Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2005 (page 2 of 2)

For the Blanchot Fans

The value and dignity of everyday words is to be as close as possible to nothing. Invisible, not letting anything be seen, always beyond themselves, always on this side of things, a pure awareness crosses them, so discreetly that it itself can sometimes be lacking. Everything then is nullity. And yet, understanding does not stop occurring; it even seems that it attains its point of perfection. What could be richer than this extreme destitution?

Maurice Blanchot, “The Language of Fiction” (tr. Mandell)

Actually, I took this from the liner text to the Mountain Goats’ Nothing for Juice, because while I have my doubts about the “understanding” that occurs through everyday words, I do hear it in popular (i.e. folk) music, and that, more than any would-be proletarian consciousness, justifies (even mandates) its inclusion in more elite avant contexts. See this Fred Frith interview for more…. (No significant exposition of Frith’s folk influences seems to exist online, alas.)

Richard Foreman: The Gods Are Pounding My Head!

Not a lot to say on this piece of surrealist theater, since I’m not versed so much in the influences that inform Foreman’s work, nor in the skills needed to analyze the very open-ended symbolism of the play. But here is Foreman’s note on the play, which, besides providing invaluable pointers on what he’s getting at, stands on its own:

This very&#x97to my mind&#x97elegiac play does delineate my own philosophical dilemma. I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality&#x97a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

And such multi-faceted evolved personalities did not hesitate&#x97 especially during the final period of “Romanticism-Modernism”&#x97to cut down , like lumberjacks, large forests of previous achievement in order to heroically stake new claim to the ancient inherited land&#x97 this was the ploy of the avant-garde.

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance&#x97as we all become “pancake people”&#x97spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or “super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so&#x97and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.

But, at the end, hope still springs eternal…

There are echoes here of “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, as memorably referenced by Sam Jones, so perhaps the dichotomy between a wide-ranging fenceposter and a burrowing hedgehog is not that new. Perhaps it’s been there since Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, about which someone (I can’t remember who) said that it was the last time that someone could lay claim to all the written knowledge in the world. But the problem has certainly gotten worse lately, something you become acutely conscious of while writing a weblog like this one.

Also see this set of Richard Foreman interviews.

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul

This is a strange one. Subtitled Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy, this book comes as neither an inhabitant of a particular established field of study, nor as the cross-disciplinary generalizations of a well-known academic like Richard Rorty or Stanley Cavell. Its topic is how literature has something unique to contribute to metaphysical concerns, specifically something that cannot be obtained from philosophy. It’s very idiosyncratic, and while I’m not sure how anyone could agree with all or most of it, there should be more books like it.

The question considered, stated early on, is:

What does it mean to be a human person with our capacities and our fate? How could we answer such a question? Maybe with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the works of Aristotle, or Bach’s Mass in B Minor…Every answer to “What does it mean to be human?” is a restatement of another riddle. (20)

I take the question of meaning in human life to be metaphysical. There are extreme epistemological concerns that overlap with it, such as how such a meaning is communicated to others, how it is perceived, and our own sense of ourselves as humans to begin with. But where Wittgenstein (whose late work figures prominently in the book) would relegate these questions to a mystical status, Bourbon follows them in a comparatively concrete manner. When he says “meaning,” he constitutes it in a Heideggerian way: what does being human constitute that could not be constituted by a robot or a computer program? Here is how he describes this distinction:

To talk about seeing humans as machines, if by machine we mean as automata and thus as not human in the way that I am, or as machines in the same way that clocks and computers are, is not to see humans under some aspect or description. It is to understand human beings as not human. Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The question of “seeing” is epistemological, but the metaphysics underpinning this passage are quite aggressive. There is some bootstrapping going on in the book, as though to assume that the question of human meaning is paramount to Da-sein, and that the path to an answer can be found through literature, and specifically, through “The various ways sentences and phrases lose sense.” I am sympathetic to this approach, but Bourbon goes after it with such single-mindedness that he will lose many along the way who do not agree with the centrality of his concerns.

