Archive for the The French Category

Notes on Structuralism

Posted in structuralism, The French with tags , on February 13, 2010 by traxus4420

An underread (or maybe just underassimilated) genre of intellectual history is the critical history of structuralism, fixing on the linguistic theories of Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson and their reception by the greater Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s via Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth. The ‘debunking’ thesis of Thomas Pavel’s The Feud of Language (given the sexier and less threatening title The Spell of Language in a later edition) is that the dramatic intellectual moment of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, et al. — the moment going under the name Theory in North America — is based on illegitimate extrapolations from linguistic models that had already been discredited within their home discipline. Some variant of this critique is probably common knowledge among enthusiasts of the staggering variety of work faithful to the structuralist moment. But it’s unclear what practical consequences critiques like Pavel’s, both foundationalist and methodological, should have on writing that follows a structuralist lineage. Pavel himself preemptively warns against carrying the arguments of his book too far:

“To attempt to exorcise the philosophical singularity of a Derrida or of a Foucault with the help of references to structural linguistics, to Heidegger, or to Nietzsche, or to say that Greimas derived his notions from Hjelmslev, or Levi-Strauss from Jakobson amounts to no more than acknowledging a debt. The most singular part of the enterprise undoubtedly lies in the nature of the decisions taken.”

Rather than a ‘philosophical’ formal critique of the contemporary, he is interested in telling the story of why and how such a towering philosophical edifice was constructed on such shaky grounds, entirely ignoring mainstream (Anglo-American, Austrian, German, and even much French) philosophy of science in the process. I happen to think that a critique of that kind is both possible and called for (I’ll be embarking on Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World in a few days in the hopes of finding it), but will content myself here with mentioning a few of Pavel’s more serious claims.

A big focus is on precisely what problems Saussure’s most influential theses – the arbitrariness of the sign and the subsequent bracketing of the linguistic/semiotic system from its ‘natural’ (causal/functional) context – were intended to solve. Saussure asserted the autonomy of linguistics as a discipline in response to failed attempts to reduce it to evolution, geography, history, or physics. Methodological autonomy of the kind usually invoked was originally based in phonological analysis. Pavel criticizes Levi-Strauss’s generalization of this phonological theory to analysis of morphemes, and his reduction of loosely defined cultural objects like Oedipus to morphemes. In contrast, Chomskian generative grammar (which he is mildly critical of but basically accepts) includes a set of constraints to limit arbitrariness that Levi-Strauss ignored. This allowed him and his followers a “hermeneutical freedom” that makes it impossible to retrace emic (abstract, ‘synchronic’) conclusions – like the symbolic structure of the Oedipus myth – back to their etic (‘diachronic’) constituents – the parts of the different narratives. In this way, Pavel argues, Levi-Strauss repeats precritical, premodern forms of exegesis (scholasticism, cabalism, astrology, etc.). Interestingly, Pavel defines ‘modern’ here as the break initiated by Spinoza’s critique of Biblical hermeneutics in the Tractatus. But this vagueness is what made ‘structuralism’ so attractive to so many different fields, and also what makes it impossible to reduce the later uses of the theory to their common ancestor.

He goes on to point out that further linguistic research has only found differential phonological networks in extremely limited phonetic systems, such as in languages with only thirty or so sounds. And at the semantic level, the differential thesis crumbles: “there is no need for an economy of means in vocabulary, since words can be invented or forgotten on a daily basis,” no verbal structure indeed capable of placing a priori limits on semantic meaning.

Pavel groups the development of structuralist influence on literature and philosophy into a sequence of three partially overlapping moments: “moderate” or “heuristic structuralism,” including literary critics like Todorov and Genette more interested in literary objects than methodological issues (he identifies Jameson as a later member of this group); “scientistic structuralism,” or Levi-Strauss, the early Barthes, and Greimas, who sought complete structuralist models for their respective fields (and I wonder to what extent Franco Moretti should be included here); and finally the “speculative structuralism” of Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, late Barthes, who took eccentric or simply loose interpretations of structuralist linguistics well after the discipline had moved on and extrapolated them into reformulations of metaphysical categories.

Pavel identifies their common factor — and common error — similarly to the ‘speculative realist’ critique (I keep the scare quotes because half the group seems not to want the label anymore): that they took language to be the transcendental condition of knowledge. But we can see in retrospect that when we shift to a new transcendental field we inherit all the determinations of the prior discredited one. Positivisitc analytic philosophy encountered the same problem, but the choice of Saussurian linguistics over formal logic has different consequences. Pavel argues that Derrida (for example) has to assume a preexisting harmony between his theory of temporality and objectivity (deferral and writing), and the immanent, arbitrary algebra-governed language posited by Saussure and Hjelmslev. In his attempt to use linguistics to solve a phenomenological problem (the Heideggerian one of the difference between being as presence and being as existence), Derrida has to treat Saussurian/Hjelmslevian linguistics as if their object is metaphysical instead of material — objectivity itself, and not just empirical linguistic phenomena. It’s a translation that tends to be asserted and not argued.

Pavel classifies this key maneuver under linguist C.E. Bazell’s ‘correspondence fallacy’: “the structuralist belief that applying two or more sets of criteria to the same phenomena of language would [necessarily and independently] make the results of the analyses isomorphic, indeed, identical.” One could generalize this: the fallacy of assuming that a given object fundamentally conforms to its initial form of appearance, such that the application of any two or more forms of analysis will produce isomorphic results. This fallacy grounds the transcendental move, whereby we assume both that analysis of the given must start with the way it first appears and that it is not adequately justified ‘in itself,’ concluding that the proper method of critique is to derive the real (transcendental) conditions of its appearance.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll end by emphasizing a few things today’s speculative realists seem to have in common with their speculative structuralist predecessors. The structuralists too were driven by a modernizing impulse, to close a perceived methodological gap between humanist scholarship and natural science. Their anti-humanism was more central to their approach than anti-realism, which they took to require, for reasons that had nothing to do with the provisional autonomy of structuralist linguistics, minimizing or at least ‘bracketing’ intentionality, meaning, and reference (whether physical or functional) from the pure objects of their analysis: signs. Though different in most other respects, the stated justifications for why the speculative realists do, and the form, broadly speaking, of what they’re doing, what moves they want to make within philosophical and cultural (and institutional) discourse, seem unchanged from those of their immediate adversaries. Which is why I suspect the real target here is not the ‘linguistic turn’ per se, but — again same as with the structuralists —historical materialism.

