Sunday, 24 December 2006

A History of Diminishment

An opening framed by the remnants of an ending, and now reprised. Arms outstretched, but necessarily encrypted. This is the horizon which masks its own possibilities. Uprooted from an undiscovered past and plunged into the present. Suddenly a whole past, as yet unknown, comes to the fore. Other rooms which come from a great distance, disrupting the doors which embrace us in the present. In the elsewhere, far from that which has ceased to belong. Isn’t this how it is with doors: they hold what memory has forgotten?


As to the doors which frame the memory of different times: since Christmas is the oldest of childhood memories, the most ancestral, it is also the most obscure. Today, from the standpoint of time, it is only possible to speak of a history of diminishment, of the erasure of presences. Alongside its ancestry, the memory of Christmas remains locked within a region of negation. Today, Christmas survives as an event reanimated by the desire and disappointments of others. An event experienced in proxy. Things mark their presence, it is true. But is only inasmuch as discontinuity gives room for the past to articulate a sigh. And now: what is remembered, vague and exact simultaneously, is only defined by what is no longer present.

Memory does not belong in the past. There is no landscape in which the past resides, able to be travelled to on demand. Remembering is not a return, but an opening in which traces stretch into the present. Particular objects, sensuous and symbolic, encounter us, superimposing a history upon the present which is otherwise dormant. Time regained is time disrupted. Simple delight, then, in experiencing ourselves as subjects to the autonomy of our own history. Does the diminished past survive irrespective of its apparent ending? A synthesis is born: the remote reverberations of memory gain a resonance in the present only by rising up through the body, which experiences it as difference.


Today, Christmas repeats itself a side-effect of memory. As the archetypical homely event, it has a simultaneous existence as its destitute other. A reality without fixed appearances, an experience unable to be situated in time, an event marked by its own effacement. Together, its de-animated (dis)appearance forces the deepest residues of body memory to seek a lived counterpart. But in its autonomy, the body remembers what the mind cannot bring forth. As doors contain points of departure, so Christmas leaves a trail of shadows in its arrival. Leaking into time, it deposits a residue of unburied time in the present, until finally it comes to resemble an involuntary memory frozen before time.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Schopenhauer and Phenomenology

Along the way to Husserl, I’ve been thinking back to transcendental idealism. It is a long retracing, a different place. During this pathway, I’ve been rediscovering Schopenhauer’s idealism. Some questions I have asked myself: How does Schopenhauer stand in relation to Husserl? Is Schopenhauer’s idealism, together with his critique of Kant, a neglected dimension of pre-Husserlian phenomenology? If so, what could Schopenhauer bring to an understanding of Husserl’s own critique of Kant in The Crisis of European Sciences? Some scattered notes follow.

“The world is my representation,” so marks the opening of Schopenhauer’s idealism. Schopenhauer goes on. All that is immediately given in this representation is consciousness itself, which “conditions” the world as it apprehends it (W2, p. 5). The conditioning is a twofold act, which occurs in relation to the materiality (qualitative) and formality (quantitative) of the object. Only consciousness has immediate access to the world, and in the absence of that world consciousness ceases to be. Thus the transcendental unity of the subject: “intellect and matter are correlatives” (p. 15). As transcendental, perception individuates appearances from undifferentiated matter. In contrast, realism, Schopenhauer argues, takes it for granted that the subject has direct access to the world, already formed. No object without a subject, and, more importantly, no subject without an object. Agreed. Indeed, in the second of the Manuscript Remains, Schopenhauer cites a lack of recognition of this fact as being Kant’s “fundamental mistake” (MR2, p. 462). And as Hume argued before Schopenhauer, the self is comprised from essentially discontinuous aspects, meaning that consciousness is an “accomplishment” in Husserl’s reading of Hume (Crisis, p. 90).

Given the mediation of the intellect between object and appearances, Schopenhauer will now make a distinction between intuitive and abstract representations. Concerning the latter, “on earth,” Schopenhauer writes, “these are the property of man alone” (W1, p. 6). Intuitive representation, meanwhile, takes in the conditions of the possibility of experience: space and time, of which I don’t have time to discuss at present. Suffice to say, that the main “action” of Schopenhauer’s account of the principle of sufficient reason is the giving-form of succession and individuation, and that in light of this giving-form, Schopenhauer’s metaphysical epistemology gains its clearest articulation through the phenomenology of aesthetic experience, whereby the giving-form is suspended. In the meantime, however, phenomenal appearances merely approximate an image of the world beyond appearances.

Throughout this first book, and later on in his essay on the “History of the Ideal and Real”, Schopenhauer repeats the point: transcendental idealism does not deny the existence of the objective world. Instead, it asserts that the objective world is the production of understanding. Irrespective of the innate realism, which gives itself over to a view of the world as independent of subjectivity, for Schopenhauer, to posit the existence of the objective world as such is to overlook a fundamental presupposition: “the subject who forgets to take account of himself” (W1, p. 13). This, of course, would become a central argument of Husserl’s critique of Kant. More of that later.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Does the Cogito Remember?

Fido the Yak has a typically interesting post asking if the cogito sleeps. I would speculatively ask in response: does the memory of dreaming constitute a disruption in Descartes’ stream of consciousness? The question is particularly pressing given the sceptical dialogue in the Meditations, where thought is destructed before being built anew as the curiously atemporal cogito. At first, the memory becomes a topographical device in Descartes’ Meditations: “How many times have I dreamt at night that I was in this place, dressed, by the fire, although naked in my bed?” (p. 96). Two questions follow: Who is the “I” in this instant? And why does Descartes not tell us of the interval between the experience of the place and the dream of it? The question seems important, since it raises the question remembering oneself in the past as distinct from oneself in the present.

