Friday, June 27, 2008

Translating Ecce Homo

Duncan Large's new translation of Ecce Homo for the Oxford World Classics series is excellent. It lends an entirely different flavor to the German, exactly what a new translation should do. Though Roger Hollingdale's version is the most solid, in my view, and Walter Kaufmann's the most forceful, this translation seems to get at the precariousness, the grotesqueness of the German, and particularly the tension it establishes with the tradition of autobiography.
The biggest change Large adopted was to use the second person singular pronoun much more for the German "Man." Thus, for "Wie man wird, was man ist," the famous subtitle of the little volume, we do not get the more traditional translation with the impersonal "one," as in Hollingdale's rendition "How One Becomes What One Is," but the much more interesting and simple "How To Become What You Are."
The effect is remarkable when it is dispersed across the entire book. It is an entirely different--and I think more interesting--experience of reading. Take, for example, the following on curing oneself when ill with ressentiment, in first the German and then in Hollingdale's rendition:

Wenn irgend Etwas überhaupt gegen Kranksein, gegen Schwachsein geltend gemacht werden muss, so ist es, dass in ihm der eigentliche Heilinstinkt, das ist der Wehr- und Waffen-Instinkt im Menschen mürbe wird. Man weiss von Nichts loszukommen, man weiss mit Nichts fertig zu werden, man weiss Nichts zurückzustossen,—Alles verletzt. Mensch und Ding kommen zudringlich nahe, die Erlebnisse treffen zu tief, die Erinnerung ist eine eiternde Wunde. [...] Hiergegen hat der Kranke nur Ein grosses Heilmittel— [...] Weil man zu schnell sich verbrauchen würde, wenn man überhaupt reagirte, reagirt man gar nicht mehr: dies ist die Logik. Und mit Nichts brennt man rascher ab, als mit den Ressentiments-Affekten. Der Ärger, die krankhafte Verletzlichkeit, die Ohnmacht zur Rache, die Lust, der Durst nach der Rache, das Giftmischen in jedem Sinne—das ist für Erschöpfte sicherlich die nachtheiligste Art zu reagiren: ein rapider Verbrauch von Nervenkraft, eine krankhafte Steigerung schädlicher Ausleerungen, zum Beispiel der Galle in den Magen, ist damit bedingt. Das Ressentiment ist das Verbotene an sich für den Kranken—sein Böses: leider auch sein natürlichster Hang.
-"Warum Ich So Weise Bin," 6

Its a long quote, but I think with it you can get some of the sense of what its like to read Large's translation. Here is Hollingdale:

If anything whatever has to be admitted against being sick, being weak, it is that in these conditions the actual curative instinct, that is to say the defensive and offensive instinct in man becomes soft. One does not know how to get free of anything, one does not know how to have done with anything, one does not know how to thrust back—everything hurts. Men and things come importunately close, events strike too deep, the memory is a festering wound. [...] Against this the invalid has only one great means of cure— [...] Because one would use oneself up too quickly if one reacted at all, one no longer reacts: this is the logic. And nothing burns one up quicker than the affects of ressentiment. Vexation, morbid suceptibility, incapacity for revenge, the desire, the thirst for revenge, poison-brewing in any sense—for one who is exhausted this is certainly the most disadvantageous kind of reaction: it causes a rapid expenditure of energy, an morbid accretion of excretions, for example of gall into the stomach. Ressentiment is the forbidden in itself for the invalid—his evil: unfortunately also his most natural inclination.
-"Why I Am So Wise," 6, Hollingdale's translation.

Now look at Duncan Large's rendering:

If anything at all needs to be counted against being ill, being weak, then it is the fact that in that state the true healing instinct, in other words the instinct for defence and weapons in man, is worn down. You cannot get rid of anything, you cannot cope with anything, you cannot fend anything off—everything hurts you. People and things get intrusively close, experiences affect you too deply, memory is a festering wound. [...] The invalid has only one great remedy for it— [...] Since you would exhaust yourself too quickly if you reacted at all, you no longer react in any way: such is the logic. And nothing burns you up faster then the emotions of resentment. Anger, sickly vulnerability, powerlessness to take revenge, the lust, the thirst for revenge, every kind of poisonous troublemaking—for the exhausted this is certainly the most detrimental way of reacting: it brings on a rapid consumption of nervous strength, a sickly intensification of harmful excretions, for example of bile in the somach. For the invalid, resentment is the absolute forbidden—his evil: unfortunately his most natural inclination, too.
"Why I Am So Wise," 6, Large's translation.

Though some crucial things are lost (the forbidden "an sich," though of course it could mean "absolute," I think is preserved better by Hollingdale's "in itself"), Large's translation, I think, benefits in the end for being so very bold. Hollingdale saves some key words better perhaps than Large, who interprets them more, it could be said--and precisely by going back to the roots of the German words, which should not in itself be seen as an act of fidelity to the source text's meaning, as is so often taken to be the case in philosophical translations of German. But it should be noted that Large is often more close to the sentence structure than Hollingdale, which, in Nietzsche, as well as in most German and French, is often more crucial than we think it is (just pick up Barbara Harlow's unbelievably horrible rendering of Derrida's Spurs, which absolutely decimates this fact about Derrida's text, if you want a good example of what this produces: a translation that is nearly unreadable). Usually, though, any of these deviations with respect to the accepted translation as represented by Kaufmann and Hollingdale is done with a lot of thought on Large's part--it is only thus that it could be so bold in the first place. Take, for example, his refusal to leave Nietzsche's "Ressentiment" in the French--that is, translate it by "resentment:" at its first appearance he appends a note, saying

The standard English translation "ressentiment," characterizes it as a loan-word from the French, but Nietzsche spells it with an initial capital [this is true in fact always, mj], stressing that he considers it to have been successfully adopted into the German language (which gives all nouns initial capitals)--by contrast with "décadence," [another frequent word that is French in origin], for instance.
-Ecce Homo, Note to page 13, 101.

