Praxis

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’

March 2, 2008

Sympathy with the Dead

Filed under: Philosophy, Unreadable, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:02 pm

Throwing out a few noteworthy quotes. As usual, I’m not in a position to do anything useful with them; and won’t be for a long time.

1) Adam Smith.

Smith prefaces his great account of the structure of our economy with an account of the ‘Moral Sentiments’; and he grounds that account in the idea of sympathy. “[W]e have no immediate experience of what other men feel”, Smith writes. It is thus “by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are [another’s] sensations.” But the imagination does not directly grant us access to another’s feelings; rather, it tells us what our own feelings would be, were we in another’s place. Sympathy may thus make us share another’s emotions; but it may also prompt in us emotions very different from those felt by the object of our sympathy. “We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour.” Most strikingly, we may feel sympathy for those who have no feelings at all: the dead.

“We sympathise even with the dead… It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity… That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity… The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.”

2) Schopenhauer

“Weeping is by no means a positive manifestation of pain, for it occurs where pains are least. In my opinion, we never weep directly over pain that is felt, but always only over its repetitions in reflection. Thus we pass from the felt pain, even where it is physical, to a mere mental picture or representation of it; we then find our own state so deserving of sympathy that, if another were the sufferer, we are firmly and sincerely convinced that we would be full of sympathy and love to help him. Now we ourselves are the object of our sincere sympathy; with the most charitable disposition, we ourselves are most in need of help. We feel that we endure more than we could see another endure, and in this peculiarly involved frame of mind, in which the directly felt suffering comes to perception only in a double indirect way, pictured as the suffering of another and sympathised with as such, and then suddenly perceived again as directly our own; in such a frame of mind nature finds relief through that curious physical convulsion. Accordingly, weeping is sympathy with ourselves, or sympathy thrown back to its starting point. It is therefore conditioned by the capacity for affection and sympathy, and by the imagination.”

3) Plato

“[T]he poet gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires of a part of us, which we forcible restrain in our private misfortunes, with its hunger for tears and for an uninhibited indulgence in grief. Our better nature, being without adequate intellectual or moral training, relaxes its control over these feelings on the grounds that it is someone else’s sufferings it is watching…. For very few men are capable of realising that what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves, and that if we let our pity for the misfortunes of others grow too strong it will be difficult to restrain our feelings in our own…”

Plato particularly has in mind Homer’s depiction of Achilles as succumbing to ‘womanly’ grief – a grief occasioned by the loss of what he loves, but exacerbated, as Henry Staten emphasises (as so often, I’m drawing heavily on Staten’s work) by his agonised apprehension of his own mortality. When Plato banishes the poets from the Republic, it is because they feed that irrational part of ourselves which succumbs to immoderate grief in the face of death.

I want to say a few things.

1) Notice how directly opposed are Plato and Smith’s views on the link between the good society and the grief produced by death. For Plato, nothing could be more harmful to the establishment of the Republic than irrational lamentation. Plato’s enquiry into the nature of justice comes to identify grief as the most powerful enemy of the polis. For Smith, by contrast, this “great poison to the happiness” is also “the great restraint upon the injustice [my emphasis] of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.”

2) Lamentation is, in all these passages, connected to mimesis – representation. It is only the imagination, our capacity for representing another’s feelings – and, most crucially, representing our own feelings to ourselves through our reflexive understanding of another’s representation of those feelings – that allows us to experience sorrow at all. An animal may feel sensations, but an animal cannot grieve (the argument goes), for an animal is incapable of mimetic representation. Schopenhauer develops this idea when he says that even our own grief for ourselves is really an involuted form of sympathy. The very feeling we identify with when we see it in another is already the product of a prior network of reflexive identification. In the realm of grief, there is nothing that is not already conditioned by this reflexive sympathy.