An extraordinarly rich passage in the Tenth Book of Augustine’s Confessions is helpful in understanding the relationship between the recession of memory and the persistence of consciousness. With a heavily spatial predisposition, Augustine is discussing the various attributes of memory. Terms such as “vast,” “storehouse,” and “spacious palace” abound, so that Augustine is obliged to say that “each [category] is admitted through its own special entrance” (p. 214). The role placing memory plays in Augustine’s account becomes clear when he turns to the confused memory. In a peculiarly Heideggerian passage, he writes:

When we give [confused memories] our attention, we see to it that these facts, which have been lying scattered and unheeded, are placed ready to hand, so that they are easily forthcoming once we have grown use to them (p. 218).

Placed ready to hand means giving memory back its presence. This can occur as both habit memory and episodic memory. Augustine seems to be referring to the former. In any case, giving back a presence to memory means reconfiguring and reconstituting it in and through time. Indeed, Augustine goes on to say that he is compelled to “shepherd them out again from the lairs” (Ibid.). Unity is thus established through the immanence and transcendentalism of the past, allowing Augustine to conclude that:

This is the derivation of the word cogitare, which means to think or to collect one’s thoughts. For in Latin the word cogo, meaning I assemble or I collect, is related to the cogito, which means I think (pp. 218-219).

The gathering of memory hence becomes central to the work of the cogito. To collect one’s thoughts is to find a place for them. Thought belongs to time insofar as it retains a (ready to hand) presence in time. And isn’t this act of gathering memory constitutive of Cartesian continuity in the same way that the Bergson durĂ©e is transcendentally seamless? At the end of the Second Mediation, Descartes makes the passing comment that it is memory which “imprints this new knowledge” to the mind. The remark suggests that memory assumes the role of fortifying against the interruption of conscious (an aspect wholly endorsed by Bergson). Does the cogito remember, then? Perhaps only in that it guards against dispersion of temporal continuity. The memory of thought—I was thinking, therefore I continue to be—has no place (literally) in the Cartesian scheme, resulting in the constriction of an enclosed but hyper-vigilant consciousness.

(One could make various tentative suggestions here concerning Descartes’ “stove-heated room” as exemplary of the Bachelardian model of compressed time in relation to the (a)temporality of the cogito. Uninterrupted place. Importantly, Descartes died from waking too early, having been summoned to lecture Christina of Sweden at 5am in the freezing cold. What does this tell us about temporality of interruption in relation to place?)

Friday, 1 December 2006

Night of the Il y a

The articulation of phenomenology through the experience of insomnia has a rich lineage. In Levinas, insomnia becomes a privileged, metaphysical moment. Already in Time and the Other, the fundamental concern of “existing without existents,” Levinas’s terminology for Heidegger Being and being, is approached through a phenomenology of insomnia. Levinas makes clear his divergence to Heidegger by even positing the question. A strange passage follows, in which Levinas turns to Heidegger’s notion of “thrownness” to elicit the notion of an existentless existence: “It is as if the existent appeared only in an existence that precedes it, as though existence were independent of the existent, and the existent that finds itself thrown there could never become master of existence” (p. 45). Thrown existent takes place, then, against a spectral, disrupting backdrop, which Levinas terms the “il y a.”

This “impersonal ‘field of forces’ of existing” presents itself as anonymous immanence in Levinas, countering negation, through invoking an “ambience of being” in terms of what reappears through negation (p. 48). As impersonal, the “experience” of the “there is” is also dynamic. It appears as a residue, determined in its form by a prior event. It is at this juncture that the peculiar silence of insomnia comes to the foreground. Interestingly, in Ethics and Infinity states the following concerning the origin of the “there is”:

My reflection on this subject starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as “rumbling.” […] It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise. […] in the absolute emptiness that one can imagine before creation — there is (p. 48).

“One sleeps alone”: the centrality of solitude is clear. The continuity of the adult (Bachelard would no doubt speak of the adult as being downstairs) is an event of discontinuity for the child. “Rumbling” takes form as a past which refuses to be remembered. Instead, the rumbling silence comes into the bedroom, giving presence to the room, but the presence of what is no longer there. Levinas goes on: “It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear.” Here too silence is given a form, articulated through a contained absence. But the experience is not sanguine. The impersonality of encountering the empty shell carries with it a sense of horror: the horror of impersonal (dis)continuity.

The horror of the “there is” is crystallised in the unending night of the insomniac. Levinas does not have in mind any such existentialist “angst,” in which consciousness is faced with its own nullity in the still nothingness. Nor does this entail Heidegger’s “the Nothing,” which becomes an ontic mode experienced (falsely) in anxiety. Such a mode is undermined through Levinas’s analysis insofar as the “I” is called into question. At first, insomnia appears to presence consciousness as a remainder, a force which resists its closure. Yet consciousness is not simply “here” waiting for the night to end and for sleep to begin. In Ethics and Infinity, he writes: “The impossibility of escaping wakefulness is something ‘objective” […] This impersonality absorbs my consciousness; consciousness is depersonalized. I do not stay awake: ‘it’ stays awake” (p. 49).

Where is the “I” in this ontological rupture? It seems as though consciousness has become apprehended by the “there is,” has become the space in which the “there is” takes form. Further still: there is no temporal distance to this space: the night loses definition, compelling Levinas to remark (perceptively) in Time and the Other: “A memory would already be a liberation with regard to the past” (p. 48). Is this not the final horror of the il y a: that it presupposes the claustrophobia of disrupted time, yet retains enough temporal distance for consciousness to catch sight of its past self being animated through the impersonality of the immanent il y a?