Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44


Individuality is unnecessary for intelligence

Computers + artificial intelligence + robotics will not lead us where techno-ideology prays it will. We will not have an android like Data, who will be able to do all the things that we can, only better. To manage to do all that we can, such a technological entity would need to be as versatile, robust, and massively parallel as we are. This might be achieved via incredible inefficiency, or via some form of biological route. The former disqualifies itself from the running, if we are to require that this is to be a project undertaken on a large scale, to augment our reality via an alternative, artificial intelligent life-form of our own making which would be an addition to our existence. The latter is basically growing another, harder, better, faster, stronger version of ourselves, and falls under trans-/post-humanism.

The alternative is to allow technology to do what it does best: allow tools to be excellent at what it is that they are for. This gives specificity, where all the energy and computation is given focus. Let these tools do these tasks amazingly well and without distraction, and then we have a start. Admittedly, this sounds like the Adam Smith view of technology as mass-produced, mono-function widgets. Smart-phones seem to be a counter-example to my throw-back to the industrial revolution. Continue reading

Rilke’s angels and metaphor

Are we seeing a theme emerge? A lot of thinking about figurative language lately. William Empson writes, in The Structure of Complex Words, of metaphor as the sudden perception of an objective relation:

It is clear that we may do this before we can explain it […] Original pieces of thinking have, I suppose, nearly always been started on metaphor, and so far from being peculiarly “emotive” and indulgent of folly, a metaphor is often a loophole for common sense.

We have all read of engineers and scientists, as well as poets and artists having this sudden perception of an objective relation, of a connection that appears to have always been so. If we ask this type of language and thought a question, if we ask “what is metaphor… for?” where does this lead us? This may require expansion, so when do we employ metaphor, and to what end? True, all language contains metaphorical elements, or shows itself to be a sedimented cross-section of previous ages’ figurative language, petrified into varying degrees of literalism. Continue reading

Reading through allegory and metaphor

Homeric allegoresis had come into existence as a defense of Homer against philosophy.

E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p.205

This is still true, for few modern students of literature allow themselves to be simply readers; there is the fear which I below called the unliterary, which leads us into the temptation to read literature as a key to something else. This can be sociology, politics, psychology, etc. via the poem or book or painting or film. Those who are literary readers can be either aesthetic or antiaesthetic. An old fashioned (indeed, regarded as antediluvian by most) example of the former would be Harold Bloom, and the boa-deconstructionists of Deconstruction and Criticism (Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller) are occasionally the latter. Most often they are allegorists manqué, and their allegory seeks to elucidate their god of the textual gaps.  Continue reading

Wolfgang Iser on literature as a lie

An issue that arises in reading Wolfgang Iser is the matter of fictiveness, the role of a fiction in literature itself. This concern goes back to the beginnings of all thought about art as essentially a lie, and it remains to be seen whether we can properly account for the centrality of this element to our criticism. Of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (which is undeniably attendant to such concerns) Iser writes that it remains “an ideal whose desirability is questionable. Would the role offered by the text function properly if it were totally accepted?” [Iser, The Act of Reading, 37] One response to this is to question any such notion of total acceptance. A suspension carries with it the intimation of provisionality, a qualification which we might expect Iser to be aware of, given his continual references to heuristics of application [39], or replacing”ontological arguments with functional arguments” [53].

Some valid approaches to a more consistent position are made when Iser begins to supplement Austin and Searle‘s speech acts and performative utterances with Stanley Cavell‘s stressing the importance of implication in all our utterances. Iser says that poetry is not merely “void” in the strict sense which Austin suggests to us, and indeed if it were then all languages would habe to be drawn in terms which would be a return to the univocity of the Scholastics, since “what is meant can never be totally translated into what is said” [59]. There need not be a one-to-one correspondence of our words with reality, this should help us to say. We might even hope that this would lead us to an emergent understanding of language and literature (with the most significant ground work done by other theorists of the metaphor, such as Johnson, Lakoff, and Turner), apart from the standard model which calls for a linear correspondence of word with semantic unit.

As an aside to this, while recognising the use of speech acts in working out a functional model of communication, I am not sure that finessing Austin and Searle via Cavell is necessary if we return to a notion of linguistic communication’s unit as being the sentence, as Paul Ricoeur suggests. The sentence allows for “implication” once we recognize the role played by metaphor. This is a different approach, however, and one which may not be available to Iser given the terms he has set out for himself. Indeed, this brings me to my next point, which is whether the invocation of the “pragmatic” truly serves us as well as Iser seems to hope.

We find the pragmatic convincingly overturned in his discussion of conventions, that hope of its rehabilitation seems distant. He notes that a convention as understood by Austin has a vertical (or hierarchical) structure, which suggests that it is an essentially utilitarian norm [61]. Literary language reorganizes these norms into an alternative arrangement, namely a horizontal model which serves to disrupt conventions as Austin would understand them:

…these conventions are taken out of their social contexts, deprived of their regulating function, and so become objects of scrutiny in themselves. And this is where fictional language begins to take effect: it depragmatizes the conventions it has selected, and herein lies its pragmatic function. We call upon a vertical convention when we want to act; but a horizontal combination of different conventions enables us to see precisely what it is that guides us when we do act. [Iser, 61]

Literary language, then, is an affront to notions of utility as have here before been invoked, and yet it remains indispensable. Why? Part of the answer to this may be found in a tentative rejection of the route Iser takes via analytic philosophy. Without attempting an excursus on empiricism in the British tradition of “common sense” understandings of the world, we must note that as far back as Hume this view was deeply problematic. Iser, in setting out systematically what his findings are, in a sense has made it rather easy for one to come along and begin to pick holes in his edifice (affirmation always being more difficult than rejection). He allows a critic to carefully choose his own battles, and to a great extent this is to be regarded as a testament to his achievement.

Sadly, such polite apologies will not serve us. For me, the only outline that remains valid of this problem is Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of agon, with suspicion and tradition forever orbiting each other, like wary vultures circling a carcass. This view begins with an axiomatic rejection of norms, whether they be norms of idealism, or utility, or pragmatic solution. Iser remains at an impasse which reveals itself in the almost nonsensical phrase above, namely the depragmatization which remains pragmatic. In a profound sense, Iser is correct, but for all the wrong reasons.

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Visual representation of philosophical thought

The best known recent (!) critique of the metaphors we use in our thought is probably Rorty‘s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, after which we are rightly wary of the implications of our various figures of speech. This has been a big part of what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion, all the the various structuralists and post-structuralists and the we-haven’t-even-heard-of-structuralism-so-don’t-you-dare-lump-us-in-with-those-guys-ists. We know that style in philosophy is never neutral, that what we say is influenced by how we say it. There was a hope that some other metaphors might set the tone for a departure from old ways of saying and thus give us new ways of thinking.

Continue reading

Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”

I know it’s obscene in WordPress terms to include something that you wrote during your undergraduate days, but I may want to refer to this at some point, and I am too lazy to quote selectively, so I include something I did for my B.Phil. below:  Continue reading