Thursday, January 21, 2010

You must change your God

First, the famous final lines of Molloy, which present an intricate textual puzzle:
Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

Throughout the novel, Beckett has consistently foregone quotation marks, so dialogue is not separated out from the flow of the narrator’s ruminations by any special punctuation mark. This has led to frequent moments of uncertainty—did a character speak this line, or did the narrator only think it?—but here, at the end, the uncertainty expands to fill the limits of the Beckettian universe, for it pertains no longer to speech within the diegesis but to writing: the writing that is also within the diegesis (Moran has gone into the house to begin composing his report about his search for Molloy), and the writing on the page in front of the reader. The uncertainty is this: does Moran also write in his report, “It was not midnight. It was not raining”? Does his report present both the assertions of midnight and rain as well as their contradictions? Or has he offered the contradictions to us only, as the secret truth of the matter, and not to Youdi, for whom the report is intended? This is the same as to ask: have we been reading the report to Youdi? For the first lines of the second half of Molloy, the half pertaining to Moran, were indeed “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows,” and the narrator warned us, way back then, that his “report” would be long. But the contradictions proliferate: at the beginning, the narrator claimed that at the moment of composition, of the midnight and the raining, his son “is sleeping,” but at the end the narrator has not seen his son in many months; and so on.

Therefore, second, Moran’s attitude toward the dancing of the bees he keeps.
And in spite of all the pains I had lavished on these problems, I was more than ever stupefied by the complexity of this innumerable dance, involving doubtless other determinants of which I had not the slightest idea. And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand. And all during this long journey home, when I racked my mind for a little joy in store, the thought of my bees and their dance was the nearest thing to comfort. For I was still eager for my little joy, from time to time! And I admitted with good grace the possibility that this dance was after all no better than the dances of the people of the West, frivolous and meaningless. But for me, sitting near my sun-drenched hives, it would always be a noble thing to contemplate, too noble ever to be sullied by the cogitations of a man like me, exiled in his manhood. And I would never do my bees the wrong I had done to my God, to whom I had been taught to ascribe my angers, fears, desires, and even my body.

One may substitute Beckett’s own text for the dancing of the bees. It is certainly stupefyingly complex. Each half of the novel alone contains a critical mass of allusions, repetitions, variations and contradictions; but when the two halves are considered together, one feels that one might indeed study all one’s life without fully understanding. Take a decision, then: frivolous, and meaningless? or noble, and with the power to deliver us into rapture? The dance of the bees thus resonates with another dance, this one from David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me: the dance performed by Lil for Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland). Gordon Cole—played by Lynch himself—claims that Lil is his “mother’s sister’s girl,” but this assertion, and the dance itself, serve only as parts of a message intended for Desmond, encoded like a rebus (a red wig means the agents are headed into a dangerous situation, a relative missing from a formula—such as the uncle in “my mother’s sister’s girl”—means someone involved in the case has a relative of that type in prison, etc.). Why not convey such information simply and directly? A line of dialogue unfortunately deleted from the finished film provides two rationales: Cole “talks loud. And he loves his code.” Indeed, Cole, hard of hearing, does talk loud, and would always be likely to be overheard. But it is Cole’s portrayer, Lynch, who “talks loud” when he attempts to use language simply and directly—hence the vast distance between his subtle and enigmatic works of art and his simplistic, dogmatic apologias, in interviews and evangelical tracts, for the religion of Transcendental Meditation. What we are left with, in the indirect mode of address that characterizes art, is a shared love of the code.

Yet we are not in Cole’s position; we do not know the code, in Beckett as in Lynch. Seeing that everything happens as if dependent on an infinitely complex code we do not know, can we love the dance anyway? Beckett’s text does not belong to nature or to God, but to the culture of, as the narrator minimally specifies in this passage, the West. But as for me, sitting near my sun-drenched pages, I remember and partake in the attitude of worshipping literature (especially a certain strand of romanticism and modernism) as my nature-God, transcendent in its nobility, demanding my cogitations but remaining ineffable, to which my angers, fears, desires and body must not be ascribed, but on which I lay down my angers, fears, desires and body as one lays down a burden. More’s the pity, for isn’t it precisely Beckett who shows us no pocket exists that could ever be emptied of these four leaden articles? (I can’t go on, I’ll go on.) Molloy gives us bodies and embodied minds beginning to exhaust themselves, this is why the text dwells upon movements as translations in space which fail to transform the whole.

Thus three figures for God: God, appearing for instance in the passage on the bees’ dance, a word employed by Moran in the usual way; Youdi, the unseen commissioner of Moran’s quest, who communicates only through Gaber (gabber, Gabriel, the Enunciator) and who, Moran is certain, will wrathfully exact punishment for any failure (thus who himself is thought to have angers, fears, and desires, if not also the fourth article); but finally the Obidil, his name a mirror-image of libido, who is mentioned only once:
And with regard to the Obidil, of whom I have refrained from speaking, until now, and whom I so longed to see face to face, all I can say with regard to him is this, that I never saw him, either face to face or darkly, perhaps there is no such person, that would not greatly surprise me.

Only a page later the narrator first mentions savoring his exhaustion. Moran would so like to see the Obidil face to face—what Beckett’s Parisian contemporary Jacques Lacan would call becoming the subject of the drive—but he cannot abandon his faith in the commands of Youdi, God as the Other. The Obidil, life-energy, is the only aspect of God that may be doubted by a man still in Youdi’s thrall; but, for such a one, the Obidil may be doubted only after his power has begun to wane. For as long as the Obidil remains strong, before we begin to approach the exhaustion of life, not even our faith in Youdi can cause us to doubt. And even then the Obidil tries to love us: for it is the waning Obidil who drives us to savor even our exhaustion . . .

Monday, July 21, 2008

Facing Up to It

Probably the most uniformly scorned of the last ten years’ worth of John Updike publications, 2002’s Seek My Face offers a typically ambitious blend of closely observed character study and critical rumination. Protagonist Hope Chafetz is an elderly painter who spends the novel’s entire sjužet—except for the stunningly gorgeous final 15 pages, which occur after the interviewer’s departure—being interviewed about her life in a marathon session over the course of a single day. Much more interesting in my view than either of the two works of long fiction that precede it in the Updike corpus (Gertrude and Claudius and Rabbit Remembered, both 2000), the novel nonetheless was reviewed quite coldly in America and Britain.

This frigid reception was due largely to a perceived misguidedness in the book’s central conceit. In her younger days Hope was married (sequentially) to two major figures in the postwar American art scene. Zack McCoy, her first husband, is an exact stand-in for Jackson Pollock, and the Hope of this period is meticulously based on the life of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s real wife. Zack’s art, his alcoholism, and his spectacular death are all described as identical to the corresponding elements of Pollock’s biography (literally, since Updike admits to having relied heavily upon Naifeh and White’s Jackson Pollock: An American Saga in writing the section in which Hope reminisces about Zack, roughly the first half of the book). Like the real Krasner, Hope interacted with almost all the important figures in the closely overlapping New York School and Abstract Expressionist movements. As many reviewers noted, the names of these artists are flimsily, sometimes comically disguised in the novel: Willem de Kooning becomes Onno de Genoog, Barnett Newman becomes Bernie Nova, Franz Kline is Phil Kaline, Karel Appel is Jarl Anders, Robert Motherwell’s surname is franc-ified as Roger Merebien, etc., etc.—though other artists are somewhat better disguised, with the Mark Rothko’s Latvian Jewish background oddly transmuting into the Irish heritage of Seamus O’Rourke. Updike has always enjoyed crafting these sorts of literary games—his great early novel The Centaur (1963) included a cheat-sheet in the form of a three-page “Mythological Index” listing for various members of the Greek pantheon the pages of the novel that contained a reference to, or a character standing in for, him/her/it—and one does feel that hiding real historical personages behind silly false names is not an inappropriate gesture for a novel about Pollock, who after all was to painting precisely as Kerouac was to literature; still, reading this early portion of Seek My Face can remind one of completing one of those odd-format, single-topic puzzles that sometimes accompany the crossword in the New York Times magazine.

