Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Sherlock Holmes's Breakfast: Or, A World Full of Holes.

In philosophical literature on the nature of fictional worlds it’s striking how often Sherlock Holmes serves as the example. It's presumably more than coincidence. It's probably something to do with detective trick of building stories from scattered clues and traces, a rough analogy with what we do as readers, passing beyond the hieroglyphs to the ghostly persons demarcated therein.  And  crime scenes, as sites of a disappearance - as perhaps novels always are. But anyway, I recently came across two passages about fictional worlds, from two rather different philosophers. First, Slavoj Zizek:

Or think of the way the universe we reconstruct in our minds while reading a novel is full of 'holes', not yet fully constituted: when Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes's flat, it is meaningless to ask exactly how many books there were on the shelves--the writer simply did not have a precise idea of it in his mind. What, however, if--on the level of symbolic meaning, at least--the same goes for reality itself?

Then we have Daniel Dennet in Consciousness Explained. After reporting on a particularly vivid episode of conscious experience, he writes (of himself but in the third person):

There are plenty of unrecoverable but genuine facts of the matter about which of these details got discriminated where and when by various systems in his brain, but the sum total of those facts doesn’t settle such questions as which of these he was definitely, actually conscious of.. and which were definitely in the background.. . Our tendency to suppose that there has to be a fact of the matter to settle such questions is like the naive reader’s supposition that there has to be an answer to such questions as: Did Sherlock Holmes have eggs for breakfast on the day that Dr. Watson met him? Conan Doyle might have put that detail into the text, but he didn't, and since he didn't, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether those eggs belong in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. … There is simply no fact of the matter about whether in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes, the world constituted by the published text we actually have, he had eggs for breakfast.

Now, we are familiar with ways in which fictions can turn in on themselves. Schulz’s Father spinning his incomplete creatures while being such a creature himself (the Father as a figure for the author). Or folding the reader inside the text as, I think Poe does in ‘Man of the Crowd’, where the man following the stranger is a figure for the reader following the story.

But in Zizek and Dennett, quite the opposite happens. In both cases, the ‘holes’ of fiction are not confined to books. Indeed, the ‘holes’ in the fictional universe serve as something more than analogues for the incomplete nature of the universe we actually do inhabit.
Let’s take an example from Dennett, the ‘Phi’ phenomenon:

.. if two or more small spots separated by as much as 4 degrees of visual angle are briefly lit in rapid succession, a single spot will seem to move back and forth.[..]In an experiment where “the two illuminated spots were different in colour [..] the first spot seemed to begin moving and then change color abruptly in the middle of its illusory passage toward the second location.

There would be questions we couldn’t ask about the chromatic and other properties of this changing spot, precisely because there isn’t a spot; questions we couldn’t ask about the 'movement', because there is no movement. Or if what we take to be the 'self' is a kind of spun-story, rather than a permanent substance, there are impermissible questions in the same way that there are with regard to Sherlock Holmes's breakfast. 

The phenomenal world we inhabit, in other words, consists of all kinds of ‘Phi phenomenon’, which are the product of all kinds of ‘real’ processes (as the novel is the product of the typewriter) which we can’t simply turn round and look at. And these phenomena are ‘full of holes’ in the same way that a fictional world is.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Pandemonium of Word Demons

The common sense model of what happens when we speak is perhaps something like this: an intention  (e.g. to say something encouraging) is cut and shaped by a ‘formulator’ into appropriate words which are then given the nod (by a kind of adjudicator) to be spoken out loud. A univocal intention passes into an equally univocal statement (“Hi, there! Your were great, I really loved the play”)
In Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained, by contrast, we find* a 'Pandemonium' model of language, whereby:  “Words and phrases from the lexicon, together with their sounds, meanings and associations, jostle with grammatical constructions in a pandemonium, all trying to be part of the message.” There is something like a pre-personal circuit of word-forms - or "word demons" - and thoughts, a congerie of different phrases which are also the bearers of different kinds of intention:

-to shock
-to conform
- to ‘say the right thing’
-to say something witty
-to upset the apple cart
-to say something that sounds good
-to repeat a favourite word or phrase

The word-demons are, as it were, free-floating intentions. They intend only their own vocalisation. Each word or formulation is a demon urging that it be uttered. What determines which word-demon gets spoken is perhaps only a force of desire. That is, each demon is also a desire and whichever is the strongest desire (in this pandemonium) makes it to vocalisation. Sometimes, as in the ‘Freudian slip’, one word demon will usurp the other - ‘flatten’ for ‘flatter’ or whatever. But the usurper is not the privilaged bearer of my 'real' intention.

