Thinking of being without heaviness or depth (continued)

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‘Guitar and Fruit Bowl on a Table’ (1918) by Juan Gris

 

By Richard Mather

Part 2: Being-without-depth

Sartre in his masterwork Being and Nothingness rejects the duality of appearance and being, saying that “the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy. The appearance refers to the total series of appearances and not to a hidden reality.”

Sartre renounces the Kantian notion of things-in-themselves and rejects the Platonic depreciation of appearances: “But if we once get away from what Nietzsche called ‘the illusion of worlds-behind-the-scene,’ and if we no longer believe in the being-behind-the-appearance, then the appearance becomes full positivity.”

Appearances are neither interior or exterior; they are all equal, according to Sartre. “[T]hey all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged.

§

Sartre offers a critique in Being and Nothingness of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, based on the claim that consciousness is essentially self-conscious. For Ludwig Wittgenstein, the notion of the unconscious is untenable precisely because nothing is unconscious. As Jacques Bouveresse writes in the preface to Wittgenstein Reads Freud, Wittgenstein “regarded the unconscious as really no more than a manner of speaking which creates more philosophical difficulties than the scientific ones it claims to resolve.”  According to Bouveresse, Wittgenstein assumes that “there is nothing ‘hidden’ to exhume, that everything is in principle immediately accessible to the surface, and that we already know, in a way, everything we need to know.”

§

As Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar observes, “lt is only after you have come to know the surface of things […] that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.”

§

Plato’s distinction between phenomena (appearances) and being (Forms) not only devalues the sensible world but runs the risk of producing nihilism. For if phenomena are counted as nothing and if the hidden world of Forms turns out to be absent, then what is left? In short, nihilism.

§

The following characteristics are typical of the postmodern, according to Fredric Jameson: depthlessness, ahistoricity, a focus on surfaces, flatness, the image and the simulacrum.

§

For Nietzsche, the Apollonian, which is expressed through the arts of painting and sculpture, represents the world as representation. Dismantling Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy releases the Apollonian from the limited role of individual object as mere appearance or phenomena. The Apollonian – without the metaphysical baggage of the Dionysian – is free to be concrete and real.

§

For Nietzsche’s eternal return to work, everything must be brought to the surface. That means no repression, no overlooking of the smallest thing. As Judith Norman in “Schelling and Nietzsche” (chapter 4 of The New Schelling) points out, “Zarathustra cannot become the advocate of return until he has overcome repression and pulled all thoughts onto the same plane.”

Henceforth, there will be no need to  adopt a binary model of surface/depth because everything will necessarily be at the surface.

§

According to Jacques Derrida, words and signs can never fully bring forth what they mean; they can only be defined via reference to words from which they differ. Meaning, therefore, is endlessly deferred through a chain of signifiers. In other words, the traditional depth/vertical model of meaning is abandoned in favour of the surface/horizontal.

§

Nietzsche, in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Joyful Science) says, “What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!

§

“There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art,” according to Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “On some technical elements of style in literature.” Rather, all our arts and occupations “lie wholly on the surface” because “it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance.” To pry below the surface is to be “appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.”

§

In a rebuttal of a negative review of their paintings at Macy’s department store in New York City in 1942, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb issue a manifesto, which includes this assertion: “We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

§

“You live on the surface,” Casaubon is told by his lover in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. “You sometimes seem profound but it is only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity.”

§

According to Jean Baudrillard, a simulacrum is not a copy of the real but is itself a truth (a sign) in its own right without an original referent. This is the hyperreal. Hyperreality, Baudrillard says, is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”

§

Baudrillard warns of how simulacra arouse the suspicion that “ultimately there has never been any God,” that “God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum.” Indeed, religious iconoclasts are unhappy about simulacra because images ultimately mask the knowledge “that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed.”

