Friday, December 21, 2012

The Fool's Cap by Friedrich Nietzsche and Avital Ronell

In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as one says with good reason.  Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of hypothesis, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, they may be granted admission and even a certain value in the realm of knowledge – though always under the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. - But does this not mean, if you consider it more precisely, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? Would it not be the first step in the discipline of the scientific spirit that one would not permit oneself any more convictions? [The Gay Science, 344]

Once a conviction is let out onto the scientific field of inquiry, it passes beyond its character as conviction.  The conviction ought to pass beneath the level of its formerly inflated stature. When humbled to the level of a hypothesis, it is on parole and must answer to the officers of science who are watching it. Still, to the extent that we are policing our convictions, no matter how much furlough we grant them, we still have to deal with the fact of ex-convictions, namely, the ex-cons that hold up our scientific impulse to this day:

- But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests- that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, the Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie – if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

Still taking his fire from then Platonic-Christian regions of faith, the Nietzsche seeker starts up the process of disabling the metaphysical machine to which he remains attached. Absolute detachment is out of the question. The gay scientist has to appeal to other means in order to fuel an experimental engine capable of unmasking abiding lies.

The incredible counterforce comes from the realm of art.  This is not new for Nietzsche, but he comes at it from a different angle and with renewed resolve.  Gay science assumes a relation to scientificity that is linked to art and play. It at no point derives its authority from institutional divisions or scientific hegemonies but draws the possibility of its vitality strictly from art. Art introduces a vitality capable of hosing down the strictures of morality.  The necessarily subversive force of art and play challenges the stability  of morality as we know it, and when in concert with science, repels those recodifications slavishly beholden to moralistic descriptions.

Platonic and Christian perspectives on morality block the scientific impulse for a number of reasons.  Among these, Nietzsche cites the fear instilled by Plato and the Christians of falling (into sin, error, shame), which, to his mind, has petrified our brain power.  Given this restraint, which is palpable even today, Nietzsche asks that we consider the over-severe demands we place on ourselves.  We have become “virtuous monsters and scarecrows.” The stiff upper lip has stiffened the mind’s native plasticity, weighing us down.  With the fool’s demotion in the life of thought, play was banished and art was sent to its room. The rest of humanity was left stranded and anxious, pinned to hardened places.

We should be able also to stand above morality – and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling any moment, but also to float above it and play. How could we possibly dispense with art – and with the fool? – And as long as you are in any way ashamed before yourselves, you do not belong with us.

Importantly, that which opposes slipping and falling is not figured as standing erect – this would set us up only to get cut down, goading us so far as only to see ourselves plunged into the abyss of endless reversal. Nietzsche opposes slipping with floating and playing.  The liberatory exhortation marks the end of Book Two, when the gay scientist acknowledges “Our ultimate gratitude to art.” From where Nietzsche sits – rather, from where he floats –there would be no science without art, in part because we would have all committed suicide.

Art trains us for science, making its scandalously uninhibited observations palatable.  Art has given us a taste for science..  These developing taste buds are important since without them science’s collaboration with the untrue would provoke severe nausea:

If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through science – the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation – would be utterly unbearable.  Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance.

Under the notion of invention, Nietzsche places the cult of the untrue, which he welcomes in its appearance as art.  If art was invented for us, it was in order to heal us from the persistent wounding of necessary error and delusion.  Art cooperates at a level of inoculation by administering general untruth in order to immunize us against untruth. As a time-released protection against nausea and suicide, art is not so much dead, but its truth – the realization of general untruth – now gets retransmitted through science which, hardly opposed to art, was prepared for by the arts.  In sum, without the inoculation that art has prepared for us, science would kill us.  Thanks to art, Nietzsche suggests, we can now genuinely welcome science the way one welcomes the future.  Hence, to cap it off:

Nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves – we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we loose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us.

