Monthly Archives: July 2013

Considering the Preconditions of Thought

Terence Blake points out, with regard to recent remarks traded between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, the confines of analytic thought by those such as Chomsky:

Chomsky admits to looking at these thinkers’ theories and at seeing nothing there. He does not ascend to the meta-level to see if there are systematic presuppositions causing a form of cognitive blindness, he simply infers that there is nothing to see. Perhaps it all goes back to Hegel’s PHENOMENOLOGY. The dialectical way of thought lets one see ideas as being inscribed in different figures of consciousness or different phenomenological worlds or different understandings of being.

This is indeed Chomsky’s lack of dialectical thinking. That scientific thinking is now unable to think about its own role in society was one of Max Horkheimer’s concerns, specifically in the Anglo-American empiricist tradition. Martin Jay writes concisely on this concern in The Dialectical Imagination, “Only by overcoming the fetishistic grounding of scientific knowledge in pure consciousness, and by recognizing the concrete historical circumstances that conditioned all thought, could the present crisis be surmounted” (27). This is also a problem having to do with dialectical thought in the historical sense, in that those claiming to have allegiance only to empirical fact don’t seem to see the ideological preconditions of such a stance.

For Chomsky, empiricism is the standard with which all thought is to be done. With this empiricism, we end up left with no room for imagination. In other words, the only thing to be done if we are unable to veer from empiricism is to confirm the already reified status quo. To alter Herbert Marcuse’s term, we see here the “affirmative character of” contemporary science. A day after Blake’s post quoted above, Blake considers this part of empiricism: “For example, it is difficult to discuss the Zizek-Chomsky divide without making use of at least a minimum of theory. Otherwise one falls into the worst sort of empiricism, acting as if facts speak for themselves.” This thinking that “facts speak for themselves” is a perfect example of ideology’s hold—when you think that as an empiricist you speak only of eternal truths, while everyone else only speaks in nonsense.

Theory and Party Solidarity in the Early 20th Century

This is an interesting bit from the introduction of Martin Jay’s history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination:

The split that divided the working class movement in Weimar between a bolshevized Communist Party (KPD) and a nonrevolutionary Socialist Party (SPD) was a sorry spectacle to those who still maintained the purity of Marxist theory. Some attempted a rapprochement with one faction or another. But as demonstrated by the story of Georg Lukács, who was forced to repudiate his most imaginative book, History and Class Consciousness, shortly after its appearance in 1923, this often meant sacrificing intellectual integrity on the altar of party solidarity.

When, however, personal inclinations led to a greater commitment to theory than to party, even when this meant suspending for a while the unifying of theory and praxis, the results in terms of theoretical innovation could be highly fruitful (4).

I wonder what today’s situation might be in regards to the relationship between theory and practice. For Adorno, he considered his time to be not yet ready to be political. Today, leading members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, like Chris Cutrone, also see the contemporary moment as being pre-political.

Music and Abstraction

Detail of album of Windy & Carl's The Dream House

Detail of album art of Windy & Carl’s The Dream House

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that perhaps one of the reasons I like Windy and Carl’s album The Dream House (2005) is that one of the two great tracks on the album is named “The Eternal Struggle”. The title and the track itself open up a space of contemplation, and I often end up thinking about humanity—the constant struggle of chasing utopia, and how we’ve failed over the past 200 years with the rise of capitalism. Yes, utopia is always unreachable, but it must also always be our goal. As Leszek Kolakowski writes in “The Concept of the Left”, “Utopia is the striving for changes which ‘realistically’ cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the forseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity” (147). That sense of remembering the project of utopian longing that has lasted for as long as humanity is sometimes difficult to remember. But when you read something like Walt Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” it comes back to you, and you are able to experience history beyond the reaches of your own lifespan:

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated,
every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme, /
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, /
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
many generations hence, /
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt (7-8, 20-22).

I might as well talk about the other track on the album, which is “I Have Been Waiting to Hear Your Voice”. Although the title points to a more personal emotion, I argue that it too provides a statement of love that is a form of abstraction of life: given the bombardment of daily personal experience, the simple act of awaiting was always remembered and maintained by the speaker. This one practice persevered. It was able to transcend all other distractions and remain an important part of the speaker’s life.

It seems that this practice of maintaining an abstract focus on life is important. Isn’t this an example of resisting ideology? To put it differently, isn’t it important to maintain the ability to see through the everyday forces of ideology? Off the top of my head, one way of saying it might be, Missing the point to see the point. Or, rather, missing the point in order to see the preconditions for the point. To put it in a broader sense of history, isn’t this what Slavoj Žižek is always talking about when he criticizes the idea that we’ve now reached the end of history, that all that’s left is to act and to live our lives? In a recent interview, concerning another aspect of this anti-intellectualism, Žižek states,

I think the danger today is precisely a kind of a bland pragmatic activism. You know, when people tell you, “Oh my God, children in Africa are starving, and you have time for your stupid philosophical debates. Let’s do something!” I always hear in this call (“There are people starving there. Let’s do something”), I always discern in this a more ominous injunction: “Do it, and don’t think much!” Today we need thinking.

