The Delirium of Empiricism

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture is an empirical project, delirious and brimming with information of every sort. While she is categorized as a poet, she seems to hail from an empirical tradition that is part of a science and philosophy of old.

Hear the word empiricism and you probably conjure images of scientific rigor, of rationality. I don't believe in god or qi or mysticism. I believe in what I see, in what I experience. That is a parody, perhaps, a straw man. But I'm not convinced it's as parodic as I'd wish.

In any case, it seems to me that empiricism creates a delirious experience. After all, by definition, empiricism awaits the perceptive experience, not judging by theory or concept but by letting the experience dictate. And, in my experience, experience is rarely orderly or rational. In fact, the more I analyze an experience, the more complex it becomes until I am no longer sure of anything — including myself.

Perception takes us out of ourselves, introduces us to the swirl of things and sensations that teem all about. That is how perception takes place. Think about it for a moment: When you walk down the street and see this and that — faces, fog, trees, detritus, sky, squirrel, cars — are you seeing them? Or are they filling your eyes, your head, your mind? Is seeing active — you as the subject, the world as an object? Or is seeing passive — you sitting there while the world fills you to the brim?

Or does seeing happen in some entirely other way, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive? Can we say that seeing happens in the middle voice in which neither you nor the things you see are subject and object but in which the two swap places at infinite speed — seer become seen becomes seer becomes seen — so fast in fact that the two begin to blur, to marble, to intertwine at the most fundamental, ontological level? I am not just seer; I am seen. To say one is to say the other. (See Merleau-Ponty's incredible essay, "The Chiasm," in The Visible and the Invisible.)

We can say the same about all perception — tasting, smelling, touching, hearing. We don't sense the world as active subjects, even though we are in many ways active. And we don't sense the world solely as passive objects, the world thrust upon us — although it often feels like that. We are inflection points pushing back as we receive (we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest).

Picture a pebble dropped in a lake. Picture those Doppler ripples. Now picture that same pebble dropped in a river, in an ocean, in a bowl of pudding, in milk, in honey, against the pavement, in a wine glass, against your hand, your back, your tongue, your eye. All these different effects, all these ways of going with that pebble. This is perception: an exchange of vibratory intensities, mine and the many, many things of this world as I move about.

To experience the world empirically — that is, through my sense experience — I am necessarily taken out of myself, taken astray of myself. I am now made of the world as much as I am made of me.

This is rarely a uniform, rational, orderly experience. There is so much happening at once at different speeds and intensities — the shrieks of birds, babies, brakes, sirens; the smells of shit, sweat, sewer, soil; the textures of fog, wind, and humidity; the sights of bums, beauty, and bathos. Experience is ambivalent, multifarious, multivalent. It's nutty and complex, like a good single origin chocolate. And it's morphing, always morphing — albeit with patterns of some sort, patterns that are more calculaic than geometric, patterns that repeat but always with difference, patterns that are part of other patterns and part of no pattern at all, patterns that never cohere once and for all, that remain unpredictable, emergent yet somehow a pattern nonetheless and are all the more beguiling for it.

And we haven't even discussed all the invisible effects we experience at every moment, the teem of affect, the myriad moods that fill the air with impossible density. Yes, there's the persistent tug of gravity — as we age, we feel it more, our knees and feet less confident in their ability to rise — but there's also the tug of sentiment, of the ominous, glorious, seething feeling of everything everywhere. The air is thick with mood. There is no place, no moment, no particle that is not mooded.

It is impossible to strip experience of its mood. To say I see these two animals behaving this way but not to take into consideration the mood — your mood, the mood, mood in general — is not to experience those two animals behaving. It is to turn a blind eye to the very thing you, as an empiricist, are claiming to be be open to: the fullness of experience. 

All this sensual information taking me out of myself, twisting and turning me as I lean into it all, parry, duck, and embrace it all, all this swirling and morphing, all these feelings and sensations all happening at once at different speeds, temperatures, intensities, all in different timbres and rhythms, different terms of chaos and coherence: Empiricism is delirious.

There are any number of ways to operate as an empiricist. A scientist finds formulas, patterns of repetition that become strange kinds of laws, terms for how this and this and that and this usually or often or under certain conditions go together. This empirical scientist, it seems to me, would consider mood as much as weight, quality as much as quantity.

An artist might focus elsewhere, at the perceptive patterns, at pushing back at this multipronged experience or capturing it or hedging it to let this part in and not that. Think of Jackson Pollock writhing over his canvas watching his drips of paint fall: he is an empirical painter who hedges the forces at play, just a bit, with the flick of his wrist. Or Julie Mehretu who maps the flows of the cosmos, visible and invisible alike. Or Matthew Ritchie who illustrates it.

Julie Mehretu maps the empirical swirl of the visible and invisible cosmic experience.

It's funny that we imagine that information is in experience when, in fact, experience is information — and vice versa: information is experience, is experiential, is of and with experience. Somehow, empiricism went from surrendering to experience to the extraction of hard data from experience, letting all the soft data fall by the wayside — the moods and intensities, the histories, the ghosts, the trace presence of forces and bodies from afar, all the delicious complexity of experience.

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture, which I've written about here, is an empirical reckoning of this world. She is as much scientist as poet: Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. (Buy her incredible book.)

I like to imagine, then, a different world of science and information, a world in which knowledge is indeed empirical, in which poetry and science blur as experience is given full voice in all its dissonant, messy, multihued splendor.

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