Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ron Paul

If you're trying to make up your mind, read TPM's coverage against Slate's. I'm not going to make your mind up for you, but you've got to decide whether you want, on the one hand, someone who's personally disgusted at homosexually but politically committed to not imposing a law regulating it or, on the other, someone who happens to be comfortable with homosexuality and believes the law should be an expression of his or her own "comfort level" with it.

I think it's time to consider the possibility not just that racists and homophobes "are people too", but that they are (like so many of us) in the minority. And one thing that a Ron Paul presidency would be good for is minorities. Obama's "liberal" alternative is to let (and perhaps force) everyone to join the majority.

Friendship and ...?

If wisdom is excellence in understanding, then love is excellence in obedience. The lover excels at obedience, just as the wise man excels at understanding. This homology suggests the need for another: what is to friendship as wisdom is to love? I think it was Aristotle who suggested that ethics reduces, ultimately, to an appreciation of true friendship. (Poetry, of course, is what correspondingly reduces to an appreciation of true love.) Moreover, if I was right in my earlier suggestion, then whatever it is will also be to friendship as bigotry is to loyalty. We are talking then about a certain kind of attitude that takes its place, provisionally, in the following set of supplements:

knowledge / power
philosophy / poetry
epistemology / ethics
wisdom / love
bigotry / loyalty
_______ / friendship

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We, Passionate Beings

Having resolved (more or less) to abandon my last hopes of becoming a professional philosopher (i.e., someone whose job it is to philosophize), I feel comfortable reacting immediately to the passing remarks made by philosophers on their way to larger points of great, indeed, unfathomable, profundity. Robert Brandom's monumental Making It Explicit is a book I've so far left unread on my shelf out of the kind of professional humility I'm alluding to. The problem is that I begin to disagree with him over the inaugural gestures he makes on the first few pages. After begining his argument with the question of what "we" might mean, he offers the following answer, already on page 4:

What is it we do that is so special? The answer to be explored here—a traditional one, to be sure—is that we are distinguished by capacities that are broadly cognitive. Our transactions with other things, and with each other, in a special and characteristic sense mean something to us, they have a conceptual content for us, we understand them in one way rather than another. It is the demarcational strategy that underlies the classical identification of us as reasonable beings. Reason is as nothing to the beasts of the field. We are the ones on whom reasons are binding, who are subject to the peculiar force of the better reason.

Later on, he'll talk about us as "discursive beings whose characteristic activities are applying concepts, giving and asking for reasons, taking-true and making-true" (46). I don't actually disagree with this characterization; rather, I disagree with the one-sided emphasis on reason over passion. We can call this simply a philosophical bias. It is the "we" of a philosopher who doesn't know his place in the larger scheme of things. It is true (in a manner of speaking) that we "have our being in a space structured by norms". But norms, I will insist, do not fall back on reasons. I'll try to say something specifically about norms (and institutions) in later posts. Right now, I just want to suggest that we're as passionate in our being as we are reasonable. Or perhaps that we become as much as we are (indeed, that we are what we become).

Riffing explicitly, then, on Brandom's question, I want to say we are distinguished by capacities that are as broadly affective as they are cognitive. Our transactions with other things, and especially with each other, do in a special and characteristic sense mean something to us, but in large part because they have an emotional context: we obey them in one way rather than another, even when we do not understand them. My demarcational strategy, then, identifies us as passionate beings as well as reasonable ones, or perhaps more precisely as reasonable beings who are passionately becoming. Passion is as nothing to the beasts of the field. We are the ones on whom passions are binding, who are subject to the peculiar force of the larger passion.

Indeed, it is precisely more accurate to say we are subject to passion, even though many of the things around us may well become the objects of reason. As I work through Brandom's "normative pragmatics" I will not be denying what Cavell called "the claim of reason". I will only be trying to measure this claim against the counterveiling force of passion.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Loyalty and Bigotry

Here's a pangrammatical supplement that occurred to me today. It started with the observation that loyalty and truth are often opposed, as are loyalty and honesty. We need only imagine the simple situation of someone asking you what you think of someone you're loyal to or, still more simply, of having the opportunity to report on a friend's crimes. Loyalty presumably trumps truth and honesty.

So, what is to justice and decency (truth and honesty's supplements) as loyalty is to truth and honesty? (It is interesting to note that loyalty is on the power side of power/knowledge, along with justice and decency.) What can make us deny justice and decency for the sake of belief just as a loyalty can make us deny truth and honesty for the sake of desire? (Loyalty is a configuration of desire.)

The answer appears to be bigotry, i.e., the obstinate holding of a belief. Loyalty is simply obstinate desire.

I once wrote, "The informal, personal, and often violent networks of loyalty that run the world in the background of [hard-boiled detective] novels are arguably fascist." We can now talk about the discontented, reified, and often obscure networks of bigotry that also operate there.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Social is NOT Rational

I paused for thought when I read this sentence in Morgan Meis review of Péter Nádas's Parallel Stories:

That is the inherent tension of the beastly self in its relation to our rational and socially acceptable desires.

The idea that the "socially acceptable" is also the "rational" is a tired cliché that does not stand up to scrutiny. It is also a denigration of rationality. The world of social acceptability is thoroughly emotional, however insipid it may sometimes be. I stress sometimes. There are perfectly good norms out there. That does not make them rational, however.

That said, I agree that there is something "beastly" beneath both our reasons and our passions, beneath both our material world and our social history.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faith, Prose and Poetry

Following up on the previous post, I think it's worth emphasizing that Kierkegaard equated faith with immediacy. This makes sense when we consider that our institutions (and our intuitions) constitute the presence of power (and knowledge) in our lives. That is, an institution is that in which power is represented immediately in our experience. To "have faith", then, is simply to feel power immediately in your life. Call it the power of God, if you like, but it is really just a very obedient attitude to what goes on around you. (Likewise, as a form of knowledge, faith is a very understanding attitude.)

This, not incidently, also means that life becomes a very "prosaic" affair. Neither institutions nor intuitions are experienced as problematic.

I like Merleau-Ponty's idea of "a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others" in this respect. A poem is, in a sense, always an act of infidelity. So is a philosophical intervention (for which, as ever, we lack a good word, like "poem".) A poem does not emerge from faith, precisely because it does not believe in institutions. It calls out from one individual freedom to another.

I am not wholly without faith, I should mention. (No one is.) But I do believe that our institutions must be challenged by an immediacy that is not immediately obedient or understanding. That is, there must be poetry and philosophy in our lives as well.

Institution and the Individual Talent

In his plan for The Prose of the World, a book he never finished, Merleau-Ponty offers the following insight into the relationship between our poetry and our institutions.

When a writer is no longer capable of ... founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating, he has outlived his time. It seems to me that we can also say of other institutions that they have ceased to live when they show themselves incapable of carrying on a poetry of human relations— the call of each individual freedom to all the others.

Hegel said that the Roman state was the prose of the world.

Perhaps all that is needed in the way of comment on this is the allusion to T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in my title. We should keep in mind also, however, that institutions are the "media of the immediacy" of power in our lives.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Canonical Meditations

Here's a puzzle I'd like to hear your opinion on. There's a straighforward argument for Heidegger's influence on Foucault, i.e., that Foucault's "archaeology" is an empirical and historical application of Heidegger's analytic of Dasein. He studies the Dasein of the human sciences, we might say, and ultimately of humanity itself (in his later works on the history of subjectivity).

Well, I've got this pangrammatical point about Lorca's duende as the poetical supplement to Dasein in philosophy (see also this post). That is, Lorca is to poetry what Heidegger is philosophy. This raises a natural question. Who is to poetry as Foucault is to philosophy? My limited knowledge of poetry suggests the following possibilities: Ashbery, Rothenberg, Waldrop, Watten. Perhaps, trying to decide among them is merely pedantry.

In any case, what we're looking for is a poet who is to Foucault as Lorca is to Heidegger, and, not incidentally, as Tost is to Basbøll.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Poetry and Opinion

She may despise him. Her opinion of him may be as accurate as you like. He may be altogether despicable.

He may worship her. His opinion of her may be entirely wrong. She, too, that is, may be despicable.

None of this proves that his perception of her is not poetry.

It is the poet's task, we might say, to keep his expression true to his perceptions, regardless of the conventional opinion he also forms on the basis of those perceptions.

His intelligence and his poetic acumen are not one.

Borges rightly said that our opinions are the most trivial things about us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Totalitarians Left and Right

I know this is really unfair to Chris Hedges, but the symmetry here is too fearful to leave unnoted.

Is this what terrified Norman Mailer forty years ago?

