Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, October 13, 2014

Allen Grossman, זיכרונו לברכה

On Sunday, October 19 there will be a service at Brandeis University for the memory of the poet Allen Grossman, who died last June 27. I am tempted to call Grossman one of the last great American modernists. During a time when poetry was being dissolved into a play of power differentials, historical-political agendas, personal musings, and trivial deconstructive animadversions, Grossman seemed like a character from the wild Romantic bygone. Aside from his grey hair being pulled back in a short ponytail, he looked every bit the aging academic in tweed or corduroy; but no one who ever heard Grossman read left with that impression. The man proclaimed poetry, like that old recording of Yeats going off to Innisfree's bee-loud glen; "like an Old Testament prophet," I've known more than one person to say. Despite what you might think about that sort of elocution -- now that it is out of fashion, it seems to remind us, for no very clear reason, of bad Shakespearean actors -- Allen Grossman was absolutely convincing at it. (What is more, he could do this while remaining familiar, earthy, heartbreaking, and very funny.) If that tradition is still alive (and I'm not sure it is -- the only other reader I ever knew to use such a style was Ginsberg, which makes me wonder if it is a coincidence that these two late holdouts were both Jewish), it is due in no small part to Grossman's defense of it. He was sure that the over-cautious delivery of poems that he saw spreading was a sign of poets' self-protection -- from their public, but especially from poetry itself, in all its raw danger. Grossman thought this self-protectiveness was the symptom of our avoidance of a deeper crisis in representation itself. The task he set himself was to face that crisis and think it through. This was not a wistful wondering about on what restricted terms we might still hope that poetry matters; it was a warning about what "mattering" means at all, and what the consequences are if poetry doesn't.

Grossman was of the same generation as many of the so-called Confessional poets (he was born in 1936, the same year as Sylvia Plath), but his career took a different arc, although he mined as deeply as any the autobiographical, even turning back towards his early poetic self in his late publication Sweet Youth, which juxtaposed many of his first poems with those he had lately written, in a kind of unfolding dialogue between past and present, as the young man and the old man "meet and acknowledge one another for the first time and pass on a stair -- one going up and the other down."

Over his career Grossman not only produced poetry in the strong mode of late Modernism, he elaborated an astonishingly rich ars poetica. This enterprise has a tremendous theoretical range, unmatched in breadth or depth by any similar body of work in the past half-century. Through all this work of a lifetime -- profound wrestlings with predecessors from Homer or Caedmon to Stevens and Dickinson, and unflinching meditations about the problems of poetics under the conditions of late capitalism and the nuclear age -- Grossman never stints from asserting his basic faith: he fully believed that poetry still was, or could be, a kind of sacred vocation. Although he didn't talk about the Muse as White Goddess, there was still, from Grossman as from Graves, the same utterly serious and unapologetic straight talk about the power of poetry, with nary an overblown word. If you didn't see poetry that way, fine. Grossman wasn't going to wear himself out arguing with you; but he was quietly sure you were cheating yourself.

Grossman's deepening concerns can be traced over the length of his whole career, but three crucial installments in that oeuvre are found in The Sighted Singer, which is, I swear to you, one of the great, weird works of poetics in the West, to rank alongside the Biographia Literaria or In the American Grain. The first two portions of The Sighted Singer are records of two sets of conversations, a decade apart (in Winter of 1981 and Summer of 1990), between Grossman and poet Mark Halliday. In these talks, Halliday and Grossman transmute respectful and serious disagreements into a compelling, but open, assessment of the stakes for poetry. They don't converge upon a single vision, but let their mutual demurrals and unfinished trains of thought hang there like the minority views in a Talmudic tractate. After that comes the third part, Summa Lyrica -- a different sort of work, sprawling and systematic at the same time, a very strange sort of -- well, I'am tempted to say "gnosis," despite the Bloomian appropriation of the word. The first section of Summa Lyrica opens with a magisterial declaration:
Immortality I

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.

1.2 The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge—poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not “I” speaks but “language speaks” (Heidegger). The function of this knowledge is to rescue the natural will at the point of its death, that is to say, at the point where death arrests its intention.

1.3 Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world.

1.4 The kind of success poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”
If there is a more ambitious way of commencing a work of poetics, I do not know what it is. But the work is not merely ambitious; it is full of poignancy, depth, close analyses, erudition, refusals of stock response. It is profound but it is not portentous, and does not elaborate simple responses. In fact, Grossman believed that the notion of "sufficient response" to our human dilemma was a snare. As he wrote in an appendix to his late volume How To Do Things With Tears,
The poet...opposes the satisfaction of supposing that thinking is innocent....The conviction of "sufficient response" ("what will suffice," "answerable voice," "closure") is peculiarly delusive. Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice.
Or, as he enjoined elsewhere in the same volume:
Do not be content with an imaginary God.
This question of the new in poetry is also what accounts for the title of The Sighted Singer, a reversal of the traditional trope by which the poet's gift of prophecy was counterbalanced by blindness (e.g. Tiresias, Homer, Milton). This revision of a tradition in which he was so deeply grounded was not lightly undertaken. His were very high stakes, and Grossman did not claim he had won; only that there was no honor or praise in pretending the stakes were otherwise. For Grossman, when one reads a poem as a poem, one is seeking "the presence of a person," and personhood is (I think) the center about which his project turns -- what he called "the hard problem." Immortality. A non-imaginary God. From beginning to end, Grossman's work is a sustained engagement on the terms of this problem. He did not offer easy solace, and he did not despair.

Remember what he remembered.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Polycentric World"

I want to do my (modest) bit for publicity for this pitch from Jonardon Ganeri, a philosopher teaching at NYU and King's College, London. It is a learned, well-documented and very timely call for asking for philosophers to take seriously the cosmopolitan ideal. It is also imminently philosophical itself, in that it is a call for committed encounter -- not a pointless and going-nowhere "discussion" where everyone shares their story and nothing happens, but a proposal for action -- it is philosophy engagée, but it is very much philosophy.

Ganeri is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy, and his proposal -- a blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World” -- is informed by a formidable historical expertise. It is also all the more urgent in the wake of a great deal of discussion of Eugene Park's recent Huffington Post article on the way he thinks university philosophy departments, and philosophical assumptions at work in those departments, remain caught in a moribund patriarchal monoculture even as other humanities have successfully moved into a promising multicultural future.
Philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy — e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.
So why don’t Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy’s unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect....[But] The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks "rigor" and "precision," essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.
Brian Leiter, who's made a nuisance and menace of himself in more than a few ways lately, acted like he had explained the whole thing thus:
My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it. Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy (and the further back in the past we go, the more the boundary lines of "what’s European, what’s not" get harder to draw).
Leiter's modest proposal is that, well, sure,
more study of non-Western philosophical traditions would be salutary and illuminating; ... that some parts of so-called "feminist" philosophy are as illuminating as their so-called "Marxist" predecessors; and... that race -- like class and gender -- benefits from philosophical attention, and that critical theory approaches to social-political philosophy are at least as important as the kind of work done by bourgeois liberals, whose work dominates the Anglophone curriculum. What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.
Leiter is not a guy I an used to agreeing with (well, to be fair, I'm not used to paying attention; sometimes I regret the ignorance, but mostly I think it is pretty damn excusable). So it is with reluctance that I even give the appearance of condoning, however tangentially, any part of his position. I find his tone condescending and I suspect that his posting on the topic at all is an act of grandstanding which distracts from his other woes at present. (I'm not even going to mention, though I will link to, the silliness that is his silly treatment of this guy "Terrence".) Nonetheless, I'd bet he's right that many or most academic philosophers don't have a thought in their heads about Mohism or Mīmāṃsā; and I mostly concur with the gist of his remark that the motivation for expanding the philosophy curriculum should be, well, philosophical. While I doubt is that Leiter has much interest in this, I could be wrong. But I'd also argue that there is -- obviously -- a genuine philosophical gain to be made in expanding philosophical attention beyond the usual railroad with its Plato - Augustine - Descartes - Hume - Russell - Husserl stations. That this should have to be argued for is just astounding. Does anyone really dispute that Platonism and, say, Confucianism are at least comparably robust and rich philosophical traditions? Leiter faults Eugene Park for never explaining or "even affirm[ing] the merits of these thinkers" from Asia and Africa and South America. Neither, of course, does Leiter defend or even mention the merits of Aristotle, Kant, or Quine. Their merits are self-evident to him. This is exactly the question, though: what is it that will go without saying?

