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Finding—or Denying—the New

OK, I hesitate to even begin offering commentary on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life; based on its length and density, I can already tell it’s going to give John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory a run for its money, in terms of its status as the book that’s taken the longest for me to read.[1] But at the risk of chiming in too prematurely, here’s a chunk of Sloterdijkian thought I appreciate:

… there is nothing cognitively new under the sun.
The novelty of the new… stems from the unfolding of the known into larger, brighter, more richly contoured surfaces. Consequently, it can never be innovative in an absolute sense; in part, it is always the continuation of the cognitively existent by other means. Here, novelty and greater explicitness amount to the same thing. We can therefore say that the higher the degree of explicitness, the deeper the possible, indeed inevitable disconcertment caused by the newly acquired knowledge.[2]

Note, nothing cognitively new under the sun. Does this go for style and/or stylistics as well (and does style, which has to do with creativity and idiosyncrasy, and therefore with a cognitive ability to tell the difference between one mode of [verbal, artistic, musical, etc.] expression and another, fall within the cognitive realm)? For example, Sloterdijk himself (and in English, with his translator’s help) will sometimes turn a phrase in a way that may provide a particular reader with new-to-her way of thinking about or seeing something. Witness the way in which he compares photography’s ability to shape our sense of an image to nature’s being merely “the first edition of the visible,” and so less impressive to us.[3] Or his manner of describing how ancient statuary called viewers to strive for a physical ideal, asserting that “It displays how being and being exemplary converge.”[4]

Greg Tobias, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was struck by how both of these phrases’ (and others’) made me stop short with the pleasure of realizing I’d never thought about nature or an ideal/example in that way before. But as Sloterdijk said, although I might now have a more detailed or nuanced understanding of these things, I do not have an “innovative” one.

But remove the “cognitively” from his quote above, and I wonder if the author would still be comfortable making his statement? Even if so, I’m not sure what “new,” plain and simple, might mean. I’m trying to think of things that are truly new—maybe close, at least, to what Alain Badiou would call an event, an eruption into the normal stream of things by something so previously unseen or ignored or unheard-of—something that really doesn’t even count as within the realm of Being, in a given situation—that it results in unignorable transformation, a completely new Something that must be confronted. I’m guessing Badiou wouldn’t qualify, say, the atomic bomb as an event, nor would Sloterdijk allow it to be considered “new,” having followed on the heels of bombs-as-such, even if the potential for destruction it unleashed, and the consequent public fears that grew up around it, were of a much greater degree than any of its predecessors.

Nor would I consider “new” certain businesspeople’s thrill surrounding so-called “disruption” in business practices. Sure, they may be disruptive in terms of creating usually needless havoc—new, perhaps in the way in which tasks are accomplished and value assigned to anything from consistency, to loyalty, to commitment, to the ultimate aim of doing business at all (wealth? power? glory in production itself?). But new/disruptive in terms of the ultimate understanding of what business is, what buying and selling are or were meant to be? Doubtful.

And if we’re going back to style, even had Ezra Pound not cribbed the phrase from a couple of Confucians, I often can’t think what the imperative “Make It New” means for art or poetry or writing, especially given the role of cognition in those media’s creation and consumption. A different style, yes—but neither James Joyce nor Jack Kerouac nor David Foster Wallace emerged ex nihilo; their methods of expression were influenced by predecessors in one way or another.

Having just engaged in a lot of dense bloviating myself, I may just find Sloterdijk’s assertion to be a relief because I’m suspicious of celebrations of the new for newness’ sake, and see in them a sort of adolescent frustration with forms and stories we may not yet know how to value or understand—a sort of attempt to escape from the patience and drudge work required to maintain most beautiful and worthwhile things, from mastery of a particular craft to long-term friendships.

But again: I’m only a chapter or so in; who knows, a year from now, when I’m nearing the end of this vast tome, whether I’ll still be holding onto that conviction, or whether I’ll have assumed some other, completely new (to me, if not to Sloterdijk) opinion on the whole matter.

 

[1] If memory serves, that latter one took a good six weeks, and was admittedly plodded through at a glacial pace, given its centrality to one of my doctoral exams. The only thing I can remember about it now, though, at least a decade after having to deal with it, is my conviction that Milbank had to have had a bevy of low-paid grad students locked in a closet somewhere, each working on an obscure point and finding the appropriate references needed to back it up.
Incidentally, it took me longer to read Milbank’s book than it did to read Finnegan’s Wake.

