Praxis

October 29, 2008

I know, it’s too easy, but what the hell…

Filed under: Media, Self indulgence — duncan @ 5:20 pm

Fox News, December 2006.

Vote Ron Paul!

June 13, 2008

It’s DD for Me!

Filed under: Politics, Self indulgence — duncan @ 6:03 pm

Still very busy, so no actual content, I’m afraid.  But time enough to say: what the fuck with David Davis?  Best or most charitable guess seems to be: Davis sort of means it when he complains about the destruction of civil liberties; the rest of Tory high command don’t mean it at all; and Davis thinks he needs to a) get the Tories to irreversibly commit to repealing Labour’s more wildly authoritarian legislation before they get into power (otherwise they won’t change a thing), and also b) bring public opinion on side, to that end.  Hence the by-election – a by-election that will, in its sheer political drama, transform Britain’s sense of its political heritage.  I know.  It makes no sense.  But what the fuck else?

Or maybe he’s just bonkers.  As my mum likes to say: If Shami Chakrabarti thinks your defence of civil liberties is stupid, it’s probably stupid. 

Anyway, Davis is of course right to complain about “the monstrosity of [the] law that we passed yesterday”.  Here’s hoping some other major Conservative politicians decide to go similarly kamikaze on us.  (George Osborne resigning because the Tories have failed to reverse capitalist hegemony, perhaps?) 

Also (as regards the commons vote): fuck. 

Proper stuff to follow eventually, I promise.

May 25, 2008

The Economist luvs Blanchett

Filed under: Media, Self indulgence — duncan @ 4:15 pm

Has anyone else noticed that ‘The Economist’ seems to have a serious crush on Cate Blanchett? I’m not about to spend an afternoon trawling through the archives – but I swear at least forty percent of its film reviews are devoted to praising Blanchett’s chiselled features and “cobalt-blue” eyes. It’s a little bit odd. She hasn’t appeared on the front cover yet, but I reckon it’s only a matter of time.

April 30, 2008

Ken For Second Choice! [UPDATE: And the Thames Wept...]

Filed under: Politics, Self indulgence, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:30 pm

Okay, I know that every Londoner in the world is already bored to tears with this, and that nobody else much gives a damn. But what the hell… Assuming Lord Snooty doesn’t actually win a majority in first preference votes (which would be horrifying, but just surely not), the correct way to vote in the mayoral election is:

1) Whoever you actually want to win that isn’t Boris
2) Ken

In this scenario, your first vote is basically meaningless

so there’s not much point discussing it

but the second preference counts.  If your first preference is, say, Lindsey German, don’t go putting no Sian Berry as second choice.  Or vice versa.

A lunchtime poll of increasingly irritated colleagues reveals one vote for first Paddick, then Berry (this is what I’m talking about – don’t do that), and five people who couldn’t care less about the fucking London elections.  But the Boris fans must be out there somewhere – he’s on 46% (according to YouGov).  If he nudges past 50%, of course, the Ken-for-second-choice strategy may seem pretty misguided in hindsight.  (I know nothing about teh matehmatics, but I don’t see how this can be right).  Still, I think we have the luxury of downgrading our anti-Tory votes to second tier status…

There’s some sort of London Assembly up for grabs, too, I gather.

[UPDATE: Oh Jesus fucking Christ. I don’t have the heart to look at the results properly (plus my computer keeps crashing). But this is a fucking nightmare.

In London: the first past the post constituencies were all held by the incumbent party, except for Brent and Harrow, which Labour gained from Tory arseholes. Left List results on the Socialist Worker site. Interesting (to geeky yet ignorant me) that the incredibly annoying division of the socialist vote in Greenwich and Lewisham resulted in Left List’s Jennifer Jones getting 2,045 to Socialist Alternative’s Chris Flood’s 1,587 (even though Flood’s a longstanding councillor, and Jones is a student…) But that’s still less than two and a half per cent of the vote between them; so not unimprovable.

I can’t find the results for the eleven Assembly seats elected by PR – possibly they haven’t been declared yet – but it seems unlikely they’ll bring good news. More to the point, though, Johnson is now our mayor for four years. Boris Johnson. [He lost first name status when he stopped being a figure of fun and started being a source of pain.] Jesus Fuck. Jesus Fuck. I suppose the best to hope for is that he’ll make such a complete balls-up of it that he’ll materially damage the Conservatives nationwide. But that’s really not a scenario we ought to be hoping for.