Ganeri's proposal (which I first read about on Amod Lele's indispensible blog Love of All Wisdom, still one of the only online spots that really practices the kind of philosophy I am talking about in this post) suggests an autonomous institute, separate from academia's usual disciplinary boundaries ("Asian studies," "Philosophy of Mind"), which would be geographically spread out in multiple locations, structured as a linked network.

In his blueprint, Ganeri asks after the cross- and multi-cultural aspirations of philosophy, and speculates on the kind of institution that would best serve and embody them. As Lele underlines, Ganeri is frankly asking for input and discussion either by email -- he includes his email address on the blueprint -- or on blogs or other online forums. I don't know Ganeri personally, but it is obvious that something like his proposal needs to be taken seriously for Western philosophy to really face alterity, or for that matter, for philosophy per se to really aspire to universality, instead of a picture of "the universal" that looks the spit'n' image of something very parochial. It is shockingly clear that this is what philosophy should be doing -- not swaddling the love of wisdom in in a bundle of relativistic politeness, but really aspiring to genuine catholicity. And it seems more and more clear that it isn't going to happen in academe as it stands.

I am a strong proponent of the idea of "the canon"; as the twelve people who read this blog can attest, my shorthand for my position is "platonist," and it's all too plausible that I suffer from less than my share of white liberal affluent (by many standards) guilt -- i.e., that I reflect less often than I could on just how good I have it compared to so many (and that I act on this reflection even less). Point is, I'm not motivated here by standard-issue political correctness. I'm not sure anyone is, anymore. But the blinders on western philosophy have got to come off. I find it impossible to imagine Plato, or Diogenes-"citizen of the world"-the-Cynic, (or Leibniz or Spinoza for that matter) being threatened or annoyed by the suggestion that we might be able to seriously profit from really listening to people who have thought about the same things for going on three or four thousand years.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What "We who are dying" need

I have read D.G. Myers' Commonplace Blog for years off and on, and always found it full of wise and sharp insight and incentive to read the books he was engaged with. Myers' posts, generous and enthusiastic, contentious and plain-spoken, appeared on my blogroll here, but for a few months he had not published; yesterday a final notice appeared, saying he had died last Friday.

Before that, Myers' own last post had stood at the top of the blog since last July. it is a courageous, honest account of gratitude for life, a life that is short. Instead of embarrassed or empty encouragement to "hope" or "fight," Myers admonishes,
We who are dying need from you what we should be demanding from ourselves — responsibility, honesty, the courage to face reality squarely.
We do well to remember that "we who are dying" does not just mean those who have received an official medical verdict. We have all already received a diagnosis, and we all require reminder and help to live in this light.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The "death" (?) of Speculative ®ealism™

Last post laid out my claim that philosophy just is realism, is speculative, and is critical. Please note that if you haven't read that post, this one will just be so much occasional reportage. The former post puts it in perspective.

All of that rationale is why, despite some rumor in the blogosphere to the contrary (including a couple from people who I consider friends), I think the "death of Speculative Realism" is being, well, exaggerated. In many of these posts, philosophical engagement and online politics (or worse) go fist-in-gauntlet. To his great credit, Pete Wolfendale has taken things offline and onto the printed page -- onto, as it happens, quite a number of pages. He has thrown down a 430-page gauntlet to Graham Harman. It comes with an afterword by Brassier pronouncing (ostensibly) "the last word" on Speculative Realism, a "movement" which Brassier already characterized notoriously (sort of) as an "online orgy of stupidity," but which he also described in terms that clearly refer not to Meillassouxian extravaganzas on Mallarmé or Iain Hamilton Grant's Schellingianism redux, but specifically to Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, "actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy." Reading Wolfendale's preface, which is all of the book that is currently available online (publication is set for late October, although chapters one and two are developed out of this paper which originally appeared in issue IV of Speculations), it seems clear that when Wolfendale expresses his dissatisfaction with speculative realism, it is not with the "movement" but with the "speculative realist brand," for which, he says, "Harman asserted himself as ... spokesman, and the community’s unique dynamic dissolved as a result." I will be interested to see whether this notion of the philosophical "brand" plays into Wolfendale's criticism of OOO as an epitome of "ontological liberalism," given that he says part of his project is motivated by concern with the spread of the phrase "object-oriented" in various academic settings across a variety of disciplines. But whether or not he takes that tack (I will have to read the book to learn) I have to say, this characterization of Harman as self-appointed spokesman for a brand, a kind of Speculative ®ealism™ (my phrase, so Wolfendale should not be blamed for it), strikes me as not quite fair. Harman reiterates in many places again that his version is only one of a variety of attacks on "correlationism," or "philosophy of access;" he has indeed devoted an entire book to a rival version (three, if you count his two books on Latour). Yes, he's also said that he doesn't think of "branding" as a swear word, but he has hardly appropriated the phrase -- rather, he became an enthusiast, valorized it and championed it, and to my mind rightly, for as I have said, philosophy just is both speculative and realistic.

But as I've insisted, it is also, like Iago, "nothing if not critical." Though he is not very Iagoesque in other respects, those four words describe Pete Wolfendale more than aptly. Not only am I eager to read Wolfendale's book; I expect I will agree with a fair stretch of it, despite my being on record as admiring Harman's work. I suspect this because my reasons for liking his work are fairly un-Harmanian -- are, in fact, almost Rortyan. I think Harman has invented a way of talking that is fecund and interesting, that has generated real insights and above all pointed to a re-ignited wonder at ordinary things; the unsettling awe one feels at the fact that the dust behind the books has just been quietly sitting there, for years, while the life in the room went on unaware of it -- just as the dust in distant nebulae hangs in space, where no telescope has glimpsed. There really is, for me, a kind of poetry to Harman's ontological fantasia. This doesn't mean you can't have problems with it (let alone, need it even be said, with Harman the person, who I imagine is, like everybody I've met so far, imperfect); but of course the big question is, But is it true? Really? A much harder question; but philosophy cannot defer it interminably and remain philosophy. (Which is not to say that there can be such a thing as a definitive and conclusive answer which prevents the question from being genuinely raised again.) The issue is especially hard because the notion of real objects' "withdrawal" places them outside any kind of way of engaging with the "fact of the matter." I think Wolfendale may have found that Harman's account is simply too speculative, in the sense that I am using the term; that it is a contemporary version of gnostic myth; and he brings in turn a sharp and discerning critique to bear. Though he confesses that the book is peculiar in that it "undertakes a long and detailed discussion of a single philosopher’s work, and yet it aims to show that his work does not warrant such serious attention," it is unclear whether Wolfendale, in playing Chomsky to Harman's Žižek (or Adorno to Harman's Heidegger might be better), stops short of accusing Harman of bullshit -- of not caring whether his philosophy is true. Since, like Steven Shaviro, I have long thought that the absolute withdrawal of objects was untenable (even though I admired Harman for sticking to his guns), I suspect that the substance of this part of Wolfendale's critique will not be too hard to take. But I'll know more soon. As for style, my assumption is that Wolfendale will pull no punches, and yet will behave like a gentleman. I fully expect Harman's eventual rejoinder to be fierce, intelligent, and even-handed. I'm not so sanguine about the blogosphere.

