Thursday, July 16, 2009

Literarture, Space and Time: Musical Reading

For future thought... why does literary criticism treat texts as though they were spatial.. fixed in Euclidan geometric configurations? Atemporal?

As though how we experience them in memory, for critical thought, must replace altogether how we experience them in reading... or should I say... as we read. As though, reading as a spacial, fixed whole, must be privilaged over a beginning to end reading?

That's not how we listen to music... or how we understand its structure.

There are psalms, at least in Hebrew... where a temporal understanding is essential...that is, a word is used and then repeated in a parallel line in such a way that its given a new definition. Begin the reading (or hearing) of the psalm from the beginning, and you have a revised definition of the key terms... which in turn are revised by the subsequent reading. What we learn along the way changes what we experience.

Is literature... or rather, literary criticism, always neo-Platonic in this sense? A criticism structurally in denial of time? Of the Arrow of Time? Must it be?

What would it look like... a criticsm that read with the discipline of music--reading in time?

Some great cartoons

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Aesthetics as First Philosophy

This discussion has grown tentacles embracing multiple comments and several blogs. The following is a comment by Graham Harman of Object-Oriented Philosophy

Levi with ANOTHER GOOD PIECE, (from Larval Subjects) this one on the relation between aesthetics and ontology.

Aesthetics has long been treated as a fringe discipline of philosophy, a moderately respectable diversion for the aesthetes in our midst. But I like Santayana’s point that considerations of beauty play an overwhelming role in our day-to-day lives, despite being only a minor part of philosophy.

My own sense is that aesthetics perhaps deserves to be the central philosophical discipline. (Perhaps Levi didn’t mean to go quite that far, but I am happy to go that far.) I’ve already claimed in print that aesthetic phenomena and physical causation are first cousins, even though they lie on two opposite sides of the great divide created by modern philosophy (”subject” and “world”). I’ll continue to push this idea further in writings to come.

I've long felt that the central aesthetic problem for any artist, as opposed to the concerns of the critic, is the question of Being; why my emphasis on the Aesthectis of Process.

I think of the women... and I do think of them as women, deep in those caves of Spain and Southern France while the men were out hunting--drawing those extradordinary images of bison, elk, bears and mammoths (while having a bit of fun doing cartoon stick figures of their men (with erections, no less, as they did their manly business!)--what else were they doing, if not bodying forth the question of Being?

Why I find nothing could be more natural than Bryant's images from art and science to illustrate
his thinking. Reading Difference and Givenness, I wished he could have formated it more like Larval Subjects. Why can't a book of philosophy have illustrations... even CD's! "Here, when you have read this chapter... listen to Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations! And after this one--get in your car, open the windows, and put on Bob Marley!

I bet Nietzsche would have gone for it!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Literature and Philosophy: Realism and its Representations

Intersecting gallaxies.
Levi Bryant has written a post on Larval Subjects touching on questions of reality and its representations as they might relate to philosophy and literature. Realism and Speculative Realism .   Aesthetics is lost without ontology. Lost, or subsumed to a subcategory of distraction... something to follow the weather on Fox News--or thrown into the Wood to be chewed on by a celebrity critic in The New Yorker.

Don't miss the discussion in the comments! Here's one from Bryant:
...It seems to me that what has been most fruitful in literary studies– and its best chance for relevance beyond the monadic cells of literary studies folks –are not those moments where it “respects the literary object qua literary object” (though we hear a lot of this rhetoric) but precisely when the literary object is assembled with something else: linguistics, marxist social theory (Jameson), phenomenology, philosophy, systems and complexity theory, ethnography, information theory and cybernetics, etc. In other words, literary studies does not articulate what is “in” the text, but rather provokes texts to speak by assembling them with something other than the text.
From quantum physics to neurobiology, science teaches us how limited the 'reality' of the world as perceived and processed by sense and brain, and yet we tell stories as though  none of this mattered, as though this were a kind 'knowledge' kept safely sealed away in the labratories of science, referred to in footnotes, as it were... like dangerous microbes, lest they infect us and translate us into some new form of Being. But the seals are porous, the jars of knowledge are broken; we are not what we were, and never have been... not since we began flaking the first pieces of obsidian, kindling flames for ourselves without the aid of nature's accidents.