Furthermore: this is the worst local election result for Labour for forty years. That’s forty years. We’re headed for a landslide Tory victory at the next general election. I don’t care how much you hate them: politicians are not ‘all the same’. Yes, New Labour are neoliberal and authoritarian in their very soul; but since the choice is, in fact, between New Labour and the Tories, this is terrible terrible news…

Logging back online to post this I find that the BNP have won their first London Assembly seat. It’s just a horror story…]

[On the Mayoral vote, Berry, who has been all over every newspaper in the country, got 3.15%. Fucking Barnbrook, of the fucking BNP, got 2.84%. This is horrifying. German got 0.68%.] [It's just a rout - the end of New Labour; but also terrible for the far left, whose support has fallen or stagnated while the BNP have picked up votes...]

April 17, 2008

Oh For Fuck’s Sake (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Fooled By Randomness’)

Filed under: Philosophy, Sarcasm, Science, Self indulgence — duncan @ 9:44 pm

[A ranting post very much not worth your time, I’m afraid.]

I’m proud to say that I’ve been writing a deconstructionist-inclined blog for almost a year now, and have never once engaging in a bitter assault on the popular detractors of continental theory. You’ll notice that no interminable post excoriating Sokal and Bricmont has yet appeared. I am a saint.

On the other hand, I’ve just started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller ‘Fooled By Randomness’. (In a no doubt misguided attempt to dip my toe into the glibber end of popular accounts of probability theory; I guess I should buckle down and read some real books.) As soon as I figured out the tone, I guessed that an ignorant and philistine invocation of Derrida as charlatan wouldn’t be far away. And, sure enough, on page seven (so soon!) we get an approving reference to a Ph.D. thesis in philosophy. “But not the Derrida continental style of incomprehensible philosophy (that is, incomprehensible to anyone outside of their ranks, like myself).” I gritted my teeth and continued. (Still no ranting blog post! I have the patience of Job!) But then on pages 72-3 we get this – and I boot up my computer.

“Increasingly, a distinction is being made between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual – culminating with what is called the ‘science wars’, plotting factions of literate nonscientists against literate scientists. The distinction between the two approaches originated in Vienna in the 1930s, with a collection of physicists who decided that the large gains in science were becoming significant enough to make claims on the field known to belong to the humanities… The Vienna Circle was at the origin of the development of the ideas of Popper, Wittgenstein (in his later phase), Carnap, and flocks of others.”

This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I mean – don’t you think the distinction between the scientific intellectual and the literary intellectual might have had some force before 1930s Vienna? Can the Vienna Circle be entirely accurately described as “a collection of physicists”? Does the later phase of Wittgenstein really originate there (even as a reaction against it)? Be all that as it may; next we get this:

“I suggest reading the hilarious Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal [it’s just inevitable, this reference; the pages might as well be blank; we can fill them in ourselves]… (I was laughing so loudly and so frequently while reading it on a plane that other passengers kept whispering things about me) [Probably ‘what an arsehole’]… Science is method and rigour; it can be identified in the simplest of prose writing. For instance, what struck me while reading Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene is that, although the text does not exhibit a single equation, it seems as if it were translated from the language of mathematics.”

Superficial detractors of continental theory often invoke Dawkins as the exemplar of scientific rationality. Don’t get me started on him. (In a word, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is precisely not translated from the language of mathematics, because half the point of the thing is to develop a metaphor – a metaphor, of the ‘selfishness’ of the gene, which may or may not be helpful (and there’s a whole endless debate to be had about the validity of ascribing intentional states to apparently mindless objects, or to parts of/systems within organisms), but that only works as metaphor. Which isn’t to say that Dawkins doesn’t have strictly ‘scientific’ claims to make – but Dawkins himself is perfectly clear (in, for instance, the first chapter of ‘The Extended Phenotype‘) that ‘a change of aspect’, rather than a scientific hypothesis, is the main thing he hopes to advance in his popular science writing.) Anyway.

“[T]here is another, far more entertaining way to make the distinction between the babbler and the thinker. You can sometimes replicate something that can be mistaken for a literary discourse with a Monte Carlo generator but it is not possible randomly to construct a scientific one. Rhetoric can be constructed randomly, but not genuine scientific knowledge.”

If I understand him right, Taleb means, by “Monte Carlo generator”, a computer program that is capable of churning out vast numbers of imaginary events, according to a set of predetermined rules. I can’t pretend to understand [which is why I'm reading this stuff, after all] – with my knowledge of computers, it’s amazing this blog is still in one piece. But (in a fairly superficial way) what Taleb’s saying here is surely wrong. A ‘Monte Carlo generator’ can construct scientific knowledge – as Taleb has already told us.

