Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: pragmatism

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money

[Continuing from my Introduction to Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.]

The first part (of six) of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money is the most abstract and the most philosophical. The whole book never quite descends to earth, but it’s at the beginning that he comes closest to Kantian transcendental-style arguments about how the categories of value affect our cognition of the world, though he ironically uses these in the service of attacking the a priori and theories of the a priori. And the central theme he uses is the idea of commensurability: that money provides the lubrication to reconcile and ultimately synthesize systems of value that are initially entirely distinct and incommensurable. It is without a doubt the hardest-going of the six parts, but it is the necessary foundation for everything that comes after, and possibly the most original and far-reaching.

We assign value to a human life, an animal, a romantic relationship, a friendship, to food, to sex–but by instinct and by the initial circumstances of human culture, these values are only very loosely comparable if at all, and quantifying the values and exchanging between them is something that either rarely comes up or is painful and dispute-ridden when it does. Limited ad hoc systems of exchange spring up, but they are arbitrary and unsatisfactory, and thus impossible to adjudicate consistently. Think of the Iliad and Achilles’ demand for some sort of compensation for the loss he’s suffered when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him. The arguments are vague, the values are ill-specified, and ideas of fairness and logic are inchoate. Value is not given to us by nature; it is human-generated in the messiest manner imaginable:

Their equality before the law of nature, the constant sum of matter and energy, the convertibility of the most diverse phenomena into one another, transform the differences that are apparent at first sight into a general affinity, a universal equality… The value of objects, thoughts and events can never be inferred from their mere natural existence and content, and their ranking according to value diverges widely from their natural ordering.

For Simmel, it is only with the introduction of neutral, intrinsically valueless currency that allows such negotiations to be made. Money is the mediating force that makes incommensurate systems of value commensurable. Since money is free of the bias and specificity of one or another particular system of value, you simply translate your values into quantified monetary figures (or even more concretely, your valuable but particular objects into generic currency), and you have now built an exchange between the two value systems.

Since the basic characteristic of all knowable existence, the interdependence and interaction of everything, also refers to economic value and conveys this principle of life to economic material, the essential quality of money now becomes comprehensible. For the value of things, interpreted as their economic interaction, has its purest expression and embodiment in money.

Only money, in terms of its pure concept, has attained this final stage; it is nothing but the pure form of exchangeability. It embodies that element or function of things, by virtue of which they are economic. It does not comprehend their totality, but it does comprehend the totality of money.

From this wellspring comes pretty much all the phenomena Simmel discusses. What begins as a nearly awe-struck tone at the power of money to absorb disparate values and build commerce grows more despairing and melancholic as the book goes on. Unlike Smith and certainly unlike Marx, Simmel does not see the benefits and deficiencies of modern economies to be separable from each other or from modern life itself. In this he echoes Henry Adams’ model of the dynamo, though Simmel displays less of Adams’ nostalgia and innate pessimism. Rather, his philosophy is one of pure dynamism, like that of Denis Diderot and Charles Sanders Peirce before him. Everything in life is part of a great system that participates in both sides of every extreme. But there is no Hegelian Aufhebung; there is no progression to a new level where contradictions are reconciled. Rather, the tensions and oppositions define the system. A static metaphysical conception of reality, sought by much philosophy as an endpoint of certainty, is a dead-end illusion, guaranteed to produce an “Is that all there is?” reaction in all but the truest believers. Dynamism and contingency are the order of the day.

There are several core components of Simmel’s overall philosophical view to keep in mind:

  1. Dynamism and processualism
  2. Fallibility (in the pragmatic sense)
  3. Holism
  4. Coherentism
  5. Anti-teleology
  6. Heuristic reasoning

This next passage is rough going. I’ve highlighted the key terms, but please skip it if it proves too impenetrable.

The true unity of apprehension is secured only by such a dissolution of dogmatic rigidity into the living and moving process. Its ultimate principles become realized not in the form of mutual exclusion, but in the form of mutual dependence, mutual evocation and mutual complementation. Thus, for example, the development of the metaphysical world view moves between the unity and the multiplicity of the absolute reality in which all particular perceptions are based. The nature of our thinking is such that we strive for each of them as a definite conclusion without being able to settle upon either. Only when all the differences and variety of things are reconciled in a single aggregate is the intellectual and emotional striving for unity satisfied. However, as soon as this unity is attained, as in the concept of substance by Spinoza, it becomes clear that there is nothing one can do with it in understanding the world, and that a second principle at least is necessary in order to make it fruitful. Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity; and so the development of philosophy, and of individual thinking, moves from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity. The history of thought shows that it is vain to consider any one of these viewpoints as definitive.

To recap: Simmel performs the Hegelian move of showing an opposition in philosophical thought between unity and multiplicity. But where Hegel would progress forward to some new magical category of spirit or logic, Simmel doesn’t introduce any new terms. (For you Hegelians, Simmel is effectively saying that all final philosophy is akin to stoicism.1This is it, he says. Life for us is defined by oppositions that do not get resolved, and for the proof, you don’t look to logic but to our experience.

The structure of our reason in relation to the object demands equal validity for both principles, and attains it by formulating the monistic principle of seeking to bring unity out of multiplicity so far as possible—i.e. as if we ought to end with absolute monism—and by formulating the pluralistic principle of not resting content with any unity, but always searching for yet simpler elements and creative forces, i.e. as if the final result should be pluralism. The same is the case if one explores pluralism in its qualitative significance: the individual differentiation of things and destinies, their separation according to quality and value. Our innermost vital consciousness oscillates between this separateness and the solidarity among the elements of our existence. Sometimes life only seems bearable by enjoying happiness and bliss in complete separation from suffering and depression, and by keeping these rare moments free from any remembrance of less exalted and contradictory experiences. Then again it seems more admirable, and indeed the very challenge of life, to experience joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, virtue and sin as a living unity, each one being a condition of the other, each sacred and consecrating the other. We may seldom be aware of the general principle in these opposing tendencies, but they determine our attitude towards life in our endeavours, our aims and our fragmentary activities. Even when a person’s character seems to be completely oriented in one of these directions, it is constantly thwarted by the other tendency, as diversion, background and temptation. People are not divided into categories by the contrast between differentiation and unification of their life experiences. This contrast exists in every individual, although his innerpersonal form evolves in interaction with his social form, which moves between individualization and socialization. The essential point is not that these two trends constitute life, but that they are interdependent in a heuristic form. It seems as if our life employs or consists of a unified basic function which we are unable to grasp in its unity. We have to dissect it by analysis and synthesis, which constitutes the most general form of that contradistinction, and whose co- operation then restores the unity of life..

