Philosophy

Baudrillard

Of all I've read today about Baudrillard, and Fimoculous has a good round up of links to the obituaries, the Guardian piece by Steven Poole struck me because of this:

Baudrillard took to calling his works "theory fictions": because the present is always more fantastical than the most lurid science fiction, "theory" must compete with it on an imaginative level. So Baudrillard offered himself as an extrapolator, a canary in the cultural coalmine. "My work is paradoxical," he explained. "It's surrealist like fiction." He found a sympathetic soul in the novelist JG Ballard, who called him "the most important French thinker of the last 20 years". (In 1974, Baudrillard had hailed Ballard's Crash as "the first great novel of the universe of simulation".)

Baudrillard once wore a gold lamé suit with mirrored lapels while reading his poetry in a Las Vegas bar. If he didn't take himself particularly seriously, his critics complained that he didn't take anything else seriously either. A recurring charge was that it was politically and morally irresponsible, at the very least, to speak of the "unreality" of modern war, because to do so was to ignore the realities of killing and suffering. Baudrillard's response, in his 2004 book The Lucidity Pact, or The Intelligence of Evil, was laconic: "The reality-fundamentalists equip themselves with a form of magical thinking that confuses message and messenger: if you speak of the simulacrum, then you are a simulator; if you speak of the virtuality of war, then you are in league with it and have no regard for the hundreds of thousands of dead ... it is not we, the messengers of the simulacrum, who have plunged things into this discredit, it is the system itself that has fomented this uncertainty that affects everything today."

One sceptical British interviewer called Baudrillard a "philosopher clown", a description to which he probably would not have objected, instead taking it as an invitation to think about the social function of clowns.


A remembered future

Sometimes, posts just seem … right. This is (3 Quarks Daily):

The twentieth century was insane. We forget to remember that. … Through it all, the challenge to the coherence and sustainability of human experience was relentless. If tradition was disrupted and broken down here and there in the 19th century, it was upended completely, remade from the insight (inside ?) out, and sometimes obliterated during the 20th. …

Czeslaw Milosz was as sensitive to these issues as anyone. This is a man who picked his way through the rubble of Warsaw when its ruins were still steaming, when the place was just an open wound. That experience, and the knowledge gained from it, is shot through everything that Milosz ever wrote. For Milosz, man is guaranteed nothing. That’s it. Nothing. And man can be reduced, or reduce himself, to nothing, at any moment. …

Gombrowicz too experienced such things. … But Gombrowicz chose flight, literally and metaphorically. … That is his particular freedom. It is the freedom of Socrates as Kierkegaard describes him in The Concept of Irony, the freedom that escapes from every possible determination.

Truth be told, this version of freedom annoys Milosz. Because for Milosz, the possibility of meaning in human affairs is dependent on commitment. If nothing else, it is founded on the capacity for human beings to hold experience together even as forces from within and without work to tear it apart. How one does this is not entirely clear but Milosz’s entire oeuvre is the sustained attempt to do so even as he lacks a blueprint. That is a pretty brave literary task to set in front of oneself. From Milosz’s standpoint, Gombrowicz has retreated into his own consciousness instead of forcing himself constantly to confront the problems of the world as it is encountered. …

But then the two come together again, in Milosz’s mind, because Gombrowicz never falls into the trap of those intellectuals who have lost track of the root problems of experience, actual experience, that have been thrown up by the 20th century. Milosz writes that, “A comparison of Gombrowicz with western writers, with Sartre, for example, would reveal, in the case of the latter, a deficiency of a certain type of experience connected with history and specific cultural traditions, a deficiency that is compensated for by theory.”

I think we’re still working this stuff through. And I’ll make one more rash claim. The future right now is in the past. Sometimes it is in the past, the immediate past, where things get clear again. For those of us whose lives stretch from the era of the 20th century into the next one, the most important thing for taking the future seriously is doing work on the things that have recently past. Only now is it becoming even vaguely possible to understand how important are the tentative thoughts put forward by people like Milosz and Gombrowicz. And there are others, back there, waiting for us. We simply have to take seriously the idea that turning our backs on the future is a way of renewing it.

We are, beyond question, 'still working this stuff through'. Spot on.

'A remembered future'? In July of last year, I :

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995).

For me, reading Milosz is to remember the future.

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Cooling down

Travelling back from the foothills of the Pyrenees, where it was very, very hot, and catching up on my feeds and email. Just read this from David Weinberger:

… there is no corrective for fallibility. We live in the breach between the world and how we take it. We are that breach. It closes only when they shovel the dirt over us. Until then, there are only degrees and modes of fallibility.

That doesn't mean the authorities have no authority. It does mean that there is nothing with total authority. We're stuck with always having the argument about what to believe because knowledge is a way to manage fallibility, not to escape it.

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Labyrinths and Internet

Fascinating, and frustrating, posting at things magazine: I'm not sure why the advent of 'global communications technology' is seen as leading to the demise of reliquaries, and I certainly don't date the going of the 'divine on the defensive' to about a 100 years ago — that's being going on since at least the sixteenth century. As Cornelius Ernst (see here, paras 6 & 7; Tim's address), my favourite twentieth century theologian, puts it: 'I cannot think of a single clerical philosopher of real distinction since the Middle Ages (and whether it is appropriate to speak of any medieval thinker as a 'philosopher' is of course problematic)'.

But I was interested by this (thanks to Matt Webb for drawing my attention to it):

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. … The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by
Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

… Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiosities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril.

