Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love and Becoming

In this clip, Derrida says some intelligent things about love and the origin of philosophy. He points out that philosophy starts with love, and in particular the difference between the "who" and the "what" of love. The fundamental question of philosophy, he rightly says, is "What is it 'to be'"? And he cites a beautiful definition of love: "the movement of the heart".

Now, I'm always interested in how this relates to poetry. And I would argue that Derrida is here replaying the move by which philosophy tried to muscle poetry off its proper turf. After all, philosophy does not start with love, but with the love of wisdom. (Poetry, by contrast, is the wisdom of love.) The philosopher is not concerned with the movement of the heart but with the ________* of the mind.

Just as emotions emerge from love's basic movement, so concepts emerge from the basic ________* of wisdom. If the basic question of philosophy is "What is it to be?" then the basic question of poetry is always "Who is to come?" That is, who is my love bringing forth. In the other, of course, but not less in the self. If I have a criticism of Derrida's improvised remarks here it is that his presumption that, whether love is of a "who" or "what", its reference is outside the self. I don't think that's true. The "who", the "singularity", that is the real "object" of love, always includes the self who loves.

Love is the movement of the heart by which people become themselves. Wisdom is the ________* of the mind in which things are what they are.

*I thought "coherence" might be the right word. But it isn't. So I'll leave it as a question: what is to philosophy as movement is poetry? Stability? Permanence? Rigour?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Filiality and Mortality

I've liked Karl Denninger since the credit markets crashed and I was lying on the couch with a broken kneecap (no connection to my credit situation) with all the time in the world to figure out what was going on. I'm sure Denninger and Pound would see eye to eye on great many things. I'd be there with them.

His "Recognition of Reality", a post at his Market Ticker forum, is really worth reading. I'm sure that lots of people I respect would take issue with his ideological stance (he's a libertarian), but you've got to admit that his diagnosis and his proposed treatment have the advantage of being fresh.

I've written about filial piety before, a central tenet of Confucian ethics (and politics). I have also increasingly been thinking about the need to accept the plain fact that we will die. I'm tired of the so-called ethical dilemmas that so-called medical-science (read: the psycho-pharmacological complex) puts us in. And I'm tired of the politics of the ordering of welfare priorities. I do know where all this kind of thought too often leads. So I'm wary of it.

But, speaking personally, I've been raising my kids on the assumption that I'm going to spend a great deal of time with them in their adult lives. And, perhaps naively, on the assumption that I'm going to die. I don't plan to spend a lot of private or public resources putting that inevitability off.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


In an article in the Washington Post about philosophical counseling, we find the following nugget of ancient wisdom: "Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, ... argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result."

Pangrammaticism digs that point, but is, of course, much more sophisticated. Suffering is a result of the tension between our desires and our beliefs. Our desires shape our feelings, just as our beliefs shape our thoughts. Thoughts are "about" facts and, here's the crucial point, feelings are "about" acts. It is when the act cannot be immediately carried out (sometimes because we lack the courage) that we begin to "feel". The precise relation between an act and our feelings about it is determined by our emotions (which are a kind of readiness to convert feeling into action and vice versa.)

It is convenient for us to think that our feelings indicate facts. But we must resolutely keep our feelings indicating acts, which we can then lucidly carry out or not. Of course, the whole field of psychology has contributed to our suffering in precisely this way: it has taught us to treat our feelings as facts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cost, Risk, Image

"Do a dangerous thing and you're in danger. That's how it works." (Kate Greenstreet)

I've been thinking some more about this.

The meaning of work (value) is undermined by a lack of care; the meaning of play (danger) is undermined by a lack of daring. Our taste for danger (our daring) is being replaced with an awareness of risk; our taste for value (our caring) is being replaced with an awareness of cost. We're hooked into this cost-risk matrix. We are conscious only of prices and threats. That's the particular nature of our madness.

We are losing our minds. More precisely, we are being unimaginative. Our consciousness of costs and risks is dulling the image. The image forms where we dare to care, care to dare. We must let our caring overrule our awareness of costs. And we must let our daring overrule our awareness of risk.

This is nothing other than maintaining our courage, and remaining curious. We must not reduce our worldview to cost accounting. We must not reduce our historical consciousness to being an actuary of risk.

We must let the image form.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Careful Work, Daring Play

The emptiness of our culture stems from two sources: the lack of care in our work and the lack of daring in our play. There is no danger in our games, and what danger remains is invariably lamented. Hence, "playground reform". There is no value in our work, much of which produces everything from useless plastic trinkets to needless shopping malls, whose only purpose is to serve as the ultimate reference of some financial derivative, leveraged twenty times, to sit in some billionaire's portfolio.

Value and danger: without them, work and play are meaningless. Our enterprises lack pith and moment.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Existential Pilgrimage, In Pursuit Of Dasein

An avid existentialist travels to Germany to find the elusive ground of thought.

for Jonathan Mayhew

I've been into existentialism for years. I love it. Existentialism's got depth. It makes me think I've got depth. Thinking is like heaving a sigh out of my anus, all concept and reason. I need it after the work I do every day. As a teacher at a business school, I deal with students mired in superficial ambition.

Existentialism recharges me. It's exotic, and fun, and I'm good at it. But no matter how long I've been thinking, I'm never as good as I want to be. Maybe because I'm not a philosopher, or maybe because I'm not German.

What I'm missing is Dasein — a magical moment of presence that's part of German lore. It made students bang their heads against the wall and Hannah Arendt take off her skirt .

I've never lived that moment of pure reason, but I wanted to, so I went to Todtnauberg, the birthplace of existence. The mountain lives and breathes it. It streams out of car radios, and kids learn it as soon as they're born. When I arrived, I opened the windows in the chalet where I was staying and existence floated in.

