Monday, December 28, 2009

Second Thoughts on Existentialism

Over a decade ago now, I discovered Robert Pirsig. My first encounter was blasé—I read the first 60 pages of ZMM for a high school class on philosophy and religious studies and faked my way through a paper on it. My interest in Pirsig didn’t surface until the next year, as I took Phil 101 and had ZMM assigned on the syllabus. I groaned inwardly, but—in the context of a semester on Plato, Nietzsche, and Kuhn—I found him much more interesting. I became simultaneously interested in philosophical problems and the life-entanglement that ZMM represented. Here’s a guy who went to the mat for these problems. It was very interesting.

I was on my way up to my 101 discussion group one day in an elevator with my TA, when he asked me what philosophy courses I was taking the spring semester. I looked quizzically at him and kind of shook my head saying, “I’m…not taking any…?” He got a funny look on his face: “Oh—I thought you were a philosophy major.” I said no, I was still undeclared. He said I should think about it, and a month later when our professor asked me to assist her in a class that spring, I thought the least I could do was declare (though it took me till mid-spring—I’m very lazy).

I took three philosophy courses that spring, in addition to the aesthetics course I helped out in (a complete farce: what do I know about aesthe—wait, I’m a literary critic in training now…I love aesthetics! Ha!, and boy do I know a lot about beauty, and stuff!) . They were in Greek philosophy, existentialism, and a random cavalcade of 20th century people, including the existentialists. The deal with the 20th century class was that we could pick out any philosopher we wanted, even if we didn’t study them specifically, and write our final on them. I chose Pirsig, and because he wasn’t well known as a philosopher, my professor suggested I compare Pirsig with someone else. Because I was taking so much existentialism, I picked Sartre. This turned into “Phenomenological-Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Quality.” I read Lila for the first time for this paper, and became enamored with Pirsig’s arguments about needing a new metaphysics for our culture. And because I had so much Pirsig on the brain, when it came to writing my existentialism paper, I couldn’t help but refute Camus with the help of my newly learned Pirsig-foundation called the MoQ. This was “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life.”

It never ceases to fascinate me that of all the junk I have lying around the internet, this particular essay sends me the most random readers who feel like writing (all of my reply letters begin “Thanks for reading and writing!”). Having written it a decade ago, though, I have mixed feelings about the arguments. (I have no mixed feelings about the writing—it’s horrid.) At the close, with the help of Pirsig’s theory of static levels, I get to state that Camus’ most pressing of philosophical problems, the question of suicide, of why I should not just off myself, has an easy answer: “It’s simply that Life has Meaning: to live.” Really? Life’s purpose is to be lived? I suggest that this “rather simple ethics” “leaves the door open” for the further development of a teleological ethics, but why on earth should we think that the firm foundation of the ultimate telos of life is “to be lived,” and this because we are cellular beings? At root, life has biological meaning, so now Camus’ full of crap. “Life’s purpose is to be lived” is at best a tautology, and how boring is that? Why on earth would somebody think that that’s an interesting answer to Camus’ problem?

In my estimation, there are two types of 19-year-old philosophy students: 1) people who thought Nietzsche was probably right when he said “God is dead” at 18 and still do and 2) people who thought Nietzsche was right at 18 but now don’t. I was the latter type. Most people who go in for philosophy these days do not make it through their teenage years undisillusioned (saying “illusioned” would be unfair to people for whom it hasn’t even occurred that life might be an illusion—and since Platonism is predicated on the appearance/reality distinction, such an awareness does seem to be intrinsic to philosophy). I, certainly, didn’t make it. However, I also didn’t really care that God was dead. Some people like Camus do. He cared very much, for only somebody that takes Nietzsche far too seriously could take seriously the question, “Why should I not commit suicide?”—let alone as the only truly pressing philosophical question. Passing through Nietzsche makes some people (call them “existentialists”) really pessimistic about humanity, even cynical. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic—I spent much of my time making fun of everything around me and I thought most other people were idiots (it’s hard not to when living in a dorm)—but cynical? It seemed like the perverse twin of the eternal optimism of people who go in for God. I just couldn’t get up the energy for that—it seemed like I’d have to spend just as much energy pissing on God’s grave as I would have had to do propping Him up, and when it comes right down to it, I’m very lazy.