Here Simmel pulls out a Kantian backstop to Hegelian reasoning. He argues that baked into our brains are limits of our ability to understand cognition and the world itself. Our scrawny outlook on the world requires us to observe opposing trends in tension and assess reality in heuristic rather than definitive form. This was the move toward fallibilistic science that neo-Kantianism took, divorcing itself from any firmly a priori investigations. Simmel in particular wants to avoid any further abstraction than is necessary (though as seen above, quite a fair bit appears to be necessary), because abstractions only retain the ability to match up to reality when they remain connected to some general conception of everyday lived experience as it is lived by a large proportion of people, not just a few philosophers sitting in Jena. What are the abstractions with which we deal with everyday? More than anything else, they are financial. We may experience via Kantian categories, but most people give no thought to them or anything like them. But abstractions of value, as defined and regulated by money, are something we all are forced to deal with, negotiate, share, and be subjected to.

As soon as one realizes the extent to which human action in every sphere of mental activity operates with abstractions, it is not as strange as it may seem at first glance that not only the study of the economy but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations. The forces, relations and qualities of things— including our own nature—objectively form a unified whole which has to be broken down by our interests into a multitude of independent series or motives to enable us to deal with it. Every science investigates phenomena that are homogeneous and clearly distinguished from the problems of other sciences, whereas reality ignores boundaries and every section of the world presents an aggregate of tasks for all the sciences. Our practice excludes unilateral series from the outer and inner complexity of things and so constructs the great systems of cultural interests. The same is true for our sentiments. When we experience religious or social sentiments, when we are melancholy or joyful, it is always abstractions from total reality that are the objects of our feeling—whether because we react only to those impressions that can be brought within the scope of some common cultural interest, or because we endow every object with a certain colouring which derives its validity from its interweaving with other colourings to form an objective unity. Thus, the following formula is one way in which the relationship of man to the world may be expressed: our practice as well as our theory continually abstracts single elements from the absolute unity and intermingling of objects, in which each object supports the other and all have equal rights, and forms these elements into relative entities and wholes. We have no relationship to the totality of existence, except in very general sentiments; we attain a definite relation to the world only by continually abstracting from phenomena, in accordance with our needs of thought and action and investing these abstractions with the relative independence of a purely inner connection which the unbroken stream of world processes denies to objective reality. The economic system is indeed based on an abstraction, on the mutuality of exchange, the balance between sacrifice and gain; and in the real process of its development it is inseparably merged with its basis and results, desire and need. But this form of existence does not differentiate it from the other spheres into which we divide the totality of phenomena for the sake of our interests.

Alongside this pragmatism comes a Quinean holism, which Simmel explicitly declares, painting himself in opposition to the nascent verificationist movement (I have no idea to what extent Simmel was aware of it). In the broadest sense, a system of thought, be it communal values or geometry, gains its truth in respect to the entire system corresponding en masse to reality.

The whole system of geometry is not valid at all in the same sense as are its single propositions. The latter can be proved by each other, whereas the whole is valid only in relation to something external, such as the nature of space, our mode of perception and the strength of our ways of thinking. Individual judgments may support each other, since the norms and facts already established substantiate others, but the totality of these norms and facts has validity only in relation to specific physio-psychological organizations, their conditions of life and the furthering of their activity.

As Quine said, “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.” But since we are finite beings, our epistemology is primarily fallible, and if our theories are not informed by this fallibility at the most fundamental level, they lack any relation to reality. Conceptual abstractions can never be said to have a guaranteed relation to reality; at best they are heuristic approximations. (As William C. Wimsatt memorably calls scientific theories, “piecewise approximations to reality.”) Metaphysically, Simmel is more or less a nominalist, believing that no universals (at least none that we can grasp) are sufficient to encapsulate the totality of reality. We participate, Kant-style, in a shared, “objective” space of conceptual abstracta as a tool for understanding the world. But this objective space is a shared social construct, not a metaphysical absolute. So in his most metaphysical passage, Simmel declares his fundamental opposition to the absolute:

Only a relativistic epistemology does not claim exemption from its own principle; it is not destroyed by the fact that its validity is only relative. For even if it is valid— historically, factually, psychologically—only in alternation and harmony with other absolute or substantial principles, its relation to its own opposite is itself only relative. Heuristics, which is only the consequence or the application of the relativistic principle to the categories of knowledge, can accept without contradiction that it is itself a heuristic principle. The question as to the grounding of this principle, which is not incorporated in the principle itself, constitutes no difficulty for relativism, because the ground is removed to infinity. Relativism strives to dissolve into a relation every absolute that presents itself, and proceeds in the same way with the absolute that offers itself as the ground for this new relation. This is a never-ending process whose heuristic eliminates the alternative: either to deny or to accept the absolute. It makes no difference how one expresses it: either that there is an absolute but it can be grasped only by an infinite process, or that there are only relations but that they can only replace the absolute in an infinite process. Relativism is able to make the radical concession that it is possible for the mind to place itself outside itself. The epistemological principles that remained content with one concept and thus excluded the continuing fruitful development of relations ended in self-contradiction: that the mind is supposed to judge itself, that it is either subject to its own definitive statements or exempt from them, and that equally each alternative destroys its validity. But relativism fully accepts the fact that for every proposition there is a higher one that determines whether this proposition is correct.

The absolute signifies a road stretching to infinity whose direction is still marked out no matter how great the distance we cover.

I read Simmel here as laying out a pragmatic ladder akin to that of Peirce, though less rigorously. Where Peirce wanted to ground truth, Simmel is trying to explain how it is that we live. So while Peirce sought to ground truth in a particular scientific method, Simmel seeks to ground value in particular human practices and limitations.