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The Psychology of Intellectuals

Posted in Cultural Theory, Literary Criticism, Philosophy, The French, Utopia with tags , , on June 10, 2009 by traxus4420

“There is in the course of the Revolution a period of collective incubation during which the first transgressions the masses commit can make one think that the people have become open to all kinds of adventures. This period of psychic regression, which turns out to be quite temporary, plunges libertine minds into a sort of euphoria: there is some chance that the most daring elaborations of individual thought will be put into practice. It now appears to them that what has ripened in their minds because of the degree of decomposition they have individually reached they will be able to sow on fertile ground. They cannot recognize that they are instead as it were the already rotten fruit that is detaching itself from the tree of society; they will fall because they are an end, not a beginning, the end of a long evolution. They forget that the ground receives only the seed, that is, only that part of the universal lesson that their example can hold for posterity. Their dream of giving birth to a humanity like themselves is in contradiction with the very basis of their ripeness, or their lucidity. It is only in the course of crises such as those they have passed through that other individuals, like themselves waste products of the collective process, will be able to reach the same degree of lucidity and thenceforth establish a genuine filiation with them.

As now brutal and unforeseeable decisions of the masses intervene, as the hypostases of new factions are embodied and become laws while the moral and religious authorities of the old hierarchy are emptied of their content, these problematic men suddenly find themselves out of their element and disoriented. In fact they were closely bound up with the sacred values they spat upon. Their libertinage had meaning only at the level they occupied in the fallen society. Now that the throne has been overturned, the severed head of the king is trampled in the dust, the churches are sacked and sacrilege has become an everyday occupation of the masses, these immoralists come to look like eccentrics. They appear as they really were: symptoms of dissolution who have paradoxically survived the dissolution and who cannot integrate themselves into the process of recomposition which the hypostases of a sovereign people, a general will, etc., are bringing about in men’s minds. It would be enough that these men go before the people and before them construct a system out of the fundamental necessity of sacrilege, massacre, and rape, for the masses, who have just committed these offenses, to turn against these philosophers and tear them to pieces with as much satisfaction.

It seems at first sight that here is an insoluble problem: the man of privilege who has reached the supreme degree of consciousness because of a social upheaval is totally unable to make social forces benefit from his lucidity. He is incapable of making the individuals of the mass, which is amorphous but rich in possibilities, identical with himself even for a moment. He seems to occupy his morally advanced position to the detriment of the revolutionary mass. From the point of view of its own preservation, the mass is right, for each time the human mind takes on the incisive aspect of a physiognomy such as Sade’s, it runs the risk of precipitating the end of the whole human condition. Yet the mass is wrong, since it is composed only of individuals, and the individual represents the species intrinsically; and there is no reason why the species should escape the risks involved for it in the success of an individual.”

— Pierre Klossowski, “Sade and the Revolution”

I like to consider the too-typical metaphysics of the last two sentences (and most of the rest of the essay) the cost of admitting the other three paragraphs.

But on to exhibit B:

“Lastly, since leaving Paris, he had withdrawn further and further from reality adn above all from the society of his day, which he regarded with ever-growing horror; this hatred he felt had inevitably affected his literary and artistic tastes, so that he shunned as far as possible pictures and books whose subjects were confined to modern life.

The result was that, losing the faculty of admiring beauty in whatever guise it appeared, he now preferred, among Flaubert’s works, La Tentation de Saint Antoine to L’Éducation sentimentale; among Goncourt’s works, La Faustin to Germinie Lacerteux; among Zola’s works, La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret to L’Assommoir.

This seemed to him a logical point of view; these books, not as topical of course but just as stirring and human as the others, let him penetrate further and deeper into the personalities of their authors, who revealed with greater frankness their most mysterious impulses, while they lifted him, too, higher than the rest, out of the trivial existence of which he was so heartily sick.

The fact is that when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, perhaps unknown to himself, by a nostalgic yearning for another age.

Unable to attune himself, except at rare intervals, to his environment, and no longer finding in the examination of that environment and the creatures who endure it sufficient pleasures of observation and analysis to divert him, he is aware of the birth and development in himself of unusual phenomena. Vague migratory longings spring up which find fulfillment in reflection and study. Instincts, sensations, inclinations bequeathed to him by heredity awake, take shape, and assert themselves with imperious authority. He recalls memories of people and things he has never known personally, and there comes a time when he bursts out of the prison of his century and roams about at liberty in another period, with which, as a crowning illusion, he imagines he would have been more in accord.”

— J. K. Huysmans, À rebours

Against the system

Posted in Activism, Capitalism, The French with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2009 by traxus4420

Bruno Latour, a social theorist normally associated with ‘science studies’ (the field for which the Sokal hoax was a reaction) in the U.S., has always managed to catch me flat-footed. It’s embarrassing, really. I shall try to account for my confusion. The first thing one encounters is the style — such a turnoff — what I imagined of a French business writer, chipper, optimistic, and relentlessly punny, like a domesticated Voltaire. But having experienced much worse, I stomached it, and grew to like his work a lot at first. He was the first person I read who looked at science as a social process, and in a way distinct from the more dominant Foucault and/or Bachelard-derived epistemic analyses that were thick on how science worked outside of the laboratory but thin on what went on inside it. And it seemed more grounded in practice than the little from the Anglo-American tradition I’d read — Kuhn, Feyerabend, Bohr. For all these reasons, I think Latour’s best book is still The Pasteurization of France. Philosophically, however, and this is best displayed in that same book (see the long closing section, “Irreductions,” a sort of Spinoza pastiche), his stuff always struck me as a diluted melange of Deleuze and Guattari and Michel Serres, suffering from the same shortcomings while also being much less fun to read.

