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Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."

- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.


A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
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Wounded research #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009 - 07:38

The scrawl on the paper is a residue of a thought, and the reading of it now no more retrieves that thought than water restores dried up remains to their original vitality. I'm looking at the few notes I wrote in the phenomenology / depth psychology masterclass, and wondering if the handwriting itself might give me a clue as to the quality and taste of the thoughts and reflections that provoked them. Still, in the distillery they might briefly miss the port that has left the barrel but soon enough they look ahead to the flavour of the whisky. One of the other participants asked me at the time if I was enjoying the class, and I replied that while it was wonderful to be able to dwell for a couple of days on the place of my self in my work, when it was over I'd still have to return to the pressures of the institution and objectify, alienate and commodify my work and pretend I'd somehow contributed value to a knowledge economy. Actually I didn't quite say that: but that's a fancy way of retrospectively reworking the meaning I think I remember trying to put into brief, friendly, conversational words.

"Objectivity as a performance" is the note on the paper. The discussion turned to the kind of knowledge you'd want a carer to have or use. A doctor needs to slip between different modes - from the caring, interpersonal, individual-focussed human being who talks to the patient about their unique embodied life; to the impersonal, efficient, distant expert who examines your intimate body without judgement. When you visit the doctor and ask him to check your prostrate, you don't want the subjective eye of the appreciative flaneur of the body to be cast over your rectum: you want what Robert refered to as 'the hand of knowledge' to be the hand that touches you; not the hands of aesthetics, culture, poetry. In this respect, the doctor's behaviour is a performance in the strong sense that Goffman would use the word. The embodied, co-presense of two human beings in a room, each of whom have a myriad techniques of the self with which to hold at arms length the blank face of the universe, must always find ways to mediate the event of their interaction: scripts and roles which they understand and which they have already frequently rehearsed. The doctor's role is a difficult one: as any stage actor knows, flicking the switch and moving from one role to another is challenging enough; that the doctor absolutely must play one role, 'dead behind the eyes', but absolutely must not play that way, must 'be there', for the other, only augments that difficulty.

But this legitimation of 'objective knowledge' comes with ambiguity for me: it neither affirms the naive realism that asserts the viability of objective truth, but neither does it deny it. The performance of objectivity by the doctor is comparable to the performance of objectivity by which the drama of science unfolds. Those engaged in the practices and pursuits of scientific knowledge are engaged in a continual enactment of the scripts and signs of objectivity, permitting the collective suspension of disbelief which we all assent to by participating in modern society, and which would crash around our ears should enough of us suddenly nudge our neighbours in the theatre and mention the fact that we're really just decorated monkeys with a knack for communal hallucinations. In either case - the one to one with the doctor, or the continual reproduction of the scientific-technological superstructure - we might ask to what extent is the performance of objectivity a historically contingent phenomenon, or to what extent is the appeal to universal truth a part of the furniture of the mind, or, indeed the furniture of the universe? Of course, we can imagine a world in which those of us in need of care can seek help from others without needing to negotiate our neuroses and thereby demand that our carers perform their schizophrenic roles, and instead meet us with the freedom to be holistic, whole-person healers. But one of the premises of this masterclass is a discipline of depth psychology which is grounded in an archetypal approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, itself a mode of understanding the architecture of the human mind as somehow fixed: the human psyche as a unity in diversity. It helps not at all to say that the structure of the human experience is contingent upon our evolutionary history, if as a species it is still an inescapable, eternal necessity.

Categories: subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, phenomenology, depth psychology, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn, science, performance, memory,
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Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
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Author: joe

Tuesday, 13 January, 2009 - 23:19

There are often serendipities (though I'm talking about reading theoretical works here, so when I write 'serendipity' you may read 'pain in the arse') in the way I discover new avenues of critical thought to pursue, though now I think about it, the serendipity probably resides in my limited ability to discern and decipher connections rather than the rarity, inscrutability - or even coincidence - of the connections themselves. Perhaps I'm like a half-wit, or at least the opposite of a Quasimodo, who given any chance sees the rightness and absolute simplicity of analogies and apposite moments as though they were the salty truth of the world. I, on the contrary, make hard work where there might be restful ease.

In any case, I was reading Lave and Wenger on the subject on legitimate peripheral participation [1] (their precursor to the inexaggerably important idea of communities of practice) when I was drawn to their description of Bourdieu's ideas of 'conductorless orchestras' (what other metaphor for benign anarchy could you hope for?) and thus led to Michael Grenfell's edited work, Bourdieu and Education, in which I was teased by the characterisation of Bourdieu's work as an attempt to resolve the dichotomy of objective knowledge ('knowledge without a knowing subject') and hermeneutics (subjective and individual understanding).

His intent is to find a theory which is robust enough to be objective and generalizable, and yet accounts for individual, subjective thought and action. [2]

This for me is another case of serendipitously discovering more justification for resolving such dichotomies (e.g. the subject / object dichotomy) by encapsulating the whole dyad under the reunified sign of 'practice', as Mike and I discussed (if you can be arsed to read pages and pages of burbling) at the CEMP blog.

In any case, if you cannot see the woods for the trees, try banging your head on those trees until they tire of your bloody-minded importuning and give you a map of the locality.

[1] Lave, Jean & Wenger, Etienne, 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Grenfell, Michael, 1998. Bourdieu & Education: Acts of Practical Theory,
Florence, KY, USA: Taylor & Francis, Incorporated

Categories: theory, PhD, objectivity, subjectivity, hermeneutics, Bourdieu, pedagogy, participation,
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