So, what happens to some lazy 18-year-olds who go in for philosophy is that on their way to 19 they discover an easy way out—someone offers them a quick dialectical fix, a cheap but sturdy looking foundation that claims to give more polemical bang for your argumentative buck. (If they don’t find one of these by 20, they either cease to be lazy and declare as political science or sociology majors and try to save the world, or—if still lazy—enter an English department.) That was Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality for me. The trouble is, you still have something you need to prop up, and that’s no fun. It ends up being just as much work as a full-fledged God. Here you are, standing your philosophical ground, and you need something to cover yourself from all those existentialists pissing on you, but you choose a shack with a leaky roof, when at least the God-guy across the street has somebody to talk to for comfort. And so many, by 22, leave philosophical ground and never come back. I mean, shit, you just move a hundred yards south and you can watch all the football you want without ever worrying about the pissing match occurring right up the alley.

True enlightenment happens, though, when you realize that you can avoid the golden shower while still remaining on philosophical terrain. You don’t need a foundation, you just move up hill and let the others piss themselves all they want. Doing this means seeing the need for a house, even a shitty leaky one, as a small problem in a larger landscape. Seeing this, where there’s suddenly a dry hill out back you’d never noticed before, means seeing that not only is the tautology, “Life’s purpose is to be lived,” both true and boring—but it makes you wonder why you thought you should’ve been excited by it. Seeing the larger terrain of life starts to make you wonder about everyone’s motivation for saying and doing certain things, like praying or building houses or pissing on them.

Why did I go in for being a quasi-metaphysician for a time, to want to build some sort of foundation, but not an expensive God-like one? The presupposition in this is: I felt that Camus’ question needed to be answered. I felt that the cynics needed to be answered on their own ground. But once one looks at that dry hill, you have to wonder: why would I want muddy ground that’s been pissed on for 2500 years? I.e., why does Camus feel the need to ask his question? Is every question a good question? Maybe not—maybe we should wonder about Camus.

Once you start wondering about the foundation metaphor, about the need for a knock-down answer to stubbornly stupid questions like “Why should I not kill myself,” you start seeing philosophy as just another mode of articulating yourself. And you notice that you can articulate yourself anywhere, not just at your pissed-on house. So you think about moving up hill. You start to think of philosophy as just another piece of your clothing, that keeps you warm and comfortable, but is mobile and flexible, and if it becomes threadbare, you get something new—because it’s all about having something nice to wear while you wander through the landscape of life. (If anybody’s wondering what expensive, well-worn term of opprobrium to apply to this attitude, if you guessed “aestheticism,” give yourself a serious, stern nod of approval. Sorry, all the gold stars and hot bling are reserved for the people who care about the appearances—you only care about reality, a cold, bleak place which could give a shit if you get it right. So while you shiver in your patched-up hovel, dripping like an R. Kelly wet dream, console yourself—as you watch the carnivalesque, tiki-torch party on the side of the hill—with the thought that all those people are going to hell…or whatever equivalent you’ve dreamed up for them.)

The argument I made in the essay was valid, I think, but it was also—much like my last parenthetical—just silly. Why would one make it? I made it because I thought life needed a big Telos, even if it was a silly one. And, come to think of it, mine was perfect: if Camus is going to ask a stupid question, then I’m going to give a stupid answer. If you demand that the space where the Grand Telos used to be is filled, then in a disillusioned age the only way to fill it is with the inverse of God’s grandeur—tautological insipidness. Some people think that the space does need to be filled. Those who think, for instance, that free will is impossible because Darwin and Newton have proven determinism true, and therefore moral action is in trouble—these people think the hole left by God needs to be filled. They want a Grand Telos.

But why? Why not just have a little telos, or a bunch of little teloses? Why even continue using the Greek? Just say “purpose,” think of all the little things you do and why you do them, and if you like fulfilling these little goals, then keep doing them. If not, then don’t. If you break things into small enough pieces, then odds are that you’ll never answer “no” to all of them and have to start contemplating suicide. Camus’ mistake was to take all the little things as emblems for one big thing, to take riding the subway or going to work as symbols that don’t signify various little purposes, but all signify One Big Purpose. And the only thing he could figure out to fit was Nothing, and hence the absurdity. But if we thought it was a good idea to stop contemplating the big guy named God, maybe the trouble wasn’t God, but the continual contemplation of something big, parenthetical or otherwise.

