Collected and Converging: Part i: Let there be two streams


[Selena Kimball via wrongdistance]

Where to begin? There have been many unwritten bits lately and I'm trying to make sense of them, beginning perhaps with a basic copying out -- transcription with the hopes of translation and transformation.

I'd like to perhaps create a set of 'likely stories' -- if one were to make connections, this is what would appear. If one were to allow things to converge, this is the intersection. For the mind makes connections, deep and swift -- it makes them of nature and of instinct, and sometimes tyrannically.

I imagine that this will begin messily -- a tangle -- but I hope for things to work out in the end.

I've been reading a lot about being a reader -- and about what a writer is not, what a critic is and is not, what an artist does and does not do. In the process, a few things have been clarified, some have been toppled, and most have been confused. I am, per usual, swimming in questions. Uncertainty and certainty -- I re-read a short paper I had written on Euclid and Lobachevsky and found these problems again relevant. The less power the artist has, the more the responsibility of the audience, the reader.

So to begin, I first started reading Blanchot because of the rejuvenation of writing about him on the web -- a rejuvenation due to the anniversary of the May 1968 events. I found Stephen Mitchelmore's piece on Blanchot's The Absent Voice from Spike magazine. This is from before -- 2002 -- but it was a good introduction for me. I found echoes of Cassirer -- questions of speech, and then noticing and naming -- the momentous deities which assert their significance and their originary qualities. I'll get back to Blanchot and where he led me in a bit --

To diverge (in the hopes of convergence?) I had also found Cassirer in Marina Warner's essay in the latest issue of
Cabinet -- 'The Writing of Stones.' She writes of Roger Caillois who said,

I want the irrational to be continuously overdetermined, like the structure of coral; it must combine into one single system everything that until now has been systematically excluded by a mode of reason that is still incomplete.

Caillois was very interested in the attitudes of the mind -- shamanism and manism -- modes of perception and consequently modes of communication and language. Caillois was also very taken with the astounding scientific revelations of his time. Just as his precursors were enamored by 'the potential of new scientific instruments -- not least magic lanterns, camera obscuras, and microscopes.' Warner elaborates:

In his letter to Breton, Caillois insisted on the marvellousness in science: he remonstrated that the newly discovered theories of the atom had collapsed all earlier thinking about nature; here was a 'form of the Marvellous' that absolutely required a new philosophy (writing in 1934 he was being prescient).

This in turn makes me think of Whitehead -- just the other day someone described him to me as the only metaphysical philosopher who seriously tried to deal with quantum mechanics in his philosophy. It also calls to mind the ongoing web debate about Gottschall's article on the 'rehabilitation' of the Humanities.

In copying out some passages from The Gold Bug Variations, I found this (for a second time):

What he had done, how had he chosen to spend his energies, really was science. A way of looking, reverencing. And the purpose of all science, like living, which amounts to the same thing, was not the accumulation of gnostic power, fixing formulas for the names of God, stockpiling brutal efficiency, accomplishing the sadistic myth of progress. The purpose of science was to revive and cultivate a perpetual state of wonder. For nothing deserved wonder so much as our capacity to feel it.

Science and the humanities are artificially divided, are they not? Both proceed from wonder, double back, grow exasperated, grow clever, grow desperate and end up confused and wondering. In many ways it seems foolish to speak of what they 'ought' to do when it seems that in trying to discover the 'ought tos' we end up throwing restriction and obligation out and returning to exasperated but informed wonder.

But what about Bacon? Who could forget his introduction to the New Organon -- so chilling when I first read it:

Now my method, though hard to practice, is easy to explain; and it is this. I propose to establish progressive stages of certainty. [...]

Be it remembered then that I am far from wishing to interfere with the philosophy which now flourishes, or with any other philosophy more correct and complete than this which has been or may hereafter be propounded. For I do not object to the use of this received philosophy, or others like it, for supplying matter for disputations or ornaments for discourse — for the professor's lecture and for the business of life. Nay, more, I declare openly that for these uses the philosophy which I bring forward will not be much available. It does not lie in the way. It cannot be caught up in passage. It does not flatter the understanding by conformity with preconceived notions. Nor will it come down to the apprehension of the vulgar except by its utility and effects.

Let there be therefore (and may it be for the benefit of both) two streams and two dispensations of knowledge, and in like manner two tribes or kindreds of students in philosophy — tribes not hostile or alien to each other, but bound together by mutual services; let there in short be one method for the cultivation, another for the invention, of knowledge.

And for those who prefer the former, either from hurry or from considerations of business or for want of mental power to take in and embrace the other (which must needs be most men's case), I wish that they may succeed to their desire in what they are about, and obtain what they are pursuing. But if there be any man who, not content to rest in and use the knowledge which has already been discovered, aspires to penetrate further; to overcome, not an adversary in argument, but nature in action; to seek, not pretty and probable conjectures, but certain and demonstrable knowledge — I invite all such to join themselves, as true sons of knowledge, with me, that passing by the outer courts of nature, which numbers have trodden, we may find a way at length into her inner chambers.

Still chilling -- the emphasis above is mine but when i first read it, especially that final sentence, the emphasis seemed writ large in my mind as a prescient warning. I suppose the danger is that it seems so innocent at first, like the fool poised on the precipice -- one foot squarely planted, one foot ready to plunge headlong.

Warner writes:

It does not follow that the scientific spirit of empirical inquiry runs against dreaming, and Breton was wrong to think Caillois's investigative methods opposed wonder. Material mysticism led Caillois back to magical thinking, which he expanded further than the Surrealist interest in change and coincidence as he probed for insights into the order of things.

I think the trouble comes with systematization and also with ambition. Someone asked me not long ago what i thought of ambition. I said that I wasn't quite sure but that I thought that so long as it could be harnessed or informed by humility -- and then trailed off realizing that I was no longer speaking of ambition. I think it's definitely something worthy of consideration -- how does one understand a text, how does one learn about the world without violence? Or at least disruption. Can wonder retain its innocence or is that a figment of naive imagination? Ideas and programs and projects always begin with optimism and enthusiasm, the question is whether that can be retained, and if it should be retained.

I'll pause here --