Ktismatics

31 July 2009

Fictional Objects

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:26 pm

Discussions of fiction typically begin with whether or not we must postulate fictional objects, with the defender of fiction attempting to establish that we absolutely cannot do without them, and the opponent attempting to show how we can manage to avoid postulating them through paraphrasing our apparent discourse about them and reconceiving our apparent experience of them.

– from Fiction and Metaphysics by Amie Thomasson, 1999, p. 5

Thomasson begins by observing that fictional characters are best thought of not as imaginary people but as abstract human artifacts, the result of human intentionality not dependent on a specific material manifestation, similar in this regard to scientific theories and laws of state and melodies. Even the clock is an abstract artifact: it can take a variety of physical forms while performing the same function.

In the first half of the book Thomasson explores what sort of entity a fictional character might be. Neither real (in the sense of having a spatiotemporal location)  nor ideal, neither material nor purely mental, the fictional character presents a challenge to traditional ontological categories. Does Sherlock Holmes exist in the world because the texts of books make reference to him? No: he would continue to exist as long as people remembered him. If there were no readers left in the universe who could make sense of Doyle’s books, would Holmes still exist in the texts? No, says Thomasson: the existence of a fictional character described in a book depends on there being readers who understand the text.

What is a fictional character’s identity? Is it the sum of all descriptions in all books written about him? Or are the words just a partial description of a character that’s more fully formed in the writer’s imagination? What if a writer other than Doyle were to import Sherlock Holmes into his own work and provide additional or even conflicting descriptions of him — is this the same Holmes, or a different one? If an author presents a character who shares all the key character traits identified in other literary appearances by Holmes, should the reader assume that this character is in fact Holmes even if the author doesn’t name him or assigns him a different name?  Thomasson acknowledges:

The prospects seem dim for drawing out a definitive set of necessary and sufficient conditions for character identity. But that does not place us in any worse a position than we already face in the case of formulating identity conditions for actual humans. (p. 67)

What counts as an entity? Tomasson proposes to accept all spatiotemporal entities and mental states, as well as anything that depends on them in any way. The first clause accounts for physical entities and intentionality; the latter for abstracta, intentional mental events, imaginary objects, and entities dependent on joint intentionality of multiple individuals or collectives such as governments and theories and fictional charcters. The everyday world is populated largely by entities that are neither purely physical nor mental but are dependent in part on both.

Disconnect?

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:45 am

Today is the 31st, so I expect that by the end of the day our next-door neighbors will have finished moving out. That means we’ll be without internet again. We live close enough to the neighbors that we can leech the signal emitted by their wifi router. Internet is usually packaged with TV and telephone service, but we rarely watch television and we have no land line. So we’re prepared to suffer from a slightly weaker internet signal as the price we have to pay for not paying the price. The neighbors never password-protected their connection, so their signal was floating out there free for the grabbing. We’ve been contributing a proportionate share of internet connectivity fees to our neighbors, which seemed only fair. In all likelihood the new neighbors will want full-service cable, so our internet down time probably won’t last long.

Internet connectivity ought to be distributed as a public utility. More than three-quarters of Americans use the internet. It’s more useful than television, and it’s becoming increasingly necessary for conducting ordinary transactions. Though I’ve conducted no feasibility studies, I suspect that the internet companies limit home-delivered signal strength in order to keep people like me from getting a free ride. A relatively small number of signal amplifiers systematically distributed through town would probably serve everyone’s needs adequately at a fraction of the cost. I get free TV signal for the basic channels, just like all TVs used to work in the good old days before cable and satellite. I’d be happy to pay for my own amplifier if need be.

Surely this sort of thing gets discussed. Just as surely it’ll never happen. Either way, by the end of today we’ll probably be out of service, at least for awhile.

29 July 2009

Becoming Visionary: Toward Praxis

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:13 am

Having recently read most of Peretz’s Becoming Visionary, I wonder how I might move his insights beyond theory and DePalma film studies into practice, both for becoming visionary myself and for helping others to do so. It’s not possible to deploy split screens or jump cuts or saturated set lighting in real vision: cinematic techniques of this sort are the apparatus of becoming-revelatory, of the filmmaker showing others what he has already seen. The question at hand is about seeing rather than showing.

