Thursday, July 19, 2012

on definition

Law and mathematics both developed under the steely eye of the definition. History and literature developed behind definition’s back, which is why both have a ludicrous bent. To understand the power and essence of definition, one must free oneself from its seeming inevitability – one must slip out from literature and history, rather than approach it from law and mathematics.

Of course, once upon a time, definition was not such a power. The idea that norms or numbers form a system, and that the system is coherent and consistent, and that coherence and consistency are systematic – these ideas, granted, were in the air, but they weren’t taken for granted. This is not to tell the familiar story of the dreamtime of the folk – it is, rather, that what a definition is, and why it should have such power, had not yet been systematically developed. Which is to say that the system as a concept had, itself, not been systematically developed. There was the moon, stars, tides and the sun – that is, there was the cosmos – and there were the demons, heroes, gods, and spirits – there was theology – and, retrospectively, we can see these as systems. But – to put it in Hegelspeech – the system hadn’t thought of itself yet.

Once upon a time is the pre-historical category of historical time, and might be defined by… its lack of definition. Once upon a time does, however, emerge in history. Although it has the curious property of only being recognized retroactively – it is like the landscape that is revealed through the backwindow of a moving car, which, however much we know that it is equal to the landscape revealed through the frontwindow of the car just a moment ago, bears the total impression of being behind us – a gestalt-switched twin.

To take a random instance, take IP rights. IP rights bet everything on definition. But this, up until very recently, wasn’t so. Take  this from Sherman and Bentley’s The Making of Modern Intellectual Property Law: the British Experience, 1760-1911:

“One of the most important points of contrast between modern and pre-modern law is in terms of the way the law is organised. While today the shape of the law is almost universally taken as a given ± the general category of intellectual property law being divided into subsidiary categories of patents, designs, trade marks, copyright and related rights ± under pre-modern law there was no clear consensus as to how the law ought to be arranged: no one way of thinking had yet come to dominate as the mode of organisation. Rather, there was a range of competing and, to our modern eyes, alien forms of organisation. It is also clear that, at least up until the 1850s, there was no law of copyright, patents, designs or trade marks, and certainly no intellectual property law. At best there was agreement that the law recognised and granted property rights in mental labour, although the nature of this legal category itself was uncertain.” 

Mental labor, Sherman and Bentley claim, were treated in modern law the way the old behavioralists treated ideas and mental events: as irritants and illusions, having nothing to do with the case. Clearing your mind of mental labor, you go forward from once upon a time and into the clear light of definitions that are appropriate for corporate enterprises, or the modern laboratory, or the studio, or private public collaborations, etc. – all the heavy tinsel of business and policy speak.

I mention this to underline the fact that though it may seem quaint to want to actually examine the philosophical validity of definitions, quaintness can give way to urgency if the police are at your door and you are accused of providing links to pirates. It is at that moment that the average schmuck gets a full glimpse of the armed power of the definition.
And yet – still, I ask you, what is it? A genre? Is a definition like a poem or an aphorism or a novel? A piece of language thinking of itself, a piece of floating meta bumping into our everyday routines? Even asking what it is seems to bring it up (its shadow swelling ominously) behind me. Is it a god, a demon, or … after all … a human being?    

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

metaphysics of paper4: fallen leaves

The waste books (there’s a Russian word for this, the “fallen leaves’ genre,  - Opavshelistika -- seem to leave behind some anachronistic, animal trail in the modern system of literature. That system connects the media and the university in a total environment of writing that conditions the very notion of the “writer”: he’s a journalist, a pundit, a poet, a novelist. In the twentieth century, the writer’s most important work is to produce texts that can be taken up by the cinema, or by television. The writer in the press produces opinions. Literature informs the conversation in the press and the classroom, and prefers its readers to be in the classroom or as members of a bookclub. It prefers, above all, to see literature as a social function – from this point of view, solitude is unmasked as bourgeois mystification, or as a psychological aberration.

