Sunday, March 08, 2009

Allegiance to Episode

Assailably: thought coheres with the eidos of bodily movements; the power of thought and the power of the body congrue like music because one is simply a mode of the other; to think is to live, to experience life in physical movements, to journey through the living physique and its habitat; thinking is one with life. I'd like to briefly challenge that idea, the last formulation in particular. Ong alleges that human knowledge (what might that human mean?) emerges from time, and he says, nicely to my ear, "[l]yric poetry implies a series of events in which the voice in the lyric is embedded or to which it is related. All of this is to say that knowledge and discourse come out of human experience and that the elemental way to process human experience verbally is to give an account of it more or less as it really comes into being and exists, embedded in the flow of time" (Orality, p. 140). Suggestive. But let's keep a watch on this concept of flow. An allowance for interruption.

Ong says, displaying his knack for the apophthegmatic, "the experience of real life is more like a string of episodes than it is like a Freytag pyramid" (p. 148). So real-life human experience is embedded in the flow of time and it is rather like a string of episodes, of additional entrances, additional ways of coming into. Now, according to Ong, it is not the episodic which heightens consciousness, or congrues with heightened consciousness, but rather it is the literary narrative adhering to the Freytag pyramid that congrues with conscious thinking, with heightened consciousness in particular (p. 151). The episodic has then only to do with the unconscious?!? (Well, sometimes we need to deploy superstitions in order to be critical; we need to engage the imagination in dialectic exercise.) This doesn't add up for me. Knowledge emerges from time, but consciousness is at a distance from the episodic, the form of narrative time most consistent with lived experience. In an important respect Ong holds that thinking is culturally constrained, that people think according to the dictates of a noetic economy, an economy we experience as structured by technologies of the word, which might imply the force of something like the unconscious, or, better in my view, the nonthematic elements of consciousness; yet in his view the effects of culture are not equal, particularly with respect to the "freeing" of consciousness. (For Ong the life of the mind in a literate noetic economy is at once constrained by technology and free in a sense that could be imagined as free and elaborated culturally (only a free, conscious intellect could imagine the conditions of its freedom, which is thereby put into question). The literate's intellectual life is both enriched and impoverished, in touch with the experience of thinking and alienated: contradictions which I reckon are brought to the analysis rather than emerging from careful study.) It may be worth noting that I don't regard the physique of the animal to be "natural" in a sense of existing apart from, or having existed before, consciousness. Further, if the episodic feels natural I wouldn't jump from the recognition of this feeling to the conclusion that episodic thought must be more primordial, elementary, lower, or any less transcendental (whatever that could mean) than thought which might appear in a certain aspect to be out of touch with the episodic.

I'll preface these next few comments by saying that I am skeptical of silent voices, though the topic interests me, and I have spoken of inner voices (not without some modicum of skepticism, I hope ("Why believe that inner speech points to silence instead of the possibility of conversations yet to be realized?")). "Outside drama, in narrative as such, the original voice of the oral narrator took on various new forms when it became the silent voice of the writer, as the distancing effected by writing invited various fictionalizations of the decontextualized reader and writer. . . . But, until print appeared and eventually had its fuller effects, the voice's allegiance to episode always remained firm" (p. 148). Is the silent voice then also a fictionalization, just a metaphor? How distant is any thought from life? No thought could be more distant from life on Earth than Walter J. Ong himself, yet here is a book open to his thoughts. Incredible. However, as I've argued in a similar vein, Ong's thoughts must be read to become thoughts once again, proper thoughts; they must be embodied by a reader. How distant is this embodiment from living? (That's not a rhetorical question.) Perhaps there's a mode of embodiment that isn't life itself, an idea we should contemplate if only to be clear about what we mean by saying "life" or "body." A convolution: to even have a concept of the body is to stand at–thus to embody–a distance from life.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:41 AM.


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