The pragmatic provisionality of our thoughts, in fact, links directly to the need for money: a non-teleological, mediating force with no intrinsic final ends. It is a coping mechanism for finitude.

Reality and value are, as it were, two different languages by which the logically related contents of the world, valid in their ideal unity, are made comprehensible to the unitary soul, or the languages in which the soul can express the pure image of these contents which lies beyond their differentiation and opposition. These two compilations made by the soul, through perceiving and through valuing, may perhaps once more be brought together in a metaphysical unity, for which there is no linguistic term unless it be in religious symbols. There is perhaps a cosmic ground where the heterogeneity and divergencies that we experience between reality and value no longer exist, where both series are revealed as one; this unity either being unaffected by the two categories, and standing beyond them in majestic indifference, or signifying a harmonious interweaving of both, which is shattered and distorted into fragments and contrasts only by our way of regarding it, as if we had an imperfect visual faculty.

These limitations are reflected not only in our cognition but in our will, and our chronic dissatisfaction with stasis. The dynamism of life, which only increases in modernity, is reflected in our need for a system that allows both for familiarity and novelty, in experience as well as in values, the shifts between them being guided by (you guessed it) money.

Life in general is determined by the proportion of these two facts: that we need variety and change of content just as we need familiarity; and this general need appears here in the specific form that the value of objects requires, on the one hand, scarcity—that is to say, differentiation and particularity—while on the other hand it needs a certain comprehensiveness, frequency and permanence in order that objects may enter the realm of values.

The economy transmits all valuations through the form of exchange, creating an intermediate realm between the desires that are the source of all human activity and the satisfaction of needs in which they culminate. The specific characteristic of the economy as a particular form of behaviour and communication consists not only in exchanging values but in the exchange of values.

Money grounds our own abstractions of value. It is a simultaneously an abstract, symbolic, and concrete entity. It has a physical instantiation, but more importantly, it is the thing by which any private and particular value can be quantified in a abstracted, universal manner, enabling us to journey from the subjective to the communal objective.

The projection of mere relations into particular objects is one of the great accomplishments of the mind; when the mind is embodied in objects, these become a vehicle for the mind and endow it with a livelier and more comprehensive activity. The ability to construct such symbolic objects attains its greatest triumph in money.  For money represents pure interaction in its purest form; it makes comprehensible the most abstract concept; it is an individual thing whose essential significance is to reach beyond individualities. Thus, money is the adequate expression of the relationship of man to the world, which can only be grasped in single and concrete instances, yet only really conceived when the singular becomes the embodiment of the living mental process which interweaves all singularities and, in this fashion, creates reality.

Money is, bizarrely, both the most universal and the most banal thing (like Spinoza’s substance), the most useful and the most ultimately useless.2 It concretely cements values in the most provisional and unstable of ways (reflecting, as it does, human judgment).

Norms are the types and forms of relativity that develop among, and give form to, the specific phenomena of reality—whether they are termed ideas, as with Plato and Schopenhauer, logoi as with the Stoics, the a priori as with Kant or stages in the development of reason as with Hegel. These norms are not relative in the same sense as the objects subjected to them, because they themselves present the relativity of the objects. Thus it becomes comprehensible that money as abstract value expresses nothing but the relativity of things that constitute value; and, at the same time, that money, as the stable pole, contrasts with the eternal movements, fluctuations and equations of the objects.

So money is really the best term in which to consider abstractions of reality, because unlike Plato’s forms and Hegel’s stages, money indisputably exists and we all have to deal with it, despite it being the most abstract and undefined thing ever, an empty container for whatever values we choose to put in it. Yet it forms the basis without which modern society would literally be impossible. 3

At this point, you may be wondering whether money can possibly support the titanic role which Simmel has assigned it. Part of this is due to money’s sheer banality; Plato’s forms just seem a lot more profound because they’re so mysterious. Simmel’s answer to that is to invoke, finally, the sheer consequence of money, in which its concrete importance is made viscerally palpable:

Money is a specific realization of what is common to economic objects and the general misery of human life is most fully reflected by this symbol, namely by the constant shortage of money under which most people suffer.

Take that, Plato.

  1. “The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the content, they soon become tedious.” Phenomenology of Spirit §200.
  2. As Danny DeVito said in David Mamet’s Heist, “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!”
  3. Hence, then, why post-capitalist visions are so hazy and vague. Having been forced to reject the free flow of value embodied by money, such systems are forced to either put up or shut up. They have to either give the exact pre-specified allocation of those values (as with communism) or else trust to individuals that an organic system of exchange will emerge in the absence of capital (as with anarchism). Simmel would say that either approach would effectively require undoing the modern world and retreating backwards into local, parochial communities. But only the most severe Luddites are willing to explicitly embrace this prescription, and so such systems are mostly left incredibly vague, because they simply cannot recover enough of our present life in their visions. Money is not everything, but it is so much that its absence eliminates life as we know it. Its elimination would entail a regression to a more subjective, less spontaneous life, because there would cease to be any sufficiently universalized, neutral mechanism for the negotiation of value itself.

American Imperfectionism: Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday

Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday is one of the best works of poetry criticism I’ve read in some time. Phillips spins a philosophical construction around the work of four 20th century American poets–Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill–and draws out some significant unifying threads in their treatment of time. Though her method is one of close reading supplemented by biographical detail, there is a much heavier conceptual infrastructure than one finds in most contemporary poetry criticism, which tends to focus on linguistic assemblage above all else. This is much to the book’s credit. It’s a book I can engage with on the level of life.

The concern here is time, and specifically differing human conceptions of time. As concerns go, it is about as fundamental and structural as one can get: Erich Auerbach, Georges Poulet, and Paul Ricoeur all have written on how conceptions of time can act as generative and differentiating forces in literature and human life, and how they affect time’s subjective twin, memory.

Poets who can grasp, wrangle, and mangle our sense of time out of any familiar state–such as Euripides, Lucretius, Persius, Lucan, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Coleridge, David Jones, Laura Riding, Ingeborg Bachmann–are exceedingly rare. More common are those who implicitly adopt the position of Wyndham Lewis, who saw time as a drag on creativity and creation and sought an absolutist spatial view of the cosmos, which usually results in sterilized art. Opposed to this was James Joyce, who saw space and time in as interrelated a way as Einstein, and about whom more later, for he is pivotal.