One of his final conclusions–

The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature. (259)

–is less shocking in context simply because it flows so easily from
the strong opinions that have preceded it.

The significance of these topics are as a way of saving/replacing the authoritative voice, and how to preserve a method of meaning (as a human) in the absence of a definitive religion or other authority. This is presented as an ethical question as much as an ontological one. Where oracles once spoke with a particular type of intentionality that provided a foundational basis for truth, we now cannot fall back on such myths:

Our ethical judgments and their particular intentional content and concern lack a foundation that would include an intrinsic relation to their normative form. (46)

In other words, it is necessary to build a foundation for ethics that stands aside from the scientific, objective world–perhaps even the propositional world described by Russell and early Wittgenstein. There is an echo here of Levinas’s project to save morality, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s endorsement of Aristotle’s ethics. The difference is that it is far more deductive than even Levinas; from literature and “human meaning” will flow a river that picks up ethics downstream.

To be continued…

Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome

To begin with a tangent: one of the things that I love about the Times Literary Supplement is how dutiful they are about getting experts to review books in their fields, so that instead of, for example, hearing praise for the wonderfully informative, picturesque prose of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, as happened in countless American publications, you get to hear how badly Menand’s book misrepresented the pragmatic philosophical tradition, as Bruce Wilshire discussed at length, concluding:

Menand’s failure to grasp the purport and consequences of distinctively philosophical ideas becomes damagingly clear. What is the meaning of truth, persons, groups, reality, matter, mind, the meaning of meaning itself, the meaning of “pragmatism” itself? James’s pragmatic theories of meaning and truth depend on his metaphysics of radical empiricism or pure experience, but references to this metaphysics are absent in Menand, and so James’s pragmatism cannot be grasped. Neither can Dewey’s, nor Peirce’s.

It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. Menand provides interesting and valuable historical knowledge often overlooked by “pure” philosophers, touching on important thinkers such as Chauncey Wright, Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, Randolph Bourne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthur Bentley, Edward Ross, Learned Hand and many others. But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand’s valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves. It is not safe to assume that even many learned, educated, or inquiring people possess this knowledge and discipline.

Right on, Mr. Wilshire. (Sorry, the article is not publicly available, but it’s in the subscriber archive of the TLS.) More recently, Stephen Greenblatt picked a fight with Alastair Fowler, who had slammed Will in the World, over seventeenth century European population statistics, and Fowler came out the more knowledgeable winner.

The point is that there is often a real difference between presenting one’s experience of a work and critiquing the work itself, and often people present themselves as qualified to do both when they can actually only do the first. So I fess up: I don’t know enough about life in the Soviet Union during perestroika to claim that I truly understand Kira Muratova‘s The Asthenic Syndrome. But then, I’m not sure that Jonathan Rosenbaum does, either. He describes the first forty-five minutes of the film in detail, then throws up his hands, declaring:

Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.

Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of The Asthenic Syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.

(Now I don’t have to feel so bad about discussing the film.) I disagree with Rosenbaum; the movie has a very specific context and makes allusions within it, and speaking to some Russian friends after the movie, it was clear that they were both essential to the film and presented only by allusion. The film is bereft of political (or even markedly cultural) references, yet unlike Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director or the work of Bela Tarr, which also deal in elusive allegories, Muratova’s film exists within a very definite time and space, that of Gorbachev-era perestroika in the Soviet Union.

If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? Rosenbaum sees it as a general critique of politics and systems, but that is to deny its overwhelming sense of specificity. Muratova made a film for Soviets, and to reduce it to a series of abstract statements, as Rosenbaum does, sells it severely short. Without the context, the film is simply an ugly, abstract meditation on nothing in particular, one that can be used in assorted political contexts, but which lacks much innate value. Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.

