29 January 2010

Bullshit, Romantic Bullshit, Childish Bullshit

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:16 am

[30 JAN. UPDATE: Per blog stats, yesterday was the busiest day ever on Ktismatics. Just goes to show…]

“a) critics are trolls = bullshit, it’s a way to demonize critique and critics, it’s not new and it’s not useful, hate critics if you want, don’t pretend you can do without them.  b) philosopher as a solitary genius writing away his books in his study = Romantic bullshit, never happened before, will never happen, regardless of all that propaganda aka “advice on how to write” (aka “Just do it like I do it”)  c) trolls are out to get me/us = childish bullshit (“mommy, there’s a monster under my bed”), no one cares and wishes Harman “to fail” – philosophical is personal: you’re either with Harman all the way (with allowable deviance a la Shaviro) or you are his enemy (cf. Paul Ennis’ sad fate) – there’s no neutral third position. Love it or leave it, if you’re not leaving, you’re secretly loving etc etc.”

This is Mikhail’s dismissal of Graham Harman’s “troll theory,” on which yesterday’s post-and-discussion at Ktismatics was premised. Of course Mikhail is under no obligation to engage substantively with Graham’s position or with my posted engagement with it. Bullshit, Romantic bullshit, childish bullshit: this profane responsorium to Graham’s litany probably does summarize succinctly Mikhail’s views on the subject. But what’s to be done with it? At every turn it transforms the abstract into the personal, debate into disdain.

On the timeline of yesterday’s thread Mikhail’s comment immediately followed one of my own. I had just cited portions of Verene’s Speculative Philosophy — a book that Mikhail had previously recommended on his blog — suggesting that the distinction between speculation and critique upheld by Harman conforms to a long continental philosophical tradition. Bullshit, says Mikhail. I follow Mikhail’s “Three Bullshits” polemic with this:

Clearly the whole Troll conflict isn’t just a matter of creation versus discovery or speculation versus critique. Personalities clash, feelings are hurt, people act like bigger assholes than they might otherwise be. I’m probably regarded as an ally of the Trolls inasmuch as I condemn the dehumanizing and demonizing rhetoric so often employed against them (us?) by the “Bullies.” However, I find that practically the only time the philosophical Trolls comment here is when I write about the Bullies, and the only time the Bullies comment here (even more rare) is when I write about themselves. The recently-departed Kvond once accused me of writing posts like this one in order to boost readership for the blog. I don’t think that’s the case (at least not consciously); nevertheless, posts like this do draw more readers and commenters than anything I might write about realism or social constructivism or science or any of the other substantive topics on which the philosophical Trolls and Bullies disagree intellectually. I used to feel slighted, but no more, for I too have transcended commentary and ascended into the rarefied air where pure creation is wrought by the mighty Titans of Thought!

I just downloaded a review of Harman’s book on Latour referenced by someone on your blog, Mikhail, but since I’ve only read part of the book in question and none of Latour I’ll probably not have anything substantive to say about it.

…to which Mikhail replied thusly:

Wait, am I a Troll or a Bully?

I read that review, but since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know how accurately it represents the book’s problems. I once had a conversation with an old friend who confided that he read some Harman before Harman started blogging and thought it was okay, but now he cannot read him anymore, because he knows more about the author. Now, how does one react to this? On the one hand, we all read biographies, we all want to know who was the person behind the books – and Harman’s own argument is that it is important to keep philosopher and his/her philosophy together. On the other hand, biographical data is only good when it helps us LOVE the author and we are not allowed to use any of the biographical data to criticize the argument (it’s ad hominem and so on). I find this strange, don’t you?

So I creatively came up with the following characterization of Harman’s “troll theory” – everyone back the fuck off from MY idea – I think it’s a preventive ad hominem strike (a la George W. Bush and The Terrorists). That is to say, you strike your critics before they strike you by identifying a fundamental flaw in their being, not their doing (being a troll as being-critical): “no matter what you say, you are always already a troll; you are not a troll because you snark from nowhere, you snark from nowhere because you are a troll, it’s part of your being, you are a toxic person – now, speak!”

All of this is quite amusing; it might even be accurate. But does Mikhail give ME some love even after I practically begged him for it? He does not. I’ve just gotten done pointing out that the Trolls — and I reassure Mikhail in my next comment that he definitely is a Troll — typically comment on my philosophically-inflected posts only in order to bash the Bullies. So what does Mikhail do in response to this observation? He calls attention to himself (“am I a Troll or a Bully”), then goes ahead and bashes the Bully some more.

I guess in Mikhail’s case I’ll have to agree with him: it’s all personal. If his seeming obsession with Graham was once grounded in philosophical critique, it isn’t any more. It’s an outpouring of personal antagonism. Personally, I don’t believe that Mikhail “hides” behind a false blogging identity: in all likelihood he would say the same things to Graham in personal conversation at a coffee shop that he does in the blogs. Is that a good thing?

I’m sure that Graham believes that the uniqueness of his work stems at least in part from his uniqueness as a person: he sees things that others have not seen, and he presents them in a style that speaks to some who might not otherwise hear. In my view Graham over-psychologizes honest intellectual disagreements, a tendency which he demonstrates several times in the interview I linked to in yesterday’s post. So I suppose the Troll can point a finger at the Bully and say “he started it.” “Did not,” the Bully counters. “Did so!” “Did not!” Where’s René Girard when we need him? Here’s the main difference I can see in this mimetic rivalry: the Bullies all have book deals; the Trolls do not.