The book is densely argued and I will not attempt to discuss all the nuances here. Rather, I want to try to draw some of her threads together with some that come from my rather more gloomy post-European viewpoint.

Phillips focuses on a particular and idiosyncratic view of time that she draws out of the four poets, one of “creative repetition,” embracing variation in repeated habitual patterns in life, in place of existentialist finality or chasing the rainbows of epiphany. She is excellent on Frost and how this vision of time makes it such that the tragedy in his life can seem muted in his poetry, even in the circumspection of “Home Burial.” She discusses “A Servant to Servants”:

Here, though, Frost also suggests the deathly power of blame; the servant’s bitter afterthought to “through,” in which she vaguely foresees that “they’ll be convinced” when she is gone, reinforces a connection between assignment of guilt and acceptance of mortality. Fault-finding traps one in the submissive regimen of “A Servant to Servants,” lamenting what one will not change and “doing / Things over and over that just won’t stay done.” These “rounds” show what could easily become of the “over and over” in “In the Home Stretch”: without the deliberate decision to rend each day’s bread or recite each evening’s not-new song, without the self-aware agreement to refuse ends and intentions, everyday repetitions can seem no more than the senseless anticipation of complete insentience.

Though not mentioned explicitly, Phillips does seem to be addressing the ancient Greek contrast between chronos and kairos. Chronos is time in the regular order of things, measured and constant, while kairos is time more in the sense of a time, a particular special moment that in some way defies the march of time. Kairos is the root of revelation, epiphany, peak experiences, crisitunity, and Badiou’s event.

Phillips uses Kierkegaard’s affirmation of repetition as a way for a person to “become what he is,” and links this to C.S. Peirce‘s “tendency to take habit” and similar pragmatist strains in William James and Dewey. The pragmatist links stress how particularly American such analysis of habit is. Although Hume among others spoke of habituated behavior and thought, it was Peirce and those he influenced who elevated habit to the level of a benevolent organizing force. (Hume is too much a curmudgeon to endorse it so wholeheartedly.) Closely related to this is the resistance to any finalized abstraction, abstraction being mitigated by the variation in the everyday particulars. (Dena Shottenkirk aptly links this to nominalism.)

To the extent that Phillips is tracing an American poetic evolution that originates from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson, she explores a territory that is closest to the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has focused on American transcendentalism and what he terms “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” a sort of endless striving toward the “unattained but attainable self,” in Emerson’s words.

Phillips’ central conceit of creative repetition may be a quasi-rebuttal to Cavell, an Emersonian imperfectionism. Yet her project, if I read her right, is fundamentally affirmative, to seek in a series of repetitions with variations a kind of unending creativity that allows for a sanctification of daily life. A method in which the routine becomes a sustaining creative ritual without a fixed telos.

I admit I do not feel much of a connection to Frost or Merrill’s poetry. While Stevens and Bishop are not among my favorite 20th century American poets (I prefer Laura Riding, Weldon Kees, Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk), I do find much more in their work that is close to me. Phillips’ brief treatments of Robert Hass, John Ashbery, and Frank Bidart in the conclusion are so incisive I wish she had written more about them. The subject at hand is large enough to be inexhaustible in its poetic and cultural linkages.

I think Phillips succeeds best in evoking everyday kairos with Stevens, though this may be due to my own poetic preferences. But both Stevens’ life and his poetry seem especially suited to the task of bringing inspiration out of routine.

In his daily poetry, Stevens confronts and ultimately refuses the choice between two terms: he describes how the diurnal interdependence of human and natural time can manifest a recurrent interplay of creativity and empiricism. Everyday repetition can be a “Song of Fixed Accord,” to use the title of a lovely and neglected late poem that could well evince the lessons of a lifetime’s routines. In this work, a dove on a roof at dawn finds the “ordinariness” of “the sun of five, the sun of six” to be “a fixed heaven” (Collected, 441), and this paradisiacal consistency allows her expectant “hail-bow” to the coming light, a reverent lyric “pip[ing]” that equates acknowledgment of external event with affirmation of internal conception. Her music could assuage the misery of another Stevensian bird, therefore, “The Dove in Spring” whose “bubbling before the sun” keeps “seeking out his identity // In that which is and is established” (Collected, 461). If Stevens perceives the discontent in this seeking, his dawn “Song” shows that he also perceives a solution. The accord of Stevens’s dailiness lets an “established” world return one’s own self-definition.

Phillips finds biographical evidence for just this sort of outlook–a sort of constantly reconditioned optimism–in Stevens’ correspondence:

When he writes in a 1940 letter, for example, that socialist aims are possible “within the present framework,” this opinion may not just show the conservatism of a middle-class executive but also bespeak a precise trust in what Stevens takes the framework to be (Letters, 351). His faith can nonetheless appear hollow, certainly, and the choice to “play” reality as one’s own dream can seem like a willed self-delusion—the pretense that Stevens recommends in a late letter when he admits that while things “never go well . . . you have to pretend that they do” (Letters, 866). Yet he adds in this letter that “good fortune can be worth it,” a statement suggesting the rewards as well as the rigor of the process. If one can see the solar “fortuner” of Crispin’s quotidian as one’s own imagined “good fortune,” one can achieve a happiness more resilient than any promised by politics. One can find a “peace, a security, a sense of good fortune and of things that change only slowly,” as Stevens writes in another correspondence, “so much more certain than a whole era of Communism could ever give” (Letters, 609– 10). Stevens ultimately has “no sympathy with communism, instead of expectation,” as he writes in a letter, because communism forbids the best sort of expectation (Letters, 350). In place of the unreliable teleology of political systems, as well as the illusory teleology of religious creeds, he offers his generation the certain futurity that is available in common life.

