Book of Hours: I, 29

From Rilke’s ‘Book of Hours’:

“Once I read in foreign books/ of the time of Michelangelo/ That was a man beyond measure – a giant -/ who forgot what the immeasurable was./ He was the kind of man who turns/ to bring forth the meaning of an age/ that wants to end./ He lifts its whole weight/ and heaves it into the chasm of his heart.”

I forget sometimes what a way with words Rilke has. There was a period of time when I wanted to write poetry and took Rilke as my guide, a kind of ideal which I would try to live up to. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to realize that was a ridiculous endeavor. Still, I go back as much as I can to this book (more than his more ‘mature’ work, for some reason) and every time I go back, another poem stands out. This time around its this little one on Michelangelo.

A giant who forgot what the immeasurable was

It’s not just that Michelangelo created a great work of art (and oeuvre), but Rilke says that his work reaches even beyond the immeasurable, literally beyond the infinite. What I love about this line is Rilke’s real belief in, and longing for, the human capacity to reach beyond humanity. Of course, this sentiment is deeply entwined with his own particular sense of the infinity of God and divinity; but in this passage, it can be taken out of that part of his thinking and placed in the context of a historical situation. This supreme aesthetic act, then, has the ability to touch on something infinite; I’m quite partial to this reading because rather than having to evaluate a painter on the stylistic normalities of a time period, Rilke sees in Michelangelo (and in great art generally) something other than the arrangement of words on a page, or paint on a canvas, or negative space on a sculpture. This is, in fact, quite similar to the remarks that he makes on Rodin in his study of the sculptor that he wrote when studying at Rodin’s workshop right outside of Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century. Rodin’s techniques, admittedly, are less advanced beyond the ancient Greek style than many of his contemporaries, but it was the presence of an idea, an emotion, an anguish within Rodin’s sculptures that made his technique so effective. Both Rodin and Michelangelo, for Rilke, had the ability to take “the anguish and yearning of all those before him,” up until the historical point of his aesthetic endeavor, and use it “as raw matter” in order to “bring forth the meaning of an age/ that wants to end.”

What does it to bring forth the meaning of an age that wants to end? I’m not completely sure, but it reminds me of the sort of (political) project that Agamben sees in the the work of Paul. In his book on Paul, Agamben argues that at the core of Paul’s work is the idea that political engagement takes place in il tempo che resta, “the time that remains,” or “the time that it takes for an age to end.” In Paul, waiting and wanting are central to the very political act itself, it is this concept of “messianic time” that brings us to the end of an age through a strange sort of engaged political patience. This “engaged political patience” is at once action and inaction: action insofar as it involves militant engagement with the status quo, inaction insofar as it has hope for (but does not necessarily believe it will see) the end of an age that must be waited for in historical time. It can be thought of in terms of a historical and immanentist reading of the Kantian categorical imperative. The ideal, or end of an age in a historical reading, is something that must be pursued, but without the anguish of never reaching the ideal/end of an age. The difference, of course, is that Agamben’s tempo che resta is not a transcendental project like Kant’s. There is no “beyond” which this militant engagement hopes to transcend to. Rather, an engagement like Paul’s finds its ends within the very act itself through the community of believers which is the spatial reorganization of the immanent end of an age.

Similarly, it seems, for Rilke, Michelangelo’s work (presumably we can find a good example of the kind of art that Rilke is talking about in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting) condenses the end of an epoch into a spatial artistic achievement. Like Paul, Michelangelo doesn’t end the age historically through his work, but condenses the time it takes to end into an immense work which reaches outside of history.

The line that is most interesting in all of this, I think, is Rilke’s belief that an age “wants to end.” Presumably, the age that is ending with Michelangelo is “the middle ages” (whatever that means), and with all of the science, politics and economic activity that was moving the Western world out of the “dark ages,” it seems apt to describe Michelangelo’s time as an age wanting to end. This obviously leads to my next question, “does our age, the age of Capitalism, want to end?” It is without a doubt in a state of decline, what with the increasing ecological, social and economic calamities the world over. But what would this project look like? I can’t count on my hands and toes how many pieces of art have tried to do what Rilke says Michelangelo did, that is, condense the age into a singular, infinite work. Capitalism, unlike the Church of Michelangelo’s time, has a much more impressive means of converting anything produced within it to an element of the capitalist project itself. What can reach outside of the age of Capitalism? I’m not sure. But one thing is for sure, Rilke was right in saying that, like Michelangelo, if we are going to do this work, we will have to “lift the whole weight [of the age] and heave it into the chasm of [our hearts].” Will it be a political act? An artistic act? Will we have the courage to open our hearts that wide? To wait that long?

