Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, depth, and the body

This is a continuation of the beginning of a paper (posted below as "To see in secret") I have just completed on Derrida and Merleau-Ponty:

Merleau-Ponty opens his discussion of painting in “Eye and Mind” with the body. This fact alone already proves that any description of his thought as just a general philosophy of the embodied—Jean Luc-Nancy calls it a “monism of the flesh” —might be, if not incorrect (this might be exactly what Merleau-Ponty does), then as reductive and as violent as describing Derrida in this way. For painting is not usually a place where we would expect the body to be thought: the fields of sexuality, ethics, and the philosophy of mind (with all its well classified and extremely interesting issues: physicalism, Turing machines, “neural nets,” and perhaps the most related to our problematic as well as, within the field, the most vaguely defined—qualia)—all these seem more at home philosophically with the body. However, for Merleau-Ponty, painting seems naturally to provoke this discussion of the body by the particular types of problems that it poses: indeed, as he will say, we cannot imagine it being otherwise. Regardless, even if this is nothing more than the most radical extension of this “monism” to all problems whatever, it is clear that new complications are introduced in both painting and the body that Derrida will probably pick up in that realm where they exceed the simple extensions of any of Merleau-Ponty’s particular prejudices—and these surely will be more complex and rich than any “monism” might produce. But let us witness the beginning of this discussion:

The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry. Indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind [un Esprit] could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement [mouvement].
I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous machine. My mobile body makes a difference in the visible world, being a part of it; that is why I can steer it through the visible. Conversely, it is just as true that vision is attached to movement. We see only what we look at. What would vision be without eye movement? And how could the movement of the eyes bring things together if the movement were blind? If it were only a reflex? If it did not have its antennae, its clairvoyance? If vision were not prefigured in it?

Here we find several arguments in Merleau-Ponty’s earlier work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), condensed for us and taken beyond the logic of that particular investigation in a very specific way that will repay our attention, since this essay’s linkage of painting to the body will sketch for us that concept of the “visible” which needs to be thought to know what he means by “invisible.”
In his Phenomenology of Perception, as well as in the even earlier Structure of Comportment (1942), Merleau-Ponty made it clear how much is lost both for and by a science (as well as a culture) that indeed, as he says here, thinks the body is “a chunk of space,” or, at most, a mere meaningless interface (“a bundle of functions” or sometimes stimuli) between the outside and the inside of a system that is only there to sustain thought. The first notion of the body (“empiricist”) describes merely a collection of organs distributed in the space of physics, and is the object of physiology and medicine, as well as most other sciences that deal with it. The second view (“intellectualist”) is the philosopher’s notion of the body, as well as (if it is not the first notion) the psychologist’s and, we might add (though advances are continually moving in the direction of more holistic notions of brain-based psychic phenomena ) the average modern neuroscientist’s (**See, for one of numerous and promising examples--proving no doubt that categorizing all these views into two big camps is quite crude on Merleau-Ponty's part--the amazing work of Daniel Dennett, which combines computational models and artificial intelligence with neuroscience and the work of Merleau-Ponty and Husserl in what he calls “heterophenomenology:” cf. “Who’s on First? Heterophenomenology Explained.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10:9-10, p. 10-30). For Merleau-Ponty, however, the body is more like that background functioning that allows a particular perspective to be towards a world (or in the world, in the Heideggerian sense of this “in” ). In other words, for Merleau-Ponty, it is the unity, prior to (but not excluding) thought, that allows an extraordinary range of action that extends from reflexes and other fundamental and usually completely non-conscious tasks like breathing (which presuppose this unity—thus his comment, above, on how the body cannot be a collection of reflexes), to delicate manipulation of objects with the hands, or (what is a better example) the sophisticated movements of a soccer player or other athlete performed “without thinking.” Thus, in these paragraphs, Merleau-Ponty stresses the seemingly obvious (“we see only what we look at”), precisely because it is not obvious when one begins to think about the immense network of operations at play in that gap between what is traditionally thought of as “mind” and “world” (between “seeing” and “looking”). As he says, here is space where “I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous machine.
But, as the next sentence stresses, this amazing space is not prior to action or to any lived experience—so this theory of the body is not the theory of something upon which or by means of which actions occur: “my mobile body makes a difference in the visible world, being a part of it; that is why I can steer it through the visible” (italics added). What this means is that the body is less the “background functioning” that makes action possible, as we said, than it is the unity of an action of movement that is actually taking place. In fact, more generally, we might call it the unity of experience, if we stress the double genitive here: it is that which every experience presupposes and yet only exists in that experience. Brought about by an action towards and within the world (whether on the level of breathing or of some fancy soccer move), and yet being precisely what is necessary for that act to occur, it is probably better to describe this movement-experience by the word “motility,” as it is done in the Phenomenology of Perception: it is not so much any one movement as the potential to move actualized—that is, existing as a finite movement in space and in time. Regardless of what term one uses, however, we see now why the stress in this quote is on the mobile, on steering through the world, and the fact that the body is actually making a difference in the world or is unified around one perspective or motivation: though in its act of synthesis or unification through a distinct movement it might seem like the apperception of Kant, the body is not an intellectualist’s ideal structure of some sort as much as it is not an empiricist’s collection of organs. It is, instead, only that potential to act that is fully spent within any actual movement (**The language of potentials and action, of course, is inadequate, but brings out the transformation Merleau-Ponty is effecting with Husserl’s notion of intentionality. Intentionality shall be, for Merleau-Ponty, more concrete and more factical (in the Heideggerian sense) than in Husserl. As he says in the Phenomenology of Perception: we must ultimately “understand motility as basic intentionality” (PP, 159)). This concreteness of action no longer separated from the world as an ideal system of consciousness, looking upon it from the outside as a series of objects or data—this is what Merleau-Ponty is getting at in his assumption that embodied painting is the only painting we could imagine (“indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind could paint”). In the end, we understand that we cannot simply say that Merleau-Ponty thereby is giving us a bodily theory of perception (a word we have avoided until now, precisely because it seems so much like the viewing of an act outside of moving or desiring or intending towards it, but shall mean the same for us as apprehending or having a moving perspective upon the world), unless we mean by this and understand that, for him, perception is the body itself... (to be continued...)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reading like Derrida, continued