Monday, October 03, 2011

CNN Gets It ... sort of

CNN's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests makes a distinction worthy of mention here at the Pangrammaticon:

A spirited and leaderless protest in the Wall Street section of New York has entered its third week, helping to inspire a growing number of demonstrations united in their passion if not necessarily their reasons for hitting the streets.

Do you see it? CNN is sensitive to the fact that political activity is a passionate, not a reasonable, affair. (Passion is to power as reason is to knowledge.) Of course, since CNN is very much a part of the establishment, it feels compelled to put the protesters down for not having "reasons" for "uniting". The idea that it is passion not reason that brings people together (reason's only function, I submit, is to keep things apart—for perfectly good analytical purposes) does not compute for CNN, because its poesie is scored to a different lyre, i.e., an axe.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Speed of Appearances

The neutrinos from CERN were showing up at Gran Sasso a few billionths of a second early—in other words, they appeared to be getting from Switzerland to Italy faster than light would travel the same distance. (Clay Dillow, Popsci, 09.22.2011)

I've always thought there was something odd about the universal speed limit. The only good reason I've ever heard for the speed of light as something special is that it determines the simultaneity of visual appearances. When two things happen at the same time, you have to be standing at an equal distance to both events in order to see them as happening at the same time. We see the light from stars that are thousands and millions of years old. (The point being: the "visible universe" is not how it is right now, nor even how it was at a given point in the past; rather, it reaches all the way back into time.) Etc. And think of something like lightning. It appears before the eye before it appears before the ear.

It's because the the visual image is the primary sense we give to "appearance" that "the speed of light" seems (seems!) so absolute. Real instantaneity belongs to appearances. Intuition is the medium of that immediacy.

So I'm not really surprised that scientist have found neutrinos that travel faster than light. It had to happen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Institutional Structure

In my last post, I made the conventional mistake of talking about "institutional structure". Properly speaking, there are no institutional structures, nor social structures either. Only the material world has structure, and it is by mistaking certain material arrangements (like prison cells and lecture theaters) for "social" orders that we can come to believe that the "social world" exists as a structured entity.

Social life (which is not in the world, but in history) has texture, not structure. It has a surface you can feel.

My Position

If intuition is the immediacy of knowledge in thought, then institution is the immediacy of power in feeling. I'm increasingly committing myself to the radical idea that this undermines the legitimacy of social science. We cannot reach an understanding of social institutions through scientific inquiry; there cannot be a "philosophy of power" (a philosophical ethics). We can only hope for greater precision in our obedience (and perhaps our disobedience), and the only way to improve our precision is through poetry and politics. Philosophy and science are simply misapplied when applied to society.

Institutions determine how we feel immediately in a situation. Let us take the banal example: a man's experience of a beautiful woman. Even her beauty (his experience of her beauty) is already conditional on institutions that imbue her features (and not the features of some "plainer" woman) with a very real power. He is "taken" with her (just as philosophers might speak of objects as "given" to us under certain conditions). But consider now the possibility that the year is 1953 and he is black and she is white. Or he is 50 and she is 16. Or consider the difference between his experience of her beauty as a married man and as a single man. All of these differences are felt, and are conditional on the institutional structure of the society in which he lives. We can imagine a society in which color does not "enter into it", and a society in which age differences (and age as such), has a very different effect on our "feelings". It is poetry and politics, not philosophy and science, it is practice not theory, that helps us deal with the exigencies of our "moral sentiments".

The man's experience of this woman's beauty, then, must be extricated from the policies that immediately impinge upon his life. This extrication (a kind of liberation) is effected by poetry. (Lately, I've been reading WCW's Paterson, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about here.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting My Own Drift

The great thing about the pangrammatical homologies (or supplements, as I'm now calling them) is that they force insights upon us we might not otherwise have. The connection between obedience and understanding, for example, was almost startling. By the time I arrived at drift as a supplement for rules I had forgotten that I began with intuition as the supplement for institution. This means that just as "the rules that govern society" are institutions, intuitions are "the drift that questions materiality". The latter is not as obviously true as the former. But if I'm right it is just as correct. Intuition calls materiality into question just as surely as institutions steer society. Just exactly what that means, I'll have to think on a little more.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Drift

I think I have my answer to the riddle I posed in this post. What is to materiality as rules are to society? The answer is, in one sense, drives—tendencies, inclinations, urges. But we need something less anthropomorphic, something less animated, if we are not to beg the question. I've settled on the general notion of drift, which is, of course, sometimes expressed in our drive towards something.

Keeping in mind that we began with a search for a supplement for the "rules that govern society" and got as far as "_______ that question materiality", it might be useful to imagine a paradigm case of drift: the sand in the desert. The materiality of a dune is forever and immediately in question, and this is because the sand drifts. Life itself, the way the human body, for example, continually questions its own materiality, emerges from this underlying drift of matter.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Perhaps this blog...

...will be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a news blog. Its object would be attained if it afforded pleasure to one who read it with understanding.

(cf., of course...)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Rules

This post at Organizations and Markets suggests a pangrammatical supplement. Here's the relevant part

In The Institutional Revolution, Douglas W. Allen offers a thought-provoking account of another, quieter revolution that took place at the end of the eighteenth century and allowed for the full exploitation of the many new technological innovations. Fundamental to this shift were dramatic changes in institutions, or the rules that govern society, which reflected significant improvements in the ability to measure performance—whether of government officials, laborers, or naval officers—thereby reducing the role of nature and the hazards of variance in daily affairs.

The phrase that got me thinking was "institutions, or the rules that govern society". The supplement of institution is intuition. The supplement of society is materiality (the social is to power as the material is to knowledge). So intuitions are the rules that govern materiality. But "govern" actually has its own supplement, namely, "inquire" (inquiry is to science as governance is to politics). This raises a grammatical issue.

We can't just say that intuitions are the rules that inquire materiality. We could perhaps say that they are the rules that question materiality. And now we're really getting somewhere. I've never really thought about whether "rule" has a pangrammatical supplement, but it probably does. What is to knowledge as rules are to power? We have constructed a pretty solid hint for ourselves: whatever they are, they will "question materiality" just as institutions "govern society". Also, they must be "the media of immediacy". Intuition, as Kant explained, is that through which knowledge is given to us immediately. Institutions, accordingly, are that through which power is taken from us immediately. That's the sense in which institutions are "rules".

Another clue is that, sometime around the end of the eighteenth century (around the time of Kant!), a "dramatic change" took place in these ________s that question materiality. And these changes meanwhile, should amount to improvements that "reduced the role of culture" (the pangrammatical supplement of nature) in daily affairs. Context suggests that it would be the daily affairs of scientists ("academic inquirers" rather than "government officials", etc.) that were thus transformed, which seems entirely plausible (i.e., that there was such change in our intuitions at about that time). The question remains: what supplements our "rules" in this way?

I'll leave this as a riddle. (To which I don't yet know the answer.)

Saturday, September 03, 2011

A Narrow Conception of Rhyme

Cached poetry is a verse form that typically refers to a concept of unattainable love. Because of the structure of Italian, the rhyme scheme is like Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at the Coolest Office in the World".

You might imagine a giant shoe, like the one from the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme, but to say you're an inventor sounds like a narrow concept, as if you quickly viewed only the third methodological option

to increase intensity of instruction: narrow the skill set being taught. For example, in order to learn the concept of rhyme, children cross national words (neologisms), clanging speech, meaningless rhymes. The DSM-III-R has carried on this trend toward

an able muse. The resulting poem, however, bears little resemblance to any traditional conception of a sonnet besides being “a narrow but resonant chamber”, and it is “narrow” both visually and aurally, like a padded cell. Furthermore, the turn is not emphasized by a distinct change

of mind. But this is both too wide and too narrow. A child reciting by pure rote a nursery rhyme, or the multiplication-table, is going through a sort of "mini unit" or "center", being introduced to (or reviewing) the concept of rhyming.

Hopefully, the student will use logic to narrow the range of belonging, conveyed through the representations of this "fellow in the grass" or "a word dropped careless on the page" or "Early Childhood".

In November, he wrote Thomas Moore. "All convulsions end with me in rhymes written before the book's conception, in their expressions of sadness." This is a testament to Byron's abilities within the narrow compass of form.

"A Narrow Conception of Rhyme"

Google returns no results for that phrase. Great title for a book. Or maybe a great name for a rap group?

Thursday, September 01, 2011


I think that's it. In my last post I was trying to find the pangrammatical supplement for "movement" as in "movement of the heart". It is, I think, steadiness. So to complete those sentences I left blanks in:

The philosopher is not concerned with the movement of the heart but with the steadiness of the mind.

Just as emotions emerge from love's basic movement, so concepts emerge from the basic steadiness of wisdom.