Phillips bring out the fundamentally stoic and Epicurean mentality that sustains Stevens’ conception. The contrast with British and Irish writers of the period is quite drastic: where Yeats and Woolf tend to speak of a conflict with time that ends in slow defeat (in Yeats) or a futile but noble struggle (in Woolf’s The Waves), the confluence of kairos and chronos in the American poets refracts this dilemma into a near-denial of the finality and fixity of death. In Frost and especially Stevens, Phillips forcefully foregrounds this sensibility–and its attendant problems. Her discussion of “The Auroras” is one of the strongest passages in the book, discussing the wear and tear on one’s identity wrought by the tension between legacy and reinvention. I have to quote it at length:

One may consider the gravity of a human condition, that is, to be neither the “clipped” relation of the “Comedian” nor the tragic doom of the “Anglais”; rather, one’s life may be simply a part of the world’s ordinary pattern. Stevens shows the mental effort of such commonplace “reflection” in “The Auroras of Autumn,” canto 9, when the speaker follows the barrenness of bare trees and evening wind with the belief that what ever is imminent, however disastrous, “may come tomorrow in the simplest word, / Almost as part of innocence, almost / Almost as the tenderest and the truest part” (Collected, 362). Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. This crucial “tomorrow” enlarges Stevens’s everyday mode beyond the limits of individual existence to deny that individual death is a meaningful termination.

This “tomorrow,” though, must enlarge Stevens’s everyday habits as well— and to potentially fearful proportions. In order to submerge personal life in the larger rounds of an impersonal earth, one’s desire for tomorrow and willing of what is to come must accord with what “An Ordinary Evening” calls the “will of necessity, the will of wills”: one must expect and accept one’s own elimination (Collected, 410). Freud provides a version of this very yearning in the death wish, and Stevens describes something similar at several points— the “monotonous babbling in our dreams” that Crispin fears, for instance, or the id-like “subman” of “Owl’s Clover,” or even the “cozening and coaxing sound” of sleep in “An Ordinary Evening” (Collected, 32, 167, 411). But Stevens is not content with, compulsive wish fulfillment, as he suggests with his reference to “terrible incantations of defeats” in “Men Made Out of Words” (Collected, 310). Rather, he would make defeat into victory, unwitting incantation into active anticipation; he would consciously yearn for the end of consciousness. He would join the unending repetitions of the nonhuman less in capitulation than in conquest.

He would acknowledge, moreover, the high cost of that conquest: an evacuation of memory. With this, the “tomorrow” of “The Auroras” includes a difficulty that is less pressing in the springs and mornings of “Notes”; the speaker of the latter poem must eradicate the sense of having been that manifests a division from the world’s “new-come bee” (Collected, 338). “Farewell” to that sense, the work begins; farewell to the past; farewell to all reminders of “something else, last year / Or before” (Collected, 356). The repeated goodbyes of “The Auroras” render yesterday no more than “an idea.” They elegize elegy, one might say, using the genre’s characteristic repetitions to erase rather than to preserve. Stevens had long suggested that “practice” for death, in “a world without heaven to follow,” must be the “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” that an earlier poem describes, and he repeats in “Notes” the importance of constantly “throw[ing] off ” what one has (Collected, 104, 330). “I think only too often,” Stevens writes in a letter of the same period, “that what we constantly need is a fresh start— a fresh start every day, like a clean shirt” (Letters, 454). By the time of “The Auroras,” however, Stevens’s adieus are both more difficult and more consequent, and Stevens now writes in a letter that he would like to “throw away everything I have, each autumn” (Letters, 659). The speaker of the poem would go at least as far, casting off not just a possession or event but an entire personhood: the very idea, self-constitutive and self- confirming, of an individual history. However much one hopes otherwise, this identity cannot be preserved; neither a mother’s adulation nor a father’s authority will survive the changes of fate. One must abandon these narcissistic props, forgo this singular yesterday, and give up the assumption that life is a scripted story designed by parental solicitude. The only true theater is the indifferent, impersonal flux of the northern lights themselves, and this earthly transience will destroy the “scholar of one candle”: the distinct self, holding his own light, who sees the fires of necessity “flaring on the frame / Of everything he is” (Collected, 359).

“And he feels afraid,” Stevens adds; “The Auroras” presents the greatest risk in his poetry. Yet it presents the greatest reward as well. When he bids farewell to the idea of a “single man” and his single life story, Stevens finds a new identity and a new past. If one no longer seeks to retain a specific history, the poem shows, a changeful fate no longer seems like vituperative opposition but appears, rather, to be the object of one’s quest. Free of human parentage, free of a particular childhood, the poet can take necessity itself as both birthright and heritage, thereby discovering the security that he had thought sacrificed. He might inhabit the “transparen[t] . . . peace” of a childhood union and meet the reassuring beneficence of a “mother’s face” (Collected, 356). These are the very “purpose of the poem,” “The Auroras” suggests, and their “vivid transparence” and “peace” provide a purpose for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” too, since the earlier poem anticipates the same in the crystalline harmony of its conclusion (Collected, 329). In canto 8 of “The Auroras,” one may finally “partake thereof,” lying down as if “awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,” listening as an “innocent mother” sings a lullaby that “create[s] the time and place in which we breathed” (Collected, 361). The scene offers a childhood paradise remade; Eden is no longer a faraway garden from which one has been exiled but the innocence of one’s present setting— as well as of any possible “imminence.”

What’s striking is how quintessentially American Stevens’ attitude is. In a line from Emerson, there is the assurance, more or less, that things will go on as they have been, unaffected by outside circumstances, and open to some extent to autonomous change. This all too aptly befits the geographically insulated United States. I think it also explains the bizarre displacement and anonymity of Stevens’ war poetry, which  James Longenbach says shows “Stevens the reductionist.” When writing of “a generation that does  not  know  itself,” Stevens was writing of himself vis a vis the world outside daily routine. In light of Phillips’ discussion, I realize I find much of Stevens’ war poetry unsuccessful because the subject matter does not fit Stevens’ worldview.