Basically, everything is an ‘actor’ defined by its relations to a network of actors. Nothing can be ‘reduced’ to or defined in terms of anything else; there is no transcendent level of definition (no ‘ground’ or foundation) to which we can straightforwardly refer phenomena. To understand anything — the discovery of bacteria for example —  we have to follow the process of its construction as an apparently autonomous truth, and reconnect it to the (social) networks that sustain it. All very nice-sounding until one realizes that his definition of power (how does one construction beat out others; how is one explanation more convincing than others) amounts to an abstraction from Francis Bacon: technologies that increase the stability, mobility, and aggregation of knowledge(s) produce what is called power. At the microlevel, however (how there could be such a thing for Latour is another unresolved thread for me), every transaction is ‘symmetrical’; in a vision straight out of the 18th century, immoral, unjust power is always the effect of unthinking blindness or miscommunication, bizarre exceptions to the ideal rule of universal equality for all abstract units.

For a while I thought he was just a harmless social democrat and that I could take his studies of science and ignore the rest as whimsy.

Once I started reading his large-scale analyses of society and the history of European science, my misgivings became both harder to ignore and harder to resolve. The deconstruction of modernity in We Have Never Been Modern was refreshing in a number of ways, not least of which was that unlike Derrida he didn’t feel the need to keep the ‘absence’ of the Grand European Narrative around as a prop or idée fixe. You could just do without it. Then you get to the end of the book and find out he hasn’t actually gotten rid of it, only repressed it (just as Derrida said he would), and we’re left with what sounds like a lot of blather about the forward march of liberalism and the excision of dissent politely veiled by lack of explicit reference.

For those like me who crudely wonder what Latour’s ontology has to do with his politics, this recent piece clears up a lot. His enemy here is Capitalism — not the social relations properly so called, but the Grand Theory Of. Or should we say its hauntological specter, recently transmuted into a zombie horde? How do we (nonviolently) exorcise the demon?:

Thus, the question remains: how is one to take charge of the externalities incessantly produced by the formatting machines of the social sciences?  The answer, here as elsewhere, consists in shifting one’s position, in entering the logic of the formatting regime of the gift that aims at making proliferate the associations, at producing entanglement.  As countless examples from anthropological economy show, the formatting regimes of the gift do not distinguish between what enters the finite exchange and what is indefinite and incommensurable with the exchange, but rather, trace the mobilization of people and things so that there is no end to it, so that the parties never call it quits.  By emphasizing the ties, by insisting on the existence of relations, by producing a memory of associations that is always ready to pop up at the moment of the transaction, the tracing operations of anthropological economy make both the past and that which is distant present.  Following the lead of anthropological economy, both the hard sciences and technology might be mobilized to produce traces and to emphasize ties but without necessarily allowing the calculation, the adding up of relations and exchanges.  Thus the hard sciences and technology make possible, at the same time, both the coexistence of and the disjunction between the regime of the gift and the regime of capital.  All of these mechanisms, by establishing the exteriority of both regimes and by organizing and making compatible the different formatting investments, become the practical answer to the theoretical question at the beginning of this paragraph.  Both the adding up and the proliferation of the associations are at play.  But the adding up operations are not seen as a mutilating reduction of reality, just as the overflow is not the remainder of the lost paradise.  While the adding up operations allow calculating and effective action, the entanglement makes the social body present.

So the rift between capitalists and those denied capitalism’s meager forms of security can be healed by NGOs and shareware? Tell me more!

The eventual coordination of the formatting operations leads to a better appreciation of both regimes.  The virtue of the market is, precisely, that which makes it criticizable in the eyes of the anti-utilitarians: that is, allowing for calculations to take place, facilitating the expression of particular, divergent interests, and multiplying transactions that allow the parties to call it quits.  In this context, the market is like a highly efficient machine that multiplies use values and that makes decentralized plans and the mobilization of resources compatible.  In  contrast, the virtue of the gift is to net social ties by manufacturing attachments, by reinvigorating and extending the associations.  If both formatting regimes are taken together, the question of the social is resolved.  The market exchange individualizes, internalizes, manufactures, and separates calculating, interested agencies which, once the transaction is completed, call it quits; the gift, in contrast, makes the associations proliferate, unerringly linking together a series of existences.  Both hot and cold elements are necessary to the social machinery, and it is the task of politics to adjust this delicate Carnot Cycle.  And here, politics should not be mistaken for the authorities or the government, given that the State is as superficial and as formatted as the market itself.

Such a hypothesis allows us to move away from the calamitous opposition between “the market” and “the State.”  Politics is not a sphere that should be added to the economic sphere—or that, on the contrary, should be wiped away so that the “market forces” are “liberated.”  Politics pop up wherever an agent takes the floor to make the associations proliferate: “We all exist and your existence mingles with ours.  Don’t try to escape, too many ties link us.”  The recent truck driver’s strikewas a case in point: there are thousand ways to make ourselves present outside of the exchange of equivalents, to interrupt the production of internalities so that entanglement is increased, and to avoid that the parties call it quits.  The angry truck drivers were not asking for compensation, they were weaving under our noses the social web in which we are caught with them, thereby demanding that the fragile and provisional balance between the commercial formatting regime and the formatting regime of disinterestedness be reconsidered.

In a similar vein, when Bernard Barataud, the president of the AFM [French Society Against Myopathies], arbitrates between the public agencies, the financial resources coming from collective fund-raising events, and the private investments of the industry in order to decide the allocation of resources to either basic research or the purchase and development of prostheses for the sick, he engages in a most fundamental political task; namely, that of reaching a balance between, and establishing the complementarities of, the different formatting regimes.  This task, in its turn, presupposes endless research about the benefactor’s motivations, their preferences, and their take on the role of public generosity—whether and why it can and must take the place of the State or the investments of powerful industrial companies.