Once a year, Todtnauberg throws a giant party celebrating its three main attractions: Heidegger, Celan and existence. I couldn't wait to get to the festival to see what was there.

In a huge clearing in the Black Forest, with thousands of lights overhead, people were pounding back beers, wearing Heidgger masks and being authentic. The women wore form-fitting dresses in bright colors and polka dots with flowers pinned to their hair. There weren't many tourists — at least not Americans. This was existentia for friends and neighbors, and even though they thought freely and with great depth, I didn't see Dasein there.

The next day, I decided to take a private class with a German man. He was the real thing, people said. He had an air, a way about him, that made existence deep but still funny. He was small and chubby and his round face broke into a smile when I asked him about Dasein.

"It's like being touched by the hand of God," he told me. "A moment of pure reason, like when you're telling a joke."

Hearing what Dasein meant to him, I had even more incentive to find it. I headed back to the clearing and stood under the lights. People were sitting and standing in a semicircle craning for a look. A topos eidon (what they call "the place of forms") opened and an older woman from the crowd pushed her way inside and improvised her reductions.

Here I was, this 40-year-old, hopelessly urbane father and teacher from Copenhagen. I wondered if I'd have the nerve to think. I stood still, watching; when the next thinker finished his brief remarks, I pushed my way to the front and concentrated on the mood. I rubbed my palms, then clapped my hand, and moved to center stage. I improvised — doing a preliminary sketch of the existential-ontological structure of death, which is the mark of a real existentialist.

It took all my nerve to think in front of people who have been steeped in this tradition their whole lives. It was over in a flash, and in that moment tears filled my eyes. Maybe what I felt wasn't Dasein — nobody lifted a skirt or slapped my face — but it was close enough for me.

Existence, I now think to myself, yeah: "been there", baby, bought the T-shirt.

Note: this homeomorph of NPR's vignette on duende demonstrates, I think, some important affinities between Heideggerian kitsch and Lorquian kitsch. But do note that, while my version obviously parodies an image of philosophy held mainly by people who know nothing about philosophy, I presume that NPR's segment is presented without irony. (She says "there weren't many tourists". I don't think the irony is intentional.)

Update 2: I haven't listened to it yet, but I wonder if my post here is also an unintentional parody of this radio program.

Update 2: Listening to it now and I think the answer is yes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Official Verse

The Poet Laureate has been fixed
to an exposed part of America
to divert the poetic impulse of its people
into the earth or sea.

[Explication de texte]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Anxiety and Boredom

Mailer complained that Hemingway "left us marooned in the nervous boredom of a world he didn't try hard enough change." I've always liked that way of putting it, though I don't think it's particularly constructive to blame a great author for the mess we're in. Let's say Hemingway here comes to represent his generation. They didn't try hard enough. Neither did Mailer's generation. Neither has mine. So here we are.

"Nervous boredom" was Mailer's description of the mid-1950s. I want to understand this state through the notions of "care" and "daring". Can we say that boredom is to care as anxiety is to daring. When we "don't dare", we "lose our nerve". There is a sense in which we lack the courage to proceed but, knowing that we must proceed, we grow anxious. We know that something has to be done, but we don't dare to do it.

(We'll leave aside clinical cases and debilitating phobias for now. I'm not an existential psychologist. I'm a philosopher-poet.)

Likewise, boredom indicates a lack of curiosity. It is when we are bored that we must learn to care again. Often, we must find something that captures our interest.

What constitutes this "world" that Hemingway did not try hard enough to change? The modern world is a network of machines (the materialization of science) and a web of machinations (the socialization of politics). Taken together, they can be called, using Foucault's word, the "apparatus" of the age. Heidegger might say that it "enframes" us. "Apparatus" comes from Latin, apparare, "to make ready for". "The readiness is all," said Hamlet. Why does this bore us? Why does it make us anxious?

I think I know. It is because, in a world overwhelmed by machines and machinations, it is too often stupid to care and cruel to dare. One might say that it is impossible to care (to engage with impossibilities is the fundamental stupidity) and it is unnecessary to dare (to pursue unnecessary danger is to risk cruelty).* More precisely, there are very few things that it is possible to genuinely care about, and there are almost no occasions where an act of daring can be said to be necessary. And yet, in our nervous boredom, it is precisely those moments that we must discover. ("Bring us necessity," implored Kierkegaard. "Bring us possibility!")

I do think both Mailer and Hemingway did their best to locate those moments. At least before they stopped writing for the day, and started drinking.

*[Update: I might be getting this backwards. Perhaps it is cruel to care and stupid to dare. Then again, maybe we're entering a region where one is foolish to distinguish too clearly. What Beckett called simply "the mess".

Monday, August 01, 2011

Apathy and Alogia

The continuing crisis is likely to excacerbate our suffering, or rather, that peculiarly modern kind of suffering, which is the opposite of suffering, an inability to suffer, if you will. It stems from the conflagrations of perception and action, reality and ideality, knowledge and power, belief and desire, in short, pangrammatical imprecision.

The result is increasing apathy and, its pangrammatical complement, alogia, a lack of passion and a lack of reason, the dissolution of pathos and the collapse of logos. One is left with no discernable feeling, no clear thought. While one is kept alive, in a kind of suspended animation, one is barely able to experience one's life.

I take Beckett's How It Is to be among the most precise artistic statements of this fundamental imprecision in living.

If I am right, however, a way out of this crisis is available to us. I call it "composure", and it amounts to a recomposition of belief and desire in our lives. How does one achive composure? That's what I believe I have just discovered: carefully and daringly. "Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still," said T.S. Eliot. He also famously dared us to eat peaches.

It is with these minimal acts of caring and daring, occasioned by barely perceptible twinges of curiosity and sparks of courage, that we constitute the meaning of our experiences.