Saturday, 27 October 2012

Philosophy and Literature: Some Thoughts

Somebody reached this blog by searching for ‘is bank of cloud a metaphor?’ I was reminded of students, from my teaching says, who maintained that ‘the past is behind me’ wasn’t a metaphor and that the past was of course behind them.

It is a commonplace, perhaps, that one of the things that literature does, far from ‘embellishing’ the (neutral, prefigurative) world with metaphor to make it more interesting, is to reveal, through new and different metaphors, the figurative shapes that already ‘embellish’ our perceptions without being visible to us. Literary metaphors, then, are not simply devices for reperceiving the world. They clear the ground for such reperception by disturbing and uprooting the embedded metaphors which organise and direct our thinking. 

But does not philosophy do the same thing from a different angle? If many of the concepts we use are silently metaphorical*, then thinking must first of all attack or displace these silent metaphors, not least by inventing new and audible ones. This seems to me particularly true of Deleuze, whose philosophy is populated by what we would be tempted to call metaphors – the fold, the machine, the rhizome etc, and the job of these ‘metaphors’ is to help us escape the old categories of thinking which tilt or deflect our thought, which trap and channel our energies. And to read Deleuze is to experience an excitement that comes from the opening up, by novel conceptual devices and personae, of new areas of enquiry.
*Philosophy has often opposed the metaphorical to the conceptual. The use of metaphor is a way of groping towards a concept that isn’t yet clear, which does not yet exist. The concept itself should be purged of any figurative traces. The more recent suggestion is that concepts begin as metaphor, and that this ‘metaphoricity’ is then forgotten, or folded invisibly inside the concept. It does its work silently.

Philosophy and literature: Four Quotations

Also, the medium in philosophy is the concept (like sound for the musician or colour for the painter), the philosopher creates concepts. He executes his creation in a conceptual 'continuum' just like the musician does in a sonorous continuum. What's important here is this: where do concepts come from? What is the creation of concepts? A concept exists no less than characters do. In my opinion, what we need is a massive expenditure of concepts, an excess of concepts. You have to present concepts in philosophy as though you were writing a good detective novel: they must have a zone of presence, resolve a local situation, be in contact with the ‘dramas’, and bring a certain cruelty with them. They must exhibit a certain coherence but get it from somewhere else”.

- Gilles Deleuze, “On Nietzsche and the Image of Thought”

"His [Hume's] empiricism is, so to speak, a kind of universe of science fiction: as in science fiction, the world seems fictional, strange, foreign, experienced by other creatures; but we get the feeling that this world is our own, and we are the creatures."

- Gilles Deleuze, "Hume"

"Style in philosophy is the movement of concepts.. Style is a set of variations in language, a modulation, and a straining of one's whole language towards something outside it. One's always trying to bring someting to life, to free life from where it's trapped, to trace lines of flight."

-Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations.

'In philosophy you can only think through metaphor' Althusser, 'Essays in Self-Criticism".

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A Composition of Traits

“One of Deleuze's interests is the way that art liberates affects from persons, traits from character.”
I was thinking about this separation of traits from character in relation to fiction. In real-life, we talk about traits as expressive of character but in writing a novel a writer creates character through traits. Traits are assembled to produce character. 

I recently entered a novella in a literary competition. It struck me that, if you borrow from life, and I can’t conceive of anyone not doing, then writing a novel involves re-distributing the traits of real individuals amongst fictional individuals. A fairly basic example*: In real life I read about an individual who preferred writing on postcards to emails. The same individual was also prosecuted for indecent exposure. There is of course no reason why these traits belong together. But if you put them together they somehow colour each other.  In the novella these two traits belong to different people. They have been de-personalised and then re-personalised. It is a woman called Beatrice who writes on postcards and she uses only fountain pens and stays up late into the night. The trait enters into a new composition. It is ‘coloured’ differently. 

