“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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dao and modernity



The Christian and secular books of the world stand in stark contrast to the Dao, as it is articulated in the classic Daoist texts.  There is no more radical reflection on uselessness than is found in Daoism. The notion of that being comes from nothingness and is secondary to it was one that the Daoists shared with Buddhists. But in the Buddhist system, the consequence of insight into nothing is compassion for all creatures and a teaching designed to produce an absolute liberation from the bonds of being. This is the opposite of the Daoist doctrine of inaction. The insight into the way does not lead us to compassion, but a certain type of perfection: perfect uselessness. This is the theme pounded over and over in the Chuang Tzu.

In the chapter entitled Heaven and Earth, Tzu-kung and his disciples encounter a farmer laboriously lugging pitchers of water to his field from a well. Stopping, Tzu-kung offers some friendly advice about a machine the farmer could use to do this work.

"It's a contraption made by shaping a piece of wood. The back end is heavy and the front end light and it raises the water as though it were pouring it out, so fast that it seems to boil right over! It's called a well sweep."

So far, we could be reading a story about a Yankee peddler. We could be reading any story about modernity.

“The gardener flushed with anger and then said with a laugh, "I've heard my teacher say, where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast, you've spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It's not that I don't know about your machine - I would be ashamed to use it!"

Here, too, as we know from hundreds of records of “savages” resisting civilization, we could also be reading a leave from a field report in development economics. But this is not development economics. It is a text that begins in praise of uselessness. Instead of taking the farmer’s words as evidence of his backwardness,  Tzu-kung takes them as a response pointing out,clearly, Tzu-kung’s own lack of enlightenment.

However, the reader is also involved in this text. He who has ears, let him hear – this is the fourth wall of the parable. The reader, then, seems to have gained his lesson in enlightenment rather cheaply in this staging of the sage and the peasant. So that the end of the story reaffirms the uncertainty of the lesson:

“When Tzu-kung got back to Lu, he reported the incident to Confucius. Confucius said, "He is one of those bogus practitioners of the arts of Mr. Chaos." He knows the first thing but doesn't understand the second. He looks after what is on the inside but doesn't look after what is on the outside. A man of true brightness and purity who can enter into simplicity, who can return to the primitive through inaction, give body to his inborn nature, and embrace his spirit, and in this way wander through the everyday world - if you had met one like that, you would have had real cause for astonishment.14 As for the arts of Mr. Chaos, you and I need not bother to find out about them."

The self-erasing dialectic of the useless, here, infects the very lesson in which it is taught. I will set this as a portal through which to view the formation of the “useful” character in Western capitalism.

A second and more famous story applies the paradox to the tree.

In the Human World chapter of the Chuang Tzu, there's a story upon which I've often reflected:
Carpenter Shih went to Ch'i and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn't even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, "Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don't even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?"
"Forget it - say no more!" said the carpenter. "It's a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they'd sink; make coffins and they'd rot in no time; make vessels and they'd break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It's not a timber tree - there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old!"

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, "What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don't get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves - the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it's the same way with all other things.
"As for me, I've been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I've finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What's the point of this - things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I'm a worthless tree?"

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, "If it's so intent on being of no use, what's it doing there at the village shrine?" 15

"Shhh! Say no more! It's only resting there. If we carp and criticize, it will merely conclude that we don't understand it. Even if it weren't at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you'll be way off!"
Again, the assistant lends the needed needling to the larger point. To achieve uselessness, one must find a way of leaping over the larger point. And that leap is the extra-ordinary.

That the parable is in the human world is, of course, a conjunction that should suggest an idea – or at least the approaching ghost of an idea, for it is possible that the monotonous production of the idea is too poor a thing, too head-bound a thing, for a Daoist.

Monday, June 11, 2012

blank spaces on the map: the adventurer and the clerk


Simmel’s essay on adventure (1919) begins by considering the “double-sidedness” of events in a life. On the one hand, events fall into a pattern in relationship to one another, so that one can talk of a life as a whole and mean a unified thing – on the other hand, events have their own center of gravity, and can be defined in terms of their own potential for pleasure or pain. To use an example not mentioned by Simmel, but getting at what he means: Famously, Kant had a regular habit of taking a certain stroll each day in Königsberg. It was famous as a regular habit – it was an example of some craving for order in Kant’s life, which some have read into his work. Now, one walk was, intentionally, much like the other – and yet, they all formed a distinct sub-system in Kant’s life of Kant’s walks.

In ordinary life, we often talk about what we are “like”. If I lose, say, my wallet, I may say, I always leave it on the table. In so saying, I’m observing myself anthropologically – this is what the tribe of me is like. It has these rituals, these obsessions, these returning points. At the same time, there are rituals and obsessions I am not so aware of. I fall in love, say, with a certain type of woman. For instance, I always find myself in relationships with blondes who have father issues and like to exhibit themselves. How does my radar pick out these women? Why is it the same process? Here, things aren’t so obvious. Freud speaks of “fate” in the love life. Of course, fates preside over other things beside the destinies of our dicks and pussies. La Bruyere, for instance, outlines the characteristic of a man who is always losing things, bumping into people, misreading signs, mistaking his own house for somebody else's and somebody else's for his own. We might think that this state of confusion, in the extreme, is evidence of some pathological disturbance of the brain. However, there are a number of habits one "falls" into in one's life, resolves not to continue with, and still - falls into again.

