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.

newest | archives | search | about | wishlist | flickr | email | rss

5 Mar '16 12:23:44 AM

In my bag, there's a folder containing my CV, my resume, and the handouts that came with the folder, handed to me by the facilitator for the re-employment training session that the state mandated I should receive—receive again, the second of two, or third of three if you count the nearly identical one from Iowa—as a condition of enjoying unemployment insurance payments for too long a time without finding work.

It's been there for several years now though I have no use for it. Just lugging it along. I've had at least, say, six jobs since it was handed to me, none permanent, none all that good.

It seems I'm waiting on a change before I get rid of the folder—before I stop feeling 'unemployed'.

5 Mar '16 12:06:15 AM

A test case for rationality and irrationality, belief and certainty: I put deodorant on, one side; then the other (or?); then, absentminded, staring in the mirror, I think, 'did I do the other?': unsure, I do it again (?); then, in case that was twice, I do the first side again so that 'at least it's even' (if).

4 Mar '16 11:46:06 PM

Against the sublimated view of philosophical argumentation as lockstep, line-to-line clarity, the experience of reading any actual argumentative text: specifically, of realizing one has entered a passage either murkier or harder to understand clearly than preceding ones, and gliding on ahead until one reaches material sufficient to frame or anchor a reading which could return more profitably to the passage.

2 Mar '16 05:31:20 PM

Dylan's secret archive! I like 'group of institutions', it makes them sound more shadowy and machinating.

1 Mar '16 12:53:02 AM

'… what time will there remain for doing anything else?'

28 Feb '16 04:37:04 PM

Work-talk from the word-hole

27 Feb '16 06:10:40 AM

Lucretius' reasoning, in De rerum natura, re not fearing unvanquished legendary monsters: they're over there, but we don't have to go over there.

27 Feb '16 05:27:36 AM

Thinking about the difficulty of putting things into words has reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago, probably while trying to justify to myself some risks I had taken, not long before that, when teaching an aesthetics course that was heavy on prosaic efforts, by me and my students, at just listening and trying to talk about what we heard:

'Our concepts get their content, their life, from the inferential relationships they bear to one another and from those objects in the world to which we apply them. In contrast to the methodically articulated concepts of science or the ready-to-hand concepts of everyday life, the concepts of art are blunt, unwieldy instruments with which most of us are ill-practiced. We're more used to letting the objects speak for us, letting them stand in for what we might say about them. We share a song, point at a picture, utter a few words, and let nature take its course. We might be content to let the rest go unsaid, felt or experienced or undergone rather than fully, explicitly known, as long as we find some rough agreement about which objects it is that we share, or who it is we share our reactions with. Or we might revel in art's capacity to speak privately to us or induce membership in a select circle of people who understand one another without needing to say it all. As we move from feelings, habits, and tacit understandings among the like-minded, anchored in particular objects, to unmoored talk about art at the broadest scope, we’re liable to do an injustice to our actual lives with art, our actual concepts, for all sorts of reasons. This is one reason criticism, the actual practice of criticism, is essential for doing aesthetics well. It's our means for making art fully available to our philosophical reflection.'

I suppose I was in an apologetic frame of mind: apologetic on behalf of 'us', on behalf of what we ordinarily do with music, before we come to the crucial point for aesthetics, of putting what we do into words. So I wanted to leave room to acknowledge natural reasons that we may say little, may be less articulate than elsewhere, may find ourselves at a loss for words when challenged to say more about objects which are after all only partially ordinary, only akin in qualified ways to the other things, and other people, we deal with in everyday life.

I guess I usually want to leave that room because I'm skeptical about what happens when it's crowded by all the ways in which people are all too ready to have something to say—ways I associate with aesthetics, with criticism, with informally or formally institutionalized culture. You can learn something from these, even learn something about your own responses to a thing, learn something about yourself. But they're too loud, too fast. They too often keep us from being able to, to be patient enough to watch and listen. Criticism—by others, so what we have a hard time not thinking of as official criticism—insinuates itself too easily into what we do with art. It has so much to say; we feel like we can barely say anything.

I don't usually associate that particular sort of speechlessness with sublimity, maybe because I think more about efforts we have yet to make to put things into words, than about limits to our ability to do so (at a Tractarian extreme, say). But it's occurred to me recently that I might.