Few would have the guts, I think, to do this to such a well known and oft quoted concept (even though I thoroughly agree with Large here, out of habit I myself used the French when referring to it above), but Large both does it and shows that it is right.
The fundamental boldness of this translation, though, lies in that basic gesture I am circling around above, which uses "you" instead of "one." Why this is so bold is that it fundamentally increases the danger of intimacy, of the cancellation of distance--which anyone who knows Nietzsche will tell you is absolutely crucial to him (cf. the famous passages on the "pathos of distance" in the Genealogy). Not only does it increase the danger for us, but also for Nietzsche himself: if it is true that this book is Nietzsche telling himself his life--the various "you's" in the text, which can be interpreted as Nietzsche somewhat referring to himself, show how constantly the pressure is there to maintain some coherence, to will the relation of himself into some economy, some shape, and yet at the same time not have it collapse into self-identification. Giving us some sense of this danger might, by itself, be Large's translation's greatest triumph.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

News, death, speed

There is a semi-interesting little article in the business section of today's Times about NBC's attempt to try and delay the news of Tim Russert's death for about three hours until the family could be contacted and news pieces could be assembled for the network to air. And, of course, about the failure of these attempts: some low, low level NBC employee posted it upon Wikipedia about 45 minutes before NBC could make the announcement, and news outlets like the Times reported it shortly thereafter.
Now, the article laments this, of course: a new agency "traditionally" are allowed to announce the death of one of their staff before other agencies report or cover it. But besides the assumption that there is anything like a tradition in the media (in the sense of tradition that the article conjures up), or that there is only substantial grieving through something like a tradition, it implies that the speed with which information is disseminated now along something like the internet and its new, flexible social networks (like Wikipedia and MySpace) makes this substantial grieving less possible. It doesn't deny that there is grief able to be disseminated along these paths of information--to its credit, though it seems to do this only reluctantly. But what is crucial is that it assumes that the dissemination itself is not an act of grieving, which I think makes it impossible for it to think of a grief moving fast.
This is part of a larger assumption about the human registration of anything in general--let's call it an assumption about thought (though of course this thought is open to affects or attunements, as Heidegger would put it): thought only occurs when it moves over something slowly. Meditation, pondering--these words conjure up images of slowing down, of checking the haste with which we are going to grasp something.
But perhaps the quick registration of a fact on Wikipedia is precisely an act of thinking about the bereaved? People set up candles on their window or wear a pin, but the relative swiftness with which these acts are to be accomplished doesn't mean they aren't acts coming from a thinking about loss. This labeling, this noting, this marking is not necessarily disrespect. I would suggest it is merely another extension of technical thought--that is, thought thinking as technology, which means primarily as speed, haste, mere marking or registration. To deny it the status simply because of this speed does not seem to me to be either moral or accurate.
But this does not mean every registration of a bit of information (here, about the lost) is thinking (and, here, grieving). To be more precise, it means that the registration of something itself, even if it makes its way slowly through a process of what we normally call "pondering," is commensurate with thinking. Thinking, therefore, would be not commensurate with the act of thought, of a registering, a developing, a transforming, even, of what is registered. It is neither an internal process of complication and unravelling, or an external sort of epiphany, something commensurate with perception, a striking, a sudden grasping. A thought, for me, seems to take years, in which many other things happen. This does not mean that a thought like this is slow, precisely because it can be each time a return to something, to a mark, if only for a moment.
The development of a thought would be more like acquiring a habit, in this view, but it could be something achieved remarkably quickly as thinking. In this way, the efforts of people to spread this information would be beginnings in the process of grieving: not in the sense that the registrations have no meaning in themselves or are not themselves thoughts about the lost person, but in the sense that a full thought about the dead might require many quick actions of thinking, actions that do not make the thought itself take a long time but which develop its texture and its uniqueness. If he thought of grief this way--and it has an affinity with ritual, but not ritual as "what needs to be simply undergone" in order for grief to occur--there would not be such a lament here on the part of the writer of the story. The way we grieve now can be quick--and without being shallow.
I'll elaborate on this somewhat hastily written post perhaps later when I talk of close reading as something that can be done fast.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Derrida on film

