Tag Archives: “how does it work”

I am annoyed and not annoyed

The other night I participated in an informal debate about logic. My interlocutor held that it was “absolutely true that something could not be both something and not be something at the same time”. I tried to offer some examples that would prove the contrary, but I don’t think I was very successful.

I would like to briefly engage this idea again as simply as possible without recourse to unhelpful jargon.

A fire is danger and it is not dangerous. It is one or the other depending on the one’s proximity to the fire.

A chair is a chair and not a chair. Again, it depends on the situation: sometimes I use it as a chair, but most of the time it just takes up space in my room and hides the dust that collects underneath it. Sometimes it is table.

A piece of art is both art and it is not art (at least in our time: “to each h/er own”). It depends on the viewer.

It’s both possible that I could go on and not go on at this moment… But I’m sure by now you get my point. I will, however, offer two possible replies.

1. In all of these examples, one could argue that I am not using language correctly. Since the piece of art cannot be said to be both art and not art at the same time, we need a new word to say what it is. We need a word to describe it so that it will have only that meaning. We need to construct a language where, in every situation, we could always say that X can never be not X. It’s term exhausts it’s meaning.

2. Another response along the same lines might go something like this: Yes, it is a chair, a table, a dust concealer, place taker, etc.; However, it remains a chair and not not a chair during this time. When it becomes a table, it remains a table and not not a table.

My turn: In both cases we are faced with a number of problems that can be boiled down to two things: preference towards one grammatical construction over another; and the problem of perspective. In the first case, deciding what something is and what it is not is determined locally by it’s use and not an abstract construction. The difference between “this is a chair, and a table, and a place holder, etc.” does not contradict the statement that “this is a chair and this is not a chair.” Therefore, “The chair is a chair and not a chair” is true. This construction is actually extremely helpful as a vehicle for expressing the many uses and names one object can have.

In the second case (perspective),the question, “what art is and what art is not” can occur in the same place. Often this is where productive discussions take place: “what is justice? What is it not?” The objection can be raised that from one perspective “something is X” and from the other, “something is not X.” However, from the point of view of the observer “something is both X and not X.” Of course, this brings up the question of power: for whom can these two seemingly contradictory views not be tolerated?

In sum, any attempt to absolutize truth byway of a grammatical construction must be met with much suspicion. I will end with a personal anecdote: I attended the first class of a graduate level seminar on epistemology. One of the professor’s opening remarks, a philosopher working almost exclusively in the analytic tradition, was that correct reasoning is only correct if you choose to accept the framework of correct reasoning. In other words, formal logic is universally true if you already accept that formal logic is universally true; those who do not conform to formalized logic are not devoid of truth — just not the logician’s truth.

The World Beyond The Barrier

“At the close of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche expressed his scorn for his contemporaries’ stupid insistence on trying to “see through everything” (263). He protested the lack of reverence and discretion which fueled their tactless attempt to “touch, lick, and finger everything” (213). The phenomenon Nietzsche decried is the frenzied desire we still see all around us, the desire to cast aside every veil, penetrate every surface, transgress every barrier in order to get our hands on the real thing lying behind it. We seem to have installed in the modern world a new “beyondness,” a new untouchable, or a new secularized sacred, one that inspires a new desire for transgression. This secularized sacred originates not in a belief in the existence of another world, but from the belief that what we want in this world always lies behind a barrier which prevents our access to it.” 175

This is taken from Joan Copjec’s The Object-Gaze: Shame, Hejab, Cinema. I found this last sentence to be just as profound as it is provocative. But is it true?

There is a similar belief that says: anything worth doing requires hard work.

There is a great satisfaction that one gets from learning something new or completing a project, especially when they are difficult. We all know this kind of satisfaction. But I’d like to examine it in more detail. So for me, this often means learning a difficult piece of music.

In order to let the music speak, I must be sensitive to every detail and challenge that it presents to me and let the details of the music unfold according to their role within the piece. This kind of engagement takes time. The more advanced the piece is, the more time I must spend with it. When one spends time with something, a relationship is formed. In this case, it is a demanding relationship with very specific expectations. I expect to make the music my own. I expect that my previous work has enabled me to meet every challenge and that I will grow because of it.

