“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

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

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, February 21, 2011

the philosophy of the diary

How do we – this we, this other and me, the writer, this shadowing and secret sharing editorial we! – gather our data about the formation of character under capitalism? What does ‘under capitalism” even mean?

One can imagine a computer, being steadily fed data concerning the everyday habits of the population that existed ‘under capitalism” for two hundred to three hundred years, storing it and collating it, tying, a cybernetic Varuna, person to person in the coils of its 0 and 1, from which would emerge, at some point, a hermeneutic, a heuristic, a set of axioms, or maybe simply a surrender to the ceaseless flow of info for its own sake.

One can imagine an economist making a model of what the character should be.

One can imagine a novelist tracing the events in some fictitious character’s life that are somehow meant to be typical.

Or one can keep a diary and make penetrating generalizations that go outward towards the world and inward towards one’s own peculiarities, a mutual articulation that is always perched in the doubtful state between the outward and inward, like Raphael’s hat. The diary keeper’s entries share some formal characteristics with the accountant’s – both rely on the spread sheet principle that objectifies time, both “account” – a word which, according to the OED, has its root in the Latin computare, which has a further root in putare, pruning trees or ‘cleaning”, purifying. Although putare could also mean counting. Let’s quote Girard Minaud, in La comptabilite a Rome: essai d’histoire economique…, quoting Emile Benveniste here:

Emile Beveniste considered that one ought to being with the technical sense of putare: “In following (from the base to the top) the count, to detach successively the articles which have been verified. From this, ‘to verify, purify””. This image can be understood by seeing the pruner begin his work from the lowest branches for progressing towards the height of the tree and attaining its summa. The procedure explains why the summa designated, for the ancients, what is called the “total” today, but also the ‘sum’. E. Benveniste has in effect taken care to specify, concerning addition: “In the classical civilizations this operation is conducted according to a different model than our own. One made the count of numbers superposed on one another not, as with us, from the highest to the lowest, but from the lowest to the highest, until attaining what they called the summa, that is to say, the superior number.” (169)

The tree, the accountant, the diarist and the computer – a root connects them all, and an inversion marks a history.

But of course the computer and the accountant have specialized in a certain branch of objectivity, while the diarist, the clerk of literature, prefers not to.


Sarah said...

I don't know Latin at all, but I'm fascinated by the origin of words and the way those origins affect our sense of what things mean. I'm thinking of 'sense' literally here- as in the senses- and also of literal and metaphorical orientation. The idea that we count up because the word is related to pruning, which proceeds from the bottom upwards never occurred to me. Time on a left to right scale, directions being up, down and left right, so many things being linear (most of which are better conceived as circular, spherical, fractal...) It makes me wonder how many other senses and directions shape the structure of our thoughts? Just learning a single other Indo-European language, Czech, seems to give me a whole other world out of which to view my own. I wonder what it would be like to learn something completely alien, like the Aborigine languages where meaning depends on directional orientation- or Pirahan, that has no words for numbers or quantities at all.

roger said...

Sarah, you are learning Czech? Wow. That's an interesting choice.

I find the anthropology of lists and counting endlessly fascinating. Ingold's book on lines, which I'm reading now, reminds me a bit of Jack Goody's book on lists and the bureaucratic mentality - Goody works with sumerian lists to understand the connection between the writing system and the creation of this new space in which the representation of things can be put.

I love these forms - the list, the addition or subtraction, the diary - for their desperate organizing qualities.

Sarah said...

Roger- Still learning, of course, but I guess I can say 'learned' at this point. I studied it in the '80's and have spent 13 of the last 21 years in Prague.