In this sense perhaps the writer of fiction recognises, through the very act of creation, that traits are not ‘personal’, that they are detachable. Writing breaks up a self into traits and then re-assigns these traits. Or perhaps this process shows that character, individuality, is in any case only a particular composition of traits. 

* Not really 'traits' in this example, but it illustrates the point.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Preamble to Thinking About Objects

Objects, says Sartre in War Diaries “are sorcerous, but only because they are inexhaustibly human; they conceal human meanings that we sense without understanding them”. And in both his fiction and philosophical writings objects – ‘treacherous’, lewd, 'jocular', ‘slippery’ – exercise a pull and energy of fascination. Objects, in Sartre, are ‘expressive’. But what does it mean to apply such epithets to non-sentient things, to things which are outside the circle of life. 
Grammatically of course, ‘object’ entails and is complementary to, a subject. The object is that acted upon, perceived by, affected by the subject. And this is true in the more general definition of subject and object. It is the subject that is expressive. Of course, the subject may express itself through the object, which is to say, perhaps, that the subject transfers some of its attributes onto the object or translates itself into objective terms. 

It is equally true, though, that subjects are affected by objects in various ways. Objects have a power to affect subjects, to induce anxiety, joy, thought and so forth. And because these anxieties or joys, induced or embodied by the object, are not simply native to the subject, because the subject does not simply recognise them at once, because they can overwhelm, surprise, wound or transport the subject, open the subject up to beauty or disgust, it is easy for us to say that these anxieties and revelations in some sense come from the object. Even if that sense is metaphorical. 
A familiar explanation is that the object affects us in so far as it reveals the unconscious, or at least the not-yet-conscious. The subject is split between a conscious self and a hidden unconscious. The object reveals the hidden rifts and crevices of the subject. Or to put it differently, the unconscious reveals itself in the form of objects and confronts us as unfamiliar. Uncanny objects leer at us from the recesses of our inner space. Thus, what the object ‘expresses’ turns out to be only another part of the subject - the hidden, accursed part, the repressed. We do not, in confronting objects, get outside the subject. 
Sartre of course would have none of this. It is perfectly possible to encounter an object whose resonance is not simply that of a subject's personal history, that does not express, through the detour of the outside, the hidden and disavowed inside. Although of course many objects do reveal to us our personal feelings and thoughts, other objects – as with Sartre’s discussion of holes – reveal not a personal unconscious but a collective situation, a shared condition:
 In reality, by virtue of the fact that I throw myself into the world, every object rises up in front of me with a human expression even before I know how to make use of it and understand that expression.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Geography and Metaphor 1: Sartre

There is a passage in War Diaries where Sartre talks about how his geographical environment doubles up as a kind of metaphorical landscape. The imposing height of the hill on which he is stationed, for example, is simultaneously his ‘will to dominate the war’, his imperiousness or proud apartness. There is a ‘grey wind’ down below. The grey wind is immediately, he implies, a fogginess, a confusion, from which he is separate and inured, like the captain of a lighthouse. The cold that encircles him has ‘the affective resonance of ‘purity’ and ‘solitude’, so that Sartre inhabits this clarity, this circle of isolation. 

When Sartre writes this he is not suddenly lending symbolic significance to geography, he is realising that this process has already taken place. Before he is fully conscious of it his ideas and emotions have nestled in the contours of his environment, assumed its shape, used it as a language. He has, unconsciously, ‘figured out’ things already.

Now clearly, this ‘symbolic language’, through which Sartre ‘figures out’ what he feels and thinks about things, is a combination of culturally given meanings and personal associations. The idea of a high edifice ‘dominating’ a landscape, the relationship between elevation and mastery, are common enough.  The more personal associations, though, are not purely idiosyncratic. For example, when he says “cold has always had for me the affective resonance of ‘purity’ and ‘solitude’”, this is an idea we can at once understand, we may possibly share it (replace ‘cold’ with ‘brick’, for example, and the idea seems nonsensical).
So again, ‘projection’ is the wrong word for what is going on here. If it was a case of projection we would get purely arbitrary associations. Sartre is working with a public, shared language, a language of things. If he goes beyond this language he must first of all travel through it and we, his readers, must be able to retrace the path he has taken. 

