Friday, October 31, 2008

Longing for the Apocalypse

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one was the last one written, and since it was the last, it exploded into a cavalcade of diverse thoughts that I wanted to say, this being my last opportunity. It begins with some unknown German guy summarizing literature about the image of "apocalypse" in theory and slides into my first attempt to pull together a number of threads I've been thinking about lately--primitivism, intellectual influence, and literacy.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In the most revealing passage in Klaus Scherpe’s serviceable summary of Continental intellectual trends relating to the notion of “apocalypse,” Scherpe says
In Kafka’s stories the exception begins and remains the rule; an idea’s reversal is always implicit in its being thought. Kafka’s literary modernity is a state of emergency, which means that the revolutionary impulse implicit in the notions of “interruption” and the “breakthrough” propagated by Benjamin’s theory of modernity can never occur; the catastrophe can never set any energy free nor provide the stimulus for change. (Scherpe 113)
Benjamin has swallowed the notion that modernity soaks us to the core, that the “‘age of information,’ when norms are purged of meaning and time is characterized by its ‘empty’ homogeneity” (106) requires the notion of a radical break to even conceive of change. After taking both notions on board, postmodernity becomes the last shock available as, for instance, Baudrillard “proclaims a condition of the absolute absence of events.” (100) The question would seem to be: why is such an absurd conclusion taken seriously by smart people? By using Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I would like to trace a path to re-engineer the position so-called postmodern intellectuals have found themselves.

The two positions Scherpe traces have Baudrillard on one side and his “German prophet,” Gerd Bergfleth, on the other. Baudrillard, in effect, pushes the self-directed ironic masks worn by the Romantics to achieve autonomy to its outermost reaches, what he calls “objective irony.” Baudrillard sees quite rightly that a truly all-pervasive irony, when taken out of its normal state of (subjective) context-dependence and amped up into a (objective) reality-rule, becomes an indifference that ultimately denies change: “Everything has already happened.”[fn.1] (100-1) This de-dramatizes reality because by denying change/events, we’ve effectively relieved ourselves of waiting around for something to happen (so-called “drama”). Scherpe says perceptively that the German side of the equation is missing the irony of Baudrillard’s position—whereas from Baudrillard’s position we might as well drop the nukes, from Bergleth’s vantage (a “typically German version of the postmodern condition,” (123) Scherpe says humorously), we need it. Bergleth has an “intense desire for some sort of deadly seriousness” (126) in the midst of French playfulness, a “longing for death” (127) as the last place to find meaning, the true flipside of Camus’ insistence that the only pertinent philosophical question was whether to commit suicide.[fn.2] Bergfleth must re-dramatize the notion of apocalypse to regain Benjamin’s hope for change and (for what ends up resting on the ability to see differences) meaning.

If we turn to White Noise, I believe we can trace the interesting patterns that accrue to the fascination with catastrophe and apocalypse. In Chapter 14, DeLillo shows us Jack and his kids watching television, “floods, earthquakes, mudslides,” “totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death.” (DeLillo 64) The significance, and ultimately the disturbing fascination Jack sees, is that “Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.” (ibid.) The next day Jack asks Alfonse why “people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe”? (65) He replies, not only that “it’s natural, it’s normal,” (ibid.) but that “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.” (ibid.)

I would like to unpack this section in several different ways. First, DeLillo and the postmoderns all take very seriously the effect of technology on our culture and consciousness. This point should not be underestimated, as all other points fall from there. Modern society is not only bombarded with information, but it better stores and recalls that information. If info is blandly defined as our sensory input, then it is flatly false that we get more info now than before—it is everywhere and always the same saturated state. However, the creation of technology, Prometheus bringing the Gods’ fire to us, has expanded exponentially our ability to store and retrieve information and has altered our consciousness accordingly.[fn.3]

One consequence of our ability to retrieve the past more quickly and accurately has been the increasing sense that the past is a burden. This can be seen quite clearly in the evolution of poetry. In Homeric times, oral poetry was the only form of paideia. As this transferred into prose form, written poetry shuttled into a stage of theological instruction (Dante being the great exemplar). Petrarch marked a great change in all this, as the poet turned inwards, towards his own problems, personal and otherwise. By the time of the Romantics, that shift had been solidified—poets had become so self-conscious of the past that the insular search for something new to say began in true earnest.[fn.4] Irony was instrumental in their search for new ways to shrug off the past—as a stance, it put one in a skeptical relation to the past, and as a figure, one could repeat the past while meaning something else.

The last idea to put into play is that of primitivism—the notion that the past was a glorious time, if only we could restore it. This might seem entirely counterintuitive, but as anxiety over contemporary decadence increases, such that things as time goes on are getting worse, it seems natural to suppose that things were better earlier, before they got worse. Primitivism, in a simple sense, is a typical conservative reaction—too much change is bad for the system—and is as old as recorded time.[fn.5] Primitivism takes on a new cast during the Enlightenment, suffused in the form of Rousseau. Rousseau wished to reach back to the past, as a simpler time. But Rousseau realized the almost insurmountability of this problem because the problem was society itself.[fn.6]

Thus enters the fascination with apocalypse. Bernard Yack suggests that Rousseau transmitted to the European intellectual tradition a “longing for total revolution.”[fn.7] By locating the pernicious evil in the very civilizing, socializing process, Rousseau put out of practical reach our ability to change: “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” he says famously in the Social Contract. As technological rates increase, the burden of the past chains us tighter and tighter to where we have been, and the more we dream of being released. For the poet, from the great masters of the past. For the political revolutionary or spiritual purist (who, in true Rousseauian spirit, end up being one and the same), from modern society. We become fascinated with catastrophe as our sense of “we’ve seen this all before” increases, and as time goes by, greater and greater catastrophes of greater magnitude are demanded to breach our attention. And as the Mountains of Time begin to blot out the Sun, we begin to pray for the Great Leveler. The turn in DeLillo, in post-apocalypse, is the same turn in Rousseau—a sudden, renewed sense of community as the TVs die away.


Works Cited

Bate, W. Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, 1991.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1997.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, 1985, 1999.

Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. New York: Universal Library, 1963, 1967.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934, 1997.

Nehamas, Alexander. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections From Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Rice, Eugene F, Jr., with Anthony Grafton. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970, 1994.

Scherpe, Fredric. “Dramatization and De-dramatization of ‘the End’: The Apocalyptic Consciousness of Modernity and Post-Modernity.” Cultural Critique. No. 5 (Winter 1986-7), p. 95-129.

Yack, Bernard. The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 1992.


[1] Baudrillard is right about irony because the classic notion of irony is a directed notion, from speaker to audience, author to reader. What irony does is hide the meaning of a statement. Though often thought of as a simplistic “means the contrary of what it says,” Romantic irony has more to do with the irony of Socrates, as when Alexander Nehamas argues, against the traditional “contrary” version that Gregory Vlastos stands at the far end of in Socratic studies, that irony is a “concealment”: “Irony seems to create a mask. It does not show what, if anything, is masked. It suggests depth. It does not guarantee it.” (Nehamas 67) When Baudrillard expands the ultimately faceless mask of irony to a world-condition, he seems to understandably draw the conclusion that, since 1) all depths are created by a concealing mask, 2) everything is a concealing mask, and 3) every mask pulled off finds us with another concealing mask, the very notion of a “reality” to be taken seriously and differentiatedly is suspicious and should be treated indifferently because it can/could/should/has been revealed to be a different, faceless mask (hence his concept of the simulacrum, a representation with no represented—like a signifier with no signified—which means every representation represents the same thing: nothing).

[2] While L’étranger offers a wonderful portrait of a life seemingly devoid of internally generated meaning (and hence careening towards the only thing that would stand out: death), Camus investigates in prose the question of suicide in Le mythe de sisyphe.

