Monday, February 25, 2008

What Pragmatism Is

The meaning of pragmatism as a tradition of philosophical thinking has been contested by those on the outside, and also intermurally by those within it.

I think the time has come for both sides, critics and purveyors, to move beyond the idea that "pragmatism" means "practicality." There are many linguistic landmines having to do with common usage, common sense, original usage, philosophical usage, etc. The classical pragmatists, Peirce, James, Dewey, amongst others (Schiller, Mead, etc.), surely had their reasons for using various rhetorical framings. But the core of pragmatism as it has been worked out through the years has nothing (and everything) to do with "practicality."

The parenthetical is there to remind people that the classical rhetoric isn't completely worn out. The insight they had was that things can only be said to be true or false in practice. Pragmatism is the thesis that theory, thinking, metaphysics, philosophy, academics, poetry, math, education, school, business, baseball, everything—everything is useful if it has a use. Tautological, yes, but notice the shift in focus: truth is what works, but what is it working for? What is its use?

We can probably isolate two main, contemporary reactions to pragmatism. The first is felt more by laypersons, non-academic appreciators of philosophy and is connected more with the classical pragmatists, particularly James. This reaction revolves around the rhetoric of “practicality,” which produces the suspicion in some that not everything under the sun should be judged according to how practical it is. Is going to church on Sunday mornings practical? Is it practical trying to read Spenser’s Faerie Queen, spending 10 minutes a stanza on just deciphering its archaic English? However, wouldn’t our lives be impoverished somehow if we didn’t do these things? This negative reaction revolves around the mood produced by the rhetoric of practicality.

The second reaction, almost entirely relegated to professional, academic philosophers, is partially connected with the classicals, but also with their children, the neopragmatists, especially (or only, depending on your frame) Richard Rorty. In the first instance, the professionals are concerned about the so-called “pragmatist theory of truth”: truth is what works. Their concern is that this theory of truth itself does not work and, even further, leads to relativism. In the second instance, academic philosophers are concerned with a kind of “end-of-philosophy” rhetoric, a concern that hardly needs further enunciation—what the hell sense does it make for a philosopher to end philosophy?

The first reaction is entirely understandable. When confronted with the notion that truth bows down before practicality, our noses may wrinkle a bit when we consider all the idiosyncratic things we do for pleasure or spiritual fulfillment. Is watching football all day really a practical use of our time? Is reading trashy romance novels? Is re-reading Michael Crichton’s Congo? Is praying, when there’s no sure way of telling whether there’s any use to it? Is meditating practical, or is it just sitting there, thinking about not thinking? And what’s the use in that? Is it really practical that I buy a copy of Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, adding another to the growing pile of books I’ll probably never get around to finishing, when you can find the poem online? Is it practical to spend my time writing blog posts revolving around philosophy, no less a philosopher like Robert Pirsig that no one reads as a philosopher, when no one will probably read them, or else take them all that seriously—indeed, should I given that whether they should be taken seriously by anyone is closer to doubtful?

Maybe none of these things are practical. So why do we do them? Why, indeed—why is the question. Why do we do the things we do? This is the immediate question that even a poor, first reaction to pragmatism should cause because, if our response is that there is more than just practicality, if we bite the bullet and say, “Yeah, watching football all day isn’t practical, but I still like to do it,” then we’ve already gone so far as to distinguish between the need for practicality and the need for something else, and it is to the defense of that need, that purpose, that one has already at the least begun by the very act of countenancing it. In other words: the very act of being suspicious of pragmatism forces one to consider that there are different reasons and motivations for doing things.

It is my contention that that is actually what lays at the heart of pragmatism—the forced act of considering why it is we do the things we do, and wondering if we should continue doing them—and not necessarily about how practical an idea or activity is. The central idea of pragmatism is that everything is grounded in practice, indeed, everything we do is a practice. Pragmatism grew as a tradition within the philosophical community, as a response to the philosophical community as it was largely composing itself, because one of the pervasive inheritances bequeathed us by Plato was the idea that there was a difference between theory and practice, the distinction between theoria and praxis.

Theory was supposed to be an arena of contemplation uninfected by practice, by the conflicted affairs of people. Socrates looked around himself and saw people behaving as if they knew why they were doing things, people like Euthyphro who thought they were doing pious actions—but did they really know what piety was? Socrates took the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” and made it into a way of life: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates wanted us, all of us, to not live our lives without considering why we do the things we do, without examining our motivations and purposes, without knowing the consequences of our actions.

What happened next is complicated and much debated, but the happening was Plato. In an effort to honor Socrates’ memory, Plato took up his mantle and his cause, writing about why we do the things we do and exploring better ways at going about them. We should perhaps distinguish, though, between the way of life embodied by Socrates and that codified by Plato. Socrates was what we lovingly refer to as a “philosophical gadfly,” somebody who’s always picking at us, making us think about what we are doing. As a way of life, we can see it as a sort of skeptical attitude towards what is happening around you, a kind of looking askance, always with an eye out for perhaps a better way of doing things. Socrates wandered around making people think, and that’s a cultural practice we would do well to continue.