“It is a fact that ‘true’ mathematicians do not like Monte Carlo methods. They believe that they rob us of the finesse and elegance of mathematics. They call it ‘brute force’. For we can replace a large portion of mathematical knowledge with a Monte Carlo simulator (and other computational tricks). For instance, someone with no formal knowledge of geometry can compute the mysterious, almost mystical, Pi.” (p. 47) If existing mathematical knowledge can be replicated in this way, I find it hard to believe that new mathematical – or scientific – knowledge can’t also be so produced. [Okay, I just did my googling. Wikipedia informs me that in mathematics “[t]he method is useful for obtaining numerical solutions to problems which are too complicated to solve analytically.” I need to learn about this sort of thing.] At any rate, the ability of ‘Monte Carlo generators’ to supply Taleb with knowledge and understanding seems to be the main reason he likes them so much.

Anyway. Next we get this:

“This is the application of Turing’s Test of artificial intelligence, except in reverse. What is the Turing test? [We get a description. Taleb continues:] The converse should be true. A human can be said to be unintelligent if we can replicate his speech by a computer, which we know is unintelligent, and fool a human into believing it was written by a human. Can one produce a piece of work that can be largely mistaken for Derrida entirely randomly?”

Well – let’s charitably put down to ‘humorous’ license Taleb’s ‘reversal’ of the Turing test. And lets ignore the fact that the so called ‘random’ production of any text is random only within incredibly limited bounds – most of the game’s effectiveness depends on the non-randomly selected phrases and rules for the combination of phrases that whatever program Taleb’s describing would consist in. (Just as Taleb’s method of ‘randomly’ computing the value of Pi isn’t random at all except in one of the program’s particular functions.) All that said – the answer to Taleb’s last question is: obviously yes. Of course you can ‘randomly’ produce a piece of text that can be mistaken for Derrida – by people who know fuck all about Derrida. In fact, I’d go further – if the program that produces phrases is sufficiently intelligently set up, I daresay I could be fooled by – or at least not confident in my judgement of the provenance of – some phrase or short sequence of phrases. At some point that would collapse – you’re not going to be able to generate an intelligible essay, or even a longish piece of text, using a ‘random’ method. (And if you can, maybe you should apply for that Turing Test prize money.) But I have no idea what Taleb thinks he’s demonstrating here.

“[T]here are Monte Carlo generators designed to structure such texts and write entire papers. Fed with ‘postmodernist’ texts, they can randomize phrases under a method called recursive grammar, and produce grammatically sound but entirely meaningless sentences that sound like Jacques Derrida, Camille Paglia, and such a crowd. Owing to the fuzziness of his thought, the literary intellectual can be fooled by randomness.”

What bullshit. What copper-plated, cast-iron, dug from a farmer’s prize bull’s ditch of prize bullshit bullshit. According to ‘Fortune’ magazine (I know, I shouldn’t expect much, why did I even buy the fucking thing?) ‘Fooled by Randomness’ is “One of the smartest books of all time.” Well, not so much. Not if it has stuff that even vaguely resembles this in it. Good lord. Why do people take this sort of thing seriously? What’s going on?

I was planning to write more, but I think I’ve reached a pitch of intemperance that requires a hasty close. Don’t buy ‘Fooled by Randomness’. I’ve got it here now, and I’m wondering whether to try to finish it or burn it. I guess I should toss a coin.

[Apologies for this nonsense post. Unusually, I have too much time on my hands today.]

April 2, 2008

A Crowd Flowed Over London Bridge

Filed under: Anecdote, Literature, Self indulgence — duncan @ 4:57 pm

I’ve been feeling in need of a wealthy, dissolute patron, lately. Somebody whose character I can assassinate in London taverns at three am, amid a crowd of literary winos, before writing grovelling letters of apology in the grisly-faced morning. Instead I have to work for a living – and it’s a bit of a struggle. You try mastering the fundamentals of economics while holding down a bank job; it’s fun, but it’s neither cake nor ale. So my conscious mind has recently shrunk to a single infinitesimal point, with just enough agency to move limbs and bowels, but without the wherewithal to talk or operate machinery.

Which is to say, I’ve been shirking my duties, and reading Macaulay on Johnson.

“Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fullness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history. Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St Vitus’s dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-pie with plum, his inexhaustible thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr Levett and blind Mrs Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood. But we have no minute information respecting those years of Johnson’s life during which his character and his manners became immutably fixed.”

And in case Macaulay seems a bit too Victorian, a bit too complacently outgoing, let me balance the scales with Beckett’s take on Cham.

“It isn’t Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine that means anything to me, but the miseries he never talked of, being unwilling or unable to do so. The horror of annihilation, the horror of madness, the horrified love of Mrs Thrale, the whole mental monster ridden swamp that after hours of silence could only give some ghastly bubble like ‘Lord have mercy upon us’, the background of the ‘Prayers and Meditations’, the opium eating, dreading-to-go to bed, prayers-for-the dead, past living, terrified of dying, terrified of deadness, panting on to 75 bag of water, with a hydracele on his right testis. How jolly.”