28 January 2010

More or Less Real

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:57 am

From this interview with Graham Harman:

“My theory is that the troll is simply the predictable excrescence or repellent underside of an era of philosophy that values critique far too highly. Even university administrators praise philosophy mostly because it teaches “critical thinking” skills. In short, it is believed that philosophy teaches us to be less gullible, to believe in quantitatively fewer things, to stand at a transcendent distance from any particular personal commitment. The mission of philosophy is to debunk and tear down and to say: “no, I don’t believe it.” Against this attitude, I agree with Latour’s maxim that the point of thinking is to make things more real, not less.”

I resonate strongly with Graham’s creative Gulliver who finds himself continuously pestered and held down by the swarm of little Negative Nancies. The question is this: do I claim to be discovering something about already-existing reality, or am I trying “to make things more real”? I certainly get bogged down while drafting fiction if I have to worry about continuity and consistency of details: that’s what editing is for. If I’m designing a new artifact or service, I work on the general architecture first before getting into the detailed engineering and construction and debugging. On the other hand, if I’m doing science, the details of the real don’t just constrain me; they shape the discipline. My job as scientific realist is to anticipate “the critique from nowhere,” aka “the Null Hypothesis,” in order to demonstrate empirically the critique’s inadequacy in accounting for the way things really are. Scientists aren’t trying to make things “less real;” they’re trying to get a view of reality that’s less distorted by error and illusion and bias.

26 January 2010

A Way of Painting Nature

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:23 am

“I must tell you that I spent my time in my study, lying on a sofa facing the window, from which I could see  stretch of the sea, and the horizon. One evening, when the sun was setting and the sky was broken by clouds, I lay there a long while watching a white cloud taking on a marvelous shade of pure tender green. The clouds in the west were fringed with red, but a pale red, bleached by the white rays of the sun shining directly upon it. The light dazzled me, and after a while I closed my eyes. Then it was clear to me that all my attention and love had been given to that shade of green, for its complementary colour was produced on my retina, a brilliant red that had nothing to do with the luminous, but pale red of the sky. I gazed in enchantment at the colour I had myself brought into being. My great surprise came when I opened my eyes again, for then I saw that flaming red spread over the whole sky and cover up my emerald green, so that for some time I was unable to see it. So I had actually found a way of painting nature! I naturally repeated the experiment several times. The strange part was that I had actually endowed the colours with movement. When I opened my eyes again, the sky would not at once take on the colour from my retina. There was a moment’s hesitation during which I could just detect the emerald green from which the red had sprung, and which seemed to have been destroyed by it. It emerged now from within and spread in all directions like a giant conflagration.”

– Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno (1923)

This narrative reflection appears near the end of the novel in a chapter entitled “Psychoanalysis.” Zeno has entered analysis in the hope that it will help him quit smoking, an objective he had repeatedly tried and failed to achieve throughout his life. Zeno’s doctor has been encouraging him to report his dreams, looking for content that will reveal Zeno’s unresolved Oedipus complex. In order to palliate the doctor, Zeno invents an Oedipal dream. His imagination is so rich, his ability to persuade the doctor of the dream’s reality so effective, that, says Zeno, “I almost succeeded (and this is no contradiction) in deceiving myself too… It made me feel quite sick.”

As part of his analysis Zeno had written some “memory-pictures” — reminiscences of his childhood — and presented them to his doctor. Zeno had loved these waking dreams:

“And I did not simulate the emotion; it was really one of the strongest I have ever felt in my life. I was bathed in perspiration while creating the images, and in tears when I recognized them. The idea of being able to live again one day of innocence and inexperience gave me inexpressible delight. Was it not like plucking in October the roses of May? …I know now that I invented them. But invention is a creative act, not merely a lie. My inventions were like the fantasies of fever, which walk about the room so that one can survey them from all sides and even touch them. They had the solidity, the colour, and the movement of living things. My desire created these images. They existed only in my brain and in the space into which I projected them; I felt the air, I saw the light that was in this space, and even its hard corners, just as in any other space that I have walked through… I remembered them as one remembers an event one has been told by somebody who was not present at it.”

In one of these memory-pictures Zeno is being walked to school by the family servant, who seems enormous to him. Zeno is in his first year of school; his brother, a year younger, hasn’t started school yet.  The Zeno of this created dream knows that he will have to go to school forever and ever while the brother gets to stay home. Realizing that he may well be punished when he gets to school, Zeno pictures his little brother and thinks: “They can’t touch him.” When Zeno comes out of his reverie he remembers that in fact his brother envied him for being able to go to school, and that the enormous servant was in fact a short woman. The memory-pictures stopped when Zeno realized the memories were inventions.

“Now alas, to my sorrow I believe in them no longer, and know that it was not the pictures that fled, but my eyes from which a veil was lifted, so that they looked out again on real space, where there is no room for spirits.”

It is after the memory-pictures have stopped that Zeno begins his experiments with optical illusion: “I suddenly felt called to complete the physiological theory of colour,” he says of them. He reports his findings to his analyst, who is unimpressed.

