Monday, 29 August 2011

The Creature of Another Species

[Cézanne, "Le Lac d’Annecy." 1896]

We live in the midst of man-made objects, among tools, in houses, streets, cities, and most of the time we see them only through the human actions which put them to use. We become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily and unshakably. Cézanne’s painting suspends these habits of thought and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself. This is why Cézanne’s people are strange, as if viewed by a creature of another species. Nature itself is stripped of the attributes which make it ready for animistic communions: there is no wind in the landscape, no movement on the Lac d’Annecy; the frozen objects hesitate at the beginning of the world. It is an unfamiliar world in which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness.

(Merleau-Ponty, Cezanne’s Silence).

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.

(H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu).

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Philosophies of Nostalgia

[Max Klinger, "Adam." 1880]

Philosophy’s treatment of nostalgia remains curiously overlooked. To my mind, there have been only three substantial papers dealing with the topic head on. First, we have Edward Casey’s 1987 article “The World of Nostalgia” in what used to be called Man and World but now comes under the more prosaic title Continental Philosophy Review. Before this, James Hart wrote an exemplary paper in 1973, also in Man and World, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nostalgia.” More recently, Steven Crowell contributed to the topic in his “Spectral History: Narrative, Nostalgia, and the Time of the I,” published in 1999 in Research in Phenomenology. We can now add to these three papers Jeff Malpas’s recent treatment of the topic, “Philosophy’s Nostalgia,” to be found in Contributions To Phenomenology (thanks to AnySpaceWhatever for providing access to the Malpas article).

Maplas’s paper is important in several respects. One, he takes issue the common presentation of nostalgia as a pernicious term, especially as it is employed with respect to a philosophical position. Two, he takes issue with the temporal-centric perspective of nostalgia, as it is given in the mood of nostalgia (and includes my earlier work [The Aesthetics of Decay] in this trend).

Crucial to his argument is the centrality of the home in the nostalgic’s worldview, as he writes: “Understood precisely as a pain associated with desire for home – and as home is neither a space nor a time, but a place that holds a space and time within it – so nostalgia can never be understood as spatial or temporal alone” (88). Against his position, “‘nostalgia’ has come instead to signify a condition usually taken to involve, first and foremost, temporal dislocation” (Ibid.). This temporal dislocation is set in a cultural and historical context, in which the “cure” for nostalgia was originally thought of as simply returning to the homeland. Post-Freud, (and to some extent, post-Kant), this spatial emphasis has been supplanted with a concern with lost time. All of which is easily demonstrated by returning to a place from one’s past. The accompanying sense of derealization is due to breakage in the temporality of self rather than in the materiality of place.

This, I realise, is to some extent a false division, and Malpas is largely correct to assign “place” as that which binds space and time. I agree. But nevertheless, it seems to me that one can quite easily accent certain structural and affective dimensions of the mood of nostalgia over other aspects. That indeed, seems the point Malpas makes in the following comment: “Although Dylan Trigg argues that nostalgia and homesickness are essentially temporal in character (Trigg 2006: 54–55). The apparent shift here is presumably, on this account, a shift only in how nostalgia and homesickness are viewed, and not a shift in the character of nostalgia as such” (Ibid). If there is a shift in view, then it is perhaps a question of placing onus on the spatial or temporal aspects of the character of nostalgia itself. Along with home, nostalgia is a consolidation of spatio-temporal aspects of the lifeworld. Time is not, after, at the expensive of place.

Malpas also remarks notably on the affective emphasis of nostalgia, arguing that the history of nostalgia has moved from “suffering and estrangement” to “familiarity and comfort” (Ibid.). For him, the polemical stance against nostalgia is rooted in this over emphasis on nostalgia as a mode of retreat from the world, characterised by the absence of critical thinking and a reactionary response to change. In this way, nostalgia takes place against a broader backdrop of insecurity and instability. Philosophically, as Malpas argues, Heidegger is often presented as the central figure in this line of thought. In a footnote, Malpas writes:

Dylan Trigg is especially critical of what he terms “Heidegger’s spatial-centrism” (Trigg 2006: xvi), claiming that “Heidegger’s musings on homelessness persistently reference the geometrical spatial field, and so revert to the pre-reflective diagnosis of nostalgia as geographical displacement, and that alone. His failure to grasp homesickness in temporal terms is especially striking given the attention time receives in Being and Time. The omission is further heightened, since temporality is at the structural core of nostalgia” (Trigg 2006: 54), although Trigg’s criticisms sit rather oddly with some of his discussion of Heidegger elsewhere in the book, especially in chapter 15, 199–207, where the issue of ‘spatial-centrism’ disappears, and there is instead a stronger appreciation (or so it seems) of the centrality of place in Heidegger’s account. (91).

