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World / Text

Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2012 - 22:18

One objection to world-as-narrative (even before we get to what we mean by narrative exactly) is that it leads us to the world-as-text, and that the world clearly cannot be a text, since a text is nothing and the world is not nothing. We dismiss the idea of world-as-text, or there being nothing outside the text, because textuality, like other appearances constructed from amorphous things such as sociality or the imagination, doesn't account for the irreducible heterogeneity and difference of real things in the world. The text is somehow unreal because manufactured, or too finite in its human contingency.

But look, there it is: the text is there, see it with all its words, its syntax and its endlessly concatenating generative grammar. The words are there in your mouth, and though the action of the muscles slip around it, and the phosphorescent images that glitter in its wake seem to disappear, nevertheless there is something under and behind it - in fact it is the very split nature of the word, with its surface shape and graspability, always divorced from its object which we nevertheless feel resisting us, hunted and vague, that allows us to see in its surface the evidence of what withdraws behind it. Moving behind a veil, yet giving the veil its very form and movement, like the wind through the opening pushing at the hangings which present a shimmering masque of surging and crashing forms.

Much as they may be arbitrary and conventional signs divorced from their referents, nevertheless there is something indexical in the relation of words the objects they symbolise. Bachelard talks about the beautiful and disturbing moments when a native of a gender-inflected language encounters, as it were, cross-gender transformations in other gendered tongues, as in the French speaker whose masculine sun (le soleil) becomes feminine in German (die Sonne), or the reverse gender-bending switch of the moon (la lune and der Mond). The shock or uncanniness, the delight and conquest, in such encounters points at the allusive and affective pairings - alluding to the same suns and moons with their many faces and adumbrations, affecting us as the world of things remind us of their irreducibility, repaying the transferred emotions we invest in them, turning us around. For all that language can be a buffer or a space between us and the world, nevertheless it is not supernatural, and cannot always keep reality from insisting on its way.

Categories: world, text, Lacan, Bachelard, narrative, story, reality,
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Author: joe

Monday, 13 February, 2012 - 14:13

Every world is a sort of disclosing, a way of rendering itself intelligible. What is intelligibility but something that can be read into, read between, picked out and gathered together, what can be thought and made into word, spoken and accounted for. Any world, being finite and contingent, is the condition of our thinking and being thinkable, speaking and being spoken, gathering and being gathered.

The disclosure of this or that world is what emerges out of the background into the light, what things become intelligible in such light. The lightening itself, the clearing in which the world emerges from its ground, the earth, is the mystery. What storyteller is shedding this light on the world that has appeared? In what story have I become intelligible myself, such that I too am here, in this clearing of the world?

Categories: clearing, world, disclosure, being, story, Heidegger,
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Three things

Author: joe

Friday, 15 February, 2008 - 10:44

Three things

Firstly: having pack removed from nose redefined pain in ways I had not anticipated. Since I seem to be doomed to an eternity of pain in the head, I should at least give my head a reason to hurt. Therefore reading Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas.

Secondly: so, yesterday, I began by reading about the divisions between Gadamer and Habermas on the co-extensivity of truth and method, and our relationship to 'authority and tradition'. For what it is worth, Gadamer seems to think that there are positive ways to view the inheritance of authority and tradition as a positive way of constituting truth. Meanwhile, Habermas seems to take a harder - 'strong-Enlightenment' line which says that anything 'handed down', as it were, from authority, is necessarily dogmatic and therefore should be rejected. In the maze of epistemology (empiricism over-assumes the ability to produce correspondence-to-reality statements from induction, while hermeneutics asserts the situatedness of any observation) perhaps the performance of the role of 'detached' observer should be rejected and (contrary to intuition) a fuller observational potential can be approached by more participation in the observed situation. Know by 'being-in', not know by 'looking-in' - immanence not transcendence (because the former is simply more honest).