Plato, however, produced something a little different. Whereas Socrates looked at actual activities, actions, and tried to make us think about what we were doing, Plato thought that what Socrates embodied was a whole new thing, called “philosophy,” that lay to the entire side of all individual activities, actions. Plato envisioned philosophy as an activity that was pure of all the muddiness that Socrates asked us to examine, an activity that could then inform us as to the proper practice of any particular, individual activity: the division between theory and practice. Plato created a way of life that could, in effect, rule on all other ways of life—the philosopher-king.

On the story the pragmatists tell, in particular Dewey in The Quest for Certainty, that was the beginning of the end of a good idea. The 2500-year-long tradition of philosophy, the ironing out of what it means for theoria to pronounce on praxis qua praxis, as opposed to particular suggestions built out of the individual practices themselves, has led to scholasticism, to quarrels that don’t mean a whit to our lives. This was the point of James’ formulation of the “pragmatic method”: what is the difference that makes a difference? Only if an idea, a stand on a particular philosophical issue, makes a difference to the living of our lives can that idea, that issue, be considered important enough to spend time on thinking about. James, in his lectures on pragmatism, then famously took up a couple of classic problems and attempted to show how it doesn’t matter whether you believe, for instance, in free will or determinism—we still behave as if we need to make decisions.

James liked to talk, in this regard, about the “cash value” of an idea. That kind of rhetoric is just what puts some people off—the whole idea that an idea or practice has a marketable, public value that goes up and down according to what other people think is just pure crap: I watch football because I love football, the gods be damned if they or anyone else likes it. An idea is true whether people believe in it or not. A fact is a fact.[1]

There is, indeed, something here that needs a little clarification, something the professionals have been going on about, but before I leave off for that discussion, I want to remark that James’ idea of “cash value” isn’t really about a public market of wares that we can pick from willy-nilly. It is about consequences, what are the consequences of thinking this or that. To what use is a belief that we hold to us—what is it doing for us, what does it mean to us?

James’ Pragmatism is famously dedicated to John Stuart Mill, father of utilitarianism and modern liberalism. I believe the heart of utilitarianism is as often misunderstood as pragmatism, and I think the core of them are basically the same, promoted in similar, perhaps worn out ways. In the opening short chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism, he says,

“All action is for the sake of some end; and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.”

I see in these lines what James was thinking of when he dedicated his general philosophy to Mill’s ethical one. The opponent of these lines is the same opponent Socrates had: one who would carry out judgment, action, mechanically without ever considering whether the end, the purpose, was a good one. Mill’s opening remarks pave the way for his second chapter, “What Utilitarianism Is.” I take James’ second lecture, after his own opening remarks on the present state of the philosophical scene, “What Pragmatism Means,” to be itself a remark on Mill and what their common endeavor was. When we confront a statement, and we aren’t sure how to take it, we ask, “What does it mean?” Pragmatism is the philosophy that asks after meaning, the one that wants to know how this idea effects how we behave, “What does this idea, this philosophy, mean to us, what does it mean to believe, how does it change us?” It is the philosophy that doesn’t stop in its pursuit of wisdom, but continues, always wondering after meaning.

“But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.

The professional may, at this point, interject that this setting into the flow of life the consequences of our philosophical positions might all be very well and good as a goal. But the fact of the matter is that, in practice, pragmatism’s theory of truth, “truth is what works,” doesn’t itself work. And worse, all this rhetoric about the malleability of reality is damaging to our sense, our correct sense, that reality isn’t something to be just pushed around—we can’t just make up any damn thing we want, get people to agree with it, and call it true.

This brings us to contemporary reactions to pragmatism, the technical working out of the pragmatist theory of truth and pragmatism’s seeming road to relativism. The web of debate surrounding truth is thick, but I believe the proper response for pragmatists is the one Rorty has taken: pragmatism’s “theory of truth” isn’t really a theory at all, but the suggestion that we avoid one. (This has the added bonus of avoiding, in my current exposition, the technical tangles.) Pragmatism always got into trouble because it formulated this avoidance in ways that suggested it had a theory about when and where we can find truth, a way of circumscribing the area that would certify our thinking something is true. For instance: “‘The true’ … is only the expedient in the way of our thinking….” So James doesn’t out and say, “this is my theory,” but we can see where the trouble began.

The trouble comes from the fact that the pragmatist formulations seem to reduce truth to justification. If truth is justification, then what is true is relative to a particular audience because we justify things in front of people, to people. But the whole point of truth, as opposed to justification, was that it was supposed to be the same for everybody. This is why people start to smell relativism. Who are we to say that the Greeks were wrong to hold slaves? After all, they were able to justify it to themselves.

