Tagged: John Milbank

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.


Final Questions without Answers

And so, gentle readers, I have done it: in spite of pillows and comforter and the need for sleep fighting me every step of the way, I completed Pack of Lies last night. Maybe not since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before that) have I felt such satisfaction at coming to the end of a collection of words. But while those predecessors resembled intriguing sacks of lead, this prolix head-trip never felt like a deadweight.

After this post, I’m guessing I’ll leave the trilogy’s mysteries to themselves,* maybe wondering at stray moments

“Sneering and Defiance,” from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons.

1) what the intention was behind riffing on my beloved Ethan Frome. I don’t exactly enjoy pondering the long and ruined lives of Edith Wharton’s couple maimed for love. Maybe that was precisely Sorrentino’s purpose: a smirking way of calling out much literary tendency to give a glimpse of something terrible and let us think we’ve really understood it or absolved ourselves of the necessity truly to grapple with its implications. I can envision the author enjoying our despair at being confronted with logical, if absurd, extremes– especially when they deal with just how sour the plight of sweethearts can turn, and when they’re tossed in among a whole sweep of frivolous humanity.

2) what the weird demons who drop in on the scene every now and then were meant to do, beyond just being included for the hell of it. An update on Greek tragedy’s divine interventions– or maybe the result of being left without heroic (or any overarching) ideals: the gods become as tawdry as the people they toy with?

3) what Buddy and Dick and their caricatured Hardy Boys-type ramblings were meant to accomplish. Parody, sure– but to what end, inserted into this particular crowd of characters?

4) whether there was any real plan behind the alphabetizing that took place in Misterioso. My baseless speculation is that Sorrentino was just trying to see who’d notice it, and at what point– and maybe, who’d go back to figure out what the non-existent hidden message was within this arrangement. Again: tossing in a wrench just to see how the works respond?

5) finally, whether Sorrentino was as hostile in real life to John Crowe Ransom as his digs at the poet would seem to indicate– and/or whether said poet/his poem “Janet Waking” was a convenient foil for one of the book titles, Sheila Sleeping, that keeps popping up throughout the trilogy. At any rate, Ransom would probably have been disgusted by this cast of characters and their antics– and they probably would have laughed at his.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned John Milbank, bless his angry and exacting heart. While having to soak up his thunderings for a doctoral exam, I became convinced he’d imprisoned a closet-full of grad students, hopeful noses to the grindstone and racing to be the first to find the most obscure fact about orthodoxy, along with all of its imaginable variations. I could envision Sorrentino having his own horde of willing literary servants working on Pack of Lies– but in this case, they, along with their chief, would all be high, and just tossing index cards pertaining to the characters they’d been assigned into a pile. Had this weird party taken place twenty years after the actual book’s publication, I’m sure Milbank himself could have made a delightful appearance in all these goings-on, railing against the post-modern mischief he’d never deign to acknowledge.


* To bypass all my queries, just see my reviewlette on Goodreads and/or LibraryThing, viz., “Not a clue how to rate this. Did I get it? Is there anything to get? I have no idea– but I never felt burdened, and often cheered on Sorrentino’s frequent jabs at a variety of cultural/academic/societal/publishing world/literary practices.”

More Daunting than Hegel

Yes, I’m still reading Paradiso. I was bound and determined to finish the thing off once and for all this weekend, but it just didn’t happen. I attempted to summon up and derive inspiration and willpower from a grad-school feat of yore, when, not reading the syllabus with much attention, I was shocked to discover what I thought to be an assignment of 250 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology for the next class. Looking at said course guide the day before the seminar was to meet, I dropped everything and plowed into the tome, succeeding in completing what I thought had been the assignment. My reading, of course, wasn’t very thorough, given its speed– but about 3/4 of the way in, my brain being bombarded by world spirits and theses and Aufhebungen at early hours of the morning, I suddenly had something like a very brief epiphany, where everything came together in one brilliant, cohesive sphere of wonder– and then fell apart almost immediately. I’m still unsure whether I was relieved or not when I got to class the next day, red-eyeball-tired, to find out that we’d really been assigned about thirty pages.*

How Paradiso makes me feel. (NARA)

At any rate, to be honest, I was less hopeful of achieving some ephemeral moment of clarity by doing the same thing with Lezama Lima, and more eager to just be done with the thing. No dice. I’m still fifty pages way from the end of this intolerable labyrinth, and at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky if I finish it by the end of the week. If not, I’ve got a lengthy plane ride next week, which should help me knock this particular monkey off my back. (And who’s to say? Maybe high altitudes and the canned air that comes with traveling at such elevations will add some legitimate trippiness to a text that seems far too self-conscious in its attempt to achieve vaguely hallucinogenic effects.)

Maybe my Hegel-coup is just an event never meant to be repeated. (And without the fear of being stared down by a very otherworldly prof who bore more than a little resemblance to Rasputin, it’s understandable that my motivation to undertake such challenges these days is significantly less than it was long ago.) But my guess is that the completion of this present tome will at least merit a brief celebration, coming in a close second, probably, to the elation I felt on finally finishing John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. That, though, is another story.

* I later took a course that focused the entire semester on just the Phenomenology. It was actually a brilliant class that brought me some real understanding of the work– but I’m still unwilling to dismiss whatever momentary insight it was that I’d gained a few years before, even if I’m not sure exactly what sort of insight it was.