I’m keeping my ear to the ground, with Rilke’s book beside me, for now.

“The Anguish and Yearning of all those before him became in his hands raw matter for him to compress into one great work”

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McCarthy’s “The Road”

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, ‘The Road.’ I may be a bit biased because it occurred to me while I was reading that I hadn’t actually read a full work of fiction since perhaps Freshman year of College. Everything has basically been non-fiction, theory, &c. so regardless of whether it was a good book or not, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, since I did just finish the book, I’m sure there’s much to be digested, processed, before I have a fully formed position on the work. I think it would do well to read this review/these thoughts in this light, as a knee jerk reaction to a staggering piece of literature.

McCarthy’s novel is the story of a father and son as they travel through a post-apocalyptic world in hopes of finding a better place to live. They leave an apparently safe place in a colder climate to move south, towards the ocean. Along ‘the road,’ we see the relationship between the two characters develop as the boy comes to see more of the terrible world in which they now live. They are confronted with images of unspeakable violence: cannibalism, rape, charred flesh, murder, torture and the like. The father hopes to shield his son from having to see these calamities, but as the work progresses, both come to realize that there is no purpose in sheltering the child, that this is irrevocably the world that he will have to endure. The father, in parallel with this realization, thinks less and less about the world that is no more, even as he realizes that he himself is dying. Faithful to the end, the father, who throughout the work promised his son that if one of them were to die both would so that they wouldn’t have to be alone, urges his son to continue ‘carrying the flame’ rather than ‘following him into the darkness.’

There are two points that I would like to make. The first deals with the fact that the book is often praised for its portrayal of intimacy and intense interiority. I understand that reviewers see a touching tale of love between a father and a son, what I don’t see is the interiority that reviewers so often praise. The most interesting aspect of the book for me, in fact, was the way that the very structure and grammar of the book turned the inside out and the outside in. McCarthy achieves, to a greater degree than I have seen in any other book, an integration of the human into the fabric of the world. The novel is structured as a series of vignettes, placed together in a mosaic that seems to be chronological only by chance. Most of these vignettes recount the story I outlined above, but always in an oblique manner, as if we were seeing each scene fade in and out. The other vignettes are visions of the environment, diminishing each day “like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” But there is very little to distinguish between these two “types” of scenes; perhaps the presence of the father and son is all that sets the two apart. Even this slight trace of difference does not give us much, though; McCarthy refuses to use quotation marks to carve out a section on the page for the enunciation of words. It seems that for McCarthy, words do not make the human a privileged animal. Dialogue normally interrupts a narrative, marking spoken language off by designated symbols. But is that really how we experience language in our day to day goings-about? Of course not, language has an immediate effect in the same way that a touch or a smell does, yet we don’t seem to have a punctuation mark for when someone is touching another person. I recently heard the music of an English musician named Evelyn Glenny, a deaf woman who “hears with her body.” I’m not being facetious here, I understand how that sounds. Her point is not that there is some metaphysical energy of music that penetrates our whole being, that we can “listen with our hearts” or any silly nonsense like that. Rather, she simply points out that the difference we recognize between hearing with our eardrums and hearing with our feet is a largely societal demarcation. That is to say that there is far less of a difference between picking up soundwaves touching our skin in our ear canal and on the bottom of our heel than we generally recognize. McCarthy’s prose reflects this realization in suggesting that both speech and hearing are of the same order as touch and sight. This slightest of change, which I’ve heard is present in many of McCarthy’s novels, reintegrates language into the ebb and flow of the story seamlessly. This makes distinguishing between the two “types” of vignettes that I mentioned earlier very difficult. By taking away the punctuation mark that we associate with the human animal’s exceptional character, McCarthy (whether deliberately or inadvertently) makes the human animal no longer exceptional. Instead, the interiority that the son and father experience, this ‘normally’ human experience of thought and communication, is turned to the outside by this simple editorial decision. What I mean to say is, conversation and discussion become objects in the environment just as the bridge they race across. At the same time, the outside turns in at least insofar as the psychological progression of the father corresponds to the setting in which the characters move. For example, when they reach the ocean, he is optimistic even though he knows that he is in the process of dying. They have reached the ‘end of the road’ with no hope left yet the ocean, and the father’s optimism, are still around. The effect of the environment on the characters’ psyches are indubitable; this is obviously a less impressive tool than the turning of the inside out. It will obviously be, though, because the primacy of the inside is much more established in the ideological and literary canon than any primacy of the outside. Agamben has noted that this is the case for modern thought as opposed to ancient thought, where there was a primacy of the outside acting on the inside.

