Friday, December 30, 2022

Mencius on water

 When I was toiling away, learning philosophy back in Grad school, I pretty much focused on Western philosophy. That’s a vast amount of material there, bucko, and I figured that if – by the time I was doddering on the lip of the grave – I understood some of it, that would be enough of an achievement.

But such projects belong to the long ago of academia. I’ve become more of a pirate intellectual since then – or, less boldly, a dilettante eclecticist. I take my prizes from where I find them.
Which brings me to Mencius’ marvelous question, which is quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection: the making of pets: “Mencius asked, “Is it right to force water to leap up?” He was taking the position that human nature is inclined to act in certain ways and not others, using the movement of water as an analogy. “Water,” he said, “will flow indifferently to east or west, but it will not flow indifferently up and down.” Now of course, he added, “by striking water you can make it leap up over your forehead and by damming and leading it you may force it up a hill, but do such movements accord with the nature of water?”
It is one index of the fundamental disposition of modernity, over the last three hundred years, that this question simply has no discursive space in which it can be uttered. The discovery of the nature of water is a project we can all recognize, as part of science. But the idea of respecting the nature of water thus discovered forms no part of the world of ideas and actions we inhabit. Mencius’ question is simply weird. We have so little sense that there might be a nature to be respected, there, that we can only view the question as an analogy for the one nature we do respect, human nature. Which, to be fair, is where Mencius goes with it too.
But even if the question exists in a weird and unrecognizable conceptual zone, it does seem more and more relevant to a world in which we have ignored the nature of water, and imposed on it our second nature. We’ve made a lot of water leap over our forehead by damming it. We’ve melted a lot of water by colonizing the atmosphere with our emissions and shit. And we’ve never asked water what it thinks about this. Water doesn’t speak!
But if water doesn’t speak, it has its own nature. Mencius is right about that. We are, I think, gonna have to carve out a conceptual space where water can speak. Or we are going to be in big trouble.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Remembering three foot seven


We measure our growth via shoes, clothes, the visits to the doctors office, the photographs (our first grade class, our high school senior class): but though man is the measure of all things, who among these men and women remember growth from the inside? We, after all, were there, in the growing body. I was once a twenty pound thing. I was once a first grader, about a yard and seven inches tall.  That was the summit from which I surveyed the world.  But how I got to that height and beyond it – this is like the mystery of the holy ghost. The track of my track – if I am the measurer, why is it that these inches and feet seem to have come to me from the outside?

Or at least this is my experience. It is a confusing experience. I can describe, for instance, something that happened to me when I was six. I was with other kids, and we were taunting some kid who had moved into the house catty corner from us. This I can remember, but I remember it in an odd space, bi-located – surely I saw it as I was then, at that height, but I remember it vaguely as an onlooker, outside myself. That X, or I, marks the spot. But when memory digs in that X, the I it recovers is handed to the I that recovered it, and neither of them are quite satisfied with this finders keepers arrangement.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


 I was talking with a friend about memory work the other day. She said she really didn't remember a lot about the past and I said that when I was in my forties, I did serious memory work. That is, I'd take an object - in my account of this, for this is not the first time I've talked about memory work, the object I select always seems to be a spoon. Thus, a spoon. I'd take that object and I would dream about past iterations of the spoon as it passed through my life. I mean, how many spoons have I held between my thumb and forefinger? But I'd dive down through the river of spoons and try to alight on my first spoons, baby spoons, which in my case meant that the handle of the spoon - when I have a memory-dim lit image of this, it seems the spoon is pewter gray - was shaped like a cartoon figure. Was it Pop-eye? And then I remember the grapefruit spoons, which are associated with living in Atlanta, in the house Dad and Mom bought in Clarkston. The grapefruit spoons seemed to me to be a secret signal of middle-classness. First you afford spoons, tea spoons, soup spoons - blue collar spoons - and then you are a Yankee immigrant in the booming sunbelt and you acquire grapefruit spoons, which are more fragile looking, thinner, than the other spoons, but have a serrated edge. Teeth, in short, on a spoon! Looking in my mind at the grapefruit spoon calls up visions of grapefruit, boxes of it delivered at the door, because my Dad liked grapefruit. And my Dad liked to have boxes of stuff delivered to the door. Two great thins in one!

