Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It's time...

It's time to wrap up this blog, everyone. I'll be maybe sticking a couple nice quotes up here over the next few months, but there won't be much more new content. Mostly, this is because there are more important things to do, but also because I think I've learned what I can from this experience--that is, just jotting down things in a more public form, with an eye trained towards an audience of thoughtful readers.

I know blogs can be a lot more than this, of course, so it's not like the medium is failing me in any major way. It's just that I went in with the aim to write a bit better and think a bit more clearly, and, well, I think I've seen it through. Insofar as the blog remains something you can keep continuing even without such a goal, indeed, there it might have failed me: its informality, or unformedness, too easily moving in the space between a diary and an essay or project (the horrible vagueness of "log" hits at this), like everything electronic now can quickly become a crutch, a way of keeping you from beginning something definite and finishing it definitively.

I know that this is also part of the new (or is it old? 17th century cavalier poets did something similar too) practice of creating a public image, or a virtual identity, which you can manipulate and alter as you see fit--probably some way of giving ourselves some sort of narrative for ourselves in such a fragmented society. I think too often this ends in us merely giving ourselves excuses or justifications rather than narratives or passing off the former for the latter: I believe this or this, I take this position and so that was the reason I acted that way, I was consistent, never a hypocrite (one of the topics I gave my students for their essays this semester was the following: "Characters in fictions can be ambiguous where someone, realistically, might be called a hypocrite. Show how a narrative we have read tells a hypocrite’s story as a tale of two desires (without necessarily justifying them), rather than of self-contradicting (or even conflicting) beliefs or biases."). However, the project, insofar as it tends towards making sense of things, is a good one. It's just that I've never really been interested in that, or if I have been, I'm not quite interested any more. And in the end, all of this doesn't quite matter much anyway. Media are not responsible for what is said through them, and first and foremost blame for whatever is at fault here lies certainly with my various incapacities: inexperience; lack of skill; an over-systemic way of thinking; a tendency, drastically lessening as soon as I got into grad school, to read for critique rather than with sympathy and with the aim of understanding; a lack of inventiveness, drollery, incoherence--to name a few things that my readers have had to slog through on occasion.

The human factor broached, I feel on this level there is also an even more basic reason for bringing things to a close: I feel the blog is a good place for people who don't have anything more concrete to do on the intellectual level to just do something, put things to work. That's pretty basic, but I think it's true, and, far from being a testament to the laziness, etc. of such people--I don't mean to say this at all--it testifies to the the absolutely incredible inability of our current society to make something of people's intelligence, skill, time, and desire to be useful: we have to ask ourselves what is going on when our society has to create a massive virtual repository for less professionally oriented intellectual work, give it none of the material benefits of the actual world of letters or make it subject to the same restraints or regulations, and then even have the gall to call it "self-publishing." Of course it's not all bad: people should be able to just have an area to talk to others casually in a weird world where it is hard to do this sometimes, and people do things with blogs that are of course much more than a waste. Again, I don't mean to indict the medium or anything: I just mean to recognize the fact that I don't know if I'd find myself fulfilled writing these things if they weren't notes merely to other work (most of which, in fact the majority of which, has nothing to do with what I write here: I write on 18th century literature), and that has to be weighed into the whole scheme of things when you are at the point of deciding whether you should quit the thing or not. I also just want to recognize, on more of a human level, how lucky I feel that I'm one of the really, really fortunate ones out there now who has more concrete things to do intellectually.

To do this another way, I might again turn the lens not on the notes here but on myself, and just say that as you get older, the desire to engage in such open-ended things as this just fades. You've been around enough to see what results from actions; you have a good measure of your force in the world, and what type of force it is. The blog at its best extends all this and deepens it, and at its worst makes you think you can extend it much farther and go much deeper than you can: in that respect, it seems more appropriate for the young, or the young at heart, who are also more willing to get into fiery all-night-long debates about and critiques of things. I'm past that moment, I think, perhaps earlier than some of my friends (though later than a few I can think of, certainly). That doesn't at all imply I'm more mature, too cool for school--far from it. It's just that, at a certain point, you crave doing something much more actual--by which I mean, more appropriate to your measure. Some people precisely have made blogging their thing: that's great. But for me, it's in scholarly work and teaching, and the fun I have with this just can't compare to the fun and fulfillment I have with that.

Obviously, there's a nice middle way in here somewhere, and I probably will try and gesture towards it in quoting some nice bit every now and then. Of course I won't delete the blog, a few of you good souls out there have pleaded with me not to do that. But as for new things, new thoughts, you won't really be getting many from me. My point here is just to say that maybe this is for the best for you too, reader, in some small way: it encourages you not to read these little notes looking for thoughts, but to go out and think and jot down some yourself.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Saying things clearly

I thought I'd just stop a moment and recommend the great "Philosophy Bites" podcast of David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, in case any of you haven't heard it. They do a wonderful job, and have some of the best guests: there's a great, great piece with Princeton's amazing Philip Pettit they did recently, which I finally got around to hearing, which I particularly recommend (anything by Pettit is just fascinating).