I suspect Malpas is right about the inconsistency in my treatment of Heidegger (I would certainly never devalue him as a philosopher of place. My criticism was pointed at the notion of place as a static and stabilizing category in his account, for example, of dwelling). I think the bigger worry is whether or not Heidegger is emblematic of philosophical inquiry as a mode of recovering the past or a mood confronting loss. Elsewhere in the paper, Malpas points to a more spectral reading of Heidegger: “In Heideggerian terms, this means that the remembrance of being always has the character of nostalgia in that it remains a return that is never completed, but is essentially disjoint, spectral even. The homecoming that Heidegger so often evokes is thus a homecoming that is never completed, and that cannot be so completed. It is a homecoming that returns us to a questionability that is at the very heart of our being-in-the-world” (98-99). I am sympathetic to Malpas’s reading of Heidegger, and it seems to me that a broader characterization of the role of estrangement in Heidegger’s thinking on materiality and memory would be of benefit (Robert Mugerauer may have already achieved that with his recent book on the topic).

Malpas’s other contribution to this debate is to emphasis a point made in Casey’s 1987 book on remembering: that memory always involve an appeal to the worldhood of place, Malpas writes: “Since nostalgia is itself a certain form of autobiographical memory – or, at least, incorporates autobiographical memory within it – so nostalgia takes the form of a remembrance of, and a longing for, a certain being-in-place that is also, of course, a certain being-at home” (94). I would be interested to hear more on Malpas’s idea of home more broadly. Is home reducible to place, or is it a relational way of being-in-the-world or to one’s own self? Inversely, is the absence of home understandable as a discontinuity between self and world?

Re-engaging with my own treatment of nostalgia from reminds me that while I agree with the basic stance outlined in The Aesthetics of Decay, the account is lacking in several respects. Above all else, nothing is done with the body of nostalgia (Having said that, around the time of the book’s publication, I was working on the rough basis of a more bodily account of nostalgia in the idea of spatial morphology). In The Memory of Place, a far more extensive and body centred account of nostalgia is given, in both its spatial and temporal forms. There, the notion of spatial (and bodily) morphology forms a central theme. Morphology simply refers to the way the world is augmented in order to retain the unity of the I - it thus forms an extension of Merleau-Ponty's "intentional arc." My argument in The Memory of Place is that in the nostalgic world, this augmentation is pathologised to the extent that two different worlds are engineered simultaneously. The result of this is a doubling of experience - spatial, temporal, and fundamentally, corporeally. Between space and time, it is the body, especially when experienced through the uncanny, the spectral, and in the figure of the doppelgänger, that acts as the mediator and the manifestation of the past in both its presence and absence.

(For an indication of how this train of thought is developed, see my paper, “The Body of a Ghost.”)

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Birth of the Mesozoic Era

[Image courtesy of Florian Gerbaud]

“What lost knowledge could have brought pictures of the Palaeozoic or Mesozoic landscape into these primitive fables, I could not even guess; but the pictures had been there.” (Lovecraft, Shadow Out of Time)

“Man came silently into the world.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man)

“Thickness of the past, Grundbestand of the real body.” (Merleau-Ponty, Nature)

Our recent work into the archaeology of the human body led to the discovery of a series of fossils contained mostly in the torso and head of the body. Varying in weight and size, our excavation of the body, all carried out under the strictest zoological, archaeological, and ethnographic supervision, established the evolutionary role these fossils played in shaping human life on the planet earth. It was only later—indeed, much later—that we established that these fossils were termed “organs” and that they were required for the homeostatic operation of life.

