Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Constellations: Point 5, part one

Ok, so here goes. Awhile back I believe I posted an essay in progress on this subject. But it works for our discussion; it belongs on our map. Part One is in this post; part two in the next.

The essay should bring out points worth applying to or exploring with Wittgenstein's concerns. I am bothered by his statement in Culture and Value:
[T]here is a way of capturing the world sub specie aeterni other than through the work of the artist. Thought has such a way--so I believe--it is as though it flies above the world and leaves it as it is--observing it from above, in flight.
(5e, U of Chicago edition)
I am quite satisfied that there should be a way of capturing the world other than through art. But that thought is the way is very sly--we shouldn't trust it. I think this attempt to see thought flying above the world illustrates the function of thought in a way similar to how he illustrates the function of spirit--"but spirits will hover over the ashes [of culture]" (3e). Though the German verbs are distinctly different in kind and sense, we may ask what distinction we can make between the two--thought and spirit, flying and hovering. I believe literary artists purposefully perform this function--should perform, since we are talking oughts.

This is where Emerson's "Circles" sits on our map:
Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.

Therefore we value the poet. All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, of the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or play....[The poet] smites or arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities. He claps his wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice.
So, a beef with Wittgenstein. The literary artists take their place in society as folks whose labor is useful because it refurbishes all that is the case and re-presents the world allowing us to get it straight. I think Wittgenstein wanted to keep that for philosophy.

From the Tractatus:
5.6 The limits of language are the limits of my world.
If so, then my world is limited similarly to Wittgenstein's only because we share a limit of language.
5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.
If I wrote a book called The World as I found it, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book.—
5.632 The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world.

5.634 ...Whatever we see could be other than it is.
Whatever we can describe at all could be other than it is.
There is no a priori order of things.
I am confused about how to approach such limits. I think that my essay below addresses ideas of beholding phenomena that trouble Wittgenstein's point of view.

From Culture and Value:
Kleist wrote somewhere that what the poet would most of all like to be able to do would be to convey thoughts by themselves without words. (What a strange admission.)
(15e)
I like this thought. for some reason.


“Fleeing in the face of”: Fugitive Laughter and Unanswered Questions on Walden Pond


“Everyone asks me what I ‘think’ of everything,” said Spencer Brydon; “and I make answer as I can—begging or dodging the question, putting them off with any nonsense. It wouldn’t matter to any of them really,” he went on, “for, even were it possible to meet in that stand-and-deliver way so silly a demand on so big a subject, my ‘thoughts’ would still be almost altogether about something that concerns only myself.”
—Henry James, “The Jolly Corner”

“When seen correctly, however, this interpretation is only a fleeing in the face of the conscience—a way for Dasein to escape by slinking away from that thin wall by which the ‘they’ is separated, as it were, from the uncanniness of its Being.”
—Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

Can we separate the man from the living picture?
—Emerson, “Nature”


Part One: Three Methods for Beholding in “Brute Neighbors”

At the beginning of “Brute Neighbors,” Thoreau asks, “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” In a concise but detailed manner that conceals as much as uncovers its complex philosophy, Thoreau explores three ways beholding phenomena in the world happens. Each reflection is based on a different form of interaction with the natural world and each uses different narrative structures to relate claims about the act of beholding itself.

He begins with a simple claim: “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns” (153). A few significant concepts are dropped into this line gleaned from clichĂ© to make a complex claim seem more ordinary. Beholding changes in mood and intellect with each subsequent form explored; one kind need not be considered more valuable than the other, though each does build on the other in levels of complexity through increased involvement of both the beholder and the beheld—henceforth referred to as the observer and observed, respectively.

Method 1: The observer who beholds the world while tranquilly tarrying alongside what-will-be, is-desired-to-be, or is-already-being observed beholds while sitting still for a long time. Through patient observation, the natural world shows itself to the observer. Hence, this beholding is an involved patience that allows the world to show itself for what it is at the time it is observed, each time it is observed. Thoreau implicitly characterizes this beholding as an active passivity. In this engaged, yet passive state of mind, and observer is likely to wander about aimlessly if not encouraged to sit still.
Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near to being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life.
(150)
Thoreau utilizes an active passivity that needs, or calls out for, some phenomenon to show itself for him to look towards. He worries, “my thoughts have left no track, and I [will not be able to] find the path again” (150). Only after he expresses this anxiety does he query “precisely these objects” that make “a world.” The emphasis on “these” is significant. The objects beheld are exactly the phenomena that must always have a prior being so they may be observed as if they were waiting for and expecting the presence of the observer to behold them.