And they are also extremely, extremely clear, though not much depth is actually sacrificed in the service of this. This is on the one hand not suprising, given the immense experience and knowledge of their guests, but also extremely suprising, given the nature of the medium and indeed the problems involved. But if there is anything I miss about philosophy sometimes, it is what they keep at work in the interviews: the imperative to clearly state something, to clearly formulate it, and clearly argue about it. It's that certain plain style aspect of philosophizing which I miss, that commitment to clear reasoning which makes Warburton quip that prose of Stanley Cavell, who is an extremely lucid writer in the scheme of things, is a bit "purple." Of course, it's more than a style (though a style too is usually more than just a style): it's an ethic, which makes me particularly fond of people like G.E. Moore--and Moore perhaps a little too fond of Wittgenstein.

I know people feel hemmed in by the sort of "common language" philosophy of the followers of the latter, and people outside philosophy often cite it disapprovingly as an example of the sort of weirdness of the imperative. But the truth is (and this is why those who diss the clarity-requirement I'm thinking of nevertheless usually love Wittgenstein) Wittgenstein doesn't really submit himself to the requirement of thinking clearly so much as identify clarification with a procedure for philosophizing. And while these two things overlap often, they aren't the same.

In short, Searle's "if you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself" (which Warburton has at the top of his website) doesn't mean you need to work like Wittgenstein, even if you sometimes fall back on it and use it as a sort of guide to your thinking--i.e. using it even as a procedure isn't the same thing as identifying it with a procedure. Indeed, it means something quite broad: clear speaking and clear thinking usually go hand in hand, so if you're not speaking clearly about something, there's a good chance you don't understand it, and you need to think through it more. Hemingway spoke once somewhere of a bullshit detector, and it's basically that: a way of not confusing philosophy with poetry, even if you think the former is something of an art. But it is also a spur to thinking--that's the part people usually leave out--which encourages understanding: not unlike how Hegel thinks something is only known when you've seen both sides of it (which is all that much-maligned "synthesis" is, in the end: not grasping things one-sidedly).

And indeed, if it doesn't lead to bullshit, feeling this way about thinking through problems often leads you down certain more unsavory paths. One is the use of jargon as an excuse for technical language. Now, I am all for the use of technical language, and indeed the argument for saying things clearly could actually support this. Paul Ennis puts it best, probably, in these terms: sometimes you just need a word for something, and so the word chosen is one is weird. And that doesn't mean you don't speak clearly with it: all it means is that the word requires a special use. At the same time, and while it has been used against the cultivation of a clearer technical language (maybe I should speak intead of lingo, then), it's probably best to acknowledge a difference betwen jargon and technical language, because there is a use of specific terms that don't improve clarity (or even clearly demarcate the specifics of its use). An example of this would be theoretical discourse, of course, which is often just a way to allow thought to proceed precisely on the opposite principle of the one I'm talking about: the more you are led by unclarity, and into unclarity, the more you have thought something through. This trades on an insidious sophism--one which Searle precisely objected to, though perhaps a bit too harshly--which claims that what is thought is always going to be beyond my ability to refer to it, which isn't inherently wrong so much as wrong-headed: it smuggles in a notion that clear speaking involves direct reference to the object of thought, which as you can see from Searle's little formula is never mentioned, though it might be implied. One can't generalize from this that all clear thinking is referential, and therefore the only way to get beyond what we refer to is to use a weird term: indeed, it is often the case that when we use jargon, we precisely know what we're referring to, and just want to sound like an asshole.

The other way you go down if you don't make clarity a big part of your thought and speech, is something philosophers do all the time, actually, and isn't as insidious, though I find it unfortunate: it is gathering up what could be expressed clearly into a special "Problem," or "Argument" instead of giving it the form of exposition or even a technical term. The "mind-body problem" is one of these, though since that's more of a commonplace, I'm actually thinking more of something like what you encounter in ethics and aesthetics a lot, which usually describes a situation or a sort of crux which either amounts to an objection or something that needs to be thought around, or a position of some sort (in philosophy of mind, technical terms often do the same work: behaviorism means a position or proposition). It's a weird sort of work that is based on the same sorts of assumptions as formal logic, and while this isn't wrong, doing it in other areas than formal logic often leads to a lot of systematizing rather than sticking close to the subject matter. Sometimes, since the subject matter can be dizzying, and systematizing is precisely what you need (I don't mean to knock systems), but sometimes you'll be thinking through a problem and won't pursue a certain angle because you are too afraid it will ultimately end back in x position, in y problem, or, what's perhaps worse, that making an advancement in thinking amounts to merely getting past, resolving the contradictions in x position or y problem. And sticking close to the notion that saying things clearly often means thinking them through clearly can actually be quite liberating when this is the case. Most good philosophy I've read--especially in aesthetics, which is absolutely bogged down with -isms and formal problems of this sort--just returns to basics and tries to speak about what's going on clearly, just as most good academic work in general is, I find, remarkable for its ability to address something clearly but in a new way rather than obscurely.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Critical fashion

Fashions succeed one another rapidly (Pierre Cardin once defined fashion as that which goes out of fashion), and work that was for a while unchallenged (as to its importance, though not as to its detail)--Leavis, Frye, Blackmur--drops out of view more or less completely. Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, ina pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre--Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting," though showing little sign of having attended to any part of it.
-Frank Kermode, Pleasure, Change and the Canon

The beautiful

A better way to make a distinction I made a couple posts ago--a much better way, I think, because it doesn't separate sense from knowledge or oppose them, as I bordered on doing--is to just say that there is a new aestheticism out there that is actually trying to ask a question it is hard to take seriously in the study of literature: namely, what is the place of beauty in our lives?

