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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Incommensurate Openness, and vice-versa

In a fairly early post, I wrote that my starting place was
the same as that of all philosophy: astonishment. Wonder. Yes, this; but also an incorrigible itch to make this wonder articulate.... [But] this articulation is a struggle.
In articulating, such as it can be, the astonishment of and at being, I will coin a twofold formulation. Inadequate as formulae always are, it risks seeming trite, but our business is to use it as an aid, and not a surrogate, for thinking. The first half is the Incommensurability of experience. “The world of the happy is quite another from that of the unhappy,” as Wittgenstein said (and as I always seem to be quoting). To one who is gripped by astonishment, the differences between the same activity (say, sweeping a floor) when happy and when sad, are no less striking than is the contrast between war and peace. It is remarkable that eating chicken soup by oneself while convalescing in bed is not only very different than, but in fact not superimposable over, eating chicken soup in a New York delicatessen.

(Really? "Remarkable?" Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. No matter how much any two experiences have in common, they always have more not in common. But in this case it is remarkable that we can speak of there being anything in common at all.)

(And I'll just bookmark here that this is not to breeze past the admonitions one hears in various traditions (e.g. certain forms of Buddhism or Christianity) to practice equanimity and apatheia, to let one's feelings "arise and pass away" and--as the Zen master might say--"just sweep the floor," "just eat the soup," no matter whether one is in the grips of hilarity or of heartbreak.)

In traditional metaphysics one might approach the question of experiences in terms of substance and qualities: substance being that which is the bearer of “identity,” qualities that which can change, so that “the same” soup can be tasted in different contexts. (This is a slightly tweaked version of substance/quality vocabulary, but let it stand). After the “critique of metaphysics,” such talk fell into disrepute. Lately, the revival of “realism,” informed by the Husserlian way of speaking of essences, has made it almost respectable again (in some quarters at least), in a modified way. Levi Bryant argues for a way of speaking of objects that dispenses with qualities as adjectival and makes the objects themselves more like verbs.

This however does not address the scandal of incommensurability.

A scant few alphabetical symbols arranged in one way give us Kafka’s The Trial; arranged a different way they give us Dickens’ Bleak House, and in yet other ways they give us the latest letters to Hustler, the Communist Manifesto, or Roberts’ Rules of Order. N.B., it is not primarily the content of any these that is hard to square with any other; it is the spirit. The experience of reading Bleak House is incommensurable with that of (simultaneously) reading The Trial (notwithstanding their both being about drawn-out legal proceedings, of a sort). But so too is the experience of making love with a beautiful Israeli spy on the French Riviera early in the Cold War incommensurable with playing in a punk rock show to a raging crowd in 1979 Los Angeles. It is not at all immediately clear why this should be, for it is plain that nothing in principle excludes both experiences from happening, or from falling within the same life. The spatial and temporal incompatibilities (for instance, the French Riviera not being Los Angeles, or the 1950’s not being the 1970’s) are secondary to the experiential incompatibilities; the former are at least amenable to mediation in their respective modes. On a quasi-Kantian account, Time can be seen as a “medium” in which contradictory assertions can both be true; it is possible for both A and ~A to obtain so long as the states of affairs to which these assertions pertain are separated by Time. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine a human life that included being both an English nobleman serving as ambassador to Constantinople during the reign of Charles II, and a prizewinning female poet in England during the 1920s. Virginia Woolf showed us how.

This underscores the complementary principle, the second half of my twofold starting mark: the Indelimitability of experience. (In the first draft of this post I called this the "Openness of experience," but I replaced "Open" (except in the title) with "Indelimitable" in part because I want to distance myself from any too-obvious Heideggerian overtones, and in part because, for all its awkward lack of euphony, "Indelimitable" has the one undeniable advantage of jargon: it cannot be easily mistaken for naming some natural quality. Both my principles (or rather both halves) are, in short, meant to pick out characteristics that properly belong together; it's right, then, that when named separately, they should be saddled with these awkward terms, and in particular with terms that indicate privation rather than some positive characteristic. If that sounds like a rationalization, you are free to assume that really I just wanted the symmetry of having the prefix "In-" on both of them.)