The other interesting thing about the book was the fantastically thorough treatment of the concept of hope. This has perhaps been documented more completely by scholarship, but either way I think I would feel as though I missed something unless I talked about it a bit. Since finishing the book, I’ve had dreams, rich dreams about the reality of a world that has no future. I’m not sure if it has ever been argued, but the world wherein this book is set is really a world that has a foreseeable end. McCarthy makes it a point that all life on earth has lost the basic link of the food chain, vegetation. Through his descriptions of the way that people, and the few remaining wild animals, live, it is clear that life on earth is sustained at this point by scavenging that which was not destroyed by the unnamed cataclysm before the beginning of the book. The characters know this throughout the book, the father mentioning that he knew for sure that cows for one did not exist any more, but continue to “go on” despite their future being impossible. This reminded me of the ‘ultimate ethical act’ that Badiou finds in the literature of Beckett: “I can’t go on. I must go on.” For Badiou, an ethical act is one that disregards factical evidence, worldly ideological intelligence, in favor of the force of truth. In McCarthy’s The Road, this truth is that of Love itself. Love, in Badiou’s thinking, derives from the differentiation of sexual positions. Following Lacan, sexual position is determined not by biology, by gender, or what-have-you. Rather, it is by one’s relation to knowledge. The position of the father and the son in The Road correspond to the position of man and woman quite neatly. For Lacan and Badiou (and Beckett, as Badiou reads him), the position of man is one of factual knowledge, while the position of woman is one of an indeterminate wisdom. The complete factual knowledge of man corresponds to the father’s position insofar as he knows that the cows have died, that the future of the history of mankind is finished. The indeterminate wisdom of woman corresponds to the position of the son because he is able to consider the possibility of a radically new future, one that is outside of the factual situation of the world in which they currently live. That the boy continues to struggle after the death of his father is testament to McCarthy’s optimism, an optimism often overlooked by his critics.

I’ve just begun to read McCarthy’s Sunset Limited, a “Novel in Dramatic Form” which addresses the same sort of ethical question of endurance that I found in The Road. I look forward to reviewing that book as well.

Hunt-Hendrix at the Mouth of the Cave

In Plato’s well known allegory of the Cave, we are confronted with an idea that we are still only beginning to address: that, in the words of Alain Badiou, “the infinite is simpler than the finite…it is the most general attribute of being.” What Plato and Badiou address, not only in the works cited (Book VII of the Republic and Number and Numbers, pg. 32, respectively) but also in Badiou’s masterpiece Being and Event (particularly in meditations 13 and 14) is that it is more simple to know the infinite than it is to understand the place of the infinite within the finite. To understand the ‘Idea’ is no small task, it is an enormous undertaking to glimpse beneath the curtain of ideology, but to come back out of the light of the infinite, out of the pure and absolute infinitude of mathematics and being-itself, to the contingent being-there of finitude, is a project even beyond that of ‘simple’ infinitude. While the blinding light of the sun is certainly difficult to bear, it is more difficult to bear the difficulties of the cave, where “if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill [the person who experienced the light of the sun], would they not kill him?” The (re)turn to finitude in contemporary philosophy is a step in the direction which acknowledges the overwhelming importance of finitude to the philosophical project, though it often steps too far, forgetting why finitude is so important in the first place; that is, because it is the “second place” of reality in general, it is beyond infinitude, which must be grasped first.