While no social science can take charge of the externalities without participating, sooner or later, in their inscription and internalization, political life can.  What is at stake is not the paralysis of politics by the economic sphere, but rather, a superficial formatting of the interactions that discards an indefinite mass of associations as externalities.  As such, these externalities constitute, so to speak, an always available, ready to be mobilized reserve army capable of complicating—or rather, of implicating—the economy at any moment.  Mobilized by politics, the externalities do not come back in the guise of competing interests but rather as strangers that want to become close, as unexpected consequences that demand to be expected, accepted, and included.  In this context, the modest contribution of the social sciences to the formatting of disinterestedness might be to allow certain actors—by multiplying the traces and indexes that are not susceptible to capitalization—to make incalculable the consequences of a capitalism that is constantly expanding its centers of calculation.  But with the condition, of course, that they get rid of their accountant-like morality—that is, their obsessive calculation of the forces at stake doubled by their moral indignation against all forms of calculation.

It’s hard to seriously respond to this. Apparently capitalism doesn’t have a specific set of determinant organizing principles at all, much less objectionable ones; it’s just a bunch of useful techniques, inappropriately used. Because these (self-appointed) ‘anticapitalists’ are too busy complaining to participate! Why do they keep pretending to be economists? Who are these jokers kidding? Don’t they realize that documenting and measuring exploitation just makes it worse? Anyway, we know they hate math. Each to his proper sphere, etc.

What’s actually interesting here is that the meat of Latour’s argument relies on a curiously abstract version of what roger has been calling “the myth of the myth of the noble savage,” combined with the myth, popular in some circles, of the ignorant capitalist:

The fact that the dis/interestedness of the savage has been a seemingly unending question is best understood if one bears in mind Hutchins’ insight, which is applicable to all forms of calculation and goes as follows: from the collective performance of a gift it is impossible to infer individual competence of the agent.  Just as an agent, without being a calculator herself, is traversed by calculation in capitalist formatting regimes, the same agent, without being herself a donor or a recipient, traversed by the gift in pre-capitalist or anti-capitalist formatting regimes.  The fact of the matter is that one cannot infer from these different performances radically different competencies; both sociology of science and cognitive anthropology prevent us from making such a move.

Insofar as this insight symmetrically applies to primitive “savages” and present-day “capitalists,” it allows us to redefine them both.  Indeed, the same amount of formatting labor is necessary to define a collective act of donation and to de-fine—that is, to terminate—a collective act of exchange.  Such is the central hypothesis of our chapter.  Once the psychology that fills the capitalist world with selfish calculators and the pre-capitalist world with unselfish donors is abandoned, it finally becomes possible to sort out with some precision the true differences between both formatting regimes.  At this point, it may noted that both regimes share a common categorical imperative, which can be summarized by the interdiction “you should not calculate!”; the difference, then, has to do with whatever should not be taken into account by each regime.

This is pretty amazing. Since capitalism for Latour is essentially a bunch of neutral technologies, the rationale imputed to anticapitalists is a misguided belief in the immense skill of individual technicians. So not only is the myth capitalists tell about themselves accepted — that they’re really sort of like scientists, working in small teams and competing to solve social problems — their opposition is criticized for believing it too much. Or as he says a bit earlier, “just because calculations are done in the quasi-laboratories of the economic agencies—the notion of the agent gives too much credit to the individual—one should not inductively conclude that calculating beings actually exist, no matter how much information they have.” That of course they individually do not have magical competence is rather sneakily used to assume an even more absurd level of ignorance on the part of their class as a whole, not only of the distant consequences of their actions (which is defensible), but any reason whatsoever for their behavior (which is not).

(It’s also worth noting that the cognitive scientist whose conclusions he appropriates studies small groups with more or less common interests such as tribes and research teams, not complex large-scale societies made up of structurally antagonistic groups — i.e. classes.)

We can even follow Latour’s advice and look at a case study. Exhibit A: his public stance against protesters and critics of Sarkozy’s neoliberal university reform plan. It begins with the same faulty insistence on symmetry as the starting point of analysis (an a priori if there ever were any) to argue that Sarkozy’s autonomy is the same as Negri’s autonomy. As if the issue were as simple as the university’s liberation from the state, as if the ‘deterritorialzing’ law of the market were merely optional for an institution of its size and makeup, as if Sarkozy’s plan were not engineered to ensure its complete capture. Check the rebuttal here.

But I know you’re all secretly craving moral education, so let’s end with a nice little piece of folk wisdom, as if this were a fable: when considering the relationship between theory and practice, it is probably best not to begin from the point of view of their separation.

Structuralism and its Illegitimate Offspring

Posted in Linguistics, Marxism, structuralism, The French on March 18, 2008 by traxus4420

“In the discussion of the mind-body problem, or of materialism, it is generally assumed that we understand what is meant by ‘body.’ That is, we come to the problem with a basic understanding of the material world and its principles, and we ask whether the principles and entities postulated in some domain – in this case, the domain of mental representations and processes — can be ‘reduced’ to a material basis, presumed to be understood, or whether the richest concept of ‘matter’ will not accomodate this domain. But a little thought about the history of science suffices to show that the initial assumption is highly questionable. Surely our ideas about the material world have changed radically in the past several centuries. To the Cartesians, action-at-a-distance was incomprehensible, and it seems that Newton too considered it an ‘occult quality.’ The success of Newtonian physics led to the incorporation of this mysterious property of matter within the common sense of the next generation. As physics extended its scope to incorporate electromagnetic forces, massless particles, and other novel ideas, it was the basic concept of ‘body’ that changed. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental history of science has come to an end. Thus it is certainly imaginable that our present concept of ‘body’ — our basic picture of the ‘material world’ — will be shown to be fundamentally inadequate, as has so often been the case in the past. If so, then the question of ‘reducing’ the theory of mind to a materialistic basis cannot be posed in any clear terms.