My attempt to resurrect “teleological arguments” was a short-lived effort to save my leaky roof. In “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life,” I answered for ethics by taking on Kantian deontology. I still think that’s right. Deontology rests on the assumption that the World, or Reason, or Something—Something Big—gives us obligations to be performed. I don’t think that’s true. I think the only reason we have any obligations is because somebody gives them to us, meaning we give them to ourselves, and we can start breaking these obligations off into small pieces and deal with them in terms of the purposes they fulfill—which is to transform “obligation,” and deontology, into a utilitarian ethics of some kind. Not the old teleology, but a pragmatist notion of only being obligated to each other, a notion of solidarity rather than the old, cosmological obligation Kant tried to keep alive (for more on this train of thought, see “Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction”). In a later paper, “Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science,” I tried to give sense to “teleological argument” for science. That failed miserably, as one helpful commentator pointed out ruthlessly, and was the beginning of my suspicions that I should just can the telos talk.

So while I still think Nietzschean anti-Kantianism is right, the whole idea of pressing philosophical ethical questions doesn’t, and that’s because the notion of “philosophy” is typically the “big view.” As my metaphor earlier suggests, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a big view—the problem just seems not knowing when to give it a rest. The big view is necessarily, because of its bigness, abstract—the “high country of the mind,” as Pirsig put it. But some problems are down in the woods, under the canopy, and being up high obscures them. My engagement with Sartre and Husserl brings out somewhat the part of existentialisme français I still think is true. Whatever Husserl’s scientism and Sartre’s decisionism (let alone Camus’ woeisme), the easy slogan we might distill from existentialism is “existence precedes essence.”

The slogan signifies two movements: 1) the movement away from essentialism, the notion that there are set, defined centers to each particular thing that can be discovered rather than fluid, evolving centers created by the thing (any “essence” is created by the way in which we exist) and 2) the movement away from Platonic other-worldliness, away from the Realm of the Forms and back down to the ground-level of life. If there is any utility left in the “Absurdity” paper, it is the slapping around of deontology; if any in the “Phenomenological-Existentialism” paper, it is my playing up of lebenswelt, the “lifeworld” that Husserl wanted us to get back to. (Oh, and Demonstration Stick Man, who finally made an uncredited comeback in “A Spatial Model of Belief Change.” What a mysterious person—is he a man who is a demonstration-stick or a stickman used for demonstrations?) The notion of lifeworld is useful in reminding philosophers, people who occasionally think too big for their own britches, that their reflections are rooted in a world that is not itself the world of reflection. This sounds other-worldly again, but perhaps a comparison with fiction may help—the words of a novel serve to create a world in which we can live through the reading of the words. Philosophy does that, too—the only difference is that if the words of philosophy do not connect up usefully enough with the things we do when not reading philosophy, then we might begin to doubt that it is philosophy we’re reading, but perhaps rather fiction (which is what well-read pragmatists think of large swaths of Plato’s dialogues and what most of my dorm-mates thought of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as much as I tried to persuade them to the contrary).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Two Poems

So, I stop posting for nearly four months because of the demands of grad life, and I come back with two poems? How does that work? you may be asking.

Well, one of my classes was on poetry, and writing on poetry...every week, which for prose people is like tearing the skin off of a cat every week--it's a gruesome, painful, disturbing process that leaves you torn up and lying awake at nights, but it's gotta' be done. And any excuse to do something else you'll do, even if it's writing your own poetry, which for prose people is like pulling out your own eyes--it's a gruesome, painful, disturbing process without much chance of you seeing what you're doing. That is why I have two new poems.

The first is a traditional sestina, written instead of writing about a sestina. A sestina has a specific kind of repetitive involution, in which the last words of each stanza repeat, but they change places in a pattern: lines 123456 of stanza one becomes 615243 of stanza two--and then repeat. (Also, the poem is in pentameter, and the last three lines are the "envoi," which repeats the last three end-words of the last stanza, and includes the other three left out words.) There's a lot of tradition with the damn thing, and some interesting theorizing about the pattern, but instead I wrote my own, the mandate being to turn the form of the verse into a trope of the poetry. So what does the involution of my end-words mean? I wrote the poem to specifically avoid having to answer that kind of question, so I'm not starting now.

