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

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Prize and consolation

Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don't just want to make him have feelings of such-and-such a sort; what I mainly want is to visit him, though of course I should like to be well-received too.
-- Wittgengetin, Culture & Value, p 58
My friend Kawingbird agreed with / objected to my last post, in which I hold that philosophy works by not-working, whereby
intense and difficult precision ... yields, at the right moment, to the graceful blur of letting-go, even if that means falling over backwards.
Quoth the Kawingbird:
No doubt this experience is one of the things philosophy does quite well and one of the things we love it for. But is it the *main thing* philosophy does? Is it *why* we engage in philosophical inquiry? I'll leave aside the first, more general question and answer the personal one for myself. No. I love this experience of "the perfect, broken unfinishable whole" emerging into view out of the inevitable (partial) failure of my inquiries. But it is the equally partial successes that keep me going....I want answers! Yes, every answer turns out to be another question. But that doesn't mean it's not also an answer. ...What you describe seems to be to be like the runner's endorphin rush, which gives us that beautiful and redemptive sense of connection to the ineffable, which makes even our failures and weaknesses look noble. A lovely compensation prize -- and probably necessary for weak and ignorant beings like us. But I still want to get to the top of that next fucking hill.
If we only wanted the endorphin rush, we could run on treadmills. Some do. Maybe Analytic Philosophy departments are the Gold's Gym of philosophy. In any case, most of us do actually want to go there, then there, and so on.  I do maintain that philosophy "works" by not-working, but I think it works. One cannot get even the consolation prize if one doesn't learn to try again, fail again, fail better. The non-success (or, better, the suspension of success) of philosophy cannot happen without the partial successes of which K speaks. 

As to which is the "main thing" philosophy does, and which the side-effect, I think one has to be willing or able to think two contradictory things at once. Supposedly it is "better to travel than to arrive," or so I have been told; but without a destination, no one in fact "travels." One of the few lessons I can actually point to having internalized from my days in Mormonism is the lesson that humility is a side-effect; it cannot be made into the primary goal without short-circuiting the whole process. And yet, there is something decisive about humility that really is the "goal" of ascesis. My wager is that philosophy works this way too.

I'll illustrate this via a philosopher for whom I take K to have a wary and diffident regard: Zizek. In Janet Malcolm's essay The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes:
Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly.  
If I had to summarize Zizek's essential point in his entire project -- his "one sentence," as Badiou / Canguilhem would say -- I would put it as a radicalization of Malcolm's account: the "unspoken agreement" does not function alongside the "strict" rules; the rules are a function of the unspoken agreement. Keep the law or "break" the law, if your concern is with the Law, you are not free. Zizek is a master at continually pointing out those ways in which what looks like "transgression" is a covertly-sanctioned way of performing "transgression." (This exegetical point, including the this-is-Zizek's-basic-core-contention claim, was made very convincingly -- albeit with some ramifications I don't concur with -- by Christian Thorne in a series of three essays on Zizek a few years ago.) This is why Zizek is frequently seen as an ambivalent figure for the Left; he's all for you having your fun, but he wants you to ask yourself where you are getting the idea of fun, and he's all too willing to point out that not just any "fun" is actually liberatory. 

Stage zero in this exegesis is just the terms of the "naive" argument: there is the law, there is breaking the law. Stage one would be: hold together both the law and the "breaking" of the law. The law works by being "broken."  Then the further step, stage two, would be to say: well, then: true freedom is to become indifferent to the law. Only then am I truly free of the Master. 

But if we risk the mockery of Kierkegaard (who spared no eye-rolling at those who tried to "go further"), we might dare ask, beyond Zizek: suppose we hold these two things together. If the real Law turns out to be the Law that always calculates with one hand what it forbids with the other, and "real" transgression, which is of course non-transgression because it is not concerned with whether it "transgresses," is just doing what you do without regard to the Law, is it possible to stand athwart this binary? If "transgression" can also point to a liberty beyond mere disobedience, so too perhaps the law, and even the capital-L "Law" of the Superego, might also point to a way beyond mere legal or moral rectitude -- to the Way, the Tao. Suppose, after all, that the law were not just some arbitrary, projected, Big Other's power trip.  Is it possible to actually keep the Law -- freely?

For a differently-balanced semi-analogy, take kawingbird's metaphor of the consolation-prize: this is a dynamic I observe frequently, watching middle-school basketball competitions, and the way this strange rite of passage continues to play out against the wider "conversation" of child-rearing practices, telling youth what "really matters", with the distant pantomime of professional sports projected on the screen of culture. One stance would have it: one plays to win. Another would have it: your only competition is with yourself; the most valuable prize is the one for "participation." Bah, says the first; hand out prizes for everyone and what is the point of a "prize"? And here begins the dialectic: there is a secret truth to this "Bah," which the giver of participation-prizes admits with guilty reluctance, because on some level we "all want to win;" but then, deeper still, the "what is the point of prizes?" question can be turned on the impatient "Bah"-er: Yes, what is the point? Are you so sure there is one? And then, the further question that turns around on this: but then, why hand out participation "prizes" at all? And beneath it all is the endless and unspoken question, what is the point of playing? What is a game?

My approach with regard to "problems" and "solutions" -- mechanistic or teleological nature, what commends or counts against democracy or aristocracy, whether "free will" is a mere façon de parler or a deep self-determination, whether one can coherently (claim to) think (of) "Nothing," and so on -- is analogous to this going-beyond. Like all analogies, these are imperfect, and my aim in jamming two analogies together here is precisely to highlight the slippage as well as the correspondence. In these analogies, the problem-and-answer dynamic is the Law, is "competition"; mere skepticism is transgression, is "everyone gets a prize"; and the dialectic unfolds from there. Philosophy has to hold together not only problems and solution, but problems and "unsolvable", and so on. But there is a moment in which one has to ask: if letting go of "solutions" is the "real" solution, can one let go of this, too? 

All of this can look, at a certain point, like so much hand-waving, which is why Kierkegaard had an easy target; it's what Timothy Morton likes to shrug off as "going meta-" -- a changing-the-subject maneuver, or worse, a kind of one-upmanship. There is an angle, or more than one, from which it just looks silly -- a slap-the-hand game, or children saying "to infinity no take-backs!" At this point the whole Rube Goldberg device stands revealed (and broken too) as, well, what a Rube Goldberg device is -- an apparatus of pointless detour; and one finds oneself still facing the ordinary tasks: how to cook the fish (don't overdo it). In moments like that, it can be hard to remember that something, after all, gave rise to the question in the first place. Where is the gap between that golden germ, the hiraṇyagarbha, and the flurry of confusion that was the dialectic eventually flowering into haywireity? 

It is absolutely not enough -- it can be exactly the wrong thing -- to "go meta." One must go meta at the right moment. Which may of course mean, not at all. Or rather, not yet, not yet, not yet... one step at a time... till you catch your breath and say, Wow, check out the view. The landscape will go meta on you all by itself.