But however it plays out, none of that will mean that "speculative realism" as a motivating thrust of contemporary thought should be considered "over;" and frankly, nobody who has felt invigorated by the nexus of questions SR embodied should get bent out of shape about this. I engaged with the "ciritique of correlationism" partly because that was the entry point to a vibrant philosophical online discussion, and partly because it was (I am convinced) an important question; but the point of the doorway is to be an entry to the house. So far as fashion goes, I agree with the spirit of Timothy Sprigge's doggerel on the history of philosophy:
The truth of all this, it seems plain,
Is philosophy were indeed vain
If its aim were a view
So objectively true
It will not be discarded again.

So cheer yourselves up my good friends
Though it's true that the search never ends
We may each in our day
Have our personal say
And feel free to ignore current trends.
I am not interested in Speculative ®ealism™, the brand. Although I obviously engage with a lot of the same questions (and I named the blog with a nod towards the phrase), I never proclaimed myself a Speculative Realist, not because I'm too cool, but (in part) because, like Bill Vallicella, I'm just dispositionally not a joiner; in part because most of my own main influences (e.g., Wittgenstein, Levinas, Barfield) are far removed from SR's primary genealogies, when not regarded with outright antipathy. It was plain that my own philosophical stances -- that of an ordinary Christian with a commitment to dialogue, a love of beauty, and a suspicion of power -- were not obviously aligned with any of the main trends of the "movement" (significant though these were). But that didn’t really matter, because to me, "speculative realism" is a redundant phrase for a philosophical movement. As far as I am concerned, to call for speculative realism was and is to call for philosophy, pure and simple; to think good and hard about what was entailed in philosophy per se -- and that, I hold, can only be a good thing. All philosophy is realism (yes, even anti-realism is realism), and all of it is speculative.

So fine, maybe Speculative ®ealism™ is dead, maybe not. Who cares? Long live speculative realism.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Realism, speculation, critique

As is well known, Aristotle held that philosophy was akin to myth, in that its roots were in wonder. Wonder is more than curiosity. Curiosity is expressible as a question: "hmmm, how--?" Wonder is not a question, but an exclamation. It may be quiet or loud, but the feeling is the same: Wow!

But within the context of this Wonder, philosophy has its inception -- not its entire trajectory, and certainly not its culmination, but its precise point of origin -- in a particular question. That question is not "How?", nor even the child's "Why?" Although reducing mythology to aetiology is foolish, still it is clear that "Why?" can be, and frequently is, answered in a mythical register. Philosophy is distinguished from myth -- though not as a "rival discourse" simply, for myth is not merely critiqued by philosophy. Rather, philosophy (as opposed to mere skepticism) is the discourse which aims to keep open the access to the experience to which myth pointed but which, in the face of critique, it begins to fail to deliver. (The nature of that experience is a kind of identification of oneself both with wonderand the object of wonder. I have called this participation, following Levy-Bruhl and Barfield (and Aquinas and Plato), but this post is not directly about that.) That critique -- the condition, necessary though insufficient, of philosophy -- is contained in nuce in the question I mean, a question comprised of a single word -- not "why", not "how," but, "Really?"

"What a sunrise. Oh, Wow."
"Thus Helios drives his chariot, pulled by glorious fiery steeds, out of the dates of dawn."
"Cool, but... Really?"

This question, by its very existence, breaks with myth. Myth does not operate in the register of the distinction between the ostensible and the true. This distinction plays a part in myth, so to speak (there are stories that make use of the notion of deception, or false appearance, and so on) but strictly speaking, once the question "is it really so?" has arisen, we have one foot outside the world of myth. The question "Really?" puts the entirety of previous discourse potentially under scrutiny.

Philosophy is concerned with the matter of Truth (so Plato, and so Badiou, and I willingly follow). Once the question "Really?" has been raised, there are any number of moves that can follow, including denying that "Yes," or "No" are the only options. You can try, if you want, to move on to "How?" or "Depends on what you mean by...", you can admit to "We don't know" or insist upon "We can't know" or even try weirdly to go to the wall for an ontological "Maybe." I am not denying that pragmatism or positivism or various subjectivisms can be serious philosophical positions. What I am insisting on is that none of them dismiss every instance of "Really?", though they may have various accounts of why, or in what circumstances, they feel obliged to meet its challenge.

What this means is that every philosophy is a "Realism".

This does not deprive the term of significance, as if it were thus too broadly pertinent, for the work does not end there; nor is it sufficient for a discourse to wrap itself in the mantle of Realism to qualify as philosophy. Realism is not merely "animal faith," nor is it Bismarkian realpolitik or the neoliberal "realism" of the privileged. The "demand the impossible" of the soixante huitards and #Occupiers is, as Situationism proclaimed, also realistic, and far more so than Thrasymachian cynicism. Philosophy is is a contestation of the term "Real". (This is one of the reasons Laruelle is so interesting -- he completely up-ends this contestation. Or does he -- really?) And one might add, this means that philosophy cares, as ultimately the alternatives do not, about the answer.

But how does philosophy enact this contest, this agon? Since Kant and Marx, the explicit answer has been the word I used above: "Critique." Critique is already the raising of the question, as well as those questions to which it gives rise -- questions like "What do you mean by X?" "How do you know?" and even, "What motivates this argument?". Philosophy cannot continue, qua philosophy, without engaging in critique. But as the post-Kantian generations re-discovered, and as Plato had already demonstrated, critique is self-defeating unless it is twinned with an answering motion in thought, akin to the mythopoetic tropes it opposes. In Plato, this aspect of thought sets in motion a number of "likely stories" and gedankenexperiments. In Schelling and Hegel, among others, this move is called speculation.

Speculation alone, because it harks back to a pre-philosophical matrix, runs the risk of seeming not to care whether what it says is true -- the risk of being taken for bullshit, or even, in worst case, becoming bullshit. Critique alone, on the other hand, risks becoming or at least being taken for a kind of tunnel-vision concern with "being right" -- i.e., with winning the argument, either with one's opponent or with the world.

(Don't assume I put much weight on this dichotomy. Pairs of this sort are always a little too easy to invent -- and therefore to find fault with. Very roughly, speculation generates ontology, and critique, epistemology; but I don't think I've just proposed a key to the history of philosophy here. We could do a little quick-'n'-dirty deconstruction showing how every critique is speculative and vice-versa. I would even insist upon it. But a glance at the masthead of this blog will remind you, speculation and criticism are not the whole of philosophy for me. I am leaving entirely to one side, for instance, an alternative subversion of myth which goes by the extraordinarily contentious name revelation).

Either motive -- speculation or critique -- can, left to itself, drive philosophy into the ground. In Plotinus' polemics against gnosticism we can discern a recoil from speculation run rampant; and the pedantry and hairsplitting which the humanists mocked in the late scholastics are the signs of a decadent critique. These temptations are perennial. I would say that the Sokal hoax called out a kind of irresponsible speculation; and the dead-end yawn of so much current analytic philosophy is the desiccation of critique and nothing but critique.

All of this is why I think the talk of the end of Speculative Realism as a "movement" is overblown. I'll go into that next post.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Work in progress: brief status report

Usually the work distracting me from this blog is just pen-on-paper writing in the notebook. But these days I have a specific project which I decided I could post some brief notes on.

I take my text from Aristides Quintilianus, a neoplatonic philosopher whose On Music in three books is one of the very few complete musicological treatises to have reached us from antiquity. In the passage in question (Book III sec. 8), Aristides has just gone over a litany of instances from history, politics, medicine, and other fields, in which mathematical proportions play a prominent role. Then he moves to the crux of the matter:
τὸ δὴ ταῦτα μὲν οὕτως ἐναργῶς δι´ ἀριθμῶν καὶ μεσοτήτων συνεστάναι, μουσικὴν δὲ μὴ ἂν ὑπονοεῖν παντελῶς ἀμαθοῦς καὶ ἀμούσου τὴν φύσιν ἐστίν.