In his oft-criticized manifesto (a regrettably dying form of thought), Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix does not shy away from addressing the aforementioned problem still so close to philosophical thought. “What is sacred is taking each concrete step,” writes Hunt-Hendrix. He continues, “the infinite is obvious and everywhere, to engage the finite takes courage.” Is this not the same sentiment set out by both Badiou and Plato? His critique is concretely of what he calls the “Hyperborean mode” of Black Metal, the music which “[performs its] rites in secret,” which “[hides] behind costumes and esoterica,” and which also makes as its object the pure and empty form of infinitude.

My defense of Hunt-Hendrix’s ‘Transcendental Black Metal,’ then, is in two steps. First, of his position as a legitimate and timely putting into form of an Idea that philosophy has yet to come to terms with. Second, of his insistence on theory against his philistine detractors.

The history of philosophy, so clearly pointed out by its contemporary critics, is highly concerned with the abstract form of infinitude. For “contemporary philosophical heroes” such as Wittgenstein, Derrida and (to a lesser extent) Sartre and Heidegger, infinitude is a concept that ought to be abandoned in favor of the concrete phenomenological finitude of their own positions. These thinkers, who intended to think reality as we actually experience it, generally end up concerning themselves with the truth of our relation to the world, rather than the world itself. This leads to what Quentin Meillassoux has called the “correlationist position,” which does not allow for the possibility of absolute knowledge after all. In Meillassoux’s thinking, philosophy in the twentieth century choses to disregard the importance of science and mathematics in order to “bring the forms down to earth” as Merleau-Ponty said. It seems that the most recent turn in philosophy is back towards the infinite, to realism, and away from the “linguistic turn” initiated by Wittgenstein. Hunt-Hendrix’s position, it seems, has already incorporated the recognition of the need to consider, once again, the infinite. He has found, in “hyperborean black metal,” the aesthetic attempt to directly reach the infinite. But just as Plato’s philosopher out of the cave experiences the upward, or as Hunt-Hendrix calls it “fortification,” movement of philosophy, so we must not neglect the downward, or again in Hunt-Hendrix’s terminology “sacrificial,” movement. Philosophy, if it is to deserve its name, must simultaneously understand these two movements, and in Hunt-Hendrix’s position we find them both. Thus, regardless of whether we consider his project aesthetic, political, metaphysical, or all of the above, we must acknowledge that he is in the process of thinking philosophy contemporaneously.

The second argument which I would like to forward concerning Hunt-Hendrix’s position is insofar as he has the courage to retain a theoretical position in the face of philistine detractors. So often in critiques of Hunt-Hendrix’s position has it been stated that he does not understand the theatrical and absurd foundation of contemporary black metal itself, or that he intellectualizes it too much (read the review at the sickly joke of a cultural review called Vice for example). These reviews, ironically, don’t deserve the attention that they demand because of their utter lack of engagement with the argument presented in the text. If I read a single review of Liturgy or Hunt-Hendrix’s position that had the intellectual acumen to engage the supposedly absurd text with any argument other than that Hunt-Hendrix actually thinks about what he is doing, that he is existentially involved in what he does, then I might take a different position. Art, at least the art that I would like to believe in, has at least the courage to stand by its convictions rather than to submit to the commonsense numbness that passes for aesthetics nowadays. I can only hope that with the encouragement of real artists like Hunt-Hendrix, musicians will once again take stock in the noise that they are making, take responsibility and stand behind their creations rather than simply producing as a means of submitting their work to the nihilistic machine of capitalist muzak.

All this is, of course, without even beginning to speak of the beautiful and intense music that appears on Liturgy’s latest album, Aesthethica. Very soon, as a follow up to this post, I will write a follow up, because the latest from one of the only thinking groups in music today is well worth it. Until then, I stand waiting in excitement and hope listening to the work of Liturgy as they stand, alongside Badiou and Plato, at the mouth of the Cave.

