Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The contempt in kicking

"How did it become fashionable for disparagers of skepticism to tell the story of Dr. Johnson, who, receiving Bishop Berkeley's 'denial' of matter, kicked a stone, replying, 'Thus I refute you'? People who know nothing of the motives of skepticism know a version of this story. How strange a scene it offers. Why, to begin with, is kicking a hard object more a 'refutation' of immateriality than, say, sipping wine, or putting your hand on the arm of a friend, or just walking away on solid ground, or muddy ground for that matter? Why is a sensation in the toe taken to be closer to the things of the world than one in the throat or in the hand or on the sole of the foot? Does Samuel Johnson take himself to be closer to his foot than to his throat or his hand? Or is it the gesture that is important — the contempt in kicking? Emerson assigns to Johnson the saying 'You remember who kicked you.' Is Johnson's refutation accordingly to be understood as reminding the things of earth who is master, as an allegory of his contempt of philosophy left to its arrogance? Or is it — despite himself — a way of causing himself pain by the things of the world, implying that he knows they exist because he suffers from them? And, if so, had he then forgotten when he last kicked them, or brushed them by?"

— Stanley Cavell, "The World as Things" in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, 248

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pots, Mugs, and Jugs

"The problem with philosophers is that because their jobs are so hard they drink a lot of coffee and thus use in their arguments an inordinate quantity of pots, mugs, and jugs — to which, sometimes, they might add the occasional rock. But, as Ludwik Fleck remarked long ago, their objects are never complicated enough; more precisely, they are never simultaneously made through a complex history and new, real, and interesting participants in the universe."

— Bruno Latour, "Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern" in Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 233-234

Saturday, September 26, 2009

L-R: Kenneth Koch, Alan Dugan, Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz and Marianne Moore at the New School for Social Research, 1962(?).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

New Sincerities

Graham Harman, on his blog:

"In some ways it is surprising that science has been associated with critique, because science has been the greatest creator of new sincerities that the world has ever known … What we need is more innocence and enthusiasm in intellectual life, not more sneering critique and labyrinthine qualification and complexification."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Love with the Idea

"What does it mean to fall in love with a writer? What does it mean, for that matter — or maybe we should ask, what else could it mean — to cathect in a similar way a theoretical moment not one's own? … The moralistic hygiene by which any reader of today is unchallengeably entitled to condescend to the thought of any moment in the past (maybe especially the recent past) is globally available to anyone who masters the application of two or three discrediting questions. How provisional, by contrast, how difficult to reconstruct and how exorbitantly specialized of use, are the tools that in any given case would allow one to ask: What was it possible to think or do at a certain moment of the past that it no longer is? And how far are those possibilities to be found, unfolded, allowed to move and draw air and seek new voices and uses, in the very different disciplinary ecology of even a few decades distance?"

— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, "Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins," in Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 117-118

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two thoughts about biography

Theodor Adorno to Leo Löwenthal, 25 November 1942 (quoted by Detlev Claussen in One Last Genius, 5-6):

At bottom, the concept of life as a meaningful unity unfolding from within itself has ceased to possess any reality, much like the individual himself, and the ideological function of biographies consists in demonstrating to people with reference to various models that something like life still exists, with all the emphatic qualities of life. And the task of biography is to prove this in particular empirical contexts which those people who no longer have any life can easily claim as their own. Life itself, in a highly abstract form, has become ideology, and the very abstractness that distinguishes it from older, fuller conceptions of life is what makes it practicable (the vitalist and existentialist concepts of life are stages on this path).

Graham Harman on his blog, August 31, 2009:

Jung’s early family life was almost painfully pathetic: both the dynamics between his insecure and not-always-respected parents and the way he was treated by fellow students, not to mention little Carl’s unpleasant daydreams … [T]he little C.G. Jung started life as a bit of a clumsy and weirdly daydreaming oaf, with a grotesque love of blood, guts, and death. (One of his childhood homes was next to a waterfall, and he seemed to enjoy the assembling of the bodies of waterfall suicide and accident victims that regularly turned up near his yard.) He also liked setting small fires. All of this doesn’t sound like someone even I (who was very tolerant of all other children) would have wanted as a playmate, and in fact many other children were urged to avoid him by their unnerved parents. Jung’s major childhood event was being “sucker-pushed” to the ground by a schoolmate and undergoing fainting spells for a long time thereafter, which made his classmates laugh all the more. And then suddenly, he blossomed while in university.