But then, when the interview shifts focus from Hope’s first husband to her second, a strange thing happens. Suddenly every heretofore unmentioned artist who hasn’t yet been provided with an alias is called either by his actual, historical, full name (e.g. Ad Reinhardt), or by an extremely transparent alias, much more transparent than those given to anyone in the first part of the book (e.g. “Morris Lewis” for Morris Louis), or else is subsumed entirely into the figure of Hope’s second husband, Guy Holloway. Holloway’s personal life with Hope corresponds to that of no historical figure, but his work is based most obviously on that of Andy Warhol: he makes experimental films similar to Warhol’s, and he masterminds a Factory-like art collective where “he and his assistants were turning out those multiple silk screens of car accidents and electric chairs, after 1963 of Jackie looking stunning in her pillbox hat, with such a different, impersonal feel, in those icy Day-Glo colors” (173). But Holloway is also credited in the novel with having produced works suspiciously similar to some of the most well-known pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, and Claes Oldenberg. I’m sure there are other artists in the Holloway mix—I’m nowhere near as well-versed as Updike in the history of postwar American art, and missing certain references would be inevitable for any reader save a professional scholar of art history. The point, though, is that the author has taken quite seriously Warhol’s oft-cited 1963 comment “I’m painting this way because I want to be a machine,” words rendered drier, more literal before being placed in Holloway’s mouth as “There are ways of creating without being the subject. I’m merely a means” (160). Updike accepts this notion and expands it to cover the entire Pop Art movement, condensing the diversity of its major figures into a single fictional representative. To gauge Updike’s own aesthetic preferences one need only notice the name of Holloway’s version of Warhol’s Factory—“The Hospice,” where, presumably, art went to die—or, less directly but more tellingly, to examine his characters’ Dickensian surnames: Pollock was the real McCoy, but the way of Pop Art is a hollow one.

But do we believe this? Updike offers little to convince us to share his view, and in the end convincing us seems to be missing from his to-do list. The vociferous scorn with which so many reviewers responded to this novel—a good number of them, such as Michiko Kakutani in a brainless New York Times review, seemed personally insulted by the book’s treatment of these artists—is worse than excessive. It’s fashionable. Nonetheless, Updike’s is far from an isolated, unpopular opinion, even among intellectuals. Probably the most important theorist of avant-garde art to have emerged in the past 50 years, Peter Bürger claims, in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974) that the neo-avant-garde, which includes Warhol, Rauschenberg and all the other artists flavoring Updike’s Guy Holloway stew, is pretty much worthless—albeit for reasons quite different from those Updike seems to endorse. Updike disdains the neo-avant-garde for contributing to the death of art. But Bürger doesn’t think art is dead at all, and he condemns the neo-avant-garde for having arrived too late to assist the unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to murder it.

In the Theorie, the neo-avant-garde is admonished for being “void of sense and [permitting] the positing of any meaning whatever” (61)—qualities that Bürger, who is (or at least was in 1974 when the Theorie was first published) a staunch Marxist dedicated to forwarding a revolutionary political project through cultural critique, does not find praiseworthy. Bürger argued that Modernism, as well as all “bourgeois art” before the period of the historical avant-garde of the 1920s and ’30s, owes its existence and its function what he calls the institution of art, which is defined by the notion of art’s autonomy from the non-aesthetic sphere of social praxis. For Bürger, the historical avant-garde coheres as a category not around any particular style but rather around the goal of integrating art into social praxis, or, as he sometimes puts it, dialectically sublating the former with the latter so that the new praxical-aesthetic production “is not to be understood as artistic production, but as part of a liberating life praxis [. . .] All that remains is the individual who uses poetry [or art] as an instrument for living one’s life as best one can” (53). Bürger, who calls Brecht “the most important materialist writer of our time” (88), relies upon the familiar Benjaminian/Brechtian concept of shock effects to explain the attempted efficacy of historical avant-garde pieces. The historical avant-garde was of course only one part of a wide-ranging resistance to the bourgeois capitalist system of political domination, a system that (among other things) produced and maintained the institution of art as a means for bourgeois individuals to understand themselves as subjects with no need to change the political status quo.

The problem, Bürger claims, is that bourgeois capitalism proved too resilient to the attacks of the historical avant-garde and its ideological allies, so resilient that the institution of art not only withstood the challenge posed by avant-garde antiart but managed to incorporate “antiart” into its institution, thus transforming pieces such as Duchamp’s fountain into autonomous works of art for contemplation alongside Caravaggios and Watteaus. In order to do so, the institution of art had to abandon any hope of making universally valid aesthetic claims; aesthetic relativism and the equal availability of all past styles is therefore the hallmark of the period Bürger calls the post-avant-garde, what we know as postmodernism. For Bürger the neo-avant-garde (simply an early moment within the post-avant-garde) is inherently contradictory and impotent, since it merely rehearses the historical avant-garde’s strategies within an institutional context, thus unwittingly collaborating in the institution’s endeavor to leach the last fading remnants of potency from even the remaining pieces from the avant-garde’s first go-round. In the present-day context in which historical avant-garde pieces have been granted full acceptance as works of art, the shock effects they initially produced have become yet another commodified experience offered for consumption by bourgeois individuals.

The only functional remnant that today attaches to works such as Duchamp’s readymades is the simple “enigmatic quality of the forms,” the works’ “resistance to the attempt to wrest meaning from them” (81). The viewer thus must abandon the hermeneutic circle that produces meaning and “direct attention instead to the principles of construction that determine the constitution of the work.” This renunciation of the interpretation of meaning—which, granted, constitutes no small change in predominant behaviors of reception—is the legacy of the historical avant-garde, but that renunciation has not proceeded to the sublation of art and praxis toward which the avant-garde strove. Bürger further suggests that this sublation is now impossible: art’s potentially revolutionary historical moment has succumbed forever to the advance of late capitalism. Art, in Bürger’s analysis, is not dead, but worse: immortally comatose.