The film proceeds for its first segment as Rosenbaum describes: a washed-out, black and white portrait of a woman, Natasha, grieving after her husband has died. But the actress playing Natasha is so hysterically over-the-top, and so unrealistic and disconnected in her mood swings as to be off-putting. So it comes as a relief forty-five minutes in when, with absolutely no prior indication, the camera pulls back to reveal that the film so far has been a film within a film. Everything is now in color, and an audience is bored with this art-house movie, not bothering to question the actress who played Natasha, who is the special guest. Eventually only one man is left in the theater, our hero Nikolai, who has fallen asleep.

Nikolai, it turns out, has some kind of (highly symbolic) narcolepsy, and spends much of the film asleep. He teaches, but rarely displays any emotion beyond resignation and exhaustion. He is clearly the opposite of Natasha, almost comically so. He wanders in a world filled with unpleasant people throwing decadent parties where the party game of the hour is to pose two nude people to make a scene depicting “love.” Nikolai repositions himself and a woman to, pace Kafka, appear to be lying next to each other in a coffin.

So it proceeds. The visuals are mostly drab and underplayed, and the extras in particular make a point of not intruding with much visible emotion. This is, evidently, a portrait of society in despair, a society which has lost a principle of order, albeit a cruel, totalitarian one, and is lost. Historically speaking, given the popularity of Putin’s return-to-authoritarianism regime, Muratova’s vision seems quite prescient.

Yet the relation of the two parts puzzles me. The film-within-a-film, never named, is so artificial as to even be considered a “bad film,” and thus something being rejected; certainly it seems to have no resonance for any of the “real” characters. But the balance of the opposites–lack of affect vs. hysteria–makes it out to be something more complicated. My tentative conclusion is that the film-within-the-film is intentionally designed to have an alienating effect, to be so extreme as to push the audience into the corner of the narcoleptic who is the film’s true protagonist. The old violent extremes, Muratova seems to say, have vanished and are no longer relevant, but that means that there is no revenge to be had, no purgation of anger for the descendents of the victims of Stalin. Rather, the rug has just been pulled out from under them, and they are left in an unregulated void.

I was intrigued by The Asthenic Syndrome, but often confused, sometimes bored, and rarely moved. (An anomalous, memorable sequence of a unlikable old matron ineptly playing the trumpet is a notable exception.) But this film was not made for me. It is a portrait of a unique situation that I never experienced, and it does not go out of its way to generalize or polemicize, though it has its strong opinions. It is of its time in a way that Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies is not, yet that gives it a strength that allows it to easily best Angelopoulos’s tepid, feeble Ulysses’ Gaze, which is more concerned with making a pompous statement than capturing life.

Correspondence vs. Metaphysics

I.

Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber has a dissection of the latest latest battle between Rorty and the analytics. I’m neither schooled in nor particularly concerned with the vagueness part of things, but I do feel strongly about the Kripke-derived school of essentialism and metaphysics, and Rorty’s original review uses vagueness as more of a arbitrarily chosen example than as a special case. I’m not certain why Rorty chose it, since the study of what is and is not a “heap” isn’t as bewildering to common sense as certain other thought experiments, such as this one:

Consider the following version of the PMC taken from the writings of the Stoic Chrysippus. A man named Dion undergoes the amputation of his left-foot. Assuming that he is identical to his body, we may then ask: what is the relationship between Dion, the amputee, whom we shall call &#x93Leon,&#x94 and &#x93Theon,&#x94 the erstwhile aggregate of all of Dion&#x92s body parts minus his left foot? Shall we say that it is Dion who is (has become) the amputee Leon, Theon having perished? Or is it Theon to whom Leon is identical, Dion having perished? A third option is that both survive the operation as the amputee. I believe that the third answer is the correct one.

Regardless of the greater implications that such study has on realism and philosophy of language, Brian points out that many of his colleagues have no interest in the larger issue. It seems undeniable to me that the issue is one of territory.