I've been circling around my television project for about a year, since I first had some ideas about how get some old notes about some TV shows going somewhere while contesting Cavell's attempt at writing about television as a medium, in 'The Fact of Television'. I was struck by how much trouble he had affirming that TV was worth anything at all, considering his insistence in the first chapter of The World Viewed that film is distinctive in demanding consideration, by 'serious' people, of the interest taken in ordinary films by ordinary ('typical') people: 'you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like the popular ones. You don't even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well' (p. 6). Or considering the arguments on behalf of Hollywood remarriage comedies (aka screwball comedies) as, let's say, party to philosophical conversation and serious moral reflection about ordinary lives, in…

Pursuits of Happiness ('… there is something beyond our distorting of the value of the good films closest to us that keeps them inaccessible to us as food for thought. It lies in the dilemmas I was invoking in calling upon Emerson's appeal to the common and the low, and his and Thoreau's passion for the near, claiming their affinity with my philosophical preoccupation with the ordinary, the everyday. The dilemmas concern what I called taking an interest in one's experience. The films that form the topics of the following chapters are ones some people treasure and others despise, ones which many on both sides or on no side bear in their experience as memorable public events, segments of the experiences, the memories, of a common life. So that the difficulty of assessing them is the same as the difficulty of assessing everyday experience, the difficulty of expressing oneself satisfactorily, of making oneself find the words for what one is specifically interested to say, which comes to the difficulty, as I put it, of finding the right to be thus interested. It is as if we and the world had a joint stake in keeping ourselves stupid, that is dumb, inarticulate. This poses, to my mind, the specific difficulty of philosophy and calls upon its peculiar strength, to receive inspiration for taking thought from the very conditions that oppose thought, as if the will to thought were as imperative as the will to health and to freedom' (pp. 41–42))

… or in Cities of Words ('… when I thought about these eminent [moral] theories [i.e., deontological or teleological] in connection with the lives depicted in the grand movies I had been immersed in, the theories and the depicted lives passed one another by, appeared irrelevant to each other. Yet these lives seemed and seem to me ones pursued by thoughtful, mature people, heavily in conversation with one another about the value of their individual or joint pursuits. I could not understand my interest in them as unrelated to moral reflection. I claim for these films that they are masterpieces of the art of film, primary instances of America's artistic contribution to world cinema, and that their power is bound up in their exploration of a strain of moral urgency for which film's inherent powers of transfiguration and shock and emotionality and intimacy have a particular affinity' (p. 9)).

The latter passage—which I quote especially because it shows Cavell's self-consciousness about the apparent extravagance of the claims he makes on behalf of what were, I guess, considered relatively unimportant films—comes from what is also his best attempt to articulate 'Emersonian moral perfectionism', which is meant to be non-elitist. The first few pages of The World Viewed, a book which presents itself as a kind of apology for the idea of treating film as an art, even invoke Tolstoy's 'What is Art?'! So how is this degree of solicitousness about ordinary lives and their ordinary loves compatible with what, to me, is an only-partially-surmounted disdain toward television and its audiences, on display in 'The Fact of Television'?

I fear (because it means yet another handful of books to work through before I even have a clear picture) that the answer ultimately has something to do with Emersonian perfectionism, but working through some of Cavell's aesthetic/critical writing in more detail has made me wonder what exactly the costs or conditions of his typical conclusions in them are.

By 'typical conclusions', I'm thinking of the way that the works he reads, as he reads them, seem always to come around to directing hard questions at their audience members, questions only they themselves can consider and answer about the state of their individual lives—and answer, usually, not in words but with something like 'conversion', acting or living differently. Here are five examples of this kind of interpretative conclusion, which I guess I can call an 'implicative remark':

1. 'What I reveal is what I share with everyone else present with me at what is happening: that I am hidden and silent and fixed. In a word, that there is a point at which I am helpless before the acting and the suffering of others. But I know the true point of my helplessness only if I have acknowledged totally the fact and the true cause of their suffering. Otherwise I am not emptied of help, but withholding of it.' ('The Avoidance of Love', p. 338.)

2. 'Shall we blame Beckett because he cannot keep still? Then blame Hamlet because he cannot keep going? Why won't somebody stop us, or start us? Perhaps we've got something to complain about, and maybe it has to do with our efforts first to create and then to destroy our Gods. Nietzsche said we will have to become Gods ourselves to withstand the consequences of such deeds. Camus said we will never be men until we give up trying to be God. Que voulez-vous, Monsieur? Which do you pick? —We hang between.' ('Ending the Waiting Game', p. 162.)