Roughly speaking, it seems reasonable to say that our concept of ‘matter’ will be extended to include any domain that can be shown to be in some sense ‘continuous’ with physics. If this new domain requires new physical assumptions that can be integrated with the rest of natural science, then our concept of the material world will have changed, and the new domain will have become part of physics in an expanded sense of ‘physics.’ The question whether linguistics ‘qualifies as materialist’ then can be rephrased. A positive answer might arise in one of two ways: (1) by showing that the theory of language can be ‘reduced’ to physics as now understood, as many biologists now believe that problems of life have in effect been ‘reduced’ to biochemistry, ultimately physics; or (2) by showing that physics can be extended, if need be to include the principle of this new domain, as it has been extended in the past to include many phenomena and principles that were entirely beyond the scope of the ‘material world’ as previously conceived

….

Consider what is sometimes called ‘the creative aspect of language use,’ that is, our ability to use language freely to express our thoughts, independently of the control of identifiable stimuli. It is this ability to which Descartes appealed as a kind of criterion for the existence of ‘other minds.’ Honesty requires us to concede that we have no insight into any possible physical basis for this normal human ability. Whether this remarkable and apparently unique human ability can be reduced to physics as now understood, or whether physics can be extended in some natural way to accommodate it, remains an entirely open question, a perplexing mystery.”

Noam Chomsky, Materialism in linguistics and the morality criterion (28 March 1977).

“It is likely that the evolution of human cortical structure was influenced by the acquisition of a linguistic capacity so that articulated language not only has permitted the evolution of culture, but has contributed in a decisive fashion to the physical ‘evolution of man’; and there is no paradox in supposing that the linguistic capacity which reveals itself in the course of the epigenetic development of the brain is now part of human nature itself intimately associated with other aspects of cognitive functions which may in fact have evolved in a specific way by virtue of the early use of articulated language.”

— Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (1971)

“The aim of all structuralist activity, in the fields of both thought and poetry, is to reconstitute an object, and, by this process, to make known the rules of functioning, or ‘functions,’ of this object. The structure is therefore effectively a simulacrum of the object, but it is a simulation that is both purposeful and relevant, since the object derived by this process brings out something that remained invisible, or, if you like, unintelligble in the natural object…The simulacrum is intellect added to the object.”

— Roland Barthes

“Volosinov’s decisive contribution was to find a way beyond the powerful but partial theories of expression and objective system. He found it in fundamentally Marxist terms, though he had to begin by saying that Marxist thinking about language was virtually non-existent. His originality lay in the fact that he did not seek to apply other Marxist ideas to language. On the contrary he reconsidered the whole problem of language within a general Marxist orientation. This enabled him to see ‘activity’ (the strength of the idealist emphasis after Humboldt) as social activity and to see ‘system’ (The strength of the new after Humboldt) in relation to this social activity and not, as had hitherto been the case, formally separated from it. Thus in drawing on the strengths of the alternative traditions, and in setting them side by side showing their connected radical weaknesses, he opened the way to a new kind of theory which had been necessary for more than a century.

Much of his effort went to recovering the full emphasis on language as activity, as practical consciousness, which had been weakened and in effect denied by its specialization to a closed ‘individual consciousness’ or ‘inner psyche.’ The strength of this tradition was still in its insistence on the active creation of meanings, as distinct from the alternative assumption of a closed formal system. Volosniov argued that meaning was necessarily a social action, dependent on a social relationship. But to understand this depended on recovering a full sense of ‘social,’ as distinct both from the idealist reduction of the social to an inherited, ready-made product, an ‘inert crust,’ beyond which all creativity was individual, and from the objectivist projection of the social into a formal system, now autonomous and governed only by its internal laws, within which, and solely according to which, meanings were produced. Each sense, at root, depends on the same error: of separating the social from individual meaningful activity (though the rival positions then valued the separated elements differently). Against the psychologism of the idealist emphasis, Volosinov argued that ‘consciousness takes shape and being in the material of signs created by an organized group in the process of its social intercourse. The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws.'”

Raymond Williams, “Language as Sociality” (1977)

“There is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation. Yet relatively few linguists have analyzed the necessarily social character of enunciation. The problem is that it is not enough to establish that enunciation has this social character, since it could be extrinsic; therefore too much or too little is said about it. The social character of enunciation is intrinsically founded only if one succeeds in demonstrating how enunciation in itself implies collective assemblages. It then becomes clear that the statement is individuated, and enunciation subjectified, only to the extent that an impersonal collective assemblage requires it and determines it to be so. It is for this reason that indirect discourse, especially ‘free’ indirect discourse, is of exemplary value: there are no clear, distinctive contours; what comes first is not an insertion of variously individuated statements, or an interlocking of different subjects of enunciation, but a collective assemblage resulting in the determination of relative subjectification proceedings, or assignations of individuality and their shifting distributions within discourse. Indirect discourse is not explained by the distinction between subjects; rather, it is the assemblage, as it freely appears in this discourse, that explains all the voices present within a single voice, the glimmer of girls in a monologue by Charlus, the languages in a language, the order-words in a word. The American murderer ‘Son of Sam’ killed on the prompting of an ancestral voice, itself transmitted through the voice of a dog. The notion of collective assemblage of enunciation takes on primary importance since it is what must account for the social character. We can no doubt define the collective assemblage as the rdundant complex of the act and the statement that necessarily accomplishes it. But this is still only a nominal definition; it does not even enable us to justify our previous position that redundancy is irreducible to a simple identity (or that there is no simple identity between the statement and the act). If we wish to move to a real definition of the collective assemblage, we must ask of what consist these acts immanent to language that are in redundancy with statements or constitute order-words.”

— Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

“From the user’s point of view, constraints can be more or less difficult, more or less manageable. Obviously a complex relation exists between the requirements of an outwardly imposed rule and the artist’s inner freedom. (This is why the choice of mathematics, arguably in fundamental opposition to poetry, is anything but haphazard: seen from inside literature, nothing looks more artificial than mathematics). There is a true challenge here; which is why the ‘Oulipian Way,’ like negative theology elsewhere, is not to be universally recommended to those in search of literary salvation. It is here that potentiality encounters limitations. (A debate within the Oulipio, dating from early on, bears witness to this: for a proposed constraint to be deemed Oulipian, must there exist at least one text composed according to this constraint? Most Oulipians answer yes. But President Le Lionnais, ever the radical, tended to brush this requirement away. Furthermore, there is a whole Oulipian ‘tradition’ devoted to the search for combinatorially exciting constraints for which possible texts are extremely few in number.)”