Taking up the idea that there is no difference that does not make a difference, there can be no knowledge, no generatively fecund thought or creative act, that does not make a difference to every other field of thought and knowledge.
Here is an exert from Bryant's post:
If we are looking for literary equivalents of Object-Oriented Ontology or Onticology, we would do better to look at the realisms of Italo Calvino in Cosmicomics and T Zero, or, better yet, the strange world depicted Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. In The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus depicts a fantastic reality that is paradoxically more real than any sort of realism we might find in Mark Twain. Here we have a world of imbricated relations between human and nonhuman actors where we can no longer claim that humans are at the center of things, or even where the human begins and ends. In short, what we get is a network of heterogeneous actors forming a collectivity. In the opening “story”– is it a story? is it an entry in a technical manual? is it a definition or a “how-to” guide? –of The Age of Wire and String, we are told about “intercourse with a resuscitated wife”:

Intercourse with a resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an impoverished friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new. (7)

Upon reading this bit of extraordinary poetry our first reaction might be to chuck with a bit of shame and conclude that this is a very sexist double entendre that basically says the housework won’t get done unless you fuck your wife. And indeed, there is a bit of this here. Yet there is much more going on throughout Marcus’ strange book besides. What we find in this short passage is a “flickering”, to put it in Graham Harman’s terms, between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand, where the latter is brought forward into the light much to our discomfort. Among Harman’s key claims is that all objects withdraw and disappear from one another in interacting with one another.

When I use the hammer, the hammer itself withdraws into the depths, becoming invisible, reduced to its execution in fastening boards. For Graham this is true of all objects and not unique to the Dasein-object relation. In interacting with one another the other object is always veiled by the first. While I do not share Harman’s way of thematizing these relations, his portrayal of exo-relations among objects nonetheless helps to capture the strange world of Ben Marcus. What Marcus reveals in these passages– whether he knows it or not –is a strange world of assemblages or inter-ontic relations among actors, where no actor holds sway over the others. In this world composed of wire and string– network relations –all sorts of actors are mobilized in relations of veiling and unveiling, withdrawing and appearing, as they flicker in relation to one another.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ziggurat: New Yorker Story

What is the maze in Stephen O'Connor's New Yorker story, Ziggurat?

What is the Minotaur?

I resist asking for the same reasons I resist asking 'what is M Moreau in A Sentimental Education? (substitute for 'M Moreau,' any character or object in any work of Realist Fiction.) Not that the question is inappropriate. Few questions one might ask of a literary work could be more important. But everything depends on the quality--and direction--of the resistance.

In O'Connor's story there is a Minotaur. He sleeps on a pool table in what seems to be a sort of rec-room in the maze. He eats people. And dogs. Tears them into pieces and gnaws the meat from their bones. He is a very messy eater. The only other character (the only other character who doesn't become food before they have a chance to earn the distinction) is the New Girl. We don't know her name. For that matter, we don't know the Minotaur's name. Only the games the New Girl plays on the rec-room console have names: Ziggarat being the Main One.

To the Minotaur, humanity consisted of loud noises and a series of cowardly and craven acts. Running, etc. Curses, self-soiling. It was not uncommon for one human being to push another into his path, or even to slay that human being and stretch the cadaver out on the ground as an offering... None of this made any difference, of course. Wham! Crunch. Splurt. Hmm. Hmm. Tasty.

The New Girl knows this. She is aware that the Minotaur sees her as lunch. But she is too absorbed in her game. "Her shoulders shook. Her fingers twitched on the computer keys, making noises like munching rodents." Her eyes "were separated by two wrinkles that said to the Minotaur, Go away! I'm too busy for you!"