We might say that Sartre is working with metaphorical associations which are fairly conventional. And while this is true, I wonder if they are purely conventional. I wonder, for example, if there are any cultures where coldness is associated with attraction and gregariousness, rather than separation and solitude; are there cultures where elevation is a metaphor for subordination and powerlessness? I wonder then, if such metaphorical outlines are, rather, traced and defined by our practices, our paths through and our encounters with the world.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Deleuze, Hegel and emotion without individuality.

We encounter cowardice without the coward, the power of rage or love extracted from the entanglements of character or situation. These emotions shine through the character or situation but are ultimately separate, untied, and thereby charged with a new power.

I thought of this, surprisingly perhaps, reading Hegel on Greek theatre.In Greek theatre, Hegel says, the actor is not there as the bearer of a character or personality, his function is to bring poetry to life.The actor come on stage as a ‘vitalised statue’ who “assimilates and expresses the subject-matter of the poetry”
“In short, in Greece words and the spiritual expression of serious passions had full poetic rights.. [T]he spiritual element is not independently inwardized or expressed in theh subjective experiences of these particular individuals.”

By contrast, “we [moderns] want to recognise in the tone of voice, in the enunciation, and in the manner of recitation, the characters heart and personality totally objectified in its most delicate nuances and transitions.”

The 'locus' of individual character is arguably the face, and 
in Greece the actors wore masks and therefore the play of features was altogether absent. The facial expressions of the masks presented an unalterable statuesque picture and its plasticity inhibited both the ever-shifting expression of particular emotional moods and also the revelation of the dramatis personae. [They were] animated by a fixed and universal pathos, but the substance of this pathos had not been developed into the deep feeling of the modern heart nor was it broadened by being particularised in the dramatis personae as it is today.

For Hegel, this ‘general passion’ ('universal pathos') which has not yet been coloured and shaped by individuation, is an insufficiency, corresponding to an earlier historical stage of humanity and of art, before the development of the modern individual. As such, this earlier art is still striving, however blindly, toward an individuation it does not yet know.
But if we bracket off Hegel’s narrative of historical development, we have an art that does something very close to what Deleuze talks about.

In Greek theatre we have a situation where the actor is the instrument of speech rather than anything else, his task is to make language sing.  ‘Character’ here is not what we want to hear in the speech, we want, rather, to hear language (hence of course the wearing of masks). “words had full poetic rights”. So the function of the mask is not to suppress expression, to stifle the face as the locus of spirit, but rather to displace expression onto the voice, to surcharge the voice. The mask turns the voice into a disembodied power which no longer ‘borrows’ its authority from the individual who carries it. The voice, freed from its usual support, is free to embody affect without individuality.

A mask is also of course  a fixed attitude of woe, horror or joy, of affects that have not yet been  ‘particularized’ , i.e., they have not yet been woven into the fabric and story of an individual psychology.Thus we have a theatre, perhaps, where the stylised immobility of the actors is  in part a way of isolating and extracting certain ‘characteristics’, traits, from the complications of ‘character’. Affects and dispositions – joy, rage, love – are, as Deleuze says about cinema, liberated from the entanglement of a ‘who’. Perhaps Deleuze’s example of the coward’s face is cinema effectively turning the face into a mask.

Typically, when we see an attitude, an emotion,  embodied in an individual person it is contaminated by the ‘flavour’ of that person, our sense of their overall personality and status. This sense of their total personality colours and flavours the singular attitude – an expression of pain or surprise or whatever. When you have a mask, by contrast, the attitude achieves an effectiveness of its own.  It is a free-floating emotion, with an energy of its own unattached to ‘individual character’.It is such free-floating affects which Deleuze sees as the domain of art.