"To have organized these things so palpably through numbers and means but not music, is to suspect nature of being wholly ignorant and unrefined." (tr. Thomas Mathiessen)
Mathiessen's translation is not without its problems, which is (let scholars and/or pedants please note) one of the points to be addressed. But the main issue here is more global by far. I can think of no more succinct summation of the difference between the ancients and the moderns than this, that in the modern world (pace Latour) we do indeed imagine things to be organized palpably through number and mean, but not through music. And we do, eo ipso, suspect (and far more than suspect) nature of being "ignorant and unrefined." (Dawkins' anti-Paleyan "Blind watchmaker" is in fact a fairly weak trope for this, for nature is, on Dawkins' assumptions, not merely blind, but plan-less, and indeed fundamentally incapable of either vision or plan, to make a watch or anything else.)

Aristides goes on to lay out further analogies between music and the cosmos as a whole, which culminate (in Book III sec. 26) in a parallelism between certain melodic modes (on the one hand) and (on the other) his Stoic-inflected distinction between the sublunary world, where chance (and by the same token, freedom) has a foothold, and the higher heavens where necessity reigns supreme. These exemplify, for Aristides, two sorts of time, and especially two sorts of future: a future that is in some wise "up to us," and one that is inflexible and inevitable. These Aristides calls (in Mathiessen's rendering) what may be and what will be, and respectively they concern what is, he says, either contingent in part or contingent in general.

These last terms caught my attention, for Meillassoux characterizes necessity in exactly the same way: what is necessary is, in the last instance (to appropriate a Laruellism), simply that something contingent be. So one can (somewhat surprisingly) read a Meillassouxian account of hyperchaos through the lens of the Ptolemaic cosmology, and vice-versa; but the hinge of this is the analogy between "two kinds of future" on the one hand, and Aristides' musical modes. Of course, all kinds of things get weirdly transformed in this set of inversions, especially the distinction between the sub- and super-lunary spheres and the supposed decisiveness of the "Gallilean event" which abolished, we are told, this partition.

It's important to recognize that in Aristides, the comparison of the musical figure to either of the two sorts of future is not metaphorical; rather, the relevant aural musical figure is of two sorts because there are two sorts of future.

One issue, then, is: On Meillassoux's terms, in the last instance, Contingency cannot be opposed to Necessity; "Contingency in general" simply is Necessity. In Aristides, the opposition is between the "What will be" and the "What may be," but this latter is also the realm of agential perogative; thus in an Aristidean key, the oppositional term turns out to be Freedom. But this opposition in turn is bound up with a wholly different casting of the mathematical and its relation to both necessity and contingency -- in which, finally, the mathematical is a species of music, rather than vice-versa. It then turns out to be quite telling that Meillassoux's account (in "Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition") of mathematics as grounded in the "meaningless sign" hinges on the possibility of "iteration" which Meillassoux expressly contrasts with Bergson's account of the musical tone, and in particular to the musical tone's accute sensitivity to temporal meaning.

Not sure how much room there will be to lay all this out and expand upon it in the final paper, but these are the initial terms.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some stray notes on Meillassoux

Am pouring a lot of energy into other writing projects, and I've been neglecting the blog. But I thought I would post briefly about the reading group a few friends and I have been convening studying Meillassoux's After Finitude. First of all (although I am unsure whether everyone in the group would agree with me), I think this is an extremely good book for getting a philosophy mini-seminar off the ground. Unlike a number of other short works that one might choose for a summer philosophy reading group (say, Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Prolegomena, or some of Plato's dialogues), it is less likely that people have accidentally absorbed prejudical second-hand impressions of it. It opens up many possible further directions of study should people decide to go further, either into the tradition (Hume, Kant, Locke...), or into various problematics (the relation of philosophy to science or to religion, the formulation of laws of nature, the meaning of "know", the nature of time and chance, and so on). It largely evades easy pigeon-holing in terms of the over-arching "traditions" of the last century or so (i.e. "Analytical" and "Continental") -- important in our case, since the reading group is diverse, albeit small. It's been a good mix: some of us were completely new to the book, and some of us have read it before (even more than once). Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a work of real philosophy, repaying repeated attention. In short, I do not think the importance of After Finitude has been exaggerated during its honeymoon with the Speculative Realist movement.

A few insights (I think) which I have come away with so far (and apologies for not attributing all these insights by name to the various members of the reading group):

Like many readers, I've thought before that the whole problematic in the first chapter about Ancestrality is something of a red herring; to put it more positively, I concluded that it's the way Meillassoux thinks his way into the general critique of correlationism -- the way he initially presses home its urgency -- and I had begun to guess that it was probably the biographical source of the critique for Meillassoux himself: the way the question had, in fact, arisen for him, and so the way he chose to present it; but perhaps it was not, structurally speaking, really the most crucial aspect of the argument. During re-reading, I have begun to modify this conclusion. The question of the status of ancestral claims recurs frequently in numerous places in the book; it is clearly not just a matter of setting the stage. This obviously has much to do with Meillassoux's concern over time, as opposed to space. While Meillassoux's avowed goal is to justify the ways of scientism to men, I begin to wonder just how effectively he can think the diastema, or interval, as such. This has something to do with relativity and quantum mechanics, but because these are scientific accounts, they can assign a scientific meaning to "observer-dependence," which is not the same as the correlationist position; but exactly how it differs needs spelling out. More generally, however -- and I know I am not the first to say this -- the temporal diastema of the past which so occupies Meillassoux (the problem of events which pre-date the advent of life) is not inherently different from other "gaps" in our capacity to observe, based on scale, or happenstance, or (most obviously) space -- or even, as for Brassier, the future (post-extinction of thought). Of course one can read the argument about the temporal diastema as simply structural -- it just shows up a problem for correlationism, which then must be addressed -- but one can also see it as a symptom of something about Meillassoux's own thought -- namely, that time is deeply bound up with hyperchaos, because time = change.

Second (and this is purely anecdotal and unscientific), my experience has thus far been that, while continental philosophers (especially Heideggerians but phenomenologists generally) are often quite willing to see Meillassoux's point and tend to be interested in how to press beyond (while not necessarily granting him everything), Analytic philosophers prove far more recalcitrant. I mention this not because I want to score points here, but because it is almost exactly the opposite of what I expected. I would have presumed the Analytic camp to be far more invested in the claims and grammar of science, and phenomenologists to be far more invested in the maintenance of the correlation. I'm not yet sure that my impression is accurate, and if so, what it means. Its meaning (if any) may of course be purely "sociological," or it may be an index of a deeper logic to the positions concerned. I am very interested in others' experience and impressions about this.

A third point concerns the two principles of thinking with which Meillassoux is concerned in the middle part of the book: Sufficient Reason, and Non-contradiction. Meillassoux spells out a combinatoric which can be depicted in the form of a diagram of four philosophical possibilities (though Meillassoux himself does not sketch such a chart):

The one who is usually credited with first laying out these principles (though not, obviously, all these permutations) is not Kant, but Leibniz. While Kant is usually cast as the thinker to whom the critique of correlationism is responding, there may be a strong case for reopening the Kant-Eberhard controversy and pointing to Leibniz as the ancestor of the broader algebra whose permutations modernity has been playing out for 300-ish years. Eberhard contended that whatever was of import in the Critique of Pure Reason was already to be found in Leibniz, and that Kantianism amounted only to a special form of dogmatism; Kant, as one might expect, took some umbrage at this, and the ensuing argument forms an interesting chapter in the history of the reception of Kantianism. (See Allison's book on the subject -- pdf here (for now).) Why should we care about this? Because if the Kantian account only repeats, perhaps in a different key, notions already sounded, then the thematization of the relation between thinking and reality gets a much more venerable pedigree*. (I have argued before that it really goes back to Parmenides). Meillassoux indeed in one sense recognizes this, since he conceives of the Gallilean-Copernican revolution as a revolution, and Kantianism as reactionary.

Note that, in the chart, correlationism is the position which ultimately suspends both principles; but elsewhere (p 63), Meillassoux argues that correlationism in fact remains deeply committed to Sufficient Reason. Indeed, this is, he says, why correlationism winds up legitimating fideism, "faith as such", albeit no particular faith. This makes for a very interesting mirror-image to his account whereby philosophy invents "strange" argumentations "bordering on sophistry" (p 76).