3) Something very strange happens when the reflexive network of sympathy/self-sympathy takes a dead beloved as one of its moments. In the first place, as Smith says, identification with the dead is an ‘illusion’ of the imagination. The dead themselves feel no sorrow – not insofar as they are dead. (Thus Smith adds to his account the caveat that, in identifying with the dead, we “overlook what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them…”) Our sympathy with the dead is therefore (apparently) qualitatively different from our sympathy with the living – it is altogether a product of the imagination; it does not give us any access to the mind or heart of the object of our sympathy. Here, then, the mimetic circuit is interrupted by a representation that does not represent anything – that is, does not represent anything real. But the mimetic circuit is also interrupted in a second way. For one of the most appalling aspects of death – one of the aspects that occasions the most grief or sorrow – is the fact that the dead will be forgotten. “It is miserable, we think… [for the dead] to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.” And this thought is one of the most important sources of our sympathy with the dead; mourning is remembrance, and we grieve in mourning because of the inevitable end of that remembrance. Pathological mourning – melancholia – is occasioned by the refusal to forget; the refusal to direct our sympathy away from the dead loved one. (Thus Hamlet’s melancholia is called forth by the perceived o’erhasty end to the proper period of mourning for his father; he refuses to stop mourning because he does not want his father to be subject to the final death of forgetfulness). But if we grieve (for ourselves or for another) because we imagine, through a network of sympathetic identification, the moment in which the dead one (who feels nothing) is forgotten (nothing is felt for them) our sympathy is wholly paradoxical. It moves through a network of identification with feelings that are not felt, and that are necessarily not felt. It may be a ‘contingent’ fact that the impudent object of our sympathy does not feel the proper shame; and we can non-paradoxically feel shame in his stead. But when we imagine the dead; or when we imagine the moment in which the dead are forgotten; the very nature of the situation in which we place ourselves precludes the closure of the circuit of identification. We may feel for the dead, but the dead themselves don’t feel. We may imagine a situation in which the dead are forgotten; but if we use this situation to think of the dead, we are by definition not truly imagining it. Yet the very fact that the feelings we imaginatively identify ourselves with cannot be felt calls forth our own most powerful feelings.

Now if (to make an enormous leap) we say (following Plato) that thought in general is always the product of Eros, love; and if (contra Plato) we say that love in general, Eros, is impossible without mourning… then this paradoxical identification with something that does not and can never exist is essential to all consciousness. (C.f. Staten’s ‘Eros in Mourning’).

That’s a big enough leap. But take another. If, following Adam Smith, we want to ground our understanding of the economy on an understanding of individual behaviour which in turn takes its bearings from the faculty of sympathy – imagination – then we also need to incorporate this paradox into our thinking. Sympathy (I’m claiming) is always, to some extent, sympathy with that which does not exist – or that only exists as matter, in the state of death, without feeling of its own. More than that: sympathy must always potentially involve imaginative identification with something strictly unimaginable. The emotional or psychological situation, I believe, thus closely parallels that which Berkeley described in his famous paradox of the unobserved tree. We try to imagine a tree as unimagined; and thereby prove that the tree is in fact always an object of consciousness. Berkeley used this argument to ‘prove’ the truth of idealism. I suggest that this argument rather proves the paradoxical nature of the imagination – that thought must always involve thought of the unthinkable. In Smith’s account sympathetic identification involves placing ourselves in a situation in which we necessarily cannot place ourselves, because the very nature of the situation is that it excludes our presence. As soon as thought takes such a detour it becomes subject to paradox or aporia. And such paradox is, in fact, a precondition of imaginative identification of any kind.

Which connects up to the claim that, I believe, inaugurates deconstruction – the claim, in ‘Speech and Phenomena’, that “[t]he statement ‘I am alive’ is accompanied by my being dead, and its possibility requires the possibility that I be dead; and conversely…. [W]e understand the ‘I am’ out of the ‘I am dead.’”

I can’t imagine anyone’s buying this. [Plus I’ve got a nasty feeling I’m mostly rehashing second hand Hegel and/or Lacan.] My point is that I think it’s very important that Smith begins his entire project with the possibility of identifying with the dead. If we see Adam Smith as the father of economics, then this moment, which opens his oeuvre, is of some significance. I’m sure we’ll have occasion to refer back to it, as this blog babbles its way through the classics, making ever more hare-brained claims.

February 20, 2008

Normative Economics

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Unreadable — duncan @ 9:13 pm

[Take careful note of the ‘unreadable’ tag above.]