The most persistent theoretical insight offered by Peretz is that becoming-visionary doesn’t rely on the traditional mind-body, real-ideal split of Platonism and its successors. Meaning doesn’t come into the picture from outside the field of action, from some transcendent POV, accessible only through the third eye of the mind, where the fragmented glimpses offered to our finite perceptions are resolved in the big picture of eternity and infinity. Instead, meaning is immanent in the world itself, in the subjects and objects, the forces and trajectories that link everything together. We are blind to ultimate meaning not because the future is hidden under a cloak of darkness but because it’s saturated in the blinding light of infinite possibility. It’s necessary to look into the blindness, to see openings in the saturated field of the present and near future, to detect possibilities rather than certainties. These possibilities have angular momenta of their own; the best we can do is to be aware of them and to react to them as best we can.

Though I think Peretz overstates the case, I’m in general agreement. Meaning is all around us, in part because nature follows its own laws, but mostly because we’re surrounded by other humans who pursue their own meaningful motivations or who are caught in others’ force fields. Instead of trying to see either the deep past of what brought the present situation into play or the long-term future in which all uncertainty is resolved, it’s important to see more clearly inside the limited temporal window that’s open around us. While both past and future recede into blindness, we aren’t just locked into the moment. We can search the present for glimpses of motivation coming up from the recent past and potential consequences likely to unfold in the near future. This sort of vision requires attention to what’s happening around us and then thinking about what it might mean to the various agencies participating in the scene.We split up the saturated field into fragments, then rearrange them in terms that afford us opportunities to react to what we’re experiencing, even to throw our weight behind certain immanent possibilities that suit our purposes.

These insights aren’t novel to Peretz, of course, but let’s assume that they’re valid ones. Is it possible to learn to see the world this way more clearly and more consistently? Is the process of becoming visionary a function, at least in part, of becoming adept at certain perceptual and cognitive and imaginative techniques for looking into and through the glare of the oversaturated present?

*   *   *

Speculative Realism affirms that objects and their properties can be real even if humans don’t know it. Reality operates independently of consciousness. Let’s suppose we adopt the SR variant put forward by Dr. Sinthome that something is real if it is different and if it makes a difference. The multitude of things parading through my visual field can be really different from each other, and can really inscribe differences on my sensory systems, even if I don’t attend to those differences consciously. To bring these already-existing differences into my conscious awareness isn’t to bestow reality on the already-real. At the same time, becoming conscious of a real thing does present that thing with another way of registering its difference and of making a difference in me. The objects populating my visual array present an opportunity for my perceptual and cognitive systems to extract these objects from the oversaturated visual field and to recognize the separations between them as distinctly real objects. In so doing I also give these objects access to my consciousness, offering them an opportunity to make a particular kind of difference that previously had been foreclosed to them.

Of course the object might break through of its own accord from raw sensation into perception into consciousness without my consciously attending to it an pulling it into my awareness. But it is, I think, possible to open the “doors of perception” through some combination of attentiveness and receptivity.

Usually the world doesn’t present itself to me as an oversaturated field. I see the world in terms of my own purposes and intentions. For example, I see the screen before me as a place that’s recording my keystrokes, which in turn are translating my conscious thoughts into text. But the other features of the screen — its luminance, its borders, the font, the scrolling of the cursor from left to right and from top to bottom, its electrical source — I ignore, even though these properties have a direct effect on the display of my typing. I don’t consciously try to ignore these features, nor, I think, do they withdraw from my consciousness. These features continue to have a real effect on me even though I’m not paying attention to them. It’s just that, with respect to my current engagement of the computer, these other features aren’t directly relevant to the conscious use I’m making of the computer screen. If suddenly the screen went black — or white — then my attention would be drawn to the previously-ignored property of luminance and I would focus my intentional consciousness on this property. Heidegger talks about this sort of experience, referring to the “handiness” of things, things as pragmata. Harman says (I believe) that, even when we shift our attention to the non-handy properties of a thing, those previously ignored or hidden properties now surge forward as the object’s “handiness.” Luminance per se becomes the focus of my attention, and I seek pragmatic means of restoring this handy property to my computer screen. Even if I merely focus my attention on the screen’s luminance for no particular pragmatic reason, or detach my consciousness sufficiently from my typing task so that other features of the screen are allowed to register their presence in my perception, Harman contends that I’ve merely shifted or widened my pragmatic frame, and that I’ve still not encountered the reality, the essence of the screen.