This stance should be contrasted with that of Branden Joseph, whose book Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-avant-garde offers an alternative framework for understanding the work of the real Guy Holloways. Joseph’s position and Bürger’s do overlap somewhat, including on the issue that’s perhaps most relevant to Seek My Face. Influenced by the famous mid-century art critic T.J. Clark, Joseph writes that all aspects of Jackson Pollock’s painting “work toward undermining a certain form of subjective unity” (115). But only a certain form: the Dripper’s drips do signify the absence of any notion of a singular maker as a central, continuous psyche, but at the same time “Pollock’s work, a modernism in extremis, still holds some totalizing force by which the paintmark’s incessant negation is recovered as productive of meaning: a meaning issuing from a speaking subject, even if dialogically shot through with other voices and the vicissitudes of the unconscious” (115). Bürger’s take on Pollock’s work at first seems similar. Never mentioning Pollock by name, Bürger nonetheless addresses his work when theorizing “directly manufactured chance”:

Paint is dripped or splashed on the canvas. Reality is no longer copied and interpreted. The intentional creation of a totality is largely renounced and makes way for a spontaneity that to a considerable extent allows chance to produce the painting. The subject that has freed itself of all the constraints and rules of creation finally finds itself thrown back into an empty subjectivity. Because it can no longer work itself out in something that the material, and a specific task, set for it, the result remains accidental in the bad sense of the word, i.e. arbitrary. The total protest against any and every element of constraint does not take the subject to the freedom of creation but into arbitrariness. At best, this arbitrariness can afterward be interpreted as individual expression. (67)

Joseph argues that, in stark contrast to Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg (along with his friend and admirer, musician John Cage) “sought to explode those aspects of subjective autonomy that Pollock’s renunciation sought to preserve” (327). Bürger, steeped in reception research and writing urgently in a moment when political revolution still seemed possibly imminent, would surely retort: “‘explode’ for whom?” In noting that neo-avant-garde art permits the positing of any meaning whatsoever, Bürger is most concerned that this maximal semiotic indeterminacy (“arbitrariness”) necessarily restricts any resistance that might be found in works of Modernism or the neo-avant-garde. As he puts it, a “critical subject”—that is, a viewer already politically radicalized and predisposed to think dialectically—can “perceive the positive in the negative” and thus can discover resistance in any work of art whose meaning has not been totally closed down.

This may be true, Joseph might respond. But resistance is no longer what matters. By way of explanation, Joseph cites a 1968 interview with Rauschenberg:

[We are] moving into an area now which [has] as its uniqueness that what a man thinks is less and less important than his way of moving from thought to thought. So that I think eventually we’ll give up thoughts, and there will be a constant flow of concern. Thoughts then would only exist when you were faltering, or ineffective. By thoughts I mean particular ideas. (261)

In the same year in which this interview was conducted, Gilles Deleuze published his most significant book, Différence et répétiton, upon whose concepts Joseph relies heavily. Whereas for Bürger the danger of dialectical thought was the possibility of collapsing into schema—a possibility that Bürger believed the careful dialectician could avoid—for Deleuze schematicism is always already the more or less disguised nature of all dialectical thought. Against the “dogmatic image of thought,” which proceeds by representation (a mode of judgment that hierarchically relates each new term to some kind of preexisting ideal image), Deleuze famously proposed a new mode of thought, “thought without image” or rhizomatic thinking. Bürger’s Benjaminian/Brechtian reliance on shock is founded upon representation in Deleuze’s sense, as is traditional Marxist ideological critique more generally. For Deleuze, relations are external to their terms, and the same terms may be related in more or less felicitous ways. Joseph’s central thesis holds that Rauschenberg’s neo-avant-garde “combines” present discrete elements (a lone stroke of red here, a patch of cloth there) so as to train the mind to think without image—nonhiearchically, so that each term may be related to any other term whatsoever with relations that cannot preexist the production of the related terms in the viewer’s mind. Only a subject who thinks in this way can produce truly new thoughts and thus, potentially, change the extremely resilient system that seems to Bürger so monolithic (and thus seems capable only of being met binaristically with either acceptance or resistance). Art’s present function is thus not as a laboratory for the production of new thoughts, but as a boot camp for the training of rhizomatic thinkers. Guy Holloway is the hero of twentieth-century art history, not, as Updike would have it, the villain.

And yet. . . and yet: In a 1950 New York Times interview Ernest Hemingway remarked about that year’s Across the River and Into the Trees, which is still regarded as the worst book its author ever published and which is in very many ways structurally similar to Seek My Face—each novel taking place in a compressed period of time toward the end of its protagonist’s life, with most of the story’s incidents related through a combination of reminiscences spoken to a beautiful young woman (lover Renata in Hemingway, interviewer Kathryn in Updike) and the further, unspoken memories triggered by that discourse—“Sure, they can say anything about nothing happening in ‘Across the River,’ but all that happens is the defense of the lower Piave, the breakthrough in Normandy, the taking of Paris and the destruction of the 22d Inf. Reg. in Hurtgen forest plus a man who loves a girl and dies.”

Hemingway’s remark pointed up the dissonance in his novel between the richly detailed, historically specific events taking place in the story’s past, and the comparatively archetypal, minimally sketched characters of the story’s present. Yet the sole praiseworthy quality Anthony Burgess mentions in his lovely study of Hemingway—the novel’s “eloquent homage to Venice”—is found in the story’s present, much as Updike, as usual, reserves his most beautiful prose for detailing the food, landscape, weather, the house and the two women’s bodies that fill the novel when Hope is not lost in memory. To wit: “Her mouth is such a patchwork of crowns and root canals and implants, in any earlier era she would have been one of those grotesque crones such as Leonardo in his cool and unearthly way would draw, with one or two teeth left and the profile all sunk in” (264). “She stands at the double door leading to the side yard, for the thousandth time annoyed that the panes don’t quite line up, and feels that this swaying feeder on its wire, this gray birch and the woods beyond, with its tinge of red and smoky gaps of pallor, are friends whose silent trust she is betraying with all her excessively eager talk to an intruder” (74). “The young woman’s face, above the round squat tuna can she has deftly opened, seems itself to have opened, to be childishly expectant in the stark kitchen light, the illumination that fills every crevice and forms a bulwark against the gloom outside, where cloud shadows dip across the dead lawn like swallows in summer” (130).

Updike’s artistry is ostentatious, it’s true. His prose, though playful, is never unserious, and these qualities as well as the consistent readerliness (to use Barthes’ term) of his fiction are all unfashionable today. Later in that 1950 interview, Hemingway boasted with characteristic swagger, “In writing I have moved through arithmetic, through plane geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus. If they don't understand that, to hell with them.” It turns out that in Seek My Face Updike has solved his differential equation for what might well be considered the wrong variable. Yet the marks left on his chalkboard also describe, and in so doing they move me to breathlessness and elation. Since “America’s Man of Letters” (as the title of one recent critical study has called Updike) is surely too well-behaved to say what he should to anyone who can read through to the end of this fine novel with the dry eyes of a critic who has never bothered to make art, allow me the pleasure: To hell with you.

John Updike, Seek My Face
Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde
Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde

Friday, July 18, 2008

“Gibt es gegebene Wahrheit?” “Non, en vérité ça c’est désormais la différence . . .”

Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction, about which I’m blogging this summer, is divided into four major sections, each of which concerns a particular strain of influence within the twentieth-century Continental tradition. The first section, on phenomenology and its aftershocks, is titled “The Problem of the Relationship between Receptivity and Spontaneity: How is Truth Disclosed Aesthetically?” (Cutrofello assiduously maintains parallelism in his section titles; for instance the section on existentialism is called “The Problem of the Relationship between the Empirical and the Transcendental: What is the Meaning of Philosophical Humanism?”) Now, six weeks into the project, I have only reached the 2/3 mark of that first section, the point at which phenomenology gives way to its aftereffects.