I think this brings up a fundamental paradox and one that really is a specifically American paradox. It may be a cliche to say that the United States’ youth, geographical isolation, and absence of history make erasure easier and more common, but it is one that seems compellingly true. This erasure can even be an aspect of one’s destiny. It is a “letting go” that I really do not see in much European literature; only the spiritual rebirth one sees in Dostoevsky seems to come close. But here, as Phillips points out, it is not dramatic, but quotidian. Stevens’ proto-Ashbery “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” embodies this Emersonian imperfectionism as well as any poem I can think of, incessantly throwing out modest ideas and images that do not seek to overwhelm their predecessors, nor enact a final transcendence (it’s “toward,” not “of”).

In the best cases, Phillips writes, the erasure does not take place, but the past is accepted with a certain contingency, a conditioning with a possibility for change. This is a delicate balance. The challenge of retaining one’s memory (i.e., legacy) while modestly creating one’s self anew out of the same materials is not an easy one. I do not think Bishop reaches it more than rarely, but Phillips has convinced me that Stevens often did:

Penelope’s modest “talk . . . to herself,” repeating the name of what is to come, presents yet another instance of the proper nominations possible through iterative practice. Her speech is one more revision of Crispin’s realistic “syllables,” perhaps, and one more idiom or song or hum of the earth’s innocence. Like the best blazons in Stevens’s work, which anticipate a supremacy as repetitive as the process towards it, Penelope’s nominations expect something as “patient” as she. The poem, then, finds a denouement that refuses conclusion without trailing off into inconclusiveness; the steady acceptance of real time is the steady deepening of imaginative triumph. That triumph inheres, moreover, in routines one already performs, routines as “mere” as combing one’s hair. Any everyday process can be the heroic mastery of repetition that Stevens describes in “Notes” or the sovereign rule of reality that he describes in “An Ordinary Evening.”  More simply and accurately, any everyday process can be that “confidence in the world” that Stevens notes in a late lecture, citing Paulhan once again: to “stop to consider what a happy phrase that is,” Stevens writes, is to “wonder whether we shall have the courage to repeat it, until we understand that there is no alternative” (Collected, 864–65). Penelope’s daily meditation, courageously repeating what is necessary, demonstrates this ordinary understanding.

Yet I think a certain sort of American myopia persists in two ways even in these best of cases. First, politically: geopolitical isolation and American individualism, as above. Second, generationally. Whether the poets have children (Frost and Stevens) or not (Bishop and Merrill), a cross-generational focus is blatantly absent in their work. Here time appears symmetrical: the absence of a past makes it far more difficult to conceive of a future. Instead, one’s extensions into the world end up pointing back at one’s self. In the absence of a dominant collective history, one’s individual history becomes a greater weight.

And Phillips makes one of the most compelling points I’ve seen about Merrill, suggesting that his attraction to the occult methods of organization like Tarot was precisely this sort of repetitive everyday restructuring:

In the words of “To the Reader,” each tomorrow might be proven more “right” by being more “exemplary”—more like an exemplum. The “true-est” individual life may be the one closest to a universal form.  Merrill’s respect for such individual conventionalism explains his attention to manners, which he calls an “artifice in the very bloodstream” (Collected Prose, 58), and helps to explain why he can further self-knowledge through a card game: “Last Mornings in California,” for example, links the speaker’s experience to a tarot deck, while other works compare living to a game of patience (Collected Poems, 447–48, 192–94; Sandover, 67–68). Perhaps most important, Merrill’s respect for formal autobiography helps to explain why he wants to tell his story through “conventional stock figures,” as he writes at the start of The Book of Ephraim (Sandover, 4). When McClatchy rightly notes that the child of Water Street often has “a typological rather than an autobiographical emphasis,” one might add that Merrill would often elide the difference (“On Water Street,” 88). Even a draft of “The Broken Home” is labeled “Notes for a Myth” (WU IV.1.a). This myth is a metrical legend, poetic and temporal; as “Verse for Urania” notes, “the first myth was Measure” (Collected Poems, 385– 91). “Rhyme and meter” not only manifest the patterns of “fable[s],” they also inscribe the “conjunctions and epicycles” behind those prototypes, the natural cycles that make “the world go round” as they make human stories repeat. Thus the order of everyday recurrence governs almost every biographical pattern already mentioned.

Standing as a complement to the poets Phillips treats are some of the poets under the “objectivism” rubric: Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker. I say a complement rather than a contrast because these three were all after a sort of kairos as well, and also sought it by first rejecting epiphany. These three shared a tendency to elevate non-epiphanic experience and treat it in as impressionistic a fashion as the most epiphanic moments of Wordsworth. They sometimes negate the temporal aspect that becomes such a problem when dealt with either as finitude or momentariness–at the risk, I think, of the same sterility I mentioned in association with Wyndham Lewis. The objectivists’ subjects tend to be there to revisit, albeit always in different ways. By withdrawing the explicit, never-to-be-reclaimed emotional content traditional to poetry, they provide far more eternal-seeming moments. But the recurrence is wholly implicit and never stated.

Because this sort of imperfectionism is an ongoing process that does not know final success, it brings with it the simple problem of maintenance, the danger of always falling out of the work of renewing the everyday and falling into despair or torpor.

In genuine contrast, and as a model I would wish to put up against those of these four poets, is James Joyce, who put world and family first rather than the individual. As a secular, expatriated Irish ex-Catholic, Joyce came out of a worldview that had an enormous weight of history and culture behind it, in stark contrast to the tabula rasa on which Emerson and Whitman had wrote. (The New World, of course, was not a tabula rasa, but European immigrants certainly treated it as such: it was not their history that was to be found there.) Joyce’s later work rejects epiphany (as A. Walton Litz observes) as an adolescent stage in development, seeking instead a universalization of particulars in all their incompatible variation.

Variation among repetition is central to the entire scheme of Finnegans Wake, but it overlays all variations across peoples and nations over one another simultaneously. To amass such a work, Joyce indeed still required underlying structural principles beyond that which the American poets were ever comfortable embracing. Perhaps history and legacy–the certainty of a past and a future to which one is inextricably and often painfully tied–are necessary in order to legitimate any such large-scale structure. Yet Joyce’s near-eidetic obessiveness that all life be recorded makes impossible the sort of creative affirmation which Phillips finds in Frost, Stevens, Merrill, and sometimes Bishop. Joyce is too deterministic for that.