The second poem was written under the mandate of turning rhyme into a trope. You don't just rhyme for fun--that's not poetry, but jingoism. The rhyming is supposed to service the poetic meaning somehow. Which if you think about the wrong way, tells you something about the poem I wrote.


Wandering Eye

Trust not broken meets the spoken candor
Gifted the silken words. Dropped the slow tear,
Not unexpected, swift the sign of care.
Baited with long-lashed, purpled hoods, with breath
Hung like violets, no one asked to endure.
Questions remain: is there more in the eye?

I wonder, I start, I ask what this eye
Must do to break the certain soft candor.
Like Sisyphus, what more must I endure?
Talented and introduced, spilling, “Tear
Not and hide away your lingering breath,
Your not understated, lilac quick care.”

Overcrowded incense, thrice lingered care,
Now not unbelief—pry open this eye!
I flinch at the outburst, like violent breath
Hooking snappers. I wonder in candor
If I’m able enough to harden tear-
Drops, and if I cannot, how to endure?

I cannot quit my end. Like awe, endure
Beyond four announcements, symbols of care,
Stuttering I rip this lavender tear!
Breaking underneath this flush orchid eye,
I wilt, I wander, no more heard candor
Can greet the full sense of this draining breath.

I huddle myself, I draw in my breath,
I unask questions I’ve sought to endure.
We should speak, like infants, with mute candor
Of the Herculean effort to care.
Gazing back and asking that hurtful eye,
Is it true to wipe away that one tear?

Empyrean stars, crying their last tear-
Drops; Adamic gods giving their last breath;
All is all, now plumb the depths of the eye:
Sinking down slowly, asking to endure—
I wonder, I start, I thunder, “I care…”
Now these dangled, scar-lent words in candor,

Spoken not unbroken, meant to endure.
Hushed, gentle scarlet breath, quickening care—
Answers silk tear-drops: trust this eye’s candor.


Sign of the Times

This feels a little at odds
Like spittle crossed down your
Face, quickening pace—
So austere you
Appear with
Thirst for
So fine.
Flow on back
Up to the cup
That spilt this clear side-
Ways mouth-tear forever
The sign of true muffled time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Austin Gets Rhemed

*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.


J. L. Austin occupies a curious place in the philosophical canon. On the one hand, he began practicing what came to be known as "ordinary-language philosophy," which a professor of mine said John Searle picked up and beat to death and made ugly. And this is why Rorty can be found saying that, as with Derrida and deconstruction, ordinary-language philosophy isn't a program, but whatever it is that Austin was doing. Yet, on the other hand, as the close of Rorty's wonderful introduction to his anthology, The Linguistic Turn, intimates--Austin did seem to want to be programmatic.

I'd like to focus on a section in Austin's How to Do Things With Words in order to bring out why one shouldn't (like Searle) push Austin for programmatic purposes.

At the start of Lecture 8, Austin reminds us of his distinction between phonetic, phatic, and rhetic acts (95). The phonetic is the "act of uttering certain noises," the phatic "noises of certain types," i.e. linguistic noises, and rhetic is defined as "using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense and reference."

The first thing to notice is that it is difficult to maintain the distinction between phatic and rhetic. Both phatic and rhetic are, roughly, intelligible noises, noises we recognize as linguistic, and therefore functioning in a linguistic manner (which is to say, having sense and reference). Austin quickly allays our fears of collapse by giving a simple example of what he means:
Thus 'He said "The cat is on the mat"', reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that the cat was on the mat' reports a rhetic act. (95)
Oh, that seems simple--take off the quotes, and add "that." The trouble arises again, though, when we we try and think about how intelligible a foreign language is to us:
'He said "gibba gobba gooba"' reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that gibba gobba gooba' reports a rhetic act.
It's gibberish. If we don't already understand prior to hearing certain noises, in a fairly definite way, what the sense and reference are of certain noises--if we don't already recognize it as a language--then all we'll hear are phonemes.

Austin doesn't quite say this, but the set-up seems to suggest that we can distinguish a pheme prior to being able to distinguish a rheme, that we can hear it's a pheme without it necessarily making any rhetic sense. Austin says later, "it is clear that we can perform a phatic act which is not a rhetic act, though not conversely." Can we? "Thus we may repeat someone else's remark or mumble over some sentence, or we may read a Latin sentence without knowing the meaning of the words" (97). So, just knowing that a set of noises is supposed to be linguistic is enough for the noises to be phatic? "If a monkey makes a noise indistinguishable from 'go' it is still not a phatic act" (96). Because the monkey didn't realize he said "go"? What if he did? What if it was a gorilla and the language ASL? What if the gorilla made a gesture, and we just sat there stupidly while the gorilla's thinking, "Hey, idiot, I just told you to get out of my seat"? We didn't recognize it as language, and so no phatic or rhetic act, despite that it was intended as such.