“The doctor polished me off by saying that my retina had become ultrasensitive from so much nicotine. It was on the tip of my tongue to reply that in that case the visions that we had regarded as a reproduction of events of my childhood might also have been due to the same poison.”

In conclusion, it is perhaps worth recalling that the color of an object we see is generated by those wavelengths of light that are not absorbed by the object and that bounce off the surface of the object onto our retinas. Would it be fair to say that the real color of an object, the color that penetrates the surface of the object, the color that is absorbed into and becomes part of the object, is actually the complement of the color we see with our eyes?

23 January 2010

Fear of Knowledge

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:06 am

“On October 22, 1996, the New York Times ran an unusual front-page story. Entitled ‘Indian Tribes’ Creationists Thwart Archaeologists,’ it described a conflict that had arisen between two views of where Native American populations originated. According to the standard, extensively-confirmed archaeological account, humans first entered the Americans from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait some 10,000 years ago. By contrast, some Native American creation myths hold that native peoples have lived in the Americas ever since their ancestors first emerged onto the earth from a subterranean world of spirits.”

Is one of these two accounts true, or do they stem from two equally valid ways of knowing? Is the subterranean passage just as real for the traditional Zuni people as the Bering passage is for modern archaoeologists? Is it symptomatic of Western hegemony to impose its totalizing scientific worldview on every culture it encounters?

These are the sorts of questions that philosopher Paul Boghossian explores in Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, a book recommended to me by someone whom a news reporter might describe as a reliable source. Boghossian systematically explores and critiques what he calls

“the doctrine of Equal Validity: “There are many radically different, yet ‘equally valid’ ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them.”

Speaking personally, I accept and embrace the fact that there are many ways of knowing the world, including personal observation, interpersonal relationships, literature and film, and direct manipulation of the stuff that comprises the world. But I also privilege science as the closest thing to objective knowledge about the world that’s on offer. Psychology was my field of study in school. I did some training as a therapist, but mostly I learned how to conduct empirical research. Though its subject matter overlaps considerably with sociology and the humanities, the practice of academic psychology has more in common with biology and chemistry. Psychologists do science. Flights of theory and rhetoric are reserved for the superstars and the emeriti; everyone else is expected to stick closely to the data.

Scientists believe that they’re discovering truths about the world. Sure, they’ve heard of Kuhn: they’re aware that biases can affect results and funding and professional status. But human perception is biased too: that’s why you need carefully calibrated observational tools and  measurement instruments and data-analytic techniques. Good technique includes being aware of the biases that might affect your results and either eliminating, controlling, or compensating for them. Someone might come along after you’ve completed your study and identify another bias that you missed. So you try again, tightening up the methods, cleaning up the data, generating results that are just a little bit purer, a little closer to the ideal of objectivity.

I certainly didn’t learn about social constructivism in my graduate education. When eventually I did become exposed to this sort of thinking I regarded it as both insightful and intuitively obvious. Of course worldviews and moralities and tastes aren’t discovered; they’re created by people. And I also thought: that’s why science is so valuable — the method exposes and controls for sociocultural biases as well as perceptual and cognitive ones.

Boghossian, though, contends that the prevailing view in contemporary humanities and social sciences is that

“the truth of a belief is not a matter of how things stand with an ‘independently existing reality;’ and its rationality is not a matter of its approval by ‘transcendent procedures of rational assessment.’ …All knowledge, it is said, is socially dependent because all knowledge is socially constructed.”

Many if not most scientists would agree that they “construct” theories to explain their empirical findings, and that there is a “social” component to establishing consensus within the discipline about whether theory A is better than theory B. But that’s a far cry from saying that scientific knowledge itself is a social construct. Knowledge is discovered. Theories are constructed to explain this knowledge, but the adequacy and general acceptance of a theory always depends on whether that theory accounts adequately for reliable observations of the real world.

Maybe it’s because I trained and worked as a scientist that I find realist ontologies and epistemologies generally more persuasive than social constructivism when it comes to scientific knowledge about the world. Boghossian asserts that analytical philosophers tend also to subscribe to scientific realism, a contention confirmed by a recent survey of Anglophone philosophy departments. Presumably realism strikes a more radical chord among social scientists, humanities scholars, and continental philosophers.

Since part of what I’ve gotten out of blogging is a greater familiarity with just this crowd, I’ve felt more inclined to consider the arguments against realism than is my ordinary inclination. And I don’t deny my naivety regarding much of the sophisticated sociocultural theorizing that identifies systematic bias in the whole scientific enterprise. Still, when I read a book like Boghossian’s, even though it’s a work of philosophy rather than science, I feel like I’m in my element. Here’s the last paragraph:

“The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.”

It’s nicely done, Boghossian’s book. I’m not going to work through his arguments in favor of scientific realism, most of which I find persuasive. Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t really explore the extent to which human empirical observations of the real might not correspond with or accurately represent or describe the real itself. For that matter, in my view the book doesn’t adequately describe or debunk the sort of epistemological stance whereby tradition or faith trumps empiricism and reason; e.g., where the Zuni genesis story is deemed true while the anthropologists’ story is false. These gaps are understandable, since Boghossian maintains a sharp focus on critiquing postmodern relativist hermeneutics. And the book is only 130 pages long, so it can’t cover everything.