Love is the movement of the heart by which people become themselves. Wisdom is the steadiness of the mind in which things are what they are.

Update (19.05.13): I like "stillness" better now. Wisdom is the stillness of the mind, just as love is the movement of the heart.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love and Becoming

In this clip, Derrida says some intelligent things about love and the origin of philosophy. He points out that philosophy starts with love, and in particular the difference between the "who" and the "what" of love. The fundamental question of philosophy, he rightly says, is "What is it 'to be'"? And he cites a beautiful definition of love: "the movement of the heart".

Now, I'm always interested in how this relates to poetry. And I would argue that Derrida is here replaying the move by which philosophy tried to muscle poetry off its proper turf. After all, philosophy does not start with love, but with the love of wisdom. (Poetry, by contrast, is the wisdom of love.) The philosopher is not concerned with the movement of the heart but with the ________* of the mind.

Just as emotions emerge from love's basic movement, so concepts emerge from the basic ________* of wisdom. If the basic question of philosophy is "What is it to be?" then the basic question of poetry is always "Who is to come?" That is, who is my love bringing forth. In the other, of course, but not less in the self. If I have a criticism of Derrida's improvised remarks here it is that his presumption that, whether love is of a "who" or "what", its reference is outside the self. I don't think that's true. The "who", the "singularity", that is the real "object" of love, always includes the self who loves.

Love is the movement of the heart by which people become themselves. Wisdom is the ________* of the mind in which things are what they are.

*I thought "coherence" might be the right word. But it isn't. So I'll leave it as a question: what is to philosophy as movement is poetry? Stability? Permanence? Rigour?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Filiality and Mortality

I've liked Karl Denninger since the credit markets crashed and I was lying on the couch with a broken kneecap (no connection to my credit situation) with all the time in the world to figure out what was going on. I'm sure Denninger and Pound would see eye to eye on great many things. I'd be there with them.

His "Recognition of Reality", a post at his Market Ticker forum, is really worth reading. I'm sure that lots of people I respect would take issue with his ideological stance (he's a libertarian), but you've got to admit that his diagnosis and his proposed treatment have the advantage of being fresh.

I've written about filial piety before, a central tenet of Confucian ethics (and politics). I have also increasingly been thinking about the need to accept the plain fact that we will die. I'm tired of the so-called ethical dilemmas that so-called medical-science (read: the psycho-pharmacological complex) puts us in. And I'm tired of the politics of the ordering of welfare priorities. I do know where all this kind of thought too often leads. So I'm wary of it.

But, speaking personally, I've been raising my kids on the assumption that I'm going to spend a great deal of time with them in their adult lives. And, perhaps naively, on the assumption that I'm going to die. I don't plan to spend a lot of private or public resources putting that inevitability off.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


In an article in the Washington Post about philosophical counseling, we find the following nugget of ancient wisdom: "Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, ... argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result."

Pangrammaticism digs that point, but is, of course, much more sophisticated. Suffering is a result of the tension between our desires and our beliefs. Our desires shape our feelings, just as our beliefs shape our thoughts. Thoughts are "about" facts and, here's the crucial point, feelings are "about" acts. It is when the act cannot be immediately carried out (sometimes because we lack the courage) that we begin to "feel". The precise relation between an act and our feelings about it is determined by our emotions (which are a kind of readiness to convert feeling into action and vice versa.)

It is convenient for us to think that our feelings indicate facts. But we must resolutely keep our feelings indicating acts, which we can then lucidly carry out or not. Of course, the whole field of psychology has contributed to our suffering in precisely this way: it has taught us to treat our feelings as facts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cost, Risk, Image

"Do a dangerous thing and you're in danger. That's how it works." (Kate Greenstreet)

I've been thinking some more about this.

The meaning of work (value) is undermined by a lack of care; the meaning of play (danger) is undermined by a lack of daring. Our taste for danger (our daring) is being replaced with an awareness of risk; our taste for value (our caring) is being replaced with an awareness of cost. We're hooked into this cost-risk matrix. We are conscious only of prices and threats. That's the particular nature of our madness.

We are losing our minds. More precisely, we are being unimaginative. Our consciousness of costs and risks is dulling the image. The image forms where we dare to care, care to dare. We must let our caring overrule our awareness of costs. And we must let our daring overrule our awareness of risk.

This is nothing other than maintaining our courage, and remaining curious. We must not reduce our worldview to cost accounting. We must not reduce our historical consciousness to being an actuary of risk.

We must let the image form.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Careful Work, Daring Play

The emptiness of our culture stems from two sources: the lack of care in our work and the lack of daring in our play. There is no danger in our games, and what danger remains is invariably lamented. Hence, "playground reform". There is no value in our work, much of which produces everything from useless plastic trinkets to needless shopping malls, whose only purpose is to serve as the ultimate reference of some financial derivative, leveraged twenty times, to sit in some billionaire's portfolio.

Value and danger: without them, work and play are meaningless. Our enterprises lack pith and moment.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Existential Pilgrimage, In Pursuit Of Dasein

An avid existentialist travels to Germany to find the elusive ground of thought.

for Jonathan Mayhew

I've been into existentialism for years. I love it. Existentialism's got depth. It makes me think I've got depth. Thinking is like heaving a sigh out of my anus, all concept and reason. I need it after the work I do every day. As a teacher at a business school, I deal with students mired in superficial ambition.

Existentialism recharges me. It's exotic, and fun, and I'm good at it. But no matter how long I've been thinking, I'm never as good as I want to be. Maybe because I'm not a philosopher, or maybe because I'm not German.

What I'm missing is Dasein — a magical moment of presence that's part of German lore. It made students bang their heads against the wall and Hannah Arendt take off her skirt .

I've never lived that moment of pure reason, but I wanted to, so I went to Todtnauberg, the birthplace of existence. The mountain lives and breathes it. It streams out of car radios, and kids learn it as soon as they're born. When I arrived, I opened the windows in the chalet where I was staying and existence floated in.

Once a year, Todtnauberg throws a giant party celebrating its three main attractions: Heidegger, Celan and existence. I couldn't wait to get to the festival to see what was there.

In a huge clearing in the Black Forest, with thousands of lights overhead, people were pounding back beers, wearing Heidgger masks and being authentic. The women wore form-fitting dresses in bright colors and polka dots with flowers pinned to their hair. There weren't many tourists — at least not Americans. This was existentia for friends and neighbors, and even though they thought freely and with great depth, I didn't see Dasein there.

The next day, I decided to take a private class with a German man. He was the real thing, people said. He had an air, a way about him, that made existence deep but still funny. He was small and chubby and his round face broke into a smile when I asked him about Dasein.

"It's like being touched by the hand of God," he told me. "A moment of pure reason, like when you're telling a joke."

Hearing what Dasein meant to him, I had even more incentive to find it. I headed back to the clearing and stood under the lights. People were sitting and standing in a semicircle craning for a look. A topos eidon (what they call "the place of forms") opened and an older woman from the crowd pushed her way inside and improvised her reductions.

Here I was, this 40-year-old, hopelessly urbane father and teacher from Copenhagen. I wondered if I'd have the nerve to think. I stood still, watching; when the next thinker finished his brief remarks, I pushed my way to the front and concentrated on the mood. I rubbed my palms, then clapped my hand, and moved to center stage. I improvised — doing a preliminary sketch of the existential-ontological structure of death, which is the mark of a real existentialist.

It took all my nerve to think in front of people who have been steeped in this tradition their whole lives. It was over in a flash, and in that moment tears filled my eyes. Maybe what I felt wasn't Dasein — nobody lifted a skirt or slapped my face — but it was close enough for me.

Existence, I now think to myself, yeah: "been there", baby, bought the T-shirt.

Note: this homeomorph of NPR's vignette on duende demonstrates, I think, some important affinities between Heideggerian kitsch and Lorquian kitsch. But do note that, while my version obviously parodies an image of philosophy held mainly by people who know nothing about philosophy, I presume that NPR's segment is presented without irony. (She says "there weren't many tourists". I don't think the irony is intentional.)

Update 2: I haven't listened to it yet, but I wonder if my post here is also an unintentional parody of this radio program.

Update 2: Listening to it now and I think the answer is yes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Official Verse

The Poet Laureate has been fixed
to an exposed part of America
to divert the poetic impulse of its people
into the earth or sea.

[Explication de texte]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Anxiety and Boredom

Mailer complained that Hemingway "left us marooned in the nervous boredom of a world he didn't try hard enough change". I've always liked that formulation, though I don't think it's particularly constructive to blame a great author for the mess we're in. Let's say Hemingway here comes to represent his generation. They didn't try hard enough. Neither did Mailer's generation. Neither has mine. So here we are.