Or, rather, it is actually defining that place, showing that it is a place where knowledge is not undermined. In other words, aestheticism tries to find the proper consistency of that knowledge: the harangues against aestheticism throughout the history of literary criticism in the last century (which--and not enough people recognize this--is mostly a history defined by modernism), and indeed variants of this harangue throughout the history of the arts (Plato, etc.), would make it out to be precisely a movement that undermines knowledge, but the opposite is the case. Precisely because it doesn't hedge its bets like Aristotle or Sidney (though the latter's elaborations of the statement show it is not as negative as it sounds), and affirm only that poetry does nothing affirmeth, it doesn't give into the thing that this supposes: that truth wholly abstracted from sense is the only form of truth or knowledge, and thus that the sensuous arrangements of art mainly work to undermine or question that knowledge. Aestheticism takes the measure of the sense's knowledge (this is one reason why, as Angela Leighton points out in a book I can't recommend enough, On Form, that the favorite philosopher of aestheticists throughout history is Lucretius).

Close reading, I'm adding, is just really placing the emphasis on this place indeed being a place of positive knowledge. That is, we might define the standpoint that uses it as one that takes the measure of the knowledge delivered by sense: it's a stricter sort of formula, where the emphasis falls more on sense as a form of knowledge, rather than the knowledge that inheres in the senses or sensuous. The downside is it works by analogy, as you can see (it works by supposing the knowledge of the sensuous is like the knowledge we normally deal with in regular propositions), and so lends itself to the undermining of our normal idea of knowledge (it may be the main legacy of deconstruction to have convinced us close reading only does this). But talking about what a poem is about should be a bulwark to this sort of aestheticist enterprise, rather than something the downfall of which the new aestheticism celebrates.

But to get back to my main point, beauty is the name for this sort of this positive, sensuous knowledge. That sounds pretty sappy, I know, and perhaps undignified. But it is the lack of a place of beauty in our lives, perhaps, that makes us assume so immediately that anything dealing with knowledge the senses can give (other than the knowledge from sensuous experience purified of sensuous experience which the sciences give) is going to be undignified, not a real form of knowledge.

That is, I've knocked aestheticism in the past for precisely being sappy, giving too much away to the senses. I wonder now, though, whether this opinion of mine precisely came from those noble and moralistic theorists who, I often found, precisely lapsed into sappiness whenever the issue of something near-beautiful about their austere systems crept to the fore. Of course, its also simply the way of the French to acknowledge the beautiful in the ugly, almost as if it were an imperative (though occasionally the English have this moralistic sense of the beautiful as well, though it is usually surrounding the commonsense rather than the ugly: it probably is a vestige of living in a place with a rich civil society rather than "social networks"). But I've always hated that narrow and perverse sense of beauty one finds in Foucault; it is probably Sartre and Derrida though who remain mostly responsible for this style. Frederic Jameson, who like many Marxists is actually someone who gives an important role to the traditionally aesthetic, indeed notices this exact thing about Derrida in his essay on Specters of Marx; of course, it is what we also notice all the time when we disparage his "literariness." But it's not just the French. I'll ask whether the valorization of the sublime against the beautiful in the 80's was not precisely aestheticism (in the bad sense) by other means for many people. In the 90's, it is trauma and the negative theology: isn't the work of Cathy Caruth so offensive, not because it veers into the most perverse forms of argument, but because it turns trauma into the most traditionally aesthetic (that is, ignoble, sappy) thing, such that we can find something like satisfaction in it? And closer to our own time, the "ugly feelings" we like to hear so much about are perhaps more of the same. Theory in general seems sometimes to be motivated by this sappiness in its avant-gardism, or the enjoyment it takes in its in its politics.

In short, I wonder whether it is those who precisely rail against beauty who lapse into the most traditionally sappy versions of aestheticism--indeed, much more often than the true aestheticists. I hesitate to say people like this (its not all theorists) practicse aestheticism by other means, though, because what's crucial is that the sappiness arises from ignorance and inexperience with it, and indeed the eradication of the place of beauty in our lives this accomplishes, a narrowing of it down to the most horribly sentimental version. If we let the beautiful back in, we might see it contains something to say, or is at least more complex of a thing than we think it is. Alexander Nehamas and Charles Taylor, among others, have been saying this for some time. Familiarity with the thing is what is crucial, since we have none of it as long as we keep encouraging the myth that it only undermines knowledge.