Simmel speaks of events and their meanings in themselves and in relationship to the whole of life. Which can also move in the other direction:

“Events which, regarded in themselves, representing simply their own meaning, may be similar to each other, may be, according to their relationship to the whole of life, extremely divergent.”


Simmel’s definition of adventure is on the basis of this relationship of the parts of life to the whole course of life:
“When, of two experiences, each of which offer contents that are not so different from one another, one is felt as an adventure, and the other isn’t – it is because  this difference of relationship to the whole of our live is the way one accrues this meaning and the other is denied it. 
And this is really the form of adventure on the most general level: that it falls out of the connections of life.”

That falling out of the Zusammenhange – the “hanging together” of our life isn’t to be confused, according to Simmel, with all unusual events. One shouldn’t confuse the odd moment with the adventure. Rather, adventure stands against the whole grain of our life. There is a thread that spans our lives – Simmel uses a vocabulary that returns us to the “spinning” of the fates – and unifies it. Adventure follows a different course:
While it falls out of the connections of our life, it falls – as will be gradually explained – at the same time, with this movement, back into it, a foreign body [ein Fremdkörper]in our existence, which yet is somehow bound up with the center.
The exterior part [Ausserhalb] is, if even on a great and unusual detour, a form of the inner part. [Innerhalb]

As always in Simmel, there is a lot of sexy suggestion here, which clouds one’s questions – especially about the latent conflict between a thread spanning a life and a center. One recognizes the logic of the supplement here – an excess in affirming a proposition has the effect of making it less clear, rather than more clear.

Simmel’s ‘proof’ of this theory about adventure is that, when we remember these mutations in our life, they seem dreamlike. Why would the memory set up an equivalence, as it were, between a dream and an adventure? Because it is responding to the logic of the exterior/interior binary. Dreams, which are so exterior to our waking life that we cannot see them as playing any causal role in that life, are so interior that we share them with nobody else. Introjected – Melanie Klein’s word – wasn’t available in 1912 for Simmel, but something similar is going on.
“The more “adventurous” an adventure is, the more purely it satisfies its concept, the “dreamier” it becomes in our memory. And so far does it often distance itself from the central point of the I and the course of the whole of life consolidated around it, that it is easy to think of an adventure as if somebody else had experienced it.”


These traits – which are expressed, Simmel says, in the sharpness of beginning and ending which defines the adventures in our life, as opposed to other episodes – make adventures an “island” in our life. These traits too call up another in the chain of signifiers that are suggested by the dream – that is, the artwork. Adventurers are like artists in that the adventure, like the artwork, lies both outside of and deep within the whole of a life. It lies outside of and deep within from the perspective of memory – while the perspective that unfolds during the course of the adventure is one of presentness – this is why the adventurer is deeply “unhistoric”. That present is neither caused by the past nor oriented towards the future.

To illustrate this, Simmel uses the example of Casanova. What he says should be put in relationship to Moliere’s Dom Juan, who was always proposing marriage – to propose marriage was his compulsion, as he explains it to Sganarelle, just as Alexander the Great’s was conquest. A reading of the play, like Kierkegaard’s, that regards the marriage mania as a mask for the real seduction underneath takes the conjunction of marriage and seduction too easily.

This is Simmel on Casanova:

“An extremely characteristic testimony to this [the lack of a sense of the future] is what Casanova, as can be seen in his memoirs, so often in the course of his erotic adventurous life seriously aimed at – to marry the woman he loved at that moment. 
By his disposition and way of life, there was nothing more contradictory, nothing more innerly and outerly unthinkable for Casanova.

Casanova was not only a notable knower of men, but was maifestly a rare knower of himself; and though he was obliged to say that he couldn’t have held out in a marriage more than fourteen days, and that the most miserable consequences would inevitably attend this step – the intoxication of the moment so caught him up (by which I mean to lay more emphasis on the moment than the intoxication) that it swallowed up the future perspective, so to speak, hide and hair.”
Walter Benjamin was a very sharpeyed reader of Georg Simmel. It is Simmel’s essay on The Adventurer that unlocks Benjamin’s cryptic observation: “The intentional correlate of living experience has not remained the same. In the nineteenth century it as “the adventure”.In our days it appears as Fate. In fate is hidden the concept of the ‘total living experience’ that is completely mortal.” Benjamin’s periodization seems a bit off here – surely the nineteenth century fantasy of adventure was already thrusting it back into an earlier age? From Scott to Dumas, adventure was one of the monuments of the ancien regime, and its continued existence in the cities of the industrial era was uncanny precisely because it was marked by a time lag, a return to the primitive. Simmel instinctively falls back on the great 18th century adventurer.

But this is only one way to hold the kaleidoscope of the adventurer. Another way, which is perhaps closer to Benjamin, is to contrast the adventurer with the clerk. In fact, the great colonial monopolies: the English East India Company, the  Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the French Compagnie du Sénégal were organized in such a way that the clerk and the adventurer were sutured in one ‘venture’.

"I got my appointment—of course; and I got it very quick. It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go. It was only months and months afterwards, when I made the attempt to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven—that was the fellow's name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man,—I was told the chief's son,—in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man—and of course it went quite easy between the shoulder-blades. Then the whole population cleared into the forest, expecting all kinds of calamities to happen, while, on the other hand, the steamer Fresleven commanded left also in a bad panic, in charge of the engineer, I believe. Afterwards nobody seemed to trouble much about Fresleven's remains, till I got out and stepped into his shoes.