At this point I’m inclined to say “so what?”.  The distinction between the essence of the screen and the various ways in which I can interact with the screen — from my subjective conscious standpoint this isn’t a difference that makes a difference. Still, I can, through a kind of broadening of my intentional engagement, open the doors of perception beyond the mere recording of keystrokes to some of the other properties of the screen. I may not encounter these properties directly for what they are in and of themselves, but I do encounter them consciously in a way that had previously been inaccessible to me. This isn’t a vacating of consciousness or attention or intentionality, making myself a passive recording surface; it is rather a broadening of my conscious subjective engagement.

Let’s say I allow some previously-inaccessible properties of an object to register their reality in my consciousness, to make a different sort of difference in me. This expanded awareness also has pragmatic consequences: it opens up new possibilities in which I can use this new awareness to make a difference in the world. The differences I make might be consciously intended, or they might occur spontaneously without my conscious intentional mediation. But through allowing changes in my consciousness to happen, my consciousness becomes different, and thereby capable of making-difference, in ways that weren’t there before.

This ties back to the Peretz book. When I’m overly tied into my own immediate pragmatic engagement of the world, real people and objects are making real things happen in my environment. But I’m too locked in: outside of my frame of attention the world is a void. If I let my focus drift outside the frame I’m liable to be blinded, overwhelmed by the glare of too many objects pursuing too many trajectories. Rather than letting my pragmatic intentionality drift away, I need to open that intentionality to more possibilities. People and objects are pursuing their own subjective pragmatic agendas; if I pay attention, if I open my awareness, some of these agendas might register in my consciousness. I might never see the big picture of how everything ties in with everything else; I may never know the true essence of anything or anyone who appears in my environment. But I’ve allowed them to register more of their reality, more of their differences, in my consciousness. And now I achieve a greater instrumental flexibility in using this broadened pragmatic awareness in making differences happen in my environment. It might look to outsiders like I’ve got greater control over the world than they do, but it’s more a matter of exerting leverage in the space-time interval that I occupy, an interval that extends only a short distance in space and time from me in the here-and-now.

*   *   *

I’ve sort of drifted from the original intent of this post, which had to do with specifying a praxis of becoming-visionary. I think it might be possible for one person to serve as a catalyst for another’s attentiveness and receptivity. But first it’s been helpful for me to explore some of the implications theoretically.

27 July 2009

Sole and Sacred Fruit

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

Yesterday Dr. Zamalek again repeated k-punk’s injunction to “surround yourself with people who have projects.” Dr. Z elaborates:

“Tearing down other projects does not count as a project.”

On an earlier thread we explored the “hermeneutic of suspicion” as applied both to the tearer-downers and the project managers. We also saw how mark k-punk’s resistance to tearer-downers is explicitly rooted in what he regards as the need to protect the boundaries and integrity of projects, with an authoritarian hand if need be. But what about Graham Harman? Are we just indulging in armchair psychologizing about his resistance to criticism? I don’t think so. Here’s an excerpt from Harman’s paper in Collapse II:

“While analytic philosophy takes pride in never suggesting more than it explicitly states, this procedure does no justice to a world where objects are always more than they literally state. Those who care only to generate arguments almost never generate objects. New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travellers, lovers, and inventors.”

First off, it’s clear that in Harman’s system new objects are spawned not only by humans but also by collisions between billiard balls, fire encountering cotton, and all manner of non-human interactions. Secondly, in that same article Harman says that “every connection is itself an object.” An argument generated by an analytical philosopher results from an intentional connection initiated by the arguer in response to some feature of the idea being critiqued. The result, per Harman, is itself an object. So it seems that Harman, in invoking the sacred charge to create objects bestowed upon a certain elite class of humans, is stepping outside the bounds of his own theory. We can only speculate why, but we can certainly identify the self-contradiction explicitly.

We’ve not clarified what’s meant by a “project,” but I’d say it refers to the intentional and systematic and usually goal-directed work undertaken by individual humans or groups of humans. The project is a kind of dynamic meeting-place where objects and subjects interact to produce new products, inventions, events, ideas, and so on. I suppose that a bunch of boulders and pebbles and what-not could have as a project the production of an avalanche, but I don’t think that’s what Dr. Z is talking about here — though I’d say that preventing or stopping the avalanche would constitute a project in its own right. No, both Graham and Mark are talking about projects as the laboratory or incubator for the creation of “sacred fruit” — objects of human genius like theories, inventions, books, discoveries. It seems that for Harman the creation of such objects is better than other kinds of activities in which humans can engage.