Oh, no!" the new girl said. "Oh, shit." Her smell filled his sinuses and engendered slobber. At one point, he brought his lips so close to her shoulder that he could feel his breath bounce back off her skin. Why not? he thought. Why not right now? There's not a reason in the world. But he didn't.

And there is the story. Why didn't he?

He likes the way she smells. Is confused and intrigued by her indifference. Almost like love. He follows her through the maze. She follows him through the maze. He loses track of her. Years pass. Centuries. She returns. She sleeps beside him, sleeps in his arms. He loses her again. Builds a Ziggarat (like in the game), breaks through the ceiling of the maze and finds himself in the rec-room with the pool table where it all began. He somehow finds his way to the sea, grows smaller ever smaller climbing and descending the dunes. The End.

Unlike characters in mainstream realist fiction, one can't stop here: describing the plot, the mind and motives of the characters. The story creates blanks one is impelled to fill in. What is this Minotaur? What is the Maze? Realist fiction does too, but it's easier to ignore them. Because a Minotaur is a member of the Null Set--does not exist in the real world, we think his signifigance lies elsewhere--in what he represents, something outside the Null Set. In the case of Realist Fiction, sign and signifier are pasted one over the other, as though they were the same thing. Resistance has to come from the opposite direction. It creates a maze of illusion where we wander, indifferent to the Minotaur stalking us. Interesting, I thought when I finished this story. Opposites illuminate by their difference. But where is the light here, what is its nature and what does it illuminate?

I thought about Chekhov. Gusev's body sinking into the sea and the sky with colors without names. And how could anyone think of Gusev without remembering Billy Bud? Or the White Whale? Or Judge Holden? Or... a vast range of literary production... you don't have to turn to Kafka... for the blank that needs filling, that will not let us rest without engaging our resistance to answer the question... what is the Minotaur?

And there it is, I thought... what's wrong--not with realist fiction--but with its apologists, who want to use literature and art to point back to what they already believe--when everything that matters in art pushes us beyond, out of the maze... the endless game... vanishing into the unknown.
A link to another O'Conner Story: I'm Happier Now, originally published in ThreePenny Review, 2008.
and from The New England Review, TROUBLE

Tohu v'vohu

Until the first word is writen everything is possible. Speech opens outward to the unconditioned, to consequences unintended, to freedom. Not so the written word. In speech, we are like a ship with the bone in its teeth the words trailing out behind us in a widening wake soon to vansih on the surface of a restless sea, We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point--speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusioin. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities, locks you in on a course to the end.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldem clear what those patterns are; they seem to generate ghosts, shades, douplegangers eager to mislead, eager to lure the story into featureless deserts, barren wastes where it will wander hopelessly lost.

Resist the temptation to give in, to surrender to passivity. Above all, resist the safe way out, the straight and narrow path to the finish. There is no safety. No easy way to end it. The very demons that seem so threatening may hold the answer. Run from them and everything is lost. Like the fire around Busirane's castle, it is there to pass through. How else will you be able to give Amoret back her heart? ..

I tie a blindfold around my head. It's surprisingly effective. I wave my hand in front of my face and perceive a shadow image of its passing. No light leaks through from the bottom. Nothing. Perfect darkness. And yet there is this vague image of my hand; my brain, not my eyes, tracking its motion. Reminds me of a drawing class I took years ago. Wichita State University. An exercise we did. We sat facing a reflective screen. In front of us, a large pad of newsprint, in our hands, a stick of charcoal. The room had been specially prepared; blackout curtains on the windows; doors were draped so no light could seep under or around them; a single pinpoint of red light over the screen, lest we become disoriented in the five minutes or so of complete darkness while we waited for our eyes to adapt and the signal for the exercise to begin. The drawing master--Simone, I think his name was Simone--had a slide projector fitted with a mechanism that coordinated a graduated adjustment, rheostat with the lens, increasing light proportionately as the image came into focus. The projection would begin as a blur at the threshold of visibility. Over an interval of ten minutes, the light would grow brighter, the focus sharper. Unable at first to recognize anything--like peering into a thick fog on a moonless night; we were to try to represent what we saw as it developed: an exercise in pure, unmediated vision shades of light and dark creating forms with no identifiable figuration--to record the picture as it emerged. Only in the final seconds was it possible to recognize what we had been drawing. When the light was sufficient to see what our efforts had rendered on the paper a reproduction of a drawing or print would come into focus: a landscape, a still life, a photograph of a nude model. The lights would go on, and the exercise would be over.

