“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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mr. Spooky

When we put the “body” and the pajamas on Adam, we chose favorites. The blue! The one with the dogs! However, Adam doesn’t care. It isn’t that he is indifferent so much as all of them are much the same to him. He cries or sleeps in his foam bed. He recognizes our faces and touches. But as far as objects go, outside of the flow of milk, the eyes and glasses that peer down on him, the softness or roughness, dryness or wetness of the textiles he comes into contact with, he has a bond with only one object. One bond that goes beyond the sensual. Once bond that is, perhaps, his first experience of fascination.
This is with Mr. Spooky.
Mr. Spooky is a milky white globe with bluisn circles for its eyes and mouth, and bluish ears. Plug it in and press the top of it and it turns on, emitting a bluish light that changes to green and back. The intensity of the glow changes too. I don’t know who brought us Mr. Spooky, but it has illuminated our darkest nights since the second day in the hospital, and Adam’s second day on earth.
At night, as Adam digests his milk or formula at night and ponders the world, at some point he always begins to stare at Mr. Spooky, wherever we have perched him, wherever he casts his colored light. He may be looking at a blanket, a pillow or a wall, but eventually he will shift and then he will remain rapt in Mr. Spooky’s aura, drinking in Spookylight, in long pulls, just as he sometimes drinks up formula.
I am not sure what Adam sees in Mr. Spooky. But I vaguely recognize the reflex. I’ve been after Mr. Spooky substitutes my whole life – fascinating objects, ideas, scenes, people that are beyond my mere round of comforts and irritations, and that form an attraction that I can only explain through a cracked, obsure poetry. That is because, in the end, these objects are lit still in a pre-verbal night for me, back before the duty to match world to word set me on an endless, exhausting chase. I like to watch Adam staring at Mr. Spooky, it even makes me a little jealous. And it breaks my heart a bit to think of all the Mr. Spookies yet to come for my Adam.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

from the will to control

In the early nineteenth century, there was a great romantic fashion for the  “will” in the moral, or ideological sphere. The will seemed like a way out of the dry materialism and sensualism of the 18th century philosophes.Conveniently, it also had a hero – Napoleon.
However, a curious thing happened as the century went by.  In the sphere of psychology, the will gradually lost any status it had as a psychological object. In the old rational psychology, it was one of the faculties of the intellect. But as psychologists began to measure things, experiment, and consider psychology as an adjunct of the entire biological system, it became clear that the will was a superfluous entity. I raise my arm, and by no train of introspection, and by no degree on  any measuring device, is there an intermediate moment where I will to raise my arm.
At the end of the century, two philosophers – Nietzsche and William James – both took these findings at face value. Nietzsche took the absence of any psychological entity called the will to mock the notion of both those who argued for the free will and those who argued for determinism, in as much as the latter still used this archaic psychological devise. James, with his own sly Yankee wit, also went through the introspective stages that make us see that the will is a conjuring trick.