Up to this point, each of the six thinkers I have addressed (Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Bachelard, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty) are in some sense phenomenologists (though Bergson’s early work slightly predated the discourse-founding writings of Husserl, we have seen that his concerns overlap a great deal with those of the official phenomenologists). For each of these six thinkers, truth is givenness, a notion elaborated in the earlier blog entry “A Kantian Interlude.” From now on, though, things will be different.

For the next few weeks, in fact, things will be différence. As phenomenology gives way to whatever it is that grapples with its legacy, the phenomenological notion of truth as givenness gives way to various notions of truth as difference, exemplarily represented by the philosophies of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze.

Before starting this project, I was more familiar with each of these three figures than with any of the thinkers about whom I’ve so far posted (with the possible exception of Kant). Indeed, I learned what little I did knew about most of those thinkers of givenness through reading the thinkers of difference. To get all cozy and familiar, I could say that Gaston, Jean-Paul, and Maurice were largely unkown to me; that I knew Edmund and Martin principally through Jacques; that Gilles had introduced me quite amiably to Henri; and that I my connection to Friedrich had been established through Jacques, Gilles, and (to a lesser degree) Michel all together. (Of the three, Michel expended far and away the least verbiage in explicit engagement with his predecessors.)

As a result, I plan to take a somewhat new tack when approaching the next few posts. Rather than attempt a précis of each thinker’s main ideas, I’ll behave in a less naïve manner, reading and rereading some of the thinkers’ primary works as well as commentaries that operate on a more advanced level, and, I hope, producing my own commentaries along the same lines.

This means I’ll be working more slowly, and therefore will not make up lost time rapidly enough to complete the project this summer. This reduction of pace will only be exacerbated by my plan to read, alongside these other shorter texts, a longish (350-page) book, published in English only a couple of months ago, with the patently germane title French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. And I’m going to be further distracted in the next couple of weeks by three side projects: an essay on John Updike and post-WWII American art; a couple of posts on the Italian Marxist movement known as Autonomism; and a joint-reading experiment with a good friend, in which I’ll tackle Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Chronique des sept misères.

Hang on . . .

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Long Live the Primordial Flesh

The phenomenological insurrection against the late Kant, against the Kant of the neo-Kantians, against the Kant of the domination of judgment, did not achieve its final form with Heidegger. Kant’s search for the origins of human experience did not go far enough to satisfy Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Hewing close to Heidegger’s critique (as described in my previous post), Merleau-Ponty asserted that the productive imagination is “a more primordial form of intentionality than that which is manifest in intellectual intuiton” (Cutrofello, 72). This is a version of Heidegger’s “common root hypothesis” which holds that the sensibility and the understanding both originate in the imagination. Merleau-Ponty goes further, stating that a process called primordial perception is located in the productive imagination, and that this primordial perception is in fact the origin of the pure concepts of the understanding (a.k.a the categories). Merleau-Ponty’s project, which he called “the phenomenology of perception” (also the title of his most important book), seeks to disclose the generative operations by which conditions of reality come into being, rather than, as Kant did, disclosing merely the static conditions of possibility of experience. These generative operations, Merleau-Ponty claimed, all derived from the embodiment of human consciousness, a condition he also called originary motility. Temporality and spatiality are “equiprimordial structures of being-in-the-world,” which is to say simply that we have knowledge of time and space (and therefore, that time and space exist) only because we primordially perceive ourselves to be a thing that moves spatially and temporally.

For the judgment-privileging Kant, a critical thinker must subject phenomena (appearances) to the analogies of experience (the categories of relation: inherence, dependence, and concurrence, which respectively establish the substance/accident dichotomy, the cause/effect dichotomy, and reciprocal causality between distinct substances) in order to ascend from mere judgments of perception to judgments of experience. This process permits the thinker to discriminate between his or her own subjective perceptions (judgments of perception) and his or her experience of an objective, normative world (judgments of experience), a world that may be shared with other thinkers. Kant thus establishes the world’s objectivity at the level of (in Merleau-Ponty’s term) thetic intentionality, or intentionality related to acts. (In this view, judgment is an act.) Against this, Merleau-Ponty argues that the phenomenology of perception reveals that the world may be considered “proto-objective,” and shared, at the level of the pre-thetic intentionality of the productive imagination, “an operative intentionality at work before any positing or any judgment” (The Phenomenology of Perception, 429). Thus Merleau-Ponty holds that “the world is not what I think, but what I live through” (ibid, xvi-xvii)—and this lived-through world is not merely idiosyncratic to the particular subject living it. Merleau-Ponty’s Cronenbergian term for this world is flesh, and the flesh of the thinker is not different in kind from the flesh of the world, and the two are in constant communication, or correspondence: “the presence of the world is precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh” (cited in Cutrofello, 77). This is sometimes known as Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh ontology” (though none of the secondary texts I consulted today employ this term).

Merleau-Ponty’s enormously influential and deeply anti-Kantian aesthetics celebrates this notion, and for Merleau-Ponty the exemplary artist for such aesthetics is Cézanne, whose paintings “consist of nothing but sensible qualities which are presented as the primordial reality out of which the so-called ‘primary’ qualities [e.g., of geometrical properties] are abstracted. As such they represent not the birth of science [as do, Merleau-Ponty asserts, the anatomical drawings of Leonardo] but the reverse moment when science rediscovers its phenomenological origins” (Cutrofello, 78). Cézanne’s “endlessly reflective” project seeks “to express the phenomenon of expressiveness itself” and thus to show that the object of science [e.g., a chemical compound such as mercuric sulfide] is not only not primary but truly secondary to the perceptual phenomenon or phenomena to which that scientific object corresponds [e.g., a certain kind of red]. The end-result of such a project would be to restore the ontological dignity of indeterminate perceptual phenomena, rather than assuming that the objective world has a fully determinate character. This assumption Merleau-Ponty attributes not only to Kant but also to Husserl, since it is inherent in the former’s notion of sensible manifold and the latter’s similar notion of hyle. These notions of the pre-thetic stratum are unworkable for Merleau-Ponty because they assume that, in the initial intuition, what is given is already a multiplicity (in the pre-Deleuzian sense) of sensory data, a complex of determinate parts, a “piecemeal synthesis of discrete sensations” rather than “the grasping of forms” that does not yet “point to” any “explicit positing of diversity” (sited in Cutrofello, 72).

Note on sources: In every post in my present project, I rely principally upon Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. For many posts I also consult relevant sections of The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought and Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. For the present post on Merleau-Ponty, I’ve referred to the following secondary texts:
Jae Emerling, Theory for Art History
Bernard Fauconnier, “Sartre et Merleau-Ponty: Égaux mais pas semblables” (in Le Magazine littéraire #468)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Kantian Interlude

For phenomenologists, truth is given to the subject. Indeed truth is nothing but the givenness of that which is given; it is this doctrine to which we refer when we speak of the “aesthetic disclosure of truth” (Cutrofello, 31). In this phrase the word “aesthetic” refers not merely to the experience of easily recognizable works of art such as paintings, novels, and theatrical performances, but rather more peculiarly to a particular reading by Heidegger of a central Kantian problematic, the celebrated “threefold synthesis” of mental experience.