To reference our conversation about Wittgenstein: The objects are the case in this case and Thoreau offers us, his readers, a picture of the case. The picture is not a proposition; it is a precise concept. (Thomas?) Thoreau adds precision to the beholding of “these objects” because it is important for him to note that they, in this case, can not be any other objects but those precise objects that make his world at Walden what it is.

Method 2: If the first method for beholding the world through nature is an active passivity that involves sitting still long enough to allow all things to be observed, the second method requires a two-fold form for the observer to begin to leave active passivity behind.

Method 2a: The first form is a means to actively engage and involves being startled or awakened from passive engagement.
Method 2b: The second involves active accounting of what is being observed.

The first form of this two-fold method involves observation that happens suddenly. The observer becomes an eyewitness to an event. In Thoreau’s example, he also becomes a kind of reluctant over-seer to the event as it unfolds; unlike the first form of beholding, such observation is not tranquil at all.
I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants…fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled…on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that is was…a bellum, a war between two races of ants….
(154)
The observer witnesses above (remember Wittgenstein on thought and spirit) an event not able to be seen with a patient stillness. Such observation over-comes the observer as he over-takes the observed. Both observer and observed are, therefore, taken by surprise. In other words, Thoreau did not plan to behold ants-at-war. Nevertheless, once Thoreau becomes an observer, he stays to look on; in a significant manner, he fulfills an obligation. It is the case that the ants are at war but it is also the case that Thoreau stumbles across the ants at war.

In the first form of beholding, the observer’s seeing is withdrawn not because thinking recedes from its matter, as Heidegger puts it in Identity and Difference (50), he is withdrawn because he waits passively and it passes him by or it doesn’t. Thinking comes after beholding. This second method of beholding, discovering the ants at war, occurs after an engaged recognition of the state of things (t)here.

Thoreau's decision to remain and observe what he finds as over-seer or eyewitness, no matter how reluctant, distinguishes this form of beholding from the first. Unlike the first kind of observing, though the ants do exhibit themselves for the observer, he is not in any manner prepared to observe the show. He must stop in his tracks, make a choice to pause his day’s work, to “look farther,” to see better what is there to be seen. The observer might ask, at this time, What is there to be seen? in a much different sense than in the first kind of beholding. According to the first kind of beholding, the question asked takes the form, What is there-to-be-seen? Actually, this may even be too much for such passive looking; whatever chooses to exhibit itself may not appear long enough to be considered an “is there.” The Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, or the winged-cat of “Brute Neighbors” that is “gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont” are examples of such mystifying creatures to behold that may not actually “be there” at all. Instead, the observer at this time asks What is there (to be seen)? Such a question engages an observer as an observer and encourages a taking account of his surroundings. Thoreau explicitly refers to himself, for the first time in “Brute Neighbors,” as an observer when he discusses the ants.

The second form of the two-fold method of beholding involves accounts taken in observation. Within the first form of beholding, Thoreau provides concise narratives of immediacy and familiarity. This happens and then this happens; and the writer relates what happened. He holds mice in the palm of his hand because they crawl into it. For unknown reasons, a phoebe builds a nest in his shed, and a robin makes nest in the tree against his house. A partridge, the shyest of birds, leads her brood past his windowsill. The first method of beholding is always at the level of fortunate occurrence. Always immediate and familiar because we depend on an informal relationship to everyday events happening without our encouragement or without needing our recognition at all.

In the second method for beholding, the first form of the two-fold structure involves immediate yet unfamiliar and not necessarily fortunate occurrences. The second form is less concerned with the “is” objectified and the “there” showing itself. Such beholding is more concerned with the “there” not known in which something is occurring now. The second form of the two-fold method finds an explanation for any event itself and involves making up for the lack of waiting for the event to let itself be shown. Thoreau explains,
I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this….