Yet these two philosophers are associated with the will – the will to power and the will to belief. How did they reconcile these moral insights with their psychological ones? Well, in Nietzsche’s case, the will moved outside the psyche. The psyche, in fact, becomes a manifestation of a will that is unanchored to a self at all. James, on the other hand, creeps close to the admission that the will, being a good thing to believe in, is acceptable at least in moral terms.  In other words, both take the will as a supreme fiction.
In the twentieth century, in the psychological sphere, the will was replaced by a cybernetic model of the psyche, one that emphasized control and coordination. The old questions surrounding the will were simply no longer relevant. This image not only provides psychology with its paradigm – it penetrated, to an extent, into the public consciousness. Into, that is, our moral speech. It is impossible to imagine Jane Austin characters speaking about being out of control or in control. They wouldn’t say it, and they wouldn’t understand it if it was said to them. But this has become a reliable part of ordinary speech for those in the twentieth and twenty first century.
However, it is a part of speech that is not entirely coherent with the will ideology, which still exists, and which still influences the way we speak of ourselves and of the polis. It is easy to see why. We all have the experience of doing things we don’t want to do. I have work to do and it is late, but instead of going to bed, I do the work. And the moment of doing something that is not immediately desirable – over something that is immediately desireable – gives me the impression that I will myself to do this over my circumstances. It is easy to think of a computer – say Hal in 2001 – doing what it “wants” to do. But it is much more difficult thinking of it in a will situation – doing what it doesn’t want to do.
This concept in the moral sphere is, I think, slowly changing. It isn’t rare for a driver, or a computer user, to speak of a machine ‘not wanting’ to do something. Being ‘coaxed” into doing something. Of course, at the bottom of this are the lines of routine that one imagines define the machine – are the machine in the machine, so to speak. There’s no ghost in there.  All I’m saying is that the dialectic between the moral image and the cognitive image might well produce an inflection decisively away from the will.
But I can’t think in that future language. I do think in terms of control and coordination, and am marveling at its unfolding in Adam – I watched him, last night, as he tried to get his fingers together and do something  with them on his cheek, under his eye. Perhaps to rub an itchy spot. The tiny fingers did not, as with me, coordinate, so that the index finger could be used to lightly rub across the spot on the face while the rest of the tribe of fingers kept their places. And the arm has not learned the steadiness and aim required for itching a scratch. If, that is, this is what Adam was doing. In other areas, however, he is already learning to ‘practice’ – for instance, in making sucking motions with his lips. Instinct is already merging, here, with poetry – as it will when the fingers don’t all bunch together, and the arm learns lessons about distance and steadiness. All in due time, ma petit.  