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, translated by Wieland Hoban (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013). 7.

[3] ibid., 22.

[4] ibid., 26.

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Books in Dialogue

Incredible. I’ve probably mentioned before the semi-transcendent thrill I get when two books I happen to be reading at the same time end up having a sort of conversation with each other. In yesterday’s post, I spoke about James Agee’s wrestling with the concept of beauty, and who might be morally allowed (or not) to make any judgment about certain objects’ qualification as beautiful, especially when said objects essentially give evidence of ruin in one form or another.

Well, behold, consider what met me today in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s War, Evil, and the End of History: “What “beauty” is there in a destroyed urban landscape? Is it really bewitching, this city that looks as if it’s returned to the earth, buried, crushed beneath the weight of an invisible pestle?” [1]

Huambo, Angola; jlrsousa on Wikimedia Commons.

He’s speaking here of contemporary war-torn communities, in this particular case, of a couple of cities he’s visited in Angola, and of some authors’ celebration of (different) war(s) as an aesthetic phenomenon, which he finds hideous and “always dangerous.” [2] Lévy goes on to ponder “two theories of ruin:” one that sees the march of history as justifying particular instances of destruction. [3] (This one, incidentally, is supposed to comfort the insignificant individuals crushed by ruin with the knowledge that they’re part of history.) The other wonders, “What if ruin were ‘the natural state of modern things?'” Lévy draws out this question with further ones, finally ending up asking whether ruin is “the first, but also the last, word of the world we’re entering,” and applies that question to “the pure scandal of these [Angolan cities’] ruins.” [4] Since these thoughts are part of the brief “Réflexions” section of the book, extended footnotes to some of the articles he’s presented, we’re largely left to continue asking the questions ourselves. But Lévy does express his disgust with the idea of subjecting the victims of these horrors to “the final outrage of having to hear that the greatest suffering permits the finest redemption,” and leaves us with the assertion that “One is always right to leave ruins, but also to hold onto them.” [5]

What does, or could, that last sentence mean for ruined places, cities, homes? Does leaving the ruins mean leaving one’s home? If we’re going to jump into questions of self-imposed guilt, à la James Agee, what might someone leaving his or her own ruins worry about, in terms of (self-)accusations of abandoning others—people or places—to their fate?

Lévy also gives a brief mention in the introduction to this section of the book of “a journalism of ideas.” [6] Is this what he considers or denies his work to be—and how would Agee, who held intensely bitter views about journalism, react to this approach to the genre? As the latter said, “The very blood and semen of journalism… is a broad and successful form of lying.” [7] Whatever the reaction of both to charges of their being journalists of ideas, I sure would love to see them as co-panelists about the state of the genre—its practices, assumptions, and effects upon all manner of Things Public—in the US today.

 

[1] Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Aesthetics of War,” in War, Evil, and the End of History, transl. Charlotte Mandel (Hoboken: Melville House, 2004), 118.

[2] Lévy, “Philosophy of a Ruined City,” 119.

[3] ibid., 120.

[4] ibid., 122.

[5] ibid.

[6] Lévy, “After Le Monde, a Question of Form,” 113.

[7] James Agee and Walker Evans (photographer), Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 235. Earlier in that paragraph, Agee says, “Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential, falsehood.” (234) And he’s just getting started.

The Fraught Privilege of Judgment

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: it’s been on my shelf for years, lying unopened that entire time under the misguided assumption that this was a documentation of devastation funded by the Works Progress Administration. Little did I know just how strange an anthropological undertaking it still is, or how almost Kerouackian it sounds—a sort of Beat paean avant la lettre.

What I ran across today, though, was more evidence of just how relevant the author’s existential wranglings remain about exactly what he’s doing. James Agee’s reflections on living briefly with three different poor white sharecropper families in the mid- to late 1930s include a number of assertions and questions about the problems involved in the well-to-do of this world swooping in to study and judge and uplift the poor. His own guilt about his place in this project does sometimes romanticize the people and phenomena he describes. But the section from Part II titled “Beauty” could so easily be directed at the moral ambivalence (or evil, depending on your feelings) of contemporary ruin porn, I had to read it over again.

Walker Evans, via the Library of Congress on Wikimedia Commons.