This problematic is as follows: Kant separates the human cognitive capacity into three elements. He starts by identifying Sinnlichkeit (sensibility), which is not an active faculty; rather it is the passive receptivity through which the mind acquires Anschauungen (intuitions), that is, Vorstellungen (representations) of objects in space and time. The source of each Anschauung is its ding-an-sich (thing-in-itself), about which nothing whatsoever may be known other than that it must exist in order to give rise to our intuitions, which are nonetheless not intuitions of the ding-an-sich itself but only of the Erscheinung (appearance) of that ding-an-sich, a.k.a. its phenomenon.* Sinnlichkeit is thus defined as a receptivity to phenomena, which are given to Sinnlichkeit as a complex sensible manifold (a.k.a. “manifold of intuition”). “In order to recognize this complexity, we must apprehend the parts [of the manifold] successively, at distinct times. The process of unifying the successively apprehended parts into one representation is the synthesis of apprehension in intuition,” which is the first step in the threefold synthesis (Buroker, 108).

The second step in the threefold synthesis is known as the reproduction of the manifold in the imagination. Einbildungskraft (the imagination), an active faculty which mediates between Sinnlichkeit and der Verstand (which we will deal with in the third step), has two functions. On the one hand, Einbildungskraft is “the capacity to have a sense-like representation of an object not currently present” (Guyer 375); it reproduces earlier Vorstellungen while apprehending later ones (as Anschauungen), “so that we can even raise the question of whether the earlier ones represent the same object as the later ones do” (Guyer 83). This is the function of reproductive imagination. But Einbildungskraft has a more basic role, too, as productive imagination. Before the activity of productive imagination intervenes, the mind cannot distinguish between an object of representation and the representation of that object. As Pinkard puts it, the synthesis of apprehension in intuition alone “would only give us an indeterminate intuition of a multiplicity of ‘items’ in space and time” (28). As productive imagination, Einbildungskraft therefore unifies that “intuitive, experiential multiplicity of items” according to rules that render the multiplicity regular enough to proceed to the third step. These rules are called schemata, and the process of applying them to the Anschauungen is known as the schematism, “the primordial synthesis by which the imagination relates the pure concepts of the understanding [a.k.a. the categories] to pure determinations of time” (Cutrofello 20). This notion of the schematism will become clearer later on, and indeed will be crucial to the Analytic/Continental divide, as we shall see. For now, let us say that in the schematism, productive imagination “unif[ies] the pure manifold into a representation of one global time” (Buroker, 128). Time, for Kant, is famously “the form of inner sense,” that is to say, the form by which we intuit our own representations. The productive imagination is responsible for the transcendental synthesis of the a priori sensible manifold (ibid). Our awareness of space is a similar construction of Einbildungskraft. Through productive imagination, the mind transforms momentary representations (which is all that Sinnlichkeit provides) into temporally enduring Vorstellungen of objects that are conceived as equally temporally enduring as well as spatially extended.

Thus regularized and rendered lasting, Vorstellungen are ready for the third step, conceptual recognition of the unitary object. As Guyer somewhat contortedly puts it, in this step we “recognize that our several intuitions constitute knowledge of a single object because it follows from some concept of the object that it must have just the sorts of properties that those successive intuitions represent it as having” (83-84). Such recognition constitutes a judgment, produced in the faculty of der Verstand (the understanding, a.k.a. the intellect). Pinkard points out that the Begriffen (concepts) upon which judgments rely are not simply abstractions from intuitions. Rather, a Begriff is “a rule for synthesis in judgments” (32). A Begriff is, Kant says, “a unity of the act of bringing various representations under one common representation” (cited in Pinkard, 32). An association is simply a matter of fact (e.g. thinking of a cat when someone says “sidewalk” because you tripped over a cat on the sidewalk yesterday). Associations are non-normative; they do not depend upon rules for combining Vorstellungen, as do judgments. “To make a judgment is to do something that is subject to standards of correctness” (31); “Having a concept is more like having an ability—an ability to combine representations according to certain norms—than it is like having any kind of internal mental state” (32). The most basic of all concepts are the famous Kantian categories, also known as “pure concepts of the understanding,” which number twelve, three for each of the four headings quality, quantity, relation, and modality. Note that the schemata are linked to the categories: schemata, like the categories, constitute a special kind of Begriffen; each schema corresponds to a category and constitutes the condition of relating that category to spatiotemporal objects. That is to say, the schematism, governed by Einbildungskraft, mediates between Sinnlichkeit and der Verstand (this will become crucial later on).

The judgments of der Verstand are of two sorts. The most common sort of judgment is a determining judgment (a.k.a. “determinative judgment”), in which the Begriff (concept) to be applied precedes the particular Vorstellungen that are subsumed under it. For example, when I see a cat, in order to think that cat as a cat, I must already have the concept of “cat.” What I intuit when I see a cat is a sensible manifold of theoretically infinitely divisible parts, situated within an even larger sensible manifold. Einbildungskraft adds unity of time and space to this Anschauung, along with the capacity for comparison with former Vorstellungen (i.e., memories). In order to recognize this new spatio-temporal Vorstellung of the cat as a cat, I must further perform a determining judgment that matches my pre-existing Begriff of “cat” to the Vorstellung thus created. That is to say, if my Verstand does not already contain a matching concept “cat,” I will apply some other concept instead (perhaps “animal” or even “black shape”). Determining judgments are characteristic of scientific cognition as well as of common sense.

But there is another possibility. Rather than subsuming particular Vorstellungen under pre-existing Begriffen, it may happen that one begins with particulars and then goes in search (mentally) of a Begriff under which to subsume them—a Begriff which did not exist prior to the confrontation with those particulars. Such activity constitutes a reflective judgment, of which there are two kinds. Teleological judgments deal with the purposes an object is judged to serve. Such judgments end up providing an important part of Kantian moral philosophy, but they are not really crucial to the point I need to make about phenomenology, so I’ll set them aside. The crux of the matter is the second kind of reflective judgment: aesthetic judgment.

In aesthetic judgment, one confronts an individual case for which in principle one cannot find a general rule. For Kant, aesthetic judgment rests upon the experience of the beautiful. The beautiful is defined as “that which pleases universally without a concept” (Kant, cited in Guyer, 313). Kant asserts that one cannot possess a conceptual Vorstellung of “the beautiful” under which one may then subsume newly acquired Vorstellungen (as in a determining judgment), because the beautiful by definition resists conceptual determination. Beauty, Kant says, simply cannot be a Begriff. Furthermore, the pleasure we derive from an encounter with a beautiful object derives from the judgment we make about it. That is to say, we don’t judge an object to be beautiful because of some distinctive pleasure we derive from it; rather, the distinctive pleasure that accompanies beauty actually derives from the very act of judging an object to be beautiful. This distinguishes the beautiful from the merely agreeable (or “pleasant”), which may result in a determining judgment but which is essentially private and subjective.