A crowd flowed over London Bridge. It flowed into the station, and through the stationers. Three years ago I worked there, selling cigarettes and chocolate to the crowd, before it flowed, millipedal, onto the trains and out into the suburbs, down towards Croydon. Now I work in a bank – offering loans and credit cards to people struggling to repay mortgage debts.

Q: Why is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ Eliot’s best poem?
A: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is Eliot’s best poem because he’s candid there about the repressions, evasions and weaknesses that provide the foundation for his later ethereal art.

We summon an ocean of liquidity, with rites and dances. Then human voices wake us, and we find there is no water, but only dry sterile thunder without rain.

Proper posts to follow, hopefully.

March 23, 2008

Nabokov’s Terror

Filed under: Literature, Nabokov, Philosophy, Self indulgence, Unreadable — duncan @ 2:57 pm

Nabokov famously hated both Freud and Sartre. In the screenplay to ‘Lolita’, if I remember right, Humbert is transplanted to L.A., where he has been hired to work on a film about existentialism. That’s meant to convey, I think, both Nabokov’s low regard for an intellectual movement so cheerfully adopted by the fashionable and the philistine – and an unease about his own writing. Nabokov doesn’t so much hate existentialism as feel that it isn’t being done properly; it’s a Hollywood philosophy, rather than a real (an authentic?) one. In the afterword to his collection ‘Tyrants Destroyed’, Nabokov writes of his story ‘Terror’: “It preceded Sartre’s La Nausee, with which it shares certain shades of thought, and none of that novel’s fatal defects, by at least a dozen years.” [And let me say right away that I, too, know almost nothing about Sartre – though I share Nabokov’s dislike of ‘Nausea’.]

Anyway, here’s a passage from ‘Terror’. The narrator, the usual chilly Nabokovian writer, is visiting a strange city when he experiences a feeling of ‘supreme terror’. He finds himself unable to express it using the normal resources of his art. “I wish the part of my story to which I am coming now could be set in italics; no, not even italics would do: I need some new, unique kind of type.” But then he says that he believes he has found the right words. “When I came out on the street, I suddenly saw the world such as it really is. You see, we find comfort in telling ourselves that the world could not exist without us, that it exists only inasmuch as we ourselves exist, inasmuch as we can represent it to ourselves… [It’s not exactly clear to me who the ‘we’ in this sentence is meant to encompass; a fairly select bunch of philosophical idealists and/or solipsists, it would seem. Be that as it may…] Well – on that terrible day when, devastated by a sleepless night, I stepped out into the center of an incidental city, and saw houses, trees, automobiles, people, my mind abruptly refused to accept them as ‘houses,’ ‘trees,’ and so forth… My line of communication with the world snapped”. Significantly, Nabokov’s narrator compares this with the sensation one experiences “after one has repeated sufficiently long the commonest word without heeding its meaning: house, howss, whowss. It was the same with trees, the same with people.” And then comes the passage I want to emphasise. Here we find bound together, extremely efficiently, a number of key Nabokovian themes. And it’s almost embarrassingly easy to read this passage psychoanalytically. (A quick aside – it’s not entirely clear to me how seriously we’re meant to take Nabokov’s contempt for Freud – for the most part it seems totally on the level (and hysterical); but on occasion Nabokov seems to be almost asking us to ignore his ‘manifest’ views. Take his lectures on ‘Anna Karenin’, where, if I remember right, he launches into his usual attack on the psychoanalytic view of literary symbolism, before discussing, in great detail, Anna’s red bag, and its metaphoric function in the novel. It’s almost as if he’s asking us to make the connection that a salaried professor of Russian literature couldn’t, in the fifties, express in polite company. But I suppose Nabokov’s ‘intentions’ (whatever sense we choose to make of that concept) aren’t necessarily the issue here: what matters, in the first place at least, is how his work functions… and a clearer example of a hysterical sexual nightmare you’d be hard-pushed to find than this passage from his story ‘Terror’.)

“I understood the horror of a human face. Anatomy, sexual distinctions, the notion of ‘legs,’ ‘arms,’ ‘clothes’ – all that was abolished, and there remained in front of me a mere something – not even a creature, for that too is a human concept, but merely something moving past. In vain did I try to master my terror by recalling how once in my childhood, on waking up, I raised my still sleepy eyes while pressing the back of my neck to my low pillow and saw, leaning toward me over the bed head, an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead. I sat up with a shriek and immediately the mustache became eyebrows and the entire face was transformed into that of my mother, which I had glimpsed at first in an unwonted upside-down aspect.” (‘Terror’, in Nabokov, ‘Collected Stories’, p. 177)

Several moves in the passages from ‘Terror’ I’ve quoted.