Agee says that the hovels he’s been visiting might just qualify as beautiful, “[i]n part because this [beauty] is ordinarily neglected or even misrepresented in favor of their shortcomings as shelters, and in part because their esthetic success seems to me even more important than their functional failure”—and admits to there being “moral problems involved in evaluating it.” [1]

The discussion that follows is brief, and is concerned mostly about the fact (he asserts) that only those with the “economic advantages of training” are able to see this beauty, and these elite few “have only a shameful and thief’s right to it: and it might be said that they have any ‘rights’ whatever only in proportion as they recognize the ugliness and disgrace implicit in their privilege of perception.” And then a footnote further down refers to the “sin… in feeling in the least apologetic for perceiving the beauty of the houses.” [2]

Add to the sharecroppers’ homes the industrial wastelands of the Rustbelt or abandoned sections of any city across the globe, and Agee’s words still demand we give an account of the moral valence of our aesthetic obsessions. Other than curiosity about the stories they might be able to tell us, why, for example, do we seize upon abandoned factories as delicious viewing? If we feel any guilt about doing so, does that do any good to anyone at all? If we act upon that guilt, and try to “help” those affected by urban blight, do our attempts to assuage our bad bourgeois consciences do anything beyond burden a hurting population with the added weight of paternalistic attention?

Hard questions indeed, ones to which I can’t even begin to propose useful answers. That sense of being at a loss isn’t surprising, though; look at a lot of the comments said to have been made by Jesus about considering the poor, or the future Buddha’s being kept under lock and key as a young man so as not to have to see evidence of poverty, and it becomes obvious that we really haven’t come that far in changing how we think about material abjection. [3] I still have a way to go with Agee’s book; I doubt he’ll come to any conclusions, either, but I can almost guarantee I’ll find his thought-struggles worthwhile.

 

[1] James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 202.

[2] ibid., 203. The section ends with Agee wondering whether things can be beautiful by chance, what creational intention has to do with something’s beauty, and what role the realities of culture play in it all.

[3] Most obviously, you’ve got Luke 6’s Sermon on the Plain, which is much more materially focused than is Matthew 5’s more spiritually centered Sermon on the Mount. Think about the poor widow giving her hard-earned coin, the assertion in Matthew 26 that “you always have the poor with you,” and on and on; so many mentions of how to deal with the existential realities of poverty.

Ambient Encroachments

Sitting down on a summer day to read Bernard-Henri Lévy reporting from various war zones: I guess it’s only one sign that I’m not quite normal. I mean, it was pleasantly sunny, and there’s a wide selection of beaches within a few minutes’ distance from my place. But no, there I was, when everyone else was roaming about in minimal clothing and soaking up vitamin D, loving every minute slouched on the couch with my tea and the thoughts of a long-haired French intellectual rock star.

Courtesy Itzike on Wikimedia Commons.

OK, the guy is controversial for a ton of reasons, for things as hilarious as his tendency to wear his shirts revealingly unbuttoned, to his often being referred to simply as BHL, to his criticisms of socialism and Marxism, his getting duped by a fake philosopher, and his takes on Daniel Pearl and the State of Israel.* But I’d never read an entire book of his, and wanted to see whether I’d fall on one or any side of the many camps who love or revile him.

I just was settling into the foreword, where I read that “To the horror of dying is added, I imagine, that of dying for nothing. And to that, that of dying in front of the indifferent spontaneous Hegelians that we are, we who, from the irrationality of a situation, soon concluded it was as if unreal and, thus, that it was useless to get mixed up in it.”** And as I was pondering whether Hegel himself could have been spontaneous about anything, I heard the ice cream truck creeping into the neighborhood, its off-tune, evil-clown loudspeakers blaring something that sounded like a cross between a 1980s Casio and one of those organs every villain worth his salt keeps hidden in his dungeon.

Lévy’s statement is probably legitimate in many ways. He’s describing a lot of completely horrendous situations, many of which still have not been truly dealt with, over a decade after the book’s publication, and that thanks at least in some part to the fact that no one, especially we who benefit from these situations, really wants to get mixed up in facing them. But there’s also the absolute unreality of this dashing gent’s talent for taking himself—his persona, his flair, his bare chest—so unbelievably seriously, as opposed to the valid need to take the material seriously. Maybe it’s just what French public intellectuals do, and what the French public expects from and allows them. Debates with Michel Houellebecq? One-man plays to try and stop Brexit? All fine and good—but I really would like to see how BHL’s gravitas would hold up against an insistent ice cream truck.

