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Philosophy

The poem is not, of course, in any way required to appear on the device. It may choose to appear in a more tactile medium – in the book, the magazine, the chapbook, the broadsheet – but the totalizing nature of the device means that this gesture is increasingly to choose irrelevance. Books and journals, magazines and newspapers, are more and more frequently available only in electronic formats. People demand that what they read appear on whatever screen they happen to be holding in their hands. In a culture where all eyes are on devices (rarely straying from them even long enough to cross the street, eat dinner, or make love), there is a real risk that the poem chooses irrelevance by not appearing through that medium.

Choosing not to have poetry appear as machine content also risks reinforcing more absolutely the division between a broader popular culture (for which poetry is at best a curiosity) and the narrow elitist culture of poets and their readers. This division has long been widening. Refusing to have poetry appear on the device threatens to make the distance untraversable. If poetry insists on being obscure, not only by way of form and sensibility but also by way of inaccessibility through popular media, there are few who will bother to go looking for it.

The choice that the device presents to the poem, therefore, is either to appear (and become content-image-data before poem) or not to appear (and risk irrelevance and elitism), and the choice is not without moral implication, because the purpose of content is to lead unreflexively from one swipe or click to the other (swipe, swipe, swipe – click, click, click). It is to facilitate rapid and effortless consumption, to put eyes on advertisement after advertisement. Its function is to distract and sedate so that its consumers can be analyzed and in this way better targeted.

In other words, it is no longer religion that opiates the masses. It hasn’t been since the television occupied the space formerly reserved for the household shrine. It certainly isn’t now that the handheld device occupies the space formerly reserved for prayer beads, each flick of the thumb counting another Instagram Hail Mary, another Facebook Our Father. We no longer need religion to sedate ourselves. We have pro sports and reality television, social media and augmented reality, all in the palms of our hands. Why should we rely on some future religious paradise to distract ourselves from our socio-political problems when the paradise of the present is available on our twitter feeds and our YouTube channels? Content is now the opiate of the masses.

To the extent that poetry subordinates itself to the logic of the device, therefore, to the extent that it becomes just another set of content to sedate and tranquilize users, something to flick through idly – neither active nor passive, merely idling, like a car with the engine running but the transmission in park – it ceases to perform the function of art. It ceases to provoke, to defamiliarize, to discomfort. It consents to serve an economic logic, not just of its own production (as art always does to one degree or another, whether serving the honour of a patron or the bottom line of a publisher), but also of the whole culture of the device, of content exchanged for advertizing and analytics. It becomes merely one more pill in the bottle of cultural sedatives that the device keeps ever close to hand.

I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

There is no perhaps in God.  God is and is not and is to come and may be and in every case surpasses our human categories of being and time, but there is no perhaps in God, because every perhaps is limited by happanstance.  There is perhaps only in the human.

I’ve been reading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil again, and I was arrested this time by her idea of thickness, where what lies between us and God is the infinite thickness of time and space. 

In the section called The Cross, she writes, “God wears Himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. […] It has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of Him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it.” A little later she says, “We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first,” and then again, “God crosses through the thickness of the world to come to us.”

What I find in this idea of thickness is a particularly apt description of how I myself experience the universe, time and space, being, or any of that whole constellation of ideas, how I experience the impossibility of self, of universe, and of self in the universe. It feels to me that there is a thickness to all of this, not just in the sense of breadth, but also in the sense of texture, the thickness of layers and complexity, the thickness of fog and cloud, of bog and mire, of wind and forest, a thickness of idea and description and experience.

What this thickness describes for me is the texture of the universe’s impossibility, not the impossibility itself, but how the impossibility feels as I make my way through it, as I run my hands over its surfaces. It describes how I experience the impossibility of everything, from roasting coffee, to loving my children, to sitting on the toilet, all of it too full of otherness and specificity and complexity and ambiguity, too full of thickness to be possible, and nevertheless here for me and in me.

Any approach to the universe, whether through the gods of religion or of atheism, must account for this thickness, because to cross it, or to make the attempt, is constitutively human, even and especially if the attempt is impossible, if the crossing must be made from whatever lies beyond the thickness of space and time, a whatever that comes to us, comes first, to reach and captivate us.

I am very slowly making my way through Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, and I came across a quotation that I want to explore at some greater depth.  It occurs in an essay called, “Transsexuality”, a word that Baudrillard uses much more broadly than its usual sense.  As he draws his argument to a conclusion, he says, “Since it is no longer possible to base any claim on one’s own existence, there is nothing for it but to perform an appearing act without concerning oneself with being – or even with being seen.  So it is not:  I exist, I am here! but rather: I am visible, I am an image – look! look!  This is not even narcissism, merely an extraversion without depth, a sort of self-promoting ingenuousness whereby everyone becomes the manager of their own appearance.”