From grapefruit spoon I can jump to plastic coffee spoons, which I associate with being a college student. I liked to do reading or writing in diners, restaurants, at the counter of Krispy Kreme shops. The white, shiny, mass produced, disposable coffee spoon, and the cardboard cup, which I know are called ripple cups, designed for hot drinks. This image is, to me, as bucolic as any garden Marvell sat in. In the mix of coffee odors and the odors of fried flour and lard, and of course cigarettes - I didn't smoke, but I was a college student in an age in which smoker-non-smoker segregation had not even started. I could probably trip from one plastic white coffee cup to another and retrace the odyssey of my college days - from Tulane to Emory to Centenary College in Shreveport to the University of Texas in Austin. With a stop in France at the Universite Paul Valery in Montpellier. Although in Montpellier, I believe, the white plastic spoon did not have the prominence it now has. More actual metal spoonwork, there. My life among plastic cutlery - a pretty typical late twentieth century American life, in that respect. Instead of a trail of breadcrumbs, we leave behind the plastic fork, knife and spoon, from the great mass of fast food joints, convenience food stores, diners, etc. -all of them hand to mouth to trash, and thence on the great journey to the ocean, joinging the great plastic islands, or to land dumps. Each of us fleas on Gaia's capacious hide.
No man - or plastic spoon - is an island.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Eduard Sievers coulda been a contender


Eduard Sievers coulda been a contender.

Sievers was a German philologist of the early twentieth century. In a series of papers he made a plea for what he called a philology of the ear. A beautiful phrase, that floats there in a gray zone, waiting for a meaning. Sievers, though, thought it had a meaning.
Sievers was active at the same time the imagists in American and England, and the symbolists and futurists in Russia were trying to deliver a massive shock to the poetry of their cultures – a poetry that seemed to have been permanently passed by by prose. There were various paths to the new poetry (for, of course, the new person), and one of those was by looking back and trying to grasp that moment in the past where poetry had gone wrong. For Sievers, similarly, philology was born of the era of silent reading, and thus had forgotten the moment when reading was vital – i.e. part of the living stream. That was the long era of reading out loud.

Sievers thought that sound of the written flowed underground, under the strata of silent reading. And, being a Wilhelmine German professor, naturally turned to the newest tools in the lab – the lab in this case being Wilhelm Wundt, with his instruments to observe and measure sensation. “All spoken human talk possessescircumstantially a certain rhythmic melodic character.” 

This was the principle from which he departed in his most famous book of essays, Rhythmic-Melodic studies.

The question that he pursued, given this point of departure, is whether one can find norms. And the way to do that, he decided, was to find a norm. And to find a norm, what better method than to have different people read the same passage in a book, say, and discover if the sound generally tended towards some notable melody?

There’s a wonderful essay about Sievers by Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus: The Promise of a Philology of theEar: Eduard Sievers and Sound Analysis. It is the story of a false promise – Sievers was increasingly driven to bend sound data he developed to his thesis. And at some point he took the esoteric route, like many of his contemporaries – Klages, for instance, with graphology:

In the end, he even introduced visual signals, inspired by the spiritualists’ pendulums: metal shapes to which the speaker was to react sensorimotorically in order to find the correct voice and melodization while reading aloud.

Such madness springs from the search for a norm!
Sievers, then, failed to have that much influence on linguistics or sound studies. But his influence was elsewhere: on Russian poetry. In 1918, in the dawn of the revolution – and the dark preface to the years of starvation – the Institute of the Living Word was founded in Leningrad, by Bely, Blok and Boris Eikenbaum, under the inspiration of Sievers philology of the ear. The Institute had a phonograph recorder named Sergei Bernshtein, and though, like all the best things, it was shut down by the Stalinists (in 1930), Bernshtein’s recording of the poets, including Mandelstam, was preserved. So we know some of their voices!
The age of sound recording, which is around 150 years old, is the golden age of voice ghosts. Our videos, our telephones, are voice activated recorders, preserve for us the voices of the dead – something you realize more as you move into the age where people around you die. In my family, we have pictures of my Mom, but no recording of her voice – a huge loss to us, I think.
From Sievers notion that sound runs under our print culture, the Russian formalists, like Eikenbaum, began to attend to the aural engineering of poetry. Interestingly, Sievers thought that this sound engineering was not only there, but provided us with criteria we could disengage: “This subjective interpretation of written signs by the reader can be either “correct” or “false”, according to whether it matches with the melody imagined by the writer or not.” As someone who has written quite a bit – a graphomaniac of the purest type – I can attest that hearing someone read what I have written does have a melodic component. And I can also attest to the fact that the curious academic custom of reading papers is, often, an exercise in tone-deafness, in as much as the melodic substructure of the text is completely neglected. This isn’t to suggest that mandarin prose is tone-deaf – on the contrary, Henry James’ late style, as all Jamesians know, is much more oral than his earlier style, since he dictated it. Rather, it is to point to the way that papers edited for the eye often sound eyeballed rather than tongued when they come out at the podium.
This year, I will work on licking my sentences into place.

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...