Transportation and the Metropolis

Driving around Indianapolis last night, I got to wondering if there was any systematic treatment of the rise of modern transportation and the modern metropolis. First, as I casually drove more than twenty miles from one side of the city to the other, I realized that twenty miles is nearly an entire day’s walk. In other words, it would be impossible for one to make a trip “across town” without some sort of transportation technology (or use of personal animal transportation). Or, if a city was that large before the boom of modern transportation, one would have to stay at an inn, or a friend/family member’s house at one’s destination. Could that really be considered the same town? First thing to consider: (sub)urban sprawl is inconceivable without systematic transportation. In passing, this made me seriously consider the importance of the crime the Tarnac 9 were accused of several years ago.

Second, when does the metropolis become what we understand it to be today? Would a twenty mile diameter city be considered a metropolis in the days of Ancient Greece? Today we consider something to be a metropolis if we have to commute a significant distance to get from one place in the system of civilization to another. I’m sure that there is plenty written on this topic, but where does Rome fit into all of these rambling thoughts?

 

Ethics contra Morality

I suggested my theory about the difference between ethics and morality to an experimental philosopher a couple of months ago at a conference in Tennessee, and not to my surprise, he thought my argument boiled down to semantics and term juggling. In other words, he thought that they were exactly the same, and that any break between them was non-real. While I obviously did not agree with him, I did take his criticisms to heart. Last night, I gave another impromptu exposition of my thoughts and it went over a lot better. To my surprise, much of the rest of the night’s conversation was oriented around this split I’d proposed, every undergraduate student’s philosophical wet-dream. Ok so I’m fairly sure that no one reads this blog (yet!) but I’m going to go ahead and give a sketch of what the argument boils down to so that maybe I can get some feedback one day.

I take “morality” to be a transcendent logic of correct relationships between objects. It is a system because given any group of objects, morality will be able to tell you a proper relation between them. Morality is not objective in the sense that there is an actual pronouncement on the proper relations between objects, that is to say that morality doesn’t necessarily have a “rulebook” that one can refer to in order to determine what Morality would say about a particular space between objects. But there is a sort of underlying logic which, when several objects come before you and are to be placed in a moral connection, assigns a proper relation between them that in some sense was “always already there.” All this is to say that Morality is at once absolute (in that the statement on the proper relation between objects is somehow “always already there”) and at the same time not absolute (in that it refers to a transcendent “underlying logic” which can always be misinterpreted). Morality is, however, objective in the sense that it deals with the proper relation between objects. Because of this, morality takes no subjective standpoint, it only states what is already in a specific way given in the situation. Its transcendent nature guarantees that it is never immanent, it is always at a step removed from our direct access to it. This is the exact reason for the historical connection between religion and morality. Despite the attempt of a religious text to make morality explicit, hermeneutical interpretation finds in the religious text always “something deeper,” something moral which is behind the explicit text itself. As a passing note, this is why I believe that hermeneutics will only be able to give us a morality and never an ethics. Finally, morality is despite some of its best attempts always a regional and never universal expression. Or to be more precise, if there is a moral logic which can be applied to everyone, the effect of local differences changes the prescription that morality makes, this is its logical nature: “Given such and such conditions, it is the case that the proper relation between these two objects is such and such.” A universal moral law is thus both normalizing and unable to reach real universality. It is normalizing because of the fact that the logical laws which do apply to everyone treats them as objects which are properly or improperly related. Also, because of its claim to pronounce proper relations on any and all objects, a moral system sprawls out and achieves a sort of totalitarian reach. Morality is at the same time not able to reach real universality because of its inability to produce a single statement which can apply to all. That is to say that morality prefers an ability to make statements about everything than make statements which apply to everyone, it prefers being a system to being a unifying prescription, in Badiou’s sense.