§

Biblical Judeans and classical Greeks believed that images contain the power to replace the divine. The apparent life and efficacy of images are the result of demonic possession (see Deuteronomy 32: 16-17). Not surprisingly, the Hebrews prohibited “graven images” (especially images of the divine) out of their fear of idolatry. Interestingly, the Greek term for image, idolon, can be translated as “simulacrum” or “idol.”  

§

The Roman poet Lucretius says words are like clusters of atoms, with a letter being like an atom. He talks of the simulacrum, that is, the image or “idol” of a thing, traveling at high speed through the void. His poem is a simulacrum of nature in which his Latin letters are deployed (like atoms) to construct the world. One critic interprets this as meaning not that we see the simulacrum but that we see because of the simulacrum. The rapid succession of many simulacra together produce an effect: the image.

§

Does this mean that a translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (and there are many) is a copy of a copy and that each translator has to ‘create’ or ‘recreate’ Lucretius’ world with a different set of atoms, a creation that somehow imagines both the poem and the world? But, of course, the world in itself is uncreated and yet Lucretius’ poem is a creation.

§

In §154 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein remarks that the “problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth.” What is essential, however, is “not hidden beneath the surface.” That is, instead of looking for some hidden source, we should pay more attention to what what happens on the surface. “Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. For that is the expression which confuses you,” he writes

§

“The idea of thinking as a process in the head, in a completely enclosed space, gives him something occult” (Wittgenstein, Zettel, 606; my italics). That is, occult as in: hidden, cut off from view, not accompanied by readily discernible signs or symptom, with the implication that what lies beneath the surface is mere superstition.

§

According to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, “the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (§113). In other words, the kingdom is in plain sight; it is not occult.

§

Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “the fold” allows us to think beyond the categories of inside/outside and surface/depth because the inside is simply a fold of the outside.

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Cubist artists typically represent all of the surfaces of pictorial objects simultaneously. The single picture plane in a cubist painting allows us to appreciate what may be called a flat ontology of things.

§

In object-oriented ontology, there is no underlying principle, no underlying or transcendent being. There are only objects. There is no melting of individual objects into some kind of universal and amorphous Dionysian principle. Additionally, there is no vertical chain-of-being with God or man at the top and quarks at the bottom. Rather, objects are horizontally spread out so that there is no top, bottom or even middle object. A star, a human, a plank of wood and an atom could be placed next to each other without any sense of priority or significance.

§

Our revels are now at an end. The baseless fabric of this text shall dissolve, melt into the air, and like this insubstantial life will fade, leaving nothing behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.

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Thinking of being without heaviness or depth

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By Richard Mather

Part 1: Being and heaviness

People who suffer from depression often complain of a feeling of heaviness; not just in the emotional or mental sense, but as something physical  — a visceral sensation pressing on the chest or wrapping itself around the body and the legs. Some sufferers say it is like having lead weights on their legs.

Among the DSM-IV criteria for atypical depression is: “Leaden paralysis (i.e. heavy, leaden feelings in arms or legs).”

§

René Descartes proposes that we think of the action of mind on body as we think of heaviness impelling a body towards the earth. Before Descartes, the scholastics believed that there was a thing called heaviness that caused objects to fall to the ground.  As Daniel Garber (in his book Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics) explains:

“Heaviness, as conceived by the scholastics, is thus mentalistic in a number of ways. It is imagined to be diffused throughout a body, yet capable of acting on a single point, just like the Cartesian soul, which is somehow thought to be diffused throughout the human body while, at the same time, it is especially connected to the pineal gland.

§

The prophet Isaiah refers to “the spirit of heaviness” as a mental/emotional affliction that separates men from God. Isaiah, who is blessed with a different spirit (i.e. the spirit of the Eternal Elohim), proclaims that his mission is to spread joyful thanksgiving as a means to offloading the burden of heaviness. The Eternal One has done this, Isaiah says, in order to:

“…appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called terebinths of righteousness, the planting of the Eternal One, wherein He might glory.” (Isaiah 61:3; my italics)

§

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a story that focuses on a man named Christian who is weighed down by “a great burden upon his back” — the knowledge of his sin. The heaviness is so unbearable that he leaves his family and sets out into the world to seek deliverance, which comes in the form of an encounter with the Cross. In real life, however, there is no Cross and no divine aid — and yet the burden is real enough.

