The Deed, and Nothing But

Consider seeing. Is seeing active or passive? Do you see the coffee mug? Or does the coffee mug, in a sense, project itself into you — into your head, into your body, the very vision of it filling you just as the coffee itself does as you drink it? Do you come to the world? Or does the world come to you? Or is this a false dichotomy? Is it that we come together, we become together, we are both stuffs of this world and we go and interact as any stuffs in the world go — colliding, harmonizing, snuggling? 

Vision — all perception — is neither active nor passive, is both active and passive.

The place of perspective, of reading, is the middle, between here and there, between you and me. It happens in what we call the middle voice. The middle voice is difficult to speak, at least in English. English has subjects of sentences that stand separate from their actions — the verbs — which in turn act upon objects. “I kiss you”: in this simple construction there is a distinct I, a distinct kiss, and a distinct you. There is an implied, and obligatory, distinction between who I am and the actions I take, as if there were an I that stands apart from the world, that comes before, or outside, action — as if there were a kiss that did not involve me and you.

In some sense, all there is is kissing — there is no I, no kiss, no you, just this cooperative event (hopefully!) of me, kiss, desire, love, you.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes that when we say “lightning strikes,” we are being redundant. Of course lightning strikes. What is lightning if it doesn’t strike? Lightning is that which strikes; it is striking, always and already. Take away the striking and you have nothing. When we say “lightning strikes,” we put a doer behind the deed when, for Nietzsche, all there is is the deed. Nietzsche argues that one of the great moves made by the slaves was to posit a subject behind the action who could be held eternally responsible for his actions — the bird of prey becomes guilty for eating the little lamb, as if the bird had a choice, as if the bird were not always and already a bird that preys. The invention of this doer is the invention of Judeo-Christian morality and its arsenal of ego, morality, guilt, and judgment.

Our grammar rests on such a subject who is distinct from both his actions and the world. And so here we posit a middle voice, a way to speak that is neither active nor passive. In English, this demands that we make language perform in such a way that the distinctions between doer, deed, and object are intertwined. We have to make language enmesh and touch and palpate.


drwatson said...

That damn subject/object dichotomy has and will plague thought, least Western thought, forever.

And your right - it's built into the grammar. I remember the first time I read that grammar was metaphysical. I was like - crap. I know this must be true, but I can't see it. And then you see it. And then you realize the implications.

I mean the world is obviously not "out there" somewhere. We are the world - this post is adding to the world. But when I sit back and put my thinking cap on I want to think of the world as an object, which i believe is the death of thought.

I love the idea of in-the-world-being (I actually like that order better than being-in-the-world) because it shows syntactically what is really going on.

I mean I can't read 12 pages of Husserl without wanting to claw my eyes out, but I love the idea that consciousness is always consciousness of something. There is no "as such."

I guess the question would be how to use the English language - which I absolutely fucking love - in ways that compromise and complicate the inherent metaphysical distinctions that reside within it.

As a side not - since I have to take another Spanish class to get a PhD in English, I've been thinking of this - how weird is it that other languages actually engender things like pencils and pens and bathrooms and beer bottles?

Elliot's Picture Studio said...

Interesting stuff. I have little understanding of philosophy but I can't help but be horrified by living a life without morality.
I wonder if morality plays a roll in nature? Is the "bird of pray" being cruel or kind? Lightning can't be blamed for striking but animals do show signs of compassion and guilt.
Anyway, It was an interesting read and I thoroughly enjoyed your post.
Thanks :)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dr: I think the trick is to supersede grammar via the performative: to make language do rather than say. If we write well, we can break the grammar, rearrange it, make it speak otherwise. This is what WS Burroughs devoted all his writing to; it's what Borges manages to do over, 5 pages at a time (language becomes a labyrinth); it's what Nabokov does when the prose prances down your tongue.

@ Elliot's: I think a morality/nature split gets us in trouble and raises unnecessary questions. Let's just say that everything is natural — these pixels, those trees, these words, those thoughts. So in this big mish mash of stuff, what propels us to do things or not do things? Need it be a code set from on high (a version of morality)? Or can it emerge from the muck? Nietzsche is amoral but he has a rigorous ethics built on health, on vitality, on respect for Life.

Perhaps you can think about the difference between morality and ethics. Ethics is what happens between us, how best to negotiate this life. Morality is a code that wants to sit outside this life. Can we dispense with morality and still have ethics? I think so.

Jonathon Neville said...

An emphatic Yes!
In the comments, you mention Burroughs, Borges, and Nabokov.
I know self-deconstructing texts attempt to do away with the subject.
I know E-prime is an attempt to write without the verb "to be".
Can you provide specific example sentences that attempt the intertwined middle voice - of your own or from others? Perhaps something literary, and something we might see on a self-deprecating t-shirt?
Thanks Daniel,