1) A vision of the world as it “is” rather than as it (usually) appears – a vision of the world unfiltered through the conceptual and experiential categories we use to understand existence. The world thus perceived is meaningless, because it is only our understanding of the world that gives it meaning. “I am convinced that nobody ever saw the world the way I saw it during those moments, in all its terrifying nakedness and terrifying absurdity.” A form of perception devoid of all conceptual scheme, and thus devoid of all sense.

2) But, of course, in describing the world as it really “is”, without the apparatus of our concepts or the categories of ordinary experience, Nabokov, or his narrator, has to use language, concepts, analogies, metaphor, all the resources of literary expression. In the passage I’m highlighting, he uses a comparison with an in-some-ways-similar experience of ‘absurdity’ from the narrator’s childhood. But, of necessity, the description of this experience cannot convey bare existence (here, the bare existence of the human face), but must rather convey a particular kind of experience, by comparing the face in question to something else, using the resources of metaphor: “an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black mustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead.”

3) I don’t think you need to be a complete Freud fanatic to see this as a primal scene of sexual nightmare – an expression of male revulsion at a certain fantasised vision of female sexuality (complete with castration anxiety and vagina dentata). What Nabokov, or his narrator, wants to present as horror at sheer existence, is rerouted, by the story’s metaphorics, towards horror at female sexuality. At this level of the story, existence itself is equated with female sexuality; and female sexuality is understood as specifically maternal.

A full reading of this story would place this analysis within the context of Nabokov’s art as a whole. But I don’t want to do that. I just want to use this story, and this quote, as an occasion to talk, in a massively underinformed way, about the general literary-philosophical-psychoanalytic situation we encounter here.

So. This story, and particularly this passage in the story, is a perfect example of that much maligned neologism ‘phallogocentrism’: the connection, at some deep conceptual/emotional level, between ‘logocentrism’ – the understanding of Being as dominated by or derived from Logos (form, word, reason) – and ‘phallocentrism’: the social, sexual, and conceptual prioritising of the male over the female, with all the ambiguities and misogynies that this implies.

Obviously my take here is Derridean – though it’s also hugely influenced by the Derridean literary critic and philosopher Henry Staten, and the psychoanalytic literary critic Janet Adelman. The (‘Statenian’) argument would run something like this. Western philosophy, since forever, has understood both existence and thought as grounded in the ‘Logos’. This assimilation can be understood in terms of the philosophical privileging of form over matter. Thought and existence can be linked together – the connection between our thoughts and their apparently non-conceptual content can be guaranteed – because thought and existence share something: form. My thoughts may be made of different stuff from the world they represent – but the form of my thoughts is identical with the form of their content, and this explains how thought can have content.

This form of philosophical explanation is fundamentally incoherent – because it has an overriding tendency not just to privilege form over matter, but to utterly abolish matter in favour of understanding everything, including Being itself, in terms of form. For if form is the principle of intelligibility, then that which is not form – i.e. matter – is, strictly speaking, unthinkable, and unknowable. When we say ‘matter’ we cannot mean matter, on this theory – we must mean the form of matter. Thus – there is no matter; or, at least, matter drops altogether out of any coherent logocentric thought, becoming the pure noumenon, about which nothing can be said.

And yet, of course, we still do talk about matter; and indeed matter remains as the dark shadow to any philosophical theory of being as form. This dark shadow is the space within which Nabokov situates his story of ‘terror’. And it has two aspects – the failure of a representation to fully correspond to its object (as in the repetition of a word until it appears to lose its meaning); and a material existence that cannot be encompassed by form. There are thus two threats to ‘logocentrism’: materiality on the one hand, and the failure of language to fully convey meaning, on the other. This latter threat, to be simple about it, is the threat of poetry – because poetry, or literature, depends upon a use of language that emphasises language’s ‘material’ properties, rather than its transparency to the objects of reference. And this is the threat that Derrida presses in his emphasis on ‘the materiality of the signifier’. But this threat is in fact a special case of the more general threat of materiality – or (rather) the threat of the utterly incoherent concept of materiality that is both invented and suppressed by logocentric thought.

As I say, this entire network of philosophical concepts is incoherent; it is not sustained by its own logic or necessity, but by other forces. And – this is the claim of those who emphasise the importance of ‘phallogocentrism’ – one of the most significant of these forces is a phallocentric sexual politics. The ‘Freudian’ level of Nabokov’s story ‘Terror’ is more important than its ‘existentialist’ level. Logocentrism creates an entirely incoherent concept of matter – which is then forcibly suppressed from the surface of philosophical systematicity. But this concept of matter has already been equated with a fantasised idea of female sexuality – and it is this equation that drives philosophy’s suppression.