What I like about The Poetics of the Everyday, which deserves more than the generic blurbs on its back cover, is that it lays bare the conceptual foundations that underpin so much modern American poetry and helps explain why Frost, Stevens, and Bishop were successfully innovative while much recent poetry is not. These conceptual arrangements, which usually go unquestioned, have remained so uniform so as to create a hermetic discourse that has not seriously progressed since the middle of the 20th century. (For the most part, the same goes for prose. As I have said before, such conceptual impoverishment is responsible for the tedium of so much current literature.) Only by taking a more aggressively interrogative tack, as Phillips does here in the spirit of Coleridge, Empson, and Zukofsky, does there seem to be the possibility of a forward progression.

Ernest Gellner and The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason and the Cunning of Freud

The best cover of The Psychoanalytic Movement

Finishing off the examination of Ernest Gellner and his well-meaning but somewhat pig-headed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, we come to his attack on psychoanalysis, The Psychoanlaytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. This book was published in 1985, 35 years after Words and Things, his attack on Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy.

Like Words and Things, it is a centaur, half-sociology and half-philosophical critique, and just as ill-tempered. It is a better book than Words and Things, because the game is much bigger. Here, Gellner is going after an intellectual and social movement a million times more successful, and at least several times more dubious.

The attack is successful, but as with Words and Things, the centaur form of the book makes it a mixed success. I will try to separate the threads and pick out the book’s vital core from the sometimes shaky surrounding membrane.

Because it is so much more an inviting sociological target, and because the sociology of psychoanalysis is that much more mixed in with its underlying philosophy (i.e., the patient-therapist relationship), psychoanalysis is in many ways the perfect subject for Gellner, ripe for the sort of attack that ordinary language philosophy didn’t seem to merit.

The danger is his being too obvious or unoriginal. Adolf Grunbaum has carefully critiqued the theoretical work of psychoanalysis, while George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis showed the bizarre evolution and personal flaws of the movement’s leaders. Both are books Gellner would not have bothered to write. Gellner’s task rather is to place a quicker critique of that sort into a larger sociological framework.

Consequently, there is a sense at times that Gellner is struggling to make more out of the material than there is. Having identified the endless flaws of psychoanalytic theory and how they yielded a hegemonic power structure in the psychoanalytic community, Gellner has to walk a line between the dangers of (a) restricting his critique to Freud and his direct scions and thus letting the larger societal trend get away, and (b) extending his critique to psychotherapy in general and thus reducing the theory to mere therapeutic practice in all its myriad forms.

Gellner’s solution is to approach things genealogically. By showing how Freud’s initial paradigm caught fire and appealed to the bourgeois masses, he can indict both Freudian psychoanalytic theory as well as its less-direct consequences today, which are the polluted offspring of a manipulative intellectual charlatan. This is his goal, anyway. Ultimately, the minute particulars of psychoanalytic theory and practice seem to fall away in favor of a sociological exploration of psychotherapy in general, which is still heavily influenced, as are we all, by Freud’s ideas.

In some ways Freud is an easier target than a more obscure thinker like Austin or Ryle because a good chunk of his thinking has been absorbed into the common argot. His tripartite psyche, repression, the unconscious, and assorted other concepts have become ubiquitous cultural abstractions even if they aren’t metaphysical entities. So what’s left over seems even more objectionable because we take the less objectionable stuff for granted.

And yet just as Wittgenstein eluded Gellner’s grasp, Freud dodges Gellner’s shots better than the rest of the psychoanalytic community. This is not because Freud’s theory is so very defensible, but because Gellner is attacking it on grounds on which it has never been seriously judged. By 1985 psychoanalysis was definitely not seen as the sort of science that you’d find in the DSM (however dubious that might be), yet its therapeutic children continued unabated.

The story that George Makari tells in Revolution in Mind  is that of psychoanalysis emancipating itself from the empirical sciences and going into pure speculation and mythology, often excessively so. Yet if anything this probably aided in its success. As Gellner says:

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Yet as the “science” is quite loose, it’s rather pointless to attack the ideas for not being scientifically grounded, at least in 1985. It’s akin to criticizing Hegel for misunderstanding Sophocles or, indeed, criticizing Freud for misunderstanding Sophocles. It doesn’t teach us anything about their success.

No matter what ridiculous claims Freud made for his theory being “scientific,” psychoanalysis was never even provisionally held to the sort of rigorous standard to which Wittgenstein held his own thoughts, or else it would have collapsed. The scientific rhetoric was necessary, as Freud well knew, to getting his project off the ground and initially accepted in the medical and psychological community, but it became secondary once success was assured. The interesting story is not psychoanalysis pretending to be a science, but psychotherapy’s underlying Freudian groundwork surviving the debunking of those scientific claims.

As the Freudians are still fond of quoting:

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives . . .

W. H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud

Freud was an incisively creative mind, which Gellner acknowledges, and in conjunction with his brilliant self-marketing, he managed to gain an astonishing amount of traction for some of his psychological metaphors and models. That his theories were held to be science among several influential groups for quite some time is one depressing measure of his success.

Gellner succeeds, however, when he tries to understand the success rather than attacking the theory.

Two stories emerge, related but distinct. First there is Freud the empire-builder, who keeps reins on psychoanalysis and jealously guards the keys to his process and movement. Freud was indeed autocratic, though not quite the tyrant Gellner makes out. Makari shows Freud as a self-doubting genius (albeit one who is careerist, unethical, narcissistic, and a plagiarist) who had good reason to keep control, as most of his followers are far from his intellectual equal. Of the Freudians, Ferenczi and Melanie Klein acquit themselves without too much damage but do not impress, while Carl Jung and Anna Freud come off very badly indeed.

Makari’s book is far more successful than Gellner’s in showing the poison that went around in these circles, and his lack of a blatant axe to grind allows the twisted process to emerge organically. Gellner is right to see Freud as a demagogue of a sort, but he really can’t be bothered to do the background.

Yet this does not prove fatal to Gellner. The second story, and the one Gellner is more effective in telling, is the large scale story of the success of psychoanalysis and consequently psychotherapy in general. Here Gellner can deal with the received ideas of psychoanalysis in general and try to figure out its place in society.

