18 March 2007

The Ever-Receding Frontiers

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

Looking at the beginning of A Man Without Qualities yesterday, we saw Musil establish the subjective uniqueness of place. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk. In the next paragraph, though, Musil takes away the difference he’s just established. We overestimate the importance of knowing where we are because in nomadic times it was essential to recognize the tribal feeding grounds. He’s embedding the subjective uniqueness of place in a primal genetic commonality — like migrating birds that instinctively and eternally return every year to the place they were born.

So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its controlling rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.

The characters who populate Musil’s story — if you can call it a story — act as if Vienna is the center of civilization, with a benevolent and wise Emperor as its god. But right from the beginning Musil distances himself from the place and its people, which are of course also his place, his people. The seemingly monumental concerns that motivate his characters are, Musil tells us, reducible to impersonal force fields bubbling away inside a closed space. But even here, in speaking of the “durable stuff” of a city, he’s being ironic. He’s looking back on a Vienna that is no more, its institutions shattered by a Great War that would begin with the assassination of the Austrian Emperor.

The sense Musil introduces of a multiplicity of impersonal, uncontrollable forces by turns creating stability and destroying it, belying any sense of purpose or progress moving through history — it’s characteristic of late modernism. Old Vienna with its familiar rhythms and its high culture and its distinctiveness — all of it can be swept away in an irresistible surge of mindless violence. Once there was Rome, then there was Vienna, then New York, next maybe Shanghai — every unique time and place rises and falls by the grace of chance and momentum and force fields. Ultimately they reduce to sameness.

We tend to think about modernity in terms of stable structures and scientific progress, of the heroic individual and the high culture. In contrast, postmodernity occupies a world in which structures are unstable,science is alienating, progress is uncertain, individualism is replaced by a herd of narcissists, and culture is co-opted by the marketplace. What you see in a book like The Man Without Qualities is a look back at modernity from the other side of the abyss. Sure he’s nostalgic, but he can also see the preciousness, the insularity, the futility of what has been destroyed. Musil wrote during the time of America’s “Lost Generation” of Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The Europeans were Mann, Joyce, Proust, Kafka. They all portray a sense of irretrievable loss, of alienation, of purposelessness. And they’re all modernists.

When you think about this post-WWI set of writers, you wonder whether postmodernism isn’t best seen as a continuation rather than a radical departure. I suppose the main difference might be that the postmoderns have no personal memory of the good old days and no illusions that they’ll ever come back, no regret or nostalgia about a utopia lost on the ever-receding frontiers of the past and the future.



  1. The more I learn about postmodernism the more I think of it as a continuation. And my intellectual growing-up was on the referenced “Lost Generation.” So I still have some of the regret or “nostalgia”, maybe. Interesting…in Le Corbusier’s writings the only architect he seems to fear at all is Michelangelo. And Michelangelo’s generation, it might be said, was the last to witness the presence of a stable ground. I want my streets of gold that don’t exist back, please. If nowhere else but on the tips of people’s tongues…but its not there either now. Its all gray. Daniel Libeskind (considered a postmodernist, I’d say) wrote a book called “Fishing From the Pavement”.

    I’m gong to bed, dangit.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 18 March 2007 @ 11:01 am

  2. Jason –

    Maybe you partake of the Southerner’s nostalgia? Living in L.A. must pull on that part of you, I would think. I too miss some other era, though it’s an era that may never have existed. I also miss the dreams of a better future.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  3. Well, for one gold streets don’t exist, lol. But they certainly were once on the tips of folks’ tongues…before everything was so objectified and then flattened. And for two, I miss funnel cakes at Harborfest every summer. And sweet tea in the fridge of a “home”. I live in an L.A. apartment. But I’m aware that my “one” and “two” are quite different! As for your dreams of a better futre…DUDE…come back to the fold already, jeez!



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 18 March 2007 @ 7:49 pm

  4. I’d like to see a better present emerge through the midst of the gray flat grid, a present with rhizomes extending backward and forward, up and down, with some kinds of flexible yet beautiful structures that suspend themselves over the abyss as though violating laws of gravity.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2007 @ 8:51 pm

  5. 1. Please explain the “rhizomes” thing. I’ve heard that word a bunch lately, but I’m not really sure what it’s saying. I’m guessing it has to do with the context of deterritorilization and reterritorilization…speaking of man as having a locality rather than identifying himself by the limits of an no-longer-human system that has extended and exploded to a point where its limits, if there are any, are far beyond man’s grasp. It sounds to me like a bit of a theraputic notion in the face of the madness…? But that last sentence doesn’t sound like Deleuze…?

    2. It sounds like what you wish for is what I believe in…in the now, except not fully revealed. And except I’m not sure about the whole “as though violating the laws of gravity” thing…unless you are referring to a levitos-less gravitos that has its own identity complete within itself with seemingly no reference to any counter force (or identity).