The best move for pragmatists is to just admit that truth is separate from justification: truth is an absolute notion, whereas justification is relative. What pragmatism suggests, however, is that our practices of justification do just fine in guiding our action, in giving us grounds for believing this or that to be true—we don’t need an extra practice, the search for a working theory of truth, that certifies practice itself. The continual act of justification, of justifying old and new practices to new and old audiences, is the process by which we get our current resting positions. Might I be justified, but wrong? Sure, but admitting that doesn’t spell out how there might be something else we could do other than our normal processes of justification. It isn’t clear how one could short-circuit the path to truth by going around practices of justification and it isn’t clear what else we need to do.

This leads us back around to Plato again. Rorty picks up the story that Dewey and others tell about how Plato attempted to create a super-practice, theory, that would certify the effectiveness of a particular, individual practice. But 1) a super-practice is a practice, so what certifies that? And 2) if our practices are already effective, if the theory doesn't itself add to the justification, then . . . tell me why, again, they need to be certified? If they are already working, then…what?

Since a dominant theme in philosophy since Plato has been the working out of the search for absolute certainty, the search for a foundation upon which to set the scaffolding of our thought, Rorty—as incautiously as his predecessors—has suggested that philosophy may have played itself out. (Or rather, Rorty himself occasionally admits to such an incaution in the final pages of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which is funny considering the final paragraph of the book begins, “Whichever happens, however, there is no danger of philosophy’s ‘coming to an end.’”) What is meant is that a certain kind of philosophy, sometimes called foundationalist epistemology, has shown itself to be a waste of energy. Rorty’s work in particular has been to question, in true Socratic spirit, the use of some of our energies, particularly the amount of energy we pour into the pursuit of, what could otherwise be called, a justification for the fact that we justify.

The pragmatist spirit, its function, has been to wonder, for instance, about the use of trying to solve the problem of free will and determinism. Without a doubt, there is a purpose, there is an end. But like Socrates being suspicious of Euthyphro’s certainty in carrying out the demands of piety, pragmatists wonder if the philosopher chasing after the perfect solution to free choice in a world of cause and effect might be doing it for the reasons they say they are. The specter of relativism makes us afraid of the consequences of giving up certain quests, and fear is a true motivator—but should that be the reason we do something? Out of fear?

There’s a lot more to be said about the various philosophical positions individual, self-identified pragmatists have taken against their opponents. But the central insight of pragmatism is not that everything has to be practical, but that everything is a practice carried out in real time, these practices have histories, these practices can be made better and better, and that everything gets grounded out in our experience of life.

Everything is relative to a purpose. Theory and philosophy have uses. They are true, they are worth keeping, if we can figure out to what purpose they are useful for. Pragmatism is antithetical to Kant and Plato and essentialism because they deny, not the thing-in-itself, but the thing-for-itself, like Aristotle’s Prime Mover, contemplating itself.[2] Everything is related to something else and how it relates are the questions we should ask and answer. No wheel spins entirely free of life, but the question is not “does it spin,” but “should it spin?”

Pragmatism doesn't destroy philosophy, nor does it let the Nazi's win. Pragmatism is the core of Socrates' message, it cuts out the bullcrap created over the last 2500 years and gets back to the reason Socrates started up his cross-examinations in the first place: know thyself; the unexamined life is not worth living. At the core of pragmatism is the call to examine the purposes to which we perform various activities. Know why you are doing them. If it serves no purpose, cut it out. If it does, could anything serve it better? Is the purpose it serves a good one? Might there be better purposes?

Pragmatism is a return to philosophy as it should be done. Pragmatism returns us to the practice of life, to the experience of life. There are many purposes that aren't "practical," not at least in the common usage of the term. When James said that truth is the expedient in the way of thinking, he added, “Expedient in almost any fashion….” We just need to be cognizant of what is being made expedient. Pragmatism isn't simply about being practical, it is about knowing why we do things. It is about asking, "Okay, it works. But for whom?"

[1] Pirsig suggests this kind of dissatisfaction towards the end of Lila.

[2] As Pirsig taught us, everything is value and value is always relative to something valuing it. (See, for example, Pirsig's redescription of causation in Lila, 119: B values precondition A.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reading Pirsig as a Philosopher

Let me begin with a division: there are two kinds of readers of Pirsig--those who are attracted to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and those who are attracted Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. While being imperfect, as all such generalizations are, it has the benefit of highlighting one particular tension in Pirsig's works, that between literature and philosophy. The two are often opposed in the philosophical tradition, so it becomes a sort of standing question for all to attend to as to why Pirsig chose the route he did in presenting his philosophy the way he did. The kinds of answers deployed by fans and interpreters range from the more practical, utilitarian (e.g., "you can't write a dissertation for the mass the way they are written for PhD supervisors") to the more theoretical, conceptual (e.g., "he was making a point about the distinction between philosophy and literature"). But either way, we are confronted with the particular ways in which Pirsig deployed his philosophy and, either way, the literary quality of Pirsig's books make for the pulling out of philosophical theses difficult and dangerous work. And what's more, I think that's intended.