 

* The Guardian has a pretty fantastic selection of pieces on him, along with some representative fashion-plate snapshots.

** Bernard-Henri Lévy, War, Evil, and the End of History, translated by Charlotte Mandel (Hoboken: Melville House Publishers, 2004), 5.

 

Back with Bookish Found Objects

Nothing like speculation about strangers’ lives to get you back up and writing again*—especially when it’s my favorite variety of speculation: about things left behind in books. This latest one was—well, I’ll explain its location and circumstances of discovery, and you can do with it what you will. Behold, Exhibit A.

I cropped from this index-card-sized piece of paper the name and dates of birth and death of the speaker of these words—a very young woman. Said piece of paper seems to have been part of a funeral or other memorial service for her, and was found within The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when one of the members of the read-aloud book club to which I belong turned the page of his copy and found it waiting there for him.

We pondered: was the previous owner of the book reading this brilliantly snarky piece of comedy during the memorial service? Or was it tucked away among the pages after the ceremony had happened, one of those times that you feel compelled to save something, but really don’t know where you should keep it, and so it gets shoved in between the pages of the book you’re reading for temporary safekeeping—forgetting all about the stashed object, of course, by the time you’ve finished the tale? If either of these options represents the truth of this insert’s scenario, let’s hope it was the latter—but even then, it doesn’t seem quite right to have taken this novel along to a funeral.

Less potentially disturbing was the old library card found on the detached cover of a book the store had put out for recycling. (Both covers, as well as an introductory page, had come off of 50 Great Essays, initially published in 1964, with this, the eighth reprinting, having come out in 1971—available, as the card and the book’s spine tell us, for $1.25.)

Unsurprisingly, I have a soft spot in my heart for these library cards, whose technical name I no longer even remember. But I am charmed by the fact that the Chicago Public Library even had a form number (19) for the pockets in which said cards were kept. The card itself, incidentally, was Form 106, and no one seems to have checked out the book during this particular little slip’s tenure.

The other interesting, or revealing, thing about 50 Great Essays? Of the total, only one of the said essays was written by a woman (Virginia Woolf). When I read this poor bedraggled copy, and read it I will, I’ll be thinking of any retort she might have felt like making to the piece in here by H.L. Mencken, “The Feminine Mind.” I’ll admit to being fearful of facing up to this bit by Mencken—less for the points of ostensible value he might make, and more for the degree of anger and irritation they’ll probably instill in me. When the confrontation occurs, though, be sure I’ll inform you of the outcome.

 

*N.b., I have been writing quite a lot, working on a couple of projects one hopes will eventually reach completion and achieve publication. All the same, I should not have been neglecting this space in their service.

 

Sickness and Self

Courtesy Stephen Sweeney/geograph.org.uk on Wikimedia Commons.

Wow: let’s talk, not about any particular book, but about the very bizarre frustration of being more or less incapable of reading (much less writing) for almost a month. Just before Christmas, I got slammed with what started as allergies, moved into a full sinus onslaught, and morphed in very wily fashion into viral wonders the likes of which I really hadn’t experienced in twenty years.

The physical illness itself was bad enough; among other things, it meant I was banned from flying back home, and spent two days in Amtrak’s tiniest sleeping car, with just my germs for company, getting back to my own bed. But the truly alarming amounts of apathy that accompanied it—the lack of desire for anything whatsoever, the complete absence of willpower or ability to perform any mental functions beyond the remedial level—may have been just as frustrating, due, I think, to the fact that the normal I with whom I was so familiar, so accustomed, had vanished entirely. And yet, there I still was, some vegetative creature whom I would have taken for a doppelgänger had I not so obviously been trapped inside of it.

This normal I is, of course, a compulsive reader; it’s simply part and parcel of who I am, and always have been, ever since I learned as a toddler to decipher letters and words. Take that characteristic away, and everyone remotely close to me will declare that what stands before them is something other than the person they know.

