Moving Toward Muteness

  1. Forgive, please, this muddled post, more a dialogue with myself than intended for general readership but ‘published’ as a sort of Foucauldian attempt to overcome internal resistance.
  2. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “…. the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify….As soon as I express myself, I can only guess of the meaning of what I express-i.e. the meaning of what I am.”
  3. Lately I binged on Sontag’s essays. Central to her work are themes of alienation, negation, and a term she uses that I particularly embrace, disburdenment, in the sense of intellectual, or cultural disburdenment. How to refine one’s filters, to jar one’s pre-conceived narratives? Can it be done solely using cultural and intellectual expedients?
  4. Foucault in The Use of Pleasure talks of ‘technologies of the self’ as “models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformation one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object”.
  5. Lately I find myself moving toward muteness, different from silence; refraining from personal expression, not due to a failing of language, but out of a fundamental boredom with myself, not entirely rooted in self-absorption, more with what I signify as a heterosexual, white male (the lowest difficulty setting there is). If I am profoundly bored with much of the cultural outpourings of university-educated, middle-class, straight white men, what more should I add to the discourse but muteness?
  6. Remember the arm-wrestling match in The Old Man and the Sea? Mano a mano, in which the compulsion to settle into muteness struggles with a deep rooted urge to (re)create, to narratively recreate oneself.
  7. One of the fundamental claims Foucault makes of confession is that the confessor does not know the truth. “…silence, …. the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

The Shaping of the Self

Yesterday I alluded to Foucault’s Self Writing [PDF: Technologies of the Self/Self Writing], one of a series of studies on “the arts of oneself” that draws heavily on Greco-Roman thought, particularly that of Seneca.

Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina
Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina

The illustration above depicts Seneca’s suicide (his wife was spared by Nero) who chose the traditional Roman suicide of cutting multiple veins to bleed to death. For some reason the illustration brings to mind the procedure enacted in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In Kafka’s story a device is constructed that very slowly, minutely inscribes a condemned man’s sentence on his flesh. It is Kafka’s most chilling and unforgettable short story. Judith Butler, in an early essay, draws an analogy between Kafka’s device and Foucault’s concept that the body is figured as a blank page available for inscription, awaiting the “imprint” of history and knowledge.

In Self Writing Foucault quotes Seneca’s phrase, “It is necessary to read, but also to write” as an exercise in self-inscription, what Plutarch termed ethopoietic, a procedure for transforming truth into essence. My own framework is not dissimilar to that described by Foucault, whereby I read, make notes reflecting on what I’ve read, spend time contemplating my notes, often reread, and converse about reading with others. This desire for conversation about literature is what drew me to blogging. As Foucault describes, “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self”.

Ethnocentric Criticism

Before (or after) reading my scattered musings in this post I’d urge you, if you haven’t read it before, to give your attention to Aijaz Ahmad’s essay entitled Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”. Written in 1987 it is somewhat dated, and bears a tedious title. That aside, it is a surgical and incisive demolition of the concept of ‘third-world literature,’ and much of academic postcolonial theory.

I shall argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “third-world literature” which can be constructed as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge. There are fundamental issues-of periodisation, social and linguistic formations, political and ideological struggles within the field of literary production, and so on-which simply cannot be resolved at this level of generality without an altogether positivist reductionism.

Ahmad develops his argument to challenge the Three Worlds Theory, or at least Jameson’s conception of the theory. (It is here that the outdated part of the essay is most obvious, in the use of ‘Second World’ to mean socialist countries.) Nevertheless his argument is illuminating.

Elsewhere Ahmad has written (and hints in this essay), about the tendency of the élite or relatively upper class writers and philosophers from developing nations to be raised to canonical status in the West, simply as they are afforded more opportunity and access. Those from a working class background tend to go untranslated or unpublished.

Not, of course, that this is problem only for developing nations. Pierre Bourdieu is his “not-autobiography” Sketch for Self-Analysis contrasts the status (and volume of published work, secondary criticism etc.) of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, both from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, with Georges Canguilhem (as a young boarder he didn’t know what wash-basins were for) and by insinuation himself.

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.