A detour here led to Arthur Danto, who describes "the last historian". Of course the historian constructs a narrative out of the stuff of meaning, and the stuff of meaning is necessarily over-determined by the historian's present. Retelling the past is meta-retelling of the present. So much, so good. But consider what it would require for the adequate telling of 'truth' regarding histories (and here I suppose is where I do need to investigate Heidegger on time): the future will have historicity which is constituted in part by the present I create now from my own historicity. The only way to ensure that I responsibly pass on a historicity to the future which is consistent with the future's ability to act freely is to tell every possible history, or as Scheibler puts it "to give a complete description, historian would have to be able to see into the future, encompassing all possible future perspectives". And it is repeatedly observed by others, I see, that all historians must see themselves as this last historian (otherwise they would not feel any compulsion to write histories, surely?) but I would also add that we all therefore consider ourselves to be the last historians, telling ourselves the versions of the past we need to tell in order to construct the futures we wish to see.

And Danto seems also to help with the co-extensivity of truth and method. On representation, he emphasises what we might call the pre-semantic stage of the 'sign' (useless word). Consider the evolution of semantic codes. Something is given as a representation of something else - an idol represents a god, for instance. Danto dwells on the the fact that this is a two-stage process. Before we recognise the idol as 'representing' the god, we must first interpret the idol as identical to the god - the sign is the meaning. Only later do we bifurcate the sign into metonymy and synecdoche, and allow the possibility that the sign might be a lie - give it a semantic dimension, recognise the difference between sign and referent, and even signifier and signified. Truth is first constituted by the representation. Prohibition of the idolatry of the graven image by a jealous god for good reason, then, if you are a god.

Of course, when I say Danto helps with the co-extensivity of truth and method, I mean helps in the loosest sense of the word.

So anyway, yes I went on a huge detour, and at some point in the future, when I have to write something sensible about my methodology for my PhD thesis, I'll be grateful to myself for having written this loosely connected synopsis of a day's reading, which records in roughly chronological order the digressions I took. I still, of course need a proper bibliography to go with this, so I can retread my steps. So here it is:

Scheibler, I., 2000, Gadamer : Between Heidegger and Habermas, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham
Ankersmit, F. R., 2003, 'Danto, History, and the Tragedy of Human Existence', in History and Theory, Vol 42, No. 3
Hesse, M., 1978, 'Habermas' Consensus Theory of Truth' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
McCarthy, T., 1978, 'History and Evolution: On the Changing Relation of Theory to Practice in the Work of Jurgen Habermas' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
Wachterhauser, B. R., 1986, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, SUNY: Albany
Danto, A. C., 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Danto, A. C., 1997, Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy, UCP: Berkeley
Ormiston, G. L., & Schrift, A. D., 1989, Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Riceour, SUNY: Albany
Dallmayr, F. R., & McCarthy, T. A., 1977, Understandinf and Social Inquiry, UNDP: Notre Dame, Ind.

Now, the third and final thing: I want a way to access the information here in different ways. I want to be able to pull it around, and mesh it into other things. Biblipedia was designed to do some of the things I want to be able to do here - notes about books which can be grouped thematically. The use of the folksonomy creates a powerful tool that creates (heuristically and algorithmically, or what I want to call 'bottom-up') connections between notes and books. But I also want some top-down control too. I want to drag things together on the spur of the moment, as though they were index cards in my hands. Biblipedia can be susceptible to such manipulation (you can 'invent' tags for specific purposes, for instance).

But I want something with more power. The account I've given of my readings yesterday is clunky, because it is isolated here, on this web page. Sure I can grab it out via RSS, but that won't retain any of the semantic or chronological connections within it. Sure, I could sketch it on paper, because that could show the progression and map-like structure of the reflection, but it's made of atoms, and I still want the heuristic, crunching power that computerised meta-data provides.

So here's the kernel of my next project: a way of aggregating content like that in Biblipedia, (or any other webservice, for that matter) which, on top of the 'bottom-up' ability to analyse meta-data such as tags and produce expected and unexpected connections and groupings, also has a 'top-down' ability to sketch relationships in terms of time, theme, order, digression, space... a way to easily denote relatedness explicitly, rather than merely implicitly.

So that's summer 2008 sorted then. Hopefully my head will have stopped hurting then.

Categories: working-through, PhD, phenomenology, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, truth, method, epistemology, ontology, Danto, history,
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A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)

Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
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