Meillassoux's contention that the defense of Sufficient Reason ultimately amounts to a defense of fideism is of course anticipated by Chesterton, who famously quipped that when one stops believing in God, one is on the brink of believing in anything. Zizek likes to think that this means claiming God as a kind of "founding exception," an irrational omphalos from which all rationality springs; but of course Zizek also maintains that the "founding exception" is simply the ontological rupture of subjectivity. Neither of those are acceptable to Meillassoux (he will, I presume, see the one as dogmatism, the other as idealism). But for Meillassoux, correlationism has pressed SR so far that it has become an unknowable "reason", unknowable in principle. A Chestertonian faith, on the other hand, is grounded in a Thomistic and Patristic expectation of knowability, and indeed of reciprocal knowability: "Then we shall know even as we are known." (I Corinthians, 13;12). One can argue that this is nothing but a McGuffin-in-the-future, or that the ontology of contingency Meillassoux has set up can still outflank it; but one can't, I think, argue that it involves an inherent in-principle agnosticism.

* Robert Miner has argued (in Truth in the Making) that this is to be found in the teaching of Vico that the true and the made are convertible (vreum et factum convertuntur), and indeed describes his position as holding that "knowing is most adequately described in relation to making. It is not bewitched by the fear that human making is inevitably arbitrary." And this has a corollary in the way Kant established the limits of reason "to make room for faith." For this too is a more ancient task.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"...given that I believe in secrecy..."

Have been thinking a bit about Deleuze and considering the ways in which he is to be read as a practicioner of esotericism. I believe this can be glimpsed in at least two ways. One is the pride of place he gives to the "Christ of philosophy," Spinoza. Indeed this way of talking about Spinoza is already quite divergent from the way that the academicians do (but then, so is the way he talks about magma or blood or Kafka). Of course the great champion of the "esotericist" reading of Spinoza is Leo Strauss. Though at first I was inclined to doubt that Deleuze was influenced by Strauss, I'm beginning to reconsider -- Deleuze was profoundly sensitive to all sorts of "minority reports" among his contemporaries (he is one of the only philosophers to mention Souriau at all). I don't know of any evidence that he read Strauss, but I am not, by a long shot, a Deleuze scholar. In any case, someone really should do a book on Strauss and Deleuze vis-a-vis Spinoza.

Deleuze is very attentive to how carefully Spinoza plays his cards. Consider, e.g., his remarks in a lecture:
Spinoza didn't entitle his book "Ontology," he's too shrewd for that, he entitles it Ethics. Which is a way of saying that, whatever the importance of my speculative propositions may be, you can only judge them at the level of the ethics that they envelope or imply.
Of course, none of this means that Deleuze's reading of Spinoza's esotericism is correct -- simply that he was aware of it.

The second thread in an esotericist reading of Deleuze is the fact that he seems to draw, from beginning to end, upon an underground stream of expressly "esoteric" work. This is not just the fear-of-persecution esotericism (as in Strauss), but philosophy as initiation. This material has begun to be unpacked by Christian Kerslake (see his two books on Deleuze, or chapter 9 of this collection on Deleuze's precursors), and by Joshua Ramey (The Hermetic Deleuze). This work seems to me somewhat similar to Verene's reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit in Hegel's Recollection or Cyril O'Regan's enormous project (who also follows Voegelin -- albeit somewhat critically, refining the point). (His book on Hegel here.) This work by Kerslake and Ramey is some of the only secondary material I have read so far which has both deepened my understanding of Deleuze and helped me think about philosophy per se. (There is a very fine set of exchanges (here, in reverse chronological order) about Ramey's book at An Und Fur Sich, for starters; see also, for a dissenting view, Adrian Romero Farias' post at schizosophy, which, among other objections, takes exception to some Derridiean moves at the outset of Ramey's reading.)

There are a number of places in Deleuze's work where this esotericism seems to me to be expressly referenced. Deleuze and Guattari seem to make a revelatory gesture in What is Philosophy?, when they act as if here they will say outright what has been hitherto between the lines. But as lucid as this book is, I think it is fair to say it reveals by re-veiling. In the essay on Meliville's "Bartleby," Deleuze plays on the Melvilliean-Borgesian notion that "a great book is always the inverse of another book that could only be written in the soul, with silence and blood."* In his "Letter to a Harsh Critic" Deleuze also announces his deployment of decoys and misleading appearances, but this does not have the effect of showing his hand, only of showing that he is hiding it:
What do you know of me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth? ...I make my inner journeys that I can only measure by my emotions, and express very obliquely and circuitously in what I write. ... why shouldn't I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I'm qualified to talk like that? (Negotiations, p 11)
Probably second only to Spinoza in Deleuze's pantheon is Nietzsche (who of course was startled by discovering his own precursor -- "And what a precursor!", he exclaimed -- in Spinoza). One pretty easily recognizes a Nietzschean energy ("why not, after all, untruth?") in this outburst of Deleuze's. And since Nietzsche's great (if not always remarked) antagonist is Socrates, who insisted that Protagoras or Ion had no business speaking of military leadership or ship-building or medicine since they had no expertise, one can see here too Deleuze's inversion of the Platonic project. But if, as I contend, there is always at least as much going on in Plato between the lines as there is in the overt argument, this inversion, too, might be misleading.

A great deal has been made of Deleuze's refusal of the general or universal concept of "Life," in preference of his famous insistence on the Zukofskyan indefinite article: "a life." But what if the relation between Life and a life were itself a matter of secrecy?

* C.f. Melville, Pierre, or, the Ambiguities, ch.4:
That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, have upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre’s own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is writ down in his soul.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I have a few thoughts on the question of essentialism in Plato, pursuant to the discussion in the comments to my last post. They take the form of a very small argumentative knot. Because it is brief, it risks seeming glib. I do not believe it is some kind of magic bullet or gotcha. I do believe it is true to the spirit of Plato.

Alf argues that the Socratic opening moves by which he asks for a definition of X (piety, friendship, justice, imitation, love, etc) entails what he calls "essentialism." I think that this means, for Alf, that asking after definitions the way Plato shows Socrates doing it (i.e., trying out one after another, running with each until one bumps into a contradiction, then starting over, examining premises and so on), entails reifying the object of the word in question, so that there is imagined, or projected, a kind of perfect friendship (for example) that somehow in principle pre-exists all instances of actual friends Most classically, the Republic's account of art imitating an imitation courts disaster, Alf thinks:
The theory of mimesis -- in its *grammar*, not just its particular application or vocabulary -- can be a royal road to fascistic thinking because it privileges a hypostasized "one" over the many -- a rigid blueprint for what "qualifies" and what is marginalized, a logic of domination: origin/imitation or "authentic/perverse." Such thinking comes out in religion as "God's Plan," in science as "Natural Law" or "Evolution," in politics as "National Security," or many other versions of the "Big Other" that see multiplicity as threatening to "the plan."
Now I frankly deny that the Republic presents us with anything like "Plato's ontology," but Alf contends that I am, in this, "too eager to pull Plato off the hook for the implications of essentialism and its accompanying theory of representation (and of being)," the implications being the afore-quoted "logic of domination." It is also true that I don't see these effects themselves following from the Socratic example with anything approaching rigorous necessity, and I believe the onus is upon those who do to demonstrate the necessity. If the case made is that it is consistent with Plato or (empirically, historically) correlates with apparent Platonic influence, that is fine, but one has not thereby demonstrated that these pernicious effects (we are stipulating the perniciousness, for the sake of argument) are Platonic. I, on the other hand, am arguing that the "logic of domination" is not Platonic; that it cannot non-tendenciously be applied to Plato; that in the dialogues, it is not accidental that for every quest for definition at the beginning there is aporia at the end; and that a crucial fact about all those "footnotes to Plato" for the last twenty-four hundred years is that this aporia tends to be lost in them while the definition-search is not. In brief, just as Kojève argued, more or less, that the political destiny of the West depended upon competing readings of Hegel, I believe that the "essentialism" of these abuses-of-power Alf lists -- and, hence, much of the political history of the West -- constitutes a mis-reading of Plato.