"Nervous boredom." That was Mailer's description of the mid-1950s. I want to try to use the notions of "care" and "daring" to understand this state. Can we say that boredom is to care as anxiety is to daring. When we "don't dare", we "lose our nerve". There is a sense in which we lack the courage to proceed but, knowing that we must proceed, we grow anxious. We know that something has to be done, but we don't dare to do it.

(We'll leave aside clinical cases and debilitating phobias for now. I'm not an existential psychologist. I'm a philosopher-poet.)

Likewise, boredom indicates a lack of curiosity. It is when we are bored that we must learn to care again. Often, we must find something that captures our interest, something to care about.

What constitutes this "world" that Hemingway did not try hard enough to change? The modern world is constituted by a network of machines (the materialization of science) and a web of machinations (the socialization of politics). Taken together, they can be called, using Foucault's word, the "apparatus" of the age. Heidegger might say that it "enframes" us. "Apparatus" comes from Latin, apparare, "to make ready for". "The readiness is all," said Hamlet. Why does this bore us? Why does it make us anxious?

I think I know. It is because in a world of machines and machinations it is too often stupid to care and cruel to dare. One might say that it is impossible to care (to engage with impossibilities is the fundamental stupidity) and it is unnecessary to dare (to pursue unnecessary danger is to risk cruelty).* More precisely, there are very few things that it is possible to genuinely care about, and there are almost no occasions where an act of daring can be said to be necessary. And yet, in our nervous boredom, it is precisely those moments that we must discover. ("Bring us necessity," implored Kierkegaard. "Bring us possibility!")

I do think both Mailer and Hemingway did their best to locate those moments. At least before they stopped writing for the day, and started drinking.

*[Update: I might be getting this backwards. Perhaps it is cruel to care and stupid to dare. Then again, maybe we're entering a region where one is foolish to distinguish too clearly. What Beckett called simply "the mess".

Monday, August 01, 2011

Apathy and Alogia

The continuing crisis is likely to excacerbate our suffering, or rather, that peculiarly modern kind of suffering, which is the opposite of suffering, an inability to suffer, if you will. It stems from the conflagrations of perception and action, reality and ideality, knowledge and power, belief and desire, in short, pangrammatical imprecision.

The result is increasing apathy and, its pangrammatical complement, alogia, a lack of passion and a lack of reason, the dissolution of pathos and the collapse of logos. One is left with no discernable feeling, no clear thought. While one is kept alive, in a kind of suspended animation, one is barely able to experience one's life.

I take Beckett's How It Is to be among the most precise artistic statements of this fundamental imprecision in living.

If I am right, however, a way out of this crisis is available to us. I call it "composure", and it amounts to a recomposition of belief and desire in our lives. How does one achive composure? That's what I believe I have just discovered: carefully and daringly. "Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still," said T.S. Eliot. He also famously dared us to eat peaches.

It is with these minimal acts of caring and daring, occasioned by barely perceptible twinges of curiosity and sparks of courage, that we constitute the meaning of our experiences.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chris Hedges and Sam Harris on Nuclear War

I stumbled on the dispute between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris today over whether or not Harris has "called ... for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world" in the name of atheism. Since I had just begun to like Hedges (for reasons including, but not limited to, his response to the new atheism), I was, at first, saddened to see him make such a polarising move in a debate. But looking at it more closely, I'm not so sure that he does more than hold Harris responsible for the implications of his views, assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

I'll begin by disagreeing with Harris when he says that "Wherever they appear, Hedges’ comments seem calculated to leave the impression that I want the U.S. government to start killing Muslims by the millions." In fact, in one instance, Hedges quotes extensively enough from Harris to leave the impression that Harris only believes that the killing of millions of Muslims would be necessary in a very special circumstance.

But I think Harris wants us to reject that reading too. Now, the question is whether Hedges was right to say that this is what Harris's argument implies. If Hedges is right, then Harris could of course revise his views, granting the rightness of Hedges's position. (The underlying presumption here is that if Harris's argument is tantamount to arguing in favour of a nuclear first strike, then there is something wrong with it. Harris presumably agrees on that general point.) If Harris is right, however, then Hedges has intentionally distorted Harris's views and is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. It was that last point that saddened me, given my sympathies with so much of what Hedges says. But tonight, having looked more closely at it, I'm inclined to say Hedges is in the right on this one.

Harris's rebuttal consists of a long quotation of the "only passage [he has] ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war and the only passage that Hedges could be referring to" followed by a terse, if conventional, challenge: "I will let the reader judge whether this award-winning journalist has represented my views fairly." That's the challenge I'm going to take up. Here's the relevant passage:

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.

Before leaving it up to the reader, I should remark, Harris does highlight certain aspects of the text to emphasize that he meant this only as a possibility (he emphasizes two "may be"s, for example) and that it applies only under particular circumstances (where an Islamist country aquires nuclear weapons, which has not yet happened). Also, he emphasizes the parts that grant Hedges's interpretation that such an an attack would be an "unconscionable act" and an "unthinkable crime". This would be very embarrassing for Hedges, I would say, if he hadn't quoted those caveats as part of his reading of Harris; but Hedges did actually quote him at such length when he levied his charge. The question now, then, is whether those phrases get Harris off the hook.

I don't think it does. Keep in mind that Hedges is arguing that Harris's atheism is "dangerous". What he claims to have found here is a passage in which atheism's view of religion can be used to justify a nuclear attack. And isn't that exactly what we have here? After all, it is Harris who argues that Islamists (unlike communists) because they get all "dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise", can't be trusted to use their nukes merely as a deterent. From there (and it is Harris who takes us there) it is a short road to wiping out (by nuclear first strike) an entire country that has both long-range nuclear capability and an Islamist regime.

But does Harris actually recommend such an attack? Does he, as it were, articulate the threat of first strike by the U.S. in the case of Iran developing long-range nuclear weapons. I really think he does. While he says it would be unconscionable and unthinkable (morally and intellectually beyond the pale, we might say) he describes it as, nonetheless, necessary: "In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own." Now, I'm not sure that we are entitled to do anything at all to "ensure our survival", but it is reasonable to assume that if someone explains themselves by saying "it was the only thing I could do in order to ensure my survival" that they are, not just describing a "horrible absurdity", but defending their actions. They are appealing to the hopelessness of the situation as a justification for an act of desperation.

Harris claims that for Muslims to interpret this as a "genocidal crusade" would be a misperception on their part, stemming, it seems, from their erroneous religious beliefs. "All of this is perfectly insane, of course," Harris admits: "I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns." What Hedges is saying, and I think rightly, is that the scenario described by Harris depends much less on the religious views of the Islamists than the religious views of the atheists. It is the image of the dewy-eyed longing for paradise that justifies the first-strike. I think Harris has only succeeded in describing a plausible scenario in which an atheist might launch a first strike against a theocracy. A president armed with ordinary Christian faith would have sufficient understanding of the faith of his adversary to find the scenario sufficiently implausible to keep that option off the table.

That is: the first strike is motivated not by "religious ideas" but by the atheist's understanding of religious ideas. And, in that light, atheism is actually quite dangerous, perhaps even, as Hedges is arguing, more dangerous than fundamentalism.

Hedges is of course guilty of caricaturing Harris's ideas for effect. But that's what debate is all about. I don't think he is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. Harris has used atheism to explain the necessity of a nuclear first-strike on, specifically, the Muslim world. He is afraid neither of the U.S. bomb nor the Israeli bomb. If his atheism is right, then such a first-strike becomes "plausible", no matter how horribly absurd it might seem. To people of faith, I think, the first-strike option remains simply unthinkable. It doesn't come up. You don't even take it up for consideration as a possible response to an Islamist regime armed with nuclear missiles. Harris appears to be scared enough of Muslims to seriously consider the possibility killing them all in order to ensure his own survival. (He wouldn't like to have to do it, you understand; but it may one day become necessary because, you know, that's the way "they" are.) His fear is built, not on a lack of faith, but on a lack of understanding of people of faith. It is, quite explicitly, based on atheism.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


My pet project of comparing Lorca's duende and Heidegger's Dasein continues to bear fruit.

Lorca's lecture, "Theory and Play of the Duende", can be transposed pangrammatically as "The Practice and Work of Dasein". Now, dipping into Being and Time these past few days, I've been brooding on the notion of "care", which is absolutely central to that work. Heidegger also explains "reality" [Wirklichkeit] as having an essential relation to "working" [wirken], and it seems natural to think of care as something that pertains to one's work. Careful work is existentially important.