Judgments of the beautiful, by contrast, are in principle objective, public, universally communicable, and even normative. “In making a subjective judgment about the beautiful, one is making a normative statement about how oneself and all others ought to experience something, not an empirical prediction about how others actually will react to the objects in question; [by contrast], in making a subjective judgment about what pleases oneself, one is merely reporting on one’s own private mental states and, on that basis, is entitled to say nothing about what others ought to feel in experiencing the same thing” (Pinkard, 69). In his commentary on Kantian aesthetics, D.N. Rodowick provides a description of Kant’s hierarchy of art: art (Kunst) first is divided between the mechanical arts (what we call science) and the aesthetic arts. The latter further subdivide into the agreeable arts, which end in enjoyment (“an empirical, if incommunicable, sensation”), versus the fine arts (a.k.a. the “beautiful arts”), which have their end in pleasure without enjoyment (118). The pleasure of the beautiful originates from reflective judgment, “rather than sensation proper,” and it is this origin that makes such pleasure objective, normative, and universally communicable. (Rodowick is also more careful about Kant’s distinction between empirical aesthetic judgments, which are determining judgments about the agreeable, and pure aesthetic judgments, which are reflective judgments about the beautiful. The other commentators to whom I refer in this post seem to use “aesthetic judgment” as a shorthand for “pure aesthetic judgment” (Rodowick, 113-114).)

This objective and universally communicable normative quality is essential to what Kant means by beauty. (From our usually relativist viewpoint today, we might say that Kant ought first to demonstrate that our “judgments of beauty” are not simply delusional egocentric projections onto others of our idiosyncratic experience of the agreeable. So far as I know, Kant simply takes his description of judgments of he beautiful as accepted and needing no demonstration; Pinkard writes that Kant considers judgments of the beautiful to be objective “prima facie,” i.e. self-evident and needing no demonstration (Pinkard, 68)). Kant declares that the only way to preserve the objectivity of beauty while respecting its other essential quality, its resistance to conceptual determination, is to consider the beautiful in terms of the “harmonious free play” of both of the mental faculties, Einbildungskraft (imagination) and der Verstand (the understanding, or “intellect”) (remember, Sinnlichkeit is technically a receptivity, not a faculty, although many commentators uncarefully refer to it as a faculty). Rodowick concisely describes the nature of this harmony: “A judgment of beauty becomes possible, then, when the harmony of form in the object is intuited as analogous to a harmony in the subject that the imagination would form with respect to the understanding if, paradoxically, the imagination were left in perfect freedom to conform itself to the lawfulness of understanding” (121).

I cannot restate Kant’s conclusion any more clearly or succinctly than does Terry Pinkard, and so I reproduce his text here:
The experience of the beautiful thus involves the imagination, although in a crucially mediated way. Although the intellect [der Verstand] is governed by the concepts (the rules) necessary for the possibility of experience, the imagination is free to combine the matters of experience according to its own plan. When, however, the imagination constructs a unity of experience that, although not guided by a concept (a rule), is nonetheless in harmony with the kinds of conceptual judgments produced by the intellect (as guided by rules), and this harmony is itself spontaneously produced without any rule to guide it, then one has the possibility of an apprehension of the beautiful. Such harmonious free play, however, is not itself directly experienced (at least not in the same way in which a feeling of agreeableness or [pleasantness] is directly experienced); it is by an act of attending to it, of reflective judgment, that the agent apprehends the harmony.

In that way, aesthetic experience combines elements of both spontaneity and passivity [receptivity]: one must have the unconstrained harmony between intellect and imagination at work, and the harmony must be spontaneously attended to; and one must apprehend something as being beautiful, as being an object of experience exhibiting itself in the same effect in which imagination and intellect would spontaneously result if they were to produce the object. In experiences of the beautiful, we encounter objects that reflective judgment judges as exhibiting the way in which imagination and intellect would have structured them if they had made them in a fully harmonious free play of each other.

Because of this, the pleasure experienced in aesthetic appreciation does not precede the judgment itself [. . .] One is reflectively judging, in effect, that this is the way that one’s experience really ought to be [. . .]

Although fine art is intentionally designed to produce such aesthetic experiences, it must not, Kant stresses, show its design on its face. For us to experience it as beautiful, it must seem to be as free from the constraints of production-according-to-rule as anything in nature that we find beautiful [. . .] The experience of nature or a natural object as beautiful is based on a reflective judgment about the purposiveness of the world around us and how that world harmoniously fits our nature as spontaneous beings. In the case of fine art, we find that purposiveness created for us by our artists, who must not allow any of the material content of purposiveness to be exhibited in the work; in the case of nature, though, we find works that, without any intentional design at all, nonetheless meet the requirements of our own powers of imagination and intellect, as if they had been designed that way [. . .]

Experience of the beautiful is thus, as Kant phrased it, an experience of “purposiveness without purpose,” a sense that things fit together according to a purpose that we cannot state. (70-72)

What does all this have to do with phenomenology? Cutrofello finds the answer in Heidegger’s first major book after the 1927 Sein und Zeit, 1929’s Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik. There Heidegger rejects the dominant interpretation (held by the neo-Kantians) of Kant as rejecting ontology in favor of epistemology (or reducing the former to the latter). That neo-Kantian position interprets der Verstand as the primary locus of knowledge, giving der Verstand primacy over Sinnlichkeit in empirical cognition. By contrast, Heidegger points out that in his description of the schematism Kant subordinates der Verstand to Sinnlichkeit: “‘It is only insofar as the pure understanding as understanding is the servant of pure intuition that it can remain the master of empirical intuiton’ (Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, 80). In other words, the fact that truth can pertain to determining judgments presupposes a prior schematization by which the categories are first ‘sensibilized’” (Cutrofello, 21). This means, Heidegger argues, that the receptive dimension of human cognition (intuition) is privileged over the spontaneous dimension (judgment). Referring to Kant’s first account of the threefold synthesis (the so-called “A Deduction,” which Kant eliminated from the second edition of the First Critique, replacing it with the “B Deduction”), Heidegger further claims that Einbildungskraft is in fact the originary cognitive faculty, the “common root” from which Sinnlichkeit and der Verstand derive.** Thus both cognition’s “spontaneous receptivity” (pure sensibility) and “receptive spontaneity” (pure understanding) are manifestations of Einbildungskraft, rather than wholly distinct faculties (note that in each of these two-term phrases coined by Heidegger, the noun takes precedence over the adjective). Given this, Cutrofello writes, Heidegger interprets the schematism’s subordination of der Verstand to Sinnlichkeit to mean that Einbildungskraft “is first and foremost a kind of spontaneous receptivity, and only secondarily—and on this basis, a kind of receptive spontaneity” (21).

With reference to Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Kant’s rewriting of the A Deduction as a “shrinking back” from the truth that Kant had uncovered. The B Deduction, which rejects the A Deduction’s implicitly privileged alliance between Einbildungskraft and Sinnlichkeit in favor of an explicitly privileged alliance between Einbildungskraft and der Verstand, represents a transition “from a fundamentally ‘aesthetic’ orientation toward the world to the advent of an epistemic subject for whom knowledge is a matter of passing judgment on appearances” (Cutrofello 22). Though Cutrofello does not make explicit this final step in the argument, it seems clear to me that the aesthetic orientation Heidegger is describing here is incommensurable with pure aesthetic judgments as Kant describes them in the Third Critique. Only an epistemic subject may make pure aesthetic judgments (or empirical aesthetic judgments, for that matter). By the time such a judgment can produce its knowledge, the aesthetic subject for whom truth is givenness has been eliminated—or at least set aside. Phenomenology mistrusts this setting-aside. Analyticism considers it necessary, as the fundamental step in a project of distinguishing logically demonstrable truth from unfounded idiosyncracy.