— Jacques Roubaud, “The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art” (1991)

We braid the weird

Weavings of rhyme

Whose ensigns furl

To fit a rule

No more than word.

— Jacques Jouet

Science, Philosophy, and University: Fragments of A Historical Approach That Doesn’t Actually Go Back That Far, Nor Range Widely

Posted in Education, History, Philosophy, Science, The French on February 27, 2008 by traxus4420

“In 1888, Josiah P. Cooke, the Harvard chemist, asserted that a large majority of American scientists remained ‘wholly wedded’ to a particular ‘system’ of ideas in a dogmatic sense. Far fewer saw themselves as standing outside all structures of established theory. For many researchers the inductive method still led quickly to the notion of fixed universal law. Amos E. Dolbear, a positivistic physicist, insisted that although the ‘fundamental principles of philosophy’ had been broken up ‘pretty vigorously’ during the preceding century, ‘it is to be noted…that on the scientific side things have from the beginning all been going one way, that is to say every new, broad generalization so far has simply covered the previous ones and has not superseded them.’Indeed, few academic researchers of this period expected that the knowledge they discovered would ever be overturned. Veblen once admitted that he carried in his head a general outline of human knowledge and that he placed each new fact, as it arrived, into this comfortable scheme. ‘Knowledge is increasing with every generation, and the youth of mankind is passing into maturity,’ declared John M. Coulter confidently in 1894. The metaphors used to describe scientific knowledge significantly reveal its assumed permanence. Knowledge was an island whose territory was continually being advanced into the ocean of the unknown; knowledge was a temple, built of monographic bricks (not easily corroded by time or weather). Or, said Coulter, a bit more flexibly, knowledge was a great river. To be sure, it sometimes changed its course and left villages high and dry. But the metaphor presumed a basically stable source. A river obeyed the law of gravity, and it never turned into a mirage. Such images of knowledge sanctified the researcher as one of the lasting contributors to civilization. The quest on every side was for definitive studies — studies that would never have to be done over again….For the intense seeker after new knowledge, research soon came to possess many of the emotional characteristics of a religion…A physicist spoke of the ‘exaltation of feeling which comes from the possession of a fact, which, now, for the first time, he makes known to men.’ Like educational missionaries, a few professors began urging that research begin with the kindergarten and permeate the primary school. But the most revealing experiences of the young researcher were those of private initiation; sometimes these bordered on conversion. A student of psychology, inspired by one of [Stanley G.] Hall’s lectures in the mid-nineties, immediately afterward covered a large carde with the written motto ‘INVESTIGATION,’ and hung it over his desk. According to an anecdote of the early Johns Hopkins — possibly apocryphal — one student arrived in such a state of anticipatory ecstasy that he maintained a night-long vigil in the laboratory where he expected to do his work.”…”The lives of such investigators might seem colorless to outsiders, but they reflected an utter dedication. Many of these men wrote little or nothing about the purpose of higher education or even about the ‘larger’ significance of their own disciplines. And so they tended to be forgotten by all but a few later specialists. For this reason, such men — the representatives of the ideal of pure science — have sometimes been unduly minimized in assessing American academic life of the late nineteenth century.”

— Laurence R. Veysey – The Emergence of the American University (1965)

“While the old line between the sciences and the humanities may be invisible as the equator, it has an existence as real. On the one side are cognitions which may be submitted to demonstrative proof: which do not depend on opinion, preference, or authority; which are true everywhere and all the time; while on the other side are cognitions which depend on our spiritual natures, our aesthetic preferences, our intellectual traditions, our religious faith. Earth and man, nature and the supernatural, letters and science, the humanities and the realities, are the current terms of contrast between the two groups and there are no signs that these distinctions will ever vanish.”

— Daniel Coit Gilman, The Launching of a University (1903)

“The academic philosophers of the period, who became allies of the men of letters, were distinctive enough to require separate comment. The educational opinions of the philosophical idealists coincided with those of the literary advocates of culture so often as to suggest an intrinsic connection. ‘Literature and philosophy cover the same ground,’ said a Yale philosopher, ‘the former in its more immediate relation to ourselves, the latter in its more fundamental aspects…Both imply the assumptions which are taken without analysis in literature but which it is the business of the philosopher to analyze and justify.’ The philosopher and the man of letters shared many of the same intellectual traditions; it was after all no great distance from Goethe to Hegel, and Emerson and Carlyle helped bridge the gap.

The philosopher focused upon one theme in the more general thinking about culture: the unity of the universe. He found in his own discipline the proper crown for the entire academic curriculum. By no means neglecting morality (indeed, in one sense he made it loftily systematic), the philosophical idealist tended, more than other advocates of culture, to respect intellect. He did this not because intellect enabled one to investigate particulars, but because it was a tool by which the basic configuration of the universe might be mapped out. Put another way, he took his rationalism from the ‘constructive’ thinkers, not the Baconians.