That said, I still find constructivist theories of knowledge quite exotic when compared with scientific realism. So too with some of the more speculative variants of realism. I think they all have a prominent role to play in contemporary speculative fiction.

21 January 2010

A History of Masoporn

Filed under: Culture, Fiction — ktismatics @ 6:52 am

Today is the anniversary of the publication in 1789 of William Hill Brown’s first novel, which he saddled with the ungainly title The Power of Sympathy: Or the Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth. This book, which I’ve not read, was the first novel published in America written by an author born in America. Today’s installment of The Writer’s Almanac describes the plot thusly:

The Power of Sympathy is a cautionary tale whose plot and subplots feature several young couples. Harriot and Harrington are lovers who discover that they are half-siblings and their relationship is incestuous, and Harriot is so upset that she becomes ill and dies, and then Harrington kills himself. There is Ophelia, who is seduced by her sister’s husband, Martin, becomes pregnant, and kills herself. Fidelia is “carried off by a ruffian” a few days before her wedding, and her fiancé kills himself because of the shame. And finally, there is a young woman who gives birth to an illegitimate child with an unknown father, and then dies.

A Serious Man by the Coens, 2009

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:50 am

I’ve not seen all the contenders, but by my lights this was the best picture of 2009.

20 January 2010

Nostalgie Russe

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:12 pm

Here’s a news story that caught my eye: the Russian Cathedral in Nice is being returned to Russian governmental control. No, they’re not going to load it onto a flatcar and send it back to the Motherland. Moscow says that the only administrative change will be the elimination of the 3 euro admission fee charged to tourists.

I used to pass this cathedral every morning when I took our daughter to grade school. On warm days she and I would buy hot dogs (served in hollowed-out half-baguettes) from the vendor under the train tracks and eat them for lunch on the cathedral lawn. Some of the huge old trees were propped up by metal crutches impaled in the ground, like the ones that Dalí often put in his paintings.

Here, courtesy of Anne, is a photo of a crutched-up tree on the Cathedral grounds.

19 January 2010

Imitation of Life, 1934/1959

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:14 am

15 January 2010

The Last Sentence

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:54 am

I’ve reached the last of my seven magical sentences. This one is the longest and, on the face of it, perhaps the least enigmatically promising:

“These are: intention-reading and cultural learning, which account for how children learn linguistic symbols in the first place; schematization and analogy, which account for how children create abstract syntactic constructions out of the concrete pieces of language they have heard; entrenchment and competition, which account for how children constrain their abstractions to those that are conventional in their linguistic community; and functionally based distributional analysis, which accounts for how children form paradigmatic categories of various kinds of linguistic constituents.”

This sentence appears toward the end of Constructing a Language by Michael Tomasello. And already, in writing this first interpretive sentence, the unconscious associations are starting to pile up. For the title of Tomasello’s book I first wrote Constructing a Boob, which I then emended to Constructing a Book.

I’ve previously written a few posts about Tomasello’s work in psycholinguistics. Curiously, in my immediately-preceding post on the sixth magical sentence I made reference to a new novel written by the wife of Steven Pinker, who is also a psycholinguist. Tomasello and Pinker don’t see eye to eye. Pinker agrees with Chomsky that humans are equipped with a distinct language module, and with Gould that this module evolved all at once as a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Tomasello, on the other hand, contends that a gradual evolutionary path can be traced from lower-level primate cognition to human language. Magical sentence 7 lists the component processes that together comprise the ontogeny of language acquisition, a skill set that Tomasello traces incrementally both in children’s gradual improvement in language use and in other species’ sublinguistic capabilities.  Tomasello emphasizes that language itself has developed over historical time, from early basic namings and commands to the wide variety of grammatically complex systems used by all modern humans. Most of this progression is attributable not to biological evolution but to cumulative cultural learning, ratcheting up linguistic complexity across successive generations.

This stuff is fascinating in its own right, but for my purposes I’m interested in the conflict between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism. If the human language module popped fully formed into the heads of our primate forebears, then it’s easier to contend that there is some basic discontinuity between apes and men. And what, pray tell, gave rise to this discontinuity? Mutation, you say? Fine, but how about the Big Punctuator Himself? Maybe he infused some lucky protohuman ancestor with the ability to understand and to speak. And while he was at it, he also bestowed upon this earliest human — call him Adam — the most important punctuation mark of all: an eternal soul.

In my last post I mentioned that I’d quoted Pinker in my Genesis 1 nonfiction book, emailed the reference to him, and received a courteous and relevant reply. I did the same with Tomasello, except he never responded. Looking back at my email to him I can see why: I wasn’t specific enough in what interested me about his work. Despite his nonresponse, I’m more persuaded by Tomasello’s theory of language acquisition than by Pinker’s. I won’t rehearse the rationale here; instead I’ll point back to my own project, since presently I’m engaged in a talismanic reading of texts rather than a scholarly one.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

It would appear that light is the first thing God created, but look again. Language came first. God said, and then there was; signifier, and then signified. This observation is pivotal to my reading of Genesis 1: God, or probably some itinerant Sumerian trader, happens upon a primitive protosemitic tribe. Being a cosmopolitan sophisticate, the trader is possessed not of a more complex brain than the villagers, but of a more complex language. The trader points at the campfire: “light,” he says. He points at the distant volcano: “light.” He points at the eastern sky at dawn: “light.” And so it was that, for this tribe, a universe came into being in six days: not a de novo and ex nihilo material reality, but a socially-constructed reality for making sense of an already-existing material universe.