I tend to subscribe to this romantic notion of the heroic creator. But critiquers and destoyers can also create heroic objects, just as writers and politicians and inventors can create quite ordinary and even terrible objects.

26 July 2009

Surging Into the Inhuman

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:00 pm

I have always unconsciously sought out that which will beat me down to the ground, but the floor is also a wall.

– Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: George Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, 1992

The attraction for me is remote: letting go of all craft and judgment, all reason and restraint, casting aside the distinctly human, in order to ride the primal forces surging up through the organism. For Land there’s no liberation here other than the liberation of the zero, of death. Going posthuman doesn’t mean achieving some sort of superhuman freedom and power: it’s posthumanity in the rawest sense of death and extinction. Humanity is a blight on the planet and an excruciating burden on the individual: the sooner it’s gotten rid of the better. Worldwide warfare might be the ultimate solution if it could shake itself loose from controlled rational discipline and just let it rip. For Land only an orgy of slaughter will do.

Presumably people who assert this sort of “virulent nihilism” never gain access to the levers of destruction, and one wonders whether they’re having too much fun talking about self-immolation actually to plunge in the knife. Surely there’s a puerile rhetorical thrill in writing and reading about the horror and the mayhem, the psychosis and the putrefaction, the collapse. Maybe Land’s book should be admired strictly as a worthy exemplar of a particular genre of philosophical writing instead of being given serious consideration as a way of living — or of dying.

If someone came to my practice wanting to “get different” in this particular way, would I help him? Would I encourage my client to cultivate full commitment to this particular form of extreme difference? Or would I try to dissuade and distract him? Again, maybe if I could reduce this posthuman impulse to an intellectual exercise, maybe even a personal lifestyle experiment: nothing serious, nothing he won’t grow out of eventually. Ride it hard, get some mileage out of it, have some fun, write a book about it while the energy lasts. After the surge exhausts itself maybe we can move on to something else…

24 July 2009

Microphonic Conifer

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:27 am

“Nearby, a bulbous conifer tilted like a giant microphone awaiting a quote from the sky.”

Earlier yesterday I had been trying to remember how Graham Harman’s theory of metaphor works. Then, reading before going to sleep, I came across this sentence on page 6 of Glen Duncan’s Death of an Ordinary Man. It’s a simile we’re dealing with here, but no matter: the same principles apply. According to Harman’s theory, no object ever encounters another object directly: the encounters are mediated by the sensual surfaces of the objects coming into proximity with each other. In Duncan’s simile the sensual conifer takes onto itself certain notes of the sensual microphone, thereby alluding to notes of the real conifer. It’s not just that the conifer and the microphone share similar sensual features — their shapes and tilts. Rather, the metaphorical object alludes to the depths of the real conifer hidden beneath the sensual surface. Deploying Harman’s language from his Collapse II article, the metaphor points to the microphone-soul of the conifer looming in the darkness and magically hovering beneath the surface, animating the conifer and illuminating it from within.

Does the hidden essence of the conifer possess properties it shares with a microphone pointed at the sky? The implication of the metaphor is that there’s a voice in the sky — God, presumably — speaking into the conifer. As glimpsed through the metaphorical allusion, the conifer has the property of amplifying the Voice coming down from the sky, a way in which God reveals himself through earthly media. I suppose that really is the idea of the metaphorical relationship: the shared sensual properties of conifer and microphone allude to a deeper property of the microphone, which in turn points to a deeper property of the conifer.

Is the audio-ampifying property of the microphone a more essential feature than its conical shape and its tilt? I’d say that’s true. But now we’re getting close to equating essence with function: the tool-ness of the microphone is its essence, the shape and tilt are inessential surface characteristics. Equating essence with function is, I’m pretty sure, something that Harman doesn’t want to do, based on my reading of second-hand discussions of his book Tool-Being.