*I am fairly certain that “Erscheinung”/“appearance” and “phenomenon” are interchangeable, though there may be some subtle distinction of which I am unaware, perhaps similar to the controversy regarding the relationship of the “noumenon” to the “ding-an-sich.” Terry Pinkard and Paul Guyer hold that “noumena” are most properly understood as “representations of certain ‘wholes’ or supersensible objects that traditional metaphysics thought could be grasped by reason alone” (Pinkard, 41), or more simply put “[positive] object[s] supposedly known by pure reason alone” (Guyer, 376), the possibility of which Kant rejects, or accepts only as “limiting concepts[,] reminders and cautions about the impossibility of extending rational accounts of the world in ways that contradict the conditions under which those accounts can be given”; whereas a “ding-an-sich” is the necessarily posited yet absolutely epistemologically unavailable (also therefore extra-spatial and extra-temporal) source of a given phenomenon. In other words, a noumenon is simply a ding-an-sich considered as knowable, which, Kant claims, is always a mistake; to treat a ding-an-sich (negative) as a noumenon (positive), as Kant claims traditional metaphysics does, is to attempt to create a positivity from a negativity by force of will. It should perhaps be further noted that this distinction between noumenon and ding-an-sich is apparently irrelevant to the “two-aspect view” of transcendental idealism influentially proposed by Henry Allison (though not yet widely accepted). Like Guyer, I adopt the more traditional “two-object view” (a.k.a. the “two-worlds view”) in which “there is a straightforward ontological distinction between two classes of entity: knowable and mind-dependent appearances [i.e., phenomena] and unknowable and mind-independent things in themselves [i.e., dingen-an-sich, or noumena in a negative sense]” (Allison, cited in Kain, 34); whereas Allison’s “two-aspect view” somewhat bafflingly holds that “Kant’s transcendental distinction is between the ways in which things (empirical objects) can be ‘considered’ at the metalevel of philosophical reflection rather than between the kinds of things that are considered in such reflection” (ibid). In any case, most commentators use “noumena” and “dingen-an-sich” interchangeably, using both terms to refer to the wholly negative sources of phenomena.

** Cutrofello notes that Kant himself “explicitly rejects the ‘common root’ hypothesis” (29). But the passage from Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View that Cutrofello cites to demonstrate this explicit rejection takes highly tentative tone, thus merely begging the question that Heidegger claims to resolve: “Understanding and sensibility . . . join together spontaneously . . . as intimately as if one had its source in the other, or both originated from a common root. But this cannot be—at least we cannot conceive how heterogeneous things could sprout from one and the same root” (cited in ibid).

Note on sources: In every post in my present project, I rely principally upon Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. For many posts I also consult relevant sections of The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought and Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. For the present post on Kant and Heidegger, I’ve referred to the following secondary texts:
Jae Emerling, Theory for Art History
Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism
Paul Guyer, Kant
Jill Vance Buroker, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
Philip J. Kain, Hegel and the Other
D.N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After the New Media

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jean-Paul Sartre

Here’s another French philosopher (after Henri Bergson) whose name is often spoken in a Monty Python falsetto. Bergson had the relatively minor privilege of being the correct response to a Python game-show question, “What great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to physical states?” As we have seen already, Bergson is by no means the only possible correct answer to the host’s question—arguably any phenomenologist would fit the bill, certainly including Husserl. In the Python episode, the question gets posed to a nasty moronic old biddy played by Terry Jones in drag who, after being prodded to “have a guess,” miraculously produces Henri Bergson’s name. (“Oh that’s lucky, I never even heard of him!”)

Perhaps as a sign of the two philosophers’ relative standings in the Franco-Anglo world circa 1970, Sartre received much more extensive Pythonic treatment, as the occasional subject of an entire episode, whose best gag involves John Cleese in drag calling up “Mrs. Sartre” and, upon learning that Sartre cannot come to the phone, inquiring in deliberately awkward French, “Quand sera-t-il libre?” Cleese laughs uproariously and puts his/her hand on the phone: “She says he’s spent the last sixty years trying to work that one out! – Oh, très amusant, Madame S!”

But the fictional Mrs. Sartre’s quip is not a philosophically apposite one, for the first thing a student learns about Sartre’s philosophy is that he does not anticipate the dawn of human freedom as a not-yet-attained telos. Rather, the human being (or “man,” as Sartre is more likely to put it) is always already free. In Sartre’s philosophy the correct response to the question “When will he be free?” can only be “He always has been free and will remain free until the moment of his death.” Freedom is the very condition of human being, which Sartre calls the pour-soi (for-itself), as distinct from the determined en-soi (in-itself) that is all non-human things. Death for the pour-soi is nothing more than the cessation of freedom, that is, the return of the pour-soi to the en-soi.

Sartre also calls death the return to ontological plenitude. The pour-soi is marked by le néant (nothingness), which is the ontological nature of freedom. “The world is inhabited by ‘little pools of non-being,’ or negatités, each of which is constituted by a negating consciousness” (Cutrofello, 67). In the death of a consciousness, its negatités vanish, and the néant that permits their constitution dissipates too as consciousness’s body returns to the state of non-intentional matter in-itself.

These negatités and the néant are both deduced by Sartre from his model of the three cognitive operations: perception, conception, and imagination. An act of perception has a real object but works through adumbration, which is to say that no act of perception gives the object in all its reality (cf. Husserl). Acts of conception are somewhat tangential to the basic argument here; they grasp the object totally but abstractly (non-concretely). An act of imagination produces an image, which is irreal but not abstract: “Like perception, an image represents only a particular aspect of its object. But because it is unreal, the imagined object does not contain within itself anything more than is revealed in the image [. . .] Thus imagining is like conceiving in that it presents its object all at once. But this is only because there is no object apart from the image itself [. . .] Imagining neither intends emptily [like conceiving] nor fulfills [like perceiving] – rather, it is an intending of emptiness itself” (Cutrofello, 65).

Every act of imagination, for Sartre, has as its prerequisite the negation of an object of perception, through the suspension of perception itself. (One cannot perceive and imagine the same object, and each cognitive act has only one object, thus perception must be suspended during an act of imagination.) Sartre interprets Husserl’s intentionality thesis to mean that consciousness is the capacity for the constitution or deconstitution of objects of perception. “To deconstitute an object of perception is not to cease to be conscious but to constitute something whose non-being is constituted through the deconstitution of the object of perception”—that is, to constitute an image (Cutrofello, 66). This is the heart of freedom, néant: “Consciousness is free in the sense that it can imagine various ways of not being the particular being that it negates” (67). The key terms here are “imagine” and “various.”

Sartre’s famous concept of mauvaise foi (bad faith) takes two possible forms: either the pour-soi can deny its facticity, deny the fact that it is also the en-soi that it inherits from the past (this is the bad faith Sartre calls denial); or the pour-soi can desire to eliminate its néant and to identify completely with its facticity and implicitly deny its transcendence (freedom) (this is the bad faith known as desire). For Sartre, bad faith as desire is the desire to be dead without having to die—that is, to be nothing more than one’s own past (to no longer suffer from the anxiety that accompanies having a present, being free) without having to give up one’s relationship to the future (i.e., “the ideal of coinciding with one’s past while miraculously retaining on’s relationship to the future,” Cutrofello, 69). God is precisely the idea of such a being whose pour-soi is the ground of its en-soi (who necessarily exists, rather than contingently existing as do we mortals); thus for Sartre we are all not only “condemned to be free” (his famous formulation) but also condemned either to deny that we exist as matter (the path of the idealist), or to desire to be God.