The Test Drive by Avital Ronell; University of Illinois Press, 2005

Medusa by Roland Barthes

The Doxa is current opinion, meaning repeated as if nothing had happened. It is Medusa: who petrifies those who look at her.  Which means that it is evident.  Is it seen? Not even that: a gelatinous mass which sticks onto the retina. The remedy? As an adolescent I went swimming one day at Malo-les -Bains, in a cold sea infested with the kind of jellyfish we call medusas (what aberration led me to agree to swim there? I was one of a group, which justifies any cowardice); it was so ordinary to come out of the water covered with stings and blisters that the locker-room attendant phlegmatically handed you a bottle of potassium chloride as soon as you left the beach. In the same way, one might conceive of taking a (perverse) pleasure in the endoxal products of mass culture, provided that when you left the immersion of that culture, someone handed you on each occasion, as if nothing had happened, a little detergent discourse.

Queen and sister of the hideous Gorgons, Medusa was of a rare beauty with regard to the luster of her hair.  Neptune having ravished and wed her in the temple of Minerva, the latter rendered her repulsive and transformed her hair into snakes.

(It is true that in Doxa’s discourse there are former beauties sleeping, the memory of a once-sumptuous and fresh wisdom; and it is indeed Athena, the wise deity, who takes her revenge by making the Doxa into a caricature of wisdom.)

Medusa, or the Spider: castration.  Which stuns me, an effect produced by a scene I hear but do not see: my hearing is frustrated of its vision: I remain behind the door.

The Doxa speaks, I hear it, but I am not within its space. A man of paradox, like any writer, I am indeed behind the door; certainly I should like to pass through, certainly I should like to see what is being said, I too participate in the communal scene; I am constantly listening to what I am excluded from;  I am in a stunned state, dazed, cut off from the popularity of language.

The Doxa is, as we know, oppressive.  But can it be repressive? Let us read this terrible phrase from a revolutionary sheet (La Bouch de Fer, 1790): “. . .  above the three powers must be placed a censorial power of surveillance and public opinion which will belong to all, and which all will be able to exercise without representation.”

Barthes; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes; translated by Richard Howard; Hill and Wang, 1975

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stupidity by Avital Ronell

The temptation to wage war on stupidity as if it were a vanquishable object – as if we still knew how to wage war or circumscribe an object in a manner that would be productive of meaning or give rise to futurity. One could not easily imagine circumstances in which an agency of state  or government, even a U.S. government, would declare war on stupidity in the manner it has engaged a large-scale war on drugs. Though part of a politically suspect roundup, the presumed object of the drug wars offered a hint, at least, of materiality.  Stupidity exceeds and undercuts materiality, runs loose, wins a few rounds, recedes, gets carried home in a clutch of denial – and returns.  Essentially linked to the inexhaustible, stupidity is also that which fatigues knowledge and wears down history.

Brecht, you might recall, said that while intelligence is finite, stupidity can be infinite, Einstein added, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but I am not so certain about the universe.”  Schiller understood that stupidity can effect the realm of the infinite, paradoxically imposing a limit upon the gods; “ In their struggles with stupidity, the gods themselves are at a loss.” From Schiller’s exasperated concession to Hannah Arendt’s frustrated effort, in a letter to Karl Jaspers, to determine the exact status and level of Adolf Eichmann’s Dummheit, to current psychoanalytic descriptions of the dumb interiors of the despotic mind (heir to the idiot-king of which Lacan has written) stupidity has evinced a mute resistance to political urgency, an instance of unaccountable ethical hiatus.  In  fact, stupidity, purveyor of self-assured assertiveness, mutes just about everything that would seek to disturb its impervious hierarchies.

The early German romantic Jean Paul’s task, as he saw it  (in Rhapsodies) was to proceed brutally and take down stupidity’s empire, justifying his righteousness with the claim that the stupid have been conducting covert operations to smash the forces of the smart. Gathered into an insipid group, the stupid, a band of thugs, begin to resemble the armies of ressentiment raised later on by Nietzsche.  The noble or the smart ones – the strong who turn out to be the most vulnerable – are felled by what amounts to the incessant mosquito-biting binges of the stupid. Greatness should not scorn stupidity, writes Jean Paul, because although stupidity does not deploy the strength of elephants, like termites it secretly eats through the throne of loftiness until it crashes. Before its looming aggression, pressing forward on a front without limits –a permanent stupid revolution- even the toughest cookies crumble.