[3] Here I would refer to the work of Walter J. Ong and Eric A. Havelock on orality, literacy and the beginnings of Greek (Western) thought. In our Homeric, oral state the only way to store info was in memorable pieces (because they had to be personally remembered) by the instrumental use of hexametric verse, rhyme, formulas, the use of heroic figures. As Ong says,
The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought. Havelock [in Preface to Plato] shows that Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic essentially (if not quite consciously) because he found himself in a new chirographically styled noetic world in which the formula or cliché, beloved of all traditional poets, was outmoded and counterproductive. (Ong 24)
This marked the true birth of what we now think of as poetry—broadly, the attempt to write in an original way. Poetry had previously been involved in reproduction of noetic resources, but writing provided an external way to save these.
Our sense of accuracy has also increased as our technological capacities have. Writing allowed us to record thoughts. It also allowed us to record history, to record events in a more individuated way than ever before (the detailed History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides rather than the amorphously mythic Works and Days of Hesiod). The printing press registers as another significant event in the history of our consciousness. The reproduction of classic texts for the length of the Middle Ages were largely left to the hands of monastic scribes, most of whom were illiterate and were simply trying to copy as closely as possible the marks. The invention of moveable type changed everything:
Manuscripts, totally dependent on the skill, learning, and care of the scribe, had always been inaccurate and unreliable. Furthermore, this inaccuracy and unreliability were becoming increasingly great as successive generations of scribes copied the errors of their predecessors and added their own. The fundamental contribution of printing to learning was that it halted this progressive corruption and made possible the long and continuing effort to restore the great texts of the past to something approaching their original integrity. Printing gave scholars all over Europe identical texts to work on. (Rice 7)
The weight of the past has increased exponentially since that time as more and more is reproduced and preserved, not only the great and vast, but the boring and trivial. We have it all at our finger-tips.

[4] In this Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet is instrumental, as is Harold Bloom’s transformation of Bate’s more historical thesis into a theory of poetry in The Anxiety of Influence.

[5] On this see Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas’ Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. One of the many benefits is their distinguishing between various senses of “primitivism.” The sense I shall use it is as a “cultural primitivism.” Lovejoy says, “The cultural primitivist has almost invariably believed that the simpler life of which he has dreamed has been somewhere, at some time, actually lived by human beings.” (Lovejoy 8)

[6] As Lovejoy says of Rousseau’s First Discourse, “The study of the arts and sciences does not contribute à épurer les moeurs [to the purification of mores], and there it is of minimal value, and often actually harmful.” (Lovejoy 274)

[6] Yack says that the “subjective awareness of the inability to produce a desired object distinguishes a longing from a desire….”
In both longing and desire we feel the uneasiness created by the lack of a desire object. But while in desire our uneasiness focuses on the desired object, thus promoting attempts at its acquisition, in longing the awareness of our present incapacity to acquire the object diffuses our uneasiness. The energy produced by that uneasiness has no obvious outlet—thus the vague, generalized feeling of uneasiness which most of us associate with longing. … When we discover the obstacle to our satisfaction we generate a new object of desire: a world without that obstacle to our satisfaction. And if we find ourselves incapable of removing this obstacle, our desire becomes a longing which, in turn, generates the definition of new objects of desire. (Yack 5-6, italics mine)
Compare this to Scherpe’s nice little slap at Baudrillard: “the curious manner in which this form of theorizing constantly creates new objects in order to make them disappear….” (Scherpe 99) On my reading, this is exactly what is to be expected at the long, self-conscious end of Platonic theory. Nietzsche saw Hegel grasp previous generations and drain them of their power for his own, thought it a neat trick and went directly at the main offender—Plato. Heidegger saw Nietzsche invert Plato, and saw the next step as an inversion of Nietzsche. Derrida sees Heidegger and ups the inverting ante, but by now the jig is up and the game of inverting back and forth infinitely becomes increasingly boring.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This continues on about Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" and formed the basis for my much expanded final. What is interesting here for fans of Pirsig is Sherman Alexie's meditations about Native Americans and the connection with madness, a very profitable intersection that hooks up nicely with Jameson, too.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Fredric Jameson, piggybacking on Jacques Lacan, “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain.” (Jameson 26) Having already preemptively disposed of atomistic conceptions of language (in which meaning is generated when words are paired off with their appropriate world-chunks) by presupposing a Saussurean holism, Jameson bridges from the analogy between the psychic life of persons and the functioning of language to the meltdown of literary and historical meaning as postmodern artists set out to render life in contextless (and hence, meaningless) chunks. This movement, I should argue, requires a monumental leap from the theoretical to the empirical and using Alexie Sherman’s treatment of the past will help bring out this point.

Jameson states rightly that in the new holism the old “signified,” which used to be classically seen as a material world-chunk, is now seen to be just another signifier.[fn.1] A signifier-as-signified, however, is in a particular kind of context, one of, roughly, being-pointed-to as opposed to the usual doing-the-pointing situation of a signifier. Jameson, again rightly, calls this a “meaning-effect,” but then goes on to call this an “objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves.” (ibid.) This is not something a convinced holist would say. For the holist, the context-dependence of meaning does not put objectivity in jeopardy, but simply replaces a bad philosophy of language with a better one, one that redescribes the sources of objectivity accordingly.

Jameson, it would seem, is a holist, but a particular kind—a nostalgic one, wishing for the theoretical comforts of old. Schizophrenia, as stated before, is the breakdown of the signifying chain.[fn.2] Jameson’s fear of schizophrenia is the cultural realization of “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” (ibid.) He says this creates “an experience of pure material signifiers … a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.” (27) We might feel Jameson’s fear, which could be described “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality,” but we might also “just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.” (27-8) The old, atomistic view of language once safe-guarded our sense that we could get back in touch with a solid reality, but—now in postmodernity—we no longer have this comfort.

What I would like to suggest is that Jameson’s argument breaks down by its very ability to compose itself as an argument.[fn.3] Put very simply—schizophrenic contextlessness cannot actually exist, for if it did, it would be just as much a “meaning-effect,” an effect of context, as any other normal-seeming, contextually generated meaning.[fn.4] Jameson cannot move from holism to a scary form of schizophrenia because holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality.[fn.5]

According to Jameson’s theory, we should encounter cultural artifacts that are isolated and contextless, “randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary.” (25) The consequence of this theory is that displays of history and time should be free-floating, broken from their signifying chain. A good example of how this theory founders in practice is Alexie’s “A Drug Called Tradition.” In this section, Victor and his friends take an unnamed drug and free-float through a series of hallucinatory dreams in the recapitulation of the evening. This would seem to be a good example for Jameson’s cause: the very concept of history is called into question as the boys see pasts and presents that are clearly not what had happened or is happening. And by the end, Alexie has someone hallucinating a theory of history that ends with “We are trapped in the now.” (Alexie 22, italics his)

The ironic return of context begins with analyzing the italics in the passage. Devoid of the context of the piece, one might think Alexie was emphasizing the trap of presentness, much like Jameson’s notion of the sad, but inescapable state of postmodernism. But this is not what the italics mean. The italics are part of a consistent effort to demarcate the boundaries between hallucinative state of dream and normal state of reality. This stylistic choice, among others, is what signals to us, the readers, that we are reading something different than what is contained in the other parts (whatever the differences end up meaning on any of the many levels one could interpret them).

The point is that Alexie, as a writer, circumscribes the context with which we are to read the passages as much as the atomist supposes that the world circumscribes our words and what they mean. The hallucinatory effects in Alexie are as much “meaning-effects” as are normality. This doesn’t mean atomism is true, it simply means that context always determines meaning, including the appearance of meaninglessness or contextlessness. Jameson has confused a theoretical point about language-functioning for an empirical shift in culture, including the empirical shiftings of literary production.