I personally think this is an inspired reading of the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Is it true? Well, it truly happened to each one of us as children, that we learned to associate words with things and to compile things into larger realities in precisely this way, through cultural transmission from language-users more adept than ourselves. But do I know that Genesis 1 is the more-or-less empirically accurate recounting of an ancient conversation between a linguistically sophisticated visitor and his primitive hosts? No, of course not. So what separates my interpretation from all the other readings, plausible and crackpot alike, that have been handed down through the generations and that are still being spawned by imaginative exegetes? Well… Do I have especially strong scholastic credentials or historical evidence to back my claims? Um… Have I received a special revelation, and can I back up its authenticity by signs and wonders? Er…

It’s at this point that I watch my interpretation of Genesis 1 receding into the mists of speculative metaphysics from which Genesis 1 itself emerged so long ago. Can I bring it back before it disappears altogether? I’m hoping that I can. How? Not by renewed efforts at persuading an imaginary audience of the truth of my claims, but by letting them take shape as religious fiction. So there’s this guy — call him the Exegete — who’s come up with a new interpretation of the Biblical creation story. He shops it to the usual religous types: no sale. Frustrated, he eventually gives up. One day over coffee the Exegete tells someone about his crackpot idea. You should go talk to so-and-so about this idea, his interlocutor suggests. The Exegete does so. Soon he finds himself entangled in the mad and grandiose schemes of a shadowy and widely dispersed organization called the Fellowship. Not only do the Fellowship embrace the Exegete’s idea; they extend and distort the idea to potentially catastrophic proportions. And so on.

So now I think I’ve got two novels to write. There’s the one about the Iconist, which I’ve mentioned in recent posts. And now there’s the Exegete’s story, moving what had been a nonfiction book written by a nonfictional person, namely me, into the realm of speculative fiction. And I think these two stories fit together as part of the same imagined parallel reality.

It seems fitting that the last sentence extracted from my mystic praxis of personal meaning points me back to the first sentence of the primal Creation.

13 January 2010

Christianity as Fiction

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:01 pm

Yesterday I received an email from my old buddy Steven Pinker. Well, it’s not like he’s a really close friend: about three years ago I quoted him in my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 and sent him the relevant passage, which he commented on. So I guess I got automatically stored in his email directory. Anyhow, my pal Steven wanted to let me know that his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, had just published a new book called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

As you can imagine, especially if you’ve been reading my recent posts, the title immediately captured my attention. Goldstein, being married to one of the more famous of the “new atheists,” isn’t really offering an apologetics — the 36 Arguments appear in an Appendix, each accompanied by a convincing counter-argument. Besides being a novelist, Goldstein is a serious scholar, having taught philosophy at the university level and having written biographies of Gödel and Spinoza. One of her novels in a fictionalized account of the life of William James. The new novel was just released just yesterday, and today it’s number 200 among all books, fiction and nonfiction alike, on the Amazon bestseller list. [I just checked again: it’s down to 246]

The update from Stephen dovetails nicely with the sixth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to discover personal meaning and direction for the new year. It goes like this:

“Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the church of the Jews and the other the church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ.”

The “he” who serves as subject of this sentence is the Apostle Paul, on whose writings I’ve written frequently at Ktismatics. The sentence appears on page 200 of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, a book which I found in the giveaway box at the local library and which I’ve not yet read. According to the back cover, the book traces the decline of scientific and rational thought in the West as a consequence of Constantine’s consolidation of a Christianized Roman Empire in the fourth century. Previously the church had emphasized the Gospels, in which Jesus is presented as a Jewish national hero and a rebel against Roman authority. After the crucifixion Peter had sustained the essential Jewishness of Christianity. Paul, on the other hand, universalized the Christian faith to embrace Romans and barbarians alike, imposed a hierarchical church authority structure, and counseled cooperation with the political authorities — an approach that proved much more compatible with the consolidation of the Empire. Augustine emerged in the fourth century as the pre-eminent Pauline theologian and enforcer of a standardized Christian dogma.

In my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 I made the opposite argument: that a revival of Augustinian influence within Christianity during the Protestant Reformation restored a more empirical and creative orientation to Western culture. In all likelihood I was being overly charitable, largely because I was trying to establish a basis for collaboration and compromise between believers and nonbelievers. Three years later I don’t care as much about compromise, or even about religion-bashing. I’m prepared to regard Christianity as the fiction I believe it to be, along with most other forms of metaphysical speculation, and to exploit it for my own amusement. At the same time, I agree with Fabio’s contention that

“In the West we cannot ignore how the history of Christianity influences our every step (and on this point, I find extremely telling the constant subtle interest of extremely timely ‘radical thinkers’ such as Badiou and Zizek with Christianity, not to mention of course Meillassoux own polemic against fideism and yet his confrontation with theological, or divinological, issues)”

So, like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I’ll continue incorporating religion into the fiction I write, as long as it stimulates my imagination and contributes to my glee.

11 January 2010

The Secret Discourse of All Things

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:08 pm

“However, it is not possible to describe all the relations that may emerge in this way without some guide-lines.”