The internet as 'a receptacle for wonder': I linked last year to something Matt Jones posted about awe and wonder and the net. The image of the net as labyrinthine library containing all knowledge makes me think of Dante's great image in the Paradiso (Canto XXXIII; Borges' fantastical library of course recalls this, in deliberately distorted form), when he looks into the heart of the eternal light and 'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe' ('Nel suo profondo vidi che s' interna, / legato con amore in un volume, / ciò che per l'universo si squaderna', Temple Classics translation).

'Reliquary' I am less sure about. I think it more useful at this point to do more work on the net-as-memory (individual +) and on what light might be (unexpectedly) shed upon this by studies such as Penelope Reed Doob's The Idea of the Labyrinth — which dedicates some pages to the relationship between labyrinth imagery and medieval understanding of memory and memory practices (on which, I recall, there's Mary Carruthers' book, The Book of Memory, amongst much else). Gabriel Josipovici years ago drew attention to the labyrinth as 'the favourite image of modern literature', 'the mazes of Kafka, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Robbe-Grillet' (The World and the Book). It takes me further than I meant to go in this post, but I can't resist quoting this from Gabriel's book:

In place of Dante's ordered journey we find ourselves involved with heroes who wander without map or compass along paths which are endless for the simple reason that we would not recognise the end even if we came to it. … there is no emergence for the heroes of modern fiction from the labyrinths of reflecting mirrors and demonic analogy. At the end they are no nearer the exit than they were at the beginning. All they have done is move through all the arteries of the labyrinth. Yet this, if they but knew it, is both the exit and the answer. … the writing was the travelling.
Unlike Dante, we have no vantage point from which to 'look back, standing on solid ground, over the winding uphill way, with its little figures of men and women dotted about at various stages of their own ascent' (The World and the Book). The internet, without end, is our own faithfully reflecting mirror, or demonic analogy.

Sappho, Rexroth et al

Some Sappho links:

'Sappho everywhere chooses the emotions that attend delirious passion from its accompaniments in actual life. Wherein does she demonstrate her supreme excellence? In the skill with which she selects and binds together the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion. … Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions.' Longinus, On the Sublime

Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982) on Sappho, Herodotus and The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bureau of Public Secrets and its Kenneth Rexroth Archive.


The nature of Science

The Pinocchio Theory (Steven Shaviro) on Isabelle Stengers' The Invention of Modern Science — 'pretty much the best thing anyone has written about the science wars (the disputes between scientists and those in the humanities and 'soft' social sciences doing "science studies" … )':

In other words: science produces truths, but it doesn't produce The Truth. It isn't the sole authority on everything, or the one and only source of legitimate knowledge. To say that science produces truths is also to say that it's meaningless to ask to what degree these truths are "discovered," and to what degree they are "invented." This just isn't a relevant distinction any longer. What matters is that they are truths, and our very existence is intricated with them. We can't deny that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the reverse, just as we can't deny the legacy of wars and revolutions that have led to our current world situation. And this is all the more the case when we expand our point of view to consider historical sciences, like biology, alongside experimental ones like physics. Despite the current mathematization of biology, the story of how human beings evolved is an historical one, not one that can be 'proven' through experiment. If physics is a matter of events, then biology is even more so. Stengers notes that American creationists explicitly make use of the fact that biology isn't experimental in the sense that physics is, in order to back up their claims that evolution is just a "theory" rather than something factual. One problem with scientific imperialism -- the claim that science is the ONLY source of truth -- is that its overreaching precisely encourages these sorts of counter-claims. I'd agree with the creationists when they say that the theory of evolution is not established in the same way as, say, Newton's laws of motion are established. (Though remember that in quantum situations, and relativistic near-speed-of-light situations, those laws of motion themselves no longer work). Rather, our answer to the creationists should be that denying that human beings evolved through natural selection (combined, perhaps, with other factors having to do with the properties of emergent systems) is exactly the same sort of thing as denying that the Holocaust ever happened.

As for science, the problem comes when it claims to explain everything, when it arrogates to itself the power to declare all other forms of explanation illegitimate, when it abstracts itself away from the situations, the events, in which it distinguishes truth from fiction, and claims to be the repository of all truths, with the authority to relegate all other truth-claims to the status of discredited fictions. …

One way to sum all this up is to say that science, for Stengers, is a process rather than a product; it is creative, rather than foundational. Its inventions/discoveries introduce novelty into the world; they make a difference. Scientific truth should therefore be aligned with becoming (with inciting changes and transformations) rather than with power (with legislating what is and must be). Scientists are wrong when they think they are entitled to explain and determine everything, through some principle of reduction or consilience. But they are right when they see an aesthetic dimension to what they do (scientists subject themselves to different constraints than artists do, but both scientists and artists are sometimes able to achieve beauty and cogency as a result of following their respective constraints).


The real future

It's a bumper night. This from Don Parks:

I often feel as if I am living in a river of time.  When I was young, I didn't really care what might be downstream.  As I got older and experienced many harrowing turns of the river, I found myself looking farther and farther ahead.

What I just realized was that my sense of now changed over the years to include the future, near and far.  An event that will happen feels almost as real to me as an event happening now, just as the shape of the river downstream affects the flow of the river upstream.

Don is the author of one of my favourite meditations on death and the net.


Thinking in the body

And as if that weren't enough excitement for one night, there's this from Anne Galloway:

If Derrida were a verb, then that's what happened to Webb the other night. Brilliant. And now he's got a question:

"The way Derrida operates inside language instead of over it, I want a philosophy (or rather, a way of doing philosophy) which is of embodiment (embodiment of all kinds, including the nonhuman) instead of happening over it. Where can I find that? What can I do? Where can I start?"

My quick answer? There's always The Phenomenology of Perception. But The Body in Pain really made me think about when language fails, and Dangerous Emotions is a hell of a read. And, really, to do philosophy is to live life.