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.


[1] This is the real meaning behind Derrida’s much parodied line “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (“There is nothing outside the text,” or better, “There is no outside-text”). Derrida was not staking out a new form of idealism, or denying the existence of rocks, but denying, like Wittgenstein when he denied ostensive definition, that language is (or perhaps, can be reduced to) a word-world relation. Words are words (i.e., have meaning and are not just sounds or marks on a page) because of how they hang in a web with other words.

[2] This notion can be used just as well for an atomist, but there seems to be a heightened sense of precariousness for the holist. In the atomist picture, a break in the chain can be rectified by being put back in touch with the solid, unalterable signified. On the holist picture, on the other hand, everything is a chain of signifiers, every signified can be reduced to a signifier such that a shift in signifiers alters the composition of the signified. This is the force of Jameson’s “objective mirage”: once our solid signifieds are really as ephemeral as our constantly shifting significations, we begin to really fear the loss, now irrevocable, of our grip on reality.

[3] Which should be suitably ironic, given how much fun holists-cum-deconstructionists have in showing how displays of intelligibility slide into unintelligibility, that Jameson’s display of unintelligibility should slide into intelligibility.

[4] For instance, the actual psychological state of schizophrenia could be described as signifiers losing touch with their signifieds (which seems to be the image that Jameson more relies on), but that reposes on the old atomistic view. On the holist view, schizophrenia would better be described as signification-chain-A losing touch with signification-chain-B. On this view, schizophrenics don’t behave oddly because they are acting without context, but because they are acting in the wrong context, an A-chain that would be less socially awkward if it were an AB-chain.

[5] Jameson commits this mistake when he says our “cultural production” “can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world,” but is now “in Plato’s cave.” (Jameson 25, italics mine) Plato was suggesting a metaphorics for describing our knowledge-production. The holists, like Derrida, want to reject wholesale this entire edifice, whereas Jameson seems to swallow Plato’s poison pill and imagine we were once out in the light of Plato’s Form of the Good, but we have now—in real historical time—been shuttled back down into the cave.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Modernism and After in The Art Lover

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins a critique of Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" that I continued in my final for the class. It also has a bit about metaphor that I hope to expand much more in the future.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In Geyh’s functional introduction to postmodern theory, she fleshes out the notion of antifoundationalism partially by reference to Lyotard. Lyotard defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv, italics his). For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is basically a skeptical attitude toward “any philosophy or theory … which claims to provide a complete explanation of culture and society” (Geyh xx). In so doing, Lyotard eliminates the large, overarching foundations for situating ourselves in the world, leaving us adrift in uncertainty.

This instability is enunciated well by Jameson as he discusses the fate of the “self” at the hands of postmodernism. Jameson says that “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside” (Jameson 11) and that postmodernism has made it central to itself to be “committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (12). This obliteration of the self is largely predicted by Lewis’ identification of the irony of romanticism—all this focus on the individual personality ends up eviscerating the notion of individuals: “…the more your particular personality … obsess[es] you, … the less ‘individualist’ you will be in the ordinary political sense. … Your ‘individualism’ will be that mad one of the ‘one and only’ self, a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (Lewis 8). What we have, in some sense, is a hyper-romanticism in postmodernism, a dissolution of anything substantive to be as a self by the elimination of the traditional hard edges (of metanarratives) and the relocation of meaning-inscription within each person as they swim through the bottomless stream of time. We begin blending into each other because we are never quite sure where we end and someone else begins because we ultimately only know ourselves.

This same irony, that hyper-individualism means the end of the individual, makes itself apparent in Maso’s novel. There are seemingly an infinite number of ways of drawing this picture (an effect I cannot draw into the discussion, but a stylistic maneuver very much apart of it), so I will choose but one. Caroline, our author’s author, says very early on that “I am a lover of detail, a marker—it’s a way of keeping the world in place. … Organize. Reorganize” (Maso 12). Details are bits of the world and Caroline herself must organize these bits so that the world remains in place, stable. On pages 50 to 51, Caroline describes a game her and her father used to play: “What the Light Looked Like.” The game is played by taking in the sensation of points of light and, because of a “love of simile and metaphor” (50), then saying they look like elephants, despite the fact that they are not elephants. This is similar to the more traditional activity of looking for constellations while stargazing, an activity which provides a dominant metaphor for the book. We see individual stars, but if you organize them just right, you no longer see the individual stars, but rather Hercules or Cygnus.[fn.1]

The line to be drawn between details and metaphor and seeing constellations is the sense in which they all repose on spatial metaphors, indeed even my attempt to organize them to help one see the connection: “line to be drawn.” This effect is predicted by Jameson: “our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” (Jameson 16). Details are points of light that need to be organized into recognizable patterns, whether twin elephants or Orion’s belt. This act of organization and stability occurs in a metaphoric moment in which stars are treated—for this person’s purpose—as Hercules.

The moment of instability, however, occurs for us here in Jameson’s circle around an essential concept of postmodernism. The Maso I’ve drawn attention to has so far written along lines conducive to Jameson’s notion of the postmodern dissolution of self. The climax in my portrait occurs in a section entitled “Freud Speaks” (Maso 162-3). Caroline here dreams that she is swimming in a pool, but Freud keeps telling her, no, it really is something else.[fn.2] Freud is a prime example of both an arch-metanarrativist that Lyotard is incredulous of and a “charismatic Master” that Jameson says died with modernism.[fn.3] The figure Freud is using is metaphor: you say “pool,” but that really means “birth canal.” The troubling fact of this dream, however, is that it shows just the reverse of what Jameson has been saying about the death of the personality in postmodernism. On Freud’s account—indeed, in all metanarratives—the individual loses all substance in the face of an overarching, omnipresent gesture of transfiguration, i.e. metaphor. Freud: everything is about mom, dad, and sex. Caroline is here raging against this smoothing out of the unique detail of individuals by trying to assert her own personality in the face of Freud’s totalized, circumscribing all-knowingness.[fn.4] This doesn’t make sense, however, on Jameson’s account, because metanarratives and Masters seemed to have been what held up the self. On Lewis’s account, it makes some sense since the authoritative voice of the Master—inflicting his own navel-gazing personality on everyone else—must be what obliterates and homogenizes us: we have no voice of our own, we are just repeating the words of the Master. Except that, Lewis, and especially Eliot, were in favor of a little more authority in the face of romanticism’s love of novelty.


Works Cited

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Maso, Carole. The Art Lover. New York: New Directions Classic, 2006, 1995, 1990.


[1] This metaphor exudes from the pores of the book. The new edition contains constellations on the cover, the sections Spring, Summer, and Fall are closed with a snippet of “Sky Watch,” the family Caroline writes about are preoccupied with stargazing. See in particular conjunction, “‘Don’t you think these first leaves look exactly like stars?’ Candace says. ‘Yes, I do,’ I say, wishing I could see more often what Candace sees” (Maso 22).

[2] The “I” in this section is a suppressed identity, but given the ebb and flow of the book, I am going to suppose unargumentatively that it is Caroline who’s dreaming.

