Sunday, 30 September 2012

Sartre: Holes Without Metaphors

There are a couple of pages in War Diaries devoted to the subject of holes. To say so, post-Freud,  is perhaps already to raise a snigger. But this reflex ‘Freudianism’ is precisely what Sartre is out to question:

Freud will consider that all holes, for the child, are symbolic anuses which attract him as a function of that kinship.

But where Freud might relate our fascination with holes to the anal phase etc, for Sartre the anal phase is only the localisation of an original fascination with holes – an origin which is ontological. For example: 

 [..] The child who sticks his finger into a hole in the ground experiences the joy of (ful-)filling the hole. In a sense, all holes plead obscurely to be filled, they are appeals: to fill = triumph of the full over the empty, of existence over nothingness.

 Every hole we encounter localises and makes particular this encounter with nothingness. And this encounter is ontological before it is anything else. For Sartre there is, before the story of sexual development or family relations, an inescapable existential situation.

This bears, indirectly, on the question of metaphor. The Freudian model makes the anus, or the womb, ‘original’ holes that render subsequent holes only metaphors:

One day I saw a Freudian mother gazing tenderly at her little daughter crouched on all fours under the table. She was convinced that this liking of the child for dark hidey-holes was a desire to return to the pre-natal state [..] as if the child [..] wished to return to the intimacy of her womb [..]

For Sartre, this is ‘nonsense’:

The vertiginous thrill of the hole comes from the fact that it proposes annihilation [..] This nothingness is the attractive element in what is properly termed ‘vertigo’. The abyss is a hole, it proposes engulfment. And engulfment always attracts, as a nihilation which would be its own foundation. 

 Any particular hole exercises fascination not because it reprises an original hole (womb, anus etc) but because it dramatises or embodies an some basic ontological issue. The first hole encountered was only the first time this problem was localised, so it has not pre-eminence, no priority. All holes are equidistant from this ‘origin’, this situation. All, equally, are concrete stagings of some underlying dilemma. In destroying the ‘original’ hole, Sartre also destroys the logic which makes all subsequent holes into metaphors of the origin. For the hole only localises the encounter with Nothing, and this encounter is an existential given.

Perhaps Sartre’ argument here might have a more general application. Perhaps not only holes, but objects of various kinds, only localise or dramatise some particular ‘existential’ problem , in which case the distinction between an originary object and its metaphorical stand ins becomes annulled.For example, I was watching a program on the treatment of autism in France and the influence of Lacanian ideas in this area. A (Lacanian) child psychiatrist is holding a plastic crocodile that children play with. It is a given that the crocodile ‘represents’ the mother. The child puts a doll inside the crocodile’s mouth and is actingn out a relation with the mother. Again, we have the idea of an original object that knocks down all subsequent objects into metaphors, deprives them of substance. But suppose even the first object particularised some more basic anxiety? Suppose the child, putting the doll into the mouth of the creature, is fascinated by the vertiginous nothingness that Sartre speaks of? 

For Sartre, there are no holes in nature, only a continuous surface, a ‘plenum’. Nothing is ‘missing’. Only in relation to human projects and practices are there gaps, omissions, ‘holes’. But this is true of objects more generally, i.e., they reveal their significance only in relation to human projects and concerns. As such , there are no original objects, for each individual object, equally, is the localisation of some underlying project or concern or anxiety.There is still room for metaphor here, but it is metaphor without an original object.

So when Pierre is missing from the cafe we might say that where Pierre should be there is a hole. The experience of entering the cafe and seeing Pierre not there is the same encounter with nothing as putting your hand in a hole and not finding a bottom.These two situations are not the 'same' but they do particularise the same anxiety.

Thursday, 27 September 2012


 From a book by Catherine Malabou*:
In the usual order of things, lives run their course like rivers. The changes and metamorpheses of a life due to vagaries and difficulties, or simply the natural unfolding of circumstance, appear as the marks and wrinkles of a continuous, almost logical, process of fulfilment that leads ultimately to death [..] Bodily and psychic transformations do nothing but reinforce the permanenceof identity, caricaturing or fixing it, but never contradicting it.
I wonder if this 'the natural order of things'. To be honest, I've always had difficulty in comprehending fully the notion of identity. So, I'd like to sketch out some provisional thoughts on the matter.  One possible definition of identity is 'that which stays the same over time' or, at least, that which is continuous over time. Have I stayed the same over time? Obviously not. There are, certainly, traits that have remained the same, but I would be reluctant to locate my 'identity' in these traits. If I still have the cheeky smile of my three year old self we wouldn't want to adduce this as proof of identity, it's  just the trait that has happened to survive. I'd probably want to locate my identity elsewhere (e.g. in what i've fashioned for myself as an adult).