All economics is normative. In the first place, for all the obvious reasons. Human beings are weak, and human knowledge is partial. We are always inclined to mould the facts to fit our preoccupations, prejudices, and desires. To the extent that abstract thought abstracts from numinous reality, this moulding process is the stuff of thought itself. So even the most objective analysis is guided, to some extent, by values, loathings, needs. (And, as Hilary Putnam reminds us, truth is also a value.) Plus, deception is an intrinsic feature of our crooked human timber: it’s in the grain. Since the claim of objectivity is a one of the most powerful rhetorical tropes available, it will often be made precisely when the issues at stake are most doubtful, the ideas advanced most tendentious.

So far so blah. But there are more specific ways in which economics cannot escape the shadow of normativity. What claims economics has to scientific status mostly come from its treatment of human problems in quantitative terms. “’I can calculate the motions of the heavens, but not the madness of men,” Newton said, after losing a fortune in the South Sea bubble. Since Cournot – or since Cournot’s methods spread – economics has prided itself on using the differential calculus (which Newton used to unlock the secrets of motion) to describe the motion of our souls. (Note to self: I really must read Mirowski). Economics hoped to make society Newtonian. Or, perhaps better, Liebnizian. (Note to self: I must read more Liebniz. Permit me a moment of frenzied despair – so much to read; so much to understand… I’m better now). What is the rational self-interested individual, if not the monad; and what is the self-regulating market, if not the divine force that binds these monads together, ensuring synchronicity, and guaranteeing, in the face of countless horrors, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds? Why, I wonder, was this vision associated with the calculus from the start?

Economics aspires to be a quantitative science. [I just went out for the evening. Now I’m back, and have lost my train of thought...] This is easy enough when economics deals with actual quantities – so many cars, so many houses, so many bankruptcies, so many deaths. But when economics’ objects are not already quantified, it has to quantify them. Economics needs a mechanism of homogenisation, by means of which the inordinate world can be placed on a single numbered scale. This mechanism will be what economics calls a measure of value.

One purpose of money is this homogenisation of value. In this sense – in the sense that economics presupposes the reduction of value to a single scale – economics already sees the world through money’s eyes. But economics does not take money’s valuations as they stand. Economics enquires into the mechanisms by means of which prices are established – and also, more importantly, into exchange rates, interest rates, inflation, and all the other features of money that prevent it from functioning as economics wishes it could – as a transparent, homogenous medium for the measurement of value. Economics does not believe what money says. Yet economics can only distance itself from monetary valuation by comparing it to another set of valuations, which must be understood as fulfilling the very function economics wishes money could. [Yuch. I’ll try to clarify this horrible paragraph in my next post.]

Let’s say that there are two ‘normative’ principles at work here. One we could call the principle, or paradigm, of quantification, or homogenisation. This would correspond to the general ‘perspective’ that capitalist economics adopts towards the world. The second normative principle would be the perspective economics adopts within that perspective: the question of which particular method of quantification economics selects as the basis for analysis. So – for instance – economics acknowledges that prices can’t be used as the basis for comparison of values across space and time (because of inflation, exchange rates, etc. etc.). Economics therefore instead decides to analyse value in terms of purchasing power. Now the question becomes – power to purchase what? It could always be claimed (and will be claimed, because it’ll be true) that the value of the good selected as the base unit for comparison has itself changed over space and time – a change that of course would not show up in economics’ measurements of value, if those measurements take the value of this good as given. In selecting its unit of homogenisation and quantification, therefore, economics is always already making a value judgement. It is saying ‘I value this; I will not let it be degraded; I will not let it lose its lustre; my ardour for it will not fade’. Economics is saying – I have chosen this as the solid base of value, the thing in itself, the centre around which the flux revolves. I have chosen this as the meaning or source of value.

[Marx’s labour theory of value, incidentally, is the selection of labour as this base unit (it’s more than that; but that’s an important feature). Marx, philosophically knowledgeable and brilliant guy that he is, understands exactly what this means. Here’s one of the most important sentences in ‘Capital’: “Labour is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but it has no value itself.” (my emph. Vol I, p. 677) I suggest that anyone with time on their hands compare this passage with Wittgenstein’s discussion of the metre rule in Paris – which, Wittgenstein says, has no length. The same principle is at work: the origin of measurement cannot be measured; it constitutes the system, and therefore is not part of it. This claim needs to be rejected. There isn’t much that carries over from the early to the late Wittgenstein, but this idea of a symbol that makes our discourse possible, and for that very reason cannot be part of our discourse – this idea persists. Anyway.]