Now, if I'm right about this Dasein-duende connection, then Dasein is to duende as existence is to inspiration. If our existence is grounded in the care we take in our work, then in what might we ground inspiration? Well, work is to play as the real is to the ideal, or rather work is to the real as play is to the ideal. If care brings existence to the real through work, what will bring inspiration to the ideal through play?

It seems to me that the answer is daring. Existence is grounded in careful work; inspiration stems from daring play. It has a kind of plausibility, and it also jibes nicely with the following: courage is to the ideal as curiosity is to the real.


From Lorca's lecture: "The bull has its own orbit: the toreador his, and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists."

From Heidegger's "Science and Reflection": "Aristotle's fundamental word for presencing, energeia, is properly translated by our word Wirklichkeit [reality] only if we, for our part, think the word wirken [to work] as the Greeks thought it, in the sense of bringing hither—into unconcealment, forth—into presencing." (In QTaOE, p. 160-1)

Heidegger, of course, was also fond of quoting Hölderlin's "where danger is, grows/The saving power also." The issue here is how care and daring constitute the here and now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Toxicology

It seems to me that there are times when it is obviously true that environmental protection depends less on the development of fresh ideas than the censure of polluters. Starting up an organic farm downriver, say, is less important than closing the chemical plant higher up.

Might the same be true of literature? I just read two highly respected but very bad novels in a row. (I knew the second one would bad. I read it inspired by the first.) Sometimes I want to write a novel. And sometimes I want to write diatribes against bad ones. (I also sometimes want to write appreciations of good novels, but I'm never quite sure that's necessary or even a dignified activity.) I'm wondering, though, whether it might not be the case that a good novelist, in a particular age, is wasting his talent. He should be writing scathing critiques of the garbage that is being poured into the river. That's Cyril Connolly's image (I'll provide a reference later)* and I think his criticism—coupled with his (surprising) lack of any serious original literary output—is a good example of how individuals weigh the demands of the age.

Pound seems pretty "balanced" in this regard.

*Update: "The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." (TUG, 93)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Some Mathematical Assistance, Please!

If there's anyone with the basic skills to help me out here, I'd much appreciate it. The rest can just enjoy the dizzying infinites implied more intuitively. We are, of course, talking about Borges.

I've been thinking about his Library of Babel again. Recall that each book has 410 pages and that every possible book is in the libary. That means that not only is every possible page (every combination of 40 lines of roughly 80 characters) but every possible combination of pages in the libary. Just as two books may differ in only a single A being a B on a particular page, so two books may differ only in page 7 being after page 8 rather than before it in one of them (I take it even the numbering may wrong in one book and right in another). That much is easy to understand.

But there is also another small possible difference between books that the library realizes. Two books may be identical except that one of them has its own title while the other is, say, the second of a four-volume set, while yet another version of the very same book may be the seventh of eighteen-volume set, etc., etc. The difference may appear only on the spine and the title page of the book. Or only on the spine. And two books may differ only by one of them containing the typographical error of being called "Volume 3" on the spine and "Volume 2" on the title page. So, while we can stick to the dogma that the library contains a finite number of books (all the possible combinations), it quickly becomes an enormous number. By putting some limits on the amount of writing on the spine (Borges doesn't say) we can calculate exactly how many books there will be.

That's not the math question I'm posing, but feel free to answer it if you want. I'm thinking of something Willard Quine once pointed out. Since all possible books in all possible sequences are part of the defintition of the library. The number of books becomes dizzying. But this, Quine notes, is also true of the amount of pages. The problem would arise even the pages were, not 410 pages long, but, say, 205, or 80, or 40, or even 1. We'd still need to arrange those pages in every possible order.

So Quine follows the logic out. What if we only had every possible line in the library? What if we only had every possile letter? What if we only had a 0 and a 1. This effectively erases the problem that the Library poses, doesn't it? The library is as meaningless an image as a zero and a one one two separate pieces of paper. The thought experiment is simply: arrange them in every possible way but under a particular set of contraints. And these constraints are simply arbitrary. "Every possible book" might just be two pieces of paper, one black, one white, until answer questions like: how many lines per page, how many characters per line, how many pages per book? And if we don't answer those questions at all, "every possible book" is an infinite among since there is an indefinite number of pages to work with, i.e., an infinite one.

Anyway, here's the math question. If we bring the library down from every possible book of 410 pages to every possible page, how much smaller would it be? I've been thinking 410410 times smaller. But is that right?

Friday, July 01, 2011

Tony Tost's America, My Summer

Here's my summer reading strategy. I'm going to read Tony Tost's poetry alongside Kate Greenstreet, Susan Briante, and Ben Lerner. I'm also going to read his PhD dissertation again (when I read it over Easter it crystalized a few things for me, something like an epiphany). And I'm going to read his American Recordings, which just came out. I have a working theory about Tony's America that is also a theory about poetry in general. (Tony Tost's America is poetry in general? Maybe.)

Have a great summer. I'll be back with my discoveries at the end of the month, probably.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Notes on the Novel

The Pangrammaticon is founded on the idea that language can be used in various ways—that there are different kinds of "usage". In general, there are four kinds of linguistic experience: scientific, political, philosophical, and poetic. Science uses language to represent objects, politics, to represent subjects. Philosophy uses language to present concepts, poetry to present emotions. Now, obviously, scientists, politicians, philosophers and poets are complicated creatures and don't always confine themselves so narrowly. But this only shows that they sometimes lose their focus.

Novelists, I now want to argue, are free to use language however they like. A novel is part scientific treatise, part political tract, part philosophical argument, part poetic declamation. (Ulysses is perhaps most explicit about this multiplicity of aims.) A novel brings knowledge, power, clarity and intensity to the reader in whatever combination the author chooses.

This idea occurred to me when I recently reread Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers", the introduction to Lectures on Literature. "It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science" (p. 6, my emphasis). Now, Nabokov probably meant that partly ironically. He was playing with our expectations: Isn't science the precise thing? Isn't poetry intuitive? But he's actually being perfectly orthodox here at the Pangrammaticon, where we might add "the precision of philosophy and the institution of politics". Intuition is the medium of the immediacy of knowledge, institution is the medium of the immediacy of power. Intensity is poetic precision. Clarity is philosophical precision.

The novelist's problem is not neatly set up by the terms of any particular "language art". Like the poet and philosopher, the novelist will sometimes use descriptions and prescriptions merely for the reader to imagine. Sometimes the descriptions will be there to be believed or understood, and sometimes the prescriptions will be there to be desired or obeyed.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Comparative Biography

Here are two interesting facts. Søren Kierkegaard was born in 1813, the year the Danish state went bankrupt, the year that, as he wrily remarked, "so many other worthless notes were put in circulation."

I was born in 1971, the year Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard.

Under the Axe of Apollo

Auden's distinction between a Hermetic and an Apollonian ethos is, of course, reminiscent of Nietzsche's distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. I just remembered two other important mentions of Apollo to a similar end. First, there is Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius":

Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue their
Martian generalities,
We have kept our erasers in order.
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations,
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?

Mars (Roman god of war) here lines up nicely with Auden's Ares (Greek god of war). And Auden's description of "Apollo's children", who "never shrink/From boring jobs but have to think/Their work important" resonates well with Pound's "out-weariers of Apollo". While Propertius has kept his erasers clean, Auden's Apollonians never run out of words and now

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

Pound's use of Apollo as a foil predates Audens. Beckett's, however, comes after Auden, and indicates, I think, something of a decline (from Pound to Auden to Beckett) and therefore a kind of victory for Apollo. I would correlate this with the rise of social science and the marginalization or margarinization of art. Here's what Beckett says in a 1956 interview with Israel Shenker:

The kind of work I do is one in which I'm not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working with impotence, ignorance. ... I think anyone nowadays who pays the slightest attention to his own experience finds it the experience of a non-knower, a non-can-er (somebody who cannot). The other type of artist — the Apollonian — is absolutely foreign to me.

This, not incidentally, is quoted by Norman Mailer in his "Public Notice on Waiting for Godot". Mailer did not see himself either as Auden's Hermetic artist or Beckett's impotent one. But he did acknowledge the importance of Beckett's artistic vision of impotence and hopelessnes. In the late 1950s, Mailer had more hope, but social science was also much weaker, though not nearly as weak as in 1926, when Wyndham Lewis confindently predicted that the "alternative" of (not to) fascism would rid Italy of "all the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy" (TAoBR, p. 322), which, again, Auden's Apollonian intellectuals would "commit" as well.

Perhaps today's Gaetano Salveminies will have to write books called Under the Axe of Apollo?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Big World

This is not the most important pop album that was made in 1986, but it may well be the best. More later on why I think so. It's the 25th anniversary of all things 1986, by the way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Poem By Any Other Name

I gave my love a plastic rose, "a flower
that will never wilt," I said. "You fool," she said.
"You haven't given me a flower."