[3] Jameson says “the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement are remorselessly identified in the imperious gesture of the charismatic Master.” (Jameson 2)

[4] The close of the section reads (Maso 162):
He [Freud] smirks a little. He’s heard this all before.
“It really is a pool. I think it means I want to go swimming.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says.
Significant is Freud’s knowingness, his incredulity, the repetition of “I,” and the emphatic “is,” the verb “to be,” which is the prerequisite for a metaphor, and the only way to short-circuit one. (“No, it doesn’t mean love, it is just a heart.”)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Eliot, Forster, and Experience

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one is more arbitrary than most, but it has a good bit about immediate experience.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Romanticism might be too broad and overworked of a term to blanket precisely a tradition of thought or artistry, but if we close our eyes and just concentrate on the fact that, in their criticism, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis both considered themselves resurgent classicists and devalued the poetic accomplishments of Wordsworth and Blake, we might be as precise as we need to be. Eliot’s problem with the English Romantic poets was that, in Harold Bloom’s words about Wordsworth’s blessing (or curse) to modern poetry, “poems are ‘about’ nothing. Their subject is the subject herself or himself….” (Bloom, 239) Eliot’s chief remedy, which retroactively becomes his defining characteristic of what it means to be “classical,” is to reinstate a significant “other” to the poet: tradition, reality, God, what have you—“there is accordingly something outside of the artist to which he owes allegiance, a devotion to which he must surrender and sacrifice himself….” (Eliot, 13, italics mine) Eliot consistently and repeatedly uses the rhetoric of obeisance to characterize the classical attitude and irony and sarcasm to deride the romantic.

It is the turn inward, toward pure personality that has Eliot riled. In criticism and poetry, Eliot is angered by the ease of idiosyncrasies, critics and poets whose “chief task is the assertion of all the trifling differences which are his distinction….” (ibid., 13)[fn.1] Eliot uses Middleton Murry’s sharpening of the differences between classic and romantic, seizing upon the notion of an “inner voice” as suspiciously like “doing as one likes.” (ibid., 16) Murry in the end sees the same anarchy as Eliot, but asserts that we shouldn’t worry because we will all come to see the same, universal self, a notion Eliot laughs at being “an exercise far beyond the strength of our football enthusiasts.” (ibid.) This is Plato’s haughtiness from the Republic reverberating in modern elitism and it surfaces in Eliot’s suggestion to critic and poet alike to look to this vague notion of “tradition.”

If we move from this truncated discussion to Forster’s novel, we might be able to reflect further on this notion of “tradition.” Eliot’s enjoyment of Murry’s discussion, and his specific use of an antithesis between “Catholic” and the “Inner Voice,” is no accident, for Eliot has in mind, at least for the ultimate spiritual authority of Mankind, something like Divinity, an Authoritative God sitting in ultimate judgment. Forster portrays the Marabar Caves as beyond, if not exactly God, at the least any human vessel for it. In the very opening of the Caves section, Forster writes “Geology, looking further than religion…,” (Forster, 135) a very specific reference to a human institution that unfolds further: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit. Hinduism has scratched and plastered a few rocks, but the shrines are unfrequented, as if pilgrims, who generally seek the extraordinary, had here found too much of it.” (ibid., 136) Forster is putting the Caves beyond even the reach anthropomorphisms like “ghosts and “spirit” (both of which ultimately reach back to, or play off of, Greek and Hebrew notions of bodily life-force). Travelers to the caves are said to return “uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all.” (ibid., 137) This, in particular, is significant given the importance of “experience” in the romantic and classic pantheon of concepts, for even if the romantic wants the experience of experience itself and the classic experience of something else, both need “experience.”

Perhaps most significant of all, however, is that “Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation—for they have one—does not depend upon human speech.” (ibid.) This nullification of human speech becomes very important as we travel into the Caves. For in the Caves, the force of echo reduces all sound to singularity: “Boum.” (ibid., 163) “And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.” (ibid.) As allegory for the human situation, this impressively reduces us in the face of eternity. For Eliot’s conception of an “other” in tradition requires us to hold apart from our counterparts in the past, in something like on the analogy of a conversation. We do not talk to our selves, only listening to our own Inner Voice, we dialogue with the past, attempting to hear what the tradition has to tell us, becoming a medium for the voices of their spirits.

Forster’s reduction of the voices of time, “echoes generating echoes,” into an amorphous mass all “entirely devoid of distinction” (ibid.,163) wreaks havoc on the notion of a hearable divinity. But it also wreaks havoc on the notion that we could hear ourselves, for ultimately the Caves collapse the eternity of a Divine Authority and the immediateness of experience itself into each other: “no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.” (ibid., 165) True infinity swallows our voice, but so too does true immediacy—too far and we have no echoed sound, too close, a singular cacophony named Noise.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, ?.

---. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956, 1936, 1932.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1952, 1924.


[1] In “The Function of Criticism” Eliot is focused more on the critic, but in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” focused more on poets, he says much the same thing. Eliot says ironically, “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors … we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.” (Adams, 761)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lewis and Ulysses

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins without an introduction.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Wyndham Lewis’ critique of Joyce’s Ulysses sits in the midst of a larger cultural critique, which he obfuscates as philosophical discourse. To miss this context for Lewis’ comments is to miss the boat entirely, for otherwise Lewis’ criticisms barely pass for cogent literary criticism (at least something where the notion of “intention” is involved), and hardly at all for philosophy (a contemporary like Bertrand Russell might have been charmed by Lewis’ wit and heart, but would’ve been horrified to learn that it was to pass for using a “method” with “logical integrity” (Lewis, 109)).

The rough form of Lewis’ cultural critique is that our culture has been captured by “romance,” by which he means something that may have family resemblances with Morte d’Arthur or falling in love, but is more specifically “the apotheosis of the marvelous and the unusual.” (ibid., 11) This is technically his definition of advertisement, but the latter is simply romance in cultural action. Lewis condemns romance for a time-obsession, stemming from a Bergsonian philosophy of time, which focuses exclusively on the here and now, which paradoxically causes one to deny time because if one always focuses on the time of right now, then one will never break from their own perspective, “a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (ibid., 8)—like a fish, seeing the world anew, every time it blinks.

Lewis brings this ironic reversal of Bergsonian durée, where the fluid, organic life of immediate experience becomes “a series of one-day lives” (ibid., 12), to the heart of his reading of Joyce. The mechanical life of one-day lives becomes an inundation of “stuff—unorganized brute material” (ibid., 89) that takes on monumental importance with the elimination of any notion of “in the long run,” like packrats refusing to let go of anything. The self-obsession of one’s own sensations becomes Joyce’s “telling from the inside,” what James and later literary critics call “stream of consciousness” narration, but Lewis a “river of what now is rubbish.” (ibid.) And advertisement, the stamp of the fashionable, becomes Joyce’s “irishness,” the local, time-space stamp with which he marks all of his self-important refuse, a thin coating of the concrete to hide the fact that none of the stuff actually matters to Joyce.

I believe that Lewis’ argument hinges on the notion that Ulysses is the aesthetic expression of what Bergson’s philosophy looks like practically.[fn.1] He believes, in sum, that Ulysses embodies in literary expression the Bergsonian obsession with “true duration,” and so is focused on psychological trivia for the sake of trivia because there is nothing else to be for the sake of. If we begin the other way around on the notion of literary expression, however, we might ask, “If Bergsonian true duration is ineffable, how might we eff it?” As a writer, whose tool has to be linguistic, how does one write the ineffable? There have been many different answers to this fundamental question of the written word, but I would suggest that, at the least, Joyce’s “Molly soliloquy” is another type of answer, and that it is a literary representation of Bergsonian duration.

“Molly’s soliloquy” is a completely linguistic representation of consciousness and specifically the movement of time.[fn.2] Joyce was making a technical experiment and it does in a sense embody Bergson’s notion of “true duration,” and indeed Lewis can help us see it. If the main thrust of Bergson’s durée is that it is fluid and has no imposed parameters, start and stop points like the tick-tock of time, then “Molly’s soliloquy” achieves this effect by eliminating punctuation. For Bergson, the “present moment” is specifically not best conceptualized like the edge of a knife cutting through water, but is rather a little bit in the future and a little bit in the past.

