Monthly Archives: December 2011

Truth and Philosophy on the Way

Not just Hannah Arendt’s teacher, Karl Jaspers is a great philosopher in his own right.  His work has been influential for many developments in twentieth-century philosophy, theology, and psychiatry.  Here are two quotations in which he provides basic (yet profound) definitions of truth and philosophy.

“Within time, truth is forever underway, always in motion and not final even in its most marvelous crystallizations.”     Tragedy Is Not Enough (1952, p. 104)

“The Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) connotes a distinction from sophos.  It signifies the lover of wisdom (knowledge) as distinguished from him who considers himself wise in the possession of knowledge.  This meaning of the word still endures: the essence of philosophy is not the possession of truth but the search for truth, regardless of how many philosophy may belie it with their dogmatism, that is, with a body of didactic principles purporting to be definitive and complete.  Philosophy means to be on the way.  Its questions are more essential than its answers, and ever answer becomes a new question.”   Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (2003, p. 12)

Monads: windowless glass houses

Graham Harman has a nice post up “On the Laziness of Comparing Object-Oriented Philosophy with Leibniz.”  One of the points he brings up is that, even though he and Leibniz affirm windowless monads, monads are still determined by their relations in Leibniz , but their reality is non-relational in object-oriented philosophy. 

Although I tend to follow Whitehead and Deleuze in thinking of monads as having windows, I also accept Harman’s Heideggerian conception of a non-relational reality, in which monads would have no windows.  If we are going to continue describing entities as having windows, it would be important to add that contact through these windows is never direct but only happens indirectly… through a glass darkly.  I am committed to affirming relational and non-relational aspects of monads, and I think that the image of windows with dark glass might help draw out the complex tension between relationality and non-relationality.  Really, though, the window still implies too much accessibility, even if the window has bars on it or is wired with a bomb.  Perhaps it would be better to say that a monad does not have windows at all but is a house of glass.  The glass is dark, and what appears dimly in and through the glass is not comprised of reflections but of diffractions (not totally unlike the diffraction glasses that people wear for light shows, raves, fireworks, etc.). 

Windowless and alluring, every object is a glass house of dark diffractions.

Schelling on the object of philosophy

This is a wonderful quotation from Schelling’s 1842 Philosophy of Mythology.  Here’s the German:

Bei jeder Erklärung ist das Erste, daß sie dem zu Erklärende Gerechtigkeit widersahren lasse, es nicht herabdrücke, herabdeute, ver kleinere oder verstümmle, damit es leichter zu begreifen sey.  Hier fragt sich nicht, welche Ansicht muß von der Erscheinung gewonnen werden, damit sie irgend einer Philosophie gemäß sich bequem erklären lasse, sondern umgekehrt, welche Philosophie wird gesordert, um dem Gegenstand gewachsen, aus gleicher Höhe mit ihm zu seyn. Nicht, wie muß das Phänomen gewendet, gedreht, vereinseitigt oder verkümmert werden, um aus Grundsätzen, die wir uns einmal vorgesetzt nicht zu überschreiten, noch allenfalls erklärbar zu seyn, sondern: wohin müssen unsere Gedanken sich erweitern, um mit dem Phänomen in Verhältniß zu stehen. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Philosophie der Mythologie: Volume 5, Schellings Werke, ed. Manfred Schröter (C. H. Beck, 1984), p. 3.

A translation:

With each explanation this is first: do justice to that which is to be explained, and do not suppress it, interpret it away, belittle it, or mutilate it in order to make it easier to conceptualize.  Here the question is not, “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?”  Rather the reverse, “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the object, be on a level with it?”  It is not a question of how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, confined, or atrophied so as to become explicable at all costs on grounds that we have completely resolved not to surpass. Rather, to what point must we enlarge our thought so that it is in proportion to the phenomenon? 

To the Poems Themselves

 I am always dissatisfied with definitions of poetry that focus on how poetry expresses connections between humans and the world (and maybe God, too). I have metaphysical objections to those kind of definitions, but aside from that, I just don’t enjoy the kind of analyses that follow from them. If you define poetry in terms of its expression of different human experiences or modes of thought, then your analyses of poems tend to talk a lot about humanity, culture, civilization, god, cosmos, etc., and the poems themselves get left out in the cold.  I prefer definitions of poetry that help us attend to poems themselves. To the poems themselves! Let’s attend to poems in their poeticity. In particular, I’m very influenced by Roman Jakobson’s approach to poetics. Although I would want to make a lot of changes to his structuralist thinking, I like the fact that Jakobson analyzes poems in a way that focuses on the actual sound and syntax patterns of the poems themselves.

Jakobson’s articulation of poeticity is situated in his account of the six functions of verbal communication. Alongside the poetic function, there are emotive, conative, referential, phatic, and metalingual functions. The poetic function of language, i.e., poeticity, “is present when the word is felt as word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Language and Literature, 1987, p. 378). The poetic function has its own autonomy, and thus needs to be differentiated from the other five functions.