For the further suggestion is that none of these word-demons are emissaries of our "one true self". And this should partially expunge any guilt we feel when the urge to insult importunes us as we speak to a friend or relative. Perhaps it's just a particularly choice formulation, pleased with its own eloquence, and aggressively pressing its case to be said. It is not the ‘real’ desire of our ‘real self’. In this tumult of possibles, importunings, this zone of creative volatility, there is perhaps no executive authority that stays in one Olympian place (or lays down at night when the word-demons of misrule assume soveriegn rights). The prize of vocalisation is more like a sceptre seized by different demons.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Plumptuous Flustration

In conversation, my mum comes up with coinages like ‘plumptuous’ and ‘flustrated’. It’s as if one word opportunistically hijacks the other. This ‘hijack’ typically needs some kind of phonetic link - ‘frustrated’ can be hijacked by ‘flustered’, but probably not by ‘agitated’.  What an utterance like ‘flustrated’ suggests is that, prior to utterance, a number of words are obscurely present,  a kind of congerie of words bound together  by etymology, assonance, idiosyncratic association. Ordinarily, one of these is chosen. In my mum’s case, two twist into one.

In the world of literature, Lewis Carroll called such coinages ‘portmanteau words (e.g., “where "slithy" means "lithe and slimy"). But often something happens whereby the new word is more than the sum of its parts - a new sense emerges. 'Flustrated' doesn't just disassemble into ‘frustrated’ and ‘flustered’; it’s a certain kind of frustration, more corporeal and perhaps slightly comic. Similarly, ‘slithy’ is rather more slippery than either ‘lithe’ or ‘slimy’. And of course ‘slither’ is there in the mix as well, just as ‘fluttered’ and ‘flushed’ may circle round ‘flustrated’. Once words have been split and recombined, the new word is leaky, more open to the occult word-congerie from which words arise. 

'Plumptuous,' or any one of innumerable puns and spoonerisms offer a brief shaft of light into the zone of occult instability that precedes the univocity of utterance. In this zone, there are, perhaps, words and phrases with different intentions, moving and colliding, before the commanding 'onset' of consciousness. And it is this zone that certain modern writers have tried to inhabit, or allow in: from Mallarme, 'ceding the initiative' to the mobility of words, to Joyce - most intensively in Finnegan's Wake.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Fictional Creatures; or, sympathy for the golem

[This refers back to the previous post on the 'incompletness' of imaginary beings.]

It's enough to will it, I'll will it, will me a body, will me a head, [...] There you are now on your feet, I give you my word, I swear they're yours, I swear it's mine, get to work with your hands, palp your skull, seat of the understanding, without which nix, then the rest, the lower regions, you'll be needing them, and say what you're like, have a guess, what kind of man, there has to be a man, or a woman, feel between your legs, no need of beauty, nor of vigour, [..] And to start with stop palpitating, no one's going to kill you, no one's gong to love you and no one's going to kill you, perhaps you'll emerge in the high depression of Gobi, you'll feel at home there.
This is from Beckett's Texts for Nothing. The fictional creature appears underneath our eyes.We witness some malformed golem patched together from (what Beckett elsewhere calls) 'wordshit', taking shape infront of us, pathetically incomplete, 'poor in being' as are all fictional entities, lacking the ballast of existence.

The fictional being, like Morpheus, can take any shape and no shape, traverse all space and time.. ("you'll emerge in the high depression of Gobi"). But this comes at the price of a painful insufficiency. This fictional being, particularly in Beckett's Texts, is a Struldbrug  who cannot die, resurrected by every eye and voice and ear of every scattered reader.

The twist in Beckett, as perhaps in Bruno Schulz, lies in a kind of identificataion with such creatures, who in their very incompleteness and indigence act as the most fitting and exact analog for human existence. It is as if the "I"finds echo and confirmation not in the mirror (where hangs only the passport photo that others use to identify you) but in the fragile, misshapen and unrealised creatures who emerge eternally on the page.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Poetry: "A silent adventure of the soul"

"Flaubert is categorical: poetry is a silent adventure of the soul, a lived event that has nothing in common with language; more precisely, poetry takes place against language." Sartre, The Family Idiot

What might this mean? that poetry disturbs language, like a wind making a curtain flutter. Poetry is a force of silence inside language itself.

For Flaubert, language is always a foreign substance introduced into one's being,  a socially stamped material imposed on the soul. The silence of poetry is the rebellion of this mute soul against the foreign power. The affirmation of a silence within and against language is the affirmation of the unique soul. This soul is only visible in the warp and ruffle it introduces into the general order of language.