So that alienation from self was one thing. But I’m starting to think as well that this last bout of illness was so emotionally tough not just due to said alienation—but also to the vast amounts of disembodied conversation, normally carried on on a daily basis with other writers, or at least with their thoughts and words, that suddenly disappeared, and remained missing for so long. In being forcefully and lengthily removed from engagement with print, I was also being removed from an entire community. No wonder I felt so disoriented, and in an indescribably lonely way at that.

I’m beyond thankful that I didn’t lose any of my senses, truthfully speaking—but in the face of all of them being noticeably dampened in some way, the fear of such a loss, which has a permanent home in the far reaches of my mind, was put on alert, and even if only in attenuated fashion, reached through the dense miasma that had set up shop within and around me.

Here’s the miracle, though: even though I’ve still got some remnants of disease to kick out of my system, last night I finished a not-too-challenging book that’s been begging for the last month for my attention. I’ve found that usually, as soon as I’ve recovered from illness, I forget with amazingly quick ease what that particular form of impairment was like. Maybe it’s just that I’m not totally out of the woods yet—but the process of settling comfortably into a few of this book’s pages was noticeably low on comfort. I’m not sure how long this cold will hang around, or how long it’s going to take me to get back to the usual me—but I have a sneaking suspicion I won’t so easily consign this latest germ battle to the dustbin of memory.

 

The Philosophical Universe Comes Through

I’ve used this image before, via Kierkegaard Manuscripts on Wikimedia Commons. But what the heck.

A wonderful article I came across in Aeon this morning made me remember just how beautifully fundamental Søren Kierkegaard has been for the development of my personality, or personhood, or, if you want to go there, my soul. I won’t expound upon the piece by Julian Baggini, other than to say he’s come the closest of anyone I’ve read to capturing both the essence of the sincere Dane, and his effect on many a reader.

As a master’s student, and having only read the theologian/philosopher in my own unsupervised, romantic fashion, I roped my poor advisor into doing an independent study with me on Kierkegaard. I’m pretty sure said prof had no idea what he was in for, and the two of us went head-to-head on more than one occasion, with my asserting, either out loud or within the carefully guarded confines of my own head, that he was killing every bit of life in the philosopher’s thought, in favor of getting everything “right.”

With that first course at least a decade behind me, I’m guessing the entire tone of that sometimes-comical study would be much different today, much less prone to adolescent demands and outbursts. (I’m still toying with sending my old advisor Baggini’s article, and seeing if I can get a couple of nostalgic laughs out of him.) But Kierkegaard continued, a few years later, to pierce my heart right when I needed him. One of the clearest memories I’ve retained from PhD school is sitting in an empty student union cafeteria, 90% of the population elsewhere for Thanksgiving break, and getting ahead on my course reading. It was my first semester in the program, and I was filled with all sorts of constructive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual doubts– and at bottom, I was just lonely. But I had to forge ahead, and so I tackled the section of Concluding Unscientific Postcript that had been assigned over break. I’m going to have to go back to my notes at some point and see if I can find just what it was that affected me so profoundly, but all of a sudden, there I was on the institutional furniture, stared at through the windows by palm trees and a cheerful sun that was absolutely wrong for fall and for serious thought, in a spate of unashamed tears because I’d been made to feel completely validated and unalone by a guy who’d lived and died on a different continent in a previous century.

The instructor of that particular course was a smart guy who was also still clinging to a bit of youthful feeling, and so I related the scene to him after the rest of campus had come back sated and vowing insincerely to work off everything they’d consumed over the past week. The fact that he didn’t condescend or laugh me out of the hall was a small thing– but it was somehow proof that I belonged right where I was, inability to set aside emotion and all.*

And now here we are, a week out again from another Thanksgiving. Although much has changed since those days of constant study, those stormy moods, that same failure to tamp down some form of rebel sadness with and for the world, that same variety of probably-permanent loneliness, are all still part of me, even if I may be able to approach, or even handle, them differently. But I don’t mind admitting my gratitude at having found Baggini’s article this morning; leaving for a few days for willed aloneness this time over the holidays, I think I’ll be taking some Kierkegaard with me. I’m not sure which of his works, exactly, or how I’ll take it all intellectually– but in one way or the other, I’m certain I’ll be accompanied by a benevolent authorial spirit, still honoring his readers’ attempts to figure It all out.

 

* This episode was somehow more lasting and deeply felt than was my finally visiting Kierkegaard’s grave– an odd fact that seems true to the spirit of his thought.