My mind drifts back in time. I am fishing on Lake Michigan with my father in his boat. This is shortly before he will die. My parents had bought a retirement cottage not far from Grand Rapids and my mother had sent me bus fare hoping for a reconciliation. The light on the water, that silvered turquoise water, the peaks of the waves glisten in the sun--even the Voice is lulled to somnambulant slumber. I think of my mother--of that last summer, the summer before her final illness, while she is still herself--sitting on the porch--martini hour--watching the sunset over the lake, the jet skiers droning and whining like gigantic mechanized insects, a moment I wanted to go on forever. A tableaux that recedes into the distance, perceived as the light of stars that no longer exist.

That moment of perfect clarity... what happened? Where did it go? Another waking from dreamless sleep. The silence we enter but cannot bring with us, from which we emerge bearing not a trace, as though it had not happened. I listen. The room is quiet--not even the sound of passing traffic on the street. Quiet, but never silent. The mind is always moving, the endless stream of words. To fall asleep, I turn them into images, and then I dream. Of dreamless sleep we have no memory. The Voice calls from the crevice of darkness, from the gates of death and I resist. I pretend to listen, to follow where it leads but where it turns left I turn right. I close the door of the room in my house of the dead. Living with others we shore up the walls of our existence, the walls that contain us, hold us together, the waters of our being. Alone we bleed into the world, the outlines run and blur, we cannot tell where we begin and where we end. Was this what Blake feared? The absence of strong lines define the figure. What he could not abide in Rembrandt.

Why do I keep thinking about silence--a word we can know nothing about, or know only as we know death, as metaphor, surmise, the nothingness that frames the span of our life, the before and after beyond experience, experience that is always filled with signs, signs that may not speak but are never silent. I think of the silence of the woman pouring milk. It is hers, in that room before that window, in the light that caresses her, in the shadows that surround her, but it is not ours. Vermeer doesn't give us silence. He reminds us of the presence of something we cannot know. The silence is in the painting, not in us; we know it only as an absence that draws us out of ourselves, like the silence that frames the lines of a poem. We read the words, read to the end of the line, to the end of the poem and encounter there that same absence. We call it silence, but the silence is on the page, in the white spaces between the words, it is not in us. It is never ours. Never. We say that we have come from silence, as we will return to silence. But our saying this is an admission that between birth and death there is no silence. Not for single second. Look into the eyes of an animal and you will see it--the impenetrable silence we are not permitted to enter, and if we were, if we could (perhaps again, as in dreamless sleep) we would emerge (again) with no trace, no memory of where we had been, no knowledge that we had been there. Is it possible, then, that we do enter into this silence, which we neither experience, nor know nor remember; is silence the dark matter of our being--dark energy that does not interact, or only weakly with our voluble lives? We are left always with this intimation that there is something more, but we can never know or name what lies beyond it. How many times have I fallen through without knowing, into the silence, losing everything? Erased from the lives of others? Not even alone?

Weaving and Unweaving the Tale

1000 banana trees
Imagine a mountain range "read" as a soundwave.
Time as a physical wave, the physical wave as sound, as music.
The wave on the ear, the brushstroke on stone.
Where water and brush touch stone, a spot without form. Where the brush moves, trailing water, a formless spot becomes the history of the evolving present, shapes the meaning of the brush, dictates new direction, evaporates, dissappears.
Brush as dancer, calligraphy as dance.
Gil Johnson