The sensual conifer possesses conical shape-notes and positional tilt-notes. It doesn’t possess microphone-notes. However, the metaphorical relationship produces a new object: a metaphorical conifer. This merged object does possess microphone notes. And I think that’s true: a metaphor is an object, even if it’s not a distinct material thing. The metaphor was created in the author’s imagination and deposited onto the manuscript of his book. It has multiplied its presence in all the printed copies of the book, and it has left its trace in the minds of all those people who have read that particular sentence on page 6 of the book. Imaginations, books, minds — these are distinctly human objects. Isn’t metaphor also a distinctly human kind of object? As best as I can tell, no metaphorical object can come into existence except through the mediation of human thought and language. The only other possibility I can imagine is that a Voice from the sky announces the reality of the metaphor into the microphones of our consciousnesses.

20 July 2009

“You Don’t Know Me”

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:42 am

I was walking around the pond this morning when I saw another guy approaching. “Don’t I know you?” I asked the guy, but then I corrected myself: “No, I guess I don’t.” “No, I guess not,” the guy agreed. This was all a little joke: he was wearing a t-shirt that read “You Don’t Know Me.”

If I spent some time “getting to know” this guy, would it be a futile undertaking inasmuch we can never really know anyone? Even if he took great pains to reveal things about himself to me, and even if I concentrated intently on understanding him, would our efforts be for naught because his true self would always retreat from interaction into unassailable hermetic isolation? If I were to enter into a relationship with this guy, would I come to know only his relational properties in our little dyad, with those properties bearing possibly no connection with his properties as an individual or as dyadic participant with someone else?

18 July 2009

Miller’s Crossing by the Coens, 1990

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:33 pm

millers crossing fix

“Now if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance. And then, you’re back with anarchy, right back in the jungle. That’s why ethics is important, what separates us from the animals, beasts of burden, beasts of prey. Ethics.”

millers crossing hat

“What are you chewin’ over?”

“Dream I had once. I was walking in the woods. I don’t know why. Wind came whippin’. Blew me hat off.”

“And you chased it, right? You ran and ran. You finally caught up to it. And you picked it up, but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It had changed into something else, something wonderful.”

“No, it stayed a hat. And no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”

millers crossing hit

The hat dream occupies the prophecy slot, a vision of the old school. And so we figure: the fix is in on this movie. But if it’s just a hat, then all bets are off.

17 July 2009

Blow Up and Out

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:07 am

Reading the Blow Out chapter in Peretz’s Becoming Visionary, I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the author’s  take on DePalma’s film. Not until after I’d read all 73 pages did I realize that Peretz had made only a brief passing mention of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Now I’ll grant that DePalma does more than slavishly repeat the earlier film, just as Antonioni did more than merely film Cortázar’s short story. But in my memory it’s Antonioni’s film that more directly manifests the kind of visionary openness that Peretz writes about.

The photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up thinks that he may have witnessed a murder. On the developed film we see foregrounded the man who is about to be killed; behind him two shadowy figures lurk. One of them is holding something shiny, metallic — a gun? The photographer blows up the image trying to zero in on the possible murderer and weapon, but the larger he makes the image the more indistinct it becomes. Even the body disappears without a trace, leaving no evidence whatever. Maybe the murder never occurred at all. This is precisely the sort of becoming-visionary Peretz has in mind: looking into the opaqueness of the revelation not in order to perceive its essential truth and meaning but rather to see the irreducible indeterminacy.

DePalma takes all the guesswork out of it. A man is dead: was it a murder? The soundman tries to reconstruct the crime with audiotape and evidence from the scene. He’s not sure. But DePalma is sure: his vision transcends the soundman’s; he knows what happened. Eventually we know it too, as does the soundman, but it’s too late to prevent the murderer from striking again. The unfolding is not unlike that of Carrie from my last post: the director knows, then we know, and we want the heroes to know, but they don’t have access to our visions. These are tragedies of the old school, where a fate dimly glimpsed reveals itself fully only in its inevitable fulfillment.

Granted, the photographer in Antonioni’s film doesn’t celebrate his visionary blindness. This is European high-modernism after all, when auteurs nostalgically lamented the post-war loss of certainty and faced indeterminacy with ambivalence and angst. DePalma exhibits a dynamic visual style that’s perhaps had greater impact on Hollywood than Antonioni’s almost architectural compositions. But DePalma’s rendering of the story is, in Peretz’s terms, more old-school than Antonioni’s.