Derrida probably has to be one of the worst missed opportunities of film, ever. Not that any movie about Derrida could be a great movie, or fully capitalize upon its subject himself. But filming someone who thought specifically about film philosophically and at length, as well as genre, narration, light--all sorts of things that make up what film is or is supposed to be--how often can one actually submit a thinker to what he thinks, merely by turning on this device (the camera, for example)? Probably more often than we ourselves think, but still--to generate a record of a thinker thinking this record, this is what the film could have done.
Instead, it sits Derrida in front of a TV, where he watches himself being filmed, and narrates unintelligible sentences from all over his corpus in a profound-sounding voice with dark dreary music. The sentences are unintelligible because they are taken out of context--and if one retorts that this is what film does, and especially film that subjects itself to certain elements of Derrida's thought, well, this one has completely misunderstood Derrida. Or only understood about one half of what he says. For this means one thinks it is proper to film to deconstruct--which one interprets by "take out of context," juxtapose, etc., but "affirmatively," no doubt, which means even less here than "deconstruct"--and this completely evades the problem of what is proper in general simply by reduplicating it, by achieving or trying to achieve some ironic distance with respect to it. Along with these unintelligible sentences is the music, which would be good by itself, but placed to the film merely makes one wish the parts where anyone is speaking were cut out and all we got was simply Derrida walking to music. Then there are the interlocutors: asking only the most banal questions, except for a few ("do you get nervous about writing," which of course was actually deleted from the main film). Even "which philosopher would you like to be your mother" is boring, even though Derrida himself likes it. It is boring because it is a puzzle, a puzzle only, and Derrida simply gives you back the answer to the puzzle, without thinking--his granddaughter--because he frankly loves puzzles and loves confusing puzzles with thinking. Now the film could document this confusion, even reflect it--which by another name we could call dissemination, or the calculation of the incalculable--but instead it remains content with the fact that it has asked Derrida a neat, smart, ironic question: the interlocutors are simply that pretentious. There is no reflection: and that is the only way anything filmic could actually come close to thinking in the manner of Derrida--that is, by reflecting on and on about itself in such a way that it becomes confused with mere mechanism. Instead, the film savors every repetition, acts as if with each one it is getting closer to the real thing, what its all about... this is as far from going through reflection to Derridian thought (the being-shoved-back, the blockage or breakdown that does not admit one through), as we could get.
And Derrida himself: I recommend that everyone listen to a 2002 discussion on religion, if one wants to hear what Derrida is like. Here he is bored, annoyed at the camera crew, impatient as he sits and waits for them to film... tired from a day actually thinking. The film we have here is a document of his relaxation time taken away from him... with this the case, how great of a film, how accurate, how interesting could it be? Within it, the only parts that we see an approximation of Derrida are when he is speaking in public or taking a tour in South Africa--like in the discussion on religion, here he is charming, interested, and brilliant, because he is talking to people who want to think with him, even if they oppose or even hate him. In the end, I think I would trade this two minute clip of Foucault talking about Bachelard for the entire movie Derrida, because, quite frankly, here we see a thinker on or in (and this is what Derrida was all about, perhaps both in and on) film:

Engaged, entertaining--here is a philosopher with a body. With teeth, with eyes. A mind with hands, as an image--the camera has trouble tracking it as it moves, meanders, gestures... This is something you don't get with the angelic white light background throughout Derrida. This is not to say that Foucault was more bodily than Derrida... it could easily be asserted the other way around (and I think it is, from most reports I read, at least regarding how they talk). It is only to say that here we have an interesting film, a film that does something with the thought that it shows us. And it's merely a documentary. Derrida, which is supposed to do so much more than this, horribly fails in comparison: it only has the intelligence to look at Derrida's hands when he speaks of the hands, like it is taking orders but executing them sloppily, too slowly, with dumb, clumsy fumbling. Indeed, these close ups of hands, precisely when the hand is spoken of, tell us something: the entire thing is a fetishization, even a worship of Derrida's thinking... showing us not what Derrida says or what would question what Derrida says, but what it thinks it sees Derrida say--and not even an in interesting way... only in a way that is too satisfied that this is the only way to depict Derrida--that is, by showing his hands when he talks of hands. How boring! It doesn't even disgust, it is that banal. That is, it isn't voyeuristic, it isn't risky--it couldn't be horrible in this way, it is too weak, to stupidly confident in itself to do that. Derrida pushed the filmmakers to get rid of footage of him choking on the bagel that we see him make in one scene--like his stupid servant, they of course did not push back but complied... this would have been the most interesting part of the film, indeed--Derrida choking a little on his bagel! Embarrassing, funny, cruel... it just might make the film as interesting as the Foucault piece. Evidently this required too much effort on the part of the filmmakers, too much questioning of what they thought: that Derrida should always be obeyed, for he has figured it all out. The horror is that one can have a two hour film that wastes itself and its situation--and not even interestingly. That Derrida might get the seven or so hours of time required of him by the filmmakers--we might have gotten something actually thought by him instead of the attempts he so graciously makes at thinking, at responding to the unbelievably boring questions of the interlocutors, to the unbelievably boring, banal task of the whole film in general. "Whatever you want to say about love..." we see in the clip above--what the hell is that? It's outrageous: frankly I can't believe Derrida didn't explode at them, kick them out of the house. And the movie has the gall to show this utter stupidity as if it were all part of the glory that is Derrida: that he gets a little annoyed at a stupid question! Unbelievable! These are the types of people who think The Work of Mourning is Derrida's most authentic, touching, and genuinely sad book... as if a book that collects all his works on the deaths of his friends wouldn't be so!! The idiocy is unbelievable! And it prevents the possibility of happiness, even joy occurring in them--and excludes mourning, sadness, melancholy from his other works.
In the end, we must assert that this film is not representative of Derrida, even though it represents Derrida. And though that might be consistent with one part of what he has to say about representation--that we of course cannot have a film that is representative of anyone, fully--well, that is to only willfully distort what he says to only include half... and the most boring, most banal half, even if it is asserted affirmatively, hopefully, excitedly, as it sometimes is in this film. The task is to try and represent, to indeed integrate the impossibility of this full representation, and as impossible--this horrible, utterly boring film can't even make an attempt to try and think that this might be possible.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

An unfinished review

Here are the beginnings of a review I'm working on, concerning Psyche and The Animal That Therefore I Am in their recent English translation. I include it as it is because what is said here might be a little helpful to someone--who knows?