While the situation is diagnosed by Jean Paul as one of war, the sides that are drawn up do not appear to be entirely stable.

Forward and backward-looking stupidity comes from a past that discloses itself in the discontinuities and breaks of an unfolding history  where history has been diminished to the raw grappling – the solitary warfare – of a distressed subject. Very often one who names a stupid mistake or faces a reserve of dumbness, newly discovered, speaks from a place of enlightenment, as if stupidity had compelled subjection to a strenuous process of overcoming. Hence the enlightenment accent on learning, no matter how slow going.  Still, the structure of one’s own stupidity is such that it continues to haunt and heckle, creeping up as the other work in progress and threatening from a vague presentiment of the future.

No act of will or shedding of past embarrassment can guarantee that stupidity has been safely left behind – or, indeed, that it does not belong to the very core of your writing being. What you risk each and every time is the exposure that Holderin called Blodigkeit. As  Thomas Pynchon sees it, in Slow Learner:

Everyone gets told to write about what they know.  The trouble with many of us is that at earlier stages of life we think we know everything – or to put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map.  It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance, and the possibilities therein for ruining a good story.

A corollary to knowing, ignorance has its own story, a story that needs to be told, but one, perhaps, that can spell only ruin. Yet, as Pynchon somewhat paradoxically offers, ignorance is not just a blank space.  While it draws a blank and is about blanking out, ignorance, at once perniciously coherent and seriously lacking in coherence – not in itself contemptible – downshifts from stupidity in the sense that you may still find the owner’s manual somewhere or, for all we know, some rules of operation.  Ignorance holds out some hope, you can get to know it, maybe move on.  I am not so sure about stupidity.  It comes closer to a sense of nullity – the crushingly useless, that which comes to nothing; the bright side of nullity is that the oeuvre, its essential possibility, originates in it: “The lesson is sad, as Dion always sez, but true.”

On the whole, following the lead of Flaubert and taking into account the observations of Musil, stupidity can be considered as something related to shutdown, to closure – a closure that confuses itself with an end.  Closing a matter “once and for all,” it appears to be bound up with the Western logos to “finish with,” to terminate. The judgment passed by this type of stupidity poses, among other things, a number of temporal problems, the most prevalent of which concerns its speed.  Even though it is consistently associated with slowness, the endless frustration of non-attainment, stupidity in fact moves too fast; fast-paced and in haste, it is always (already) a rush.  .  . to judgment. To the extent, moreover, that stupidity is bolstered by all sorts of accelerators, its spread undoubtedly derives essential features from our age of technological dominion, which is at all times on fast-forward – a speed that actually proves to be backward.  Whereas the architect said, “Less is more,” we must add to the lexicon of contemporary paradox, “Fast is slow.”

Poised to write on stupidity, one must first show oneself to be exonerated from its insinuation; yet making a show of being clever is stupid. Indeed, that which shows, as with the case of showing-off or anything that asserts itself to be particularly clever, magnetizes stupidity.  And each particular imprint of cleverness always carries with it a typology of stupidities,  There would be no intelligence as such, then, nothing that would be spared a package deal of attendant stupidity and their historicity (what was once stupid may now be upgraded, and visa versa). Thus the figure of the professor comes in handy for Musil, for it has been stamped with the twin features of alert and devoted scholarship supplemented by an unavoidable extension into the vacant lot of the nutty or absent-minded professor.