There’s a reason I like science fiction. Its ability to defamiliarize everyday human existence can push the reader into the realm of this historical abstraction. I really am sounding sentimental right now, but I truly feel a sense of wonder sometimes when approaching the study of history in this more abstract sense.

A few years ago I read Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”, and one line in particular has stuck with me: “For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Now, before I’m accused of wishing to naïvely reject the preconditions of our contemporary moment in order to start a pagan commune, I just want to point out that one could read the line as a call to reject the act of resignation in the face of the overwhelming pressure of history weighing upon our time. To accept the contemporary conditions openly is the position of the Right, but to strive to change towards utopia based on theoretical practices conscious of their place in history is the position of the Left.

Detail of album art of Fennesz's Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Detail of album art of Fennesz’s Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Another quick example of abstraction in contemporary music might be Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer (2001)—a love letter to the film of the same name documenting surf culture in the 1960s, along with the Beach Boys’s compilation album which came out a couple years later. Fennesz’s work here is highly abstracted, glitched guitar playing among other things, leading to a shining layered work that sounds very little like a pop song of that era, while at the same time sounding like the feeling of listening to songs from that era. Or better yet: his album sounds like experiencing summer.

Abstracting Narratives

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel boldly says that History can be abstracted and thus summarized quickly as really the history of freedom. I’ve been thinking lately about how powerful this Hegelian method of thinking through abstraction can be.

What gives me pause in works of art are the moments where there is a stillness. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but what I mean by stillness here has to do with the idea of abstraction, or rather–in an almost naïve way–losing track of the unnecessary intricacies of a narrative. The narratives become abstracted and we go to a different perspective, where one can feel the undercurrent of humanity and life flowing. In an interview with Libération, filmmaker Chris Marker stated, “Ce qui me passionne, c’est l’Histoire, et la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent” (“What interests me is History, and the cross-section of History in the present”). The filmmakers within the movement of Le Groupe Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) such as Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda were focusing on this perspective of “la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent.”

Still from Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7

Still from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

A great example of the Left Bank’s approach can be seen in comparing two different approaches to the simple narrative of two people falling in love in Paris. One need only compare Jean-Luc Godard’s famous À bout de souffle (1960) to Varda’s relatively overlooked Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). Frankly, besides Godard’s technique in editing, I think À bout de souffle can be mostly discarded as a self-obsessed, narrow-minded artifact of the 60s. Varda’s Cléo, on the other hand, while telling almost the same story, is able to cut deeper to the heart of human existence. The historical consciousness of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wouldn’t be successfully realized in the hands of those on the the Right Bank, better known as the Nouvelle Vague.

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek points out the power of this naïve abstraction:

How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of a blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision (279-280).

Still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

I feel that there is a great affinity between the American filmmaker Terrence Malick and the Left Bank. One of Malick’s films gives us the chance to inspect another interesting comparison with films more contemporary than those above: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Both storylines occur over a short period of time during the second World War, although they take place in different fronts: one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Saving Private Ryan seemed to have garnered more acclaim as a war film, whereas The Thin Red Line seems like something else. In a conversation recently with a friend who angrily denounced The Thin Red Line for having no real story, I ended up exclaiming, “Yes, exactly! There is no story!” Although the film is about the taking of Guadalcanal told from the perspective of several U.S. soldiers, the film is more about life. This is not to say that Malick can’t tell a story, but rather that Malick’s story dwells so much on existence that it becomes more of a meditation–a stasis that moves, rather than a story arch, in which a main character(s) encounters an “inciting incident” that calls him to action so that he may overcome an obstacle, which is then resolved in a dénouement. What is the ending of The Thin Red Line? What is the “inciting incident”?

Appropriately, Hegel-scholar Robert Pippen has written about this abstraction in Malick’s film. In “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Pippin writes,

In all of Terrence Malick’s five films, various genre conventions of Hollywood movies like these are invoked and structure much of the narration. This is especially true of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which has many of the elements of a Hollywood World War II movie. But, as in his other films, these genre conventions create expectations and suggest explanations that are then undermined, refused, left open, made to seem irrelevant, made mysterious, or even ironized.

The implication is unavoidable that, therefore, these conventions about motivation and value are no longer available, no longer credible, and the viewer has to struggle to find some point of orientation. This sense of being lost, once these conventions are invoked and then refused, is the main effect on any viewer and seems a major point of the film itself (249).

[…] since the voice-overs are unattributed by visual cues or anything else, the thoughts seem to float in logical space, as if they could visit any character or be shared by, be thought by, anyone (252).

I really still need to see Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas above correspond to that film too.