But perhaps it would be better to start with an example used by philosophy teachers. Take a local church, or pub. Say that, over time, every slate on the roof is replaced, every beam, window and so on, until not one part of the original church stands. Is it the 'same' church. And if so, where does it's identity reside? It might be worth interjecting here that even if a single part of the church had survived, say the oak door, the identity of the church would clearly not reside in this surviving part. The source of identity is not to do with materials but with the story of their replacement. It is also a question of function and relations, i.e. the church's functions and relations within the community remains the same, regardless of material transformation  So, we might conclude that identity lies in its function and relations. And perhaps its name. The name of the church lends it an identity over time, like the ship Argo as Barthes describes it.

But I wonder how useful the church example is in thinking about identity and the self. Suppose every trait of my 3 year old self had been superceded, we could, as with the church point to a story, a gradual re-structuring, even if there are no or only a few common elements. (And yet it would be difficult to see what could cancel identity in this sense other than death or devasating illness or accident). The business of relations and function though, that worked for the church, doesn't seem to work when it comes to the question of the individual, since many individuals change their relations and 'functions' singnificantly over time without necessarily losing their identity. Relations and functions might be a way of defining the identity of a symbolic position  - like 'the Presidency', but not a self.

An other point about 'identity' is that it is increasingly used to refer to a self selecting attribute. For example, I am a Catholic or I am Irish.  Identity as something one proclaims, but also a kind of welding of the I and the predicate by force of declaration. This is perhaps a different issue though. Anyway, I hope to come back to this question of identity in more detail. 

*She is concerned precisely with ways in which this order of things is radically disturbed, to such an extent that continuity is broken and something different, new, emerges. I'd like to to come back to this

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

'Mental Bronchitis'

“It always strikes me frightfully when I think how entirely my profession depends on a gift which might be withdrawn from me at any moment. I think of that very often, again and again, & generally how everything can be withdrawn from one & one doesn’t even know what all one has & only just then becomes aware of the most essential when one suddenly loses it. And one notices it precisely because it is so essential, therefore so ordinary. Just as one doesn’t notice one’s breathing until one has bronchitis & sees that what one considered self-evident is not so self-evident at all. And there are many more kinds of mental bronchitis.” Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions

Thought and Expression

"Language doesn't clothe the thought but thought grows into language." Karl Kraus

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Mental and Biological

Some interesting points about anti-psychologism here, from where this:
To illustrate his point, he [Max Weber] asks us to suppose that psychology has advanced so far that it is possible to assess the precise neurological causes behind the reasoning of a mathematical theorem; that never suffices to determine whether or not that theorem is true .... Why? Because there is a fundamental distinction in principle between determining causes and assessing validity, which no amount of causal explanation will ever surmount.
And this:
 When Wilson "predicts," for example, that ethical phenomena will also turn out to be neural, it's unclear what interesting conclusion he thinks follows from this fact. Have we here "reduced" ethics to biology? Anyone who's tempted to answer yes should consider one further "prediction": Mathematical thoughts will also involve neurons. You're free, of course, to conclude that ethical truths are just biology but only at the considerable risk of arriving at the same conclusion about "2 + 2 = 4"
Indeed. And the whole language of 'reducing' one phenomenon to another is to me rather puzzling.For example, we think better, more clearly, when there is greater oxygen pumped to the brain; but these clear thoughts are not ‘reducible’ to an expression of this physiological alteration. We might also think about a certain way of discussing love. It is ‘explained’ in terms of hormonal balance or chemical re-composition. But ‘explained’ here seems to mean something like ‘wholly reducible to’. Yet equally, the ‘non-love’ ordinary state also has its chemical or hormonal correlative. Does this default chemical state ‘explain’ our ordinary state of being in the same dismissive way? Obviously not. 

