10.16.2017

More on What It Is to Read Philosophy: Of Bird Songs in the Polyverse

Like a painter, a philosopher sees a world. This is what's happening, the philosopher declares, this is what the world looks like, how it behaves. The painter paints; the philosopher writes. But they are both presenting a world they see, a world of how things go.

Consider artists. Look at these images and tell me they don't occupy fundamentally different worlds. It's not that they see the same things and express them differently. It's that they see and inhabit different worlds — with different things, different moods, different things that count as something that matters, different ways of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world. An artist gives us a cosmos and a posture.

Bacon sees flesh hanging off bodies in an arena.

Rothko sees fields of affect with only a vague sense of form.

Whistler sees human life emerging from the amorphic smear of the world.

What world does Paul McCarthy inhabit?

Well, the same goes with philosophy. Philosophers don't all see the same world then proffer their own perspective. They see, and inhabit, different worlds. So when I read philosophy, this is first and foremost what I'm looking for. What world am I being asked to inhabit? What does it look like? How do things interact here? This is a form of understanding, sure, but it's different than what we normally call understanding. Which is to say, I can "understand" a philosopher's argument and still not see his (alas, it's usually his) vision of the world.

The instinct is to read some impossibly dense sentence and parse it, grapple with it, try to understand it. This is not a bad instinct. But it is a drive that is for naught if you don't also zoom out, see a bigger picture of what this philosopher is seeing. To focus on this or that page or sentence is like focusing on a painter's stroke or use of color. It can be revealing and interesting but it won't tell you what world you're inhabiting.

When I was in grad school, we weren't given much time to make sense of a philosopher. Usually, we'd read a book a week — Kant's Critique of Judgement one week, Nietzsche's Genealogy the next, Kierkegaard's Either/Or after that, and so on. It's kind of nuts and is mostly about attaining a false sense of mastery of a "field" of knowledge rather than engaging that philosopher's world. (In college, I took a grad seminar with the great Stephen Dunning in which we read one book: Gadamer's Truth and Method. Not only did I come to inhabit, and love, Gadamer: I learned what it is to inhabit a philosopher's world.)

At that same time, reading like that had a certain pleasure and taught me certain techniques for making sense swiftly. My most common technique back then? I'd try to short circuit the long process of living with a philosopher by smoking a joint and sitting with the book all night, flipping this way and that, feeling for a way in, trying to see what that philosopher sees, what he wants from the world, for instance, why Kant is even talking about the beautiful and the sublime, why aesthetic judgement is even a topic at all. Why these books? Why these examples, these questions, this approach?

This involves reading differently. One nifty trick is to ask the same question of each philosophy and see if that philosophy can even fathom the question, not to mention have an answer. This is the question I ask these days: Where do bird songs fit it in, if at all? The answer forces a thinking through of that philosopher's world as I grapple with the logic of that world. Try it at home!

These days, I'm exploring Bataille. I first read Bataille as a teenager. Never got it. I thought it was all about transgression, which didn't interest me. I'd rather live in a world where the things I love are the norm so there's no need for transgression; this is actually a significant factor in reading philosophy, or anything for that matter: Where is it situated? But more on this at another point.

Anyway, recently I found myself attracted to something in Bataille I couldn't put my finger on. So I've been reading pages here and there. I can't tell you which book he wrote when; I am not a philologist, historian, or biographer. At this point in my reckoning, I don't care. I'm sussing out the Bataille-verse so I can figure out where and how to put my ship down and begin living there.

For Bataille, life —from the everyday to the cosmic — is relentless exuberance: the world fucks and comes and shits and decays and seethes and bleeds. This is not an anthropomorphization. It's not that he takes human sexaulity and sees it everywhere. He sees fucking and coming everywhere, as forces of the cosmos that humans also do. And within this fucking and coming and dying and bleeding, there are all these interactions, all these exchanges of energy that make new things, that yield effects and affect from vegetal sprawl to nausea, all this excess of energy that breaks and disrupts and creates.

In Bataille's world, the sun is constantly jerking off on the earth, a bukkake not of dominance but supreme generosity. We live in a world in which we are being showered with vital energy all the time! And we don't need to return the favor! It is excess and this excess abounds (is that redundant? excessive?). Capitalism imagines streamlined productivity, the least amount of energy to create, and whatever excess is produced is put back to creating more — more, more, more but never a consumption, an indulgence, of said excess.