"The pheme is a unit of language: its typical fault is to be nonsense--meaningless. But the rheme is a unit of speech; its typical fault is to be vague or void or obscure, etc." (98) But isn't part of Austin's point (or rather, shouldn't it be) that there is no static "language" outside of the act of it's performance, outside of, e.g., speech? (It is apropos to recall Donald Davidson's remark that "there's no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed."[1])

I bring this up is because of what these set of three--phonetic, phatic, rhetic--have in relationship to the more famous and important set of three--locution, illocution, perlocution.

Locution : "Look out!"
Illocution : warning
Perloction : he was warned

The locutionary act are the words being emitted, the illocutionary act is the intended effect of the words, and the perlocutionary act is the actual effect of the illocutionary act. These seem on the surface much more likely not to collapse, I will agree. What seems to be the case in the way Austin uses the first set and the second set is that he intends a locution to be a full phonetic-phatic-rhetic combo act--a fully intelligible linguistic act. From there, and this is what prompts his distinctions, we still get fuzziness in isolating meaning (which was the quest of his predecessors, something like the linguistic version of Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas"), and so he distinguishes the linguistic noise from the noises intended effect, let alone what it causes in a hearer.

Or is that right? What if the locution is simply a phonetic-phatic act, linguistic, but bereft of "more-or-less determined sense and reference," which is the rhetic? This would make sense, for to determine the sense and reference of "Look out!" we would determine that it was a warning. This would make the illocutionary effect a rhetic act, which brings us back to some trouble.

Some literary critics have turned the notion of "speech acts," and specifically the illocutionary act, towards practical duties in reading. For instance, in reading poetry (and this could really go for any piece of language) one might distinguish between the speech act of a line from its tone. To take an example:
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
These are the first six lines of William Carlos Williams' "The Widow's Lament in Springtime." When treating a selection, the first thing you'd need to do is parcel out speech acts. A period followed by a capital letter, particularly in a poem, need not be the typographic cue for a new speech act (notice, too, the fluid nature of demarcation in speech, and follow that through in written language). The speech act of a poem would be the intended effect of the poetic speaker in "uttering" the particular words and phrases. In this case, we have a widow: "sorrow is my own yard." Noticing the elevated diction created by the odd syntax (let alone the metaphor), we might say that the widow in the first line is insisting to herself the state of her mind--speech act: to insist. We might hold from calling the tone of this speech act, however, insistent. The diction makes it dignified.

I do not doubt the efficacy in using Austin to help climb into a poem--but what I wonder is how the collapse of the phatic/rhetic, locution/illocution might effect the further plunge into a poem. For instance, wouldn't tone be part of an illocutionary act? To take "look out," wouldn't the tone in which I said it create, to a large extent, the intended effect of a warning? And if tone is part of the illocutionary act, the rhetic act, then are we really talking about the same speech act--the same poem--if we get the tone wrong? In other words, if we get the tone wrong, might we be getting the speech act wrong, and if the speech act, then the poem? Might this be why we can still talk about better and worse readings of a poem?

There are a lot of interesting theoretical conundrums lying around this area, and though the distinction between tone and speech act might seem a little artificial, it can be quite useful. The above considerations are probably more like an explanation of why any one of us may have trouble climbing into poems--poems are what they are because of their active attempt to flout their very composition as language, i.e. as having definite sense and reference. It might be important to remember Davidson on metaphors here. Davidson said that metaphors aren't the kind of things that have two meanings, one literal and another metaphorical, but are rather simply noises. Until you beat these surprising noises or marks on a page that have no initial meaning down (by giving them sense from repeated use), they are just unintelligible noises or marks. But when you do, you eventually get dead metaphors we don't even bat an eyelash (i.e. don't even recognize as metaphors, but just as having one literal sense)--like rivers having mouths or mountains feet.


[1] From "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," collected in Truth, Language, and History, 107.