It seems to me that all we can strictly say is that the event of love or thought occurs concurrently with or immediately after the neurological/ chemical re-adjustment. The incorporeal thought is never simply given in the neuro-chemical elements. There is a gap which science can only bridge with – often unacknowledged - metaphor. 

And of course, the question is: what causes the chemical or physiological re-composition. Either we refer at some point to an incorporeal event or we stick with the material chemical level. If the latter, then we are trapped in a curious determinism.

Homer, Proust and the simile...

Was reading a bit of Homer on holiday, and wondering about the function of simile and metaphor, and the world they presuppose.

“Joy.. warm as the joy that children feel/ When they see their father’s life dawn again./ One who’s lain on a sickbed racked with torment./ Wasting away,/ Wasting away, slowly, under some angry power’s onslaught.”

Joy, or whatever emotion, is always embodied, implicated in some object, wedded to some event or person. It is not yet some abstract emotion which can fill out any random thing indiscriminately. It never fades into some purely conceptual realm, a pure dictionary-like definition.

With the Homeric simile, the sense is not that you are - through artifice - knitting the world together through analogies, but that the world is knit together through analogies. What is presupposed here is a world of correspondences, whereby one experience receives light and definition from another analogous one, not from some prior concept. Common forms of longing, satisfaction, or whatever, bring together the most seeming disparate activities.

Also,what takes place tangibly in the world is always the image and yardstick of mental events. There is no specifically 'psychological' lexicon. “Burn this into your brain” ‘metaphorizes’ the physical world in order to talk about (what we would now call) the ‘mental’. It is as if cauterizing and memorizing have the same form. The language of ‘psychology’ and of action are not, as in our world, dissimilar and differently structured.


I was thinking it would be interesting to compare the Homeric simile with that of Proust:

"it is only that life is growing more and more quiet about me that I hear them [Marcel's boyhood sobs] anew, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the street that one would suppose them to have stopped, until they ring out again through the silent evening air."

 The emergence of the bells into a clearing of silence, their insistent rhythm, lulling and numbing at once, share the same form as those sobs buried deep within his memory. But it seems that in Proust, the bells of the town are only 'useful' in so far as they serve as an optical instrument for illuminating the inner life of the I.

So, is it that the Proustian simile works to define a unity within the subject (the 'I') rather than one which abides in the world?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Flying: Mind and Body

One of Proust's great themes is how the mind often knows much less than the body. When Albertine leaves, Marcel's physical reaction tells him immediately what he feels, after the mind had convinced itself of indifference. But, flying back from holiday, it struck me that the body often knows much less. On a plane, the mind knows you're 35,000 feet above ground, up in the air, buoyed and buffeted by high winds, too reliant on a mortal human being in the cockpit. The body thinks it's in a large room with a floor that's a bit wobbly but pretty secure, or it's snug inside a narrow building, or a kind of fairground ride that shakes around for a bit and when it stops you magically come out somewhere different. 

Sartre: the figurative and the real.

I'm reading Sartre's War Diaries at the moment. They're written between 1939-40, when Sartre was stationed in Alsace as a reservist.  There's a passage where he reports a conversation with another reservist about "why [soldiers] all say they miss their children more than their wives". Sartre's explanation is as follows: 
Their relations with their wives [are] wretched and botched.. So they turn away from them, take their minds off them by thinking of the child. The child is nothing as yet, there's no balance to be totted up. On the other hand, it's the future, their future as much as their own. It's the post-war years... It's a way of thinking "My life's not yet over, the balance hasn't been totted up yet, there's a reprieve." The child's the only reprieve for that dead life. 
Children are, at the same time, possibility, the future, the yet-to-be-defined. Feelings about your child are also feelings about and ways of relating to these intangibles. The immediate and real emotion of missing the child has simultaneously a metaphorical shadow.

Whether Sartre is right on the particular point, this nicely and simply illustrates the way in which things are grasped immediately as metaphor without ceasing to be themselves, or, to put it another way, the metaphorical is folded perfectly within the real.

War Diaries is full of moments and situations, wherein the real, literal world doubles up as a landscape of figures and signs through which the self 'thinks' and 'feels' at a level prior to conscious articulation.

Friday, 14 September 2012

On Holiday

I am currently on holiday in Santorini until Tuesday 18th, so unlikely to be any posts. Looking forward to visiting the Atlantis Bookshop later today (look it up, it's a kind of Greek Shakespeare and Co.)