With the English publication of the entirety of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the Other in August of last year and March of this one, along with The Animal That Therefore I Am in June, we confronted on the one hand with two works that are assembled out of material that has been translated and published in parts before, but which has not appeared in full; while, on the other, we are confronted with two ways this assemblage goes about. Psyche is made up of essays and so seems more amenable to being published in parts and then appearing in full, though it raises questions when this publication occurs about the coherence of any such volume of essays. The Animal That Therefore I Am was published in part in English (in 2002, in Critical Inquiry), but was an excerpt, not an essay: the book has the function of restoring the whole of what was missing to English readers. In short, we are confronted with a question: is Derrida a writer of books or essays? Of long addresses, lectures and seminars (such as the nine-hour one at the Cerisy conference on “The Autobiographical Animal” which makes up The Animal That Therefore I Am—or of long tomes that meditate along silent paths of thought?
This either/or is troubled by no one more than Derrida, of course, who—as Marie-Louise Mallet, coordinator of the 1997 Cerisy conference, emphasizes in her forward to The Animal That Therefore I Am—most always wrote out what he said “perfectly and in toto.” And of course there is what he wrote or said about regarding writing and speech, so long ago and consistently throughout this life. But what is so interesting about these three major books hitting our bookstores within such a short span of time—and which I would like to stay with here—is this more surface-level phenomenon: that we are still having trouble finding a way to regard the immensity of what Derrida did as a book, as a work, whether as a labor (something closer to speech) or as a series of texts, an oeuvre (something closer to writing). And the timing of the English appearance of these texts could not make this more palpably felt: Peggy Kamuf’s photo of Derrida meandering along the Brooklyn Promenade on both volumes of Psyche reminds us that with his death, we have now more responsibility than ever to engage with Derrida’s impact on the English speaking world—and particularly on America, where he taught and thought so often—which still wanders about and still leaves its tracks all over the place.
Psyche brings this to the fore in the thought that all these texts are pursuing their respective objects roughly as a whole—and brings it to the fore precisely as a problem for the student or professor of literature, who had so much to do with this American impact of Derrida: the concerns of the essays in these volumes run from politics to music to architecture to philosophy—and literature itself is not touched on very much. In short, Psyche as a book poses an immense challenge to us involved with literature, one that is not as able to be taken up by lumping it together with the “ethical” thought of the “late” Derrida, as we have been doing for the past decade or so and following his death...

Friday, June 13, 2008


1. A post on a comment of Derrida's on architecture in his very nice 1986 essay "Point de folie—maintenant l'architecture."

2. A post on the "volume" of deconstruction and its architects, with a look at Bernard Tschumi's Parc Villette, Peter Eisenman's Wexner Center, Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and Center for Culture in Spain, and Daniel Liebeskind's just-opened Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, with a denunciation of the "Freedom Tower" and revenge as the formal principle of that building.

3. Perhaps (if I have time) a post on Sarah Kofman's treatment of Ecce Homo in Explosions.

4. A post on close reading as fast reading, not slow, patient, familiarity with words on the page—that is, on close reading as distant reading, and its differences or similarities with a reading machine. Technical or even mechanized hermeneutics, in short.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Criticizing (unlike) Derrida

Many people try to outdo Derrida in their criticism of him: I will try to do this here as well (in a very limited way, merely by a little gesture), but will, in the process, also try and skew the direction in which this outdoing is done. For most will try to outdo him in his reading of words. In other words, they try to "outread" him: take for instance Foucault's response to him in "My Body, This Paper, This Fire," and in his response, which you can find now collected in the fully translated History of Madness. There Foucault points out how Derrida forgets aspects of the text of Descartes that he reads in "Cogito and the History of Madness," and accuses him of hypocrisy: if Derrida is constantly about reading texts closely, how come when he reads them he doesn't read certain crucial parts of the text?
This of course is to misunderstand what Derrida is about--though I think Foucault's reading of the words is indeed more thorough than Derrida's (but this is only because in "Cogito and the History of Madness" the real point is a certain stance on madness itself, on which the two thinkers differ largely--cf. certain remarks in "No (Point of) Madness--Maintaining Architecture" in Psyche II). It is, in short, to commit the great mistake (still so prevalent) of thinking that what Derrida means by "text" is only the words on the page (see my previous posts on this).
I will try to suggest that it is another aspect of Foucault's critique that is actually hard hitting, since this "outreading" only is what Derrida is asking for--that is, he wants people to be responsible in the face of the irresponsibility in any reading (for example, his) by reading again, reading (and not only once) more. This "other aspect" is the criticism of Derrida's ignorance of institutions that set up the text: it is the fact that Descartes is there, with his body, his paper, in front of this fire, that indeed ensures that (or at least assuages certain problems regarding whether) the writing he is doing is not the writing of a madman, or a dreamer--indeed that he is capable of reflection on his consciousness to begin (or end, considering his conclusions) with. That is, Foucault's critique also tries to outdo Derrida by reading other things than words: its outdoing is not first and foremost an outreading, but an analysis of institutions, regimens, rules, etc. Now, these institutions are not a priori excluded from the Derridan text--if we recast Foucault's criticism in Derrida's terms, it would not work for Derrida, since what Foucault calls that which "sets up the text" is indeed the text too for Derrida. However, there is a sense in which these institutional facts or facts about practices do make up a smaller part of the reading of that text than, say, the certain words (and facts about words) that Descartes writes. In this sense, then (and in this sense only--and I do believe this is Foucault's sense), one can say that Decartes' text for Derrida does largely ignore institutions: it does not consider them for the same length as it does words. Part of Derrida's genius is the realization of this fact in his later writings: his recasting of responsibility in terms of calculation and of hospitality (which indeed took place early in his career too, but to a lesser extent), and not in terms of reading (though he still uses the word frequently) is an effort to correct this fact--and the chief reason why some unbelievably simple-minded, analogically thinking literary critics find his later work less "useful" for the study of literature, more "political" (as if it wasn't both already!--and to get a sense of this simple-mindedness, one only has to look at a literary critic who has stepped into "thinking" "the ethical," though by no means are they all so simple).
But the criticism still stands: one can get a feel for it (and its viability when levied even against this later work) by looking at a passage from a discussion supplementing the (recently published) lecture The Animal That Therefore I Am. Derrida is in the middle of discussing (it was an impromptu session at the conference at Cerisy on his work demanded by the listeners, who hadn't had enough of him--even after his nine hours of addressing them) Heidegger and his seminar The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, which focuses on the triad world, finitude, and solitude:

One must pay attention to this gesture, an apparently pedagogical gesture in Heidegger, but one that is more than pedagogical, and that each time consists in positing things in threes, and saying he is going to uncover their common root or else the median thesis. Here, the question or common root is the three questions [world, finitude, solitude] is the essence of time...
"I Don't Know Why We are Doing This" in The Animal that Therefore I Am, 150

Now, the point here is the importance given to the pedagogical, Derrida's revealing that what is "apparently" pedagogical is "more than pedagogical." In a way, what is happening here is that Derrida is taking a sort of provisional statement, necessary for Heidegger to organize his seminar, and showing that its necessity extends out to the rest of his entire discourse on world, finitude, and solitude. The provisional is precisely what is necessary: there thus is an evacuation of the sphere of provisionality in the text, one that seeks to include what is written, what is there, but never really said--that is, never really fully, properly there. In the inclusion of this unsaid, written, formal or pedagogical element, Derrida reconstitutes the text of Heidegger here--he prevents the exclusion of what is not said by what is said, prevents its being made into something other than discourse. And he does this by showing that this unsaid's being written there is just as much a sort of being-said as anything that is "really" said, if not more than this. In short, what is excluded gets included, by making what is included, not by including it, but by making what is included of the same status as what is excluded. What is unsaid, isn't unsaid: in being written, it counts.
We've seen this gesture before, and also with gestures of Heidegger: I focus on writing and speech here to recall Of Grammatology. Old hat, right? Well, so are the criticisms of this gesture. They take the following form: so what? So the included is made excluded, the excluded included-excluded. We still have to read this text you have now made for us, Derrida--that is, do something you, precisely in your doing it, have not done. In a very literal way, you make no difference--only your odd word, différance. Which gives us nothing we can read--precisely by making everything readable, by making everything excluded, or just as included as excluded.
But what is more interesting (and here is my little gesture towards outreading, to reading more) is what Foucault would focus on: the fact that the pedagogic is looked at here primarily as something that can, once we see that it is textual (and thus that texts are marks and not spoken words), constitute a text in the philosophic tradition, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. That is, this writing is seen as informing or being informed by our knowledge of Heidegger and what Heidegger is treating, when it could just as easily (and just as textually, in Derrida's sense) be looked at as something that informs or is informed by our knowledge of various institutional constraints, various mechanisms or protocols delineating the paths certain gestures could and would take in the classroom, etc. Heidegger himself was a notoriously weird lecturer: why not look at this to begin with, why not start here, and see the written words here, the pedagogic gesture, even as a function of it. In short, everything that constitutes the pedagogical here for Derrida as something external to the main thrust of the thinking, everything that makes it merely a "rhetorical" (that is, unimportant, external to thinking) gesture, and by virtue of which he is able to then include it as a necessary element of a text--everything here can be analyzed precisely as rhetorical, as something that is occurring (pedagogically) in words, and not in, say, physical gestures, gesticulations, in costuming (Heidegger wore traditional peasant clothing as he lectured) in intonations (Heidegger spoke methodically, slowly--there are many documents about this, but there is also a lot unsaid--precisely, commandingly).

