Borgesian Fields

Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap, 191.1 × 561.3 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, prophecies are recast, ghosts live in blades, and the constraints of time are broken. Among this magic, which is distinctly of the era of capitalism, stands an understated image of silent plains. A narrator tells us that one could be like any other: “No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same.”1 The narrator travels to the future, where he speaks to a nameless, elderly man. The nameless man looks upon the plains shortly before he chooses his own death: “The man now turned his back to me and looked out the windows. Outside, the plains were white with silent snow and moonlight.”2 A fog of ambivalent catastrophe hovers. For whom or what was civilization? The story’s future setting does not cast off the troubles of our moment. This failed temporal escape is accentuated by the future society’s abandonment of excursions into space: “‘It’s been hundreds of years since we have done any of that traveling about—though it was undoubtedly admirable. We found we could never escape the here and now.”3 As another story shows, even the escape into life is not adequate to its goal: “Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had sunk below the horizon now, but one final splendor brought a glory to the living yet silent plains before they were blotted out by night. Less to keep from tiring himself than to make those things last, Dahlmann walked slowly, inhaling with grave happiness the smell of clover.”4

The plains are silent and homogeneous, but they spoke in the past, each with its own language. This mute presence reflects an irrevocable transformation within humanity’s consciousness. Nature had greeted humans as they expected—mythologically. Borges’s characters express something of this lack: “There is an hour just at evening when the plains seem on the verge of saying something; they never do, or perhaps they do—eternally—though we don’t understand it, or perhaps we do understand but what they say is as untranslatable as music…”5 Nature, which became a category through the development of society now riven through with contradiction, recedes beyond the grasp of reason. A symptom of this reification is anxiety about Nature’s silence. Without a theory that could give historical meaning to this anxiety, the trajectory of Spirit falls into question.


1. Jorges Luis Borges, “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 460.
2. Ibid., 464.
3. Ibid., 463. In the beginning of Andrzej Zulawski’s film, On the Silver Globe (1988), explorers are haunted by this realization.
4. Borges, “The South,” in Collected Fictions, 177.
5. Borges, “The End,” in Collected Fictions, 170.

Glances

The expectation of happiness in life is an attitude whose costs might outweigh the benefits. We tell ourselves that we can be anything we imagine, but this could be an increasingly cruel notion. In each phenomenon, we see what something is and also what it is not. Although thought may detect glimmers beyond the immediate, the practical path to thought’s realization is blocked, and only disintegrating images of other worlds linger before fading. It is painful to hold onto those fragments, and a meager defense offers itself to the injured: disregard anything that stirs the heart so that you might avoid the accompanying sadness. Is not blindness better for this life?1 Of course this is a Romantic reaction. Perhaps downcast eyes are more merciful, but such a resignation does not absolve us; it only defers our self-imposed suffering.


1. Nietzsche explores a similar question in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.

Bars

In a bar, two women embrace, stumble, and fall down laughing. A frowning bartender removes their drinks from the table. This attitude can be found in any bar. There is a feigned air of dismay, as if bartenders don’t know what they’re serving. They don’t want to remember why their customers drink. We sneer at failed attempts to escape from unhappiness. We want to pretend we’re not like the drunk customer, whose stumbling spoils the image of happiness that resides in the first drink. There is a refracted reflex against the knowledge that we find our humanity only in our animal activities, while the freedom of second nature remains out of reach.

Sunsets

Still from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Still from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Riding on Chicago’s “L”, among office workers and students, two teenagers use social-media applications to record videos of the sunset as it flickers between buildings. The observer’s first impulse might be to reproach them later for how they appreciated the moment, but this reaction includes within it a presupposition about sight: that the act of looking is the most certain. Sight, however, is not an untainted reception of the perceived things, but is rather a mediated form. This belief in the immediacy of sight also arises in the pernicious character of photography. The social influence upon the act of enjoying a sunset is more apparent when using Facebook or Snapchat, including especially the anxiety for certainty and approval.

The sunset is bittersweet because we are not sure about the day.

Reading Aloud in Alexandria

It is said that when an ancient Greek, and perhaps members of other ancient civilizations, would read a text, they always read it aloud, even if there were no audience.

Perhaps the reader did this so that they might hear it being said. In other words, because the text itself was speaking. This is mythopeic thinking, no doubt. The ancient Greeks called upon the sacred for inspiration, and the connotation remains in the word itself: πνέω, which asks that one be the vessel through which a muse breathes. Additionally, it is here an ancient, inchoate form of reified thinking to misrecognize the object as an estranging force. The concept of estranged labor does not attain to itself until the industrial revolution.

What might be grasped now is that they would understand the act of reading as an event that requires the reader to participate in an aesthetic experience, where the text as object is both simultaneously non-identical to the reader and recreated by the reader. In this sense, the reader augments himself. Every reading is a recreation of the text in a subject-object dialectic. To the ancient reader, however, the concept of his own self-creation does not occur.

Today, this understanding of the thing as object has become reified, so that a text is seen as the vessel of all meaning. While it is true that the object retains its own essence, the interpenetration of subject and object is misunderstood. That act of participation in recreation on the part of the reader is lost.

Flowers and the Division of Labor

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]

A flower is beautiful for Kant because it presents itself as having a self-determined teleology. We subjects find our Imaginations reflected back to us, transforming ourselves.

Purposefulness without purpose is an achievement of freedom in that it does not arise out of set rules, but rather creates its own rules. At a different register, it is akin to the potential of the bourgeois subject to participate in any given trade. Bourgeois society puts its stamp upon the very medium through which we understand ourselves.

Credentials

Recently at a gallery, a lauded music critic was asked about operating in her newly acquired position at a media conglomerate. The questioner was specifically curious if she felt an increased difficulty in covering “more authentic bands,” given her new environment.

“Ha!,” the music critic laughed. She continued, saying something like, “As if only bands are authentic. That leaves out so many other musicians. Many male music critics are only interested in the production qualities of music. Because of that, we don’t have any working in our office.” The room applauded.

The ground of the music critic’s denunciation of a search for authenticity also betrays concurrent devotion to the concept at a different register, namely that certain people appear more authentic than others. The horizon of the music critic’s judgement, shared by most, has been narrowed to a pinpoint. The death of any viable Left reduces politics to psychological struggle and moral posturing, neither of which could overcome the crisis of society. That identity politics today is neoliberal can be seen in the way that the music critic’s department now toes the party line as it covers the presidential election campaigns.

The music critic’s victory in a small fraction of a conglomerate’s hiring demographics may have anemic merit, but her acceptance of the job is a liquidation of any “punk” laurels that might have adhered to her. The cruel truth, however, is that the music critic was never an outsider to the all-consuming industry that accounts for even the hermetic hobbyist. Her participation is a symptom of the streamlined integration demanded by mass society.