Saturday, 8 September 2012

"Never Again Psychology": Kafka

What is essential about the individual is thought to be padlocked inside them, in the mind, the ‘inner’ psychology. The 'inner psychology'  is merely the place where the self image is coined and perfected. But the essentials are in fact readily available in gesture and action.   Older literary forms, like ballads and fables recognise this . Everything is externalised in gesture, in the face, or unfolds in time through story. These things, the body, the face, are not yet the carapace behind which the genie of the self is captive, brooding on its own uniqueness. For all the stress on Kafka’s introspection, his stories are more like the older literary forms. There is no psychology or probing of motive. 

For example, there is a passage in the Diaries where Kafka is talking about his body, and ill health, as obstacles to living normally. But instead of embodying this in a statement about how he feels, there is instead an 'as if', something like (i don't have the book with me) 'it is as if before entering the street and beginning my day, I must instead first sew the clothes I must wear, cobble my shoes etc', so that instead of describing a feeling he narrates a story, without affect, of the events which would produce that affect. And in this device of 'as if' it seems to me we see the origin of so many Kafka tales, where the 'as if' is the invisible entry point (it is as if I awoke to find myself turned into a giant insect..etc). 

Friday, 7 September 2012


Rilke, Diaries of a Young Poet, p. 90:

"Why am i suddenly writing so much? Because I once again: begin. Today,suddenly - "Today" is a beginning, a one. Beginning of what?"

We speak of a 'beginning of..', of something beginning, as if the thing were already there, like a geographical destination, and we are just setting out. But of course, the something does not exist.

And in retrospect beginnings are defined in relation to what they lead up to and in relation to which they seem less substantial - a version, a draft, an outline.. secondary and incomplete.

But perhaps beginnings, when they first break away from what comes before, when they first recognise themselves as something new, actually contain more than was finally embodied in the work - the poem, the painting, the novel. The work, as Walter Benjamin once said, is the death mask of its conception.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Wittgenstein, Metaphor and the Immanence of Expression

J. Hillis Miller:

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a series of brilliant sections in the Blue and Brown Books, argues against our normal, one might say our ‘Platonic’ assumption that we understand the expression on a face by comparing it to a state of mind that expression expresses.. No, says Wittgenstein, the expression is in the face, just as the meaning of a word is in the word. Neither the face nor the word refer to anything outside itself.’
Part of Wittgenstein’s problem is that the structure of language runs counter to what he wants to say. Eg, even to say ‘the expression is in the face’ spontaneously creates a picture of a container (the face), and the implication that this ‘container’ is different from and even indifferent towards what it contains (the state of mind). Having to italicise the preposition ‘in’ is itself a sign of having to push against the spontaneous meanings produced by the grammar alone. The sentence is, in its very structure, a metaphor of containment, and Wittgenstein must push against this embedded metaphor.

When I used to teach about metaphor, many students initially protested that the expression 'The past is behind me" is not a metaphor. Of course the past is behind us they said. If they did say this I asked them to turn round and pointed out that what was behind them was a wall.

Perhaps literature, be getting under the skin in such embedded metaphors, stops them from organising our perceptions for us.

The other point about the Hillis Miller quote though, is: is the meaning of a word 'in' the word in the same sense that the expression is in the face. Well, Wittgenstein means, I think, that the meaning of a word is synonymous with the way it is used, the rules that govern its deployment. On the other hand, Wittgenstein himself is of course trying to undo, constantly, the 'bewitching of our minds by means of language'. And Hillis Miller, in the quote above, and Wittgenstein before him, are trying to introduce a meaning which the words themselves resist.  The nouns and prepositions and verbs, and their customary usage, deflect meanings along pre-prepared paths, and the new meaning will only emerge fully and completely when the customary paths have been disrupted or disturbed in a certain way - italics, metaphor, parataxis, or whatever.

So perhaps literature and philosophy practice this 'disturbance' in different ways.

Now, there’s clearly no equivalent of this resistance and disturbance in facial expression. One would never say, I’m trying to express something but the inertia of my face is deflecting it along pre-given paths.In facial expression, meaning is immediately given; in linguistic expression, meaning must often make room.