Poeticity is not apparent 1) when the word is reduced to the emotions of the speaker (emotive), nor 2) when it is reduced to its comportment toward a listener (conative), nor 3) when it is reduced to the contextual reality that it supposedly represents (referential), 4) nor when it is reduced to the psycho-physical contact of those speaking and/or listening (phatic). In each of these four cases, poeticity is not apparent because the word is reduced to something other than word, e.g., addresser, addressee, psychophysical contact, and referential context. Furthermore, poeticity is not apparent when a sequence of words is reduced to the codified equations given in metalanguage, such as A = A1 (bachelor = unmarried man). In fact, the poetic and metalingual functions of language “are in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence” (p. 71).

Of course, poetry isn’t only in poems. The poetic function is at work whenever the word is felt as word, when the message is felt on its own terms. It is not about the speaker, the poet, consciousness, humanity, the world, or anything else but itself. Poeticity is present “when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own” (p. 378).

I’ll give an example. Jakobson discusses the old political slogan “I like Ike.” The combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” is not merely a matter of “like” being selected from its synonyms (e.g., “admire,” “love,” “support,” etc.) because it accurately represents the speaker’s emotions and/or psychological relationship to Ike, nor is it merely a matter of “I” being selected because it represents the subject more grammatically than does “me,” or “my,” etc. If the message “I like Ike” is understood as its own thing (to the message itself!), then the combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” manifests an equation of the three occurrences of the sound /ay/, wherein “like” paronomastically envelops both “I” and “Ike”—as if all liking always already implies that “I” and “Ike” are together within it. From a metalingual perspective, the meaning of the “I” in this sequence is given according to other words with similar meanings; but from a poetic perspective, the meaning of “I” is given according to its similarity (in this case phonetic) to “like” and “Ike.” It is in poeticity that sound symbolism is most intensely felt.

Because “I” is typically employed as an index referring to the person saying it, the sound of the word “I” does not usually appear particularly meaningful; instead, it appears arbitrary—as if another sound referring to the same person (e.g., “me,” “ich,” “yo,” etc.) would have an identical meaning. Poeticity, on the other hand, relates the meaning of speech sounds back to the word itself, and not to a human poet, an autonomous signified, or a contextual reality. “I like Ike” is easy to analyze because of the obvious repetition of /ay/. A more difficult pattern to recognize would be William Blake’s “Tyger,” where the liquid consonant at the end of the word “Tyger” patterns with the liquid consonant at the beginning of “Lamb” (“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”). That is one of my favorite aspects of Jakobson’s poetics: to analyze a poem, you have to study phonetics and other aspects of linguistics. Doesn’t this make perfect sense? To study a poem, you have to study language. To the poems themselves! To the words themselves!

A New Philosophy for the 21st Century

What is becoming of philosophy in the 21st century?  There’s a great piece on that topic that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review. It is written by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, who both teach at my alma mater, the Philosophy and Religion Studies department at the University of North Texas.

We have devoted our lives to philosophy. We want the field to survive and, if possible, prosper. But it is increasingly doubtful that academic philosophy can thrive in an era of declining budgets, soaring debts, antipathy to tax increases, and new technologies such as distance education.

Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial conditions?
Field philosophy, found philosophy, public philosophy, experimental philosophy, philosophy of/as interdisciplinarity—these are all expressions of a growing feeling that change is afoot. We seek to promote this change. We view 20th-century philosophy as an aberration—academically challenging work that forgot half of philosophy’s task. It is time to strike out in new, intellectually exciting, and socially useful directions.

I did my BA and MA at UNT, and I am continually impressed with the developments taking place in my old department. I can think of no better place to study philosophy and religious studies in a way that is cutting-edge, rigorous, and socially relevant, especially in light of contemporary environmental issues (they specialize in environmental ethics). They are making incredible strides toward “integrating philosophic insights with problems on the ground.” In short, if you want to see 21st century philosophy at its best, you’ll need to take a look at UNT.

Pop analysis and more dabbling

In his prose poem “Les Foules,” Charles Baudelaire enjoins us to “bathe in the multitudes.”  This reminds me of the ontological claim that Deleuze makes in Difference and Repetition, where he says that “everything bathes in its difference.”  To me, this is what pop analysis is all about.  I take the phrase “pop analysis” from Deleuze and Guattari, my favorite philosophy writing duo (…there aren’t many duos to pick from).  In A Thousand Plateaus, D&G equate pop analysis with rhizomatics, which is itself equated with schizoanalysis and nomadology.  They elaborate on their sense of “pop” in their work on Kafka.  What D&G call “pop” (“pop music, pop philosophy, pop writing”) is an “escape for language, for music, for writing,” an escape into difference and multiplicity, the bath of the multitudes.  Pop lines of escape make use of the “polylingualism” of minorities and multiplicities.  Such language resists the “oppressive quality” of any regime of signs that wants to be “an official language” or “a master of the signifier.”

