Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Parasite - Michel Serres

Whether we speak of identities or relationships, our selective vision is inevitably exclusionary. Speaking meaningfully to one another entails ignoring all that pervades a setting; the extraneous; noise. Yet such a willful dismissal does not render the excluded unimportant. As Latour writes: Things strike back.  While relation may produce being, there will always be another/others who benefit from, or feed off of, action and intention.

Michel Serres' The Parasite explores the world of the ignored; the third in a two-way interaction. When the banquet is over and the guests have departed, it is the mouse who will feast on the surfeit. The unexpected guest; the beneficiary of lost excess. Surplus creates an unexploited niche, ready to be filled. Serres writes that the introduction of the parasite is analogous to the introduction of noise: it frustrates mechanistic and deterministic relationships; it yields unexpected outcomes.

Such unexpected outcomes can be seen as creative novelty - the knife-edge of history. With only a priori delineated relationships uncertainty remains absent entirely. Inspiration, revelation, epiphany, all initially strike us as unwanted noise until categorized or related to other phenomena or concepts. Lacking the unexpected and, sometimes, inconvenient, we may never view things afresh. The parasite, the unwanted, forces a reexamination of accepted  understandings; "it is the location and the subject of transformation." Awakening new possibility, the parasite, when viewed narrowly, may be seen as an encumbrance - an unwanted effluent.

But only the unexpected is truly novel. Any time the whole is transcendent it will force a redefinition (an expansion?) of the system. The whole is always a negotiation of internal mechanisms, each at various times subsuming and being subsumed by the others. No thing can obstinately cling to its past identity if it is to move forward. While the parasite draws upon energy and time, it also demands change in unexpected ways. It is here that novelty emerges, and the world is constantly remade afresh.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Searchers - Alan LeMay

The story from which Alan LeMay's The Searchers takes its inspiration was shrouded in myth before LeMay wrote his novel. With real-life blood, fear and destruction on the Texas High Plains as it source material and a film adaptation to-follow, the story of LeMay's work may be variously known to many - though the specificities, grasped by few.

Getting back to LeMay's work uncovers various nuances to the story. It is interesting to view the tale as an evolving mythology of competing source material. Allowing the recorded history, LeMay's work, and John Ford's movie to speak in-light of one another enables a multidisciplinary look at the intersection of mytho-reality and how the two become enmeshed in our conceptions of self and experience. While Amos (alternately Ethan) Edwards and Martin Pauley may have never walked the Earth in a traditionally western (cultural, not genre) sense, we can compare their characterizations between novel and film with one another. Though it may seem mistaken to compare the two, in attempts to find the true Amos/Ethan Edwards, how we make sense of such competing personas can offer insights into ourselves and competing mediums of art (among other issues). The characters' descent from a historical account of the search for Cynthia Parker only complicates, and enriches our sense of their place and actions.

Looking for an absolute grounded, tangible center for this conception of an evolving reality will inevitably come up short. However, our sense of discussion amongst texts enables for differing modes of truth to revolve around a central place, which itself must be empty. This is not a denigration of such an arrival: how do we delineate the absolute central aspect of any entity's identity, without which all the surrounding phenomena would be something different? The discussion which takes place within our interpretations will likely never be entirely settled. Edwards and Pauley can continue to live, grow and change in our minds and with ourselves. If the observer co-creates the world s/he inhabits, then this fluid discussion allows for the continual re-creation of the world, and the subsequent novel generation of opportunity and contingency. The frontier of the Texas High Plains is now - and not what it was before Ford's movie, or LeMay's work. How it is interpreted implicates a real change in the here and now. What is done will be owned, reinterpreted, appropriated, understood and misunderstood; to each his own. Faulkner was right: "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ladder of Divine Ascent - St. John Climacus

At more than 1400 years old, St. John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent has become a part of the Christian, particularly Catholic, liturgy and scholarship. Derivative of the parable of Jacob's Ladder, and speaking of the steps required in one's journey towards a life in service to the Lord God and his only begotten Son, The Ladder gives insight into some of the most nuanced and influential thinking concerning Christian belief during the Dark Ages.

Of particular interest to me was the work as the efforts of an eminently rational mind. While the writings of a 6th century monk, directed specifically towards his brethren, may smack the modern ear as outmoded religiosity, what struck me was the rational tone of St. John's arguments and approach. Here is a case for fealty to God, carefully constructed and based upon the founding premise that he is not unjust, and will not close the door to those who knock with humility.