The book was originally published in 1990, well before the ubiquity of social media, but the phenomenon that Baudrillard describes has found a powerful expression in the ways that people present themselves online.  Social media are often described as a way for people to stay connected, but the kinds of connections that they provide are of the type that used to exist only between people and their media heroes – singers, actors, athletes, politicians, socialites – that is, connections between people and the images that some people are able to portray of themselves by means of media mediation.  We all know (or most of us do) that these connections are unreal, that they do not constitute relation in any real way.  We consume the images of these people.  We interest ourselves in them.  We do not know them.

The explosion of social media, however, allows us all to participate in that same mode of connection as well.  Now we too are able to use the media to create images of ourselves for the consumption of others.  Now we too consume the images that those we know create of themselves.  We appear to each other.  We manage our appearance for each other.  We do not even try to exist.  We only strive to be visible.  We emulate our media heroes, not by doing what they do, but by appearing as they appear, by being visible as they are visible.

Now, this appearing to each other is often (though perhaps less and less) complicated by the fact that we also know each other, not in our unmediated selves (which is always an impossibility), but in the selves that are not mediated by our social media — to use Baudrillard’s language, our appearing to be comes into conflict with our being seen.  This is an important distinction, at least to me, because it recognizes that although it is never possible for me to be to another, there is something worth striving for in allowing myself to be seen by others rather simply appearing for them.

I would say that on this distinction hangs the future of relation.

 

I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, not for any very good reason, just because my particular university education made me an addict to a certain kind of theoretical style, and I needed a fix.

At the end of the first essay, “After the Orgy”, Baudrillard says, “One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century,” and this reminded me of a curious incident in my own experience.

Once, during my MA, I walked into the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, intending to study at my carrel on one of the upper floors (fourth or fifth, I can’t remember anymore). On my way I had to pass the computer pool on the main floor, a bank of computers set row by row, and I was met by the sight of seventy or eighty students all staring blankly, fixedly, at their screens, not typing, not working, just staring. It only took a glance to realize that there had been some sort of power outage or something, and that all of the computers were rebooting at once, but the effect was so eerie, so disconcerting that I decided to skip studying altogether and go find a beer instead.

My discomfort was with how the void on the screen seemed to have revealed a similar void in the people looking at them, as if they were only capable of activity when they were reflecting the activity of their monitors. Baudrillard describes this through the metaphor of an electrical circuit, where communication requires messages to circulate without interruption, and where silence breaks the circuit, revealing that it is only an “uninterrupted fiction designed to free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen.” In other words, our minds are now as void as our monitors when the electrical circuit of constant communication is broken, so that we now require this communication in order to maintain the illusion that we have any content at all, in order to keep us from staring blankly at our screens as they stare blankly in return.

I have just finished reading William Golding’s Free Fall, and among many other things that I should but will not write about here and that I will certainly talk about with anyone who wants to have coffee when I get back from PEI, there is a short sentence in a paragraph about how a child perceives the world. It reads, “A doorstep is the size of an altar,” and it reminded me of Heidegger’s discussion of the pain of the threshold, an idea that I have written about several times and have explored at length in several ways, including a longish poem.

What I like about Golding’s contribution to this idea is the attention to the physical similarity between the the doorstep and the altar step, where we are, in both instances, brought to the step before the threshold, to the uncrossable and yet constantly crossed threshold, but where we are most often prevented, unless we have some sort of special status, from crossing the altar step, are made to kneel on it instead, and it strikes me, not that this kneeling is too much reverence, that it should be done away with, but that our easy crossing of the doorstep should perhaps be more reverent, that we should be made to kneel, if not physically at least by word or gesture, as we pass the doorstep, because there is something sacred in it, a resemblance to the altar step that we no longer sufficiently recognize.

Agamben, Giorgio.  The Man Without Content.  1994.  Georgia Albert, translator.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999.

I initially felt that The Man Without Content was less careful than some of Agamben’s other work, more rhetorical, less attentive to its source texts, a difference that I attributed to the fact that it was his first book.  As I let myself linger over it, however, the force of its argument began to impress itself on me, and I felt that I needed to go over some of its ideas again, which is what I have tried to do below.  I have no guiding argument or thesis for these reflections, only that they are the ideas that have clung, for lack of a more definitive word, to my thinking ever since I finished the book.