Nabokov is, in a way, being very candid in this passage (whether deliberately or not…). His metaphysics, or the metaphysics his authorial persona advocates, is fundamentally idealist: Nabokov apparently believes in the persistence of the soul after death, and in the constitution of the empirical world by those persisting souls. He believes, like Pnin, not in an autocratic god, but in “a democracy of ghosts”. [All these remarks are hopefully going to tie in eventually to hauntology and ‘Specters of Marx’. I’m baffled that no one I’ve come across has written on ‘Nabokov’s Hauntology’.] But in this short story (as elsewhere) Nabokov reveals this philosophical inclination as driven by a fantasised fear of female sexuality, and of maternity – which are nonetheless implicitly equated with being in general. No doubt this equation is part of a still more general heterosexism. But I want to emphasise how important this equation/suppression is to Nabokov’s work (and, in passing, how symptomatic it is of more pervasive literary/ideological trends. Eventually, with a bit of luck, we’ll work our way round to ‘Hamlet’). To take only the most obvious example: in ‘Lolita’, Lolita’s escape from Humbert is represented and embodied by her pregnancy. But the entire story of her capture/escape occurs in the space between the death of two mothers, both mentioned almost in passing. Humbert’s mother: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”; and Lolita herself: “Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day, 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.” These are among the most chilling sentences in the book – not just because of the brutal indifference of the narrators. This description of Lolita’s death recuperates her escape from Humbert’s supernatural fantasies (of nymphet love), (and, incidentally, from the name ‘Lolita’), while simulataneously evoking Nabokov’s own fantasies of grace and (Christian?) immortality. Lolita and her child are dead before the book begins – and it is as if Nabokov can only bear to write about (or to imagine) her if she has no children. In this respect, Nabokov fails the test that Humbert, for all his monstrousness, passes in chapter 29. Humbert doesn’t kill Lolita. (But then perhaps he knows, in some corner of his soul, that his creator will.)

I’ll try to carry on along these lines in a while. Destination: Hamlet.

March 18, 2008

Existence and Property

Every time I try to think about things using philosophy, I’m reminded just how little philosophy I’ve read. I need a great many years absorbing the canon before I can say anything worthwhile – and I don’t have them.

So, talking crap, let me talk about the opposition between existence and properties. On the one hand, you have the philosophical vision that underpins a certain form of empiricism: a substratum, the existent, which has certain sensible properties. The properties may come and go, but the substratum remains, for it is adamantine.

There are all sorts of problems here. For one, this substratum tends to, as it were, ‘drop out’. Since (at least in this empiricist vision) it seems to be the properties, and not the thing in itself, which we perceive, it becomes easy to deny the existence of the thing in itself. Then we’re left with an alternative philosophical vision, in which there are nothing but properties – with no fundamental being to which they are attached. At this point, the concept of existence itself becomes a product of properties, and we find ourselves with a kind of idealism.

If you want to, you can see this in terms of the vocabulary of analytic philosophy. For vision (1), take Russell’s theory of descriptions, in which there is an entirely empty ‘there is an object such that…’ and then a description of the object – a list of its properties. For vision (2), take the theory that (if I remember right…) Quine gestures towards, in which the concept of the class is genuinely basic, and the property of belonging to this or that class precedes our understanding of existence.

Does existence precede essence, or does essence precede existence? – is I guess the point. Or, rather, you obviously can’t understand existence and essence separately.

I hate writing like this. I need to do some reading. But I don’t have time.

Anyway – I want to make a highly shonky move from property in this philosophical sense to property in the economic sense. I don’t think this move is necessarily as shonky as it might appear; but it’s clearly a bit dodge. The point is this: the free market is based on the exchange of property. And the owners of property are, by and large, people. (Corporations too, of course; everything’s very complicated. But let’s try to keep it simple for the minute.) People exchange commodities: that’s the free market.

But I’ve been reading Marx and Polanyi. And what they both emphasise is that capitalism is born at the moment when labour becomes commodified (or, rather, in which certain kinds of human activity become commodified as labour). The basic institution of capitalism is a market for wage-labour. And labour is, in some ways, a very different commodity from any other. Because, to be simple about it, we are labour: labour is us.

I need to qualify that immediately: so of course labour isn’t a natural category; of course all our lives aren’t all labour; of course the very idea of labour, and the way in which it’s understood, is a product of institutions, social structures, mechanisms of discipline and control; it’s the creation of the concept of labour that we want to examine here.

But having said all that. In some sense we are labour; labour is us. A human being owns property. The question is: when a human being also becomes property, what becomes of her relation to herself? Is this relation a relation of ownership? Do I own myself; am I my own most basic property? Or does property not enter into a relationship that is, fundamentally, no relationship at all, but simple existence? Or is the question entirely ill-posed in these terms? And all these questions also need to be asked in relation to slavery – one of the most massive facts of early capitalism, which is by no means dead today.