Difficult challenges install in me frustration, anxiety, fear of failure, and even despair. So I must take each challenge in manageable portions, lest I become discouraged and quit. When they are conquered, I have confirmation that my previous work is valid, enriched, and I am given confidence and excitement to keep going. Equally as important: it gives me reprieve from anxiety, frustration, fear of failure, and despair. I know that these small success are important without having to think about it because they are signs that the work is nearing completion. In isolation, the importance of each of these scattered challenges and the success that might await me are thrown into question. Only within the context of the complete work do they gain their unified importance.

The importance of the entire work is deemed as such if it is consistent with a more general, believed idea. An idea, or a truth, that orients one’s life. For instance, anything worth doing requires hard work.

This relationship between the work and the idea that propels it is fundamental to our experience of the world. The completed work means nothing without the idea and vice versa. The point is not to complete your work, but to continue to complete challenging work consistent with the idea. This also means that one should not attempt to derive ultimate satisfaction from the finishing of the work.  Rather, the completing of the work ensures that the believed idea continues to function. Without the work and the idea contributing to each other, both will die. Feed the idea with your work. Feed the work with your idea.

Let’s turn back to the original quote. Is it true that what I want always lies behind a barrier? I think that, on the contrary, the joyful experience that I have of overcoming barriers and obstacles is so powerful that it extends to so many spheres of my life — So far, in fact, that obstacles come to be looked at as life giving opportunities.

Context as Necessity

Often reading textbooks on Art History, philosophy, or even Music, a great deal of context is given. The work in question has to be situated. It comes from somewhere.

But I get the sense that when the climate of the times is described, the author implicitly suggests that the work wasn’t anything really special, or genius. One can easily trace its origins to the current ideas circulating.

When one presents a work like this, we cease to really see its transforming power. We cease to see it as a work of genius. And, I think, there are geniuses. When one reads a biography of the artist/philosopher in question, the transforming power of the work is almost always raised to a much higher degree because the work in question is seen in detail. When I look at it as one instance of one person’s work, as a sign of the times, I’m not really looking at the work as it was presented in its own context.

I can’t help hear Badiou’s voice in my head: an event is an ontological decision. One of his examples is the French Revolution. Once it is infinitely picked apart, no one can name it as unified event anymore, and if no one can name it as an evental site, it no longer holds any trans-formative power.

In sum, the way one views an artwork is a decision. I can decide to see Schoenberg as a consequence of the steady increase of the use of dissonance. Indeed, he seemed to say as much. But. One hundred years after Schoenberg, people often see his late work as the cut-off of what constitutes good classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, then it ends…). And I can also say: “Ya, he wasn’t so great. You can easily see where he comes from. Sooner or later someone would have done what he did.” Here, (bad?) historical context is used as a weapon against the naming of a revolutionary work.

Be wary of textbooks and biographies that use context. Tracking the influence of a work is a difficult business, even if it is within context. So, “Context”, then, can be used either for the discrediting of a revolutionary work, or it can be used to show just how revolutionary the work really is.

Machinic Reasons: Making Decisions with Deleuze and Guattari

One of the main difficulties I have with Deleuze and Guattari is that it is difficult for me to see how one might make decisions and evaluations within their philosophical outlook. I like to think of these evaluations and decisions in terms of boundaries, and I am convinced that a significant part of living well involves producing good boundaries and living well in and amongst these boundaries. We do this through disciplines, fidelities, and traditions, which are interwoven with and inextricable from experimentations, creativities, and rebellions. And it is along these lines where I am often baffled by Deleuze and Guattari: it is clear we can fail and we can make and do good or bad things, but I am rarely convinced that their philosophy of immanence gives us the tools to determine whether we are on track or how we can get back on track when we do realize that we are going a bad way. It is not fair to say that they advise us to simply follow our creative impulses; their analysis of the ways desire can be captured and misled is too subtle for that. But there does seem to be an optimism that desire will successfully find its own way, if we can free it from all systems of signification and teleology. Continue reading Machinic Reasons: Making Decisions with Deleuze and Guattari