On what basis does economics make this judgement? It makes it based on motives and criteria that precede and constitute economics. Economics’ objectivity – to the large extent that this objectivity is based on the discipline’s ability to quantify the apparently unquantifiable – is always dependent on an ethical judgement that cannot be justified from within the system of economics.

Christ, that’s the most incoherent blog post anyone has ever written. I’ll try to fix things later. Till then take care.

[NB: Reading the post back, I should have made it clearer what I’m trying to do here (though its probably obvious): recapitulate Derrida. In my next post, I think I’m going to take a leisurely jog through ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. Everything, or almost everything, I’m trying to do above can be found in that essay. My aim is to apply Derrida’s argument to the human science of economics – a human science that has so far magnificently resisted any engagement at all with modern philosophy – a ‘science’ still built, in fact, on the shakiest of nineteenth century foundations: utilitarianism. I also plan to formulate some criticisms of Derrida’s approach. But all that can wait.]

June 9, 2007

The Good Old Particular and General; Substitution of the Unsubstitutable

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Unreadable — duncan @ 6:05 pm

Not sure of the wisdom of putting this down; but I’m going to fling out some quotes and make a few connections.

1) Alfred Marshall: “the element of Time… is at the centre of the chief difficulty of almost every economic problem.” (Principles of Economics, Preface to the first edition)

2) John Maynard Keynes: “For the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” (General Theory, p. 293).

3) Jacques Derrida: “For is not Time the ultimate resource for the substitution of one absolute instant by another, for the replacement of the irreplaceable…?” (The Work of Mourning, p. 60).

4) Milton Friedman: “So long as it is insisted that differentiation of product is essential… the definition of an industry as firm producing an identical product cannot be used. By that definition each firm is a separate industry… The theory of monopolistic competition offers no tools for the analysis of an industry and so no stopping place between the firm at one extreme and general equilibrium at the other. … the one extreme is too narrow to be of great interest; the other, too broad to permit meaningful generalisations.” (Essays in Positive Economics, p. 38-9)

What we’re loitering around here is the infinite philosophical theme of the particular and the general, plus the infinite philosophical theme of the nature of time. A few thoughts:

1) As soon as you start talking about ‘the particular’, you are of course really talking about the particular in general. Not any particular particularity, but particularity as such. Immediate betrayal of the theme (the theme its own betrayal). Since all thought deals in generalities, to think the particular is a contradiction in terms.

2) Any particular thing is in principle irreplaceable. (To replace it is simply to do away with it, in its particularity). At the same time, any particular thing is always already part of a system of replacements, or substitutions – it must be, to be an object of thought at all.

3) There is a connection between this and the element of time.

4) In economics money is given special status: it is the commodity that represents the general. And this special status derives from money’s apparently special relationship to time. Benjamin Franklin’s ‘time is money’ is an axiom of capitalism.

5) The betrayal of the particular by the general is, then, in economics, the betrayal of the real by the monetary.

Infinite number of things to say about this. But let’s start with:

There are two objections to the system of valuation that is money.

1) X should be more/less valuable than the price Y it is given. 1% of the retail price of product Z goes to the wage labourer who produced it. This is unjust.

2) Monetary valuation is in principle a betrayal of the true value of X – because X (a human being, say, with loves and griefs, dreams and memories) has a value wholly unassimilable to any system of exchange. X is irreplaceable; how then can X enter into any system of substitution?

These two objections are very different. The second says: money is evil, because it assimilates value to price, and neglects true value. The first says: money is evil, because it prices falsely.

Alternative economics is always going to be uncomfortably caught between these two objections. To the extent that you make the second objection, you leave economics behind. To the extent that you make the first, you are acquiescing in the idea that monetary valuation is in principle legitimate in whatever context.

This is a first vague feeble pass around this subject. The aporias (to use the Derridean term) or stupid contradictions (to use a perhaps less partisan phrase) in what I’ve just said are legion.

Still, if we start from the idea that pricelessness is an essential part of any pricing system, perhaps we can begin to get somewhere. If the concept ‘that which is beyond valuation’ is not exterior to any system of valuation, but is in fact constitutive of it…

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