Sunday, February 20, 2011

Maybe a New(ish) Way to Do History of Philosophy?

University of Western Ontario is starting a History of Philosophy roundtable, discussing, as the name implies, various topics in the history of philosophy. I’m of two minds about studying the history of philosophy – my attitude towards the practice is a mixture of enthusiasm, dread, dismissal. The reasons why are a little complex, but that’s what blogging is for.

In my time as a graduate student, I've come across two approaches to the history of philosophy that seem pretty mainstream. One is history of philosophy as antiquarian studies: philology on writer X that seeks to get X right. One is understanding historical developments in current terms: asking if Aristotle was a functionalist on philosophy of mind – that question makes no sense to me. It applies the concepts of a long-ago philosopher to current debates with little heed to the radically different context of two writings.

I did my first few years of training in philosophy in a very historically-minded department, and I think I came out better for it. When I engage the work of a complex, difficult philosopher, I put a lot of effort into understanding their terminology, concepts, historical context, and the reasons why they thought the problems at the focus of their work were worth the trouble. I emerged with the ability to read a complex work in a very deep and careful manner rather quickly. You might think this leaned toward the antiquarian definition, and to a degree this was true.

But the individuals who played the biggest role in my education treated their historical subjects as their specialties, but they had no particular loyalties to them. At Memorial, I never worked on history of philosophy with any professors who said their specialty writers were the apex of philosophy, or that those writers were the only ones to get the universe really right. I’ve come across that attitude among some students who work on history of philosophy, and I hope that disappears from them.

My friend Jeremy once came up with the perfect definition of such a slavish historical philosopher: For a devoted X-ian, the only time X was ever wrong was when X himself said some element of X’s own corpus was wrong.

However, I’ve discovered over the past few years that I don’t want to work on history of philosophy, or secondary material generally, as my main specialties. I didn’t want to use my intellectual capacities in the service of illuminating the work of another writer. I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my time arguing over interpretations of another writer, with other writers whose careers were also spent commenting on the same writer as me. I’m just not humble enough to be that subordinate, even to someone who had proven themselves as remarkable as Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Heidegger, or Russell. I find secondary material to be writing about philosophy. But I want to write philosophy.

For me, the history of philosophy is a tool for creating concepts and working through contemporary social and ethical problems in philosophy. For example, I’m interested in Spinoza, but not just exegesis of Spinoza’s writings. He’s one of the few philosophers in the Western tradition for whom ontological matters – questions about being and what is – are closely integrated with ethical questions. This kind of reasoning is very important for my own work, but it’s difficult for mainstream philosophers to see this kind of convergence as legitimate. Being able to say that a big name like Spinoza did it too grants my ideas at least a small grasp on that legitimacy.

More than that, I engage with philosophy’s history to find the hidden subtlties of thought and strange concepts in dark corners that we usually don’t mention to undergraduates in the field. I’m looking for peculiarity that can inspire, or strange elements that could have sparked a completely different revolution in philosophy but never caught on because of some social or institutional factor beyond the writer’s control (this is my view of why Johann Fichte didn’t invent phenomenology in 1801).

I’m interested in taking part in this roundtable at Western, provided I can get transportation to London three or four times during the next term. I revere no one, although I respect them very much. And my applications of past to present are very indrect and convoluted. But I hope to find welcome, or at least sympathy. I’m not exactly someone who fits in.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wake Diary: Unafraid to Sound Like a Lunatic

An egomaniac is coming up against the limits of his own fantastic mind right now. I cannot make any damn sense out of Finnegans Wake, but I won’t give up on this thing. I’m only two chapters in so far, after starting to read it a week ago. I expected this would take a while, and I’m probably moving faster than most people who take a shot at it. Hell, I’m 50 pages in and haven’t thrown it out the window yet.

