josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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19 Feb '14 03:32:08 AM

I've been hobbled since a hard fall from my bike on December ice did a number on my ankle. On one of the first trips I made, weeks later, to the grocery store by my usual route, walking through uncleared snow and ice on my stupid boots, thwarted by all kinds of uneven surfaces, smooth surfaces, steps up, and worst of all steps down, I made the mistake of trying to cross at a typical spot, middle of a road, a quick hop onto and over the broad median. Broad, but very steep—more than a step down into the road from my side and even more to get up onto and down off of the median. With the snow and my shaky ankle, and a constant fear of misstepping and falling all over again, I just made it on, then realized that I couldn't make it off—not that way. I picked a path up the median through the snow without slipping, up to the next intersection, where the terrain graded down to nothing to meet the pavement and I could cross onto a sidewalk. On the way back, I just looked, not just at my usual way but at other less direct ways, and thought: I can't do that. I can't do that. I went all the way down the main road, and waited until the next main road to turn my way, so that if I were to fall again maybe someone would see and help.

As my ankle got stronger with return trips I started eyeing the little path worn through the grass from the sidewalk up a little incline to the parking lot at my store. I had been avoiding it, up or down (especially down—no question of down), for a while, feeling stupid and just a tiny bit embarrassed every time I edged along that lot by way of the sidewalk around it. It's the kind of shortcut you don't not take. But hard to take on my ankle, still tender enough not to permit any jumping around, sliding: a risk I felt. I did it as I could, some weeks giving it a pass if I felt sore or if the accumulated snow seemed too icy, too slushy.

It's been a while; I'm still not healed but it matters less once we finally make it to a forty-degree day like today. The snow fell very heavily this week, so all of a sudden, my shortcut is truly blocked: plowed over. Again, I can't do that. But no one could, or would think to. So I pass by it without a thought.

19 Feb '14 01:40:29 AM

Cavell on the modernist perspective on convention:

‘Convention as a whole is now looked upon not as a firm inheritance from the past, but as a continuing improvisation in the face of problems we no longer understand. Nothing we now say, no personal utterance, has its meaning conveyed in the conventions and formulas we now share. In a time… where words have lost touch with their sources or objects… our choices seem to be those of silence, or nihilism…, or statements so personal as to form the possibility of communication without the support of convention’ (‘Music Discomposed’, Must We Mean What We Say?, pp. 201–2).

The denial in the second sentence emphasizes ‘personal’ utterance: ‘nothing we now say’. What is denied about what we say, speaking as ourselves, in our own voices, is that it ‘has its meaning conveyed in the conventions and formulas we now share’. So we (this is relevant to ‘personal’) do share conventions, formulas; but they do not ‘convey the meaning of what we say’. Perhaps it could be put in terms of adequacy. Our conventions, our formulas, are not enough. We mean more than our formulas do. So they do not express our meaning, express us.

There is a diagnosis: our conventions are no longer adequate in this way because words (the, or some of the, ultimate constituents of these conventions?) ‘have lost touch with their sources or objects’, where the alternative there perhaps alludes to sources in us (say, feelings, intuitions, what naturally prompts us to speak certain words) and to the things for which words are suited.

The three alternative choices enumerated in the face of this diagnosis refer back to the difficulty with convention being one of utterance, of speech:

1. silence
2. nihilism
3. statements so personal as to form the possibility of communication without the support of convention

Suppose we represent these choices as if they were made on the basis of conclusions drawn about the difficulty with convention. Then to choose silence would be to conclude either that one cannot, ought not, or simply is satisfied with not speaking—a range of conclusions which indicates the ways in which the choice of silence could variously be regarded as one which is prevented, forced, obliged, or accepted, say a choice one learns to live with. To choose nihilism would be to conclude that convention’s (inherent?) failure to convey what we have it in us to say means that it’s not worth saying; no longer worth trying; perhaps that nothing is ultimately worth saying or doing.