If I have stressed in my previous post the mechanical nature of Derrida's reading, it is because reading mechanically is the only way we can picture the welcoming of contingency, meaninglessness, and what is out of control in or beyond the control of any close reading.
That is, if I have stressed the resistance to close reading that is at work in Derrida's process of reading, it is to bring to the fore the fact that, for Derrida, a text is not what is on any old page, but is what is almost impossibly constituted in it. For Derrida--and this cannot be stressed enough--a text is almost impossible.
It is perhaps only when we get our heads around this fact--that hundreds and hundreds of pages or words or marks may actually make up one element of a text--that we can understand how, in its being almost impossible, texts are nevertheless the most common things in the world. They are everywhere: but their nature (if one can put it that way) is precisely to be made up of marks that are never reducible to any particular semantic unit--they can be made up of periods, strings of blank spaces, and on the other hand, whole chapters, entire works, pieces of three or four works collected (as it were) together. One might say they are the relations between any particular element of any text (a semicolon here and a semicolon there)--that is, the difference between them. But it is only when the space of this difference is not conceived positively--that is, when it is already, as this difference, different from itself--that we understand what Derrida is getting at: this is why the elements of a text are not reducible to any stable unit (nor even a series or type of unit such as we have been using to exemplify this fact: a semicolon and a whole corpus might be the same element in relation to another; that is, we are not just talking about how a semicolon and a semicolon can make up a text, but how a semicolon and a whole body of work, in their relation to each other, also can do this). It is only in this way, then, that one can say the text must therefore be only the words on the page--that is, when we conceive words as only one type of mark. This point, though, is of course one of the most important: a text is only its elements--it is only what is there. To borrow a formulation Derrida uses in a not-unrelated context (in "Geschlecht II") the text remains only as constituted as the words (qua marks) on the page.
If we are to take the difference between work and text seriously, we can only conceive of a text in this way: there is no work at all--only the almost impossible phenomena of texts. And what is clear about this--we are trying to bring this out by saying that they are almost impossible--is that texts themselves do not exist. They only perhaps exist: this is why they are almost impossible. For if they are going to exist, they will exist precisely beyond our ability to submit them to our close reading: they will exist within that area beyond any particular grouping of elements that we might specify to make up a text. Their possibility, then, occurs only within the space where, for us, they are almost impossible. And yet they may be (almost) always occurring there. And this is why "mechanical" reading is the only way for us to get there--and even it will have to fail. I should note, however, that this mechanical reading does not have to show itself as such, as it does in texts like Dissemination: indeed The Gift of Death and many of Derrida's later texts, which seem to have (and we can see now how stupid it is to classify them in this way) less puns, less play, more gravity, more common language, etc.--these texts are precisely where this "mechanical" mode of reading is perhaps most intensely operative as it is in something like Glas.
I'll sum up these conclusions of these two posts below--hopefully to demystify (with the help of the content of these two posts: obviously in summary form they will appear odd) what it is like to read like Derrida. I gather from how hard it was to figure out this all for myself over the years that people--for whatever reasons, and especially "deconstructionists" or followers of Derrida--think this mode of reading is impossible to teach, if only because it runs constantly up against the impossible itself (the impossible, that is, for us) when it is done right. But this, I think, has only lead to that mystification which produces explanations of what Derrida does as some sort of unbelievably genius close reading. Indeed it is that, but it is so much more--and precisely by taking this closeness into the realm of distance. In conclusion then, we can say that:

1. The text is not what is on the page.
2. The text is almost impossible.
3. The text does not exist. It only perhaps exists.
It should be clear this is only #2 said differently.
4. The text's elements are not reducible to words, nor any stable unit whatever
(they can be any unit: even--and we have not stressed this perhaps enough--what is considered to be outside the work: history, politics, geology, physical phenomena, etc. etc.). It should be clear this is only a corollary to #1 (in fact, it says the same thing).
5. If the text exists, however, it is only the elements that that make it up.
In other words, it is only (among other marks) the words on the page, in the sense that it is not made up of the elements of any other text.
6. The text is only read when one is willing to, in being close to it, also be as far from the words on the page as possible.

I should also note that I speak of "the" text here, because I'm considering it as the object of study. There are, if they exist, only texts--this is why we can say #3, and several of the other points here from which this point follows and in which it plays a part. To consider this point in itself, though, might take us too far afield for now: the main goal is to correct the misunderstanding that simply equates reading like Derrida with close reading.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Reading like Derrida

It is often said (and I'll crudely paraphrase the crude paraphrase here) that Derrida's mode of reading is to "close read" texts of philosophy.
This is right, but it seems to me to only get at one aspect of what Derrida is doing.
Derrida most certainly close-reads texts. That is, he pays attention to their use of words first and foremost, rather than like so many philosophers who also do pay extremely close attention to the letter of the text but whose focus remains beyond it, in the contours of the concepts being got at. It doesn't matter, for these philosophers, with what words Kant describes the transcendental deduction as much as what it is. This is not to fault this approach: this is precisely what philosophy is and should be doing, in my opinion. For it does not mean, again, that the text is dumped in service of "ideas" or something like that: it is just a matter of practical, pragmatic priority. One has to see the phenomenon, or think the concept, or reflect on the issue, otherwise one ends up in just following words around and making unimportant points. This is why so many critical theorists are, despite their best (and worst) intentions, horrible philosophers. So paying close attention to the text is the first way to accomplishing reading like Derrida.
But the second is more crucial, I think, because it is precisely Derrida's contribution to close reading, or hermeneutics more generally. Derrida transforms the idea of close reading by extending its logic farther than any human can control it. In other words, Derrida close reads beyond the close reading that anyone can actually pull off. But this precisely doesn't mean that he--Derrida--is some sort of genius. This isn't some sort of magic--again, as many fawning "decon" initiates would make you think. It is simply being mechanical. When we say he close reads beyond the human, we simply mean that he not only pays attention to the letter of the text, but also follows a letter, a word, or what have you sometimes mechanically, arbitrarily, so as to not submit it to some overarching human interpretation. In other words, he close reads beyond his control. The important contribution of this is that in itself this method prevents the close reading to end up as evidence for some theory about a text. Take Dissemination: the chapter headings say it all. They're just different forms of the word pharmacia: pharmakon, pharmakeus, pharmakos (to use the French way of writing the Greek). And, quite literally, for a large part of the time the difference between these signifiers is all that one can say is governing the interpretation at work in the book. Not even the difference between the signifiers--the way this difference is itself differing from itself, changing into a different difference between the signifiers: in other words, it is not that Derrida is tracing how the use of pharmakon in one instance compares with the use of its other form, phrarmakeus, in another; rather it is how this comparison also needs to be compared or can only be compared with the use of pharmakos in another case insofar as it differs from the use of pharmakeus, and so on. And the use of "needs" here--how one comparison needs to be compared with another etc.--is inadequate: there is no reason why one needs to be compared with the other. It is just that it is possible. This, then, is how one interprets according to différance. And it is this that really makes this less of a close reading than a semi-distant one. This is not to say that it is distant reading either. But the fact is that if you want to read like Derrida, it is not that you have to--as so many "deconstructionists" will tell you--really read what's on the page closely, or pay infinite attention to what's on the page, or whatever. It is that you submit it to a working and unworking of what's on the page beyond your (and anyone's) control, which more often than not means completely not paying infinite attention to what's on the page, or reading it closely. If this sounds insane, that's because it is--no doubt about it. It is also extremely dangerous, and risks real irresponsibility. But it is only here that there perhaps is a "text," in Derrida's use of this word (one sees then, how stupid it is for "deconstructionists" to make it seem as if paying close or very high attention to the text were the same thing as close reading--paying infinite attention to the text is precisely risking not reading it closely). It is only here that you realize a "text" is not, for Derrida, what's on the page. In the process of trying to somewhat counter what cannot here be controlled, you get a reading in a Derridian way--and in fact, only here you might get a text.
And this is really what is amazing about Derrida's way of reading, considered as a way of reading and precisely as a contribution to the idea of close reading. In the wake of all the various confusions about what the hell deconstruction is and was and will be about, this point about its hermeneutic or non-hermeneutic strategy of being sometimes extremely far from what's on the page, I think, is crucial.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"To see in secret," revised and extended

The post on Derrida and his phrase "To see in secret--what can that mean?" in The Gift of Death, below, is (like many of the posts here) taken from one of my papers for seminars. I've been revising and redoing that paper, and so can now present it more in full. Hopefully it will make more sense:

In the last section of The Gift of Death, “Tout autre est tout autre,” Derrida seems to link visibility and the sense of sight to one of the main ethical, political, and/or religious points he develops throughout the essay: that responsibility only takes place via secrecy, via an act that exceeds calculation or planning. He gathers together seeing and this secrecy in a formulation so basic we cannot but feel they are somehow indissociable. This formulation, given its own separate line in the text, is precisely a question about this indissociability. It is the following: “To see in secret—what can that mean?” Or, in the French: “Voir dans le secret. Qu’est-ce que cela peut vouloir dire?” (The Gift of Death, 88/ Donner la mort, 85)
We understand immediately that this phrase does more than just situate responsibility in the sphere of the bodily, where vision could then somehow play a part in it. In other words, it does not amount to a reiteration of Derrida’s call for an explanation of the terrified, trembling, crying body that he makes in the prior section. “One doesn’t know why one trembles,” Derrida says there, claiming that “we would need to make new inroads into thinking concerning the body, without dissociating the registers of discourse (thought, philosophy, the bio-genetico-psychoanalytic sciences, phylo- and ontogenesis), in order to one day come closer to what makes us tremble or what makes us cry” (55/57). If we were to say that political, ethical, and/or religious acts of responsibility are just bodily or embodied for Derrida, as it is popular to do with other thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, we would feel that we were not really getting at that seeming link between sight and secrecy here. Nor for that matter would we get at the sense in which Derrida is asking us to make inroads into what makes us tremble or cry—that is, the sense in which this phrase here is a reiteration.
We would feel that this is the case because the force of this simple question does not revolve around either seeing or secrecy as much as it does upon meaning. “To see in secret—what can that mean?” The stress here is upon seeing in secret remaining something questionable with respect to whether it has sense or not. If it were just the assertion of something meaningful about responsibility along with sight it would not take place in a question. Our sense of a link refines itself, then. Seeing and secrecy: these are for Derrida things that are questionable when brought together and (thereby) forced to mean or have sense. Perhaps for Derrida they are only questionable when they are supposed to mean—that is, when they take place within a question as to their meaning. In a way, then, the question seems to enact its question: it wonders whether seeing and secrecy can be questioned with respect to whether they mean in questioning them with respect to whether they mean.
But this stress on whether the link makes sense is also due to how the phrase “to see in secret” is precisely that part of the question not written solely by Derrida: it is from the Gospel of Matthew, as cited at the end of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which Derrida analyses before and after this point in the text (cf. 80-1, 97-99). So “to see in secret” is that part of the phrase “to see in secret—what can that mean?” outside of which Derrida seems to stand (as it were) as he writes it, in order to ask it whether it can mean. Indeed, if we take his French more literally, what Derrida asks of “to see in secret” is whether it can be said (qu’est-ce que cela peut vouloir dire?). That is, he asks whether “to see in secret” does not already constitute something that would be beyond his (or anyone’s) ability to submit it to his (or anyone’s) speech as something questionable. Thus, Derrida (or anyone else) could not say, “I see in secret.” Nor could Derrida really ask it his question as to whether it can be said, for “to see in secret” would call itself already into question by itself. Thus, when it came into Derrida’s writing (precisely as the question as to whether it could be said), he would then not be saying it: he would already need to ask whether his writing said or meant anything (and thus he writes his question). The question Derrida asks not only enacts what it questions, therefore: it only enacts this because of the questionability of the link between sight and secrecy that this question, when asked by Derrida (or anyone else), cannot question. The sight of the body and the secrecy in responsibility: these are things that are beyond our ability to question them as to whether they are linked while they still remain questionable—that is, precisely when they are linked by Derrida or by us and thereby forced to mean.
Obviously for us it does not make sense, then, to ask what vision, linked to secrecy only insofar as this link were unquestionably questionable, would be experienced, or would change our sense of life and of the world. Perhaps most of all it would not make sense to ask how it changed our notion of responsibility. For Derrida in this phrase shows us that fundamentally he is in a position similar to ours, if not the very same one: he feels that seeing and secrecy might be linked. And yet, Derrida is also in a completely different position, since asking how vision would be experienced, and responsibility changed thereby, is precisely what Derrida is doing throughout this part The Gift of Death. Somehow, he is able to get across to us precisely that vision and secrecy, while we cannot be sure they are linked, would have to take place precisely in this place where we are not sure of this linkage, in that space where it remains unquestionable in both senses of the word—that is, both beyond his ability to question it, and definitely, certainly, always occurring. Our question, then, becomes one of how Derrida is able to orient himself towards the asking of his (or, as we know now, anyone’s) question qua unquestionable. In other words, our question should concern how he is able to prepare himself for being in the same position as we were with respect to his phrase, and yet better prepare himself than us such that he could also feel like he could continue to ask it, in order to investigate how it changes our experience of sight and of responsibility.
Indeed we are given an indication about how this preparation takes place in the context of Derrida’s question. It is asked as he is testing how far he can extend his reading of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Kierkegaard. Here, just by bringing vision constantly to the fore in the text either in figures of speech or more explicitly in the content of what he is saying, we see him setting up his question:

The sacrifice of Isaac is an abomination in the eyes of all and it should continue to be seen for what it is—atrocious, criminal, unforgivable; Kierkegaard insists on that. The ethical point of view must remain valid: Abraham is a murderer. However, is it not true that the spectacle of this murder, which seems intolerable in the denseness and rhythm of its theatricality, is at the same time the most common event in the world? Is it not inscribed in the structure of our existence to the extent of no longer constituting an event? (85, italics added)

Children, he says, are constantly sacrificed by society, left to die of hunger or disease because of the way the market is structured and controlled. There are insufficient distributions of funds, of aid, etc. such that a totally preventable sacrifice is made anyway, since the current functioning of this society dictates that these resources be used elsewhere. Thus,

such a sacrifice is not even invisible, for from time to time television shows us, while keeping them at a distance, a series of intolerable images, and few voices are raised to bring it all to our attention. (85-86, italics added).

A link between the way society sees sacrifice—it “actually organizes it” (86)—and responsibility—only possible in the secrecy of a sacrifice—is absolutely pressing for Derrida and for us, then. But because we do not know exactly what the link is between the visible and the secret, sacrifice seems as if it could always be questioned as to whether it took place—though it might be happening everywhere and all the time. Thus, we see why Derrida would need to ask, “to see in secret—what can that mean?” If these are his concerns, the question translates into the following: how could we adapt ourselves to the way this sacrifice is inscribed in the structure of our existence?
What is key about this preparation, however, is that it occurs in a specific way. Derrida is less lamenting that we do not have a theory of the linkage between sight and secrecy as highlighting how secrecy, the condition in which responsibility takes place, does not have such a direct relation to the visible. In other words, he is highlighting how the secrecy in sacrifice required for responsibility is not simply defined as the negation of visibility, or as what is invisible. Indeed, “such a sacrifice” as the one organized by society, “is not even invisible,” as he says, and this is part of the problem. And it is here that we will be able to bring out or reconstitute the way Derrida orients himself so as to be hospitable to the questionability of the linkage he establishes. Here, because in order to make the relationship between secrecy and visibility clearer, Derrida just after the passages on the theatricality of sacrifice and his question on seeing in secret says we might be confusing two ways that this invisibility can be understood:

1. There is a visibile in-visible, an invisible of the order of the visible that I can keep in secret by keeping it out of sight. This invisible can be artificially kept from sight while remaining within what one can call exteriority... what one calls the interior organs of the body—my heart, my kidneys, my blood, my brain—are naturally said to be invisible, but they are still of the order of visibility: an operation or accident can expose them or bring them to the surface; their interiority is provisional and bringing their invisibility into view is something that can be proposed or promised…
2. But there is also absolute invisibility, the absolutely non-visible that refers to whatever falls outside the register of sight… (GD 90).