    3. Sorry to disrupt your waxing poetic. It sounded nice. I’m just asking…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 19 March 2007 @ 5:24 am

  6. I should write something about Deleuze and Guattari. Some of what they say I like, some not so much. A rhizome is an underground growth like a potato. Neither branch nor root, it grows haphazardly rather than in a hierarchical branching structure. If you cut it, it will grow new growth from the rupture. The idea is a kind of uncontrolled growth that’s unpredictable, interconnected, but not systematic. So D&G use rhizome as a metaphor for desire and creation: it’s spontaneous, unstructured, not “territorialized.” Do I agree? I’m not sure. You might end up with chaos. Is Gehry’s building beautifully rhizomatic or amorphous? Does channeling the rhizomes stunt their growth or bring them from becoming to being?

    I agree that my wish is compatible with the Christian idea of the kingdom — it’s a hopeful present with a trajectory into the future, not just a hope for the future in an unchanged present.

    Gravitas/levitas — again, I’m not sure of my preferred imagery here. The rhizome emphasizes the subterranean, the spreading through the ground and erupting haphazardly. The tree rises, but is it excessively structured? Maybe some kind of above-ground structure that isn’t amorphous yet also isn’t rigidly territorialized. Maybe like a city, or a roller coaster. I don’t know. But something that gets us up out of mere survival of the fittest, maybe something pointless and futile from an evolutionary standpoint, something unique and ephemeral. This is related to The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera that I wrote about a few times before.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 March 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  7. If faith is a “force vector”…and you can “channel” the “rhizomes”…are rhizomes the same as force vectors? That’s a genuine question about Deleuze. Regardless, though, I don’t think Deleuze has a whole lot to do with being at all (from what I can tell so far). I’m actually kind of with him, in that here on this side of the curtain there is no being. Not till the fullness of the Revelation. And that will be scray. Shoot, that would be scary even if it was the fullness of OURSELVES that was being revealed…much less the fullness of any other…much less the fullness of the One who created heaven and earth.

    And I haven’t read Unbearable Lightness of Being. Its on my unbearably long list, lol. Wish I had. But that second paragraph of yours brings to mind an intersting thought in my little head. The whole Deleuze as a Gnostic thing again. Rhizomes as underground growths…Carl actually in one of his comments seemed to begin to DEFINE Christianity as “rhizmonic”, as if being “rhizomic” was attached to a hope of his. That’s either his description of Christianity before the fullness of the Revelation (didn’t sound like it due to his enthusiasm for Deleuze), or strangely Gnostic in its particular kind of longing for what doesn’t appear up in the air and light. Or something else that I don’t know and am missing…?

    And on your imagery…I think the name “polis” in Gk. was partially derived from a popular gameboard at the time, in which one play is made on and against another, each play dynamically changing the game and its picture. I don’t know enough about the game nor the word, though, for that to really help a whole lot with your imagery, which is interesting.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 March 2007 @ 1:35 am

  8. I agree: Deleuze seems more interested in becoming than being. Being = territorialization = an interruption in the becoming = something to be destroyed so that the forces of becoming can again be freed. I’m pretty sure Deleuze doesn’t envision any predefined endpoint as the “fullness.” Every fullness is temporary; there is no limit, and no one model of even a temporary fullness. Difference and divergence rather than completion is the mental model.

    I’ll be interested to see if Carl elaborates on his Deleuze thing in some future post. He centers deconstructive theology in faith — not, as one might expect, in God. So I’m wondering if he sees faith as a kind of desire that creates rhizomic structures like Lords and Kingdoms, Law and Word, maybe even the creation of God as an outcome of the flow of faith into particular channels. It’s why I ask whether God might not be an emerging phenomenon. Again, given my agnostic position, I’ve got perhaps more willingness to consider these smaller manifestations of godliness. And I don’t know whether Carl is post-evangelical or post-liberal — I don’t know anything about him.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2007 @ 1:49 am

  9. Its interesing to me that you say that Carl centers deconstructivist theology in faith rather than God. Well put, I think. I’ve been tryign to push him on that, except not so explicitly, maybe not so clearly. That’s why I was askinng about the distinction between philosophical detatchment and Christian faith in the Uncreated. I think I’m being ignored. I’m not sure if its cause I’m being ignored due to the idea, or if he thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about, or if I need to be more “incremental” again.

    Anyway…I can’t really go there about God being an outcome of the flow of faith into particular channels. It takes away my freedom given by a God who initiates by calling out to me because he loves me. Plus its “human, all too human.”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 March 2007 @ 5:00 am

  10. No, I didn’t think you’d go there — shoot. Carl I think is saving up his ammo for a big volley. And I see the other dude still hasn’t come back from writing his term papers to correspond with his commenters. Maybe it’s an artifact of teacher-student relationship, this particular minimalist style of blog interaction. I think master-bondsman is at work in some of these relationships between poster and commenter. So when the poster responds to comments is he now serving the commenter? Oh, and also, in college the student is more or less paying the teacher via tuition. So isn’t the teacher supposed to work for the student?


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2007 @ 6:53 pm

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