This is what Bataille sees: all these different terms of energy exchange, what he calls the general economy and which includes the financial economy. In this general economy, there is great seething squandering, repression, indulgence, channeling, hedging. The exchanges of energy that make the world, from the everyday to the cosmic, are big and inefficient as efficiency is not the point: it's the seething flow that matters, the exuberance, the spilling, the being swept up and away. Such is Bataille's world. There are bird songs at the periphery, sometimes gliding through, chirping their ejaculatory songs, an exquisite excess within the air.

Derrida doesn't see or hear any birds. Nope, no bird songs here. He lives and operates in that moment — and the ensuing process — in which he realized that to define a word, he had to know all the words in that definition, and then all the words in that definition, and so on and so on and so on — an infinite process that never gets there and, it seems, never actually began. He sees conceptual structures that at once perform and attempt to evade that logic (he calls this "deconstruction"). His hands are a little inky from the textual play but they're not too messy as he holds everything at its limit, his fingers in the margins. Despite the privilege he affords play, his world is quite clean — not orderly necessarily but clean. There's no blood, very little shit, a penis and a vagina here and there but not much sex — and certainly no damn bird songs.

Deleuze and Guattari live in a big crazy lava lamp of enormous complexity teeming with everything and anything human and not, terrestrial and cosmic. They see shapes coming into being and giving way everywhere, the relentless constitution and dissolution of form — rocks, crowds, books, concepts, music. Forces and bodies come together or don't in a breadth of ways. Bird songs create spaces, visible and invisible, differently than grass, asteroid fields, the nation-state, Freud, Francis Bacon. (And while there is certainly a line or two that runs between them and Derrida — the lack of origins, the multiplicity of texts, the play of movement — they occupy very different worlds. If nothing else, Deleuze and Guattari's world is extremely messy; Derrida would get uptight living there.)

Foucault sees bodies constantly being distributed by cultural-historical-existential forces, by language, people running up against things that they can say and can't say. And these distributive and distributed forces are always in motion, mutating over time, shifting relations to and among things at different speeds (although everything in Foucault's world moves much slower than in Deleuze and Guattari's; Foucault sees fewer explosive lines and more big, tectonic movements). There are bird songs but only ones he enjoys while goofing around. Mostly, he sees bodies being moved and managed, which he finds at once erotic and disturbing.

Nietzsche lives in a world of man's relentless creation, this urging urging urging always procreant urge of the world — only it's met with all sorts of other forces and urges, most of which are stupid and vile. There is a nature that exceeds everything we do, a nature we forget we're part of, a beautiful mercilessness to the stream of life. Like with Foucault, there may be bird songs but those birds aren't creating territories: they're beautifully indifferent to man, a joyful exuberance of nature.

For Bergson, the world is not so complicated. Like many philosophers after him, Bergson thinks philosophers muck things up. He looks at things and sees them; he doesn't wonder if he really sees them or what they really are. Look! A chair! He's quite reasonable like that. And everything he sees is moving. And he sees himself moving, too. And everything he feels emotionally is moving.Yet when he reads philosophy, it always assumes things are primarily still. He's quite concerned with the world of philosophy. But, mostly, he just sees everything always already moving, relentlessly forging itself. No bird songs here except as something else that moves.

Kant's world is the madness of reason. He doesn't trust or believe in his senses: the world does not reveal itself to him, or to anyone, through its appearances. There's a kind of paranoia there. But in order to dissipate that paranoia, he goes in search of ideas and concepts that can reveal the order of things, a secret structure of how things go. It all gets messy when he does engage the senses, when he look at art, listens to music, eats food, or enjoys a bird song. But through some nifty engineering, he manages to have some pleasure and still hold on to his reason, however unreasonable.

Socrates is an ironic shnook. He can't believe people believe they know anything, that anyone can be adamant about anything. The human world is so unsure and fleeting, how can they be certain? It's ridiculous! There is clearly some other plane where things persist above and beyond all this human silliness. Which is why he roams the streets badgering people who profess to know things, badgers them until that person either admits knowing nothing or, annoyed, walks away. This is why they killed poor Socrates: he was a nudge. And he does hear bird songs, and enjoy them, but like everything in this material world, their song gives way to a divine truth we can't see or know.

Like art and literature, philosophy gives us a world, not a truth, not the meaning of life. A meaning of life may present itself to you. I found such meaning when I read Pynchon. But meaning is not the promise of philosophy. A philosophy offers something at once more humble and more grand than meaning: it proffers a world.

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