When I read others about Pirsig, I find less interesting the attempts to reconstruct the systematic structure of the MoQ. Questions asked about the layout of the levels of static quality, about the interrelation of the social and intellectual levels, about how exactly Dynamic Quality functions in relation to static, these questions can be important, or at least reach a level of some importance, but I question the desire to construct a systematic metaphysics out of Pirsig's writings. Pirsig's writings are the way they are precisely because Pirsig doesn't want to simply create a metaphysics. That would simply be at the intellectual level, to use Pirsig's own terminology, when the point of both books is to present all the facets together to show that all of them are needed.

To hearken back to that old cliche, about losing sight of the forest in the midst of the trees, I fear in study of systems of propositions the loss of sight of the forest of life. We are the entire forest of static patterns, inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual, not just a metaphysics, not just a thirty-thousand-page menu. Pursuing philosophy, which we can broadly call the pursuit of wisdom and seeing how things hang together, fits naturally with the forest metaphor: seeing how our forest hangs together brings us wisdom, particularly as we try and change the forest (which is the DQ/SQ dynamic).

So, pursuing simply a Metaphysics of Quality may be helpful, but it isn't the whole thing (as many would, and certainly should, acknowledge). The whole thing is the living of life, which the breaking into parts, pursuing philosophy, analysis, a metaphysics, may help us to see. When we write about Pirsig as a systematic metaphysician, I think we tend to lose sight of the pragmatic effect of metaphysics. What might be called "literary reading," on the other hand, tends to be more self-consciously contextual then the kind of writing that Pirsig describes in ZMM: "The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn't the way it ever is. People should see that it's never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance." (ZMM, 172) We should read Pirsig with all their rhetorical tools and tropes and metaphors and analogies and excavate their meaning and significance that way (which is really the only way anyways, but that's another debate). And I think, it would seem, Pirsig would say that that would be the best way to do it, because otherwise you lose sight of the whole.

I'd now like to offer a few very general readings of ZMM, in the hopes of supporting some of the things I've said so far. I think the way to read the book is as a philosophical dialogue the same way as Plato's dialogues are read, but even more complicated (if that's possible). Despite the fact that we know Socrates is the hero, what we don't know, because of Socratic irony, is what Socrates means. Many have read irony to mean the simple contradiction of what is said. Alexander Nehamas, though (in his brilliant book, The Art of Living), argues that irony isn't as easy as all that. Irony completely hides the direction of meaning, so you don't know whether a basic, contradictory 180 is intended, or something completely other. (And, to make matters worse, it is hidden not only from the audience, but from the ironist themselves.) So the philosophy of Socrates is always obscured, behind a curtain, never available for direct scrutiny. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye because wherever Socrates is pointing is not the direction he necessarily wants you looking.

I would argue that the same thing is going on in ZMM except, unlike the Platonic dialogues, we don't even know who the hero is until the end, and even then you are left wondering if we should think that. The book is soaked in allegory and irony and the author's point of view is only available out of the corner of your eye. It is written to be a philosophical journey, a journey that takes you through a set of hoops and stages but has no definite end point. It is designed to make you think, but not necessarily about any particular thing, let alone any particular way. So Pirsig is both all of the views and none of the views of ZMM. And I think this type of reading is going on in Lila, too, though the book isn't nearly so cleverly or fantastically crafted (much as Plato lost his craft as you move from the early to the later dialogues, though for another reflection on this topic, see "Prospectus for an Idiosyncratic and Possibly Controversial Reading of Lila").

So reading ZMM for doctrinal points, for philosophical theses, is fraught with peril as you are never sure what Pirsig means. All you have is the Narrator's presentation, but by the middle of the book you are led to wonder who's in control of the show (having learned of Phaedrus' real identity), and by the end of the book, after Phaedrus' triumphant return, you are led to wonder at what point Phaedrus began to dominate the Narrator, and so the presentation of the book itself. What we are left with, I think, are a clear series of philosophical episodes that start by being dominated by the Narrator, but are gradually replaced by Phaedrus' concerns, so "Narrator sections" (like the section on gumption) come fewer and fewer, until you reach the end of the book which is an extended meditation on Phaedrus' experience in Chicago.