Or at least this would be the starting point for the undoing of this exclusionary logic--we might therefore not jump immediately to considering what is written qua written in words. The initial gesture, the preference in analysis, wouldn't be towards the recuperation of the excluded as something written, but the analysis of the modes of exclusion--one of which is speaking instead of writing. To be brief: there are more levels of text than words--Derrida himself affirms this by including the pedagogical--but why not articulate their operation in the textuality of those levels first and foremost? Why all this focus on the little mistakes or successes in the operation of certain grammatical elements, when there are so many other (similarly untotalized) grammars of which to make up a text, something that we may (and must, according to Derrida) read and read again? Indeed, Derrida himself affirms that there are more things to a text than just words by including the pedagogical, but he also insists on this by saying that whole discourses turn upon these few mistakes, these provisional remarks--as he does here, with Heidegger? This is the gesture that I do not understand, along with Foucault: the insistence, the "must" in "one must pay attention to this gesture," the notion that if we do not pay attention, we will miss the moment that the whole text turns upon. While this can be true, how precisely--at what levels, in what ways, with what costs--does this moment distribute the determination of the text throughout the whole? In other words, why not register the other moments? Luckily, in this moment, and in many others, Derrida does this. But he does so only with respect to the other words used: how does this text, which we know is not just a book, not just the words on the page (though it is of course also them)--how does this text as a whole, which may include actions, gestures, even institutions, remain informed by this moment? Why don't we get any of those as well? In such a way Derrida analyzes three pages of History of Madness and says that the whole rest of the (nearly seven-hundred page, in its French printing) book is determined or informed by them, revolves around them somehow. Taking him at his word, why do we only hear Derrida talking about the rest of the book's words here--and not certain facts about its distribution, the fact that it didn't sell well, the fact that it was made in a certain moment in the French institution, with the help of certain people, with a certain political situation, etc. etc.? I'll repeat the complaint: why all this focus on the little weaknesses, little privosos or provisional statements, when there are so many other elements of which to make up a text?
Now, this criticism is not one about the status that Derrida gives to what is provisional. What is objectionable isn't that Derrida is knocking down these thinkers with low blows, focusing only on where they are weak--that is, in their provisional statements, in their temporary remarks. To object to this is not only to put oneself in the uncomfortable position of affirming the right of thinkers to certain provisional statements which indeed are out of line. It is also to concede that there exists a realm of discourse that should sometimes be free of the responsibility to answer to what is said there, and sometimes not. In short, it is to institute a greater lawlessness than any attempt to count these provisional statements as statements would institute, because the rule by which they are counted as significant or not is never thematized. In fact, it is to found any discourse that counts upon this possibility (among others, of course--but this does not make this any less disconcerting) of accessing lawlessness: one saw this completely with the explosion of comments in France and elsewhere during "the Heidegger controversy." It isn't that Heidegger's occasional or more impromptu remarks--especially those in his letter to Victor Schwoerer--don't reflect serious aspects of his thinking, or that can't be in fact more serious and significant than that thinking itself. It is that the decisions by which we include or do not include these remarks traffic in the distinction between the marginal or the impromptu and the serious, the belabored, the well-thought-out that they question, and that there is no formalization of these rules themselves... a fact that often leads to arbitrary inclusions or exclusions and, more significantly, the feeling that discussion can only take place in the absence of this formalization. In the end--and this is indeed what happened in the "controversy"--a serious issue merely ends up producing unfounded discussion for the sake of this production itself, and without any responsibility for this production: in other words, people write articles and talk about the issue precisely by evaporating any of its particular constitution, its specificity, which merited discussion in the first place. In short, discussion itself becomes an institution, or (what is even more loathsome) a market, without foundation. (This is all similar to what Frederic Jameson says of the utopian.)
So it is not that one should defend these thinker's mistakes or more "private" triumphs--in short, their weaknesses, external to their "real" thought--against Derrida's utilization of them. It is precisely that these weaknesses are not merely informing a text made of words: they articulate themselves on so many other levels. One thus does not have to affirm differences against différance--that is, affirm that there simply exist distinctions between what is included and excluded, and that we have to analyze those rather than focus on how they collapse into differing ("as") these differences, how they collapse into différance. One has to say merely that the levels at which we are isolating the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, perhaps to collapse them so, are many more in number than certain works of the philosophic tradition and their allegedly "pedagogic" elements. In fact, they can precisely be institutions such as the school. Doesn't it make more sense for Derrida to ask of the school itself and this gesture's place within it if he wants to really look at the gesture? It is in this sense that Foucault is right when he says Derrida remains a philosopher, as non-philosophical as he is: what matters to him most in Foucault's seven-hundred page book are the three pages where a philosophic text is brought up.
Of course, Derrida is authorized by the fact that he is indeed working on a certain plane in which there is exclusion on a more massive level than just a particular philosopher and his offhand remarks: that of the subordination of writing to speech within the institution of philosophy itself, for example (whether there exists another aspect to his corpus of this scale remains an open question, and not one that can be answered by insistences of so-called "ethical turns" or "later" thinking: I do indeed believe it occurs, however). But it is only insofar as this is remembered that his remarks here gain their specificity in this larger way--and even those that look like they are about other institutions (law, politics) must be remembered this way and within the scope of this analysis--which they usually don't seem to be. Or at least by us, who read him: perhaps the largest change possible in our thinking about Derrida would be to see his writings on something like terrorism or international politics as precisely an ongoing critique of philosophy (as something like an institution). We could say this in the end, with respect to Foucault and Derrida in general: the former might focus most on writing about institutions (psychiatry, prisons), but might be a greater thinker of writing and discourse (in something like The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge), while the latter might focus most on writing about writing and discourse, while he might be a greater thinker of institutions--that is, if we read them both right.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, depth, and the body, continued (more)

Continued from last time:

As Merleau-Ponty says in “Eye and Mind,” “the enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking” (“EM,” 162). This indeed is how vision itself visible, but we need to describe the process more precisely than as some sort of “recognition.” Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible thinks of the problem this way: what we see in the world, the visible, is not a random assortment of stimuli, but, as he says above, “things themselves,”—by which he means primarily (that is, excepting the Husserlian registers of this phrase, which of course he is trying to refigure or transform by using it this way) that “I do not look at chaos, but at things” (VI, 133). This fact—so marveled at throughout Kant’s third Critique—reveals that if vision is going to occur, it presupposes that the visible be precisely that which is able to accommodate vision, or itself be, qua visible or viewed, the prefiguring of vision itself. In other words, though they seem like they are at a distance from us, things can be said to see, in the sense that they are not just viewed when vision or a look lands upon them, but instead are active participants in the view itself: they hold the gaze or push it elsewhere, and this is because they themselves only have existence—as we have noted above—as the visible that is currently within a particular vision. The redness of a dress is thus not “sensory datum,” when it as a thing gets translated into the realm of what is made correlative to the faculty of sight: the red dress itself is a “talisman of color” that “makes it, held at the end of the gaze… much more than a correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon me as a continuation of its own sovereign existence” (VI, 131). In short, the visible participates in vision in its prepossession of vision, as Merleau-Ponty says:

The look… envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things. As though it were in a relation of pre-established harmony with them, as though it knew them before knowing them, it moves in its own way with its abrupt and imperious style, and yet the views taken are not desultory—I do not look at chaos, but at things—so that finally one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command. What is this prepossession of the visible, this art of interrogating it according to its own wishes, this inspired exegesis? (VI, 133).