There were many varieties of the movement in philosophy known as idealism, both in Europe and in the United States; their complexity cannot be shown here. Most broadly, idealism was (as one of its academic adherents described it) a ‘thought-view of the universe.’ The root of reality was mental, but it was abstract and universal, not confined to the varying subjective mental states of individual human beings. Men’s minds were capable of discerning and making contact with a universal mind — ‘the Absolute’ — which presumably would continue to function unaffected if the earth, and all the philosophers on it, were to disappear in a solar catastrophe. It was the mentalistic universalism of the idealistic view which made it and its derivatives (among them American Transcendentalism) clash with the whole conception of laboratory science. While idealism was not religious in an orthodox theological sense, its adherents thought of themselves as spiritualistic rather than materialistic in their outlook, and as ‘critically affirmative’ in their acceptance of spirituality. (The ‘critically affirmative’ view was believed to be a synthesis, in Hegelian terms, of dogmatism and skepticism.) In such a context the empirical presumption that the nature of reality was to be ascertained slowly and painfully by comparing particular phenomena could only be opposed. The scientist, it was confidently believed, would end up perceiving the same universals that the idealist immediately glimpsed. ‘Mental Life does not begin with ideas of Individual Things, but with General Ideas,’ Josiah Royce was heard to say in 1893. ‘These Primitive General Ideas are unconsciously, or unintentionally, Abstract.’ By the aid of reason, unconscious abstractions would be made conscious, and ‘Genuine Insight into the Nature of Individual Things’ would be attained.

Kant and Hegel provided most of the inspiration for the American idealists. Before the Civil War idealism had gained more advocates outside the academic community than within it, and the specifically Hegelian idealism that developed in the United States after 1865 was first promoted by a group of non-academic thinkers, especially in the St. Louis area. From these men, and from the continuing direct contacts of younger Americans with this side of German thought, Hegelian idealism spread rapidly as departments of philosophy emerged in leading universities during the 1880s. Idealism had its greatest influence, both in academic circles and in America generally, during the nineties. These years marked the vigor of what John Herman Randall has termed ‘that great generation of near-great professors of philosophy.’ After the turn of the century, idealism began rather rapidly to decline as an intellectual force, and literary advocates of culture soon were able to count on fewer dependable allies within philosophy departments. In perspective, idealism can be seen as a diversion rather than a main channel in American thought. Its power was inhibited not only by the rise of natural science but also by the fact that it remained suspect as far as most Christians were concerned. Lacking either of these powerful sanctions, professors who expounded idealism were listened to and admired again and again by young men who quickly drifted away from its particular faith.”

— Veysey, ibid.

“A ‘system of elements’ — a definition of the segments by which the resemblances and differences can be shown, the types of variation by which those segments can be affected, and, lastly, the threshold above which there is a difference and below which there is a similitude — is indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest form of order. Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.

The fundamental codes of a culture — those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices — establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions, so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyze. It is here that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists. As though emancipating itself to some extent from its linguistic, perceptual, and practical grids, the culture superimposed on them another kind of grid which neutralized them, which by this superimposition both revealed and excluded them at the same time, so that the culture, by this very process, came face to face with order in its primary state. It is on the basis of this newly perceived order that the codes of language, perception, and practice are criticized and rendered partially invalid. It is on the basis of this order, taken as a firm foundation, that general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such an ordering involves, will be constructed. Thus, between the already ‘encoded’ eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself: it is here that it appears, according to the culture and the age in question, continuous and graduated or discontinuous and piecemeal, linked to space or constituted anew at each instant by the driving force of time, related to a series of variables or defined by separate systems of coherences, composed of resemblances which are either successive or corresponding, organized around increasing differences, etc. This middle region, then, in so far as it makes manifest the modes of being of order, can be posited as the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy, expressions of it (which is why this experience of order in its pure primary state always plays a critical role); more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more ‘true’ than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order and of its modes of being.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966)

Follow-up to Fucking Utopia

Posted in dialectics, Fredric Jameson, Hegel, Lacan, Manifestos, Nihilism, Political Theory, psychoanalysis, structuralism, The French, Utopia on November 4, 2007 by traxus4420

The warm afterglow….

Looking back over what I wrote, it occurred to me that my frustration with the use of the term ‘utopia’ in contemporary theory, politics, etc. is the same problem I have with the use of the term ‘political.’

This is Fredric Jameson on utopia in culture and politics:

At this point in the argument, then, the hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated. Even the ‘false consciousness’ of so monstrous a phenomenon as Nazism was nourished by collective fantasies of a Utopian type, in ‘socialist’ as well as in nationalist guises. Our proposition about the drawing power in the works of mass culture has implied that such works cannot manage anxieties about the social order unless they have first revived them and given them some rudimentary expression; we will now suggest that anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness, so that the works of mass culture, even if their function lies in the legitimation of the existing order — or some worse one — cannot do their job without deflecting in the latter’s service the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity, to which they can therefore, no matter in how distorted a fashion, be found to have given voice.

We therefore need a method capable of doing justice to both the ideological and the Utopian or transcendent functions of mass culture simultaneously. Nothing less will do, as the suppression of either of these terms may testify: we have already commented on the sterility of the older kind of ideological analysis, which, ignoring the Utopian components of mass culture, ends up with the empty denunciation of the latter’s manipulatory function and degraded status. But it is equally obvious that the complementary extreme — a method that would celebrate Utopian impulses in the absence of any conception or mention of the ideological vocation of mass culture — simply reproduces the litanies of myth criticism at its most academic and aestheticizing and impoverishes the texts of their semantic content at the same time that it abstracts them from their concrete and historical situation.

…all contemporary works of art — whether those of high culture and modernism or mass culture and commercial culture — have as their underlying impulse — albeit in what is often distorted and repressed, unconscious form — our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived. To reawaken, in the midst of a privatized and psychologizing society, obsessed with commodities and bombarded by the ideological slogans of big business, some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity that can be detected, no matter how faintly and feebly, in the most degraded works of mass culture just as surely as in the classics of modernism — is surely an indispensable precondition for any meaningful Marxist intervention in contemporary culture.

I find nothing to disagree with in this excerpt (from “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”) except for the two programmatic statements (first sentence of graph two and last sentence of graph three). They transform utopia into the basis of a project for its revelation, and give critics a fairly specific — and indispensable — task, the last thing a critic should be happy with. It’s cultural criticism as therapy, or the balancing of extreme states (utopia vs. ideology) through negative dialectics.