Monday, December 10, 2012


Adam has no language at 7 weeks, but he has music:  burbles, humsm sighs, screams, cries, whimpers, and something like a yahoo. Some of this music is communicative, although on a low level. We react to the screams and cries – we transform them from music to something with meaning for us – and perhaps Adam notices. Certainly he has learned to ‘play’ us with some of his notes. Others, though, seem much more… aesthetic.  I find it intensely and curiously pleasurable, for instance, that, after having fed him and hushed him and soothed him in his bed, and having detected the slightest droopiness of his eyelids, he gives a sigh. It is not a sign, this sigh. And it is not subject to any rule of better or worse – in that sense, it is not aesthetic, as it doesn’t really have any social function. Adam certainly doesn’t do it to please his Dad. But he does it completely – it is a beautiful action, like some perfectly realized athletic movement. His whole body participates in that sigh, as much as it participates in the beating of his heart.
And I think, a year, two years. And never such sighs again. And that is my musical addition, the slightly melancholic tinge I give to the sigh, an awareness of time that Adam, wrapped in an immediacy as warm as his pjs, doesn’t have.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Barthes freudian slip

“The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus.29 They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.” – Plutarch, the Life of Theseus

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. – Otto Neurath
There’s a curious error in Barthes by Barthes – something that is like a parapraxis, a Freudian slip. Like the classic instance of the Freudian slip outlined in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life,  this one, too, has to do with a classical allusion.
It is contained in the entry entitled, The Argo.
“ A frequent image: that of the ship, the Argo (bright and white), which the Argonauts replaced piece by piece, little by little, so that in the end they had an entirely new vessel, without having to change either its name or its form.”
This image seems to be a conflation of two classical instances of the ship image in philosophy. One is the vessel of Theseus, which is first mentioned by Plutarch in the Life of Theseus. In the early modern period, Plutarch’s instance was taken up by Hobbes and Leibniz, each of who commented on the paradox of identity that the ship names. The second is Neurath’s ship. As Thomas Uebel has shown, Neurath often turned to the image of the rebuilt but continuous ship in his writing. He especially used the image against the Carnapian ideal of a meta-language – a dream language in which syntax and semanticity would merge, so that we would know from the very construction of a sentence whether it was true or not.  This, Neurath thought, fundamentally misunderstands language. Hence, the image of a ship which is constantly being repaired from flotsam at sea by sailors who cannot simply go into port and take the ship apart from the bottom.  In Hans Blumenberg’s exploration of ship metaphors in philosophy, he quotes an instance where Neurath claims that the imprecise clusters are “always somehow part of the ship.”
Out of these two separate images, Barthes chose to attach the perpetually reconstructed ship to the Argo, which carried Jason and his crew – the Argonauts – to Colchis. In constrast with Theseus’s ship, which – being on display – is, as it were, a museum piece, the Argo is an object of practical life. But there is another difference with Theseus’s ship, one that should block Barthes’ appropriation. As Apollonius of Rhodes put it in the Argonautica: ‘For a divine timber had been fixed in her: Athene had taken it from the oak of Dodona and fitted it in the center of the prow.”
The wood of Dodona had the power of human speech – a power that was given to the Argo. So, in fact, the Argo is the one instance of a ship in which there is something irreplaceable.  Which goes against Barthes point: ‘This vessel, the Argo, is very useful. It furnishes us with the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest acts (which cannot be grasped by the mystique of creation): substitution (one piece drives out the other, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is not at all tied to the stability of the pieces) by means of combining in the interior of the same name, nothing is left of the origin. The Argo is an object without any other cause than its name, without any other identity than its form.”
As in any parapraxis, we are given an utterance that is like a wound, allowing us, if we have the tools, to trace the trauma. The trauma here is seems to be in the form of a forgetting – forgetting the magical/religious instance. That forgetting marks the enlightenment heritage of structuralism – in fact, Barthes mistake might be taken as emblematic of the fact that structuralism was the purest outcome of the enlightenment, its endpoint. Structuralism assumes, finally, that the world is saturated with substitutes, is a system of substitutes – in a sense, the world is capitalism. And in this world, action at a distance, magic, origin, Athene are chased away by a universal forgetting . Under the guidance of the name – in the name of – the system of substitutions can act on its own, automatically, without a genius.
In Barthes telling, these two acts just happen to coincide in this one image. They are, however, historically bound together. In practical terms, the crew of the Argo is simply trying to survive and stay afloat, which is why all oak planks – whether from Dodona or from sea wrack – are replaceable. From the point of view of nomination, however, whether the Argo is registered as the Argo or not is of ultimate political importance. If the name doesn’t hold, then the Argo becomes a pirate ship, an illicit ship. And at this point the schema of substitutions feeds into a different destination for the ship.
The forgetting of the story of the Argo – the supervenience of two other stories of ships and identity – is all the more freighted as Barthes himself is in the midst of changing, as he wrote Barthes by Barthes, from the disenchanted mapper of myths to the softer and more vulnerable utopian of desire. He was, in a sense, letting one piece of Barthes drive out another.  Right after presenting the image of the Argo, he personalizes it by contrasting his office in Paris with his office in the country, which, though differently located, is identical in function.  He ends this passage by writing of the Argo as the ideal structural object, in which the “system prevails over particular beings.” But using an image which is structured to deny that the system prevails over Athena – using an image of the one boat that can talk – Barthes seems to be undermining his point – just as he is trying to shed his structuralist past.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