Now, what is crucial about this passage is not yet the difference between the two and how they are indeed confused, but the seemingly unrelated fact that Derrida makes the same distinction in an introduction or compendium to an exhibition of drawings at the Louvre, later published as Memoirs of the Blind. For it is in this transit between a reflection on responsibility and a reflection on art that our new question about how Derrida prepares or orients himself can be pursued, and not only because there will be minor similarities and differences between the two texts that might indicate something about the work of preparation We will also be able to reconstitute this work to a large degree because both discussions rely upon and cite heavily from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s account of the visible and the invisible. By looking at Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, then, with special attention to his two significant essays on art—“Cézanne’s Doubt” and “Eye and Mind” (L’Oeil et l’Esprit)—and doing so in conjunction with a look at Memoirs of the Blind and Derrida’s extensive discussion of Merleau-Ponty in On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, we will be able specify a field or a context through which Derrida will move in order to prepare himself for his unquestionable question of the linkage between seeing and responsibility. Or perhaps instead of a field or context—a set of inheritances or a history of ideas—we might, as he says in On Touching, reveal a trend (mouvance) in which he is still “beginning to orient myself.” Thus when, as we shall see, it is on the issue of depth that the two thinkers come extremely close to saying the reverse of what the each claims with respect to vision and the invisible, we will not be trying to indicate that point at which two thinkers fundamentally disagree, as if they were in an argument. Rather we will be feeling our way towards the humble and yet outrageous nature of the task that Derrida is attempting in feeling an impossible link between sight and vision in The Gift of Death, and yet still asking his question, “To see in secret—what can that mean?”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"To see in secret"

In the last section of The Gift of Death, “Tout autre est tout autre,” Derrida seems to link visibility and the sense of sight to the ethical, political, and/or religious conclusions he develops through the essay by asking a simple question: “To see in secret—what can that mean? (Voir dans le secret. Qu’est-ce que cela peut vouloir dire?)” (The Gift of Death, 88/ Donner la mort, 85) This echoes (or perhaps responds to) his own call for an explanation of the terrified, trembling, crying body that he makes in the section before—“One doesn’t know why one trembles… We would need to make new inroads into thinking concerning the body, without dissociating the registers of discourse (thought, philosophy, the bio-genetico-psychoanalytic sciences, phylo- and ontogenesis), in order to one day come closer to what makes us tremble or what makes us cry…” (55/57)—so in some sense this question about the body is just a pervading feature of the way he approaches these issues. One could say that the linkage is precisely that political, ethical, and/or religious acts of responsibility—which (and this is a central point of the text, cf. 2-7, 69-71, 108-112) take place only via secrecy—are just bodily for Derrida. But this obviously would not tell us much. This is because the force of this simple question does not revolve around either seeing or secrecy as much as it does upon meaning, upon seeing in secret remaining something questionable with respect to whether it has sense or not. And this is due to “to see in secret” being precisely that part of the phrase not written solely by Derrida, that part outside of which he partly stands and asks it his question: he phrase is from the Gospel of Matthew, as cited at the end of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which Derrida analyses before and after this point in the text (cf. 80-1, 97-99). So our sense of a link refines itself. The body’s seeing and the secrecy in which responsibility takes place: these are for Derrida things that are questionable when linked and (thereby) forced to mean or have sense. Indeed, if we take his French more literally, what Derrida asks of “to see in secret” is whether it can be said (qu’est-ce que cela peut vouloir dire?). That is, he asks whether it does not already constitute something that would be beyond his (or anyone’s) ability to submit it to his speech as something questionable. Derrida (or anyone else) could not say, “I see in secret.” Nor could Derrida really ask it his question, as to whether it can be said. “To see in secret” would call itself already into question by itself. Thus, when it came into Derrida’s writing (precisely as the sentences as to whether it could be said), he would then not be saying it: he would already need to ask whether his writing said or meant anything (and thus he writes his sentences). The question Derrida asks not only enacts what it questions, therefore: it only enacts this because of the questionability of sight and the secret that it by itself cannot question. The sight of the body and the secrecy in responsibility: these are things that, when linked, are beyond our ability to question them while they still remain questionable. So the seeming link does not constitute itself in how and when seeing or responsibility (and their relationship) are in themselves so much as how and when, beyond our ability to question them, they are questionable.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Spivak, Derrida, and "Anglo-U.S. critics," continued

I take back what I said about Spivak reading "carefully" in my last post under this title, which referenced the following comment from A Critique of Postcolonial Reason:

It is my suspicion that Anglo-U.S. critics such as Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Frank Lentriccia insist so specifically on the de-centering, and on a narrative of de-centering, because the first and last Derrida they read carefully was "Structure, Sign, and Play" and the first chapter of Of Grammatology, where there is some invocation of "our epoch," meaning, specifically, an "epoch" that privileges language and thinks in structures.
-Critique of Postcolonial Reason, "Culture," 322

The word here that makes me retract the characterization "careful" (though I still hold that it is a good summary of some early passages in Derrida) is precisely "suspicion." However, the lumping together of Eagleton and Jameson under the broad heading "Anglo-U.S. critics," a heading which we should insist that Spivak is absolutely under (given the crudeness of her "Anglo-U.S." grouping), which no one who has read Jameson could do so with this ease or with this precise argument (Eagleton is a fraud and doesn't care about anything, Jameson actually tries to read Derrida carefully, if he does make many mistakes in doing so)--this could also be a reason. But "suspicion," is precisely not the attitude with which the Derrida that Spivak so ardently defends would read this "insistence" on the part of the "Anglo-U.S. critics."
Or rather, it is precisely because he does indeed tend to also engage in this suspicion that one must reject both Derrida and Spivak here, the enormous and powerful constellation that the two thinkers have generated. For the injunction to "read carefully," constantly reiterated by Derridians and Derrida himself, should never turn into suspicion--and yet, when this injunction is thrust upon the reader by Derrida and Spivak, they often do not make this corollary clear enough. Derrida at least gestures towards the fact that the lack of suspicion would be coextensive with his writing itself. But that is not the case here, with Spivak, nor is it the case in Of Grammatology when the analysis of Lévi-Strauss becomes ridicule. The ridicule is the function of an injunction to read passing over into mere suspicion.
And it is contemptible, for both thinkers, to engage in this suspicion: not because it is hypocritical, but because they do not gesture towards their failure as a failure of suspicion. Let me be clearer: one only needs to look at how Heidegger is never analyzed like Lévi-Strauss. It does not have to do with the amount of detail the reading goes into. Rather, the difference is marked by how, when Heidegger is analyzed, Derrida constantly remarks that he could just be being suspicious. This is the case in Of Spirit (whose subtitle "Heidegger and the Question" gestures already towards this possibility of suspicion) and in the "Geschlecht" series of essays, as well as in his remarks about Heidegger's Nazi involvement. Attention is called to the failure of the reading--not as the inevitable outcome of the analysis (this gesture--a somewhat different one--is not what we're talking about here, though Spivak and Derrida act as if they are the same), but as an integral part of the approach in this particular case. It doesn't always need to be there, precisely because suspicion does not always have to be the way that one approaches a text. In other words, suspicion will be that which any analysis sinks slowly towards and probably is complicit in, but at that point an effort can be made to make it evident that this is happening. When it is passed off as the moment when the analysis is most in control--as in Of Grammatology, most disgracefully in the apartheid episode in Critical Inquiry, or in his analysis of Walter Benjamin in "Force of Law," to name only a few examples--than one gets the sense deconstruction has passed into mere destruction, and the worst, worst kind: that which passes itself off as responsibility itself!
That is what is happening here in Spivak. The gesture towards "reading carefully" then becomes the oldest academic trick in the book--and does more damage than any "close reading" (with which deconstruction is too often confused with or made to seem commensurate with) could do. Spivak here is no different than Harold Bloom (when he polices culture), or Terry Eagleton when he quotes her sentences (as he does to so many others and all the time, unlike Bloom) out of context, mockingly: she is insisting on a proper Derrida, a Derrida that needs to be read before anyone can say anything about him, and to which she only has access. This is not the case in most of her writing, but it is especially annoying and irresponsible because it is in moments like these that she is precisely functioning as what everybody tries to pin her down as: the person who introduces Derrida to, precisely, "Anglo-U.S. critics." To a) not affiliate oneself with them via Derrida--and this is what is happening here--and b) insist precisely at this moment that there is a better reading that needs to be done... this isn't a defense but an easy way out of a situation in which she herself, as well as Derrida, is absolutely implicated. And it is countered not with a critical awareness respectful of alterity and the subaltern (which is precisely what its tone indicates), but with academic snobbery, in these moments in both of these writers. This, indeed, is a danger of deconstruction: the question remains whether this danger--though not able to be mitigated--can at least be diffused within a larger formation of critical practices. If the utter baseness of some of Derrida's attacks, along with those of Spivak's, can show us anything--for they do not give us knowledge, least of all the deconstruction that they pretend to be in the process of effecting--it is that our critical methods do not need to be more incisive or far reaching or more thoroughly grounded (or ungrounded), but more wide ranging and more explicit. Careful reading can be brought about otherwise--which is precisely what Derrida and Spivak allow us to think in other passages than these (which, we should note, are very few in number and often only a portion of any of the texts here indicated).
And is this analysis itself suspicion? Perhaps. I hope not: I experience it as revision, as a double-take, and also bitterness and indignation at responsibility crossing so quickly over into irresponsibility--it is the experience of reading Spivak's sentences near the end of a book that analyzes quite well and fairly a difficult and pressing condition. But now at least if suspicion exists beyond this experience or at its limits, it too will be able to be read into these words.