Some of the correspondents mention that Kripkean essentialism is a way to recover ground lost when Wittgenstein and then Quine attacked language correspondence, empiricism, and the analytic/synthetic distinction. This also seems undeniable in effect if not in intent. David Armstrong once said that he thought that in comparing early Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell (he had no interest in later Wittgenstein), he thought that Wittgenstein had gone in the wrong direction in emphasizing correspondence; Russell was the one who had it right metaphysically. My own biases prevent me from understanding this position; I stand by Wittgenstein’s critique of Russell’s weak correspondence theory. But it’s clear that Armstrong, and most likely many others, are concerned enough with what happens past correspondence that the issue itself is not especially important to them. Or, as Soames says of vagueness (among other things) in his response:

This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are forging ahead by replacing Rorty&#x92s metaphorical question — Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality?
— with more specific, nonmetaphorical questions on which real
progress can be made.

II.

But what is the definition of “real progress”? There’s no question that metaphysics has once again blossomed since Kripke, but aside from outliers like Davidson and Cavell, modern analytic work has had very little disciplinary overlap with other fields. As far as I can tell it has no interaction with its continental bete noir, nor much with literature these days.

One large area of overlap, however, is in the philosophy of mind, as neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists in artificial intelligence, and philosophers engage in long turf wars that often appear as though they’re talking past each other. Baumgartner and Payr’s Speaking Minds incisively portrays the dialogue of the deaf by giving each person their own chapter and letting the differences emerge. I disagree with the review at the above link when Cooper says:

Is it really necessary, for example, to include each interviewee’s description of the Turing test? Surely a singly quote from the original source (which is in any case included in a very useful glossary) would be sufficient.

I would argue that indeed it is, since the definitions vary! Daniel Dennett, Hilary Putnam, Joseph Weizenbaum, George Lakoff, Hubert Dreyfus, and John Searle all proceed from such wildly varying starting points that they hear the questions about building/simulating minds differently and respond in kind. The computer scientists and the neurologists have lower-level problems to solve and don’t want to be bothered with the hard stuff. Putnam and Dreyfus have bigger epistemological problems to solve before this piddling stuff. Dennett wants to define most of these problems of mind out of existence. Even where there appears to be overlap, then, it is commonly incidental.

Yet there has been real overlap between philosophy and cognitive science in ontology. Metaphysical ontological work has been very significant in the development of knowledge representation structures used in, for example, the CYC project, which has been building a large, general purpose repository of object relations and the like for over a decade. Brilliant people like John F. Sowa have worked tirelessly on such projects of ontological knowledge representation, and still I admit I’m skeptical that such rigorous semantics will yield as good results even as search engines do today. See Peter Norvig’s speech on this topic.

III.

Yet clearly the ontologies have produced research with practical application; yet Sowa and others seem to owe more to Russell and Peirce than they do to the current batch of researchers. This is not to say that vagueness could not be used in knowledge representation ontologies; I’m saying that much of the progress being made no longer appears to link back clearly to “specific, nonmetaphorical applications”–rather, certain particular philosophical questions (free will, the mind-body problem, identity over time, “grue”-ness) appear to be spawning out further work at a rate that does not seem to allow for the cohesion that Soames believes there to be. That these questions seem to be based on a set of shared assumptions quite particular to their field gives me reason to pause.

There is always, however, room for epistemology; it undercuts other fields in a way that metaphysics can’t. This won’t make a case for people studying it, but the realms that were explored by Peirce and Russell seem to have been picked up as much by Godel (in the area of math and logic) as any modern analytic. But the epistemological questions have remained squarely untouched.

Personal, if I didn’t believe that language-reality correspondence was inherently paradoxical, and that it was the fundamental basis for so many other areas of study–sociology, psychology, literature, law, organizational structure–I don’t know what other problem would take the place of the huge void it would leave in my head.

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