This is the fifth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to derive some guide-lines for my own personal 2010. It comes from the first chapter, page 29, of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, and I have to say that, on the face of it, the sentence isn’t particularly rich in connotations. Still, the sentence points away from itself toward its own meaning — which relations? in what way? — and it’s in those referents that something significant starts to emerge.

Foucault describes a threefold project from which this particular book takes shape. Most importantly, he wants to explore “discontinuity” and “rupture” as they appear in discourse. In order to do so, he needs to clear away the usual unifying themes that block the discontinuities from awareness. Foucault contends that there is no unifying force linking multiple texts within a genre or field, or even texts within a single author’s body of work, except through the interpretations that readers impose on those texts. By exposing these socially constructed unities and setting them aside, the intrinsically fragmentary composition of texts is revealed. Only then can Foucault’s third agenda begin to take shape, namely the identification of unexpected unifying themes that link discursive fragments across texts, across authors, across genres.

On page 25 Foucault renounces the traditional insistence that behind every discourse lurks the identity and intentionality of its speaker/writer as a unifying force that transcends the actual words and phrases. It’s as if the whole discourse is “already said” in the speaker’s mind even before any actual words are spoken. The job of the listener then becomes one of listening for this unspoken discourse behind the words, “the silent murmuring, the inexhaustible speech that animates from within the voice that one hears,” which is whole psychological presence of the speaker. This is crap, says Foucault: it points to an ever-receding point of discursive origin that can never actually be reached. Listen to the discourse itself: its irruptions and non sequiturs and dispersions are more real than the unified speaking subject in whose intentional and unconscious thoughts you imagine the discontinuities can be neatly tied together.

“Once these immediate forms of continuity are suspended, an entire field is set free. A vast field, but one that can be defined nonetheless: this field is made up of the totality of all effective statements (whether spoken or written), in their dispersion as events and in the occurrence that is proper to them. Before approaching, with any degree of certainty, a science, or novels, or political speeches, or the œvre of an author, or even a single book, the material with which one is dealing is, in its raw, neutral state, a population of events in the space of discourse in general. One is led therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.” (pp. 26-27)

But Foucault doesn’t want “to spread over everything the dust of facts,” merely listing and cataloging the discrete elements he encounters empirically in actual discourses. Breaking the hypnotic spell of psychological unity, he seeks other relations between elements, other unifying fields and forces that link seemingly disparate and incommensurable source materials. But, Foucault cautions with regard to these newly-linked discursive events, “in no way would they constitute a sort of secret discourse, animating the manifest discourse from within.” Consequently he suggests some “guide-lines” to avoid this sort of mystifying operation.

*   *   *

It’s at this point, however, that I must part company with our eminently reasonable guide and his systematic project. My project isn’t reasonable; it’s fictional. I allowed randomness to select seven disconnected “discursive events” for me, and now I’m seeking the “secret discourse” that animates and unifies these events for me. It’s like invoking Kabbalah for discerning the hidden portentious meanings of seemingly ordinary occurrences. Or like listening for an immanent and universal spirit of discourse from which all manifest discourses emerge.

One of the projects I’m considering, to which I’ve alluded in recent posts, is to write about an iconist. This character specializes in discerning the secret discourse behind manifest discourse, or behind manifestations that aren’t usually regarded as discourse: objects, assortments, gestures, scents, and so on. The iconist is also able to speak the language of secret discourse, assembling things that speak in silent murmurings to the universal interlocutor who exists behind and before all. Under what guide-lines will the iconist perform his mystic praxis? Will the paranoiac chaos into which his world is descending start making sense again? Will he be able to restore some hidden source of unity, or will he usher in some irreversible rupture in the fabric of the universe? Where at last will he reach the vanishing point: at the beginning of all things, the invisible arche-fossil; or at la fin absolue du monde, where every manifest thing culminates in extinction? Or will the iconist find no hidden language that holds together the hermetically isolated objects of the universe, the spaces between them gaping onto the profound and depthless void?

That sort of thing perhaps. Fiction, of course.

7 January 2010

Bad Lieutenant by Ferrara, 1992

Filed under: Christianity, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:28 am

“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house with spacious upper rooms, and cut out its windows, paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’

“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord.

“But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion.” Therefore thus says the Lord in regard to Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, “They will not lament for him: ‘Alas, my brother!’ or, ‘Alas, sister!’ They will not lament for him: ‘Alas for the master!’ or, ‘Alas for his splendor!’ He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, dragged off and thrown out behind the gates of Jerusalem.

“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out also from Abarim, for all your lovers have been crushed. I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your practice since your youth, that you have not obeyed My voice. The wind will sweep away all your shepherds, and your lovers will go into captivity; then you will surely be ashamed and humiliated because of all your wickedness. You who dwell in Lebanon, nestled in the cedars, how you will groan when pains come upon you, pain like a woman in childbirth!”

– Jeremiah 22:13-23

Last night I watched Bad Lieutenant: not the new New Orleans re-envisioning by Werner Herzog, but the New York original starring Harvey Keitel. It’s a much harsher and bleaker film than Herzog’s, but ultimately it’s a morality play, a Catholic parable about sin and guilt and penance, about the terrible capriciousness of fate, about justice and mercy and forgiveness. That the story centers not on ordinary civilians but on cops and mobsters and nuns means that the movie is also a social commentary — a jeremiad. Even Jesus makes two personal appearances: once on the cross, once off it.

Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is as old-fashioned and impassioned, as personal and universal as the Old Testament. As fascistically sadomasochistic too. In my prior writing about the Testaments I’ve gone for intellectual and weird in fiction, for creative and conciliatory in nonfiction. But now I’m becoming persuaded that to get at the meaning of this ancient reality you have to paint it red.

6 January 2010

Iconic Speculations

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:29 pm

I think I have shown that all the propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs, so I shall concentrate on conditions for belief. Without belief there are no other propositional attitudes, and so no rationality as I’ve characterized it.”

– from Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals”

In October 2007 I wrote a post about another Davidson essay, “Three Varieties of Knowledge,” in which he makes the same point. At the time I was interested in the implications primarily for hermeneutics, secondarily for psychoanalysis, and tertiarily(?) for language acquisition. I could revisit Davidson’s arguments this time with respect to epistemology — is there an important difference between knowing something and knowing that you know it? We could talk about whether belief is (Davidson) or is not (Dennett) an important distinction between human language-users and other kinds of creatures. Though Davidson doesn’t really get into ontology in these papers, we could surely engage in yet another discussion about the difference between what is and knowing that it is. However, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to set my amateur ontologizing aside as best I can.

But now I’m thinking about fiction, and especially about the idea of an icon-maker. An old-school icon isn’t just a symbolic representation of a holy object or person; rather, the icon actually participates  in the reality of that which it depicts. Icons played an important part in my first novel, The Stations, including the idea of humans participating iconically, as avatars, in the reality of non-material beings. So maybe I am hung up on ontology after all, especially in its medieval variants, and especially in speculative fiction.

Davidson contends that “propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs.” The relationship between proposition and belief is particularly salient in the case of icons. If I express the propositional attitude that “this icon gives me access to an alternate reality,” implicitly I’m saying that “I believe this icon gives me access…” But if I don’t first believe, does the icon “work”? And, ontogenically speaking, might not the icon be effective in opening up access to an alternate reality even if no one recognizes it or believes it? But this is ancient thinking, and only tangentially related to my interests in the book I’m thinking of writing.

In his “Rational Animals” essay Davidson interacts with two thought experiments invoked by other philosophers to illustrate their ideas. The first, from Norman Malcolm, involves a dog chasing a cat; in the second, Donald Weiss proposes a scenario involving what Davidson calls “a superdog from another planet” who hatches on earth. Inventing fictions to explore serious philosophical theories is a time-tested strategy. I could invent a fiction that would explore a serious ontology and epistemology and hermeneutics of icons. But my seriousness is entirely fictional here, entirely speculative, occupying an imagined alternate reality without any attempt to apply the results of the thought experiment to the reality most of us ordinarily occupy.

Finally, I like the idea of fictional characters actually speculating about their own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, theories, ontologies, and so on. I understand the appeal of not doing this, of showing without telling. But the people who interest me are often self-reflexive. Why shouldn’t fictional characters be this way too?

Enough of this. I’ve been looking at seven randomly-selected sentences as icons: that’s what I see in this sentence.

4 January 2010

The Angriest Dog

Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:07 pm

In his little book Catching the Big Fish David Lynch writes about the origins of his long-running comic strip in the LA Reader called “The Angriest Dog in the World”:

“I drew a little dog. And it looked angry. And I started looking at it and thinking about it, and I wondered why it was angry. And then I did a four-block strip with the dog never moving — three panels were set in the day and one was at night. So there’s a passage of time, but the dog never moves. And it struck me that it’s the environment that’s causing this anger — it’s what’s going on in the environment. He hears things coming from the house. Or something happens on the other side of the fence, or some kind of weather condition. It finally boiled down more to what he hears from inside the house. And that seemed like an interesting concept. That it would just  be balloons of dialogue from within the house with the dog outside. And what was said in the balloons might conjure a laugh.”

I read elsewhere that the idea first came to Lynch during a time in his life when he was feeling chronically angry, but he didn’t actually start producing the cartoon until many years later. By then TM had presumably cured him of his rage, and he wrote the strip not from personal experience but from trying to picture this little piece of the world from the dog’s point of view. The dog is staked to a corner of the yard bordered by the house and a tall fence. He’s straining at the end of his rope, aimed like an arrow as far away from that corner as he can reach. “Grrr,” says the dog in every panel. From inside the house, through the window, someone might say: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Grrr. Or: “Bill, who is this San Andreas? I can’t believe it’s all his fault.” Grrr. One episode per week for nine years.

I like the episodic structure. I once wrote a comic strip called “Time Out!” (a sample episode can be found on this blog somewhere), in which a young kid has been sent to his or her room for having violated some unstated parental rule. What does the kid think about in there? That’s the premise for each episode. No drawings: just talk/thought bubbles. My second novel, Prop O’Gandhi, also consists largely of short episodes. Originally I modeled this novel on the old-style superhero and fantasy comic books that I read avidly as a kid, where the graphic main story often alternated with a separate text-only story. The first draft of my novel alternated episodes of the “Time Out!” comic strip with textual episodes about an adult character (O’Gandhi) who seems to have trapped himself in permanent time out inside his own house. The overall structure was Mobius-like: in the last episode of “Time Out!” the kid vanishes and the parent takes his/her place, implicitly pointing back to the beginning of the O’Gandhi text episodes.  In subsequent drafts of the novel the comic strip sloughed away, having served as a catalyst for a more traditional text-only structure. As the text extended itself beyond the original premise its episodes got longer, its story arc more coherent — until the end, when the whole structure fragments, exploding out of the house once and for all. And while I like the continuity of the middle section of the book, I also like very much the concluding return to hyper-episodicity.

