Monday, June 22, 2009

Other Rhythms, Breathing In

Gary Peters, whose Philosophy of Improvisation found its way into my hands today, has written a brief overview of Levinas' ideas about rhythm ("The Rhythm of Alterity: Levinas and Aesthetics." Radical Philosophy 82: 9-16). Notwithstanding that I haven't read all the sources Peters consults, I'm sure I disagree with Levinas' usage of the term rhythm and with certain aspects of his conceptualization. Nevertheless I'm inspired enough by Peters' review to offer a few words on the topic.

I follow Randy Weston in holding that rhythm, far from being opposed to the melodic, is the heart of the melodic. In fact I can make the case more forcefully. Rhythm is already melody, a lesson Weston first learned during his travels in Tunisia, if I'm not mistaken, though the lesson is portable enough. The following therefore, should make no sense to me:

The melodic (the 'said') can take up residence within the noise of the world, it is stated and yet its delivery (the 'saying') remains silent. The eloquence of this silence is rhythmic, the rhythm upon which the melodic depends, the rhythm that needs no melody. Rhythm cannot be heard, it can only be sensed; it is the melodic that is heard.

(p. 13)

Rhythm can be sensed and heard. If there is a truth here in Peters' summation of Levinas' position, it lies in there being within the saying qualities aptly described as rhythmic, qualities that say, enigmatically, paradoxically, qualities that are said to be "in the saying" eloquently and in silence at once. Levinas' desire to delimit melody, to box it in and then out, to thoroughly captivate it, has of course a special significance with respect to the history of ideas. However, if rhythm is already melody, rhythm does not provide a means of escaping the thesis of intentionality. Rhythm is a phenomenon of consciousness. "Rhythmic" time consciousness and "melodic" time consciousness both illustrate, all things considered, the same reality. Protention and retention still apply. Do they still apply to anarchic rhythm, the pulse of the breach?

Levinas says that in "in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity. This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music" (Philosophical Papers, p. 4, in "Rhythm," p. 11). Furthermore, Peters explains:

For Levinas, the thwarting of Husserlian intenionality, the eluding of perception, simultaneously enervates conceptual cognition while intensifying the sensation of 'things-in-themselves', precisely by presenting the exteriority of those things. He sees the dispossession that the exotic inflicts on perception as the mark of an aesthetic sensation which, in slipping between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity, and between consciousness and unconsciousness, confounds intentionality, confronting it with the anarchic. The peculiarity of Levinas' aesthetics of rhythm concerns precisely the anarchic character of the exotic pulse and, in particular, the way in which the transcendental ego loses its intentional grasp and is carried away. Having said that, however, it is significant that even in this early work he is careful to avoid the radical amorality of the unconscious and the transgressive potential of anarchic rhythm.

Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative, or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away. . . . It is a mode of being to which is ascribed neither the form of consciousness, since the I is stripped of its prerogative to assume its power, nor the form of unconsciousness, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light present.


(p. 10)

I like the attempt to shatter continuous duration in the name of the time of the other, but I have limited use for dark lights. In being responsible for our own experiences of rhythm, a responsibility that flows from the freedom to move, which is a primeval way of being in rhythm and all of its modalities, despite contingencies which are in actuality necessary for the exercise of rhythmic freedom, we do not lose responsibilities for the other. We feel other rhythms. The question of an originary ethical relation, though it lies within the scope of consciousness without thereby being created by consciousness, is not to be answered by appealing to a metaphysics of instantaneous time that borrows from our love of musicality, and especially polyrhythmia, only to betray it. "Duration is not the measure of existence." Agreed. But read carefully: absolute alterity is sensed as a rhythm which "is not the respiration of the instant itself but the explosion of that instant, the 'accomplishment of existence'. . . . [T]he result can be forever thrown into doubt; nothing can be 'prefigured' in instantaneous. It is understood here as the stopping of time which then has to be renewed anew" (p. 14). The hard truth is that existence accomplishes nothing by ceasing to breath altogether. Levinas perhaps has more than one target in his critique of prefigurations. However, anticipation does not mean prefiguration, it does not extricate the thinker from doubt, and it emphatically does exist at the edge of existence where people breathe, the edge of existence any sane discussion of existence must address if not occupy. The physicality of the rhythmic is, pace Levinas and Peters, of the body. A genuine rhythmosophic trismagestics interprets the whole instant, and rather than doing away with respiration, sets respiration as a problem to be addressed, a question. The question of breathing is a question of rhythm at the edge existence.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 4:36 AM.


Anonymous shahar ozeri said...

Hi, Fido. Great post--I like your move towards connecting responsibility and rhythm. It's interesting that someone would want to mine Levinas' concept of rhythm--very provocative, since L has very little nice things to say about it! Levinas uses Proust--who L calls a wizard of inexpressible rhythm somewhere--as an example of the problem with aesthetic experience, namely, that it charms, enraptures and transports its audience through rhythm. Throughout _Totality and Infinity_, poetry stands in for all aesthetic phenomena, while prose is exactly that which interrupts the raptness of rhythm. TI: p203. “Discourse is rupture and commencement, breaking of rhythm which enraptures and transports the interlocutors—prose.” I like your insistence on the relation of rhythm and the body towards the end, but I wonder if Levinas would allow for this notion. At least in the restricted economy of aesthetics, as you point out, the subject ceases to experience itself as itself, the body is absorbed in the rhythm of participation and is, in turn, transformed into sensations that belong properly to nobody. Of course, from L's ethical perspective that's a problem, it risks (or actually accomplishes) the disincarnation of reality. I wonder if we could link your ideas of respiration to L's description of the subject as a lung when he talks about the maternal in OTB? Just some thoughts, really. The Peters book on improv looks promising as well.

By the way, sorry if I was rather aggressive or preachy in our last discussion. I was just looking at our exchange (in the post "resumption of the drama") and I feel like I came off somewhat pissy and preachy in my last comment. Not cool. Anyway, if you have a pdf of that Peters article I'd be very appreciative if you wouldn't mind emailing me a copy? (

June 24, 2009 7:03 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Shahar. Check your email. Everything's copacetic.

I'm actually somewhat critical of the following idea, even though I quoted Levinas to similar effect: "the body is absorbed in the rhythm of participation and is, in turn, transformed into sensations that belong properly to nobody." Well, I think there may be some truth in it some of the time, for some people more than others. Historically it resonates. Yet, if you will, imagine a polyrhythmia in which everybody's participation differs. You can be as simple as a child or as sophisticated as a master drummer and still fully participate. What you say, in every sense of the word, makes a difference. Is it possible to participate in anything other than a totality? Does one participate in a plurality? Or an encounter? Mereologically incorrect, I'm sure.

I'll have to catch up later with the subject as lung in OTB. Most of my books are packed being moved to our new house.

June 24, 2009 3:27 PM  

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