I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it onto my window-sill, in order to see the issue. Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that…his own breast was all torn away; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite.
(154)
Taken by surprise, Thoreau carries off a few ants to home “in order to [better] see the issue.” Before his encounter with the ant war, Thoreau has seen “the issue” without needing further investigation. The difference in this scene, with this form of beholding, is that he is not waiting, not tarrying alongside, for the moment to be. Thoreau uses a microscope to estimate the physical damage done to the ants in battle.

Within the second form, the observer abandons any given setting, time, and place to achieve a distance from the occurrence of the event, a distance from which specific observations can be made that are always extracted from the prior exhibition. Once again, to apply this to our discussion of Wittgenstein. If the facts in this beholding are at stake, the they are not the case. The second form of the two-fold method isolates specifically chosen objects for further examination. Like the first method for beholding, the second method relies on observed phenomenon giving itself up to being observed always before showing itself to the observer. The ant war happens regardless of Thoreau’s observation or interruption, just like the mouse scurries across Thoreau’s floor whether or not he is there waiting for it to appear. In both methods, regardless of different points of view and technologies for seeing implemented, the observed phenomena must give in order to show.

In the first method of beholding, seeing absolutely and in every case relies on a phenomenon giving itself in order to show itself. Thoreau’s careful description of watching the young partridges wait for their mother’s distant commands, not only foreshadows the call of the loon, therefore a more complex form of beholding, but shows his concern for the animals themselves as delicate creatures--how the partridge’s presence is a gift first and showing second.
In June the partridge…which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows, from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and calling to them like a hen, and in all her behavior proving herself the hen of the woods. The young so suddenly disperse upon your approach, at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind swept them away….
(151)
Thoreau knows what a partridge should look like. He knows when partridges seasonally appear. He knows their virtues—character and habits. Consequently, he skillfully anticipates their appearance with more or less accuracy. He admires similar skill in fishermen: their ability to find worms in frozen, wintry woods. They know where to look without knowing what they will find. Like the fishermen, he can look out for the partridges. He can certainly wait for their appearance for he will know them when he sees them. But he must wait for the event to happen (to give itself.)

Though anticipated, what we are looking for can only be seen properly through a showing itself that gives itself. Thoreau comments on this anamorphosis, “All intelligence seems reflected in them…Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects” (152).
By waiting patiently for the possible return of partridges, his waiting anticipates appearance. But when actively engaged with beholding an event such as the ant war, one must come to terms with the anamorphosis itself. A comportment must be reached towards being in front of one another in order to be shown at all. For Thoreau to fully understand the ant war, he has to remove himself from the site (sight-ing) where the war took place. He had to find in himself a recollection of an idea that would help ground the present event. He is taken by surprise yet taken by some phenomenon he nonetheless anticipates. For he knows how to see it show itself. He knows how to “look farther.”

So far, Thoreau’s “Brute Neighbors” has illustrated two methods of beholding in nature. The first, not necessarily the simplest, involves the least work and the least engagement. It is an active (in that one looks) passivity (in that one sits still) that covers a substantial duration of time (in that one is still for a long time.) In this manner of beholding, we have seeing at a primary level, possibly akin to the kind of seeing described in Plato’s Republic that occurs deep within the cave. Not that such beholding is at all like the shadows on the wall but that such seeing requires restraint. The second method for beholding is a two-fold method that involves surprise and accounting for the surprise. The first form involves an over-sight, a kind of looking that allows an observer to behold as much as possible of the observed in one sitting. Once the observer is satisfied with having seen it all, then accounts are made of what was observed. If possible, technology might be implemented in order to find a way to explain the phenomenon from a distance.

Method 3: The third method for beholding is whole-heartedly engaged participation in the showing itself that phenomenon gives itself. The benchmark of such beholding is the use of literary craft to relate what was observed. The observer is typically a major character, usually in the role of a pursuer while the object of the occurrence itself plays the role of a pursued. Before explaining anything else, it should be noted that such beholding does have waiting or anticipating even though the observer may not intend to anticipate and may desire to wait. This troubles the observer because he or she must participate in creating a place for an event to happen. In whatever order moments take place within an event and its subsequent retelling, the author recognizes the phenomenon and interprets its meaning. This picture of the world is always fictive.