The first thing to see is the truth of Lewis’ statement that “the amount of stuff … that the more active principle of drama has to wade through … slows it down to the pace at which, inevitably, the sluggish tide of the author’s bric-a-brac passes the observer….” (Lewis, 89). Time in Ulysses only moves when the reader reads the next word. Not as in “a day passed,” a phrase which stands in for a day, but rather that Molly and us are moving at roughly the same pace through time: we read it, she takes a step forward.

Further, the removal of punctuation plunges the reader into the midst of a seemingly undifferentiated sea, but on reflection, that sea carries with it implicit, felt distinctions, that of syntax. We feel the nebulous shifts in thought in “… and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all ….” (Joyce, 738) These shifts appear to us for the same reason that we know implicitly that time is moving forward, and not a static, eternally recurring fish-blink now-day: our (always fading) memory of what just happened (was just read) combined with our implicit prediction of what is about to come. Joyce upsets these grammar-produced predictions in our reading, which keeps us in closely-though-nebulously circumscribed now-situations, all based on how we feel the interconnections of the words in the act of reading them straight through. Classical thought might organize everything into a universal endgame (where knowledge of the trajectories of all the atoms would allow us to predict everything), but Bergson and Joyce want to remind us that real life will always keep us on our toes.


Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990, 1961, 1934.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.


[1] This is something that Lewis does not meditate on explicitly enough, but without it, he has no connection to Bergson’s philosophy at all. His most important remarks are off-hand, and they include his parenthetical about sensations on p. 8, “which we all experience impartially, whatever our philosophy,” which is a direct slap against the whole impetus behind Bergson’s philosophy, that without his reorientation we’ll miss out on the sensation of life, the here and now, and also his remark on Joyce that having a time-god will “practically” “impose on you the same psychology.” (109, italics his even)

[2] I should like to make a distinction between “reference” and “representation,” and Joyce’s answer it is not a referential answer, but a representational one, a symbol. The difference is between “rock” and a rock (the word “rock” refers to a rock) and the Protestant reversal of transubstantiation (the bread is a symbol for Christ), between literal meanings and allegorical meanings, between pointing at the moon and fashioning something to function in place of the moon. The fundamental difference for us is that a referential answer will always break to some extent the ineffable stricture—it is always an effing encroachment. A representational answer, however, stipulates that it will replace non-words with words, rather than have words refer to non-words.

Friday, September 26, 2008

James and Woolf

This is a short thing written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one ends without a conclusion.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.


Objectivity and subjectivity, so we are told, didn’t exist until fairly recently. At least, this is the case with the sophisticated concepts these terms might refer to. Some of what they refer to, at least in part, might seem to be very old, and some quite indispensable to the very idea of being sentient. These would surely be large currents in the history of evolution, the history of ideas and culture, indeed, the history of history, to take hold of and pull apart. One strand of this larger web, however, is the history of our linguistic representation of our subjectivity, or—somewhat less pretentiously—how we represent the first-person point of view. How do we explain what it is like to be in our minds? And this question flows directly, for the poet or novelist, into how do we write like what it is to be in our minds?

James answers the first question by way of articulating a list of phenomena encountered while thinking and I should like to bridge to my second question, and Woolf, in talking about James. Woolf’s problem is not how we might better articulate our conception of consciousness, but how we might write to make the reader feel as though they are taking on the consciousness of another, how it might feel to have someone else’s first-person point of view. James’ list is convenient because he does quite well in listing the kinds of effects a writer needs to produce in the reader. James doesn’t get caught up in the problems of ontology, but rather wants to help us talk about what is going on whether or not we are happy with our descriptions of what the “what” is, “the fact of thinking itself.” (James, 224) James reorients us to the phenomenological standpoint and moves on with listing the phenomena, the facts of how we perceive. The first is, of course, that every thought is some person’s thought: “It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned.” (ibid., 226)

For James this might drown us in questions about how a presumably non-spatial entity might have a “location” (after all, a spatial metaphor itself), but for Woolf, this translates into a narrative perspective that always hovers around the mind of some person. Woolf writes from a perspective that occasionally rises above the action, to narrate completely in the third-person, and she occasionally dips completely within the consciousness of a character, written in first-person, but for most of Mrs. Dalloway the action is depicted in a third-person stream of consciousness, sometimes termed a “free indirect style.” The effect is a narration of events, not as God might see them, but as this one character sees them, a third-person point of view from the interior of a person’s mind.

Woolf “locates” the reader’s point of view by the use of the character’s full or proper name, for instance “Mrs. Dalloway” or “Septimus Warren Smith.” We are introduced to our first consciousness with the first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Woolf, 3) And with that we are plunged into her mind. This plunge effect is created by the narration not using quotation marks when narrating an interior thought, leaving us in a state of ambiguity. Take this sequence:
“But she’s extraordinarily attractive, he thought, as, walking across Trafalgar Square in the direction of the Haymarket, came a young woman who, as she passed Gordon’s statue, seemed, Peter Walsh thought (susceptible as he was), to shed veil after veil, until she became the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting.” (ibid., 52)
We can conceive, and are led to believe, that Peter literally has the thought “But she’s extraordinarily attractive” cross his mind, but then a further use of the same signal, “…, X thought,…” gives us a third-person narration, given away by the pronoun, “until she became the very woman he had always had in mind.” This happens consistently throughout the novel, adding to the effect of floating, bobbing in the air near the action.

There’s an ethical dimension to all this centering on the first-person point of view, on subjectivity. Given the seeming necessity of beginning with the Cartesian standpoint, of our inability to ever quite fully scrape off the subjectivity of our statements, there has been no end of consternation over this effect on Truth. There’s no better meditation on this than watching Woolf’s characters recapitulate their own pasts as motivations for present actions. When the past is linked to our memory, tricky problems appear. One prime example is Clarissa’s relation to Peter. Early in the story we get, “So she would still find herself arguing in St. James’s Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry him.” (ibid., 7) Given the techniques that Woolf is using, it is ambiguous as to whether the italicized part is an objective pronouncement on her life, or a subjective reiteration (and possibly one of self-convincing). And then we compare this line with what we receive of Clarissa’s inner state when she actually sees Peter: “Now of course, thought Clarissa, he’s enchanting! perfectly enchanting! Now I remember how impossible it was ever to make up my mind—and why did I make up my mind—not to marry him? she wondered, that awful summer?” (ibid., 41) It makes us wonder whether any of our statements of truth are anything more than emotive or different degrees of superlative emphasis.


Works Cited

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1890, 1918.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1925, 1953.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Machiavelli and Humanism

This is a quite neglectful piece, another in a long line of "I haven't quite figured out what I want to say." In retrospect, and as my interest in what we now call "Early Modern European" studies increases, Machiavelli is interesting for his very use of the prowess/fortune distinction, which I spent only a paragraph on but is clearly the only thing I found interesting at the time. Humanism and the initial recovery of our Greek past and flowering of literary and scholarly work is pretty well neglected in philosophy departments, and it's too bad. The creation of the dialectic between rationalism and empiricism that Descartes initiated is interesting, and certainly provides something more easily taught in classrooms, but the work of the humanists is the kind of optimism about human potential that the pragmatists had in our ability to change our fortunes.


When Machiavelli wrote during the Renaissance, the intellectual landscape was shaped by individualism and a growing optimism for mankind’s potential. This landscape is best characterized by the humanist movement. While the humanists preached of man’s limitless potential, Machiavelli wrote of man’s self-centeredness and life-long game of king-of-the-hill: “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit… The bond of love is one which men, wretched as they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so.”[1]

Machiavelli can best be seen as synthesizing the humanist’s optimism in the form of the potential of the Prince with his own cynicism of mankind. In this way, Machiavelli ends up being pessimistic of human nature, but optimistic of individual potential.

