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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28 Apr '16 07:57:36 PM

In writing about 'voice' under modernism in philosophy, I've been working up, among other things, a chapter on Heidegger which focuses on the way he deploys the relationship between personal pronouns and the adverbs of place or spatial deictics or indexicals associated with existential spatiality in Being and Time. It's always struck me as one of the core bases for an urgent, insistent note of realism in the text amid all its obscurities, one that somehow achieves more intelligibility with elegant literary dislocations than he does most anywhere else with more formal measures:

'Circumspect heedfulness decides about the nearness and farness of what is initially at hand in the surrounding world. Whatever this heedfulness dwells in from the beginning is what is nearest, and regulates our de-distancing.

When Dasein in taking care brings something near, this does not mean that it fixes upon something at a position in space which has the least measurable distance from a point of its body. To be near means to be in the range of what is initially at hand for circumspection. Bringing near is not oriented toward the I-thing encumbered with a body, but rather toward heedful being-in-the-world, that is, what that being-in-the-world initially encounters. Neither is the spatiality of Dasein determined by citing the position where a corporeal thing is objectively present. It is true that we also say of Dasein that it occupies a place. But this “occupying” is to be fundamentally differentiated from being at hand in a place in terms of a region. Occupying a place must be understood as de-distancing what is at hand in the surrounding world in a region previously discovered circumspectly. Dasein understands its here in terms of the over there of the surrounding world. The here does not mean the where of something objectively present, but the where of de-distancing being with… together with this de-distancing. In accordance with its spatiality, Dasein is never initially here, but over there. From this over there it comes back to its here, and it does this only by interpreting its heedful being toward something in terms of what is at hand over there. This becomes quite clear from a phenomenal peculiarity of being-in which has the structure of de-distancing.

As being-in-the-world, Dasein essentially dwells in de-distancing. This de-distancing, the farness from itself of what is at hand, is something that Dasein can never cross over. It is true that Dasein can take the remoteness of something at hand from Dasein to be distance if that remoteness is determined in relation to a thing which is thought of as being objectively present at a place which Dasein has already occupied. Dasein can subsequently traverse the “between” of this distance, but only in such a way that the distance itself becomes de-distanced. So little has Dasein crossed over its de-distancing that it rather has taken it along and continues to do so because it is essentially de-distancing, that is, it is spatial. Dasein cannot wander around in the current range of its de-distancings, it can only change them. Dasein is spatial by way of circumspectly discovering space so that it is related to beings thus spatially encountered by constantly de-distancing.' (I.III, §23, SZ 107–109)

I'm focused on these sentences: 'In accordance with its spatiality, Dasein is never initially here, but over there. From this over there it comes back to its here, and it does this only by interpreting its heedful being toward something in terms of what is at hand over there'. Obviously, they only do so much in context, given what else you can see there. But they exemplify the technique most clearly, with its most basic devices: systematically shifting some (ordinarily systematically employed otherwise) parts of speech, with the help of other parts of speech, so that not just a different relationship to the person can be expressed, but a different possibility of an activity of that relating person can be expressed. Its relating, as an activity, say.

Last night, reading over some of Augustine's Confessions for a different chapter, in connection with Wittgenstein, and wanting to think about that book's well-known opening perplexities, or show of perplexities, about securing the proper relationship to its proper audience or addressee, God (which brings all kinds of its own complexities of address caught up in pronoun usage, considering the actual reader's role), I was struck by how much Augustine achieves a related effect by overlaying his Neoplatonist theological ideas connected with divine omnipresence on his first-person-addressed-to-divine-addressee narration. The play on the problems of God's being everywhere is extended systematically through distinct grammatical (in the Wittgensteinian, or ordinary, sense, if you like) points having to not just with location but with mereological containment, with motion and action, and especially with presuppositions caught up in presence and distance as those relate to speech, to speaker and addressee. On the page the 'I' and 'you' anchor all of this, but anything said about the 'I' is kept in a tension, fairly insistently embodied, while ordinary implications of embodiment are undercut (canceled, perhaps we'd say, in Austinian terms) through the invocation of some appropriate aspect of divine omnipresence. Augustine even separately tracks contrasts on which Heidegger later insists on defining consistently, between whos and whats: 'Who then are you, my God?', is a question that follows a lot of this spatial play, to receive answers which all slot under grammatical specifications of activity and agency, while still retaining that undercurrent of omnipresence disrupting suppositions connected with place of action and what is often some at least notional separation of the object or patient of action from the agent. As Augustine transitions to the more substantial phases of his narration, for example dealing with his birth, he continues this whole effect in precisely familiar terms (for, say, readers of Plato or Descartes, the latter possessed of a body 'no different than a corpse' in the Meditations):

'But the consolations of your mercies upheld me, as I have heard from the parents of my flesh, him from whom and her in whom you formed me in time. For I do not remember. So I was welcomed by the consolations of human milk; but it was not my mother or my nurses who made any decision to fill their breasts, but you who through them gave me infant food, in accordance with your ordinance and the riches which are distributed deep in the natural order. You also granted me not to wish for more than you were giving, and to my nurses the desire to give me what you gave them. For by an impulse which you control their instinctive wish was to give me the milk which they had in abundance from you. For the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them. Indeed all good things come from you, O God, and 'from my God is my salvation'. I became aware of this only later when you cried aloud to me through the gifts which you bestow both inwardly in mind and outwardly in body. For at that time I knew nothing more than how to suck and to be quietened by bodily delights, and to weep when I was physically uncomfortable.