§

What a relief. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. There is no human nature, no weight of human nature. And consciousness is a void, a nothingness, making holes in being-in-itself.

§

There’s a lot to be said for surfaces, for the depthless, for fleetness of foot, of flying through the void where atoms fall and swerve, where composites split apart, reform.

§

The homonym “light” (as in not dark and not heavy) shares the same Old English etymological root. Light as in “not heavy, having little actual weight” comes from the Old English leoht (West Saxon) or leht (Anglian). Likewise, light as in “not dark” comes from Old English leoht (West Saxon) and leht (Anglian).

§

Ilam (pronounced i-la-am) is the Akkadian word for “shining,” a divine power. It is linked to the Akkadian word ellu (which is related to the biblical concept of Elohim or god/s), meaning cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity. It is a literal shining, a literal cleanliness (not just a metaphor for perfection). “Cleanliness is next to godliness”: This proverb (which is popularly credited to a sermon by John Wesley in 1778) is an echo of similar assertions in the Talmud and some Babylonian texts. Surfaces are there to be seen, which is hard to do when you are distracted by dirt.

§

Whatever is to be seen must be seen at the surface level. If it is to exist at all, it must first exist as surface. Depth is the simulacrum of surface and not the other way round as is usually thought.

§

On the subject of weight, the neo-Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter (1887 – 1910) makes some remarkable remarks in his doctoral thesis known as Persuasion and Rhetoric. Socrates, says Michelstaedter, “resented being subject to the law of gravity. And he thought the good lay in independence from gravity, because it is this, he thought, that prevents us from rising to the sun. Being independent from gravity means not having weight, and Socrates did not allow himself rest until he had eliminated all his weight. But having consumed together the hope of freedom and slavery, the independent spirit and gravity, the necessity of the earth and the will for the sun, he neither flew to the sun nor remained on earth; he was neither independent nor a slave, neither happy nor wretched.”

Plato, says Michelstaedter, was disquieted by this state of affairs for he had the same great love of liberty, though “he was not of so desperate a devotion.” So Plato concentrated on meditating, according to Michelstaedter: “He had to find … a ‘mechanism,’ to raise himself to the sun, but, deceiving gravity, without losing weight, body, life. He meditated for a long time, and then invented the macrocosm.” [Michelstaedter’s italics].

§

Contra Nietzsche, the novelist Milan Kundera posits the “unbearable lightness of being.” Assuming that Nietzsche is wrong about the possibility of eternal return, Kundera believes we would experience an “absolute absence of burden,” and that a lack of weight of meaning would make us “lighter than air.”

A life “which does not return” is “without weight.” Whether life is horrible or beautiful ultimately “means nothing.” Individual life lacks significance. Our decisions do not matter precisely because they are light, without weight.

§

The grandfather of Western philosophy, Parmenides, sees the world divided into opposite pairs: light/darkness, warmth/cold, being/non-being etc. One half of the opposition he characterizes as positive (light, warmth, being), the other as negative (darkness, cold, non-being). But which one is positive, weight or lightness? What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? Kundera asks. Parmenides responds that lightness is positive, weight negative.  

§

The Italian writer Italo Calvino explores lightness in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. After forty years of writing fiction, Calvino decides that the time has come for him to look for “an overall definition of my work.” He goes on to suggest that his working method “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight”:

“I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

§

Calvino again:

“Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…”

§

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” opens with him navigating the emotional trauma over the death of his son. But is he talking about heaviness or depth?

“There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. […] I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. […] Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.”

Next time: Being-without-depth