All of that by way of preamble. Now for the knot. Either the search for a definition, for a "what do you mean by that word you keep using," can be "worn lightly," or it cannot. Either it "in its grammar" gives rise to an imagined blueprint-in-the-sky, or it does not. In short, either it is of the "essence" of the definition-quest, or it is not. If it is, then it is; but this will be seen to be so because we have established, precisely, an essence of the definition; and so, discovering that essentializing is apparently inevitable, we will be in no position to fault Socrates for it. On the other hand, if our own critique here has not named any eternal necessity, no "definition-in-itself," well and good, but we can then not establish that Socrates also is not involved in this "looser" quest.

"Oh boy," I can hear the objections beginning. "Yeah, sure. What you're saying is, Yes, it's true and tragic that Plato, or Christianity, or Marxism, had all these sad accidental effects, but that isn't their fault! Don't blame them for the failures of their followers (or those who say they are their followers)! That wasn't "true platonism," or "real christianity," or whatever. All the anti-semitism was just the sin of the church, not the church. The gulag, that ain't Communism, that's "just" Stalinism. All that two-world schizophrenia is just an accident, a misunderstanding -- not "the real Plato" -- not the essence of Plato, huh? That what you're saying?"

Ah, special pleading. I am mindful, however, that many arguments in Plato as well seem, on the face of them, to be open to just such obvious objections. I'm also mindful of the fact that, when it comes down to it, it is not the exegesis of Plato that matters. In light of this, I am very tempted, in spite of every risk, to answer the question "is that what you're saying?" with "In essence, yes. But -- loosely."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

In Memoriam Ernest G. McClain

One of the spiritual antediluvians of the past century, Ernest McClain, has died. Beginning in the 1970s, starting with three extraordinarily dense books and continuing in a stream of essays and correspondence that lasted until the day of his death, McClain propounded a thesis, notable equally for its profundity and its simplicity, which read the archaic mythico-speculative inheritance of the West "from the Rg Veda to Plato" and beyond, as a musical cosmology. His work never gained anything like mainstream recognition (a fact which in later years he occasionally noted with bemused resignation), but for a small cadre of researchers, McClain is (as Joscelyn Godwin called him), "one of the most original and ingenious researchers of our time."

Each of McClain's books -- The Myth of Invariance, The Pythagorean Plato, and Meditations through the Quran -- is a set of closely-argued excurses through a body of literature as if through an underground mine, looking for the telltale glint of something sparkling in the walls. That sparkle is number, and McClain demonstrated over and over that numbers are not scattered randomly throughout ancient texts. There is a preponderance of multiples of very low primes -- notably 2, 3, and 5; and very often, when a number that cannot be so reduced does occur (say, 37), looking to the context with the small primes in mind will yield a plausible rationale. The books have been noted for the density of their presentation. ("Obscure," "hard to understand," "inaccessible," are terms that come up in the (positive!) reviews on Amazon).This is only partly due to their mathematics. It is more that, once McClain has a numerical trope established, he frequently runs with it, employing it just as the ancients (he held) did: as an extremely abbreviated figure of thought, which could be adapted to many different situations. And yet, he insisted repeatedly, the mathematics involved was itself not difficult. "A child can learn it," he claimed, and he implied moreover that in the era of the pocket calculator, no one, not even the math-averse, had any excuse. (All three of McClain's books are available in pdf from his website, www.ernestmcclain.net , as well as numerous essays. The shortest, most accessible, and least tendentious introduction to McClain's basic insights, however, may be the third chapter of Jay Kappraff's excellent popular mathematics book Beyond Measure.)

McClain's work altered the whole apparent shape of the Platonic dialogues for me. For years I had known (ever since reading Voegelin) that I did not know how to read Plato. The stupid caricature of the body-denier, the philosopher who invented "another world" since "this" one was so changeable and disappointing (and, let's not forget, who "banished the poets"!), had always rang false -- a whipping-philosopher dragged out whenever we needed to blame someone for "essentialism." This was very big in the early '90s. There was obviously a tremendous amount going on between the lines in Plato that was going right over my head. No doubt much of this was due to the fact that it was written in 2,300-year-old Greek. And yet, Plato was so obviously concerned to transcend the particular, to reach beyond the limitations of a given setting -- not to deny them, but to refuse to be ruled by them. So where was the way in?

The Pythagorean Plato pointed out that the way in was right where we had always known it was. The door to the Academy famously had on its welcome mat the phrase, Some Geometry Required (loosely translated). "Platonism" was, as Badiou never tires of reminding us, defined by its coupling to the mathematical truth-condition. But the actual mathematics that occurs in the dialogues is very frequently ignored by commentators. (One stark example of this is found in the 1947 translation of the Republic by F.M. Cornford, in which Cornford permitted himself to omit entirely Plato's "extremely obscure" account (at 8.546b) of the so-called ruling or nuptial number, and also to "simplify" the text (at 9.587b) concerning the number of the Tyrant. But even when scholars do not give themselves such free rein, they very often let the mathematics pass by without much comment.)

McClain himself did find the clues in some commentary, including some very old commentary -- above all, Albert von Thimus, to whom he was pointed by his colleagues Ernst Levy and Siegmund Levarie; but also James Adam, Thomas Taylor, Plutarch, Proclus, Aristotle. Really, though, we might have guessed, for it is obvious once you think of it: Plato's mathematics is musical -- not accidentally, but essentially so. McClain understood the stakes of this interpretation as reaching far beyond the exegetical:
From Philolaus in the fifth century BC, through Plato and Aristoxenus in the fourth, and down to Ptolemy in the second century AD and Aristides in the third or fourth, Greek acoustical theorists moved confidently between two modes of expression: the absolutely precise and the conveniently approximate. ... There is an urgent need for a review of all these ancient materials, not simply for their intrinsic interest to musicians and historians of science, but for their wider relevance to the philosophical foundations of Western culture.
Indeed, (though this is perhaps not quite so obvious), this tradition is itself part of a great tradition of musico-mythical cosmology, which McClain worked very hard to unpack, stretching back to the Vedas (and likely before) and forward as late as the Quran. The most obvious "fossil record" of this tradition is the recurrence not just of very specific numbers -- numbers which are usually multiples only of very small primes (mostly not higher than 7) -- in cosmological and visionary contexts, but of various sets of numbers which can be seen to "go together" in a way that indicates that writers knew the provenance of the numbers, or at least that certain numbers called for certain other numbers, even when the surface meaning of the text has nothing overly to do with music -- aside from, say, the mention of a number of harpists or trumpeters attending the celestial court.

All throughout a largely misunderstood (when not ignored) career of four decades, McClain never tired of insisting upon the tremendous import of this project. He himself declined to write philosophy in any but the most occasional or offhand modes -- he was unpacking a prelude to philosophy, he said. It was, I came to see, not just that the numbers were a sort of scaffolding for a widely various but shared cultural background. The numbers were symptomatic of something else. They were features of a whole way of looking at the world -- not an artificially schematized worldview parsed out in multiples of 2, 3, and 5, but a world in which the "metaphor" of cosmic harmony came perfectly naturally, and indeed was no metaphor. (The phrase "cosmic harmony" may make us cringe in reaction to Newagey overtones, but did no such thing for the ancients).

In saying this much, I've already gone beyond what McClain himself explicitly argued. He restricted himself to a rigorously empirical program. His numbers were all there on the surface of the text itself, or in a very few cases, easily derivable from those that were. No one ever disputed this. It was the rationale he deduced that earned him occasional rebuke and eventually either polite disregard or largely misapprehending fandom. Early on, Gilbert Ryle set the tone. "Plato would never," he informed McClain, "have planted all that musicology for you to find." To which one rejoinder must surely be, well then, how do you account for the numbers, the very specific numbers, in (for example) Plato's texts? The Tyrant is held, in the Republic, to be exactly 729 times less fortunate than the good ruler. Not "about 700," not 730. There are exactly thirty-seven guardians of the city Magnesia in the Laws, a city which Plato repeatedly insists will be composed of 5,040 citizens.