1) Agamben establishes a distinction between a present and a historical relation to the work of art.  He says that “The work of art is no longer the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth” (33); that it “was not always an autonomous sentimental tonality and the particular effect of the work of art” (34); that it “does not satisfy the soul’s spiritual needs as it did in earlier times” (40); and that it “is no longer […] the concrete appearance of the divine” (41).  In each of these instances, and several more besides, his language insists on a temporal disjunction between a former relation to the work of art that “no longer” is what it was “in earlier times” and a present relation to the work of art that “was not always” what it is.  His tone in these passages, and indeed the project of the entire book, is in this sense unapologetically nostalgic.  It looks for a return to a certain stance before the work of art that once was but no longer is.

2) The present stance before the work of art understands art as “a privileged occasion to exercise […] critical taste” (41).  “Our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance,” Agamben says, “have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by aesthetic judgement” (40).  This critical judgement, however, “everywhere and consistently, envelops art in its shadow” (43), because “every time aesthetic judgement attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow” (42).  The result of this critical distance is a strict division between the spectator, who regards the work of art as a privileged object for the exercise of aesthetic judgement, and the artist, who regards it as the pure expression of the formal principle.

3) Agamben describes the historical stance before the work of art as providing “the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth,” insofar as it puts “man’s activity in tune with the divine world of creation” (34), and he consistently returns to this kind of spiritual language when he describes the work and the function of art, referring to it as “the concrete appearance of the divine, which causes either ecstasy or sacred terror in the soul” (41), and as “founded in the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine” (47).  His references to this spiritual function of art, which are always closely related to humanity’s essential dwelling in the world and belonging to the world, are not strictly speaking theological in the sense of being in the service of any definite theology.  Rather, their function is to describe what is for Agamben the essential function of art: its ability to bring something “from concealment and nonebeing unto the light of presence” (59), which is to participate in the divine act of creation.

4) In fact, this idea is definitive of art for Agamben.  Every art, he says, is “production into presence” (59), by which he means pro-duction as poesis, an idea that he contrasts with reproduction as praxis.  The production of poesis is creative, bringing non-being into being, whereas the reproduction of praxis is active, merely maintaining existence.

5) By bringing non-being into being, poesis also brings humanity into being. “Man has on earth a poetic status,” Agamben says, “because it is poesis that founds for him the original space of his world.  Only because in the poetic he experiences his being in the world as his essential condition does a world open up for his action and his existence.  Only because he is capable of the most uncanny power, the power of production into presence, is he also capable of praxis, of willed and free activity” (101).  The creative production of poesis does not overcome or replace the active reproduction of praxis, but in fact founds it, places it in the world.  “By opening to man his authentic temporal dimension, the work of art also opens for him the space of his belonging to the world, only within which he can take the original measure of his dwelling on earth and find again his present truth” (101), and in this sense, “The gift of art is the most original gift, because it is the gift of the original site of man” (101).

6) The idea of temporal dimension in the preceding quotation plays a particularly important role in Agamben’s understanding of how the work of art grants the original dwelling place of man.  In his own words, “To look at a work of art means to be hurled out into a more original time: it means ecstasy in the epochal opening of rhythm, which gives and holds back.  Only by starting from this situation of man’s relationship with the work of art is it possible to comprehend how this relationship – if it is authentic – is also for man the highest engagement that keeps him in the truth and grants to his dwelling on earth its original status” (102).  I do not think that I am entirely able to follow Agamben’s argument here, but he seems to suggest that the experience of the work of art is an experience of being outside of linear time, of being thrown into a time that is not subject to chronology, but is instead governed by the work of art’s own giving and holding back, what Agamben calls rhythm.

7)  In this experience of the work of art as poesis, as a production into presence that grants humanity’s dwelling in the world through an experience of originary time, Agamben claims that the role of artist and spectator are at last returned to solidarity, because they are no longer able to maintain anything like critical or aesthetic distance between themselves or the work of art itself.  “In the experience of the work of art,” he says, “man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poeitic act.  In this engagement, in this being hurled into rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground” (102).  Put in terms of his earlier concern with the way that critical distance divides the work of art either into an object of criticism or an expression of formal principle, he says, “The work of art is neither a cultural value, nor a privileged object for the spectators, nor the absolute creative power of the formal principle; instead, it situates itself in a more essential dimension, because it allows man to attain to his original status in history and time in his encounter with it” (101).

Whereas the fundamental gesture of hospitality is the invitation, and the fundamental gesture of community is the greeting, so the fundamental gesture of friendship is the referral or the recommendation.  Friendship is not even possible without this gesture.  It is essential to friendship that each friend be continually directing the other to what might delight and please, to be constantly saying to the other, “Meet this person; walk this path; read this book; explore this place; listen to this song.”  This referring is the very fabric , not of friendship itself, but of the place where friendship takes place, where it is discovered, where it is grown.  Without it, there can be no friendship.