Whether in the precincts of the literary or the psychological stupidity offers a whirligig of imponderables: as irreducible obstinacy, tenacity, compactness, the infissurable, it is at once dense and empty, cracked, the interminable “duh” – (morphed into seemingly less lacerating assertions such as “shallow,” “airhead,” “bimbo,” “brain-dead,” etc.)  A total loser, stupidity is also that which rules, reproducing itself in cliches, in innocence and the abundance of world.  On the other hand, the very existence of stupidity can a must be disputed – are we not dealing in each case with intricacies of repression, bungled action, error or blindness? – and on the other hand, stupidity can and must be exposed. In a sense, though, one wonders who would be spared liability where stupidity is concerned. Is there not a suspicion, an anxiety, that you, a fugitive from stupidity, are on the verge of being caught (finally) by some smart bomb headed for your house?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Proust by Edmund White

What Proust had discovered since writing Jean Santeuil was how to take up themes, let them drop, then come back to them, though each time the theme was exposed in a different light.  No longer did Proust feel that he had to say everything at once or set in stone his opinions on every character and topic. Now the dramatic twists of the plot dictated the insights revealed to the Narrator.  He’d also learned how to introduce a character by hearsay – the (false) rumors, for example, that Charlus is a hypervirile womanizer who despises homosexuals and is Odette’s lover, misinformation that the reader picks up long before being introduced to Charlus himself.

During the course of the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past the Narrator is puzzled by Charlus’s extreme friendliness that alternates with bouts of insufferable – and inexplicable – rudeness. Then, halfway through Remembrance of Things Past, the Narrator observes Charlus cruising a tailor, Jupien, who is entirely receptive to his advances.  This insight into Charlus’s  sexuality also explains his unnatural attachment to a cruel and ungrateful, if talented, violinist, Morel.  Charlus’s  masochism becomes even clearer during the air raids of World War I, when the Narrator seeks shelter in a building that turns out to be a male brothel owned by the same Jupien.  There the Narrator observes Charlus being chained and beaten by hired hustlers.  This sexual humiliation alternates with his moments of over-weening pride and arrogance in society – until, at the end of the whole cycle, a feeble, snowy-haired Charlus, accompanied by an ever faithful Jupien, salutes and bows to every passerby, afraid he might be snubbing someone important whose identity he can no longer recall.

As the trajectory of this single character demonstrates, Proust had learned a method of presentation that falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James. Dickens assigns his characters one or two memorable traits, sometimes highly comic, which they display each time they make an appearance;  James, by contrast, is so quick to add nuances to every portrait that he ends up effacing them with excessive shading.  Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment – Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, though far more memorably.

It’s like the old dispute among painters as to the primacy of line or of shading.  Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth, but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another.  Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving successive “takes" over hundreds of pages.  In that way his style is like the magic lantern the Narrator watches at bedtime when he’s a boy.  The heat of the lamp causes a band of images to turn and project the illusion of motion on the wall.  In the same way Proust’s slide show of portraits of the same character induces the illusion of duration, of development – and of psychological truth.

No matter how strange Proust’s life might have been, it has been subsumed, as he hoped, into the radiant vision of it that he presented in his writing.  Nevertheless, the intensely intimate (if not always personal) quality of Proust’s novel makes him more and more popular in this age of memoirs.  Whereas other modernists (Stein, Joyce, Pound) rejected confession in favor of formal experiment, Proust was a literary cyclops, if that means he was a creature with a single great  “I” at the center of his consciousness (no matter that the first-person Narrator is only occasionally  the literal Marcel Proust).  Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking – not the pell-mell stream of consciousness of a Molly Bloom or a Stephen Dedalus, each dramatic character with a unique vocabulary and an individuating range of preoccupations, but rather the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect.

Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit.  We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know.  Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales.  He is our Scheherazade. .  .

Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful intimations of paradise – the artificial paradise of art.  I doubt whether many readers could ever be content with Proust’s rejection of rustling, wounded life in favor of frozen, immobile art; but his powerful vision of impermanence certainly does speak to us.  The rise and fall of individual loves on a small scale and of entire classes on the grand, the constant revolution of sentiments and status, is a subject Proust rehearsed and we’ve realized.  Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.