And what bothers me most is the dialectical move. In “Politics of Utopia,” Jameson writes that “utopia emerges at the moment of the suspension of the political.” It appears as an impossible solution, analogous to the emergence of wish-fulfillment fantasy in dreams. “Its function lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future—our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity—so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.” The point of critique is neither to side with nor adjust any particular form the utopian ideal takes, but rather to set them off against each other, their dialectical negation revealing the truth of their collective desire. The impossibility of every utopian ideal and its imbrication in ideology must be asserted at the same time as its persistence must be affirmed.

As Jameson tries to establish that all utopias express the same desire — the will to collectivity — and as he argues that this will-to-utopia is present everywhere, then why does it need to be analytically mapped by the critic? Why does it need to be continually clarified? Why couldn’t it just be taken for granted? What makes it so important given that its every manifestation is impossible? It should first be noted that to use ‘collectivity’ as a placeholder for the underlying wish that manifests in all ideological fantasy is itself ideological (Marxist, obviously). Perhaps the psychoanalytic perspective is the most useful here after all, that the appearance of the imaginary always performs the same function: the doomed but well-nigh mechanical attempt to reconcile the symbolic (i.e. language and the status quo) with the real (i.e. that which is beyond language and the status quo), or heal the psychic split.

But before we can ally with psychoanalysis we have to ask ourselves another question: is it even possible to ‘map’ the utopian urge in the same way one can map the structure of ideology? Isn’t the (dialectical) form this attempt takes itself ideological? What escapes its grasp? Another quotation from Jameson, from Archaeologies of the Future, will be instructive here:

We must therefore conclude that the search for a minimal Utopian demand, a universally acknowledged zero degree of Utopian realization — even so seemingly obvious one as ‘that no one shall go hungry any more’ — cannot escape the force field of ideology and class-situatedness. The fallback position, then, confronted with the multiplicity of Utopian concerns which we have discovered to be in violent opposition to each other, is evidently the pluralist one, in which we acknowledge the authenticity of the Utopian impulse invested in each option, no matter how distorted it may be, while at the same time seeking to identify its ‘moment of truth’ and to isolate and appropriate its specific Utopian energy.

Yet this apparent capitulation to common sense and liberal or humanist pluralism may demand a more complicated method than the usual non-dialectical sorting out and picking and choosing. What changes everything is the way in which truth and its ‘moment’ are conceived…The mistake is…to imagine that non-error, truth, even whatever minimal truth is alleged to persist in the so-called ‘moment of truth,’ is a positive phenomenon. We do not use this concept properly unless we grasp its critical negativity as a conceptual instrument designed, not to produce some full representation, but rather to discredit and demystify the claims to full representation of its opposite number. The ‘moment of truth’ is thus not a substantive one, not some conceptual nugget we can extract and store away, with a view towards using it as a building block of some future system. Rather its function lies not in itself, but in its capability radically to negate its alternative.

Jameson makes of ‘utopia’ one of those special words for Theory, like différance, a word that does not refer, but rather marks the function of dialectical negation. To ‘work’ it must be surrounded by disclaimers, reminders that the word does not ‘simply’ do x, y, or z, it is not grammatically fixed like the other words but stands for a whole process, that being the writer’s interpretation of Hegel (thankfully Jameson, unlike Derrida, trusts the reader to handle this on their own after the first lengthy exegesis). The fantasy seems to be that the word not really exist there on the page, that it become Absolute Spirit.

So the term ‘utopia’ is itself meant to be a utopia (no-place) of language, immune to reification; but regardless of how negatively it is defined, like all words it has some minimal positive content. And like every other utopia, that content is its ideological function. An example from more popular discourse would be the equally vague term ‘political.’ Consider the special status a film or a novel is granted when it can be called ‘political.’ Like the familiar stereotype of the self-righteous yuppie activist (the cause doesn’t matter), you don’t even have to like it, just admit that, yes, it is political isn’t it, and all other criticisms fade into irrelevance. Higher forces are at work. By the same art of transubstantiation, material written about the film (or whatever) can also become political, and must if it is to remain relevant. Even better if one can identify something as political that was not political before, or push a few ambiguous or allegorical references into a full-on manifesto. Throw in a bit of half-assed Lacan, defer to the specter of Marx, and all of a sudden Texas Chain-Saw Massacre is political theory of the highest importance.

Ultimately utopia as a critical trope has as its objective the ratifying of cultural criticism, Marxist in Jameson’s formulation but not necessarily so, as authentically political. The theorization of utopia is even the “precondition” for “any Marxist intervention in contemporary culture.” But because I agree with Jameson’s argument that something we could call the utopian will is present in every ideological formation, I don’t think it warrants special analytical status, or that it should be held (in whatever six-times-negated form) apart from ideology critique. Just as the slogan ‘everything is political’ only reveals the inadequacy of the term for its intended use, so too does ‘everything is utopian.’ ‘Everything is ideological’ as well, so maybe what we mean by ‘ideology’ is just ‘positive content.’

By ‘Fuck Utopia’ then I mean to carry Jameson’s project of negation another step further, by negating utopia, and negating its dialectical function. Obviously I didn’t succeed. That will take some time. I may give up. But even if I had followed through completely, there would be something left over, a remainder, that thing the French so prettily call désire. As parodycenter noted in the comments, from my leftovers one can indeed augur another utopia — I would call it the death of abstraction. But to use this as the summation of my argument would be the first step of its critique, and by no means its repetition or valorization. One cannot steal another’s desire (and I am also an other). If, as Jameson argues, the fear of utopia is the fear of death and the fear of the other’s desire, the idea that utopia represents the end of everything that is excluded from it, then the fear of fucking utopia is the fear of life, and the fear of that elusive, extra-moral desire which one only after the fact remembers as one’s own.

For me the question of utopia that Jameson and others reach for is best answered in music, or failing that by the poets, who have no choice but to treat language as a craft. I leave you with a few pieces of an essay by the inimitable Leonard Cohen, expressing an ideal that I can’t even approach:

What is the expression that the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet.

Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not art.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever.

Translations

Posted in The French on October 11, 2007 by traxus4420

A blog with original renditions of previously untranslated French philosophy into English. The interesting writers, too. Collect them all!