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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

From My Third Life

LI has a book column to write about two books: Objectivity, by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, and Trying Leviathan, by D. Graham Burnett.

Daston and Galison mount a pretty impressive marshalling of evidence of the way, in a number of sciences over the past two hundred years, we can see three distinct regimes of representation. The first regime, truth to nature, or the search for types and ideals, G. and D. date to the eighteenth century – the second regime, objectivity, or representation that strives to eliminate any subjective bias, emerges, in their scheme, in the nineteenth century – and the third regime, trained judgment, which organizes ‘mechanically objective’ representations in terms of trends, thus reintroducing a form of consensus subjectivity, emerges in the twentieth century. Periodization doesn’t imply that this is a history of zero sum games - the rise of one regime doesn’t entail the extinction of a formerly dominant regime. However, it does imply something more interesting: the rise of different techniques of becoming a scientist. One casually speaks of the scientist as an observer, but in fact, observation is a trained act, and the training is structured around what, exactly, it means to see a phenomenon, what one is looking for, how one proves that what one sees connects to a given theory.

Obviously, I will have to refine all of this in the sugar mill of reviewing. In general, though, this is what the book is about.

All of which is an excuse to quote Marcel Schwob.

Marcel Schwob is not a name to conjure with. For the most part, even your most bookish literatus has forgotten Schwob. But he has interesting fans – among them, Borges, Bolano, and Calasso. Which is a lineage as exciting to me as the descent of Bonnie Prince Charles from James II was to your average raving Highland Scot. I’d fight under their colors.

Schwob was a fin de siecle writer. Like Mallarme, he knew English and translated from that language. He was Robert Louis Stevenson’s friend, but he also knew Jarry – Ubu Roi is dedicated to him. Myself, I’d read his name in The Banquet Years, I believe, but had never had the urge to reach for Schwob until I read Calasso’s brief essay about Imaginary Lives. Calasso claims that “the flame of this book is not yet extinguished. Today, when many who read Borges are discovering the subtlest, most vertiginous magical charm of the fantastic and a certain secret mathematics of the story, they will recognize a master in Schwob and a model of this literature in his book. … Marcel Schwob… invented a new genre of adventure literature which sought no immediate contact with reality, but rather took the byways of philology and mystification…

So I searched on the Intertubes, and of course found a site dedicated to Schwob and – hurray! – a decent archive of his texts, including Imaginary Lives. The book consists of a preface on the biographer’s art and twenty two brief lives, from Empedocles to Burke and Hare. Reading the preface, I came upon the following passage that … floored me. There are bits of literature that stick in my brain. They become a sort of third life to me – after my waking life and my dreaming life. And I know exactly when something is destined for that third life.

Here’s the quote:

History books remain silent on these things. In the rude collection of materials that are furnished by testimonies, there are not many singular and inimitable breaks. Ancient biographies in particular are miserly with them. Valuing only the public life or the grammar, they transmit to us the discourses and the titles of the books of great men. It is Aristophones himself who gives us the joy of knowing that he was bald, and if the pug nose of Socrates hadn’t served as a touchstone of literary comparisons, if his habit of walking about barefoot hadn’t been part of his system of philosophy by showing contempt for the body, there would only have been conserved of him for us his moral interrogatories. Suetonius’ gossip’s tales are only hateful polemics. The good genius of Plutarch sometimes made an artist out of him: but he did not know how to understand the essence of his art, snce he imagined ‘parallels’ – as if two men, properly described in all their details, could resemble one another! One is reduced to consulting Athanasius, Aulus Gellus, scoliasts, and Diogenes Laertes, who thought he was composing a kind of history of philosophy.

The sentiment of the individual was more developed in modern times. The work of Boswell would have been perfect if he hadn’t judged it necessary to cite Johnson’s correspondence and his digressions on books. Aubrey’s Eminent Lives are more satisfying. Aubrey had, without a doubt, the instinct of biography. How aggravating that the style of this excellent antiquarian is not on the same level as his conception! His book would have been the eternal recreation of the select few. Aubrey never felt the need to establish a relationship between individual details and general ideas. It was enough for him that others sealed the celebrity of men of whom he took an interest. Most the time, one doesn’t know if one is dealing with a mathematician or a statesman, a poet or a watchmaker. But each of them had his unique trait, which distinguished them forever amongst mankind.

The painter Hokusaï hoped to get to the ideal of his art by the time he was one hundred years old. At this moment, he said, every point, every connecting line traced by his brush would be alive. By alive, we understand him to mean: individual. Nothing is more similar than points and lines: geometry is founded on this postulate. Hokusai’s perfect art required that nothing be more different.”

This story about Hokusaï is ingenious and – as it happens – gives me an angle to look at the story of objectivity as told by Daston and Galison. For it is in the space of that reversal of geometry itself – from a science depending on the similarity of lines and points to the perfect art in which each line and point is alive – that one finds the anguish in the scientific drama of objectivity. For to represent, say, crystallized urinary deposits just as they are seen under the microscope, in their one time only state, is eventually to succeed from the whole purpose of scientific representation. One can’t build a science on the one time only – without regularities the urinary deposit, the snowflake, the species of woodpecker, the star, the canals of Mars, become a hyperclear orgy of distinctness. And in this orgy there is no master of ceremonies – even the stick that would point out the details is an insufferable interference with the phenomenon as it is. Integrity, not aura, is the scientist’s pole star, but integrity, too, falls victim (to its own weird success) in the age of mechanical reproduction.


roger said...

By the way, those of you into the whole graphix novel thing should know that Schwob's life and works have been made
into a bande dessine
Just so you don't think LI is gettin' too esoteric or somethin'. No way!

Ray Davis said...

I was talking with some friends the other week about "W. N. P. Barbellion"'s sad career. Somehow neither he himself nor H. G. Wells ever recognized his professional tragedy as that of a "naturalist" caught between an old and a new idea of science. Close observation in the wild gave him pleasure to the last; the professionalization of lab work -- "On my first arrival I was presented with a pen, ink, paper, ruler, and an enormous instrument of steel which on enquiry I found to be a paper cutter. I asked for my microscope and microtome." -- even at its best was comparatively unrewarding. Maybe they were too immersed in the transition to fully recognize it as such.