This system has a place for the aliens of literature who write the Opavshelistika, but it is in the nature of the system that taking them seriously means metamorphosing them, curing them of the solitude in which they are bathed. It is the cure  that the waste book writers fear, or devise means to avoid. These aliens take marginality and solitude as the conditions of the vocation of writing – and insofar as these are the byproducts of failure (a failure to market, to circulate, and to achieve the regard that comes with good business), the waste book writers tend to will failure, to desire it as a sacred thing, valuable in itself. It is by the crack in the golden bowl, the phrase that doesn’t reach its end – it is by indirection, evocation, and the proper appreciation of fortuna in the very production of writing that one reverses the system’s  unbearably invasive presence.

It is from the point of view of the will to failure that Vasilli Rozanov, in Fallen Leaves, issues his condemnation of writing: “In my opinion, the essence of literature is false: I don’t mean that the litterateurs or, again, the ‘present times’ are bad, but instead the entire domain of their action, and that “all the way to the root.” [my translation from the French]

Rozanov takes up a theme that feeds into the literary guerilla’s rejection of the system, and its paradoxes. It is a theme that is tonally always on a foray; however, these forays have a certain midnight air. It is a theme that lends itself to incendiary grafitti. Yet, its producer, in the morning, wakes up to the fact that he or she is still a writer. The waste book, the marginal note, the rejection of literature, is also published, also circulates, also provides us with a domain of study and of reference. Its communicative content, however true, is falsified by its communicative form, its necessary alliance with the system it rejects.

Rozanov sees,  clearly enough, that writing is an ethical – or, rather, cosmological act.

“ ‘–I am buckling down to write, but is everybody going to read me?”
Why this “I” and why this ‘they’ll read me”? It really means “I am more intelligent than the others”, “the others are worth less  than me.” It is a sin.”

In one of his letters, Van Gogh expresses the thought that Jesus did not mean for his words to be written down, and would have been horrified at the tradition of Christian literature. In a sense, the Gospel is founded on a radical lack of faith – the writing signals that the apocalypse is indefinitely deferred. The charismatic moment is lost as soon as it is finds a medium – this is its melancholy, this is the contradiction that charisma sublimates.  Rozanov was of course attracted to the apocalyptic moment, and he toyed with the vatic function of the writer, all the way to the point of marrying his first wife, Appollinaria Suslova, apparently on the strength of the fact that she had been involved in that sado-masochistic relationship with Dostoevsky that the latter transposed to the Gambler. His own vatic denunciations – of Jews, of Communists, finally of Christ – are violent and, at the same time, never definite, never part of a set code.

Interestingly, Rozanov was well aware that it was the, as it were, material conditions of the written that defined the cultural system of writing that he detested:

“What is new [ Rozanov is writing about his text, Solitaria] is the tone, once again that of pre-Gutenberg manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, one didn’t write for the public because, reasonably enough, the printing press didn’t exist. And the literature of the middle ages are under many aspects beautiful, strong, touching and deeply beneficent in its discretion. The new literature has been up to a certain point victim  of its excessive manifestation: after the invention of the printing press, no one in general was capable of that, and no one, moreover, had the courage to defeat Gutenberg.”

Rozanov himself, according to George Nivat, issued his books in limited numbers, and he tried very much, in the Fallen leaves, to press the occasion against the written – where it was written, what needed to be erased, etc. At the same time, he wrote for the press – he wrote enormously for the press. And from this perspective it is not so much Gutenberg but the great yoking together of the press and the steam engine that his writing set out to defeat, a cosmological struggle against the monologing super-ego.