Such a rational, and indeed, one might argue, logical, argument, proceeds to place the would-be adherent within a world of uncertainty. While the world may be a multiple and changing place, the divine is eternal and changeless. If we are to believe as St. John does, creation, as emanating from God, is a manifestation of his love. If love is the central guiding principle then the eternal must be good, and it is only within the fleeting veil of change in the world that evil arises. Thus, we must discard our worldly concerns, which occur for but a blink in the eyes of the divine, and enter into a life whereby we wish only for what is transcendent of our time and place. While this may strike the modern as specifically escapist or even savage, we may imagine a time and place in which such understandings would have been a radical invention within the history of human thought. In a world of recurrent season and ceaseless change, positing an eternal and unchanging principle must challenge our conceptions of our place in creation. The possibility of such permanence potentially gives rise to countless pursuits - not the least of which is that of permanent knowledge itself. The conceptual shift from the latent uncertainty of a complex and evolving world within which we are subsumed, to a creation which we can grasp and potentially meaningfully understand and, possibly, even alter, is a bold and great conceptual leap. We do well to remember the foundations upon which we have built our own castles in the sky.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dutch - Edmund Morris

After years of all-access privileges to the Reagan White House, Edmund Morris seems to have concluded that, to honestly write a biography of the 40th President, he would have to re-imagination what is meant by reality. Operating from the premise that Ronald Reagan lived within his own arrived upon conception of reality, Morris too attempts to inhabit such a reality as he would have created; one running parallel to the President's.

Such an accomplishment - Morris' approach - probably says more about Reagan than any historical recounting could. If we are interested in knowing Ronald Reagan as a man, how he thought, how he grew and how changed to understand, and eventually, how he would come to shape the world, then Morris' approach comes highly recommended. This is, first and foremost, a study of character. The ambitiousness of his work, the sheer gall to flaunt such convention is surely worthy of high praise. If the central short-coming of Ambrose's work on Nixon is a failure to learn about the man himself, then Morris' work suffers from a lack of historically situating Reagan's grand personage.

Perhaps Morris - and Reagan - are right in their estimation of the actor-cum-President's role in the American psyche. Reagan has always existed more in our imaginations than the reality of his actions have formed our opinion of him. The casting of such a character adds a weight of meaning to the performance of Reagan's public life and Presidency. It helps us better understand the world-as-stage ethos that can infuse the biggest of lives. It gives the onset of Reagan's dimentia and alzheimer's a more potent reality and, eventually, allows us to agree that we can never really know him. Morris' analogizes Reagan to the planet Jupiter: a large mass of extreme gravitational force, inexorably altering all objects around it, looming large in the sky, and, eventually, revealed as without center. Ronald Reagan was a point of arrival; a creative novelty of performance at every moment drawing all of us towards him and the world of his creation; whether we wished it or not. Morris seems to think that Reagan never cared to realize this; was never much for introspection. Maybe it all really is just a big picture show.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How To Be Alone - Jonathan Franzen

Naked and alone.

As the century, nay, the millennium draws to a close, life in America is supposedly at its apogee. The Cold War is over, poverty, racism, and all other forms of social malaise are in retreat. Wealth. Freedom. Success. The American Dream. Never have we felt so secure. The world is our oyster. "So", Franzen seems to ask, "what's wrong with me?"

When the day is done we still puzzle over what it means to make sense of being ourselves in the world. Modern ascendancy has left such concerns drastically wanting. Franzen feels inundated with depersonalized technologies, both physical and social. No matter how fast our machines whir, no matter how reassuringly they hum, at the end of the day we are who we are. Left, as Franzen assures us, standing in the shower; naked and alone.

Franzen seems to understand who is audience is: the small-group of like-minded, self-identified, readers. He relies upon a keen sense of kinship with his audience: either you intuitively understand the various disconnects he wonders over, or you are likely unable to feel his sense of estrangement. These essays puzzle over how each of us is finally able to be okay with ourselves; though I wonder if Franzen would feel, personally, successful?

In a larger sense How To Be Alone is a series of essays letting like-minded people know that such disconcerting feelings that too often characterize the modern situation need not be experienced in isolation. Though the questions he drives at are finally particular to each person, that we share a common humanity in the first place, even amongst all the noise, might still be a truism that binds us. Finding the common ground in shared disassociation is Franzen's driving force. How he makes sense of it tells us about ourselves as birthed by, and standing in opposition to, the world we inhabit.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Religion and Nothingness - Keiji Nishitani

All people, indeed all things whatsoever, meet on the common field of nothingness which is the universe. On this common field, each moment of time is ever-present in all things. Always. This means that all things, including you and I, are constantly in a state of becoming - constantly transcendent of the moment. Such continual newness yields ever-present, novel freedom and possibility, as well as burdens and necessities.

For Keiji Nishitani of the Tokyo school of philosophy, such seemingly radical assertions are really simple ramifications wrought from an investigation of our experience in the world. Standing in opposition to the western scientific edifice (which he describes as a vast superstructure spanning a yawning nothing), Nishitani's marriage of western philosophy and Buddhist thought encourages a reflection upon our own interactions within the world. Our own newness without ceasing; our embodiment of the vast web of relations, entails an emptiness (not proscriptively negative) at the core of our being. Such an emptiness allows for the freedom of the moment; enables us to interact with and grow alongside the universe of radical becoming.

Nishitani's work does much to invert our sense of self and the world - perhaps long overdue. The ramifications of a radical becoming on a field of emptiness have been touched upon in canonical Buddhist works and given a certain audience in the West by Whitehead. By fully investing ourselves into the world (an acceptance of the home-ground of the emptiness of all things demands such) we can begin to understand our own formation in moment, and live the embodiedness of things-as-self, and vice versa.