Afterwards I began to smile, first in my sleep, then when awake. That at least is what I was told, and I believed it since that is what we see other infants doing. I do not actually remember what I then did.' ( (7–8))

The thought about instinct or natural inclination and the preservation of life expressed there is not unusual in the ancient world—it can be found often in Epictetus, thus even in close proximity to a highly personalized conception of (a different) divinity—but Augustine's concern to align the various possible transitive relationships between himself, his needs, the breast and its milk, his mother, his mother's motivations, and the god that created them and the plan for their lives takes on an unnerving tone of, I'd say, puppeteering, precisely because of all the work done earlier to situate himself, his body, and his pronouns in relation to God.

Later, recounting a time in childhood when he was sick and near death, in proximity to commonplace identifications of God as his father and the Church as 'the mother of us all', all of this dislocation seems to issue naturally in Augustine's saying: 'My physical mother was distraught' (I.xi (17)). In modern idiom, 'biological mother' would bear, I suppose, primarily legal and scientific senses. 'Physical mother' is a somewhat terrifying repudiation of what we take to be the 'I', to be one's body, to be all this around us, which can hardly be retained intact if the body is so denied that one's first other, your mother, is to become a 'physical mother'.

All of this is pretty familiar, I suppose. But I find it helpful to reflect on how far-reaching Augustine's initial gestures about the breakdown of sense that seems to threaten amid the perplexed sort of prayer with which he opens, troubled to take seriously, perhaps, that he really does address someone who is everywhere, could be. They don't just touch what he says, in so many places, but his saying of it, as he is aware:

'But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.' (I.iv (4))

Apparently Wittgenstein became familiar with the Confessions during the war, while a prisoner.

28 Apr '16 04:16:03 PM

'Way back, pork belly futures made sense.'

28 Apr '16 02:45:09 AM

Essentialism about what's philosophy and what's not, encountered out in the field, usually seems irredeemably dogmatic. Not just because it's asserted, as is common, without justification—as it were, appealing to obviousness, and shifting the burden, well this is, you tell me why that's not—but because the justification called for is a metaphilosophical one, lack of which cannot help but infect the conversation itself apart from whatever else one may have been urged to believe during it. The philosophical essentialist is dogmatic at philosophy's peril: given what philosophers, unbelievably, do, it's all too easy for anyone, even a philosopher, to say, at one turn or another: '… so this doesn't really matter after all?'.

27 Apr '16 08:24:58 AM

Reading my own archives, looking for patterns, I was struck by an impression I'd had before, if more faintly, over the years: that I'd written here for various reasons, in shifting ways, at different times, but reasons I could always track, looking back, in terms of what something else, some form of writing, some work, someone, wasn't giving me. —Self-generating community, a backroom, a commonplace book, a Konvolut, an alternative, an unregulated space, an open venue, a private broadcast, a dim beacon, an empty field, a trailing past, my consubstantial, a fixed point, a familiar to which to return, an extensible medium, a workspace, a valve, a quiver, a trace, a record and a window, a bottled message, a reminder. Always a something else to something. —But in the past couple months, fully engaged with a paper that ballooned suddenly into something resembling a book, and writing more every day, I've found, in contrast, that the journal from which I've been inseparable for four years—day in, day out until recently—has lost all interest for me. I don't need it; there's something else.

