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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10 Aug '12 11:35:14 PM

When he responds posthumously to some of Foucault's writing on the care of the self in ancient philosophy (some of which mentions 'Spiritual Exercises'), Hadot's disagreement seems to focus on what each of them makes of the role of writing in the practices of the self recommended by ancient philosophers. I'm not sure he captures the spirit of Foucault's interest, which to me seems to be skeptical or suspicious of certain claims for the role of this writing, while being charitable enough to treat it as in fact a way of constituting oneself via a practice, i.e. by doing something.

Hadot specifically denies that 'writing constitutes the self'. He would rather talk of liberating oneself from one's individuality 'in order to raise oneself up to universality'. 'Writing, like the other spiritual exercises, changes the level of the self, and universalizes it. The miracle of this exercise, carried out in solitude, is that it allows its practitioner to accede to the universality of reason within the confines of space and time.'

There's an idea of reason operative here which is probably one of the many things Foucault maintains reservations about. Where Hadot wants to say that hypomnemata deal with 'the already said' 'because one recognizes in this "thing already said" – which usually consisted in the dogmas of the school's founding members – that which reason itself has to say to the present', in his essay 'Self Writing' Foucault takes the use of hypomnemata to be 'a matter of constituting oneself as a subject of rational action through the appropriation, the unification, and the subjectivation of a fragmentary and selected already-said'. Hadot treats the writer's recognition of what 'reason itself has to say' in the already-said on the terms preferred by the practitioners (or rather, the dogmas they subscribe to), as a capacity made possible or guaranteed (perhaps?) by 'reason itself', then interpreted metaphysically or ontologically as some best part of them, a fragment of cosmic logos, etc. Foucault does refer to 'rational action' in describing the use of hypomnemata but it seems obvious that he could remain uncommitted about what makes 'constituting oneself as a subject of rational action' possible via the outward practice of keeping a notebook to practice 'spiritual exercises' in accordance with some body of dogma. It could be that nothing more than this makes it possible. Where Hadot appeals immediately to the practitioner's reason as the means of recognition of the truth of what the practitioner writes in his notebook, Foucault's interpretation of the practice is more ambivalent: he insists that it involves 'subjectivation' of what is written by the practitioner. 'The essential requirement is that [a practitioner] be able to consider the selected sentence as a maxim that is true in what it asserts, suitable in what it prescribes, and useful in terms of one's circumstances.' The writer's judgment plays a part in the writing of the notebook, and thus in the notebook's role in constituting the writer's identity, which Foucault seems never to try to reduce or cancel or ground with reference to some permanent, extra-personal or intra-personal (or sub-personal?) principle (as Hadot does explicitly in his response: 'nature, or universal reason, as it is present within each individual', which Hadot nevertheless claims to count as identification with an "Other" thus permitting liberation from one's individuality).

Hadot treats this possibility as a miracle; Foucault treats it as a matter for investigation.

Though his responses on points of finer detail sound like they miss what Foucault is saying, Hadot does in the end make a clear affirmation of what probably separates him from Foucault here:

'I think modern man can practice the spiritual exercises of antiquity, at the same time separating them from the philosophical or mythic discourse which came along with them. The same spiritual exercise can, in fact, be justified by extremely diverse philosophical discourses. These latter are nothing but clumsy attempts, coming after the fact, to describe and justify inner experiences whose existential identity is not, in the last analysis, susceptible of any attempt at theorization or systematization.'