As I mentioned earlier, the most complicated feature of this whole model is that while reading we don't know who the hero is, Narrator or Phaedrus. The Narrator through the beginning half of the book makes Phaedrus look like the bad guy, but through our extended ponderings over Phaedrus' demise we are made to feel sympathetic for Phaedrus which leads us to view Phaedrus as the hero, which reflects in the book by Phaedrus' triumph. The way ZMM is written is to have us move in stages through our feelings for the Narrator and Phaedrus, with the action in the book unfolding as a reflection of our feelings towards the preceding action. As our feelings for Phaedrus wax, so does his dominance in the story.

This, of course, brings us to the perplexing and infinitely interesting conclusion that the real audience of the story is the Author himself, not knowing how the book is going to end until he gets there because he is taking the journey with us, witnessing the events again as we see them for the first time, but the journey he is on is a psychical one. By creating "the Narrator" as a fallible, perspectivized character in Pirsig's own autobiographical story, rather than a traditional, omniscient narrator, the knowing autobiographer telling his own story, we get a third character, "the Author," reading the events as he writes them, trying to figure out his life by telling the story. The Author changes as the story unfolds, but that is the point for us also: we are supposed to change through the story. But because of the obfuscating mask of irony, the change intended is hidden not only from us but from the Author.

I would suggest that we should read ZMM as having three main characters, the Narrator, Phaedrus, and the Author, and we should read them in the fashion of Plato's Allegory of the Charioteer (which is from Plato's Phaedrus and Pirsig touches on it briefly in ZMM): two separate horses, both at war with each other, pulling the chariot in two different directions (though not necessarily completely in opposite directions; think of the physical description of a chariot allegorically and then remember that, as Nehamas argues, irony does not mean that a statement means the opposite of what it says, but simply something different) and the charioteer is trying to find a mean course between the two. The Narrator and Phaedrus are warring over the Author's mind.

Now, Pirsig says that the difference between the Narrator and Phaedrus is the difference between social and intellectual patterns. I think this a bad description. I think a better description (as I suggest in "Confessions") is between the Pragmatist Impulse and the Metaphysical Impulse. These impulses take two forms, one theoretical and one practical. On the theoretical level, the level at which these two impulses take on philosophical garb and become themselves philosophical positions, these two positions are oil and water--they are the warring factions between Protagoras and Plato, rhetoric and dialectic. On this level, Pirsig must be a pragmatist, for if a metaphysician he falls into self-contradiction.

On the practical level, however, we see the actual efforts of Protagoreans and Platonists and the kinds of real life considerations that conspire to make us one or the other. This is the difference between Pirsig's Coleridgean splicing between Platonist and Aristotelian--one focused on generalities, as supposedly the Metaphysician is, the other on particularities, as supposedly the Pragmatist is. The thing about a philosophical position, of course, is that it doesn't come with a focus--only people do. This is the great muddle--we can separate out logically distinct positions, but when it comes to action, the carrying out of beliefs, the living of life, it becomes sometimes quite difficult to tell what the connection is between being a Platonist and professing Platonism. Take the simple, obvious and sometimes overlooked (for the purposes of getting on with professing) contradiction of Plato's hatred of poetry and his poetic practice. Pirsig notes the lifeless quality of essays, preaching on in a void like God, but what could be more omniscient in position than Plato's Forms and more situational life-like than the Dialogues?

These are tangled webs that I can only approach for the moment, but the parallel between Plato and Pirsig should be obvious: on the other end of Plato's knotted theory/practice relationship is Pirsig's knot. Plato bequeathed to us the battle between philosophy and poetry and still to this day many philosophers still take that battle quite seriously. Literature is still looked on by many philosophers as something quite different than philosophy. The question must be confronted: what does it mean for Pirsig to write the way he does?


This was created out of a post in the currently defunct MF ("MoQ Focus") discussion group written in May, 2005. It was originally written in the midst of a beneficial discussion with Rick Budd and Sam Norton.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Love Poetry, Pain, Distance, and Romance

I came to poetry late, as a reader and certainly as a writer. It came to me quite suddenly. Not having written a stanza since 8th grade, I was wandering the warehouse floor of my book sorting job in spring, 2006 when, thinking about my new haven for romantic enamorment, I stumbled upon "I thought of you today/In this month almost May." Of course, it didn't come to me with line breaks, but even without counting off the syllables, I could tell it had parity and was lyrical. And it rhymed! That was particularly exciting for me.

The details of my quite marginal stabs at sonnetering aside, I did notice after I got a few under my belt an interesting paradox. In my practice as a philosopher, my undying enemy was undoubtedly the appearance/reality distinction, that wholesale metaphysical splicing of experience between what seems and what is. One variation on the Platonic theme is in our conceptualization of language. For Platonists, there is a distance between our words and the true essence of our words. This creates the sense that our language, our verbal meanderings through life, are driven around the attempt to capture something--essence, reality, what we really want to say.

