Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
How does a book?
In response to a thread at An Und Für Sich regarding what books had recently "grabbed" readers, I tried to articulate something about what it means to me to have my attention seized by a book.
One kind of book that seizes me makes me say, “Aha–” (or more rarely, “Thank God!”) “– now I can go on honestly; now I see a way forward.” Needless to say, this need not have much to do with agreeing with an author. It is of course possible for a book to address itself to a dilemma one knew oneself, more or less, to be in: this is a staple, of everything from self-help books to those philosophy texts that preach to their choirs of idealist or eliminativists or marxists or whoever. Such readers want a book that will help them to refute the latest crop of objections from the other side. The best such books formulate their position very convincingly, doing as much justice as possible to their opponents and showing both why alternative views arise and why they can better be dealt with in the terms the book proposes.
But such an exclamation as I mention is only elicited by a stronger sort of work, one which does not start out with a particular opponent in mind, but simply articulates the force of a single insight or group of insights, and shows how this reconfigures the landscape. Badiou's Being and Event proved to be this kind of work for me, notwithstanding the fact that I am not, by a long shot, anything resembling a Badiouan. In fact, it was more an experience of seeing the view I strongly disagree with put forward in a powerful, coherent and robust way, a way that not only let me see (again) why one would see anything in it--i.e., as close to my own stance; but also helped me to see it whole, in a way that let me formulate much more precisely my own stance, the points on which I differ.
Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics was somewhat different; in this case it was a book that formulated a set of problems that was nagging in my mind for many years, mainly about the difficulties of formulating a relational account of reality. While I was not completely persuaded by Harman's answers, I was very impressed with the way he snapped the questions into focus for me, from a vague cloud of concerns that had been sort of buzzing in the background, to a well-defined set of questions--almost, one could say, a research program.
Already in a thinker like Badiou, the concern is existential, not just intellectual. But then, there is a different sort of book, aimed primarily at the soul and not just the mind. Be it ever so tightly reasoned, one discerns in such a text that its argument is intended on a different level (and this often, in fact, leaves it open to a number of obvious objections that still seem somehow to miss the point). Such a work--when it succeeds--shows you to be in a dilemma you did not even suspect. This sort of book makes me say: “Fuck, now I have to either lie and pretend I never read this, or live differently.” Nietzsche, Simone Weil, Martin Buber, Wendell Berry, among others, have all written books that did this to me.
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that they stand in a venerable tradition, going back at least to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. First he sets up the demands of the Law (wretched man that I am...!) and then opens a crack to an escape route. Convince you that you are facing an unappealing prospect, then offer you the way out.
Such books tend to be tendentious and pointed, full of fight and not long on nuance, and the way to critique this is still to assert that the alternative is a false dichotomy. (It is also a standard way to critique much less fiercely armed books-- just argue that they are responding to a non-issue.) It's easy to shake one's head over Weil or Nietzsche (to say nothing of St Paul) precisely because they frame their concerns in such uncompromising [anti-]moral terms, insisting, at least between the lines, that their purport implicates you.
But when you can see all the ways and reasons for evading the dilemma proffered, and still regard the solution as the way forward-- this is because you are (and know yourself to be, in some sense) persuaded, won, even seduced. You see a new way of being that is more interesting now, and you can choose it freely instead of feeling compelled. Such moments are a kind of conversion or of falling in love.
But-- and the fact that these authors are obviously of more than one mind makes this question all the more pressing-- is there a manner in which one can authentically keep open a "back door" or an escape clause in such conversions--without compromising?