Merleau-Ponty on Cézanne

...It is Cézanne's genius that when the overall composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to impression of an emerging order, an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes. In the same way, the contour of an object conceived as a line encircling the object belongs not to the visible we but to geometry. If one outlines the shape of an apple with a continuous line, one makes an object of the shape, whereas the contour is rather ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth. Not to indicate any shape would be to deprive the objects of their identity. To trace just a single outline sacrifices depth—that is, the dimension in which the thing is presented not as spread out before us but as an inexhaustible reality full of reserves. That is why Cézanne follows the swell of the object in modulated colors and indicates several outlines in blue. Rebounding among these, one's glance captures a shape that emerges from among them all, just as it does in perception.
-"Cézanne's Doubt," in Sense and Non-Sense

This is just a spot-on description of what it is like to look at a Cézanne. The play going on in the painting is not some proto-Cubist mind game: what Cézanne's getting at is always more basic. Thus to say he is bringing the medium to the fore, or bringing the spatiality of the objects to the fore--I've heard both explanations--by producing, especially in his late paintings, the various planes of color that makes up a landscape--all this misses the point. Finality of form, and its multiple possibilities based on the odd reciprocity between the embodied gaze or intention and the landscape: this is closer, I think, to what the experience of a Cézanne is getting at. On this note, one might take a little issue with how Merleau-Ponty says that Cézanne "indicates several outlines." Cézanne surely does not give us many lines instead of one. But what is being described is not a line itself but an "outline:" that is, Cézanne gives us several ways in which an object can finalize its form, stand out of itself and before us, and yet also reset itself back into the whole of which it is a part. Merleau-Ponty could be clearer about this: the phrase is not well-crafted. But it helps if you know that for Merleau-Ponty, the line itself is always the least important part of the thing, a mere beginning point beyond which and through which one moves. A solid black line, for Merleau-Ponty, isn't significant in how it constructs a boundary, but rather how it itself has depth within it, how it indicates a plane stretching into itself and beyond it. Cross-hatching, for him, completely misses the point, though it is precisely trying to effect depth through the mere use of lines. Merleau-Ponty would counter that it is doing it already: the line is a virtuality, indicating a presence of which it is the mere extension or outer shell. Obviously there is a lot that is questionable about this. But in his descriptions of some of the more complicated and yet more fundamental aspects of Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty's viewpoint is an invaluable resource.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The technical relation

In a televised interview (printed in Echographies of Television, 113-7), Bernard Stiegler asks Jacques Derrida a brilliant question about some lines Derrida said in the above film:

In the film, in which you play yourself, you say to Pascale Ogier, your partner: "To be haunted by a ghost is to remember what one has never lived in the present... Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts." Might you elaborate on this statement: "the future belongs to ghosts?"

Derrida replies with the following:

...Phantom preserves the same reference to phainesthai, to appearing for vision, to the brightness of day, to phenomenality. And what happens with spectrality, with phantomality... is that something becomes almost visible which is visible only insofar as it is not visible in flesh and blood. It is a night-vision [translation modified]. As soon as there is a technology of the image, visibility brings night. It incarnates in a night body, it radiates a night light. At this moment, in this room, night is falling over us. Even if it weren't falling, we are already in night, as soon as we are captured by optical instruments which don't even need the light of day. We are already specters of the "televised." In the nocturnal space in which this image of us, this picture we are in the process of having "taken," is described, it is already night. Furthermore, because we know that, once it has been taken, captured, this image will be reproducible in our absence, because we know this already, we are already haunted by this future, which brings our death. Our disappearance is already here. We are already transfixed by a disappearance or disapparition which promises and conceals in advance another magic "apparition," a ghostly "re-apparition," which is in truth properly miraculous, something to see, as admirable as it is incredible, credible or believable, only by the the grace of an act of faith [translation modified]. Faith which is summoned by technics itself, by our relation of essential incompetence to technical operation. (For even if we know how something works, our knowledge is incommensurable with the immediate perception that attunes us to technical efficacy, to the fact that "it works:" we see that "it works," but even if we know this, we don't see how "it works;" seeing and knowing are incommensurable here.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Appendix to Williams

I just realized I left out a part of my argument in the post below, though I ended up hinting at it in what's there.
It is the explicit connection of the repetition I find in the lines of Crabbe to the anxieties over memory in Goldsmith, and the connection is made thus: Williams thinks Goldsmith's observational discourse, beyond being just an experience of memory, is also an experience of anxieties about tropes in poetry. In a way, Goldsmith wonders whether with the disappearance of the village, the ability of poetry to say anything unique (i.e. without turning what it observes--in this case village life--into a trope) is also lost. I find the repetitions of Crabbe, far from being some sort of evocation of the state of mind of the villager-turned-laborer, are instead instances of this sort of anxiety about tropes: the repetitions function at the most basic level to push any line of the poem towards troping itself. The anxiety in Goldsmith that gets concretized in this folding back of the poem on itself (and, we should note, not because "all poems are troping themselves," or something like this) functions as the only way that Crabbe can describe the villagers--i.e. functions in its turn as the element of the poem that reflects or instantiates Crabbe's own anxiety. This anxiety is more total (for lack of a better word) than Goldsmith: it has to do with the ability of poetry to turn what it observes into inspiration for itself, even in its resisting of itself (i.e. being a counter-pastoral). It is a question about not the constitution or being (we'll find this in Cowper) but the role of the past that Goldsmith discovers.
Hopefully all this (which should probably go right after where I read the repetition in Crabbe closely) will make the transition between Goldsmith and Crabbe (as Williams generally sees it) clearer, and show more clearly how Williams' approach sees things at the specific level of poetic form connected to the movements of history within that form.