23 Apr '16 02:53:04 AM

Making music, notation

21 Apr '16 08:02:23 PM

It's a city, but not a big city. Not that big. Big enough to have its places, but not big enough for them to quite take on real cultural existences independent of people talking about them as places. (Copy for a tourism bureau's promotional magazine.) Two cities, actually, geographically continuous, not even perfectly split by the river, and hardly distinguishable from each other in any more than parochial ways. Which only makes their uneven fame seem like a magnified version of that same limiting effect, applied to their names: somehow, 'Minneapolis' is the one that gets to be a place for others, 'St. Paul' is not. (As if its name always carried with it a hyphen in prefix.) But only, one feels, from people talking about Minneapolis as a place, as if the one name were all that could catch hold of imaginations outside the city limits, since there was not quite enough to spark those imaginations other than the intention, the name, people saying it, Minneapolis Minneapolis Minneapolis. In town, say newly arrived, like I was in the summer of 2001, what you hear is a lot of these names, said like that. Oh, Nicollet Mall. Oh, Washington. Oh, University. Oh, Snelling. Fort Snelling, Minnehaha Falls, Nicollet Island, the Metrodome, the mansion where Governor Jesse 'The Body' lives, some house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived once, a building named after Mondale. Lakes lakes lakes lakes lakes that everyone talks about, by name, like it's obvious where a lake is. (Odd, then, that the river is 'the river'.) Lake Minnetonka, say. The Dinkytown streets near campus—of 'the U'—whose names maybe show up in Dylan titles. City Pages. Let It Be Records—not nearly as venerable or as durable an institution as its eponym, the album by local name-legends The Replacements (nearly always paired with Hüsker Dü, in these refrains), which had its own more famous eponym, led me to believe. Blocks away downtown, First Avenue. And there, somehow, at that fixed point of condensation of the collective imagination and the sustaining, circulating names, though dispersed in time and often in place (maybe only to Chanhassen) from the 80s point of origin: Prince. I never super liked him then, never disliked him—I had just been missed by that part of the 80s, growing up on Iowa radio then, although in the late 90s preceding my move to the city, Cities, I had been listening up dutifully, wanting to hear everything that people said you had to hear, opening up. But with the move, of course, came the name somehow, produced especially for new arrivals, 'Oh, Prince'. Rarely accompanied by an insistence that you had to hear Prince, or that he was ours, or that the music mattered, just that he was a given, that his name now went with those names, our names. You try it out, of course. Who knows why, but you sit in a college radio station in central Iowa, say, and play Prince, whatever, but you move to Minneapolis (Saint Paul) and listen to Prince, and you're supposed to—what? You don't know, maybe, but just the talk makes you surmise that something more ought to happen, is happening. You go to the Electric Fetus, you buy a Prince record, you say 'wreckastow', you think to yourself, I'm in Minneapolis, I'm at the Electric Fetus, I'm buying a Prince record. It's maybe similar to what I suppose people feel, or felt, when listening to '1999', which I suppose I heard some in the late 90s but mostly heard in the early 00s, sitting in my office at the U, high up, looking out the window at Minneapolis, thinking not that he was singing about a year I had personally lived through, but that by singing about it, by making it into that title, a name, he had made it into something more than I had lived through, in a sense something that I should have lived more through. The lyrics of 'Uptown' make its eponym seem more like an idea, ideal, than a place, and if a place more likely one in New York than the gentrified 20-to-30-something post-collegiate nexus of a neighborhood here that features prominently in our place-talk but is hardly one where 'we don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be'. But it was one of the first songs I ever experienced firsthand as possibly being about a place, a place I had been and was with mundane regularity, riding the bus or walking down the sidewalk or eating out with friends. Again, though, not because it seemed to say all that much about Uptown Minneapolis, but because it 'said' it, like that, said and sang 'Uptown', and because he sang it, one name saying another name and each somehow growing in stature in the process, conferring more stature on places whose realities were heightened by bearing those names rather than simply being not quite willed into wider existence by their repeated utterance. Today I'll listen to Prince's records and cry.

20 Apr '16 01:00:01 AM

'To what extent was Antony's injunction to the monks to keep a diary followed? There seems to be no other evidence indicating that keeping a diary became immediately a widespread habit among monks. It is only some two centuries later that we hear, from John Climacus, that monks used to carry a small notebook attached to their belt, on which they used to write down their thoughts (logismous) on a daily basis. Calling attention to the passage from the Vita Antonii, David Brakke notes that Athanasius articulates here "his own version of early Christianity's 'rhetoric of shame': because the monk is a mirror, he must form himself so as to be transparent to others without shame or embarrassment." It is something else, however, that this text seems to emphasize. The journal kept by the monk, in which he spells out his inner thoughts, or, more precisely, his evil thoughts (logismoi) or sins, is not meant to be shown to the other monks, but rather to externalize, as it were, these thoughts and these sins, so that they might become visible to individual himself. Through writing, then, thoughts and sins arise to the surface of consciousness, and the monk sees himself as others might see him, as if he were someone else. Writing is here a way of speaking to oneself, a kind of soliloquy—a concept and a literary form invented, at more or less the same time, by Augustine. In other words, writing is here used as a kind of spiritual exercise, and has become a method permitting one to read or decipher one's own soul. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the first Jesuits, who were to give a new life to the idea of spiritual exercises, were very fond of a figure such as Dorotheus of Gaza.'

17 Apr '16 11:34:29 PM


14 Apr '16 03:13:22 PM

'… marking them up and blocking off passages, sorting them into piles and flagging them with bits of scrap paper or colored ribbon or bubble gum wrappers.'