McClain's conclusion was not that Plato really "supposed that the well-being of the city depended almost as much on the number 5040 as on justice and moderation," (as Jowett remarks). Nor did he believe, as Ryle feared, that Plato had played a kind of nudge-wink game of find-the-tuning-theory with his readers for the fun of a few initiates. It was, rather, that Plato's exposition of justice and moderation found a completely natural expression in terms that privileged this musical and numerical grammar, and did not find it distracting. Far from being some private diversion on the part of Plato, it was an inherited vocabulary shared across a wide spectrum of wisdom texts descending from a common tradition, which lasted in oral culture even until the early strata of the Quranic tradition.

Even among his disciples, there has been significant breadth of opinion about the nature of the nature of the importance of McClain's work, and much of this variation is occasioned by this wide-net approach which drew in a vast range of background, beginning with the Rg Veda (on which his friend Antonio de Nicholas had written a book, Four Dimensional Man, whose importance for his own work-- and for his serious students -- McClain frequently emphasized). Some readers seized upon McClain as grist for anti-modern contentions, trying to recover an ostensibly lost tradition capable of producing something like "real magic." Some imagined that McClain's numbers would provide something like the resonant frequencies of the soul, a means for opening the crown chakra by just the right solfeggio. Others were intrigued enough by the musical ramifications to build instruments aligned to various tunings derived from McClain's work. And some were content to multiply contexts in which McClain's tonal harmonics could be plausibly applied, but without raising larger questions as to why.

My own interpretation is likely to be no less idiosyncratic. Tuning a musical instrument is a continual practical exercise in letting good enough be good enough, in making one adjustment here and then a counter-adjustment there. The great paradox is that this became the flowering seedbed of an effort to understand the whole. Because there are incommensurables built into the theory, the theory becomes a self-referential exercise in showing how theory itself, all theory, theory per se, fails to account for the whole; but it points to this in a way that weirdly manages to show the whole as needing no accounting, without denying the experience of the whole. Approximation and precision become the warp and woof of cosmology and indeed of ascesis. (And, I will add, Plato is especially significant in this account because he comes at an historical moment when, under the inexorable influence of writing, the complete naturalness of this way of thinking is no longer so evident, but has become itself a problem.)

McClain kept a respectful engagement with all contacts and the proclaimers of all interpretations, never disdaining them, often profiting from their suggestions while insisting that what he was talking about was not "secret" and never had been, in the esoteric sense; it was all out on the surface of the texts; you just had to learn to think like the authors. He had warm and deep correspondence with giants like John Bremer and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and with young and eager readers who had discovered his books or his website on their own and sometimes had no credentials aside from being intellectually alive and not risk-averse. In the last two decades of his life he carried on an almost daily exchange via email with Duane Christensen's BIBAL forum and many other colleagues and friends, throwing out variations on the book of Ezekiel one day, a Sufi poem the next, always ready to make mistakes in public, and insisting both that no one believe him "until you must," and that whatever your own work was, you did it "your way". These relationships have borne fruit in recent years in the form of several books by others which draw on McClain's work, including Christensen's Anchor Bible translation and commentary of the Prophet Nahum, and a presentation of an overview of his work at the prestigious annual ICONEA symposium. (See too, among others, Schatz's work in the context of the Jewish Kabbalah here and here; Kurtz and Driscoll's reading of the Atlantis legend here; and, for those who want to jump right in, Heath's extremely useful website here.) McClain was invigorated by this late-blooming attention, whether marginal or mainstream. I think it helped fuel the optimism with which he continued to believe that a breakthrough insight could easily surprise him and force revision of everything he'd written. I've never known anyone with more intellectual gumption.

For me he was an invaluable (and now keenly missed) friend and mentor, a never-flagging enthusiast of "adventures in ideas" (a Whiteheadian phrase he loved), who took with great seriousness the ancients' love of play and their easy-shifting referents. I slowly came to see that he had indeed learned to think like them. The density of his books is a function of the extreme compression with which he was accustomed to think, the way he could pack whole clusters of "contradictory meaning" into root-metaphors. To the outsider this is bewildering, and looks like either eye-glazing calculus or word salad. But after spending enough time with him, one came to see that the details, while ready to open up if you did the work (which in every case turned out to be almost as easy as he promised), were actually part of the "precision" that took its accustomed place within approximation's relaxed mode. In short, McClain taught me that the law was always already included within grace.

To that wider grace he has now gone. Memory Eternal.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

ɸ among the integers

The integers form an ordered series, with properties which may strike one as trivial. For instance, any given element [n] of the series occurs once and only once, and in a specifiable location, i.e., the nth place. Thus, e.g., 5 occurs only in the 5th place and nowhere else in the series of integers. These characteristics practically constitute a definition of the series of integers. Listed off in a series, each of the integers has two immediate neighbors, N+1 and N-1. But what if we imagine each integer N as having precisely N “neighbors”?

To determine this, we’ll sketch the first few stages of a process by which the integers are imagined as “generated” out of each other. This thought-experiment is based on John Conway’s in On Numbers and Games and on Donald Knuth’s exposition of Conway’s notions, in which numbers are imagined as being born discretely, one at a time. Conway’s constructions take us very quickly to the infinitieth step and well beyond. We, however, will stay safely within the finite. We are after a different phenomenon.

The integers will generate each other by a specific mechanism. Each element [N] of the series is entitled to have precisely N “links” to other elements of the series. We will see that this produces an interesting pattern.

In the graphics below, the colors here are not indicative of any absolute differences. The element [N] whose "turn" it is will be shown in gold. Each new element will in turn link to other elements, generating new elements as necessary until it has the number of connections specified for it by the rule that it have precisely N such connections.

When an element first is generated, it will be shown linked in red to the element that has generated it. Pre-existing links between an element [N] whose turn it is and other elements -- that is links which come into being before a given turn -- will be shown in green. (This means that green links will always be to elements less than N.) New links to pre-existing elements will be shown in blue. New links to new elements, i.e., "generating" links, will be in red, as mentioned. Blue and red links will therefore be to elements greater than N. (Any links to an element whose turn is not current will be in black.)

We begin with element [1].

This first element [1] needs to be connected to precisely one other element. We will establish these connections in order; so the first element [1] now “generates” a second element [2]. This generation (shown in red) also suffices as the “link” between [1] and [2].

This second element [2], in turn, needs to be connected to two other elements of the series (two, precisely because it is the second element). One connection already exists (shown in green) – its connection with [1]. It therefore generates a further element of the series, element [3], and is thus linked to both [1] and [3].

“The Tao produced One; one produced Two; Two produced Three. And three produced the Ten Thousand Things,” says the Tao Te Ching (ch. 42). And if we read “the ten thousand things” as “more than one,” this is what happens.

[3], as the third element of the series, requires connections to three other elements. It is already linked to [2] (shown in green), but it needs two more links. It cannot link to [1] (because [1] already has the single connection which exhausts its quota). So [3] generates, and is thereby linked with, [4] and [5].

[4] in turn requires four connections. One exists already, to [3]. It cannot link to [1], nor can it link to [2], because [2] already has two connections, but it can link to [5], which is does forthwith. (In the graphic, a new link to a pre-existing element is shown in blue.) That makes two links. To get it to its requisite four, [4] then generates [6] and [7].

By now you are probably starting to see how things work. We cannot skip on to [6] or [7] yet – it is not their turn. Before we get to them, we must see to [5].

[5] already has two (green) links – to [3] and to [4]. It needs three more. [6] and [7] are both available, so [5] links (in blue this time, because these elements are already there) to [6] and to [7], and then, to finish off its fifth link to which it is entitled, it generates (in red) a new element, [8].

Now we may proceed with [6]. [6] has pre-existing links to [4] and [5]. It forges two new links, to [7] and to [8] respectively, and then generates elements [9] and [10].