3. 'The writer keeps my choices in front of me, the ones I am not making and the ones I am. This makes me wretched and nervous. My choices appear as curiosities, and to be getting the better of me. Curiosity grows with every new conjecture we find confirmed in the words. It seems all but an accident that we should discover what they mean. This becomes a mood of our acts of reading together: it is an accident, utterly contingent, that we should be present at these words at all. We feel this as the writer's withdrawal from the words on which he had staked his presence; and we feel this as the words' indifference to us, their disinterest in whether we choose to stay with them or not. Every new clarity makes the writer's existence obscurer to us—that is, his willingness to remain obscure. How can he apparently so completely not care, or have made up his mind, that we may not understand? This feeling may begin our almost unbearable sense of his isolation. Did he not feel lonesome? We are asking now. And then we find ourselves, perhaps, alone with a book in our hands, words on a page, at a distance.' (Senses of Walden, pp. 49–50.)

4. 'He is at an end of the words at our disposal; his spade is turned. And the thing that cannot be said cannot be shown; nothing here is secret. What is now before us, unapproachable, is now to be acknowledged or to be avoided, now to happen or not to. Poetry, it is said, is making, say work. That ought not to be taken as an answer to the question of what poetry is, but as an incitement to consider the question; and first the question what poetic making or work is. An essential of the work before us is the teaching, or exemplification of what work is (Emerson's work; let us say philosophical work)—of what it is about our work, and our ideas of work, that keeps the things we most want to happen from happening.' ('Finding as Founding' in This New Yet Unapproachable America, pp. 113–14, reading Emerson's 'Experience'.)

5. 'The sequence is a kind of summary epilogue, gathering together the characters as well as the themes of the production we have witnessed. if this production had merely copied rather than absorbed to its own purposes the tradition of eighteenth-century comedy which it consistently invokes, this sequence would serve to beg our pardons for any offense, celebrate the timely conversion of a miscreant (The Marriage of Figaro) or his timely riddance (Don Giovanni), and permit the cast jointly to ask our blessing with our hands. Instead, the Marquis speaks alone, in confusion, to, not for the cast; they face him, their backs to us; and they file away from us, in clumps, as if their production had not been concluded but been interrupted. As if to declare: this production has from the beginning had no audience, none it has not depicted; no standing group of spectators will have known what they were watching.' ('More of the World Viewed', p. 220, reading The Rules of the Game.)

In my experience, coming upon just one of these can be startlingly clarifying: you think that it really does put the work being read into words, really does apply to you, really does confront you with something about yourself, your failure, your fixity, your fear, your indecision, your inaction, your ignorance. The purest, for me, is #3, about Thoreau. With it in mind, I've since taught Walden, and felt a little irregular trying to insist upon exactly that quality of the book that is supposed to make its readers—my students—feel wretched (which I think says something about the specific way these remarks work, or don't).

But once you read Cavell make this sort of remark often enough, you can start to suspect a pose or a trick. A thing. A tic. A line, his line. Which is not to say that it is a pose. It's just, I think, that the way in which the remarks come about (and the consistency with which Cavell is able to bring them about) has a tendency to leave you uncertain about their justification. Given that they often seem meant to focus, condense, a more extensive experience stemming from a reading of a text or a viewing of a film, perhaps that evanescent quality is to be expected, to a certain degree. And there's certainly one remedy there: try harder to achieve, say, the experience of 'continuous presentness' that Cavell says is demanded of the audience of King Lear ('Avoidance', p. 322), with the idea that fuller clarity about the import of the remarks he directs at us will follow. But this being criticism, or philosophy, you want the reasons, too, and though they recede they seem not to be detachable from the remarks that implicate us. (I do think it's fairly obvious that most of these reasons will embody a kind of implicit or ordinary-level reception-theory of the midcentury sort that he would sometimes cite—without directly applying it—as influential on his thinking, say Iser or Jauss, it's just that dealing with such a theory in its 'ordinary' form is not readily accomplished.)

This first became acute for me while I was trying my hand at writing about Homicide around a year ago. I don't think I was trying to force it, but I was a little too automatically trying to write as a 'we'. And it sounded false to me. I had the knack of saying things in 'we' form, but it felt like the show itself undercut me (just count the different times when characters say 'we' in the pilot episode, and consider the particular quality of disbelief they seem to say it with). And not only that, but something about its being television—a few things, actually—seemed falsified to me by my saying 'we', almost as if in the case of television certain comfortable fictions about relationships between critics and audiences could not be maintained.

This sent me back to The World Viewed, to 'The Fact of Television', and ultimately to the essays on Shakespeare and Beckett in Must We Mean What We Say? because I wanted to be able to say something about television as a medium, in particular about the ways in which it supported saying 'we'. For a long while I've had the idea that in written media, there are certain distinctive ways in which a word like 'we' can or can't be said effectively, but in interpretative contexts those constraints seem loosened to me, or at least observed laxly in practice. —Yet apparently (so my dissatisfaction with saying 'we' about Homicide suggests) there are things that make it work or don't, depending on the medium, or the work, or something.