Raymond Williams on Crabbe, Goldsmith, and Cowper

Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute…

The Country and the City’s account of Crabbe and Goldsmith cuts through an immense network of problems surrounding the use of pastoral to eventually lodge itself deep within the difficulties of relating to history and historicity that Cowper encounters in front of his oak. This path of the account constituted by the book’s opening chapters (most notably, in “A Problem of Perspective,” “Pastoral and Counter-Pastoral,” and “Nature’s Threads”) begins to be concretely established when Williams considers two lines from the beginning of the second volume of Crabbe’s The Village: “No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain, / But own the Village Life a life of pain” (II.1-2). Williams asks two questions regarding them: “Where did it come from, that tone of apology about verse? Who was it aimed at, that insistence on the truth?” He then gives us a task: “Crabbe’s poem … needs to be read between these questions.” (The Country and the City, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, p. 13. Cited parenthetically as CC.)
In other words, Williams seeks to constitute a field where the feeling in what Crabbe articulates—namely, that pastoral verse has failed and will continue to fail to account for the pain of country-village life—plays itself out. But Williams does not see this field as merely reactionary, even though he brings Crabbe’s articulations under the heading of “counter-pastoral.” Counter-pastoral is not so much an interruption and overturning of a particular poetic genre by the creation of another as it is the embodied indistinctness of Crabbe’s articulations with respect to this genre—an indistinctness that actually may work to prevent any discernible break with pastoral. Counter-pastoral, for Williams, is thus a change in poetic form—in the most all-inclusive, indeterminate (and yet still determining) sense of this word “form:” whether considered as the governing principle(s) of the artwork or the structure of the elements that make it up, counter-pastoral is operative only within this particular range covered by the word “form” since it is more specific than a social attitude (though it expresses one) and less specific than the content of the work itself (though it can overlap with this and also, perhaps, be “in” content). I leave “content” unspecified, for this term of course varies with any definition of “form.” (For a discussion of the resonances of “form,” one should look at Williams’ entry “Formalist” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983. 137-140.)
I dwell on this point because correctly conceiving of this formal shift in Crabbe is key in showing how we can link him (or rather, the particular significance of his articulations) with Goldsmith via Cowper—which, I will maintain, is the audacious thesis of these chapters in The Country and the City. In short, I dwell on this point because it is our reason for considering Williams on these poets rather than the poets themselves: the field opened up by articulations like those in The Village, when conceived in Williams’ manner, allows us to consider some 18th century poetry in such a way that the developments of the thought around it (whether these be aesthetic theories or social chatter) and the roles it plays (whether these be within the sphere of material production and consumption or in debates on social values) inject themselves, as it were, into form. The upshot is that these thoughts and these roles thereby become immediately visible as form within the various poems as they develop through time one after the other (allowing us to track them within a period such as the 18th century in their various instantiations), and yet remain the function of apparently—when one looks at a poem to specify this thought or role there—non-chronological concerns (the “sense of place,” notions of “culture,” etc.). (I am of course (without pretending to know exactly what Williams’ verbiage means) referring to what governs the “structures of feeling” within the “keywords” of 1) “culture” as it gets analyzed in Culture and Society, and 2) also “place” in John Barrell’s amazing The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place—another work that has affinities with Williams’ approach. It should be obvious that all this is not directly a recommendation of Williams’ approach but an attempt to show how it (or those approaches like it—Bourdieu’s or some aspects of Foucault’s come to mind, though this requires substantiation) might impact the concerns of our class. Indirectly, however, it might seek to point towards the (somewhat recent) hint of John Barrell that some of the basics of Williams’ approach need to be revisited differently if (and perhaps only if) one finds that the current interpretations authorize an expansive “recovering” of historical documents to index the plurality of the representations of subjects involved in historical struggles at the expense of the representations of the subjects themselves. According to Barrell, this would be a recovery that does not recover, but merely works to “replace… the question of who won and who lost.” See his “Afterword: Moving Stories, Still Lives.” In The Country and the City Revisited: England and the Politics of Culture, 1550-1850. Ed. Gerald Maclean, Donna Landry, Joseph P. Ward. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 231-250. One might (only?) then see if Williams can be recommended.)
From this perspective, Williams can define counter-pastoral positively, then, as poetry that continually insists upon its inability to idealize village or country life. I say positively, because this poetic insistence is the very form of a poem like The Village—the “reaction” to pastoral in the movement counter to it is not negative, so we can clearly specify it (there need be no hermeneutics of suspicion). This, then, is how Williams reads between these two questions in Crabbe: the particular logic (I hesitate to call it “logic,” for this sounds like it requires a rational structure. Even though it may be rigorously specified (even perhaps mapped, graphed and put in trees), Williams is far from claiming this logic is rational. On this point, I might emphasize that I am only considering Williams here with respect to poetic language, even though he also reads “between” prose. The level at which he analyzes in that field might not be the same. Williams, as far as I can tell, thus is not claiming that rationality or irrationality inheres in the logic of this poetic language)—the particular logic behind and yet within the lines “No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain, But own the Village Life a life of pain,” gathers itself together at the level of the form that they both rely on, resist, and share in their inhabiting of it.
We can specify this formal charge (to borrow a formulation of Susan Wolfson's) or logic at both its more specific or general levels (as Williams does in his analysis). Here we will do so only at the specific level merely to illustrate (so while we use Williams’ analysis of the poem’s specificities, we are expanding it beyond him). In the lines from Crabbe, already Williams is able to pick up on a more specific aspect of the form which regularly appears throughout the poem: the quick repetition of either an entire word like “life” or, via the deployment of a combination of alliteration, assonance, the spondee, parallelism and the more specific figure of chiasmus, a series of repetitions of similar words within a line of two lines. Here, we see “Village Life a life;” but earlier in the poem we also find “They boast their peasants’ pipes, but peasants now, / Resign their pipes and plod behind the plough” (I.23-4); and “Here too the sick their final doom receive, / Here brought amid the scenes of grief, to grieve,” (I.242-3); and perhaps the most complex of these concrete instances (echoing the specific peculiarity of certain tightly formed chiasmic structures one finds in Pope),
There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play,
And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day;
There children dwell, who know no parents’ care,
Parents, who know no children’s love, dwell there (I.232-5).