adam and william james

Adam has been fed and patted on the back and rubbed on the belly – the ritual of faire le rot. He’s been deposited on his portable foam bed with the  special posture design and the straps to make sure he doesn’t tumble out. He’s in his red pjs now, and as he lolls there, stunned by the milk, his legs kicking, he reminds me – absurdly – of some Cossack general, retiring from the night out at the gypsy camp. It is the round, nearly bare head. And I proceed to the hushing part of the night, which usually lasts from 15 to 30 minutes. It is a great exercise in patience, saying, in various registers and various modulations, hush honey. I intersperse this with tout va bien, Adam. He likes that. I can watch the effect on his face. The big eyes get a little glassier, the eyelids droop. But just as I am congratulating myself, just as he is on the threshold of sleep, he is yanked out of the trance and begins to cry. He seems to be yanked out of sleep by the sleep itself. Like digestion, like hunger, like his parents, constantly holding him and moving him, sleep is a powerful external force. It comes from the outside.
It makes me wonder what doesn’t come from the outside. Where is the interiority in my wee little pea?
In an essay on consciousness in Essays in Radical Empiricism, William James made the radical suggestion that the philosophers and the rational psychologists have put us on the wrong track with their model of consciousness. James announces this with the subtlety of a gunslinger clearing out the saloon:
“I believe that ‘consciousness,’ when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles.”
James proposes, instead, that instead of sitting here with two screens, one outside my body and one inside my mind, there is one screen that forms something like a point at the intersection of two lines of experience. James ends his essay with an account that, perhaps, Adam would agree with:
“Let the case be what it may in others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in[Pg 37] myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The ‘I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the ‘I breathe’ which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of ‘consciousness,’ so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception;[24] but breath, which was ever the original of ‘spirit,’ breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness.”
Adam, perhaps, would make the case that it is not the breath, but the scream. On the first day Adam was born, he was as exhausted as his parents, and he didn’t make a sound as we all slept, an exhausted pod in the hospital room. It worried me a bit, because I expected more sound. We got it the next day.
Now we get it every day. It really isn’t that bad. Myself, I think he needs to exercise his lungs and tire himself out, sometimes. But other people in other apartments intrude into one’s consciousness – that glottal stop and start – and besides, I don’t want Adam to scream too much, because I think that this might not be good for the poor guy. So the screaming is followed by holding, the bouncy bouncy, a pickup in the stream of hush honeys.
Still, I’m not satisfied with James’ account. Who is? And I wonder, walking around holding Adam, about where the interiority is. Is it some small lost thing in a baby? A peephole in a locked door to a dark room?
Well, that is much too dire an image. I am thinking that it is more like a bathtub toy. It bobs on the surface, and is swooped down upon and submerged time and time again, but each time it rises with irresistible force to the top of the surface again. Of course, the surface does not “obey” the toy. Later, the toy will get that illusion, and it will be forever after impossible to disabuse it of that notion, which will go into a whole mythology of responsibility, of “earning” things, of making, of owning. On the other hand, the surface can’t drown the toy. It keeps bobbing up.
And so, between happy burbling, sleep, the satisfactions of sucking, the enormous tragedy of changing  diaper and clothes that fills the whole world, and then abruptly stops, the little toy is, I think, already there. I can feel it in my hands, it is palpable as we pace, bounce, and Adam goes – with a protest or two – back to sleep.  

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


We worry before the birth about the multitude of things that can happen, Down’s syndrome, the random birth defect like some serial killer, some small malignity hidden in our genes, or something we have perhaps done, some chemical we have absorbed, some toxic event in which we have unwittingly taken part. And then Adam is born and he is perfect. And then it occurs to us that he was safer in the womb than he will ever be again. He’s now in a world of sharp edges, chronic illnesses and conditions, traffic accidents, bad drugs and louche friends, plus he’s male. Male! If not prone himself to violence, and already I’m the parent who believes he can’t be, not my angel, he is as a male statistically prone to be the object picked on by other violent males. Last night, feeding him the bottle, I put my hand under his head, as I have done now a dozen times, and it suddenly struck me how fragile his skull was, how it was a work in progress, how I could feel its soft connections, the cartilaginous mesh that will eventually fuse to make the hard skull, such as the one that I possess. And my hand felt – this thinking hand - as well, how absolutely Adam’s head must be protected.