Believe it or not, these remarks were prompted by trying to re-read some of Keynes’s General Theory, and being struck by the fundamental distinction he draws (p. 23), between the income of entrepreneurs, and the income of factors of production (by and large – labour.) What’s the basic distinction between entrepreneurs and others, which is operative in so much economic thought? Why are entrepreneurs seen as the demi-gods of capitalist culture? Isn’t it because only the entrepreneur fully owns herself? And therefore only the entrepreneur fully exists? According to this logic of existence and property.

And in trying to attack this logic, don’t we have to go deep into the concept of ownership – of property (‘the proper’, as Derrida calls it) – and its relation to (human) existence?

Oh fuck it; this blog’s becoming a nightmare.

March 5, 2008

Wittgenstein versus Turing: spelling of the second order

Filed under: Philosophy, Self indulgence, Unreadable — duncan @ 9:38 pm

In 1939 both Wittgenstein and Turing were lecturing in Cambridge.  They were both lecturing on the same subject: the foundations of mathematics.  But their approaches couldn’t have been more different.  Not being a mathematician, I don’t know what Turing was on about.  But Wittgenstein was attempting to demolish the philosophical project that had been the lodestar of analytic philosophy since… well, since Bertrand Russell’s ‘Principles of Mathematics’.  That was the book that first turned Wittgenstein on to philosophy, about 1910 or so, and which served, in part, as the manifesto for the establishment of ‘analytic’ philosophy.  Analytic philosophy was born in those heady years when ‘Principia Mathematica’, and Frege’s ‘Basic Laws of Arithmetic’ promised to set the whole damn edifice of modern maths on the rock solid foundation of formal logic.  As the project collapsed (wounded almost before it began to breathe by Russell’s paradox; then killed and buried by Godel’s incompleteness theorem)… as the project collapsed the methodology survived, in a peculiar zombie state – free from any justification, but firmly rooted in the rich soil of Anglo-American academic practice.  Analytic philosophers can’t tell you why formal logic should have any kind of privileged status as the discourse of true reason; but they’ll sure as hell insist we all speak this strange, cramped language.  (An enforcement, in a way, of the same demand that Plato made in the Republic: the banishment of poetry from the world of truth.)

Anyway, Wittgenstein, in 1939, was having none of it.  He didn’t just turn against his own earlier project; he also turned against any attempt to give mathematics anything like the status he’d earlier aspired to explain.  When Turing started attending Wittgenstein’s lectures, the ‘lectures’ rapidly developed into a dialogue, with Turing defending mathematical propositions’ claim to truth, and Wittgenstein insisting again and again that it all comes down to nothing more than grammar, social conventions, practical demands, and so on.

“WITTGENSTEIN: I won’t say anything which anyone can dispute. Or if anyone does dispute it, I will let that point drop and pass on to say something else.”

“TURING: I understand but I don’t agree that it is simply a question of giving new meanings to words.

WITTGENSTEIN: Turing doesn’t object to anything I say. He agrees with every word.”

“TURING: I see your point.

WITTGENSTEIN: I don’t have a point.”

This kind of thing goes on quite a bit in the lectures: Wittgenstein trying to rebut Turing’s suggestion that he’s advancing a philosophical thesis – Turing insisting that they disagree on philosophical matters; Wittgenstein insisting that no – no philosophy, in the sense that Turing means, is taking place.

It’s very difficult not to feel sympathy with Turing; he comes across as extremely likeable – and it’s nice to see someone who actually understands the issues disagreeing with Wittgenstein, in real time. But I think it all also sheds an interesting light on the continuity in Wittgenstein’s thought – something that a lot of his readers (me, for one) perhaps tend to underestimate. Let me make a few wild claims, that require backtracking to beyond the beginning of analytic philosophy.

When Russell, Moore, the early Wittgenstein et al were trying to establish a new way of philosophising, part of the project was a more or less complete rejection of everything that had happened since, say, Hume. Analytic philosophy understood itself from the beginning as a reaction against modern continental thought. In particular, it was a reaction against German idealism – the transcendental philosophy established by Kant, and developed by his successors. A lot of English philosophers at the turn of the century were Hegelians of a sort. Analytic philosophy wanted to return to empiricism; but a new empiricism bolstered by the resources of modern logic.