The irony of the playing of vapors among the children (it should be the other way around) is particularly evident here, though only after one revisits the whole sentence and, to a degree, grasps its form. We only meet the children after we get the intrusive repetition by assonance and alliteration in “the dull wheel hums doleful through the day,” and perhaps also the reversal in the last two lines, so that the poem calls us back to where the children are dwelling only after we have passed through the distracting intercession of the mechanical.
Now, one could generalize and say that the repetitive structures in the form of the poem here are an evocation of the type of psychic state of the villagers or of the type of the village’s social relationships when these villagers are treated merely as labor and given only rote tasks to perform: repetition mirrors or reproduces the feeling of the unfruitfulness and boredom that—we must say—according to Crabbe always hangs over the life the villager. But from Williams’ perspective, this would reduce the evident to evidence. For him, these repetitions at the formal level are, in (or rather as) their logic, “dimensions” of that field he specifies as counter-pastoral, “caught” by the poem (Williams uses these words with extreme care to set up many of his small but numerous quotations: cf. CC, 68-72). In other words, they are instances of a poetic insistence that pastoral has failed and will fail to account for the pain of rural life, as we said earlier.
It is at this level that we can ascribe what is articulated in these lines to Cowper—though it also is at this level we precisely cannot confine it to him alone. Indeed, this movement of counter-pastoral is a wider, and yet more delicate formation than any one author’s set of actions: according to Williams it finds its beginnings in Goldsmith and its most concrete or exemplary expression in Cowper. It thus moves at the level between material history and the history of ideas, folding itself at particular times and for determinate reasons back into one or another of these domains (which, Williams reminds us—though perhaps less often than someone like Bourdieu—are also our historiographical constructions).
We can only quickly indicate Williams’s treatment of Goldsmith as the poet at the beginnings of this counter-pastoral history. However, we can see how it immediately launches us into a consideration of Cowper as this history’s most thoroughly articulated (though perhaps also the most fragmented—two qualities that are not necessarily opposed by Williams) concretization.
Goldsmith’s endless comparisons between “now” and “then” (I put them in quotes because they are quite vague and act more as names than as things) form a stage in the transition from “reflection to retrospect” in the consideration of the country (CC, 82). Williams is quite clear how this transition is achieved (quoting The Deserted Village, ln. 397-8):
The poems to the happy tenant, the idealized and independent self of the reflective pastoral tradition, are succeeded by poems of loss, change, regret: that structure of feeling, at once moved and meditating, appalled and withdrawn, which is caught so exactly in Goldsmith’s couplet:

E’en now, methinks, as pondering here I stand
I see the rural virtues leave the land (CC, 68).

But, Williams contends, it is not achieved by Goldsmith himself. Notice how Williams instead points out at a more general level the precise point at which this transition is most active, that these lines (not merely, but concretely) mark: Goldsmith brings the entire scene back to his own vision as something taking place between now and then, as a concrete process glimpsed within the past that has just gone by, congealing into a memory like those the poet has of “then.” This “as pondering here I stand,” far from being merely a depiction of a scene of writing qua textual self-consciousness, is an instance at which the inscription gets taken up into a larger movement than any conscious “now,” yet more finely composed than that of “then.” This moment of composition, in its texture, is precisely that of a reflective movement turning into a sense of history or rather of historicity—of the flowing away and yet congealing of time into a recent memory. This is why the countryside in Goldsmith, according to Williams, becomes more of a spectacle, an “observation,” a “dissolving of the lives and work of others into an image of the past” (CC, 74-77): any possible violence of Goldsmith’s gaze upon the people and places he describes is due more to a basic and wide-reaching sense of the fleetingness of the old countryside itself than any sort of snobbery or privilege. The latter, while most definitely at play, obscure a more interesting phenomenon by reducing it to fit within a clean-cut framework.
We see now, perhaps, how problematic it is to stop at any reading of The Village as a mere attempt at a refutation of The Deserted Village: even though it does function as this, the dialogue (or possibility of a lack thereof—the two standpoints are indeed quite different) between the two poems is much more complex because, according to Williams, the formations or forms that they constitute are beyond themselves as much as present in their most elemental units (words, spaces, stresses), happening always “meanwhile,” though never remaining mute. Thus we must try and see their relationship in the following way: there is a moment in Goldsmith where the recent memory of the countryside pulls itself away from the “now” and the “then” as they function in his poem and proceeds to gather a thickness of its own—a thickness that, in Crabbe gets “pulled up,” as it were, and deployed in a form that both has a tone of apology and constitutes an insistence on its own truth. (I am using a term applied now more when someone is dealing with “windows,” “sites,” or “alerts” with computers—that is, in a space and time of the technical, of the hyper-mnemonic—and which, with this term’s combination of a verb-form and preposition, might fit somewhere between the Wiederbringen and Uberlieferung—that is, bringing-again and or handing-over—of Heidegger. See the section on historicity’s repetition in Being and Time: “Repeating is handing down [Uberlieferung] explicitly;” “The repeating of that which is possible does not bring again [Wiederbringen] something that is ‘past,’Being and Time. Tr. Macquarrie and Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, p. 437 and passim. However, I am here only giving some consistency to the idea of the time and space of Williams’ history by stressing its unnatural or out-of-joint character—though one should be hasty in mapping a thoroughly technical time completely onto Williams.’) In other words, the degree of the disappointment in the poem of Goldsmith as it confronts and becomes memory turns into—but by no simple process, occurring by means of the complex and unnatural temporality “hacked-into” by Williams’ historiography and literary analysis—the bitterness, the sense of mission, the shame within the poetry of Crabbe.
We can also see how it might be possible for Cowper to insert himself within this apparently non-chronological (one might be more accurate in saying that its chronology is different, and perhaps also goes “backwards”) field of formations, between Goldsmith and Crabbe (though, at the most extreme level and beyond Williams, one might perhaps say that, if conceived rigorously, in this field there are only “betweens” or “meanwhiles,” so “insertion” would be difficult to conceive—see above note). The movement of memory is again “pulled up” and pressed into such exact articulations that it poses new problems beyond the sphere of changes in the distribution of land in the countryside. In other words, the articulation has, in Cowper, caught up with the changes of which it is a function and in which it is a player, and has thereby allowed it to connect with other changes (of which it is a function and in which it is a player, etc.). According to Williams, these changes (which again, are thoroughly specifiable) are the role of the country’s nature in its more general relation to humanity, and in its own relation to itself: anxieties begin to grow as to whether humanity as a whole is alienated from any and every country:
What is at issue, really, is a dialectic of change. A much later poem [than Thompson’s The Seasons, under consideration in the chapter “Nature’s Threads”], Cowper’s Yardley Oak (1791), is in the main a traditional and melancholy reflection on history and the mutability of fortune, in the sight of the centuries-old oak that has become hollow and rotten. But there is an intermediate reflection, which seems to catch the dialectic of just the change that was being widely experienced:

Natures threads,
Fine, passing thought, e’en in her coarsest works,
Delight in agitation, yet sustain
The force that agitates, not unimpar’d,
But, worn by frequent impulse, to the cause
Of their best tone their dissolution owe.

This sense, of a dissolution within a lively and productive exercise, is exact (CC, 71-2).

Perhaps now we can see by what other criterions than his particular analysis in The Country and the City Williams judges this phrase “exact,”—and how they inform his extremely influential study of 18th century poetry.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Deleuze, empiricism

In the beginning of Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze has an absolutely genius comment about empiricism, that brings out with unbelievable exactitude everything that Nietzsche saw in it as to its immense power to lead one towards an affirmation of difference beyond all sameness or identity--that is, a thought of representation not as a function of the present or of presence, but of difference (expressed in the re-):

A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction. By detective novel, we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence, should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where, as we shall see, they operate in relation to "dramas" and by means of a certain "cruelty." They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come from them selves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere.
This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as an object of an encounter, as a here-and-now, or rather as an Erewhon from which emerge inexhaustibly ever new, differently distributed "heres" and "nows." Only an empiricist could say concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond "anthropological predicates." I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentered center, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differenciates them...
-Difference and Repetition, xx-xxi.

There is much to say about this, but I'll let it sit for now. One can only invite a comparison to the bricoleur as I have been trying to talk about him, and indicate that perhaps this bricoleur does not conceive of his own historicity rigorously enough--for then he would see it might be repetition (in Deleuze's sense). 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"What a sentence! Is it a sentence?"