The inventions of words don’t stand in my way. The stereotype of Finnegans Wake is that every sentence invents so many new words that it’s impossible to understand the semantics of the book. But the book is written as if it really were a bizarre auditory monologue. Words are spelled differently, but mean the same thing, because they’re pronounced the same way. Most of the ordinary neologisms in the book play with the peculiarity of English spelling, seeing how many different ways you can spell a word but pronounce it the same.

Pronounciation is, for me, the most important part of reading this book. Whenever I come up against a particularly difficult passage, I start reading aloud, and return to my silent reading at the end of the paragraph, or whenever my voice gets tired. The only qualification is that I read it in a wretchedly thick Irish accent. And it actually makes more sense. In a way, it fits with the way James Joyce himself may have composed his work in the last twenty years of his life. He was functionally blind, most of his visual field an array of blurred colours. With difficulty composing a text, he would have had to speak out loud most of his drafts as he wrote each sentence. So their composition would have focussed on their vocal cadences and rhythms, musical and melodic qualities rather than ordinary grammar.

Given the context of the book being a kind of dream, this actually is an improvement. Read aloud, the Wake is more of a recording of a series of extended vocal improvisations than it is a novel as we traditionally think of them. Shifts in mood and digressions of content are more important than clearly defined characters and narrative. The closest analogue is like watching a jazz performance fed into a DJ mixing board where pre-recorded music is blended with live instruments, and the jazz players are reacting to their own playing, but also the DJ’s samples and regurgitations of their own music. And this is all done by one blind author. Over 17 years.

This is a tenuous analogy. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was coming up at the limits of my powers of description.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dream of a Music Video Director

I enjoy the music of just about everyone in the New Pornographers collective, Neko Case and Dan Bejar especially. Destroyer’s Rubies was one of my favourite albums of 2006, and I still love listening to it. Now, Bejar’s music and personality was always a little ridiculous. His New Pornographers songs were always the strangest on every album, but they were usually also the most interesting (although “Myriad Harbour” from Challengers is an earworm that lodges itself in you until you want to drill a hole through your head).

However, after hearing some songs from the new Destroyer album, Kaputt, I don’t really know what to think. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.8 and included it on their list of Best New Music. I usually respect Pitchfork praise, which is not exactly given lightly. They described Kaputt as evoking the pop aesthetic of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Describing its sound, they offered analogues in Sade, Steely Dan, Roxy Music, and Chuck Mangione. When I first listened to the lead single, “Chinatown,” I enjoyed it, finding it retro and catchy. But after a few more listens, the kitsch and the cheese is just biting into me and making me bleed in uncomfortable places. Listen to “Chinatown,” below, and see if you can’t get through that saxophone line with a straight face.

This is the kind of music a lounge singer from 1984 would sing at a private gig in the catskills for a bunch of bankers’ wives.

This morning as I was walking to lunch, I imagined a music video for this utterly ridiculous song. The setting is, of course, an expensive restaurant with an expansive dance floor. A beautiful Asian woman in a red dress leaves her companion, an uptight older white man, to get a drink from the bar. As the music begins to play, she sees a handsome brown-skinned man her own age. They lock eyes, a thin silk fabric goes over the camera lens, already coated in more vaseline than a wrestling pig at a Wyoming county fair. They walk past Dan Bejar, singing the song, on their way to the dance floor. A subtly erotic tango begins as the saxophone kicks in.

Her older lover stares at the couple on the dance floor, his face seething with the inward rage of hidden anger. Bejar’s head turns into the frame at suitable moments throughout the song, facilitating breaks in the dance in alteration with the Asian woman’s now-former lover. As the last verse finishes, the woman in red leaves the restaurant with her new lover, walking past the older man, who is still quietly enraged. She ignores his presence completely.

Outside, the young man opens the passenger door of his car (a DeLorean, naturally), offering it to her. But the woman in red looks away and walks down the street, proudly alone and self-reliant. Bejar sings as she strides into the city on her own, repeating, “walk away.” “Walk away.”

Maybe that should be one of my alternate careers in case academics doesn’t work out. Music video director.