I take ethics to be a prescriptive orientation of a subject. The first difference between ethics and morality, then, is insofar as morality describes what a proper relation between objects is while ethics prescribes an action perhaps previously unconsidered. An ethical prescription is one that takes us beyond our own possibility, it is in Simon Critchley’s words an “infinite demand.” It is “infinite” insofar as it demands a transcendence of our own finitude towards the possibility of achieving something not mortal, not finite. Another difference between the two is found in ethical immanence. Because it pertains to a subject, to the subjective experience of an ethical demand, there is no “beyond” from which the ethical call comes. The Moral call is always beyond us, always lingering somewhere beyond our immediate experience and sometimes impossible to understand, even though it is “common sense.” The ethical call, as I said, has to do with our ability to go from being just an individual, finite human-animal to something outside of that finitude, it is the call to go beyond our finitude even if that means disregarding the fact of our own mortality. An example of an ethical action is found in the participants of the sit-ins in Greensboro, who literally risked their lives to interrupt the moral order of the day. This takes me to my next point of difference between ethics and morality: Ethics interrupts a moral logic. Moral logic is always incomplete, and is thus open to the puncturing of its logical web by an ethical act. Ethics, as I said above, is not systematic like morality, it makes a radically distant ethical statement which asserts the unjustness and absurdity of a moral system. Insofar as it is removed from a moral order, the ethical demand is open to any and everyone. Morality, because of its conditional nature, makes different demands on different people (such is the price it pays for its systematic structure) because of their finite conditions. An ethical demand, insofar as it does not rely on the finite conditions of a given time or place, is universally addressed and can be acted on by any individual anywhere. Insofar as an individual takes up this ethical demand, they are subject to it.

I’m sure that there is more that I could say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. At some point, I will continue this train of thought, I’ve begun thinking this split in terms of veganism. Teaser: I’m a vegan, but am completely unsatisfied by any and every argument for veganism that I have ever heard.

Badiou’s “lesser” works

While I almost existentially feel a sense of awe and wonder at the “greater” works of Badiou that I’ve read, Theory of the Subject and Being and Event, “the others” have in some ways a more special place in my heart. I’m just re-reading St. Paul and have forgot how powerful the first few pages of the text can be. The first aspect of my respect for the “lesser” works (other things I place in this section are the Handbook of Inaesthetics, Metapolitics, Number and Numbers [although perhaps that is a great work, we’ll see], and Ethics) is the way that the texts seem to make it seem almost as the world were written in terms of Badiou’s great theoretical models in the “greater” works. The ease with which the world as I know it intuitively falls into line when analyzed by Badiou through his great theoretical work is astonishing. After nearly every sentence in these works, I feel as though I stop to say, “of course [such and such a thing] is that way, how come I’ve never seen it before?!” I know at once that these works are full of technical rigour, a work by Badiou couldn’t be otherwise, but the almost casual tone of the works make reading them so much less intimidating, so much more accessible, such that I’m able to “soak it all in.” This is all, of course, a less foundational reason for my attraction to these works. My second major draw towards these works is in their relative (for Badiou) openness to levity and play. Their subversiveness is found not only in their ability to completely and novelly reevaluate disparate subjects like politics (in general), art (in general) and so on, but also in their simultaneous ability to use a brilliant wit that is not as present in his “greater” works. Note: this could obviously be an indication of my own position, being it the case that I am less than completely able to sit down with one of the “greater” works and not feel intimidated. Nevertheless, the “lesser” works are far more geared towards a readership which does not have hundreds of hours to commit to learning the technical rigour of mathematical set theory. Their all very in a history of “pamphlets” that I find very important for a thinker who want to speak to more than just the intellectual elite of the ivory tower. Without losing any of the rigorous carefulness of his “greater” works, the “lesser” works are almost conversational, lectures on the “important” other works. Finally, in Badiou’s own parlance, the fidelity that these books bear to the event of the “greater” works is astonishing. In Being and Event, I always felt that the event was very, almost absolutely, important, but that the process of fidelity, the bringing-into-the-world of a truth was more important and more difficult. The “lesser” works are testament to the real respect that Badiou has not just for the theoretical and formal aspects of philosophy, but for the real committed subjective action that brings those formal truths into the world.

Cahiers pour l’Analyse online

Here’s a link: http://www.web.mdx.ac.uk/cahiers/

Where you can find all the back issues of “Cahiers for l’Analyse” online. Cahiers was an influential journal in the 60’s. Contributors included Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, &c.

Good stuff!