Conclusions leading to either of those first two choices can be framed in terms such that the choices appear to be fated, fixed in the nature of things. There are just some things about which we must be silent; language can’t but come up short. But the conclusions can also be framed in terms which at least highlight a possible role for the personal, for what one needs or wants to say, for how one responds to the difficulty of making oneself understood—a potential for personal involvement which at least suggests that even the ways of regarding the choices as ‘fated’ may fall under suspicion of being evasions, avoidances, of something which it is left to each of us personally to do, to bear.

Obviously, that way of framing things is meant to suggest Cavell’s tendency of viewing meaning in terms of an absolute personal responsibility, as it were an unending and unavoidable task, unavoidable in the sense that, one way or another, our choices come with costs, consequences.

It’s also meant to suggest the way in which Cavell might see the third choice above as situated ‘between’ the other two, as the choice made on the basis of an appropriate recognition of the role of the personal in meaning what we say and saying what we mean, in the face of the present inadequacy of the shared conventions and formulas which are our means of expression.

Note that I said, ‘an appropriate recognition of the role of the personal in meaning…’. I think it’s important to see that Cavell is not necessarily imagining total shouldering of a burden of meaning in the face of a complete inadequacy of convention. See the phrase he uses to describe the third choice: ‘statements so personal as to form the possibility of communication without the support of convention’. That is to say, they are personal enough, or personal to such a (perhaps) remarkable degree that, should convention fail to support successful communication by means of those statements, they may nevertheless succeed, on the strength of their being so personal, at conveying our meaning. This is not to say that convention always and everywhere fails, that we can never make ourselves understood, never say what we mean and mean what we say. And so this is not to say that we cannot make use of conventions, even in making such ‘statements so personal as to form the possibility of communication without the support of convention’. It is just that it would be senseless, on this third choice, to try to leave the uses we make of convention unsupported by the personal, if we have any hope of compensating for our acknowledged difficulties with making ourselves fully understood by conventional means.

‘So personal’: how personal (or: personal, how)? How does Cavell imagine that statements would be, or be made so as to be, personal enough to surmount the difficulties with convention that he imagines?

19 Feb '14 01:05:03 AM

'… we should be suspicious of an activity that reproduces itself through the absence of pleasure.'

18 Feb '14 10:37:18 PM

'… was that any good what we did? I mean, what did we do? I can't tell what's going on!'

18 Feb '14 07:36:31 PM

'… to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity…'

18 Feb '14 06:35:13 PM

Anything for a structure, for facts with which to busy ourselves, to get down to business.

18 Feb '14 06:24:03 PM

Faced with philosophy as it stands, (and) as a discipline with seemingly no use for me, I feel as if 'asked', indifferently, 'who cares about your experience?' We hurry not to touch on anything that matters. We would rather borrow voices than risk using our own.

18 Feb '14 09:45:28 AM

Reading Adorno in conjunction with Hadot, I was struck by a coincidence:

'According to Epicurus, there are "sweet and flattering" pleasures which are found "in motion." Propagating in the flesh, they provoke a violent but ephemeral excitement. People who seek only such pleasures will find dissatisfaction and pain, because such pleasures are insatiable, and when they reach a certain level of intensity, they become suffering once again. These mobile pleasures must be strictly distinguished from stable pleasure, which is pleasure in repose as a "state of equilibrium." This is the state of the body when it is appeased and free of suffering; it consists in not being hungry, not being thirsty, and not being cold:

We do what we do in order to avoid suffering and fear. When once we have succeeded in this, the tempest of the soul is entirely dissipated, for the living being now no longer needs to move toward anything as if he lacked it, or to seek something else by which the good of the soul and body might be achieved. For we have need of pleasure precisely when we are suffering from the absence of pleasure. When we are not suffering from this lack, we do not need pleasure.