Friday, November 30, 2012

freud x ray eyes and peekaboo

Among the learned in  ancient India and Greece, the emission theory of vision was standard. That theory proposed that subtle rays were emitted by the eyes, which met objects and illuminated them. Alcmaeon, the Greek poet, used the example of being struck in the eye as a proof that there is a ‘fire’ in the eye: “the eye obviously has fire within, for when one is struck (this fire) flashes out. Vision is due to the gleaming – that is to say, the transparent character of that which (in the eye) reflects to the object. And sight is more perfect, the greater the purity of the substance. Empedocles believed the visual, the eidolons of the things about us, are the product of the merger of the rays of the eyes and the rays of the things. Indian scholars had doubts about the rays of things – if this was so, we could see in the dark – but they, too, believed that the eye emits rays. Interestingly, the Mohists in China, working about the same time, accepted the reception theory – that the eye receives light rather than projects it.
All of which is a matter of cherrypicking texts on the intellectual level.  On the folk psychological level, the notion that the eye – unlike the ear, the tongue, the nose, the fingers – has a certain active role in the world is hard to shake off. One stares at a person hoping that person will look up and see one – and it happens. Or we hide our eyes not only to keep ourselves from seeing something, but to keep that thing from happening. Perhaps it is the structure of the eye, with a lid that closes – which makes the eye ensemble a very different receptor set from the other senses – that gives us this primitive sense of the eye as projector. Piaget was the first childhood researcher to mention the fact that the child’s theory of vision is often curiously like the ancient Greek theory of vision.
Gerald Cottrell and Jane Winer have written a series of papers about the “extramission” theory of the eye in children and adults. One of their more startling papers,  “Fundamentally misunderstanding visual  perception”, concerns a survey they took among college students.
“For example, we typically found extramission beliefs among college students who were
tested after they had received instruction on sensation and perception in introductory psychology classes, thus suggesting not only that adults were affirming extramission beliefs but that such beliefs were resistant to education. We were confronted, then, with the likelihood that students
were emerging from basic-level psychology courses without an understanding of one of the most important psychological processes, namely, visual perception.”
Interestingly, in the history of ideas, it was the Arabic natural philosophers who first overthrew the “extramission” theory. In the West, the names to look for are Nicolas de Cusa and Kepler. That Cottrell and Winer find college students who believe the eye emits a kind of power is, to my mind, much more interesting evidence of the intellectual folkways of Americans than their poll-ready responses to questions about evolution. It is absolutely unsurprising to a Freudian to find that numbers of adults believe that the eye has some mysterious power. Projection and the omnipotence of thought are two of the great pillars of Freudian anthropology.
Incidentally, this is how Winer and Cottrell made their survey:
The test most recently used to examine extramission beliefs involves computer representations of vision (see Gregg,Winer, Cottrell, Hedman, & Fournier, 2001; Winer, Cottrell, Karefilaki, & Gregg, 1996). We typically instructed participants that we were interested in how vision occurs, sometimes adding that we were specifically concerned with whether anything, like rays or waves, comes into or goes out of the eyes when people see. We then presented a series of trials in which we simultaneously displayed on a com-puter screen various representations of vision that involved different combinations of input and output. The participants then indicated which representation they thought depicted how or why people see.” Among the choices was pure reception – the correct choice, pure extramission, and a mix in which the eye bounces back information to the object. Amazingly 40 to 60 percent of college students chose either pure extramission or the idea of the eye bouncing back information on the object.
Intellectually, of course, I am down with Kepler and crewe. But life is lived on a level of pure superstition as well. Especially when you are raising a baby. Thus, I have found myself closing my eyes when shushing Adam, as though my eye rays were keeping him up. Or as though some esp mimicry action would work, where pure shushing doesn’t. Of course, it is true that infants latch onto faces, but I close my eyes sometimes even when he is not looking me in the face.
On the level of my psychopathological life, the eye, the gaze, the stare, has a power that no other sensory state has. I do not believe that I can change sound through my ear, but the thought creeps in that I can change sight through my eye. I imagine that me – and forty to sixty percent  of college students – are not alone. What car driver has not decided to stare and point at a red light, willing it green, at some point in his or her driving career? And yet where could this idea possibly come from? I can’t imagine a similar thought about smell, hearing, or touch.
Of course, what other sense is so involved in our waking, doing, communicating, having sex, entertaining lives? Aldous Huxley’s feelies – in which touch would enter our waking world with the power of sight – unfortunately has never been realized. Most of our working life is utterly indifferent to touch – and our concern with smell is mostly that there not be any. But the eye retains its mysterious, mesmerizing symbolic power over us.
All of which will make playing peekaboo with Adam when he is a year older an interesting philosophical exercise, no?