I gave my love a presséd rose. "It's color
will not fade," I said. "Nice try," she said.
"A stuffed dog would have such power."

So I gave my love a fresh-cut rose. Years later,
when I asked her why she left, she said:
"You did not give another."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Under the Lyre of Hermes

This piece by Adam Kirsch is a very clear statement of the reading of Auden's "Under Which Lyre" that has motivated me to postpone (again) my return to academe. I have recently come dangerously close, I fear, to "committing a social science".

It is my firm belief that social science competes with poetry for our understanding of ourselves. Science has been trying to stabilize our subjective positions with a vast array of objective relations, which a good poem always liberates us from. ("The human brain," said Cyril Connolly, "once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow" [TUG, p. xvi].) Since the second world war, however, social science has been winning, and poetry has been pushed to the margins. The lyrical subject has suffered terribly under the lyre of Apollo.

Other than not committing such a science, at this moment I must admit that I don't quite know what to do about it. So I suppose I'll just have to live beyond my means, eschew plain water and raw greens, choose the odd chances over the even ones, "read The New Yorker, trust in God; and take short views." My fidelity, now that I think about it, to Auden's decalogue is actually quite remarkable.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Art of Being Ruled

(Credit for the title of course goes to Wyndham Lewis.)

We seek knowledge in order to foster understanding. We seek power in order to foster obedience. One might in both cases say that our aim is to improve our understanding and our obedience. By this I don't mean the understanding and obedience of others alone, though that may certainly figure into it. I mean that we hope to better understand our world and that we hope better to obey our history.

This is the real lesson of Confucius's "don't disobey" in re filial piety, i.e., the respect for parents and ancestors that lies at the foundation of social order. We are willy-nilly obedient to somebody (you gotta serve somebody) and there is always something that we understand. Our knowledge and our power supports our efforts to improve that understanding and obedience, which then in turn better guides our quest for more knowledge, more power.

Maybe my aesthetic bias is to blame, but I believe that the ultimate goal here is to have more precise experiences. Nabokov called it "aesthetic bliss"; Aristotle called it "happiness". The point of today's reflections is not to underestimate the importance of precision in our obedience if our aim is to be happy.

Monday, June 13, 2011


One of the wonderful things about pangrammatical homology is its ability to extract one wisdom out of another by an almost deductive method. In Pound's translation of the Analects we find the following: "Mang-I-tze asked about filiality. He said: Don't disobey" (II, v. 1). Filiality, or what is also called filial piety, is of course the affection that is ideally felt between parents and children. It is, I think probably rightly, seen as essential to any broader social bond.

Now, obedience is the poetic homologue of understanding in philosophy.

Our question is simply: what is to understanding as filiality is to obedience? In thinking about this just now, it occured to me to keep another homology in mind: causation is to knowledge what morality is to power. This means we're looking for something that is to causation what feliality is to morality. Well, feliality is the root of morality, it is more fundamental and more subtle form of morality, far less categorical, if also far more robust. What is this subtler root form of causation: relativity. So we have:


This may also be why a concept is a category of thought while an emotion is a disposition to feel. The disposition is rooted in filial piety, while the category is grounded in our relative ________. See? It never ends. What is to knowledge as piety is to power?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cf. The Contender

"See, it really wasn't any of your business. And it still isn't."

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Cf. Thebes ca. 1250 B.C.

In his coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign, Norman Mailer compared Bill Clinton to Ramses II, who

at the climax of the year's largest religious festival in Thebes circa 1250 B.C., lifted his short white robe to reveal to 300,000 Egyptians a mighty phallus. It was erect. Ramses is probably the star of all time. Those 300,000 souls cheered. Their pharaoh was mighty; Egypt would prosper.

We are civilized, even corporatized, but our enthusiasm may still go back to that root. ("How the Pharaoh Beat Bogey", George, January 1997, reprinted in The Time of Our Time, p. 1166)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

From the Ta Hsio

"...they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]." (Confucius' Great Digest, §4, trans. Ezra Pound.)

Monday, June 06, 2011


The aim of the artist is always precision. One strives for a precision of word and gesture, grasp and motion. One strives to perceive and to engage with one's surroundings as precisely as possible, always more precisely than the last encounter, always learning from each encounter a precision that one can take into the next.

In that sense, of course, art is merely a model for life. A life should be spent honing ones perceptions and actions towards an ever more accurate receptivity to and capacity for experience.

There is, no doubt, a phase of natural development where greater precision is achieved willy-nilly as the body grows. And there is, perhaps, a period where precision is lost regardless of one's efforts. But I'm thinking of the, let's say, "normal adult", who struggles with the vagueries of a particular age against the loss of vision and tension.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Dasein and Duende

Lorca said: "Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’"

Dasein is the pangrammatical homologue of duende. Can we hit on a definition? Yes we can: A mysterious being that thinks everything and no poet has exposed.

Necessity and Contingency

The poet extricates emotion from its history, makes it present to us. The poet is "abnormally fond of the precision which creates movement" (Cummings). We call this precision "intensity".

Philosophical precision, by contrast, brings clarity. It is not wholly wrong to say that the philosopher is abnormally fond of the precision which arrests movement, but it would be more charitable to speak of a precision that "apprehends". The images of fluid experience are stabilized, but not for the sake of stability. Once is merely trying to get a clear view of them. One is not denying or opposing movement, one is dealing with it as a particular kind of problem.

I sometimes say the philosopher thereby extricates the concept from the world. But I am no longer so sure. The poet truly "liberates" desire from the policies it is implicated in. But it may be more accurate to say that the philosopher is looking for the limit of belief. So it would also be more accurate, perhaps, to say that the philospher implicates the concept in the world, just as the poet extricates the emotion from history.

In this way, the poet is always indicating the contingency of what we feel. Our emotions are the contingencies of feeling. The philosopher, meanwhile, is trying to present the necessity of what we think. Concepts are the necessities of thinking.

All of this is, of course, bringing me increasingly around to the idea, which readers of this blog of suggested on several occasions, that there is no such thing as a "poet" and a "philosopher" in the senses that my distinction implies. Rather, the difference between a poet and a philosopher is a question of emphasis.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grasp and Motion

Philosophy is an attempt to grasp the thing, poetry to move the person. The concept is how we hold things together (in our minds), emotions enthrall us with people (in our hearts). It's important to keep the symmetry in mind here: the philosopher starts with a fluid, moving force and tries to seize it formally. The poet starts with a stable form and arranges images to indicate the forces it directs.

(I'm embarrassed to admit that this idea demonstrates so little progress from this post from six years ago.)

Paella Ingenium Nobis Sunt

It is a woman, always,
makes the poem. She moves
the poet's mind, which,
helpless, forms the words.

Disdaining weakness, we have
made a heroism of this art.
We've called it genius, said
our pain is proof of strength.

But it's a woman's beauty,
always, speaks in poems,
not the eye for pleasure, we
are happy to pretend is love.

Be all this as it may, you
turned your body on your heel.
It's now a purity of form,
my love—a strophe.

Note: As this post and the previous one reveals, I'm trying my hand at poetry of a pretty ordinary kind these days. Both of these came to me virtually whole. It is interesting that it is still possible for a man, in the twenty-first century, to write this poem. Indeed, to let a woman (in fact, a series of women, all repeating the same gesture in some way, over a series of days, some wholly strangers on the street, some closer to home) inspire it. As a poem, it doesn't impress us much (hence this note to apologize for it). If I were still a young man, we might sort it among my juvenalia. Count it instead among my "antiquaria", my nostalgia for a time when poetry held a simpler place in society, when "the civil status of seduction" was better understood. Last night I read a few lines of Dylan Thomas and Robert Burns. That ought to explain it.

My Prophetic Soul

In our time, they say,
there will be many prophets.
I'll not be one of them, my love.
I'll be lying here, beside you
sleeping, only partly sleeping,
peeking under the sheets, and
planning my approach. Or I'll be
standing in your shower as you
fly around the place in God
knows what angelic postures,
getting ready for our walk. Or
I'll be searching for you (when
you've had enough and left me)
in the smiles and thighs of happy
girls who know enough of love
to think it worth pursuing and,
like us, won't let their fears
distract them. Yes, there will
be many prophets in our time.
And I will not be one of them.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011


The basic idea behind this blog is that there is a fearful symmetry in experience, and that its axis constitutes the difference between philosophy and poetry. Philosophy is conceptual notation (Begriffsschrift). Poetry is emotional notation (Ergriffsschrift).

Consider the following formula, which just occurred to me:

Only an emotion can justify an action, which will always only be motivated by desire.