This led me to some thoughts about biography, and about the running autobiography we all do when looking at our own lives while going along.

It seemed to me that Bair did a good job of picking out the most important events and character traits in the life of little Jung. And yet my first reaction was: “yes, but God, this childhood looks terribly painful in ways that Bair doesn’t emphasize enough.”

But then came my second reaction, which I think is closer to the mark: it doesn’t matter if Bair edits out much of little Jung’s internal suffering, because our own feelings about how our life is going are perhaps not the primary thing. Biographers can know us better than we know ourselves. (This was on my mind again last night when a new friend made a remark –complimentary in this case– that was completely at odds with my own self-understanding, as happens from time to time. And it’s always worth reflecting in those moments.)

In other words, none of us have privileged access to our own life stories. Not just occasionally, but quite often, other people understand our capabilities and limitations in certain areas better than we do ourselves. If someone were writing your biography, they would miss out on almost all the internal drama, and for that reason it might feel at first as though you were reading a fiction. But perhaps it’s your feelings about your own life that are the fiction. Your life is a real trajectory that can be completely misinterpreted by your feelings no less than by the remarks of outside observers. And this is why it would be great if everyone at birth were assigned a professional biographer to hand them their life story every five years or so. Just think of how helpful it would be to be able to see yourself from the outside, as an object. Lots of orientation would probably come from that exercise. It would probably be a lot more helpful than months of therapy, because sometimes all you need is an outside person to offer their perspective on which things are going well and poorly for you, not some trained expert to grub around inside your soul: after all, there may actually be less truth down there in the “depths” than in the simple orientations offered by an observer. Maybe we all need biographers rather than psychologists.

But we’re trained to think the opposite: that life seen from the inside is more important and accurate than life seen from the outside. We’re trained to think that “what matters is the question of happiness and unhappiness,” because this is placed in sterile opposition to a hollow alternative: “or otherwise, you will be left chasing empty status and success that brings no true inner fulfillment.” But this is a false dichotomy. A life can be meaningful even if it brings neither success nor happiness. There is too much pressure to be happy, too much pressure to be successful, but not much pressure to live meaningfully.

If you consider a list of the happiest people you’ve ever met, there is certainly something admirable about this state, but I’m betting you wouldn’t trade places with most of them. Some of the happiest people I’ve ever met live in a state of blissful and even willful ignorance, and to that option I would prefer a more difficult life spent in pursuing things of genuine value. The notion that the meaningfulness of life consists in a happy internal state seems to me like just the flip side of the notion that it consists in the pursuit of external social honors. Both of these options miss the fact that a life unfolds in a space that is not quite accessible either to society or to introspection. What I love about biography is that it comes closer than any other genre to probing that intermediate space between the social and the psychological.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bad Modernism (or, Sure beats Los Feliz)

Why do movie villains live in modernist houses? Here's a clip from Thom Andersen's fascinating cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, which I saw at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica last night.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


"A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, 'in his thoughts,' he forgets to say what he wants to say.

"No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

"One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigor will benefit other ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not to eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise, one is suspected of poverty.

"The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of words, such as Karl Kraus skewered for inspection: utterly and completely, for better or for worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer's expressions …

"The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style …

"Scepticism is called for in face of the frequently raised objection that a text, a formulation, are 'too beautiful' … The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all 'too beautiful,' but ornamental, arty-crafty, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter in hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays the matter well.

"Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them …

"In the text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store-room, and it is hard in any case to part from left-overs. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drift along idly, which may at an earlier stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing."

— Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, 85-87

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Oh, the Depravity!

I did two reviews for Not Coming's recent Erich von Stroheim series: Merry-Go-Round and Queen Kelly.