When Machiavelli’s cynicism of mankind and his optimism of the Prince show they seem to be just that: cynicism of mankind and optimism of the Prince. When Machiavelli makes sweeping generalizations about mankind he seems to be describing either the default nature of men or possibly some sort of herd mentality. For instance, when Machiavelli makes his great generalization about men (being ungrateful, fickle, liars, etc.) he does seem to be stating that all men are like this. But he also gives us a laundry list of qualities that men can hold: “Some are held to be benefactors, others are called grasping; some cruel, some compassionate; one man faithless, another faithful;…”[2] and on and on. This would imply that some men actually do hold these qualities, in spite of Machiavelli’s own generalization. On the other hand, to describe the herd variation of Machiavelli’s generalizations, he says, “…the populace by nature is fickle;…”[3] and he describes mercenaries as being “disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal;…”[4] Here he seems to be describing how men act in these particular groups.

The main thing to draw from this is that Machiavelli seems to consider the individual and the mankind in general separately. When considering the general state of mankind he says “…men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you…”[5], but when considering the individual he says, “one man lascivious, another chaste; one guileless, another crafty; one stubborn, another flexible;…”[6] The key to Machiavelli’s separation is his conception of prowess.

Nowhere does Machiavelli really give prowess a proper definition, but simply fleshed out, prowess is the summation of an individual's talents and abilities. All men have the capacity for prowess, be it a tremendous lack of or profusion. Prowess is one of two things that set men apart from each other. The other, fortune, is the uncontrollable forces of nature or society. While fortune can give and take away without any consultation with an individual, prowess is at the beck and call of those who have it. Prowess is what allows individual expression.

Now, Machiavelli typically spoke of prowess in conjunction with politics, but prowess clearly seems to be Machiavelli’s expression of the humanist trend of individuality and potential. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, another Renaissance writer, wrote God as having said to Adam, “You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand We have placed you, shall ordain for yourself the limits of you nature.”[7] Clearly Pico saw mankind in a favorable and optimistic light. Mankind’s prowess, to Pico, is limitless and, because of mankind’s free will, so is Man’s individuality. Machiavelli is more reserved in his proclamation of mankind’s individuality and it seems centered on those with prowess, namely, the Prince. Nevertheless, he says, “All things have conspired to your greatness. The rest is up to you. God does not want to do everything Himself, and take away from us our free will and our share of the glory which belongs to us.”[8] Compared to another Renaissance writer, Pietro Paolo Vergerio, Machiavelli seems pretty well in line with humanist tradition. Vergerio wrote on education and liberal arts and said, “we call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men…”[9] Here can be seen Machiavelli’s prowess in the way of “those highest gifts of body and mind.”

So Machiavelli compares relatively well to the other optimistic writers of the time, but does that mean that Machiavelli was optimistic of human nature? On the whole, Machiavelli was not. However, he was optimistic of the large capacity that individuals held to escape that nature. All told, while Machiavelli may have believed that men were generally fickle and ungrateful, he also believed that there were individual men who could transcend this fickleness and become great men and, indeed, princes.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull, New York: Penguin, 1999, 54.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

[8] Machiavelli, 83.

[9] Pietro Paolo Vergerio, “Concerning Character,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

God: Now 100% All-Natural

I'm not sure I understand my train of thought here anymore. I think this paper is an attempt, like many an undergrad's, to say both something interesting and concrete. The problem is that undergrads usually don't have a good bead on what is interesting yet, nor do they have enough understanding of the concrete to back up something interesting anyway. But you do have to start somewhere, so professors get papers like this--clumsily handled details and arguments sandwiched between intimations of something not yet fully seen.

Spinoza is a fascinating figure in the history of philosophy because he is constantly hailed as canonical by our doxagraphers (like a Copleston), but in many of the more interesting tales about the westering of the human spirit, he's almost entirely neglectable. Or at least, that's been my impression in reading. It's strange, really. My suspicion is that he does deserve to be canonical and, like Bloom's verdict about our inability to truly understand Shakespeare, we simply haven't gotten our heads around why we feel he's important and how to fit him centrally into our stories. But perhaps I need to read more about Spinoza.


In the Western tradition, God and Nature have perennially been described as separate entities. God has typically been described as the personal, creative agent that exists outside of and in addition to what He creates. Nature has then typically been considered everything else. Nature, in this sense, has been used interchangeably with Universe. One problem with this is that Universe implies “everything,” the totality of existence. The way it is used with God is that there is God and then the Universe. God exists outside the Universe and then everything else exists within the Universe. This seems to contradict the meaning of Universe, but this is the way the two words are commonly used.

The break that Spinoza took from this is proving deductively that God is the totality of existence. Everything exists within God. For Spinoza, God could be used interchangeably with Universe. In this sense, Spinoza can be seen to be “naturalizing” God. Instead of God existing outside of the Universe, outside from us, we in fact exist inside of Him. This makes God, in a sense, more accessible because no longer is there God and Universe. There is just God, for which we are all a part of. But is this “naturalization” important or even necessary?

Spinoza’s contemporary, Leibniz, who also formed a proof for the existence of God, didn’t think so. In his writing, Leibniz had already proved the existence of an external universe. With the existence of the Universe, Leibniz stumbled into an age-old problem: infinite regress. The problem of infinite regress consists in looking for the cause for everything. In finding one cause, you then must find the cause for the cause and then the cause for the cause for the cause, ad infinitum. One of the earliest replies to the problem was from Aristotle. He posited the existence of a self-causing Prime Mover. This Prime Mover was the cause of everything, like the finger that pushes down the first domino. Leibniz followed Aristotle’s footsteps and offered a proof for the existence of the Prime Mover, whom Leibniz called God.

Spinoza and Leibniz do agree on one thing: God is self-causing. In this way, both Spinoza and Leibniz address the problem of infinite regress. Leibniz, though, attempts to prove one more thing than Spinoza does: the existence of something in addition to the Universe, namely God. No philosopher has ever denied all existence. Even in Cartesian skepticism, possibly the most radical beginning of a metaphysical system, the Universe consists of you thinking. So both Leibniz and Spinoza start with the Universe. Spinoza goes on to prove that the Universe is, in fact, God, thereby making the Universe self-causing. Leibniz, on the other hand, starts with, in addition to the Universe, God.

At this point, somebody would certainly object to the way I was about to describe Leibniz’s proof of God. At this point I have Leibniz owning up to a Universe (proven as the existence of an external world) and God, but his proof of God mentions nothing of the Universe, only the material world. There is no sleight-of-hand being performed here to entrap Leibniz. The point of this comparison is to show that by the time he gets to Spinoza’s position, Leibniz has one proof for his Universe and another separate one for the material world and God. Spinoza has all that in a single extended proof, making his “natural” God much simpler in form.

The trouble in Leibniz’s proof of God arises in his proposition that the material world is contingent, not necessary:
…the existence of the world, which is the whole assemblage of contingent things….[1]
This can be seen as saying that the world is set, by default, to non-existence. But why could the world not be set by default to existence? Leibniz’s argument can be summarized in an analogy of a classroom. Say you walk into a classroom with chairs and desks organized in some fashion. You know that the chairs and desks didn’t get there by themselves, so somebody must have put them there. Thereby you know that there exists somebody else that puts chairs and desks in their place. But this argument is faulty. How do you know that the chairs and desks haven’t been that way for all of time? You are presupposing the existence of somebody to organize the chairs and desks, when the only thing you can really know when you enter the room is the simple existence of the chairs and desks. So Leibniz, in saying that the world must be contingent, is presupposing the existence of “somebody” to put the world together. Spinoza bypasses this entire hazard by proving that God is the Universe. What is unclear to me is why Spinoza even needed God. Why couldn’t you just have the Universe?