5 July 2009

Carrie by DePalma, 1976

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:47 am

carrie flow

carrie blot

carrie supper

3 July 2009

I Am, I Do

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:38 am

So anyhow, my explorations of the hot blog topic of trolls and grey vampires, of sneers and accusations, of projects and critiques, are motivated only in part by my desire to choose sides. We might wish we had tough skins, separating critiques of our work from critiques of our selves, but I’m not sure it’s either possible or optimal. Who I am consists in large part of what I do and of what’s done to me. Much of what I do is impersonal, in the sense that anyone could do it. When I drive my car or do the laundry or calculate the mean and standard deviation of a data set I’m performing a generic task, in a prescribed way, that’s intrinsic to the role I’m occupying. Still, my performance of these tasks can be distinguished from that of a machine. I take an alternate route to admire the scenery; I fail to notice the black sock mixed in with the whites; I detect a possible pattern among the outliers while eyeballing the raw data.

In academic work some projects seem inevitable. There’s an obvious next study to be conducted in a research trajectory, an obvious connection to be explored between two thinkers. And yet the precise contours of even a predictable project almost always carry some idiosyncracies in their design and execution, idiosyncracies that can be traced back to the person conducting the project. Do project idiosyncrasies make manifest certain stable characteristics of the individual or team undertaking the projects? Or is an individual or a team best regarded as a temporary nexus of historical and contemporary trajectories, such that even their idiosyncracies can be regarded as predictable for them? I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter, but I believe it does.

We can talk in inhuman terms: while an object and its environment occupy the same reality and interact bidirectionally with each other, there is a difference within that reality between object and environment. What constitutes the environment depends on what kind of an object we’re talking about: what a patch of tall grass means to a rabbit is different from what it means to the guy who mows the lawn. And whether grass patches and rabbits and lawnmowing guys are more or less interchangeable, this particular patch of grass is part of the environment only for this particular rabbit, this particular guy. (And vice versa, of course: this rabbit, this man, are part of this grass patch’s environment.)

But humans are different in the ways they interact with their environment. Individual rabbits surely differ in the way they go about eating a patch of grass, but those differences are minor random variations in the execution of a preprogrammed instinctive behavior pattern common to the species. The behavior of the guy with the lawnmower might be predictable too, but his behavior depends on whether he’s the owner of the patch of grass or the guy hired by the owner, whether the neighbors keep their lawns well-manicured or not, whether the guy prefers to mow on a weekly schedule or based on how much the lawn has grown since last time, and so on. These individual differences are surely affected by species-wide characteristics, but they’re not locked in as tightly by instinct. There are distinct characteristics about this particular guy — his sensitivity to social pressure, his economic motivation, his aesthetic sensibilities, his enjoyment or distaste for the task, his compulsiveness versus impulsiveness, other things he wants or has to do today — that affect what he does with his lawnmower to that patch of grass.

This particular guy’s characteristics: do they describe what he does, or who he is? It’s not a clear-cut distinction. Individual differences between people manifest themselves in the different ways they perform particular tasks — that is, in the ways they interact proactively with their generic and specific environments. I don’t believe that my selfhood is diminished because I have no personal lawnmowing responsibilities. Still, when I had a lawn and a mower, someone could infer a few things about  me by observing the way in which I typically performed the task. In all likelihood there are other tasks which I do perform these days that would offer similar glimpses into some of those same characteristics I manifested as a lawnmowing guy. The performance of a task exposes both the characteristics of the task as well as certain characteristics of the performer. This is true of lawnmowing, of doing crossword puzzles, of formulating theories, of writing blog posts.

So, returning to the topic of undertaking a project: one could argue that the project in effect executes itself. Maybe there is no meaningful difference between person and environment. Projects emerge through the social interactions among humans and the neural interactions in those humans’ brains. The boundary between the guy with a project and the guy with a critique of the project is an artificial one: the interactions internal to the social and intellectual environment are what make the project happen. That’s one way of looking at it, and it’s a legitimate way. Differences among individual projects would be less important than the projects regarded collectively as the cumulative expression of a larger human intellectual environment.

It’s also legitimate to regard individuals and their particular projects as separate entities, distinct from other people and their projects. As an individual I act and am acted upon by a local environment made up of natural things and forces, of artifacts and social forces, of other individuals and what they’re doing. I can regard the blog post that I’m writing as manifesting a particular pattern of generic characteristics present in all blog posts which, together with those posts’ readers and commenters, collectively comprise the blogging environment. Or I can regard the writing of this post as a distinct and focused expression of part of who I am as an individual. And I can regard the post itself, now that it’s just about finished, as a unique artifact that in all likelihood would never have come into existence if I hadn’t done it. Outside forces surely have shaped what I’ve done here regardless of my awareness or intentions. But to some degree I can intentionally filter those influences, absorbing or deflecting or adapting to them. They are part of my local environment. My idiosyncratic interactions with that environment reveal as much about who I am as about what I do and the environment in which I do it.