Well, all these "poetical" terms—emotion, justification (justice), action, motive, desire—have "philosophical" complements (homologues)—concept, verification (truth), perception, sense, belief. The corresponding philosophical formula, then, can be produced simply by substitution:

Only a concept can verify a perception, which will always be sensitized by belief.

There's something a bit forced and odd about it, which I may or may not eventually be able to fix. But the idea that a perception is (merely) "sensitized" by belief and not (of course) actually verified by it would not have occurred to me unassisted by the artifice of a pan-grammar. Desire motivates action but does not justify it. It is the intensity that an emotion brings to experience that ultimately lets us speak of the "justice" implicit in an action. Likewise, it is here suggested, a belief makes a perception "sensitive" but does not yet let us speak of "truth". Rather, we need the clarity of a concept to do so.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reminders and Encouragement

Wittgenstein (PI§127) tells us that philosophical remarks are really just "reminders for a particular purpose". What's the poetic equivalent? Well, poetry is made out of strophes, not remarks, and it speaks to the heart, not the mind. So, perhaps the work of poet consist simply in assembling encouraging words for particular purposes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Clarity is the bright space
between honesty and wisdom,

intensity, a momentary tension
between decency and love.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wisdom and Love, pt. 2

The pursuit of knowledge must yield to a greater wisdom. The pursuit of power must yield to a higher love. This is only to say that there must be a respect for limits in science; and there must be a respect for freedom in politics.

Poetry is always about the difficulty of love, and this difficulty is determined immediately in institution. An institution is a particular set of difficulties that lovers face. The institution determines how they feel immediately, the "first emotion" in the encounter. What one feels when one is "in love" with someone is the difficulty (if one did not feel anything there would be no difficulty). The poet writes the emotion down, which is to say that the poet presents the difficulty.

Philosophy, likewise, is always about the difficulty of wisdom, which is determined immediately in intuition. An intuition is a particular set of difficulties faced by sophists (intellectuals). Intuition determines what they think immediately, the "key concept" in any commentary. What one thinks when one "gets wise" to something is the difficulty. The philosopher writes the concept down; the philosopher presents the difficulty.

The poet represents love in history. The philosopher represents wisdom in the world. They do so without authority and must rely on their presentations alone. The poet presents the emotions that immediately determine the feeling that arises in an encounter with a person. The philosopher presents the concepts that immediately determine the thought that arises in an encounter with a thing. Both presentations bring precision to any future encounter. This precision is manifest as clarity in philosophy, intensity in poetry.

Clarity is found in the bright space between honesty and wisdom. Intensity is found in the temporary tension between decency and love.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Crisis of Brute Passion, an Immanent Pathos

Immanence resists by gathering all our power
out of the totality that brute obedience yields to.

Some emotions are brutal. They are free,
not of institution and motility,
but of feeling and obedience;
they are superficial and daring,
not, first and foremost, not isolated.

Our table of emotion emerges from the whole,
a field of brute obedience.

When politics draws its insistence
from a merely democratic manner, the table
can never be surveyed by a poll. It is necessary
only to the elements of the power
that obedience yields to, furnishing emotions that isolate
the elements, inhibiting their disconnection
from the system. Brute obedience associates itself with
motion. It is dependent and needy and not diminished
by any of the usual privations within.

Its lack of power thus repudiates the system,
abandoned and obscured by the reality.
The babelling of this system can yield an argument
only for the wrongness and falseness of its isolation.
If it is to be fully imposed, however, this immanent pathos
requires two books: the one containing the emotions,
the other the ultimatum of brute obedience.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


[Poem traced from a Google translation of Gilson's Philosophie du Moyen Age as quoted in Ezra Pound's "Cavalcanti" (LE, p. 160.)]

"This French summary is most able, and most lucid. It is far more suggestive of the canzone, Donna mi Prega, than the original Latin of Grosseteste." (E.P.)

Light is a substance, a subtle body,
close to intangible, self-engendered, the same,
constant and spreading, spherical.

Take a bright point, my love,
instantly engendered. Around this point,
posit a huge luminous sphere.

The scattered light can be thwarted.

Either it encounters a darkness
and stops, or it reaches the extreme limit,
a scarcity, and the light ends.

The tenuous stuff of which all things are made,
it is also the first shape of the body, and is
what some have called the corporeal.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Contradiction & Seduction

"The civil status [bürgerliche Stellung] of a contradiction," writes Wittgenstein (PI§125), "or its status in civil life: there is the philosophical problem." It would be nice to have as clear a sense of the problem of poetry. To that end, note first that the philosopher does not deal in contradictions as such. The philosopher's problem is not to actually contradict people, but to clarify the "civil status" of the contradictions their lives lead them to. Moreover, it is the contradictions that stem from our entanglement in our rules of reasoning (logic) that constitute the problem. "This entanglement in our own rules is what we want to understand (i.e., get a clear view of)", and this will "throw light on our concept of meaning something".

Well, there are rules of passion as there are rules of reason, and our passions, just like our reasons, lead us into trouble. The poet's problem concerns just that trouble. Now, to contradict is to "speak against", and in this case we are interested in the way logic leads us to speak against ourselves. The poet, by contrast, is interested in the rules that lead us astray, away from ourselves and towards another. These are, of course, the rules of love.

The troubadour, specifically, is interested in the rules that might lead his lady to imbibe "the one obvious remedy" (E.P.). As a lover, he is interested in that remedy, of course. But as an artist he is interested, first and foremost, in the rules that keep them apart, which are also, he suspects, part of a larger set of rules, a system of, precisely, poetic justice, that, if it were fully and intensely obeyed, would also bring them together. ("What a wonderful world it would be.") Just as the philosopher ultimately believes that the contradiction indicates a "pseudo-problem", not be solved or resolved but dissolved in complete clarity of the concept, so the poet qua poet seeks that "first intensity" of emotion, the complete intensification of the "rules of the game", i.e., the grammar of the language of love. Here, to be led astray is also to be led back to oneself.

To "lead astray", to seduce.

The civil status of seduction, or its status in civil life: there is the problem of poetry. The poet's task is not to seduce. It is his entanglement in his own rules (his passions) that he has to obey (i.e., get firm grip onbe firmly seized by*). It is not the love itself that is his problem, but the conditions of its possibility.

*I was too eager to construct something like Wittgenstein's "get a clear view of". It is important to distinguish between conceptual and emotional precision. When our concepts are precise they ensure that things are given to us clearly. When our emotions are precise, however, they ensure we are taken with people intensely. A poem presents us with the "chaotic volcanism of first seizingness".

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Don't know much about history...

but I do know that I love you.

Andrew drew the association in his comment on my last post. At first, I thought it was just free association, but then I realized how profound it is.

To love someone is to be able to write a poem about them. So, Sam Cooke is really saying:

I don't know much about history, not your personal history or the larger history in which you are implicated, but I know that am I here, that I exist to extricate your beauty from the history of injustice that your body, like all bodies, is subject to, any history, yes, and from its biology and its geography and its algebra.

And if you will do the same for me, if you will untangle the intricate suffering that is my beauty from the history of my own body, then this world in which we both live will be, yes, full of wonder.

I am a poor scholar, Cooke says, but quite a lover, and while our political history reaches too far back into the past for me, and our scientific world too far into the reaches of space and too far into the nucleus of the cell, the surface of your body, your skin, your beautiful skin, is right here with me, and it is not by actually understanding your history, nor is it by uncovering the natural laws that govern the mechanisms of the stars above and the leaves in the trees, and it is not by actually deciphering the political codes that interpret your face and your shoulders and what Tony Tost calls "the genius of your legs" (and, yes, everything in between), that I will fathom this feeling that has captured me. But by "trying to be" an A-student of the immediate presence of this body before me I will, if you'll let me, win your love, extricate your beauty from the prison of space, liberate us from the despotism of time, conquer the universe.

In short: There you are. And here is my poem. Love me.


Thursday, April 28, 2011


"it makes toward me brothers"
Leonard Cohen

A woman's body is the site of much injustice.

Honesty is the appearance of truth, decency the surface of justice. The immediate presence of injustice in the experience (whether hers or mine) of a woman's body is called indecency.

In general, it is the task of a poem to extricate an experience from its history. History weighs like a nightmare on the bodies of women, as it does on a man's experience of the body of a woman.

History impinges on experience immediately in our institutions. A woman's body is an institution, it is a way of doing things. There is, take note, an immediately right and wrong way about a woman's body. A way to do it justice, immediately. But be warned: every body is different.