I like to call this the picture of language as a pirate. Language is, however, not a pirate (see this post). So I say as a philosopher, yet in my practice as a poet, writing to a young maid, so mild, of pillows and petunias, in my effort to engineer verse and metaphor around the libidinal energies of Venus and Adonis, I seemed inexorably drawn to the exact pathos of distance I decry just about everywhere else. It was a curiosity at first, but it began to build. I mean, it is a pretty obvious trope to reach for--I love you so much that my words are no match for it. And it's perfect for the hack--don't worry, sweetness, tho my verse doth sucketh, no wit could capture my love for you. It's the perfect escape hatch.

I've come to see, however, a commonality in love poetry, i.e. the sonnet. It was with pleasant surprise that, in stumbling upon the history of English verse, I saw it employing the same tropes I was using. Alas, no real surprise as our subject material is universal, and reading the masters work their way through the ropes and tropes of love has helped deepen some of the dim apprehensions I've had of the scope of Western literature.

I've thought for some time, though held my tongue in saying, that at the very root of Western thinking is the notion of unrequited love. Two things to chew on in lieu of my sorely lacking background: 1) the Bible can easily be read as a story of unrequited love (God loves us, we spurn him, He hits us, we totter off, He eventually comes back around, tries to love us again, we spurn him again, He hits us, we cry, He says He's sorry, we apologize--this goes on for the length of the Tanakh, with less and less frequency, until finally God gives up, kicks a bad habit, and kisses us good-bye with the birth of Jesus) and 2) love quite probably lies at the heart of Plato's thinking, certainly in his relation to Socrates, and nobody who reads the Phaedrus will doubt that that dialogue has been less than consummately transcribed into our canonized way of thinking of the Greeks, at least through the eyes of self-styled philosophers.

Sonnet means "little song" and we anglophones, over-taught by Shakespeare, think that it naturally is about love. And so it was from its inception in Petrarch. Our intuition isn't off, but what was new to me, and in retrospect again self-satisfyingly surprising and yet not really surprising at all, was that Petrarch, who either originated the sonnet or popularized this Italian form, wrote not just about love, but about unrequited love. It seems that Petrarch's beautiful Laura, the eternal object of his lifelong sequence, the muse to which he rhythmed and hymned, was married. So, Petrarch's love, between her marriage and, well, him being a priest, was pretty much total fantasy.

What I've noticed is that in love poetry, particularly early love poetry, the feeling of love is created by an act of substitution. The pathos of love isn't created by saying, "I love you so much," it is created by similes: "My love is like...." Metaphor drives love poetry, like all poetry, and the peculiar path it takes is generally of substituting other emotions for the emotion of love. In particular: pain. Various kinds of pathos-generating distances are created and exploited by calling them "love." To make this a little more concrete, I'd like to consider Sir Phillip Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella. The very first sonnet goes like this:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite--
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."
The first line of the poem sets up both the sonnet and the whole sequence: "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show". What is set is a dichotomy between loving and wishing (“fain”) and, more importantly, truth and verse. A distance is created between the truth of his love for "her" and his ability to express it—he wishes his poetry were able to show his love. The distance between truth and expression creates a pathos that Sidney is able to employ to generate the intensity of love. The pathos of distance is extraordinarily flexible and able to take on many guises in the constellation between love, truth, and language: truth/expression (can words adequately express my feelings?), truth/poetry (can poetry convey truth?), inner love/outward behavior (I do love her, but how can I show her?), etc. In all these cases, the pathos is able to stand in place of the Truth of Love. Poets like Sidney realized very early that love is not like an apple, to just be described, accurately or less accurately. Sidney, and in particular the poem’s persona, Astrophel, is able to generate in us the sense of how much he loves Stella by describing, not the love, but how difficult it is to describe the love and how much it pains him to fail in doing it. The pain (rhymes with “fain”) stands in for the love—“pleasure of my pain.” (ln. 2)

This first sonnet is quite funny. Opining on not knowing how to versify his love for her, Sidney enacts it by having nothing happen for much of it. The first quatrain doesn't even have a formal subject to throw a predicate on. The first one doesn't appear until the second quatrain, in line five: "I sought." Further, Sidney humorously struggles with other poets ("inventions" and "others' feet" referring to poems), as when he describes the "step-dame Study's blows," i.e. the teacher is beating him. So, so much pain.

