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.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Sartre, Irony and Interpellation

War Diaries again. Sartre is with another reservist, Paul, who declares ‘“Me, a soldier? I consider myself a civilian in disguise.”’ Sartre comments:

That would all be very fine if he weren’t making himself a soldier – whatever he may say to the contrary – through his volitions, his perceptions, his emotions. A soldier: that is to say, adopting his superiors’ orders as his own in order to execute them himself; hence complicit down to his arms that carry the rifle and his legs that march; a soldier in his perceptions, his emotions and his volitions. He thus stubbornly continues to flee what he’s making of himself – which plunges him into a state of wretched, diffuse anguish.

“Being a soldier” is not to do with what one thinks about oneself, it’s not about how the 'inner self' pictures itself (a ‘citizen in disguise’), it’s clearly to do with behaviour and with your actual involvement in the situation at hand. But Sartre’s point is also of course that what Paul sees as resistance to being a soldier is in fact the condition of being a soldier. Declaring himself the clandestine citizen is a way of making the soldier-life palatable, of convincing himself that he is doing it on his own terms. Nobody, perhaps, lives completely and snugly inside the role of soldier. Each persuades himself that the Others are soldiers, i.e., people who have embraced the title fully. They, on the other hand, are detached, not entirely folded inside the role. Sartre’s philosophical language is that of authenticity/ inauthenticity. Paul is inauthentic because he is in denial about what - through his actions and perceptions - he is. Sartre would seem to imply that he himself is not inauthentic – that he accepts the title or mandate of soldier. This is perhaps less than convincing. 

 Although it is a very different philosophical language, Sartre is addressing here what will later be called the issue of ‘interpellation’. Being ‘called up’ in the military sense is perhaps the most literal example of this. More generally, it’s about being asked to assume a mandate, a ‘job description’, whether it be waiter, salesman, HR director or whatever. Now one might think that successful interpellation is when the subject folds himself completely inside his role, his ‘job description’. The soldier accepts being a soldier and doesn’t talk about being a ‘civilian in disguise’. But this isn’t the case, and Sartre’s Paul is perhaps not so unusual. As Jodi Dean puts it:

...that interpellation is never complete. There is always a remainder, a part of me that says "I'm not fully that." And, successful interpellation, interpellation that produces the proper subjects for an ideological formation, relies on that little bit of extra. It relies on it in various ways--as an element of freedom in the subject, as a source of non-compliance that lets the system work, as an opening to the obscene supplement that encourages people to do things that violate the official rules.”

 The military machine wouldn’t function if all soldiers were ‘pure soldiers’. Cynicism, piss-taking, pre-understood bending of the rules are necessary parts of the game and not its undoing. And so, in the earlier philosophical language, we are all 'inauthentic'.

And this is also why irony towards a regime, whether a work regime or some other, is not only not subversive but, as with Sartre’s Paul, a necessary condition of compliance. This is true for various reasons. 'Ironic distance' functions to unify the group around the object of their irony. Anyone who has worked for a large corporation or company will recognize this: all, equally, make jokes - of cynical commentary, stoic acquiescence - about the company, it's rules and personnel. Needless to say, the bosses frequently 'buy into' this collective irony to get what they want.  The second point is that the Orders will be implemented more effectively if the subjects or employees do not fully identify with them: 'being ironic' about the orders grants you your small lease of subjective freedom. At the same time, you delegate all responsibility to the impersonal Orders and Directives. Better to be an instrument imbued with irony, than a fanatical adherent. Better not to 'assume responsibility' -but to delegate it to the impersonal machine, the regime. And the name for this trick of delegation is irony.

This ‘ironic’ attitude is common with people who dislike their work, of course, but also with those who dislike the ethics of the regime for which they work. A socialist working for a large exploitative corporation for example. They pretend that they are a secret agent in the enemy camp, that the job is something separate, something wholly detachable which, at the end of the day you can sling to the floor like an integument. But this very attitude is of course a function of the job, and the very cynicism and irony they have cultivated is a sign not of resistance but a condition of attachment. So that no matter how much, using whatever ruses of irony or cynicism, one detaches oneself from one’s job, treats it as a game, it matters not. Along with all the others one’s soul will bear the watermark of an ignominy traced and retraced everyday through one’s actions.