Indelimitablilty means that no experience stays with itself. There is always at least one straightforward route between any two forms of experience. In the case of Woolf’s Orlando, it includes a long lifespan and a sex change (which just goes to show that "straightforward" is a relative term), but both of these are actually rather trivial, in comparison with what might need navigating between being a human male and being, say, a tremendous cockroachy creature or a human breast, but Kafka and Philip Roth each gave a good shot at imagining those transitions too, and the same might be imagined for being a neutron star or a scarecrow or the total South American coffee crop. (This is barely a half-step beyond Chuang-Tzu.)

But the indelimitability and the incommensurability of experience together make experience itself a strange thing (or rather, they highlight how strange it is). To take literature again: words of the same language combine to give us either J.R.R. Tolkien or Kathy Acker, or (translations of ) Vergil or Gogol; but try putting some of Acker's heroin[es] into Middle-Earth, or a couple of Hobbits into the Empire of the Senseless, and you'll get a mélange that is neither Acker nor Tolkien, nor as good. Eating chicken soup is good; winning a racketball tournament is good; making love on the French Riviera is good (let us stipulate all three evaluations for the moment). But try to superimpose these goods, and you get, not a greater good nor even a viable sum of parts, but merely screwball comedy.

Thus experiences cannot be combined like spices. The “combination” of two experiences is not a combination at all, but a new experience of precisely the same ontological standing, a third sort not dependent on the other two. Every instance of experience is precisely itself. (Of course not every “combination” adds up to less than the sum of its parts, like my Acker/Tolkien example; but it always makes something new.) We are speaking here of experience as a whole, not of “responses” to or interpretations of experience; writhing under the lash in pain or in masochistic enjoyment are different experiences, and not superimposable. The thought of Pegasus is not the sum of the thought of a horse plus the thought of wings.

And yet, experiences may be brought as close together as one likes. Again, think of Kafka or Roth. Such asymptotic approaches resemble at a certain point exceptions that prove the rule. For instance: one might respond to a piece of news with various emotions—with joy or with anger, for instance; but one could also imagine receiving news that elicited both responses at once: “Surprise! She’s not dead!” What is fascinating about this instance is how it shoves two experiences right up next to each other as close as can be—and yet each remains clearly distinguishable. One is joyful in that one’s loved one is alive, indignant in that one has been subject to a tasteless practical joke. This is simply an illustration of how experiences nearly diametrically opposed can be flush up against one another, without thereby becoming conflated. (“Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”)

Such examples could be presented ad infinitum, and there is much to learn from them, but what they illustrate above all is the twinned nature of these two principles, the incommensurability and the indelimitability of experience.

The incommensurability of experience obviously pertains to mediation. This has been the subject of more than one post here. If there is no non-negotiable “what it’s like,” (as I argue at the end of the first post linked above), this is because every experience is what it is and not another experience. But likewise, if experience is indelimitable, this is again because mediation is ubiquitous; any experience may become a sign of any other, and may lead on to or from any other. The encounter of ovum and spermatozoon, or indeed, the emergence of a lungfish onto a muddy bank, leads on to defeat at Waterloo, to liberation of Dachau, to touching down in the Sea of Tranquility.

This is not merely a matter of causality, of dominoes falling; it is a matter of mediation. The encounter of the tabletop by the domino is mediated by (among other things) gravitons or the curvature of space. The relation between the alphabetical symbols and the experience of imagining Frodo and Sam toiling through Mordor, or Abhor and Thivai moving through Acker's collapsing Europe, is mediated by neurons and cultural practices. The way from the lungfish to the moon landing is mediated via more ways than anyone could count. (Mediation as power, energeia).

The incommensurability of experience is the indicator of worlds, in precisely Wittgenstein’s sense above. These worlds are what are navigated in metalpesis. The indelimitability of experience is the indicator of the World. This World is how metalepsis’ navigation works. (This by way of comment on the ninth thesis in my last post.)

This is the same problem as has always been with us, since there was philosophy: the One and the Many.

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