One thing that seems evident from Cavell's aesthetic writings is that he derives some support for his 'implicative remarks' not just from the works but from their media. Perhaps you could say he 'reads' each medium as part of the reading of the work. At least half of part II of 'Avoidance' seems meant to underwrite his claim, in support of the reading of Lear from part I, that 'in failing to see what the true position of a character is, in a given moment, we are exactly put in his condition, and thereby implicated in the tragedy' (p. 313)—underwriting effected by an interpretation of how we are said to 'confront' the figures on a stage which is formulated in terms of a knot of contrasts between real and fictional (pretended, acted) 'presence' (pp. 326–337, esp.). In 'Waiting Game', the analogue is a discussion of Beckett's 'own way of putting the audience in the position of the actors… [or] the characters' (p. 157) in terms of our differential exposure to what is now 'happening' onstage (it's happening to them, not to us: that's all). Nearly every page of The Senses of Walden goes in some way to maintaining the right kind of tension needed to ask, and understand the answer to, the question of how 'a book' could change our lives, could make us or help us change them. And Cavell's answer invokes the familiar sort of isolating effect, this the one achievable in Walden's medium: in the paragraph following passage #3 from above, about finding ourselves 'alone with a book in our hands', he continues (about Thoreau), 'alone is where he wants us. … He is facing out the problem of writing altogether. His writing has not attained itself until it has completely absorbed the responsibility for its existence, i.e., for calling upon his neighbors; in the present case, until it is absolutely still, without assertion, without saying anything that requires his reader to take his word for what he says.… "I have not attained to obscurity" means that the I, the ego, has not disappeared' (pp. 50–51). Left alone with the book from whose words its writer has withdrawn (p. 49), hence left to place ourselves in the world (p. 53), we're tasked with 'an endless realization of our separateness' (p. 54).

(… a draft, ca. January 2014)

27 Feb '16 04:39:54 AM

There was a moment, an extended moment, during my younger years when I could see 'criticism' as a form of exuberance, as a spontaneous overflow of one's interest in and involvement with a work of art (or with anything, really); as a continuation of the impulses that led one to pour again and again over a page, to talk up a record to one's friends, to ask questions which one could only try to answer by putting them to the work by oneself. —In other words, there was a time when criticism was enjoyable to me. Also a time at which my enthusiasms for what seemed naturally to call forth criticism from me also seemed sufficient to push beyond criticism to something like advocacy. I was taken with the project of effecting apologies for the critically neglected; basically, the project of saying to academia, or to high art circles, whoever was institutionally hostile or predisposed not to understand or just not to listen, that low art or popular art was just as worthy or valuable or just as meriting of attention and critical discussion. —Just as much an expression of who we were and a repository of our hopes, anxieties, of the energies that stood to transform our lives, if released by intimate engagement with their sources.

This changed. Obviously because of graduate school, though I do not think, now, that it would be too worthwhile to trace those particular causes. What changed was that it all started to seem like work. The project of criticism became work, partly as my conception of faithful and effective criticism deepened and outstripped my achievements as a critic and my sheer ability to perform criticism (to read closely, to read widely, to take in a form in a moment's glance, to fix the salient details of a whole and let them set the frame for discussion). It also became work as the objects of criticism started to seem like tasks themselves, not enjoyments or allurements or obscure expressions or reflections of self, but as sites of labor. —Nothing not requiring toil, patience, studiousness.

This must have something to do with my change in habits round about this time, which I date roughly to that beginning of graduate school—I mean the change in my reading from being basically a completist practice to one in which I could never stay long with one book, never see one through, never maintain the patience or discipline or interest or enjoyment to continue my reading on through to the end. Obviously there is no necessity to do so, but one consequence is that I also thereby deprived myself of the subsidiary effects of reading wholes; of training my habits of thought, of acquainting myself with the ways writers had of solving their problems, of coming through with satisfactions I hadn't seen coming.

What changed really was that my needs for pleasure changed. My desires changed. I became more insistent, somewhere behind my eyes, that this was not what I wanted, that something else not yet seen, something different, was the true form of my satisfaction in thinking. —That different stories, that a different crystallization of words, different forms, would give me the satisfactions that I thought somehow to expect from the act of reading. —Presaged in all my years of sitting alone with a book, of being caught up imaginatively, of being moved from book to paper or screen to talk about what I had read, of it being suggested by teachers and authorities and culture in general that there was something yet to be written which would arise somehow from what I had read and from what I had yet to write (and hear, and see, and feel).