From this perspective, pleasure as the suppression of suffering is the absolute good. It cannot be increased, and no new pleasure can be added to it, "just as a clear sky cannot get any brighter." Such stable pleasure is different in nature from mobile pleasures. It is opposed to them as being is to becoming; as the determinate is to the indeterminate and the infinite; as rest is to movement, and as the supratemporal is to what is temporal. It is perhaps surprising to see such transcendence attributed to the simple suppression of hunger or thirst, and the satisfaction of vital needs. Yet this suppression of the body's suffering—the state of equilibrium—makes the individual conscious of a global, coenesthetic feeling of his own existence. It is as though, by suppressing the state of dissatisfaction which had absorbed him in the search for a particular object, he was finally free to become aware of something extraordinary, already present to him unconsciously: the pleasure of his own existence…'

In Epicurean doctrine this pleasure is thus already there, unnoticed: the Epicurean 'cure' renders it noticeable again. It is a kind of ground for hope for a happy life, because, after all, you still exist.

But in Minima Moralia, existence has become grim, the individual's desires determined from without, so that he hardly even retains the possibility of experiencing himself. And the analogue to taking pure pleasure in simply existing is conditional on the vanishingly remote possibility—the actuality—of all others being able to take that pleasure, too:

'He who asks what is the goal of an emancipated society is given answers such as the fulfilment of human possibilities or the richness of life.… There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more.… A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. Enjoyment itself would be affected, just as its present framework is inseparable from operating, planning, having one's way, subjugating. Rien faire comme une betê, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, 'being nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment', might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to fulfiled utopia than that of eternal peace' (§100).

Maybe that's one of the reasons Adorno elsewhere rebukes Freud's hostility toward sexual pleasure, insisting instead (but in terms nearly indistinguishable from those he uses to describe fulfilled utopia) that

'He alone who could situate utopia in blind somatic pleasure, which, satisfying the ultimate intention, is intentionless, has a stable and valid idea of truth' (§37)

—it, its actuality, the experience of it, grounds some hope for the emancipation of society, from within the most intimate society.

18 Feb '14 07:21:48 AM

We sat in the outfield grass and shared a bratwurst and fried mozzarella sticks. My first Dylan show: K. took me. It was the tour with Willie Nelson that hit minor-league ballparks. Like so many things with K., it's hard for me to place. There were too many uncertain times. At some point, before I'd told her I loved her, maybe wishing for some more acknowledgment of something I guess, I must have had to point out that I knew she knew how I felt about her—telling her without saying it, because it wasn't something she wanted to hear. Or, sometimes, I suppose, wanted to be: loved, in that way. Always such complexly unsettled mixtures of intimacy and distance, with K. I vaguely remember this show as one of those times, especially after the pleasure of the show, on the way home, where maybe I felt on notice not to be too affectionate, not to count on a relationship that promised to persist, existed too affirmatively. Maybe you can see why I would especially associate her with Dylan. But also just because it was time—those remasters had just come out, confirming me, and confronted with lively grizzled old Dylan, I was coming around to his 00s run—and because she had her Dylan, too. She had such a personal relationship to so many things, her Dylan included, that being with her changed my Dylan. We shared his records, like she liked to listen to Nashville Skyline in her car in the morning, dropping me on her way to work: literally, by listening together. Bob must have even helped me get laid. Because we did that a lot, listened to records. For a long while at the beginning it was practically the only way I knew to get her into my bedroom, on my bed. I don't know how to say that without coming off like an operator. It's exactly the opposite: I had no idea how to make a move with her, how to tell what she wanted. At the very least, the music provided a pretext for moving our long conversations elsewhere. The why, I suppose, I came to understand later. But at first, music seemed to help with the how: a good reason to tarry, to share time listening, letting something happen. She was always so jealous of her time that our more languid moments were sometimes tinged with wariness, for me, that she might suddenly remember herself, that self, the one distinct from the one I came to know, and rouse herself to get back to whatever, back from our state of exception. Not that I knew her Dylan, with that special intimacy I knew her with. We listened together but we each knew our separate Dylans, which is exactly right for Dylan. Who can talk about what he means to them?

Tell Tale Signs just postdates our time together. I could hardly begin to say how it sounds now: how deepened because of her and her Dylan. I'm not sure I care to; it's mine.