Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stupidity and Cruelty

"Power is essentially stupid," said Flaubert. Before artists and intellectuals assent too heartily to this remark (which is of course as true as an aphorism can be) let me note its pangrammatical supplement: knowledge is essentially cruel.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Theory of Mind

There is a theory about gulls.
When they dance on the grass, their
footfalls patter like rain drops,
and the worms come out.*

On this basis, the art of worm
charming—the expert simulation
of precipitation—has been developed.
There are competitions. In England.

With elaborate apparati, the charmers
endeavor to conjure an image of rain.
The theory says it is a trick, of course.
But are the gulls illusionists?

Do the worms think it is raining? And what
do the clouds make of all this foolishness?

*There is another theory that is worth noting. The worms may not be attracted to the surface but driven from the ground by vibrations that really sound like an approaching mole. This should not make a difference to the line of argument this poem proposes. But somehow it does, at least intuitively. To run away from a sound seems immediately less "theoretical" than to be attracted to it.

The question, in any case, is simply: What "thought" is it reasonable to attribute to the gulls? Do they think even that worms will be attracted by their dancing (or do they have "no idea" why they tap their feet when they are hungry)? Is it like the so-called rain dances of so-called primitives? That is, do they think their gods will favor them if they dance earnestly enough? Or do they know that what they are doing sounds like rain, and that worms appear when it rains? (And, if the alternative theory is right, are they, like the worm charmers, wrong about this in theory, despite their demonstrable success in practice?) Do the gulls go so far as to think they are fooling the worms? Do they take pride in this victory over the stupidity of their prey?

A "psychology" is rooted in a theory of mind. What does our psychology of birds tell us about the psychology we use to understand ourselves? And does our corresponding, if implicit, psychology of worms constitute a reductio ad absurdum of psychology as such? Is a theory of mind always, finally, a belief in magic?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Correct Method

Wittgenstein famously said that philosophers cannot explain, only describe. There should be nothing "theoretical" about it. Already in the Tractatus, he said that "the correct method in philosophy" would be just to articulate propositions of natural science (without actually asserting them), though presumably an illuminating selection of them. As I understand him, he meant that a philosophical presentation consists of series of descriptions that together (in sequence) reveal the concept or concepts under investigation. The "investigation" itself is the process by which the descriptions are made and their proper arrangement is determined.

He put it very simply in his remarks on Frazer: "We can only describe and say, human life is like that."

Now, if we were to say something similar about poetry we would have to say that poetry only prescribes, and does not evaluate. It arranges synopses of propositions of cultural politics (without actually enjoining them). And this made me think of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo", which ends, "here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life."

Philosophy consists of a series of descriptions that finally implies "That's life."
Poetry consists of a series of prescriptions that finally implies "Change your life!"

Friday, November 08, 2013

On Religion

In answer to Presskorn's question, I'm probably something of a fundamentalist about religion. The Pangrammaticon divides experience into two broad domains, the Real and the Ideal, which are addressed by particular crafts. We use science and philosophy to grapple with the Real and politics and poetry to grapple with the Ideal. Science is the theory of the real, Heidegger tells us, for example; the Pangrammaticon then teaches us to derive from this that politics is the practice of the ideal. Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down; poetry is the art of writing emotions down.

All crafts are about developing our receptivity (to the real) and our capacity (for the ideal). Philosophy makes us more receptive, through thought, to concepts. Poetry makes us more capable, through feeling, of emotions. Science makes us more receptive to things, as objects. Politics makes us more capable of people, as subjects.

Or to put it another way. Science brings us knowledge of what is, but philosophy tells what can be known. Politics brings us power over who becomes, but poetry tells us who can be mastered. In the end, philosophy must "know" the "it" and poetry must "master" the "self", the scare-quotes indicating the principled impossibility of the task and the principled non-existence of its focus. Or to put in another way. Science tells us what we are seeing. Politics tells us who is doing it. Philosophy tells us what it is. Poetry tells us who we are.

What's this got to do with religion? Well, religion assumes authority over all those functions. Pangrammaticism is not a religion but a deconstruction of religious experience into the discrete moments that, in the absence of a properly functioning religious authority, must be composed at any given time, in any given place, in lived experience. Given a properly functioning religious authority, what I'm doing here is a complete waste of time.

(Cf. my notes on the novel.)