Yesterday I wrote that I wanted to write an iconist. I think this idea too lends itself to the episodic. The iconist creates or discovers or assembles icons, be they objects or the distances between objects, images or gestures or sounds. Each written episode would be centered around an icon and the hidden meaning toward which it supposedly points, seen from the iconist’s viewpoint and possibly also narrated by the iconist. Larger structures of character, story, reality would emerge piecemeal from these episodes.

As Lynch once was, I too am at times the world’s angriest dog:

“The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl… Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.”

There are some who write their own anger in raw, jagged, snarling prose that, instead of achieving release, strains and stiffens at the strictures of language until it chokes itself. Like Lynch, I’d rather channel the character’s anger from a cooler distance. Though I can draw on my own emotional experiences, I don’t want to represent them. I also don’t want to feel what my characters feel, using that emotional charge to propel the writing. I’d rather create an affect, then let that affect expand it until it becomes a reality in and of itself, immersing characters and settings and stories inside of itself. As Lynch said about his dog, “it’s the environment that’s causing this anger.”

But whatever the off-screen characters said to provoke the dog wasn’t itself angry, nor did it even seem anger-inducing. Day and night the dog goes on growling, straining rigidly against his restraint, regardless of the aphorism or silly joke or ambiguous remark that happens to appear in the talk bubbles floating out of the house. It seems that the dog is intrinsically angry, entirely unaffected by his environment. Strangeness is what Lynch is after, strangeness emanating from the anomalous juxtaposition of images and words, of feelings and thoughts that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. I too am after this sort of disjunctive strangeness that relies on layering and distance.

So, will my iconist be the angriest iconist in the world? Probably not. But if all goes well, the anomalous contrasts between affects, words, and icons will generate a strange, mood-infused reality in which the whole book is immersed and from which its distinctive qualities reveal themselves.

3 January 2010


Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:11 pm

In The Poetics of Space (1958), Gaston Bachelard writes about the corner: as trap, as refuge, as lair, and then as the place in which forgotten things accumulate. Few admit to being “corner readers,” interpreting the patterns inscribed in the dust and cobwebs and detritus.

Yet in such daydreams as these the past is very old indeed. For they reach into the great domain of the undated past. By allowing the imagination to wander through the crypts of memory, without realizing it, we recapture the bemused life of the tiniest burrows of the house, in the almost animal shelter of dreams.”

While I respect the symbolism expressed by corners, I find little in them that either attracts or repels me. Memories accumulate in boxes and notebooks, in drawers and on shelves, in closets and in basements. Corners are for wastebaskets, plungers, ironing boards, and other useful but homely objects, ready to hand but unobtrusive to the eye. If my glance is drawn to the corner of a room usually it’s an upper corner where the walls join the ceiling. I tend to see upper corners not as enclosures but as vectors pushing outward and upward, extending the boundaries of the room.

Memories rarely comfort me; more often they feel like traps. Generally I ignore them, letting them gather dust on the shelves in the basement. Useful memories I keep in the corner, pulling them out when I need them but never really paying much direct attention to them.

I did a word search on “corner” in my two novels. Mostly I wrote about outside corners: going around the corner on the street, the four corners of the earth, the corner cafe. The outside corner defines the boundary of an enclosure, but it’s also a frontier, a limit to be surpassed.

Anne and I used to live in St. Louis Park Minnesota, which is also the home town of the Coen Brothers. A sizable Jewish population lives in St. Louis Park, including a fair number of kosher-keeping conservatives. While we were living there the town erected an eruv, a set of interconnected fences and utility poles and wires that define a perimeter surrounding the town. This perimeter marks the symbolic walls and doors of a “house.” Jewish law forbids people from carrying things outside their houses or between houses on the Sabbath; the eruv encloses a space that, for Sabbath-keeping purposes, counts as a house.

The eruv appeals to me a great deal. To the Jews of a modern American suburb it may symbolize a house, perhaps a village, perhaps even a ghetto, drawing on the deepest cultural memories. To me it’s a strange abstraction totally disconnected from memory, its corners demarkating the boundaries of an alternate reality hidden in plain sight. The eruv is the daydream of an undated past, but it is someone else’s dream of a past to which I am not an heir. It’s as if memory were an impersonal force in the world, erupting in things like medieval ruins and text fragments written in forgotten languages and old snapshots of people I don’t know. These things have mysterious iconic value, portending meanings that are themselves lost to all understanding.

For awhile I was hoping that Anne would become an iconist, demarkating eruvim, creating talismans, carving niches, randomly culling sentences from books — abstract icons that betoken mysteries known only in part and only to herself and her clients. Upper inner corners and outer corners would be particularly important loci for iconic interventions. I think I am going to write an iconist.

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