I've always felt a great deal of obscurity or indefiniteness—sketchiness—in any of the lists of activities or practices that Hadot habitually produces in order to explain his idea of spiritual exercises. Perhaps this has something to do with, on the one hand, something indistinct in his anthropology or in what a postwar post-analytic philosopher would call his theory of human action. In ways he seems pre-modern here, willing to talk of activities and powers and experiences and such without much by way of articulation. His emphasis on practices, on exercises, promises to serve as a ground for this talk. He just often prefers to rush on to link his efforts at grounding to the privileged terms of the school of dogma then under discussion. Perhaps Foucault could be seen here as more skeptical about there being this permanent possibility of practicing 'the spiritual exercises of antiquity' as if what they could consist of were independent of the discourses then used to justify them. On the other hand, Hadot appeals to experience (here, his next example is of attention to the present moment; earlier, he cites 'a new way of being-in-the-world, which consists in becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature, and a portion of universal reason'; one to connect to the 'oceanic feeling' he often talks about elsewhere). To make an appeal like this while simultaneously thinking—apparently—that the experiences appealed to are ultimately ineffable sounds like an independent but still confounding point in the issue of whether or not a modern understanding, or appropriation of, ancient spiritual exercises is possible.

10 Aug '12 04:10:26 PM

'If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen them for us.'

10 Aug '12 10:26:04 AM

'In the report, doctors said that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has "a complex personality disorder displayed through her activist stance, and desire for self-realisation." They reported that Tolokonnikova was self-assured and has a tendency to voice her opinion emphatically.'

10 Aug '12 10:12:58 AM

'All that remains is the desire to be, to grow and to give, to share. I want prison ecstasies, epiphanies and revelations about freedom, the lack of freedom and which of these a person needs more for his or her development. I have a tremendous urge to think and feel: in the absence of external stimuli, one’s inner life develops at a furious pace.'

10 Aug '12 10:05:16 AM

'Мы свободней, чем все эти люди, которые сидят против нас в обвинении. Потому что мы можем говорить, что хотим. И мы говорим, что хотим.'

(video)

10 Aug '12 12:33:06 AM

A good word, from Emily Dickinson (#588), to include among the words related to 'life' circulating in the wake of the Romantic-era expressivist view of the self: 'deaden'.

'those little Anodynes / That deaden suffering'

9 Aug '12 07:58:32 PM

In his essay on 'Self Writing', Foucault treats correspondence as the counterpart to keeping a notebook for purposes of ethopoiesis. '[A]s Seneca points out, when one writes one reads what one writes, just as in saying something one hears oneself saying it. The letter one writes acts, through the very action of writing, upon the one who addresses it, just as it acts through reading and rereading on the one who receives it. In this dual function, correspondence is very close to the hupomnemata, and its form is often very similar.' He nearly leaves the principle behind the closeness unstated here: that a letter is addressed to one other.

It comes into play again when he notes that '[t]he letter one sends in order to help one's correspondent - advise him, exhort him, admonish him, console him - constitutes for the writer a kind of training...'. Imagine other forms (like a broadsheet, a book), or imagine a public audience. It seems true that in ways they too could be advised, exhorted, admonished, consoled. But now imagine the same form, the letter, but with a different relationship between the one who addresses it and the one addressed - at least, different from the one you probably presume. Imagine getting a letter from a stranger: 'Eat your vegetables!' 'Get some exercise!' 'Form proper conceptions of what depends upon you and what does not so that your false judgments of things no longer disturb you!'.

9 Aug '12 12:10:15 AM

(A passerby tries his hand at exhortation: 'Eat your vegetables!'. Or 'Get some exercise!'. What are the responses? 'Thanks!' 'Mind your own business!' 'Fuck you, buddy!')

9 Aug '12 12:05:36 AM

You can exhort someone else, or perhaps any number of people, and you can exhort yourself in various degrees of privacy (in your room, in front of the mirror; backstage or in the locker room; off to the side, speaking quietly but insistently to yourself, if at the risk of minor embarrassment), but there seems to be something about doing it in writing: exhorting yourself in words on the page, written only for you, not even spoken aloud.

Imagine a Marcus Aurelius remark projected onto a building, in public, a la Jenny Holzer but with the uncanny thrill replaced by cosmic glumness.

(Who has the power, or rather the authority, to exhort others? To exhort you?)