course a slowness of thinking or of mind. The antonym, I presume, would be tachypsyche. Now that these words have arrived in our language they have become indispensable, for the tempo of our thinking governs its rhythm, and rhythm generates meaning more deeply perhaps than the content of expression—oh, my feet are tangled up in forms and formlessness. If I could drop a question in the midst of thinking—formal thinking, informal thinking, the question must be dropped—I would do so rhythmically, that is, I would dance the question, reel the question completely around forms, without regard to whether such a dance passed through forms or threw them away like yesterday's pop.

I recall that Corradi Fiumara quotes Wittgenstein thusly: "Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly" (in The Other Side of Language, p. 134, Corradi Fiumara's emphasis). She goes on to discuss the uses of style by Wittgenstein in order to regulate the pace of thinking, and to recommend a slowness of thinking.

If you will forgive me a moment of jollity (or unabashed vanity) I'd like to say a word about my own phraseology and, in particular, my use of commas. I have recently grown fond of the Oxford comma, though my fondness hasn't quite led me to be consistent in my usage. I like the Oxford comma because it imparts clarity, but chiefly because it allows one to take a breath, and sometimes one wants to take a breath for the sake of getting a thought just right. The precise meaning that should be given to the comma in my blogging is "pause," though you may imagine me saying something like "Please, pause for a moment. Take a small breath if you need to. There's no rush." I'm evolving a commatic style because I imagine that breathing is not intercalated into thinking as something extraneous or accidental, but is thoroughly and essentially raddled with thought. Thought and breathing are intertwined, as they say.

I should pause for a moment to reflect on tachypsyche, because it seems omnipresent in daily intellectual life, as if a fast pace of mind has become more vital to thinking than actual thinking, and, speaking for myself, because it is all too easy to blog off the reel. I don't want to live in a world of monotonous tempo, fast or slow, speeding or slowing. Ideally one should be surprised now and then by the tempo of one's thought. Even a slow thought may surprise, even a thought on the reel. Bradypsyche would mean little if it did not carry this potential to surprise.

The value I have placed on surprise serves to tell us that the encomia of the comma are unfinished until the griot addresses the beginnings of thought, and thereby the question of new beginnings. Allow me. Allow me to set it aside for another day.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:22 AM. 4 comments

Sunday, May 04, 2008


The thought occurs to me, and I won't say that it's either pleasant or unpleasant, that in lieu of discussing ideas what I actually do here is play with ideas. Playful discourse, discursive play—and so I begin by playing with the aimless, one of the many destabilizers that will play into this discussion.

In the back of my mind now is Gaston Bachelard's idea that "all rationalism is interrationalism." I favor pluralism and disagree with any equation of pluralism to dialecticism, but I find it difficult to assail the dialectician's position without confirming it, so I will be playing with these ideas instead of assailing them. Mind you, this is all in the back of my mind. I'll waltz with Bachelard's Dialectic of Duration anon. Today I'm going to respond briefly to Agamben's essay "In Playland" (in Infancy and History), which is wonderfully fun to read and in large measure an all around agreeable sort of text.

Agamben gives us the gist of his foray into play: "we can regard ritual and play not as two distinct machines but as a single machine, a single binary system, which is articulated across two categories which cannot be isolated and across whose correlation and difference the very functioning of the system is based" (p. 74, Agamben's emphasis). I might provisionally agree that play can't be isolated, though the provisional nature of the agreement cannot be stressed enough, and yet still question the existence of a single binary system, or more particularly its status as an object of thought or topic of discussion. In what sense would such a system not be a structure? Would a system's inclusion of event warrant making the claim, should our thought be called into question, that the system does not have the properties of a structure? Certainly there are reasons people speak of fluid, dynamic systems, or systematic processes and the like, and one of those reasons may be precisely to avoid confusion with structures. Yet in this case, in the case of the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, to whom "In Playland" is dedicated, given all that is claimed of structure, pointing to a system outside of the existence of structure becomes a dubious gesture, even when the gesture appears to be authorized by Lévi-Strauss himself.

Let's examine the problem from a slightly different angle. If one were to speak of an interpolation of some entity or force with structure, just supposing, what qualities would the interpolated necessarily possess? What qualities would have to belong to the context of interpolation? (What qualities would have to belong to a context of an interpellation?) For structure to remain structure in such a context what qualities would it appear to impart? Alternatively, we might simply ask what properties must structure have in order for there to be metamorphosis, for metamorphosis is very much at issue.

Can culture rationally be isolated in the way Agamben intends? Agamben's binary systems are entirely coextensive with cultures in a Boasian sense, and this occasions the question of whether contemporary ethnography would endorse such a view. Provisionally, sure, we can isolate culture. However, we may want to introduce more than a few caveats before jumping to descriptions of the functioning of the cultural system, were that our aim, and we should want know about such caveats before deciding on questions of isolation. I don't doubt that culture can be isolated, for heuristic purposes, for instance, but I shall never tire of questioning how and to what purpose one isolates culture or any other phenomenon for that matter.