In naturalizing God, Spinoza made God and the Universe synonymous. But why continue with the title of God? Why not dispense with it and simply call the totality of existence the Universe? Spinoza, in effect, still has something extra: God, being the Universe, rather than just the Universe. The significant difference between what Spinoza is calling God/Universe and what I’m calling Universe is that God is a being and the Universe is not. Spinoza is indeed positing the existence of one thing: God. Whereas most other philosophers and theologians start with God and the Universe, Spinoza got rid of one and was left with God. This, of course, led Spinoza to pantheism so that there was still some form of existence for you and I.

Spinoza’s first proof for the existence of God is as follows:
Prop. XI. God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.
Proof.—If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. But this (by Prop. vii.) is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.[2]

This is where Spinoza commits his sleight-of-hand. He slips God right in there in place of substance. Substance has, heretofore, been the totality of existence i.e. the Universe. But Spinoza slips God in saying that the proof for the Universe is the proof for God. But why does it have to be the proof for God? Why can’t it simply be the proof for the Universe? The fact is Spinoza linked God and substance from the very beginning in his definitions. His definition of God was as a substance. It wasn’t until later that he proved God to be the only substance. But Spinoza realizes that this single proof will not suffice. There is still a question as to why you couldn’t have substance be the only substance with substance being called the Universe. Spinoza answers with two more proofs.

Spinoza’s second proof is reminiscent of Leibniz. The key phrase in it is:
If, then, no cause or reason can be given, which prevents the existence of God, or which destroys his existence, we must certainly conclude that he necessarily does exist.[3]
It seems that the default switch is set to “existence” in Spinoza. From earlier argumentation this would seem to follow, but notice that Spinoza is setting God’s default switch, while I was speaking of the material world’s default switch. Saying that God, by default, exists is like saying that Unicorns, by default, exist. There is no cause or reason why Unicorns do or do not exist, but we do not automatically then assume the existence of them. It is unclear as to Spinoza’s stance on Unicorns and other mythical beasts; maybe he did assume the existence of any number of fictional creatures. But even if Spinoza assumes the existence of every make-believe being, that still does not give him the validity to do so. Spinoza does answer later that “I am not here speaking of things, which come to pass through causes external to themselves, but only of substances….”[4] But here Spinoza simply floats back to his sleight-of-hand switch of substance and God without any apparent reason to do so. Perhaps Spinoza’s third proof will open up some undiscovered avenue.

Spinoza’s third and final proof is:
The potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power, and contrariwise the potentiality of existence is a power, as is obvious. If, then, that which necessarily exists is nothing but finite beings, such finite beings are more powerful than a being absolutely infinite, which is obviously absurd; therefore, either nothing exists, or else a being absolutely infinite necessarily exists also.[5]
The negation of power means that power is absent. Spinoza’s first step can then be rephrased as “the potentiality of non-existence is the absence of power and the potentiality of existence is the presence of power.” It does not follow then that beings with existence are more powerful then those without. The comparison of power happens when two beings have power. We can then say that one is weak (less power) and one is strong (more power). If we take the opposite comparison, comparing the power of two beings that do not have power, we see that there is no basis for comparison. Take the example of a turtle. We can say that the painted turtle is weaker than the snapping turtle because the snapping turtle’s ability to survive (read: exist) is greater than that of the painted turtle. But say we come along a dead snapping turtle. We don’t say, “Boy, that turtle is weak.” There is no basis for the observation. When the turtle is dead it isn’t weak in the existence department; it just doesn’t exist.

Spinoza might defend himself by saying that I misinterpreted him because he said that existence is a power, so that all of God’s power is negated by his non-existence, but otherwise He would have us beat. Because of the negation, God is made weaker than us. But this merely points out a discrepancy in Spinoza’s argumentation. His use of the word “contrariwise” is misleading. The contrary of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” is “the potentiality of existence is a negation of power.”[6] This is not what Spinoza said. Therefore, it must be taken that his use of contrariwise means something other than contrary. What exactly he meant is unclear. If Spinoza meant a contradiction to his original phrase it would have appeared as “the potentiality of non-existence is not negation of power.” If we take contrariwise to mean simply opposite, as I have, then the discrepancy of “no basis for comparison” still exists. The opposite of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” would be “the potentiality of existence is a non-negation of power,” non-negation meaning the affirmation of power. Thereby the negation of power comes to mean the absence of power and the affirmation of power becomes the presence of power. So whatever Spinoza meant, he didn’t follow through correctly.

What we are left with in Spinoza’s terms is substance. This substance is the totality of existence, as natural as you can get it. Things that are natural are said to exist within nature. Therefore, Spinoza did attempt to naturalize God. But the mere existence of God within nature (or as nature) still would seem to be superfluous. The naturalization is an important step in philosophy as Spinoza was branded an atheist, when really he was a pantheist. Spinoza believed in God, just not in the way that was considered acceptable. The important step was making the Universe self-causing. Many philosophers have used the problem of infinite regress as a stepping stone to posit the existence of God. Spinoza, in combining the Universe and God, gives great credence to the Universe existing by itself.

[1] Popkin, Richard H., ed. The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries. (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 335.

[2] Ibid., 252

[3] Ibid., 253

[4] Ibid., 254

[5] Ibid., 253

[6] Flew, Antony. A Dictionary of Philosophy. Rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1979), 75.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Immortal Soul: Given or Proof?

This is the final paper I turned in for the first class on Greek philosophy I ever took, which was also technically the only class I ever specifically took on Greek philosophy, and also during my second semester in college, back in 1999. It isn't...totally worthless. Only mainly so. I can barely follow the argument anymore myself. What is interesting, as I work my way haphazardly through old papers, is how often I make fun of a philosopher's neat little argument with a tennis analogy: "Game, set, and match." It seems so quaint now, especially coming from a 19-year-old, but it is no wonder that I took to Rorty and his notion of metaphilosophy so well (which gained so much resonance from Wittgenstein's notion of a language-game). I'd always, apparently, kinda' thought of argumentation as a game. Come to think of it, the whole paper is a metaphilosophical strike at Plato, interrogating the rules of argumentation. I don't say a damn thing about the immortality of the soul, just about Plato's procedure. (Note: there are references to "Stumpf" and "Angeles." The former, I think, was a compilation of primary texts that I no longer have. The latter was a dictionary of philosophy by Peter Angeles I no longer have on hand that I was quite partial to quoting in my early years. There are explanations for this, that probably tie to the above, though I will forgo them here.)


One of the questions of philosophy is the truth of the immortality of the soul. Many philosophers have attempted to answer it. This is certainly true of Plato and Socrates. Plato answered this question in his dialogue Phaedo. In it are outlined four proofs that Socrates uses to prove the immortality of the soul. Through two objections from Socrates’ disciples, the first three proofs are shown to be weak of standing. Socrates then moves onto his fourth and final proof, which is considered to be his best. There seems to be a crucial problem with Socrates’ reasoning, however. It deals with the difference between a “given,” or self-defining truth, and a “proof.” Socrates says he is attempting to prove the immortality of the soul, but really he is only defining the soul as immortal. [1]

Socrates starts his final proof of the immortality of Soul first by telling those around him that he believes that teleological explanations of the world are superior. “…[W]e must discover how it is best for that thing to exist, or to act, or to be acted upon.” (97c-d)[2] Socrates goes on to say that the ultimate purpose of the world is to “imitate” the Forms. With this in mind, Socrates says that an essence is the pattern or blueprint, the Form. Each essence has essential attributes. Without these essential attributes it wouldn’t be the specific essence that it is. It is with this fact, that essences need their essential attributes, that Socrates continues with his proof.