“My real isolation, almost mysterious, made me capable of doing it [defeating Gutenberg]. Strakhov said to me “Have the reader always present in your mind, and write in such a way that everything be clear for him.” But however much I try to imagine him, I never succeed. I could never represent to myself the face of a reader, the approbation of a brain, and I always wrote alone, essentially for myself. Even when I wrote to please, it was as if I was throwing something over a precipice, making “a great laugh flash out of the depths”, when there was nobody around me. I always liked to write my “editorials” in the waiting room of journals, in the midst of visitors, their discussions with the writers, in the coming and going, the noise, and me planted there hatching an article “a propos of the last speech in the Duma”. Or even in the hall of the editorial  board. One time I had to say to my collaborators, sirs, a little quiet please, I’m writing a reactionary article (gestures, laughs, commentaries). The hilarity was at its peak. Understanding nothing, just as before.” 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Arles - travelogue - don't bet your life on posterity

He didn’t know that it was a Santa Fe sky, say the sky of June 3, 1993, same lowslung clouds, same flat earth, same encircling hills, same high blue sky above the clouds, that he was seeing in that summer of 1888, when he was bothered by the mistral and the rent and the need to suppress his sexual instincts – the year he lived on half cooked chickpeas and cheap alcohol – because Van Gogh never set eyes on New Mexico. I however recognized it instantly, hanging there in the distance outside the bus window as we swept by the acres of sun flowers and made the turn into Arles from Tarascon, where we’d go off the train.

Arles it turns out was not the tourist mecca A. and I feared it might be – seems they had all oiled off to the festival in Avignon – and we settled in for our jaunt nicely after a small blowup at our hotel -- they tried to palm off a room to us that was deficient in the usual room things – handles on doors, lampshades, and size, with the bathroom competing with the bedroom in volume, which was not doing a favor to either party. We achieved a more brilliant room, then we hied it to the Place de Forum for lunch. I suggested to A, a little shamefacedly, that we eat at the restaurant that claims to be the restaurant Van Gogh painted at night (supposedly ornamenting his huge Cargmanole peasant hat with little candles so he could see his canvas). Replete with poulpe and nicoise salade, we then commenced a tour of Arles medievale, and the river. Arles, like Santa Fe, hosts a lotta art in the summer – everybody’s favorite stalker, Sophie Calle, had just been in town for an expo – and it made a nice contrast between the old town’s winding, narrow street, which crooked along like a map of the blind leading the blind, and the affiches for past or present attractions which were glued up all over the pressing walls. The weather was perfect Provence, the kind that brings in flocks of retired British couples. They’d sneak up behind us as we would read the carte outside of restaurants: Mum, ‘ere it says they serve hommelette and frites! I wanted to try the taureau – Arles is right proud of the running of its bulls, and has run them through its cuisine as well, with local sauces and cuts. I liked it, but, such is my feebleness and American decadence, I liked A.’s entrecote de boeuf even more. The next day we used the ticket we’d bought to gain entrance to all the sights on the ancien stuff – starting with Allychamps, Champs Elysees, the street of sarcophagi, then on to the Arene and the Thermes. A. said Arles was practically Italian. Bought a book at Actes Sud, the bookstore/publisher, which has set up a general emporium of culture (coffeehouse, exhibition place, cinema). Then we lounged fashionably in a few squares, consuming beer, Perrier, some green syrupy thing, a mystery novel, emails, and time – until we had to move it to the railroad station and take the express train back to Montpellier. We were sunburned, well fed, and pretty happy about our one day jaunt/anniversary celebration.
Van Gogh, of course, left Arles under less happy circumstances. After the unfortunate ear act and the shutting up in the hospital, fifty Arles citizens signed a petition to the mayor to have him expelled, which depressed him a lot. Reading his letters, it is easy to see what an impossible man he was, messianic in that D.H. Lawrence manner – but I have a huge weakness for the wrestlers with the chthonic soul, the underground men, those who fizz like some malfactured cherry bomb, refusing either to explode or sputter out, and thus dangerous to approach. If only, for his sake, he had sold a few paintings in his lifetime! If only, for our sake, he had sold a few less paintings, or at least for less money, in his afterlife! Those guys at the fin de siecle counted a lot on the Nachwelt – on the future. They staked their work on posthumous fame. But, as Karl Kraus once wrote, do we, the living, really deserve to be a posterity? Kraus doubted we were up to the task. I do too.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...