"No matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin." (Pope Pius XII, 1957)

A woman is, willy-nilly, indecently dressed. Whether she is compelled by her culture to dress like a whore or to dress like a nun, or simply to be a whore or a nun, and in whatever degree this be the case in whatever culture and whatever woman we consider, she is, in any case, immediately subject to injustice. (And what a whore dresses like? Yes, that too is decided by culture. A whore's body is an institution, no less than a nun's.)

In general, the injustice is that she is dressed in the first place. From the incompleteness of the attempt to hide her body, indecency immediately follows. (The weather is merely an excuse. A spring day exposes the sham instantly.)

No matter how much pleasure her body might give her, she is willy-nilly too fat or too thin[1], and she is robbed of the pleasure her body could give her. Or she is too chaste or too promiscuous. And she is robbed of the pleasure my body could give her. This is the culture working through the institutions, depriving us, immediately, of pleasure. Pleasure is the momentary experience of beauty, despite everything.

Beauty is difficult. All women are beautiful. All women are... (it's a syllogism).

The difficulty of a woman's beauty is not itself an injustice. A woman's justice, after all, may constitute the difficulty of her beauty.

A woman's body is intensely political—and something ought, indeed, be done about the injustice. But poetry is not politics.

It is the task of a poem to extricate a woman's beauty from the justice and injustice her body is subject to. To extricate her body from its history. To untangle her unfathomable hair from the policies in which it has been implicated.

The poet has only his style with which to do it.

I'm just putting this out there. It is spring.

A number of comments, online and off, have made me recognize certain (perhaps inevitable) weaknesses in this presentation. I will enumerate them here as I find them, fixing them if possible. Feel free to help out.
[1] This image is too tired, perhaps because too true. While I tried to avoid letting this remark target how women (supposedly) feel about their bodies, it can't help but participate in that boring exercise in liberal indignation. The problem is not, of course, how women "feel", but that they, in fact, are too fat, or too thin. But explaining (my way out of what the reader probably thinks I mean by) this is only likely to occasion indignation all the more directly. What is needed here is a different image of how we are, as Cohen put it, "oppressed by figures of beauty". I'll work on it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Memo to John Keats

Truth is truth, justice justice.
"Beauty is difficult." (Beardsley/Pound)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Locus and Tempo

Intuitions constitute the immediate locus of experience, the "here". Institutions constitute the immediate tempo of experience, the "now". We might say that intuitions locate our experiences and our institutions temper them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Society as a Subjective Ideality

In my thinking on institutions I'm guided (or spurred) by the work of the economic historian Douglass North, as well as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who wrote the influential The Social Construction of Reality. In reading Berger and Luckamnn I note that when they talk about "institutionalization" under the heading "society as an objective reality" (Part 2) I just, you know, don't buy it. It strikes me like Descartes pretending that he could imagine that he could have no body and yet remain his same old self. Society cannot be an objective reality. Society is always a subjective ideality. Only materiality constitutes an (the) objective reality.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Doctrine of Method

If I am right, there is only one way to experience institutions. You must feel them. That is why only poets are qualified to "study" (wrong word) institutions. Just as only philosophers are qualified to study (more appropriate there) intuitions. One must think.

Properly speaking (and why not speak properly for a change) there is no "method" to the "study" of institutions. There is a mandate to engage with them.

And not even that. Methods are for scientists. Mandates are for politicians. Poets and philosophers have only their style. A kind of cunning, put in writing.

Wisdom and Love

One wants love to pervade one's institutions, just as one wants wisdom to pervade one's intuitions.

Intuitions and Institutions

Kant, I suppose, can be credited with the discovery of intuition as the immediate concern of philosophers. We might say that intuitions are the way the world is here. So we can do "metaphysics" as a study of the structure of intuition and derive our [basic or fundamental] concepts [i.e., categories] from such study. For Kant, this meant that intuitions deliver knowledge to us immediately, they determine the immediate meaning of what we see. It is said that the Kantian Critiques brought about a revolution in philosophy by showing us exactly how concepts might be experienced, "as such" as it were.

I think a revolution in poetry could be brought about by engaging with institutions. Institutions should be the immediate concern of poets. They capture us immediately with their power, they determine the immediate meaning what we do. (Sense is the meaning of the seen. Motive is the meaning of the done.)

Actually, I think a revolution in poetry already has been brought about by this means. But not quite as explicitly as with Kant. I think it is present in Pound and Williams. I think Watten and Waldrop were vaguely aware of it. I think Tony Tost and Ben Lerner and Kate Greenstreet feel it acutely. A poem is capable of presenting the immanent kinesthetics of institutions. (Philosophy, said Kant, was to be grounded in the transcendental aesthetic.) "The immanent kinesthetics of institutions"—the experienced motion of history. How emotions are experienced "as such".

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Philosophy and Poetry

"If one tried to advance theses in philosophy," Wittgenstein famously said (PI, §128), "it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them." I just came across a very similar statement about poetry in Anthony Cronin's "The Notion of Commitment" (X 1 (1), 1959, p. 9): "If you can argue with a poem it ceases to be one."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Being St. Teresa

Tonight, Jonathan brings this to our attention:

Remember the example of the flamenca, duende-filled St. Teresa. Flamenca not for entangling an angry bull, and passing it magnificently three times, which she did: not because she thought herself pretty before Brother Juan de la Miseria: nor for slapping His Holiness’s Nuncio: but because she was one of those few creatures whose duende (not angel, for the angel never attacks anyone) pierced her with an arrow and wanted to kill her for having stolen his ultimate secret, the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time. (From Lorca's "Theory and Play of the Duende")

To me, this is a bit like Heidegger's question about the meaning of "Being". I mean, suppose these words are actually meaningful (compare: suppose Being constitutes a serious philosophical problem). Suppose that some people know about "the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh" and some people do not. It's a "secret", after all. Suppose that this flesh is "the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time", and suppose, importantly, that there is some problem that pertains to it. Suppose that an effort is required of us to fathom "the living ocean of love" and those who make this effort (successfully) become saints, that they deserve to become saints. Those who do do not are somehow deficient in "joining the five senses to what is core to the living flesh". (Compare, again, Heidegger: is it possible to "be" more or less?).

One of the important questions that literature raises is that of living "fully". If literature has a contribution to make this is it. I must admit that I don't always have Lorca's faith. After reading Jonathan's book, I don't even know whether the phrase "the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time" is even Lorca's, or some translator's kitsch. But tonight it moves me. I really do wonder whether my five senses are joined properly to that ocean of love. How would I know? How would Heidegger know? What did Lorca know?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Units of Composition

On my other blog, I have been emphasizing the paragraph as the unit of prose composition for academic writers. Scientists and scholars should compose themselves in orderly paragraphs that each make a claim and support it. A standard academic journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs, which are crafted to articulate what the author knows. The text is intended to represent the objects of the author's knowledge.

If the paragraph is the unit of scientific composition, what is the unit of political composition? Let's keep in mind that "composition" here means putting words together articulately for the purpose of producing a representation. Scientific writing represents objects in prose. Political writing represents subjects in prose. So my hunch is that political writers will also compose themselves in paragraphs. These paragraphs, however, will not state claims. They will, perhaps, make promises. Or something like that; threats, perhaps? I haven't quite thought it through yet.

One of the reasons I'm not wholly comfortable with the idea of the paragraph as the unit of both scientific and political composition is that the symmetry does not repeat with philosophy and poetry. Here at the Pangrammaticon, after all, philosophy is supposed to be to science what poetry is to politics. And we already know that the unit of poetic composition is the strophe, while the unit of philosophical composition is the remark. So when we ask about the unit of political composition, we are really asking: what is to the paragraph as the strophe is to the remark?

But what really counts as "political writing?" A bill (i.e., a proposed law)? A speech? A platform? Here, again, it seems most useful to think of such texts as divided up into paragraphs. But instead of representing objects, these texts represent subjects. "We the people..." pervades such texts, even if the author's idea of "who" the people are may vary widely from text to text. The paragraphs of science describe what there is; the paragraphs of politics prescribe who ought to be. "Who ought we to be?" Or, better, "Who ought we to become?" can be considered the fundamental political question.

I'm thinking a great deal about these things these days because I worry about the influence of social science on political expression. I am myself making a return to scholarship, and while my position is resolutely "critical", I will be working squarely within the social sciences, more specifically, the administrative sciences, whose articulateness I've been working to improve over the past five years as a language consultant at a business school. Ezra Pound has never been far from my thoughts.

Should I not, rather, be writing "a poem that contains history"? Can I devote myself to the composition of paragraphs that represent (as an object!) the life of society? Or should I not, rather, explore more deeply to find that epic (or at least lyrical) subjectivity that is the true heart of our becoming? Does the paragraph or the strophe, finally, situate the problem of my composure?