If anything can be isolated, and of course we would issue provisos, then we have to keep our minds open to the possibility that play can indeed be isolated with reason. Isn't this what we do for the sake of discussion? And perhaps also we isolate play for the sake of play, though I am not sure what happens to reason in that case. Is there something like a spirit of play that would animate our toys, fill our playgrounds with laughter, guide our most theatrical gestures, even the aimless ones? Does play have something to teach us about rationality? If there is a spirit of play, or a muse, surely she would smile, bemusedly, on an idle engagement with play, jealously guarding against interference from the forces of seriousness. Above all play demands to be played with. In subscribing to the position that the phenomenon suggests how it ought to be approached, I am conscious of making a move I might not want to make if I were coaching myself from the sidelines. Why, one could insist that play must be approached with seriousness, because dialectic demands it, or for some other reason.

Agamben draws the following formula from his reading of Lévi-Strauss' La Pensée Sauvage: "while rites transform events into structures, play transforms structures into events" (p. 73). My translated edition (from 1966, UCP) differs somewhat. The passage at issue would be the end of the chapter titled "The Science of the Concrete," beginning with the discussion of the Fox Indian funeral rites on page 31. On page 32 Lévi-Strauss talks about the disjunctive function of play as opposed to the conjunctive function of ritual and he says, "Like science (though here again on both the theoretical and the practical plane) the game produces events by means of a structure." In either case play, or a certain structured kind of play known as the game, creates events. Structure is transformed, or, having served a purpose, it slips behind the event; it allows the event its lambency. You see the danger of slipping straight into the binaries, though, don't you? Elision, elusion, illusion. Is it really play if this is the way it ends up, as the mirror of ritual, or as a machine part? I rather feel that play must involve an openness, and that means play must allow for play itself, which may not mean conclusively play all by itself, like you could pack it up and take it home with you and that would still be play, but would involve spending some time at play itself.

I want to introduce a few more terms, cautious of the danger of allowing them to form a "permutation group," that is, to be deployed in the service of myth rather than some other kind of thought I might rather prefer. Levi-Strauss' formula for myth, Fx(a):Fy(b) ⋍ Fx:Fa-1(y) ("The Structural Study of Myth," Structural Anthropology, p. 228) might serve as a model for how not to play with ideas if one is to play in the spirit of play, or, indeed, the spirit of ideas, or of thought, if we presume to speak of thought. Should we allow the structuralists to distinguish the diachronic from the synchronic, as is their custom, without questioning the commonplace implication that the synchronic is in fact timeless? Isn't timelessness, or achrony, sufficiently less than synchrony in any temporal sense so as to warrant its own concept? Is there room for polychrony at any moment in the thinking of the structuralists? Will the dialecticians allow us to speak of polylectic—why should bees have all the fun?—or will they take their ball and go home at the first hint of the many? For my part I will not assume that theses and antitheses exhaust the things that may be synthesized, which is to say I will not let the thesis be pre-emptorily defined in such a way as to prejudice the synthesis. I don't mean to dwell in a paradox of allowing a synthesis to precede a thesis, but rather I merely wish to avoid too much seriousness for fear of being dreadfully wrong about how to live, or, more immediately, how to enjoy the play of ideas.

When one looks to play for models of how to think (or how to live), among the terrible mistakes one can make is to regard a model as the model. Happily, playgrounds don't have just one kind of equipment which would model play for life. Alongside the teeter-totters are the swing sets, the monkey bars, the slides, the sandboxes, the balance beams, the jungle gyms, the merry-go-rounds and what have you. It is probably a grievous intellectual mistake to believe that a society's toys and games can't be played with. Societies might rather be heating and cooling instead of hot and cold, if those are the terms one insists upon, because it's not for nothing that people play. Does play impart something to structure, even, were we to accept the idea, in transforming structure into event? How do we think around transience?

Agamben cites Fragment 52 of Heraclitus (αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη), which, as he puts it, says that Aion is a child playing dice. Agamben doesn't cite Fragment 70 (perhaps because it's apocryphal) which says that human opinions are children's toys (παίδων ἀθύρματα νενόμικεν εἶναι τὰ ἀνθρώπινα δοξάσματα). The Italian word cianfrusaglie (trinkets, rags, junk) came up in my searches for ἀθύρματα. Although cianfrusaglie resonates with Lévi-Strauss' theme of bricolage, which Agamben takes up, I would be cautious about defending opinion in these terms, whose values we would be playing with, and not at all keen to see too rigid a separation of logos from opinion, which might be implied, and which I might have already leaned towards in my wish to avoid slipping into myth. (It's hard, I know.) Agamben says, speaking of the scraps that fall into the world of the child, "Everything which is old, independent of its sacred origins, is liable to become a toy" (p. 70). The essence of the toy, he tells us, is "the Historical in its pure state" (p. 71, my emphasis). Well, what isn't δοξάσματα? What isn't cianfrusaglie? How can we be sure that Aion (or the Diachronic) or the Historical aren't cianfrusaglie? Would it be horrible to be locked inside a world of cianfrusaglie? Might that be the question of play?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:17 AM. 0 comments