I venture to assert that this blog post is different from any of the other millions of blog posts floating around out there, and that this particular post would never have come into existence if I hadn’t written it.

2 July 2009

Becoming Visionary, Chapter 1

Filed under: Ktismata, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:42 pm

Per Dejan’s suggestion I secured through inter-library loan a copy of Eyal Peretz’s 2008 book Becoming Visionary: Brian DePalma’s Cinematic Education of the Senses. Most of the book is devoted to extended treatments of three DePalma films: Carrie, The Fury, and Blow Out. The introductory chapter establishes the theoretical context for discussing the films. My interest in the book lies less in film theory than in a possible psychological and artistic praxis of “becoming visionary.” So we’ll see how that goes.

Peretz begins by describing Plato’s distinction between an object and its image. The image is accessible to the senses; behind the image are those properties of the object that are closed to the senses. These “real properties” can be reached only through the mediation of the realm of Ideas, where the meanings of things reside. The image is a kind of poor copy of the real thing, pointing beyond itself to an excess that’s inaccessible to sensation and perception. Another kind of non-sensible “eye” is required to see this excess, which is the intellect.

There’s a materialistic tendency to reverse Platonism by affirming the sensory order of reality while disavowing the separate realm of  “objective” or ideal meaning. What Peretz wants to do is to retain the Platonic distinction between image and meaning without assigning them to two separate realities.

Peretz contends that, in parallel to the philosophical tradition, there’s an alternative artistic construal of the split between sense and meaning. The artist, claims Peretz, reveals that the sensory opening onto the world has at its center a blindness to what’s already there, something that blocks clear vision. Art doesn’t try to eliminate this blindness or to bypass it through another channel like intellect or insight. Instead, the artist enters into the blindness itself, opening it up, activating the blindness itself.

“The artistic tradition tries to bring about a visionary eye that sees out of blindness, that senses its opening out of a closure beyond it, rather than conceptualizing a non-sensual eye that perceives objects of a superior kind.” (p. 12)

This isn’t just a blindness to what’s out there in the world; it’s also a blindness to one’s self. And the source of this blindness? Peretz says that it’s the inescapable human position as “a being inscribed in time.” By being embedded in the present we are blind to time itself, and especially to the future. According to this formulation, the future is what “makes sense” of the sensible world in which we’re immersed, but this future is unknown and unknowable to us.

In more traditional explorations of the artistic tradition the future already exists, such that each of us is embedded in an unfolding destiny to which we are blind. There may be visionaries who can see through the blindness into the future: seers, prophets, gods, visionary artists, omniscient narrators of stories.

In some contemporary variants of the artistic tradition future time can never be glimpsed through the blindness because the future does not yet exist. Instead of seeing destiny, the artist looks into an impenetrable and undifferentiated whiteness, a “haunting no-thingness traced in the field of vision and of the world… a blind spot with no content, with no object.” The excess beyond the sensory image resides beyond anyone’s understanding, outside of meaning. To gaze into the whiteness is to confront the incompleteness of the world, an incompleteness caused by the future’s absence from the present. The present isn’t informed by a meaningful future when all accounts are settled and all loose ends are tied up. Instead, the present is haunted by the multiple trajectories of the present that lead into a future that doesn’t yet exist.

The beyond of meaning, therefore, doesn’t transcend the sensory order of the present time. It’s immanent to sensory reality, continuous with the present in a way that fades to the nonexistence of an open future. Paradoxically, it is this impenetrable open future that gives the present world its meaning: the world, by its very nature, is open to transformation. What the contemporary artist sees in the blind spot is a blindness inherent in the world itself, which is the world’s futurity:

“not the fact of the future as something we can predict, but the fact that the world is transformable in essence and open to unpredictable change, an openness that is part of what the world is… [W]hat one is blind to is thus simply the future or futurity, its potential openness.” (p. 14)

It is this seeing into the blind spot, becoming aware of the world’s open futurity, that Peretz calls “becoming visionary.”

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