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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.