This particular struggle, in fact, shows Sidney dealing with a subject that English poetry began struggling with full bore only in the Enlightenment--what Walter Jackson Bate called "the burden of the past" and Harold Bloom, in his stylish theory of poetry, the "anxiety of influence." The major narrative action in the poem is his studying of other poets, whose "feet still seemed but strangers in my way." With the onslaught of classical learning during the Renaissance, not only did intellectuals rejoice at great and wonderful ideas (as Thomas Moore did), but they also, at least those disposed to originality, began to feel the weight of tradition in a way that had previously been relatively rare. In the last line, we see Sidney taking a strategy that shows itself to be an ancestor to the Romantics, the turn inward. Which, in fact, creates another distance: your muse telling you to turn towards yourself--which means turning away from her. (Spenser will make fun of this in the Faerie Queen when the witch of Book 3, Canto 8, creates a fake Florimell to pacify her son. This "snowy" Florimell is in all other respects just like Florimell, but it is run by a male sprite. Which begs us to ask the question, "Why is a dude running the automaton woman?" Spenser is making fun of the consequence of the Petrarchean convention of dude-poets creating their own female objects of love. "Are our Muses really the women, or are we necessarily making that up, too?")

Another example, Sonnet 47:
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary?
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not. Oh me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
The 47th sonnet continues the identification of pain with love that had begun in the first sonnet of the sequence. Sidney, again, creates this identification to make the intensity of his pain correlate to the intensity of his love. This poem, in fact, elaborately goes on for its entire length without mentioning love as its object until the final couplet (though its place in a love sequence and the sonnet form’s almost exclusive use in the unrequited love thematic at this point in history gives the reader from the beginning its sense), the form's "answer" to the three quatrains' "problem."

The first quatrain uses slavery as its image of pain. Sidney sets the stage by wondering if he has "betrayed" his freedom (a freedom that he is assumed to have had, in classic English form). Sidney receives a flogging from "those black beams," her eyes carving into him mark of ownership. Sidney explicitly evokes being "born a slave" before yoking it to "tyranny," which itself casts the slave as an unjustly subjugated servant in the face of our native liberty—a kind of political remark in the midst of further intensifying his pain.

The second quatrain forwards a different reason for his pain: "Or want I sense to feel my misery?" "Sense" plays twice, once on "good sense," a lack in reason which casts Sidney as stupid-in-love, but also on reason's opposite, a perceptual organ, making Sidney simply incapable of feeling his misery. In this quatrain, Sidney not only does not receive help ("alms") for his failings, but is scorned for asking, being cast as "beggary."

The third quatrain shows Sidney's turn inward, as outside help is not forthcoming. He demands that his virtue awaken and the five times repeated "I" solidifies his inward turn, conversing with himself over what to do. What he must do is leave, though as it happens he doesn't actually leave until after, perhaps, a kiss, that which, given his effort to unshackle himself from the tyranny of his love for her, would have been a "gain to miss."

But she appears again at the end of the third quatrain, showing the poem to be a silent stew in solitude, the pain of his misery appearing because of her absence—for when she shows, he cries out inwardly in defiance that he loves her not, but despairs in the finale that the mere sight of her causes his love to swell and make him tell, what otherwise in solitude is, a lie—the verbalized, "I love you."

The effects in this poem are all given over to creating that context of pain, indeed through the pathos of distance. The final couplet's answer is that distance from her causes the pain of love because it makes him aware of the deadening effect of her presence on his misery, which heightens the correlative intensity of love through the intense pain—I am so in love with you that I am helpless to control myself: a slave to your will in your presence and a beggar for relief from the pain of your absence. This paradoxical helplessness negates his entire claim to autonomy, to the liberty evoked in the first line.

This use of various distances to create pathos remind me of something Rorty once said about contemporary philosophy. Talking about the lack of respect analytics feel about Continentals, and Continentals for analytics, Rorty said that instead of thinking that what the other is doing is not philosophy, analytics should say, "'There is a lot about philosophy that I don't know.' This is also what should be said by Continental philosophers who are repelled by the technicality - the lack of romance, drama, and verve - when they pick up a book by Searle, Rawls, Davidson, Dennett, or Putnam."(Rorty and His Critics, 148) I understand this remark a lot better now. Romance is created by rhetorical distances. In the genre of literature of that name, narrative distance between the quest's beginning and end. In Platonism, between appearance and reality. In Continental philosophy, romance is typically created by what Nietzsche called "the pathos of historical distance." In life, by the distance between people.

That romance is created by distance explains a lot about love poetry and about the love we commonly find in life. The excitement we feel when love's breath is at the nape of our neck is like the energy of a magnet. Too far away, there's no pull, no energy. Get closer, however, and the pull begins, and the closer you get, the more powerful it becomes until you're snapped together--and you don't feel the energy anymore. The dynamism of love, whether of each other, or of God, is created by distances.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Theory of Rhetorical Overindulgence

I have for years ignored the advice of others. In regards to my writing, I have always listened politely before promptly doing whatever the hell I want. My freshman year of college I took English 100, a universal American college course, something the best and brightest passed out of, those less so designed to take, and those uncaring to put any work into anything forced kicking and screaming into. Slackerdom had been my haven for many years and my retribution was, when told that "You can call me Dr. Taedium. Or Bob," to say, "How about Dr. Bob?" He didn't like that. However, given those-less-so, the name stuck amongst many. I hate it when professors want to be called "Doctor."