This being-God Sartre also calls sincerity; it is, he says, irrealizable. (I’m not sure precisely how this differs from the mundane old word “impossible.”) Are we then condemned to insincerity (bad faith)? It would appear so, but Sartre does hold out the promise of, not sincerity, but authenticity, a condition irrealizable in the social regime we now inhabit. Why this is so, and Sartre’s prescription for changing that regime, will be the topic of my next post on Sartre (which, due to the organization of Cutrofello’s book, will arrive in a couple of months . . .)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bachelard, Baudelaire, Bersani

I initially thought that I had never before encountered Gaston Bachelard’s thinking. From the brief entries in the Columbia History and in Cutrofello’s book, I can glean that he is something of a man-behind-the-curtain for a number of the more recent theorists whose work I am most fond of. Bachelard seems to be an unspoken influence on Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, and Leo Bersani.

Badiou’s project of mathematical ontology may be influenced by Bachelard’s anti-Bergsonian assertion of the ontological priority of thought time (a product of counting, which enables conceptual discrimination and has a digital essence) over the lived time of intuition. Like Badiou’s ontology, Bachelard’s thus takes set theory as its ground.

Gilles Deleuze’s relationship to Bachelard is perhaps not solely one of antagonism. Bachelard is mentioned only once in Difference and Repetition and only once in The Logic of Sense, both times in footnotes. Yet Deleuze seems to have thought a great deal about Bachelard’s assertion of the noumenal priority of relations as well as the earlier philosopher’s view of experimentation as “the instantiation of one of an indefinite number of possible cases given by the theory itself” rather than the empirical testing of particular cases (Cutrofello, 59-60)).

Lastly, Bersani (about whom I am better equipped to speak) seems to have taken up Bachelard’s privileging of poetic reverie as ontologically creative. Bachelard establishes three orders of reflective consciousness, each aligned with a version of Descartes’ most famous philosophical postulate as well as with one of Aristotle’s kinds of causality.

1. Bachelard’s (cogito)1 is the cogito as Descartes stated it: “I think, therefore I am” (more accurately, “I am thinking, therefore I am”—but Cutrofello uses the more familiar translation, so we’ll stick with that). This is thinking at the level of efficient causality (a.k.a. motive causality), which Bachelard associates with Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. This is the causality of “The ball fell because of gravity” as well as of “The ball fell because I dropped it.”

2. (Cogito)2 is expressed as “I think that I think, therefore I am.” For Bachelard this second-order reflexivity of consciousness subordinates efficient causality to final causality, better known to non-Aristotelians as teleology. This is the causality of “I dropped the ball in order to free up my hand for eating,” or “I dropped the ball in order to make it fall, because I consider the falling of balls to be an inherently good thing” or even, say, for a Hegelian, “The ball fell in order that Spirit might move toward its self-realization in history.”

3. (Cogito)3, “I think that I think that I think,” announces the reflective consciousness of formal causality. Aristotle describes the formal cause thusly: “A thing is called a cause in one way [. . .] if it is the form and pattern, that is, the formula of its essence, and the genera of this (for example, 2:1, and in general number, of the octave), and the parts present in the account” (cited in Barnes, 83). As Jonathan Barnes puts it in Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, taking the example of an eclipse, the eclipse’s formal cause “states the form or essence of an eclipse—it says what an eclipse is.” Formal causality relies upon a given account of an event or thing. Again, in Barnes’s example, “What it is and why it is are the same. What is an eclipse? Privation of light from the moon by the earth’s screening. Why is there an eclipse? [. . .] Because the light leaves it when the earth screens it” (87). In other words, the moon is eclipsed because (1) the moon is deprived of light by being screened; and (2) things deprived of light by being screened are eclipsed.

Thus, formal causality is discursive and relational. As Cutrofello writes, quoting Bachelard, “To live at the level of (cogito)3 is to seek ‘links, agreements, even Baudelairian correspondences’ between ‘pure thought and pure poetry’” (62). In his indispensable account of the various influences upon Baudelaire’s concept of correspondences, Henri Dorra quotes the early-nineteenth-century philosopher Pierre Leroux, who, when Baudelaire was ten years old, wrote, “Poetry is the mysterious wing that glides at will in the whole world of the soul, in that infinite sphere, one part of which is colors, another sounds, another movements, another judgments, and so forth, all vibrating simultaneously, according to certain laws, so that a vibration in one region communicates itself to another region. The privilege of art is to feel and express these relationships, which are deeply hidden in the very unity of life. From these harmonic vibrations of the diverse regions of the soul an accord results, and this accord is life; and when this accord is expressed, it constitutes art” (cited in Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories, 8).

Bersani calls this vibration “the correspondence of forms.” It is a sort of synaesthesia between various lines of the world and various lines of consciousness (or of the subject). Consciousness at once locates the correspondences in the world (as ontologically prior to the moment of their location) and “cultivates” those correspondences in the world through the act of locating them (Bersani, Intimacies, 87). While Bersani does not speak explicitly in terms of phenomenological reduction, as does Bachelard (who insists that a qualitatively new reduction is necessary to move from one level of the cogito to the next), nonetheless it seems easy to reconcile Bersani’s project with that of Bachelardian aesthetics as I tentatively understand it. As Cutrofello writes, “In aesthetic reflection, thought finds itself confronting not ‘objects’ that can be determined by a legislative subject but ‘forms’ that in some sense resist determination. Although at the level of (cogito) 3 we find ourselves unable to subsume objects under determinate concepts, we [do not] experience this failure [. . .] as a cognitive shortcoming because the objects in question present us not so much with the demand that they be determined as with the meta-level (or higher order) demand that our thinking confront the very demand that objects be determined” (63). This account seems to jibe quite well with Bersani’s aesthetics (laid out most fully in Arts of Impoverishment, Caravaggio’s Secrets, and Forms of Being), which cultivates relations among terms while refusing any moves to determine those terms (moves that Bersani would regard as identitarian).

Equally compelling is Bachelard’s attack on Heidegger. For Bachelard, the imagination is the subject’s capacity to engage in reverie, that is, the consciousness of (cogito)3. Bachelard prescribes reverie as the highest state to which we should aspire: “We ourselves have found it exceedingly difficult, psychologically speaking, to attain to (cogito)4. We believe that the true region of formal repose in which we would gladly remain is that of (cogito)3” (cited in Cutrofello, 62). For Heidegger, imagination is not reverie; rather it is the primordial temporality of Dasein, in connection with which Dasein becomes resolute and authentic. “Thus, whereas Bachelard suggests that ‘it is through reverie that one must learn phenomenology,’ Heidegger suggests that phenomenology can only be learned by abandoning oneself to the self-disclosure of being. [Isn’t Heidegger’s] ‘step back,’ by which the thinker allows Enframing to show itself as such, ultimately just a reflection on (cogito)3 from the standpoint of the Ereignis itself?” (Cutrofello 63). In this way Heidegger’s self-disclosing being is critiqued as a misapprehension of “the elusive perspective of (cogito)4,” a mistaking of “I think that I think that I think that I think” for something like “my being thinks me.” This is perhaps a very understandable confusion, since Bachelard suggests that it’s impossible to understand (cogito)4 but acknowledges the ineradicable temptation figured by the possibility of attaining that state someday, somehow.