Socrates wants to show that Life is an essential attribute of Soul. If he can do this then Soul cannot plausibly be linked with Death and therefore Soul will be proven to be immortal. His reasoning behind this is that in the Realm of Forms, an essence cannot have both sides of a duality participating as an attribute at the same time. Therefore, if one side of the duality is an essential attribute, then the opposite end of the duality can never be linked with the essence. Socrates develops his proof with the theme that the Greek idea of the soul is of “the mover.” For something to affect or “move” the reality of particulars around it, said something must have a soul (105c). So Soul, as “the mover,” has the attribute of Life. It would not be the soul if it were not alive. To make this link binding and essential, Socrates uses an analogy. Socrates says that on an Odd-Even continuum, Three is always Odd. By its very nature it can only be Odd, it can never be Even. Four, on the other hand, by its very nature, can only be Even (103e-105b). Therefore, Socrates says that Soul, by its very nature, can only be linked with Life (105e). Just like Three only being Odd and Four only being Even. Game, set, and match.

One thing about Socrates’ analogy seems to strike a strange chord, though. His use of mathematics in his analogy is slightly suspect. Mathematics, numbers specifically, are self-defining. In geometry this is called a “given.” A given is just that because it defines itself. You don’t prove a given. They are the groundwork from where all other proofs are built. A given is therefore a definition that has a specified, self-defining meaning. A proof, on the other hand, is “a process that establishes … a truth or fact.” (Angeles 245)

This difference between a “given” and a “proof” is where Socrates would raise an objection. To Socrates both a given and a proof are definitions and “… a definition [is] a clear and fixed concept.” (Stumpf 39) While a particular event or thing may vary from instance to instance, each varied instance would revolve around a certain essential nature, or definition. (Stumpf 40) This definition was to Socrates the Form of what was being defined. Socrates devoted his entire life to finding the true definitions of things and the process through which he achieved this was dialectic. By asking questions like “What is a pious act?” and “What is virtue?” Socrates was hoping to give definition to such abstract concepts as piety and virtue.

The catch is that there is a fundamental difference between what Socrates called a definition and what is considered a given. This difference can be summed up by two separate types of definition: a nominal definition and a real definition. A nominal definition is “…any definition that explains the meaning of a word or symbol.” (Angeles 66) Opposed to that is a real definition which gives the essence or definition of a thing. The key difference between the two lies within a word or symbol versus a thing. An example of a word or symbol definition is “A square is a plane figure with four connected straight sides that form four angles that total 360.” An example of a definition of a thing is “Piety is that which is loved by the Gods.” The former is a mathematical given and receives its meaning from that which it is specified; it is self-defining. The latter is clearly debatable and is, in fact, debated by Socrates in the Euthyphro. The definitions or essences that Socrates is looking for could easily be called real definitions and the debating process through which these real definitions are found called dialectic.

As has been said, Socrates’ search for essences was through dialectic. However, you can’t “find” nominal definitions through dialectic. They are self-defining. Therefore, nominal definitions can’t be swept into the category of real definitions. Socrates ignores this fundamental difference between defining a word or symbol and defining a thing. He sweeps both under the same heading. It is this sweeping motion that causes Socrates problems in his proof of the immortality of the soul.

Socrates, by comparing Soul to mathematical givens, is basically saying that Soul, having the essential attribute of Life, is self-defining, a given. By calling Soul self-defining means that it cannot be proven through dialectic. It is to be taken as fact. But this defeats the purpose of Socrates trying to justify his claims. Socrates’ entire life was spent showing that other people do not have wisdom and, because he admittedly has none, that he is the wisest man alive. By calling Soul self-defining Socrates is admitting to know something: Soul has the essential attribute of Life. This is why Socrates tries to prove it and why he sweeps nominal definitions in with real definitions. If he can prove immortality, he can say that the link is logically and rationally evident given the clues provided. If the link is self-evident then the link is a given, the clues be damned.

Say we move beyond this development and consider Soul as being a separate entity to Body. Socrates makes it perfectly clear that Soul is separate from Body. Soul being the mover and a separate entity is to be taken as self-evident. And as has been stated Soul, as “the mover,” has the essential attribute of Life. If Soul was an essential attribute to Life then it would quite an easy thing to say that Soul is immortal. For something to have Life it must have a soul. But this is certainly not the case as we see that a tree is alive, yet does not have a soul. If it had a soul it would be able to affect and move the reality around it. A case can be made for a tree affecting the reality around it. Its root structure pushes the dirt out of the way so it can sink its roots further into the earth. The tree takes in water, sprouts leaves, and can even push objects out of the way if its trunk grows in a way that pushes against other objects. It is irrelevant whether Socrates meant trees have souls or not. “Then the soul always brings life to whatever contains her?” (105d) Socrates asks of his disciples. It is Socrates’ entire argument that Life is an essential attribute of Soul.

Now consider Body. Body moves up and down the Life-Death continuum. Why can’t Soul, as a separate entity, move up and down the Life-Death continuum? It has already been shown that if Soul’s immortality isn’t taken to be self-defining then it must still be proven that it is linked to Life. In looking at Soul as a separate entity and having its own Life-Death continuum a picture of Soul can be made from the one Socrates was proposing. It seems plausible that Body can be looked at as the material form of the Life-Death continuum. The arms, legs, and torso of a man, the trunk, leaves, and roots of a tree, a blade of grass; all of these can be considered the body of each particular living thing. Soul, then, can be considered the immaterial form of the Life-Death continuum. When Soul is linked with Body, Life arises. If not every living thing has a soul it can be said that Body is “clicked” into the Life position, but Soul is still in the Death position. Either way, it is the combination of Body and Soul that gives things the capability to act upon reality.

To illustrate this combination we can use the analogy of a sperm and egg. By themselves they aren’t much. When the two are fused together, however, is when life begins. Together the sperm and egg transform themselves into a living creature. When this living creature dies you don’t get back the sperm or the egg, though. When Body and Soul are fused together you get a living creature that can act upon its reality. When this living creature dies it is entirely conceivable that you get nothing in return. It is also conceivable that just Soul can be “clicked” on. I’m not proposing that it can or cannot, I’m merely proposing that the possibility of Soul having the attribute of Death exists.

Socrates was trying to prove, through dialectic, that Soul had the essential attribute of Life. What he gave us, instead, was a nominal definition of Soul in which it had the essential attribute of Life. A nominal definition cannot be proven, however, because a nominal definition is just that because it is just now being given meaning. In place of Socrates’ proof, a different kind of connection between Body and Soul and the Life-Death continuum has been offered, given the clues provided.

The only question that remains is why did Socrates lump “givens” and “proofs” into one category of definitions? Maybe Socrates had a moment of weakness before his death and wanted something concrete to pass on to his disciples, something for them to build on. This seems unlikely as the problem didn’t lie in the logic of his last argument, but in the structure of his logic, specifically in the way he categorized the answers he was given through dialectical reasoning. Maybe Socrates had a definite goal in mind when he set out to find the definitions of abstract concepts like piety, virtue, and the immortality of the soul and it clouded his judgment. All of these answers are pure speculation, though, and shouldn’t be bothered when considering Socrates’ value to philosophy. He gave us the process of dialectical reasoning and it was through this type of truth-seeking that allowed philosophy to become the force that it is. And it was this type of truth seeking that Socrates performed and espoused his entire life and he no doubt would have wanted it continued after his passing.

[1] Since this dialogue is considered one of Plato’s Early Dialogues, it is difficult to distinguish where Socrates’ philosophy stops and Plato’s picks up. Because of this I am using Socrates as the creator of the proofs as he is the protagonist in the dialogue.

[2] All references to the Phaedo will be from the translation by F. J. Church (New York: Macmillan/Library of the Liberal Arts, 1951).