Somewhat ironically, Gellner must consequently credit Freud with having pulled off something amazing in selling his wares to the public. But what did he sell? A secular mythos and practice.

One way of seeing the ideological achievement of Sigmund Freud is to understand that he has constructed a solid, non-conjectural, support-providing world, something that had disappeared from our life; that he invented a technique for supplying this commodity made-to-measure for individual consumers; and that he had erected it using exclusively modern, intellectually acceptable bricks.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Freud’s achievement, then, was appealing to a societal neurosis (I use that term ironically) in an instinctive, brilliant way, and offering a solution that was less an idea than a ritual. It is a cutting of the Gordian knot of modernism, of God-is-Deadism, as Gellner points out in a fairly compelling comparison with Nietzsche.

Gellner sometimes puts it as the need for an authority (the therapist), but the better way to put it is the need to find a stable, validated frame narrative for one’s existence. The accomplishment of psychoanalysis is to turn this process not into a one-time fix (which would never work), but into a repeated ritual to shore up the authority.

Again, the irony. By identifying a neurosis that requires ritual treatment, Gellner very nearly excuses the psychoanalytic requirement for potentially unending treatment. He points out a number of problems of modernity which Freudian practice claims to solve, two of which are particularly spot-on:

  • The Weberian problem of a ‘disenchanted’, cold, impersonal world. The modern world is in fact bound to be such: cognitive growth goes jointly with specialised, single-strand cognitive inquiry, which inevitably separates the intellectual exploration of the world from personal relations, values, and the hierarchical ordering of society. Freud restored a form of cognition which, while articulated in an impeccably modern idiom, and seemingly part of medicine and science, was firmly locked in with a hierarchical and comforting personal relation, and with values and the hope of personal salvation. Thus a reality is reenchanted, and its enchantment is permanently serviced, albeit at a price.
  • The Durkheimian problem of reuniting cognition, ritual, and social order. Psychoanalysis has or is an astoundingly effective ritual, adapted to an individualist age, engendering all those affective consequences which Durkheim associated with ritual, and indeed separating the sacred and profane with all the neatness which that theory postulated.

To offer a persuasive solution to so fundamental a set of problems, and to offer them in a way that the solution is lived out rather than merely thought, ratified by both ritual and an intense personal relationship, and generally not consciously thought out at all, is an astonishing achievement.

I find this extremely compelling, not least  because it seems so obvious after reading it that Freud provided one very dominant mythos of our age. (Others helped out too, as did amorphous cultural processes.) Foucault and others had already been here, but this is the best summation I have read, and a testament to Gellner’s intuitive thinking.

Those philosophers today who ask for a reenchantment of reality to brighten our supposedly cold, industrialized world do not realize that we have already reenchanted our mental frameworks as much as any past culture, albeit in a more tenuous and somewhat neurotic way. But any further reenchantment would require religious dogmatism, so I’m not complaining.

I think Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy does a good job of explaining in depth what Freud contributed in this direction. If Freud was a philosopher, he is best thought of as hermeneutic.

Gellner’s statements about the analyst as shaman, the analyst as mystic, the analyst as deity, are interesting and sometimes compelling, but they detract from his more powerful point that the raw practice itself is what’s successful, not the particulars of the relationship. Hence why psychotherapy continues even as classical psychoanalysis has waned.

Core elements of the original framework remain, of course, which is why Freud survives even if psychoanalysis mostly does not. Gellner points out that one key technique is providing a safe space for the externalization of one’s inner demons: that is, treating them as demons, not one’s conscious self.

 The flaw of the Freudian Unconscious is not that it constitutes a scandalous inversion of conscious proprieties, but that it remains far, far too close to them. Freudianism is a kind of animism. It projects (rightly or wrongly), on to forces outside our consciousness, the kind of trait or attribute which our culture had habitually attributed to our conscious activity. As in other forms of animism, this is combined with the claim that these spirits of the deep can be understood, conjured up, appeased and rendered harmless only by certain practitioners of mysteries, members of a restrictive guild with specialised initiation rites.

Yet the guild has opened up now, and the process remains, with whatever bits of the theory have been appropriated by the collective societal consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of these do come from Freud himself rather than his less brilliant followers.

Consequently, Gellner’s position is weakened a bit. Because psychoanalysis qua theory proves to be a bit of a red herring (you don’t need the Oedipus Complex and the Death-Instinct for psychotherapy to be successful), the therapist doesn’t come out looking too bad. An expensive luxury? Certainly. A disingenuous practitioner? Perhaps. But having acknowledged the contemporary human’s unstinting desire for a healthier structure/mythos for understanding–or perhaps more accurately, simplifyingone’s own life, Gellner is too quick to assess that the result is unavoidably meaningless.

There is a pragmatic evaluative process, albeit not a terribly scientific one, which is the practical terms of the individual patient’s life. This was the process that slowly killed off psychoanalysis proper. Today, in the absence of a proper theory, evaluations are now performed ad hoc. Such case-by-case evaluations guarantee mixed results at best and gross abuses of power at worst, but psychotherapy is not the self-validating closed system that psychoanalysis-the-theory was. Such systems survive only by opening up, and I think that Freud laid the groundwork for that himself by reversing and revising his positions over the course of his life.

So oddly, Gellner makes the case that psychotherapy was more or less an inevitable coping mechanism that needed to arise given the conditions of modernity. If Freud had not existed, society would have had to invent him. (And, indeed, society did invent its version of him, throwing out the psychosexual and anthropological esoterica it could not use and keeping the basic model and method.) Gellner would like it if we could shrug off those needs and abandon the enchantments that psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic metaphors provide, but since he’s made such a powerful case for why they’re so appealing, it doesn’t seem very likely. Genuine science is never enough. Something always gets piled on top, and frequently it’s called science too.

The grave issue remains that Freud’s absolutist claim to truth for his theory was necessary if psychoanalysis were to gain purchase, so that it could then, under some duress, shrug off its claims to absolute knowledge in favor of a more humble, pragmatic stance and then live on more deftly as psychotherapy. Alas, though, this is the paradox of all of the human “sciences”: we only ever hear about the ones that started with absurd hubris.

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