I suggest that we see this return as associated with a rejection of the distinction that inaugurates Kant’s transcendental philosophy: the two fold distinction between analytic and synthetic judgements, on the one hand, and a priori and a posteriori judgements, on the other. Analytic philosophy (I’m aware it’s incredibly problematic to use this term as if it refers to an easily identifiable and homogenous tradition; but fuck it)… analytic philosophy, in almost all the forms I’m aware of, tends to obliterate this distinction, by assimilating the a priori to the analytic, and the a posteriori to the synthetic. What’s really baffling about the way in which this is done, is that it’s done so casually. Perhaps the most striking example I’ve read is Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ – a work of Kant exegesis that simply declares the distinction non-sensical, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist. This tendency persists even in more recent analytic philosophy that supposedly makes some kind of contact with the continental tradition – see McDowell’s ‘Mind and World’.

Anyway – I think what’s striking about the Tractatus is that it’s totally candid about the double-imperative analytic philosophy faces once it’s attempted to abolish this distinction. The Tractatus is really an analysis of the a priori conditions of thought, in the Kantian tradition – but it insists that the logical propositions it discusses are tautologous; and that the propositions which discuss these propositions are worse than tautologous – they’re nonsensical. It seems to me that the early Wittgenstein, in trying to provide some kind of solution to the calamitous problems Russell’s paradox created for the analytic project went as far as he could in this direction: the need to create an infinite regress of meta-languages is abolished because there is no meta-language; the nonsensical, meaningless propositions of Wittgenstein’s early thought contain all the sense and meaning his project needs.

Dammit; I didn’t mean to discuss the Tractatus, and it’s so long since I read it. What I want to emphasise in this post is that Wittgenstein carries over from his early work this commitment to propositions without sense, content, or meaning; propositions that are not propositions. In the Tractatus these propositions are the foundations of logic; in the Investigations they’re the grammar of our language-games. (Though of course Wittgenstein hardly uses the phrase ‘language games'; I agree with the reading of the Wittgenstein that sees the pervasive discussion of ‘language games’ in the literature as an attempt to find an ‘ontological’ foundation for his later thought; an attempt antithetical to Wittgenstein’s project.) But in both his earlier and his later thought Wittgenstein’s own discourse occupies an incredibly paradoxical position. A position summarised in his lectures on the foundations of mathematics by the maxim “I don’t have a point.” Or, still more pointedly… “Obviously the whole point is that I must not have an opinion.”

Right at the start of the lectures, Wittgenstein uses a favourite analogy. “Compare the fact that when we learn spelling we learn the spelling of the word ‘spelling’ but we do not call that ‘spelling of the second order’.” It seems to me that this example is capable of carrying a double-investment in Wittgenstein’s work. On the one hand, it folds back the discourse of philosophy into the discourse of ordinary language; of empirical, everyday endeavours. But this folding back can also serve to conceal the massive philosophical investment Wittgenstein places in certain locations of ordinary language. Wittgenstein’s entire later project could, in a way, be called “spelling of the second order”; a discourse that keeps its nose to the ground and its feet on the earth; a discourse that refuses to engage in any philosophical speculation, but precisely in this refusal manages to evade many of the most important ways in which ordinary language is actually used – for an investigation into the rules of the grammar of our language must and always does involve opinions – the very modesty of Wittgenstein’s endeavour is, in a way, an attempt to preserve its transcendental status. For Wittgenstein is still searching for the conditions of possibility of thought. And, like his earlier self, and (crucially) unlike the transcendental philosophy his earlier thought reacted against, those conditions of possibility of thought must not themselves be any part of thought.

I write all this because I find Wittgenstein’s project – the attempt to fold the ambitions of transcendental philosophy back into everyday life – incredibly appealling. But I think his project is also, probably, doubly flawed: flawed because certain aspects of everyday life are given covert philosophical weight that Wittgenstein himself can’t justify; and also flawed because the thought he is reacting against in his later work (i.e. his own earlier work) is already a reaction against transcendental philosophy. Wittgenstein’s later work still bears the marks of that initial reaction – and it’s this, I think, that undermines his attempt to give philosophy peace. Wittgenstein’s later work can only be honest if he acknowledges that he is advancing opinions… and that is apparently only possible if he brings back the synthetic a priori: which is the one thing that Wittgenstein, from first to last, refuses to do.

Ahem.

Did I mention something about writing on the fly? My word, I’ll be amazed if this blog has any readers left by the end of the week.

I should probably mention that I think the above is probably wrong. I’m trying to get my thoughts out of my head, the better to assess them. I can already see a number of very dubious things in what I’ve just said – in addition to the simple carelessness. Oh me oh my. Keep on truckin’

Fun Connections Between Famous Philosophers’ Incidental Remarks

Filed under: Philosophy, Self indulgence — duncan @ 8:51 pm

Nietzsche:  I have forgotten my umbrella.

Wittgenstein:   Don’t treat your commonsense like an umbrella.  When you come into a room to philosophise, don’t leave it outside but bring it in with you.

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