He answers himself with the following:

Since vision is palpation with the look, it must also be inscribed in the order of being that it discloses to us; he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at. As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision (as is so well indicated by the double meaning of the word) be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot (VI, 134).

This last sentence will require more explication, but what is stressed here we can fully understand: the visible must have a sort of being that can flip or reverse itself into what has vision, into what undertakes seeing when the vision of the body lands upon it. It must be able to participate in the gaze as well as maintain its own provisional independence from that gaze, such that this visible is actually vision “installed in the midst of the visible.” As he says in “Eye and Mind:”

Vision happens among, or is caught in, things—in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible for itself by virtue of the sight of things; in that place where there persists, like the mother water in crystal, the undividedness (l’indivision) of the sensing and the sensed (“EM,” 163; OE, 19-20).

This undividedness, this reversible being, is what connects the body to the things around it—Merleau-Ponty calls it “flesh.” This term brings out how all vision is bodily, but how, because the body is like a thing or rather is of them, all visible things have the possibility of answering to vision as visible. Thus, as he remarks in “Eye and Mind:” “things are a prolongation of [the body]; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition,” and it is in this sense that, as he says immediately after this, “the world is made of the same stuff as the body” (“EM,” 163).

While we do not yet understand the opposite phenomenon that is really in question above—how vision itself turns into the visible—we can only approach it if we further develop this conception of how the visible turns itself into vision. In order to do so, we can turn to an example Merleau-Ponty gives, one that will begin to show us how painting is already extremely relevant to our discussion of the body (indeed, it is in “Eye and Mind” as well as in The Visible and the Invisible that this example is given). It is the example of tiles seen at the bottom of a pool—literally one of depth:

When through the water’s thickness I see the tiling at the bottom of a pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections there; I see it through them and because of them. If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without this flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is—which is to say, beyond any identical, specific place. I cannot say that the water itself—this aqueous power, the syrupy and shimmering element—is in space; all this is not somewhere else either, but it is not in the pool [that is, if one considers “in” as a spatial relation of containment between two masses, as one would in physics]. It inhabits it, it materializes itself there, yet it is not contained there (“EM,” 182).

What makes the water a visible thing is the thickness or depth that separates the surface from the bottom of the pool. This thickness is precisely the flesh of the visible and vision. What the thickness does to vision is pull and push it around—it is not passive—and it accomplishes this precisely by developing its own visibility. In other words, it does not leave its visibility behind to become this “syrupy and shimmering element,” and then return to it, but as visible, flips or switches into a thing that can also participate in gazing or vision—in the sense that it does push and pull on one’s sight. If were not to do this, it would merely be a distortion and deviation from sight considered within mathematical space. But then it precisely would not be depth, even in the sense in which we are talking about the depth of a pool—that is, in the sense of a mere spatial relation. What would be the depth of a pool as merely the difference between two points in space—even if we think of this space in terms of its fluid dynamics or how it is distorting light? Because the difference in space is precisely something with a sort of consistency in its potential to be meaningful in the context of a vision of a pool—because we cannot reduce the way it pushes and pulls upon our vision to Cartesian space—we must think of it differently. If we do this—and this is precisely thinking of it as flesh—it becomes a sort of spatial meaning (of the visible turning into vision, into our vision that we are seeing when looking at it) that takes place materially as the water itself. Thus this thickness or flesh of the water that includes it in our gaze as that through which and only through which we see is depth. “Depth” indeed still signifies the difference between the surface and the bottom of the pool, then: it just does not cut out everything that is qualitatively significant about the visible and which we now understand as the visible turning into vision.
The reason why this example is so important for us is that the depth of the visible in any vision, according to Merleau-Ponty, is the same way as the depth of the water. The interval between the vision and the visible, precisely as a relation of material space, is a positive thickness like the water—and this thickness is flesh, the way this space continually becomes part of the vision. And, as Merleau-Ponty continues to say, “this internal animation, this radiation of the visible is what the painter seeks under the name of depth” as well (“EM,” 182).

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, depth, and the body, continued

Continued from last time:

With this perspective on perception comprehended, can now finally turn to “the visible:” for what does Merleau-Ponty mean when he says that this unity of perspective, achieved through motility or movement, is precisely a movement “through the visible?” This is where Merleau-Ponty’s thinking in the fifteen or so years between the Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible comes into play, though the ideas of the latter work—as Derrida remarks throughout On Touching (OT, 210 and passim)—are very much present in the former. As Merleau-Ponty himself remarks in his working notes to the unfinished later work, the Phenomenology of Perception focuses more on how the body interacts with the world, and not how it is also, as he says in the above quote, “a part of it.” This is obviously because Phenomenology of Perception must show how the empiricist and intellectualist perspectives on the body are inadequate. Nevertheless, the crucial question remains and did remain the following within those fifteen or so years, as it was touched on and reformulated in other writings: how is it possible that the body is not only the materialization (as it were) of motility or movement but also, as he says soon after the already quoted paragraphs of “Eye and Mind,” “a thing among things” (“EM,” 163)—that is, precisely while still remaining this materialization of movement?
Now, Merleau-Ponty’s first step to try and answer this question is to change his terminology as he extends his perspective beyond Phenomenology of Perception. The “visible,” therefore, becomes precisely what has gone under the name of “the world” in our discussion of the body so far. However—and here is where the extension is operative—this new term is used with a crucial difference: the body is also of the visible. Merleau-Ponty thus effects a shift that refines the way we talk about the world and the body within it, because we now can refer to the world precisely as what is sensed or perceived by the body, or as precisely that which the body, in its movement, “makes a difference in,” as he says above. Thus the world’s character loses its last remnants of “objectivity”—as something standing over against the body, not already mapped somehow upon the senses—and gets thought with the body always as co-present, as it were, with any perception. In other words, one crucial result of the analysis in Phenomenology of Perception that we have not stressed in our reconstitution of its logic gets brought immediately to the fore: no world can exist, qua world, without a body that has its moving, roaming perspective upon and within it. No perception, no world. Calling this world “the visible,” then, brings this out nicely. We can see this logic in the shift take place (as well as recognized some elements of it that we have already traversed in different terms, like the “seeming obviousness” of the body) in the first paragraph of The Visible and the Invisible:

We see the things themselves, the world is what we see: formulae of this kind express a faith common to the natural man and the philosopher—the moment he opens his eyes; they refer to a deep-seated set of mute “opinions” implicated in our lives. But what is strange about this faith is that if we seek to articulate it into theses or statements, if we ask ourselves what is this we, what seeing is, and what the thing or world is, we enter into a labyrinth of difficulties and contradictions… (The Visible and the Invisible, 3).

Merleau-Ponty’s approach thus aims at what we see as it is implicated in what seeing is. Insofar as we are specifying what we see, implicated thus, we are (obviously, but again not so obviously) talking about the visible. Furthermore, we can now also say that insofar as we are talking about that side from which we are seeing what is visible, Merleau-Ponty talks about vision. This vision takes place in that unity still called the body. Thus, we now can somewhat understand the sentence of Merleau-Ponty from “Eye and Mind” above: “that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.
But, it might be said, the most crucial question has just been broached: neither the visible nor vision amount wholly to “what seeing is,” as Merleau-Ponty says. And at the same time, we have just extended the concept of the body further—by making it something that, along with the world or the visible, is also visible—but have not developed this point. We shall see that it is precisely by combining these two points that we arrive at an understanding of that still-enigmatic word “intertwining,” which defines the body and brings the visible out for us more richly as something that is crucial for painting. In other words, it will be precisely through understanding how the body, in its vision, itself is visible that we will understand that total act of seeing which is the fuller, richer concept of the body as it operates in Merleau-Ponty’s later work... (To be continued...)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Two on memory

Two notions of memory, history:

Heidegger's 1941 seminar Grundbegriffe on ontological difference and the fragment of Anaximander:

Being re-members us into being and about beings, so that everything we encounter, whether experienced as present or past or future, each time first becomes and remains evident as a being through the re-membrance of being. Being thus remembers essentially. Being is itself what re-members, is the proper remembrance.
We must indeed consider that being itself is what remembers, not only something about which we remember, to which we can always return as something already familiar in the sense of Plato's άνάμνησις [anamnesis]... We must perceive that being is not an "object" of possible remembrance for us, but is itself what properly remembers, what allows all awareness of anything that comes into the open as a being.

-Basic Concepts, 55-6 (translation modified)

And W.G. Sebald's (narrator's) account of the Fort Breendonk in Austerlitz:

Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions--Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store, and Museum--the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.
-Austerlitz, 24

In the first, the in- or un-human (what is beyond or outside of the "we" that remembers "about" being--though still having a relationship, of course, to the human... cf. the Letter on Humanism of course) is an activity, a reserve of the possibility of meaningfulness--in the sense that it is what provides or provokes memorialized action and keeps that action within itself as always possible qua action. This does not mean that it is a fullness, or that its meaningfulness is the same as any sense "we" may make of it. This is why being remembers "us," rather than the other way around.
But, nevertheless, the stress is not upon the opposite phenomenon which Sebald describes. This is, one could say, the other side of what Heidegger proposes. And yet it is coming from and ultimately returns to a totally different relation to memory and to history. The pressure of that limited nature of what the "we" can remember--this is not some failure to "go beyond," to plunge into the activity or respond to its call. Nor--and this is the more crucial point--is this pressure a function of the decay of the possibility of going beyond the human, into the inuman, into the process of remembrance that is not just about being but that is itself being remembering. In short: the fact that we can only hold so little in our mind, that our memory is not just finite but is not even nearly adequate for the mass of historical meaning that is out there--all this is not just a reflection of how the possibility of being remembered by being is less possible in certain conditions, as Heidegger would say. There is not a devolution or decay of this possibility here, caused by a modernity. It is because Sebald's narrator fundamentally has more respect for what, while not reducible to being human, still falls within the sphere of its everyday activity: that is, the everyday human potentials themselves. This narrator lives in the everyday--and it is here that the significance of his remembering and forgetting lie--not, ultimately (though they may depend on it), in this post-human remembrance that is part of being.
However, there is a commonality about both these statements: the finitude or limitedness of the human mind is due to the fact that there is so much "out there," in the world, and that this world comes at us as something to be remembered. In short, it is because history is also in things, is encrusted or deposited in their walls, foundations, ornaments.