Consider a pop analysis of dabbling.  It wouldn’t rely on the OED definition of dabbling.  It wouldn’t look to “major” thinkers like Plato or Heidegger or “major” musicians like Beethoven or Schoenberg.  It would look to minor thinkers, musicians, writers, etc.  Along those lines, I want to consider the sense of dabbling expressed in pop music, specifically in the rock band Tool and the hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj.

I mentioned before that dabbling is a kind of touching without touching, a partial or indirect touch.  The sense of dabbling I want to engage is expressed in pop culture.  In the lyrics of Maynard James Keenan (the singer in Tool) and Nicki Minaj, dabbling is more than a light or indirect touch.  It is a touch that makes contact with infernal and diabolical forces.  Dabbling is a way of making demonic pacts, selling one’s soul to the devil, and thereby forging alliances with darkness and the occult. 

The Tool song “Jambi” opens with a declaration of a powerful position: “Here from the king’s mountain view.  Here from the wild dream come true.”  The lyrics go on to indicate that occult practices of dabbling preceded the realization of that wild dream and the attainment of that regal height.  “The devil and his had me down, in love with the dark side I’d found, dabbling all the way down, up to my neck soon to drown.”  If the attainment of power is preceded by a descent into deep darkness, the practices of descent must not touch too much, or the practitioner will drown.  Dabbling is the tactful touching practiced by sorcerers as they make diabolical pacts.  Dabbling is how you go to hell and come back with alliances. 

This sense of dabbling is expressed in the song “Make Me Proud” by Drake, featuring Nicki Minaj.  The first time through the hook of the song, Drake sings, “Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back, that’s why you’re bad as fuck and you….”  In the ellipsis, Minaj starts her verse with a stuttering affirmation of how “bad” she is: “B, b, b, b, bad I am” (and I probably don’t need to say that “bad as fuck” is a powerful status to have, not unlike the aforementioned king’s mountain view).  How did she get so bad?  By going to hell and coming back.  How did she do that?  Dabbling!  More specifically, dabbling in something that she never mentions, in something unspoken (maybe unspeakable), hidden, occult.  Thus, a couple lines after her stuttering affirmation of her power, Minaj declares, “But I never mention everything I dabble in.”  In other words, she affirms her power along with the unsaid dabbling practices whereby she attains or maintains that power.

Dabbling seems like a practice of sorcery.  What interests me here is how dabbling might facilitate real practices of sorcery, such as those discussed by D&G, who call themselves “we sorcerers” in A Thousand Plateaus.  D&G’s sorcery is closely allied with that of Isabelle Stengers, who adapts many of D&G’s concepts, including sorcery and magical capture.  Stengers also draws on the neopagan witch Starhawk to articulate her sense of sorcery.  Moreover, sorcery here is not just about attaining personal and interpersonal power (Starhawk’s power-with and power-within), but is also about resisting global capitalism, which is itself a form of sorcery that propagates hegemonic domination (power-over).

Integral Dabbling

The word “integral” connotes wholeness or completeness, like an integer.  What interests me is that, etymologically, integral also means un-touched.  The prefix “in” has a negative force (like “un-“ or “non-“), and “teg” comes from the Latin tangere (“to touch”).

An integral philosophy would be a philosophy of untouched unity or untouched units.  How, then, can we philosophize about that which exceeds the limits of our touching, grasping, and reaching.  Theorizing the untouched is a way of paradoxically touching the untouched.  Jean-Luc Nancy has a lot to say about touching, including the way touch makes contact with that which is intact, untouched.  If you touch too much, then the intact is no longer intact.  If you touch too little, then you haven’t made contact.  The question is how to touch with tact, making contact in such a way that a connection is made without assimilating the intact core of the other.  It’s important to note that I am not referring to human touch exclusively, but to all kinds of contact, human, nonhuman, and otherwise.  I’ll have a lot to say about this in the future, as the name of this blog indicates.  For now, I want to talk about a kind of light touch, dabbling.

Dabbling touches without penetrating the depths.  The dictionary definition of dabbling describes it as an act of moving one’s hands or feet around in water.  In other words, it is an act of getting partially wet.  It also refers to movement in shallow water (ducks that feed in shallow water dabble therein).    

From this basic definition comes the extended definition of dabbling as any kind of partial involvement in something.  Like dabbing or daubing, dabbling is a partial touch, a slight and light touch.  That partial involvement connotes superficiality in some cases, as if one is “merely” dabbling and not “really” doing it, like a hobby as opposed to a career.  However, dabbling is not necessarily superficial.  It might be a very effective way to forge connections with the untouched cores of things.  Perhaps touching things any deeper would just slow down the process of making and breaking connections.  Even worse, it could do violence to the one touching or to the one touched, or to both of them.

What is this effective kind of dabbling?  Integral dabbling.  I think Jean-Luc Nancy practices integral dabbling, but it is not to be found only among philosophers.  I think you can also find integral dabbling in pop culture.  I’ll post more later on a pop analysis of integral dabbling.