“Brute Neighbors” closes with a story about Thoreau pursuing a loon. It begins in the “once upon a time” fashion many authors use to immerse readers in a world where patient waiting can allow observed phenomenon to show itself. The story of the loon is preceded with a concise anecdote about a winged cat. Thoreau never sees the mysterious cat, although he is given a pair of its “wings”—strips of matted fur. He jokes, “this would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for...a poet’s cat [can] be winged as well as his horse” (156). Thoreau is no longer an observer of nature in different states of quiet observation; at the beginning of the pursuit of the loon, he gives himself to the reader as poet.

Thoreau begins “as I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon” and describes how he “pursued with a paddle” and the loon “maneuvered so cunningly” diving into the water and reappearing always “where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat.” He works hard to give us the image of him in pursuit of the loon, of the intelligence of the loon itself, and a metaphor for something left unstated in the text itself.
The loon first appears through its uncanny laughter; Thoreau uses “unearthly.” After its laughter is heard, and only after, do folks pursue the loon. All the emotion of pursuit is detailed in Thoreau’s telling and such telling exhausts anything that might be considered excessive in the loon’s uncanny appearance.
He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.
(157)
Therefore, the loon’s appearance is indelibly tied to Thoreau’s looking as if the two expected to find each other in each moment. What appears is unique and it is the one thing at stake and nothing else:
I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me.
(158)
While the first method for beholding requires an active passivity in engaged looking at the world as it passes one by who sits still for a long period of time, the second method moves the location to a suitable place for scientific observation that has a method tailored to the specific observer. Finally, the third method for beholding is giving up science for letting something be in narrative, to allow the one thing at stake in the phenomenon to appear for others as it is in pursuit of givenness.

First, the third method for beholding requires an author to give up close and personal observation and to take a purposeful step back towards the quality of the first method. Second, this transforms thinking's stepping back from its matter into a moving ahead of itself. I think it is safe to say that such beholding can possibly move through what Heidegger calls the oblivion of difference. We are given something to identify with regardless of experience and clearing from which to be given the phenomenon described. (This is why I find ethics such an important topic for discussion in workshop.) Thoreau leaves a story for others who have yet to see the loon for themselves in the form of an unanswered question that is meant to haunt the reader much the same way a loon’s laughter haunts a lake at daybreak. He asks, “But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh?” And he leaves the loon “disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface [of the pond.]” aspect of the third method for beholding involves the retreat of the pursuer from the pursued.

Third, the third method of beholding incorporates aspects of the prior two methods and implicates both the observer and observed in a given phenomenon of their own appearance that an outside reader or listener beholds for himself. The image of Thoreau pursuing the loon appears for what it is worth. Nothing more of the pursuit remains after he retreats from it. The story itself is given. Nevertheless, a lingering unanswered question is there. And that unanswered question marks the call for participation with an audience—a reader or readers—who will use up any significance and behold or interpret the meaning of the event itself—Thoreau and the loon together. Reader and writer absorb anything abundant or excessive that the phenomenon gives up.

2 comments:

Thomas Basbøll said...

In constructing disagreements with Wittgenstein, one always has to be careful. When I read the passages from Emerson you quote I thought, "Wittgenstein would want to see this done." I.e., Emerson is describing an activity that Wittgenstein would value. Now, it is true that there are at least parts of the project that he would take upon himself as a philosopher. But I think we should distinguish the professorial (or proprietary) attitude from the professional attitude. We might then distinguish between "keeping it for philosophy" and "assigning it to philosophy". Not so much a worry about what others are doing as a concern with the limits of one's own craft. Where's the beef?

I'll have to think some more about your essay. You make some interesting and very useful connections. My only concern here would be whether they indicate anything like a "method". I was struck especially by 2a, which sounds like the title of a book of language poetry:

The Method of Being Startled

The grammatical joke here, which is to say, its Wittgensteinian humour, is the tension between "method", i.e., a purposeful proceeding toward the object, and "being startled", i.e., an unintended interruption of one's attention.

Gary Norris said...

Toll! (pardon the gundsprache i insist on using from time to time, i am in a german 101 class...I am working towards a translation certificate to accompany my doctorate...etc...and i am finding german fun)

I used "method" for its problematics--i talked a bit about this with my professor from a seminar on Heidegger's _Being and Time_. He like the trouble the word causes as much as I do. A method for beholding might be a way to instantly address being fortunate, being startled, being ready, and being as patient waiting, etc., ALL AT ONCE. And this instant handling is not a case rested, merely a way to problematize the concept itself for the artist and philosopher.

g