Thanks to the late work of Merleau-Ponty, we are now able to provisionally conceptualise this work. We can achieve this by placing the existence of the human body in relation to the fossils, of which the former is composed. “The body-object,” so writes Merleau-Ponty in his lectures on nature, “is only a trace—Trace in the mechanical sense: present substitute of a past that no longer is—the trace for us is more than the present effect of the past. It is a survival of the past, an enjambment” (276). Merleau-Ponty inverts the materiality of the body, revealing to us its collision of absence and prehistory in the flesh that has outlasted the passing of time. The body as a substitute, a token gesture for a history that cannot be fathomed by any finite thing.

Deep time has assailed us, and we are placed now in Mesozoic era. It is an era in which we witness the birth of the primate: “The trace and the fossil: ammonite” (Ibid.). This is the alternative history of the human body, a history that is told from dark spaces inaccessible to the flesh alone. For in the flesh, we confront only that which “is no longer there but it is almost there; we have the negative of it” (Ibid). Merleau-Ponty thus assigns a ghostly presence to the still forming, still living human body. Doing so, he breaks the sovereignty of the body as the rational subject. “Humanity” is an outgrowth of an indifferent libido, which, were it not manifest in this bipedal entity we have termed the “human body,” then might just as easily find expression in the rodent faced aye-aye of Madagascar.

But the human body has evolved, and until now has carefully resisted extinction from the known plant we inhabit. What does the body want from this world? Or rather: what does the earth want from this human body? The question must be posed, not at the particular body that actually has life in the phenomenal realm. Of that body, we know only of a transient movement, the value of which is illuminated in the glare of what Merleau-Ponty terms “the genesis of a wake” (277). The invocation of birth as a continuity of a prehistory is where the future of the body lies. What we see in the genesis of life on earth is not the development of one form over another, but the folding back into a deep history that is only disclosed in the fleeting moments where a thing comes into being, before receding into the darkness of living time once again. In that birth, the Mesozoic Era lives alongside the contemporary world. Here, a symbiotic body is established, in which prehistoric alien life gazes tentatively at the fossils implanted in the human torso and head, each indirectly recognising one another in their mutual familiarity and strangeness.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Return of the New Flesh

Readers might be interested to know that the new issue of Film-Philosophy is now available here. Amidst a content of interesting looking papers, you will find my treatment of Cronenberg’s The Fly, read through the prism of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the phantom limb. The embryonic germs of what I (rather hyperbolically) call “onto-necrology” are conceived in this paper. It is an idea I develop in “The Memory of Place” as a phenomenological rejoinder to the intellectual pollution caused by the hauntology industry. In a word, the idea concerns putting the body back in the ghost and likewise putting the ghost back in the body. I hope you enjoy.

The Return of the New Flesh: Body Memory in David Cronenberg and Merleau-Ponty

From the “psychoplasmic” offspring in The Brood (1979) to the tattooed encodings in Eastern Promises (2007), David Cronenberg presents a compelling vision of embodiment, which challenges traditional accounts of personal identity and obliges us to ask how human beings persist through different times, places, and bodily states while retaining their sameness. Traditionally, the response to this question has emphasised the importance of cognitive memory in securing the continuity of consciousness. But what has been underplayed in this debate is the question of how the body can both reinforce and disrupt the grounds for our personal identity. Accordingly, by turning the notoriously “body conscious” work of Cronenberg, especially his seminal The Fly (1986), I intend to pursue the relation between identity and embodiment in the following way.

First, by augmenting John Locke’s account of personal identity with a specific appeal to the body, I will explore how Cronenberg’s treatment of embodiment as a site of independent experience challenges the idea we have that cognitive memory is the guarantor of personal identity. Cronenberg’s treatment of the “New Flesh” posits an account of the body that undermines the Cartesian and Lockean account of personal identity as being centred on the mind. In its place, I will argue that Cronenberg shows us how the body establishes a personality independently of the mind.

Second, through focusing explicitly on body memory, I will explore how we, as embodied subjects, relate to our bodies in a Cronenbergian world. Approaching this relation between memory and embodiment via the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, I will argue that memory is at the heart of Cronenberg’s vision of body horror. I will conclude by suggesting that far from generating unity, Cronenberg’s vision of embodiment and identity is diseased (often literally) by a memory that cannot be assimilated by cognition. The result of this failure to assimilate body memory, is that memory itself occupies the role of the monster within.