[7] has links to [4], [5], and [6]. It makes links to [8], [9] and [10] and then generates a new link to [11].

[8] has pre-existing links to [5], [6], and [7]. It establishes links to [9], [10], and [11] and then makes new links to [12] and to [13].

You have almost certainly glimpsed something in the graphics by now. Whenever an element generates a new element (the ones in red here) (as opposed to linking to an element that has already been generated), it generates either one or two of them. In our graphics, these are always put to the right of the “parent” element whose turn it is. These pile up, until the turn moves back down to the bottom of the next stack, and the piling-up starts over. This process always leaves a top element in any given pile, and those numbers probably look familiar. [1], [2], [3], [5], [8], [13]. . . that’s right, you in front waving your hand! It is indeed the Fibonacci series. Very good.

The Fibonacci series, as you know, generates each next term by summing the two previous terms. So (3+2)=5, (5+3)=8, (8+5)=13, and so on. The ratio between any two adjacent terms converges, as the series goes on, upon the golden ratio, that splendid number also known by the letter phi, ɸ, the ratio defined by (a+b)/a = a/b, whose decimal expression is 1.618033988. . ., and which is also expressible as (1+√5)/2, the value of the lovely continued fraction 1 + (1/(1+(1/(1+(1/1+…)))), and any number of other nifty tricks.

I have in fact traced our linked-integer series a few steps further, just for fun, but as you can imagine, the graph gets pretty tangled and hard to follow after this stage. However, the Fibonacci pattern remains for as far as I followed, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t. I presume it is a trivial implication of the mathematics involved, and that this way of deriving the series is well-known in relevant circles. I don’t move or read in those circles; all I can report is that in those popular-mathematics accounts with which I am familiar, this way of deriving the golden section is not described. (I'd love to hear of any references.) I find it of interest because it shows how the series emerges from the overlay of two ways of construing the integers – as cardinals (one, two, three…) and as ordinals (first, second, third…). It is, moreover, interesting to see the Fibonacci numbers emerge from a set of well- (and minimally-) defined relations (a.k.a. “links”, above).

As mentioned, new elements are generated either singly or in pairs. Fans of recreational mathematics may find it interesting to trace the pattern that emerges in the way these variations continue to play out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Imagine yourself effortlessly floating on your back in a warm sea, perfectly calm and content. The vague sound of the surf is just audible, a soothing husssh in your ear; the sky above is a deep and soothing blue streaked with white and golden cloud. The day is perfect. It is as if you have been here from eternity. You are at ease and at peace.

You turn your head gently to one side; something catches your eye among the sparkles on the water. You focus on its movement, and it becomes clear: about twenty feet away from your face, and twice as big as your face, the obvious and unmistakable curve of a dorsal fin. Shark. Huge. Shark.

If you are like me, it doesn’t even register in words. It’s a electro-chemical bolt of lightning through your chest. Get out, get out, fuck, fuck get OUT GET OUT—MY GOD GET OUT NOW , GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!


I had gone through an excruciating break-up. My life, which during the affair had been up-ended in delirium and zero-gravity awe, had suddenly short-circuited. It had happened in about two days, a vertigo-making implosion that I’d helped precipitate without being able to stop myself, always thinking the next thing I did would fix everything, always being sickeningly wrong, until I was more abjectly undone than I would have thought possible. My ego had been pulped; the regret and utter incapacity I felt left me stupid and barely communicative. Each evening, after barely pretending to work all day, I limped home feeling like I had been run over in the street. Every muscle was tightened into a grimace of denial and fear. I ran the hottest bath the plumbing would produce and soaked for hours, trying to induce the slightest relaxation.

After a week or two or seven of this, something slightly more normal reasserted itself. Slowly and inconsistently at first, I began to be able to think again. I was sitting on the bus one day, trying helplessly for the nth time to go over what had happened. I believed then and I believe now that, corniness or sentimentality notwithstanding, love is the experience which bestows our lives with meaning. The hallmark-card sense of this does not make it false. I was reflecting on this when it occurred to me that, nonetheless, it is obviously only half the story. It was so obvious as to be an algorithm: If you love, you will also, and inevitably, hurt and be hurt. It’s a pop song, it’s a Hallmark card, it’s a stupid slogan, and it’s true. If and insofar as you love, you will cause the one you love pain, great pain, probably the worst pain, and you will be caused it, tipped as I had been into one of the outer levels of Hell. Which means: the thing that makes life worth living is the same thing that makes life Hell. Not as a corollary; as an identity.

In another mood I might have been struck by this as if it were a kind of thought-provoking paradox, a sparkly toy to amuse the mind. That wasn’t how I felt. It struck me in my stomach, with the same hammer-force as if I had realized there was a shark in the water: GET OUT GET OUT NOW FUCK FUCK GET OUT! It wasn’t the fear (or reality) of emotional pain, but the identity of the meaning-bestowing and Hell-making, that was so shockingly intolerable, un-processable. I can’t live here. Unacceptable. I wanted and desperately needed to leap physically, in a direction perpendicular to the human condition, out of the world.


Many months passed, turning into a year and two years. I meditated on this strange identity. I knew very well that the notion of “leaping out” was nonsensical. “The thought of suicide”, Nietzsche remarked, gets a man through many a difficult night, and I have often thought that if I really felt I had cause to complain, well, I knew where the Exit door was -- but in truth I don’t believe that there is an Exit, not like that. The shark is real, and the water is real; what isn’t real is escape. You can despair, or you can make friends with the shark. There is no getting out of the water, I thought.

This little improvised koan became the object of much meditation. It appeared on my screen-saver, trailing across in (of course) red.

For a while, I thought I had solved it. What had actually happened, though, was that I had mistakenly elided a crucial detail, and in so doing I had tamed the shocking truth into a maxim; I had in fact Hallmark-ised it. Little by little, I began to lose grasp of the brute insight that had sparked the koan. I had slowly come to identify the shark with the suffering occasioned by love, instead of the fact that it is love which causes and undergoes suffering. The shark is the necessary coincidence of the occasion of suffering with the site of meaning. But this is confusing and difficult to keep firmly before the mind. I slid into a lazy if still twitchy distraction, content with having reached a comfortable resting-place.

Occasionally, as the months turned into years and then into a decade, I did remember the full koan. I meditated on it a great deal when I fell in love again; when I got married, it wove its way between the lines of the vows my wife and I wrote. But in fact, usually the water is warm and comfortable, or else there’s a lot of swimming to do and I forget.


Two months ago my father died after a brief and unexpected illness. I made it to his bedside for the last eighteen hours of his life. He was sedated and unconscious, and although I tell myself that he could hear what we said, or at least knew we were there, I do not know. Towards the end, as his heart was failing, it seemed to me that its rate would slow and it would slide into a non-sinus rhythm as long as I kept speaking to him. My mother, albeit exhausted from being awake for two nights in a row, had managed to get a blessed hour of sleep and was able to feel present and undistracted. As she held his hand and told him, “It’s all right, honey; we love you. You can go,” I was watching his heart monitor and watched his heart rate fall to zero immediately. (My sister noted at the funeral that my father always waited for my mother.) Although this is the sort of thing that calls to mind the phrase “anecdotal evidence,” in the end it is that sort of evidence of which our experience is made.

My mother went home. She thought she would fall asleep immediately. But it wasn’t what happened. Instead, she said, when she began to cry, she couldn’t stop. “It was like a banshee wail. It kept coming and coming. It was terrifying.” The cry went through her like a hailstorm. The next day, when she told me about it, she recalled a Buddhist friend’s husband’s funeral; nothing in my mother’s Mormon background had readied her for the fifteen-minute long ritual wail her friend made. My mother looked into my eye and said, “I was a good Buddhist yesterday.” Afterwards, she had looked in the mirror, frightened by her own grief-reddened face; but then she did sleep, and after she awoke, there was a great calm. “I’ve cried since then, but not like that,” she told me. “There’s a widow’s cry. It’s not like any other cry. I’ve cried it.”

And with that I felt the shark brush by my side.