Ignoring everything Dr. Bob told me (which wasn't much anyways), I went on my merry way doing what I wanted. Over the years, I have entreated upon others for constructive criticism, either on subject material or style. I have, without a doubt, almost entirely and well-nigh universally disregarded nearly all forthcoming advice, adverbial or otherwise. I want feedback, but my poor fragile ego apparently cannot handle it, and so constructs apologia upon rationalization in a delusory attempt at convincing me that me rhetorical instincts are impeccable, and that I am otherwise perfect in every conceivable way. "Yeah, but I wanted to sound like that because...." "No, you see, I want to just start from there, I don't want to have to justify starting from there...." "I know, I know, but I like doing it that way...."

For all those who have given their time and energy, I would tell you that you've not struggled in vain. Some part of me hears, and I am not so small as to forget help even if I slapped you away at the time.

The main thing I've been told for some years now has been that I should mind my audience more. "Who are you writing for? Should they know about Descartes? Rorty? Pirsig? Should they know what representationalism is? Why should they care? Should you make them care?" Who, indeed, am I writing for and why, indeed, should they care?

I have, on the whole, opted for an audience of one: me. It is the easiest way to always be satisfied by your writing. There are many reasons why I should have been satisfied with this stance, beyond the self-stoking fire of being satisfied by being satisfied. For one, who can I count on to be reading? This is a blog, one that, aside from the few internet-gained, intellectual associates, mainly lives off of random google searches. How in the hell do you satisfy a random audience? Do I assume laypersons or, though surely not members of the professional caste, do I assume, shall we say, deacons?

In lieu of such rhetorical choices, I've chosen self-indulgence. The insularity has at the least allowed me to develop my own voice as a writer. But it has certainly led to a proclivity, when confronted with a troubling line, of saying, "Well, why the hell not? Who cares?" For some reason I have yet to understand, I feel like I'm losing part of myself if I should omit a line I like. It must find a place somewhere--if I just delete it, it will be lost forever.

This self-indulgence has led to me knowing fairly well in advance, when writing for classes, what lines will be circled with attendant question marks or more specific queries--"How do you defend this?" "What are you saying here?" "Hungh?" I see most of them coming down the pike as I write, but it becomes part of a cost-benefit analysis: "If I put this in, they might downgrade me. But if I don't, I'll feel like I'm caving into to what they want. Have I already completed the assignment at a high enough level that I could stand a few points knocked off?" And so most of them stay and I get the added satisfaction of, not only keeping a part of myself from spinning off into oblivion, but like the apocryphal Babe Ruth, calling my shot. I overindulge because I can get away with it. I've already gotten my A, why not enjoy myself at the same time? It's kinda' like givin' the finger to the Man. "Here, I did your stupid assignment. And I did it my way. That's right, Sinatra-style. Eat it. Sit and spin. I dare you to give me a bad grade. Nanner, nanner--BLeh."

Contrary to popular belief (as if there are popular beliefs about me), my favored assignments for classes have always been the short reflections that teachers often employ to get students to write more before longer essays. These kinds of reflections are often ungraded with the only restriction of being short. So, despite my reputation for writing overlong about everything (a just, and actual, reputation gained from years of service at the discussion group), I most enjoy the short, ungraded assignments because I'm given free reign over saying whatever the hell I want. I'm afforded the opportunity to flex my skill at compactness without the additional pressure of argumentative justification. This comes out as trying to pack together as many scintillating one-liners as possible. True, I like imagining myself as, if not the only interesting person, or even not the most interesting, at the least the producer of the most interesting things. Whether true or not, I do enjoy piling on as much as possible.

This all comes around to the question of why I feel compelled to write these lines that overreach, why I insist on sinning against argument, against saying what you've rhetorically earned.

I've come to think that the sense of indulgence, the introduction of something you haven't earned the right to say, conferred by a critical audience following the evidence and argument you've deployed, is what continues the conversation. Saying things that are provocative, and there are many ways in which to provoke, cause in others the welling up of argumentative energy, which spill out in response, indeed responses. And even more, they produce the opportunity, by furthering the conversation, to fill in that right, to justify your saying it in the first place. One can't say everything at once, and most of the time we aren't even sure what we want to say all at once, so overindulgence is actually an opening for you to say something more.

Overindulgent sayings are experiments in discourse, assertions and the like that have yet to be fully tested by the critical audience that is the on-going conversation of humankind, which eventually weed out bad experiments and produce the experience proven, intuitive common sense of a culture. Rhetorical overindulgence is what expands our discourse, it leapfrogs and thereby produces the space with which to have the conversation.

At least, that's what I tell myself to help me get to sleep.