It seems to me that Derrida is paranoid about tone (a writing's attitude towards its readers). His entire method of inquiry, insofar as it can be rigidified into "moves," or "rules," or (in a sightly richer formulation of the same thing) ethical demands for specific actions (see The Gift of Death for an articulation of how tough these alleged "moves" can be), could be said to be the emptying out of tone. "Emptying out" means here however, at the same time, an infinite expansion of the reliance on tone: tone is everything and nothing at once. In other words, Derrida's project can be seen as a giving of thickness to the idea of tone, and trying to overcome our reliance on it as a positive tool that forwards (or--and this is infinitely more pressing for Derrida--shuts down or dismisses the other's) discourse.
For example, the question of Derrida when reading Beyond Good and Evil is first and foremost one that problematizes or develops tone. "What a sentence!" he exclaims in The Politics of Friendship. But then he asks and adds (that is, supplements) the really crucial part: "Is it a sentence?" In other words, is this passage in Nietzsche merely a fragment and nothing more? Is it--and here the real inquiry begins if one follows Derrida carefully--merely an emphatic gesture, hot air, meant to rile up one's spirits more than communicate or remain communicable? Or is it precisely thereby communicating? In other words, is it resisting being said, being stated in a sentence--is it just remaining a fragment of tone--or is the tone precisely what makes it a sentence, brings it into the field of the possibility of representing? Here is the full passage (the, indeed amazing, Nietzsche included):

The transmutation to which Nietzsche submits the concept of virtue--sometimes, as has often been remarked, also in the Machiavellian sense of virtù--shudders in the tremor of this perhaps. This is something other than a reversal [or, as Foucault would say, a sacrifice--mj]. The famous passage on "Our virtues" (para. 214) from the same book [Jenseits--mj] turns resolutely towards us, towards ourselves, towards the "Europeans of the day after tomorrow" that we are, and, first of all, towards the "first-born of the twentieth century." It invites us, we the "last Europeans," to be done with the pigttail and the wig of "good conscience," the "belief in one's own virtue (an seine eigne Tugend glauben)." And here again, the shudder of the sentence, the shudder of an arrow of which it is still not known where and how far it will go, the vibration of a shaft of writing which, alone, promises and calls for a reading, a preponderance to come of the interpretative decision. We do not know exactly what is quivering here, but we perceive, in flight, at least a figure of the vibration. The prediction: "Alas! if only you knew how soon, how very soon, things will be -- different! --" ( -- Ach! Wenn ihr wußtet, wie es bald, so bald schon -- anders kommt!).
What a sentence! is it a sentence? Do we know that -- that things will be different; and how very soon things will be different? Do we not already know that? Can that be measured by knowledge? If we knew that, things would no longer be different. We must not totally know this in order for a change to occur again. So, in order for this knowledge to be true, to know what it knows, a certain non-knowledge is necessary. But the non-knowledge of the one who says he knows that we do not know ("Ah if you only knew," a ploy or a figure which is neither a question or an affirmation, not even a hypothesis, since you are going to know very soon, starting at the end of the sentence, that which you would know if you knew, and that therefore you already know: "Ah if you only knew!") -- to wit, what the person signing the said sentence (which is not a full sentence, but only an incomplete subordinate) cannot state without attributing to himself knowledge concerning what the other does not yet know, but already knows, having learnt it in this instant -that is, instantaneously, and so soon (so bald) that it will not wait until the end of the sentence.
The acceleration in the change or the alteration which the sentence in suspension speaks (wie es bald, so bald schon --anders kommt!) is in truth only its very rapidity. An incomplete sentence rushes to its conclusion at the infinite speed of an arrow...
-The Politics of Friendship, 31

One can see (and Bernard Stiegler brings this out best) that Derrida is a thinker only of speed--the only thinker to think speed. For he is able to duplicate this speed of Nietzsche, albeit differently, in that amazing remark: "Quelle phrase! Est-ce une phrase?"
This is deconstruction in a nutshell. But what can be lost is that Derrida's sentence is really developing that space in which tone operates positively--positively, that is, as a the purest space of a difference. In other words, its own work of affirmation (but is it affirmation? and thus is it not negation?) is located here.
What the problem is, as I see it, is that this space is perhaps infinitely problematized or given its infinite thickness (as the purest space) too quickly for us: in its gauging how pure this difference is, we forget already that it is a pure difference--the pressure of its purity already deferring all our calculations as to the level of its difference. We're thus left with the task of catching up with Derrida (as he catches up to himself), constantly, rather than feeling all this as an incitement to precisely see how this space of difference (to be deferred already) is a space of tone, as we asserted. This is not actually his fault entirely: he is preparing us for moving within the rhythms of this forgetting and remembering, i.e. allowing us to exercise ourselves so we may perhaps attain the right speed. But still, Derrida allows us (and a whole generation of thinkers has been plagued by this, dealing with it in more or less productive and provocative ways) to doubt sentences and language as a whole, and yet not feel that we have an obligation to express through it. In other words, in his haste to point towards the the deferring (or the differing, it does not matter which comes first) he does not make us feel as well as he should this doubt as the very condition of (an unconditioned) ethics. No doubt he tries--strenuously, his entire life. But because in his haste to pass through that point where difference becomes deferred (already), he leaves us merely with a demand and not a field or formation of impossibilities or possibilities--except in what Americans call the "readings" of Nietzsche (and so many others) that he "produces" in this haste. One then makes the mistake of seeing what Derrida advocates as the endless production of readings (which is precisely to ignore what he calls above the "vibration of a shaft of writing which, alone, promises," my emphasis): text is everywhere, without also being (and this is the only Derridian point) nowhere. This objection is not one (like Gillian Rose's) about the difficulty or impossibility of expanding on what the demand is--indeed we're familiar since Heidegger (if not Kant) of the problems one encounters when one thinks that one can quickly and easily do this. It is rather an objection (and Rose also begins to hit on this at the same time) to Derrida's situating this demand always within the speed of his analysis--of too quickly folding it back into his text.
This means, with respect to tone, that it is vital to look closer at that point (or points) where difference defers itself and expand it in terms of how it belongs (or already belonged) or does not belong to tone. That is, (rather than emptying it out--and this would be really emptying it out--into logical "moves," which is how that explication of Nietzsche by Derrida so stupidly is begging to be read, but in fact cannot be read qua merely "moves"--it needs to be read as precisely the following)--that is, at this point there must be established a field in which the difference to be broken down (and how, we cannot determine in advance) will be constituted, in which it is articulating itself and (in fact) in which the possibility (or impossibility) that it has already deferred itself is developed (and indeed, unlike the majority of American theorists, philosophers, and critics, this is what some truly amazing souls actually do mean when they talk of Derrida's "moves"--more power to them!). One might call this, then, lending expression to the possibility or impossibility of the deferred in the different--and this, as I see it, is the task of Foucault.
If we become familiar enough with Foucault's task (and it might be that also of Deleuze--and Deleuze and Guattari--though, alas!, I am not yet authorized to say), we can begin to specify this possibility--and specify it as a determinate, quantifiable field (i.e. as a discursive formation, or as a field of "moves" taken in the good, developed sense)--with respect to tone in how it posits a space in which arguments can turn on themselves. I'll look at this more in detail later with respect to Matthew Arnold and I.A. Richards. For now, I'll just let (if I can) the necessity of becoming familiar with this task disseminate itself.