As ease of enjoyment eluded me more and more the act of reading itself came more and more to seem like work, and the act of listening more and more to pass through my life as a sometime pleasure most times silent—an unending sequence of missed opportunities for thought. It started to seem like the things I was spending my time with would not become investments of my time, not investments I could ever receive returns on, unless I put work into them. —And as work, something that in a sense I did not want to do: was made to do by the necessities of life or the world (gotta get those publications, gotta make a name, gotta be known, count), something elicited from me from the outside or imposed upon me by worldly circumstances. These were investments I wanted to make, in a sense. But perhaps also investments that I did not know how to force—in the way that you cannot hurry growth, cannot make natural expression a continuous demand without stifling it, quieting all expression. —There are natural silences, too.

And so my critical impulse subsided, or was redirected, or went underground. In the meantime it diversified, found many more things to touch, things for me to be moved by. —But at the same time that I was less moved; less able to be moved. —As if, at least, I were storing up obscure memories, traces, of my experiences so that channels might be formed in which later feelings might run their course. (If.)

But now what I am feeling is that enjoyment and criticism are at odds. That seeing criticism as work, and seeing the objects of criticism as calling for work, has the effect of pushing out one of the most important things about art or anything like art, that it be a pleasure, freely enjoyed, a realm of play, relaxation, interest freely pursued or declined, that it be a place opposed to work. There should always be something about art that prompts the suspicion: Don't you have something to do? —And the answer, 'Probably, but this is all I want to do'. I would rather do this. Who wouldn't? Why should I do anything else unless I have to—unless someone makes me? (The defiance of someone with a record collection, with 100 pages to go.)

'Work' seems to me to be the key term here precisely because so many of the usual conceptions of the value of art in philosophy or in criticism turn art into work; turn our time with art into time in which we're working, or could be working, or ought to be working. —This is so with any conception that basically treats art as a source of knowledge (because once knowledge is on the scene, there's work of a scientific or skeptical sort to be done, a task: validation). It's also so with any conception that sees art as an organon of ethics or politics, in essence, of moral improvement or social reform. Wherever morality is made to be relevant, a tinge of obligation colors everything that might otherwise be enjoyment, free play, spontaneous interest. And though they needn't be, at least not always and everywhere, morality and work seem to be related. What I must do in a moral sense is something which in many instances I do not want to do; so it is like work. What I must do in a moral sense is something needful, something which will maintain or preserve or restore something which might diminish or disappear if not for me; or something which requires my assistance, my contribution, if it is to be (restored to being) good.

(This line, connected with morality, is an old criticism. There is something that risks being petulant about it. I do wonder if it could be more artfully framed in terms of ethics rather than morality, in terms which, by making it less necessary that a kind of necessity is being attached to art, would also make it seem both more natural and more provocative that art could not have to do with the constellation of values associated with ethics. —Art as a real danger, but thereby a real risk. Genuine enjoyment as a risk.)

There is a problem of authority. Perhaps because authority is really the fundamental currency to which people try to convert art when they make their apologies for it, their appeals to consider its value alongside cognitive or ethical or political values. The apologist must in effect establish that art does have authority, and (being authority) that it ought to be recognized. And it is somehow in the nature of this authority, of its manner of being possessed or wielded or of operating, that it must be heeded, paid attention to, that it requires a kind of sustaining of attention. Something art is in the business of commanding, and criticism is in the business of directing, focusing. In any case, the strategy opted for is to cast the involvement with art as one which is ethically colored and thus demands a kind of ongoing commitment, a not-shrinking-away-from. It is insisted: you must not avoid art; you avoid art at your own peril, or at risk of neglecting the suffering of others, the suffering of the world, at risk of being blind to yourself, deadened to your ownmost feelings, dead to life, closed off to possibility.

Authority is associated with what you must do; who you must listen to; who gets to say. (And thus so many traditional problems for art, as in Plato: problems that turn on who is really speaking—characters, historical figures or legends, gods—and on how they're doing it—too powerfully, mysteriously, uncannily. As in Wordsworth; as can seem to crack open ordinary language to get at the grammar of words like 'I' in poets like Creeley.)

It is thus closely connected to work as we ordinarily know it because the conditions of work are largely conditions under which authority is unequally distributed. (Emerson: 'We do not like your work'.)

(… a draft, ca. April 2013)