Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dickinson 1211, 1216, 538

It’s Hour with itself
The Spirit never shows –
What Terror would enthrall the Street
Could Countenance disclose

The Subterranean Freight
The Cellars of the Soul –
Thank God the loudest Place he made
Is licensed to be still.

In this poem, uncommunicative spiritual suffering is posited as inwardly clamorous yet privileged to be silent, as if the suffering - when the spirit's awful communicative forum with itself is 'still' - can be redeemed, or at least consoled, by transcendental means.

Similarly, in the first stanza of another poem of Dickinson's, spiritual life, uncommunicative with nature, engages with itself in transcendental communication. In this poem's second stanza such alienated 'cold' communing, which is analogous to the first poem's cellar-forum, even creates 'Delight' out of its access to the transcendent:

A Wind that rose though not a Leaf
In any Forest stirred –
But with itself did cold commune
Beyond the realm of Bird.

A Wind that woke a lone Delight
Like Separation’s Swell –
Restored in Arctic confidence
To the invisible.

But for Dickinson, as a third poem shows, the 'Delight' which transcendence can offer to uncommunicative spiritual suffering, is no more 'difficult', or costly to gain, than the 'Delight' to which suffering brings the communicative - those who can open their eyes to intersubjectivity. Which, you could argue, implies that a Christian project is emphasized, rather than Kierkegaardian closed interiority: even when the realm of worldly experience remains as if Arctic-frozen, a 'Stalactite'. 

Must be a Wo –
A loss or so –
To bend the eye
Best Beauty’s way –

But – once aslant
It notes Delight
As difficult
As Stalactite –

A Common Bliss
Were had for less –
The price – is
Even as the Grace –

Our Lord – thought no
To pay – a Cross –

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Second Variety

‘“Let’s go find some of the people. So we can begin discussing things. Metaphysical things.” He grinned at Ryan. “I always did like metaphysical things.”’  [‘Jon’s World’]

The second volume of the Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick, Second Variety, holds 27 stories published in the period between 1952 and 1955 – in which year Solar Lottery, Dick’s first novel, was published. Here I’m referring to the Gollancz Second Variety, and not the one which is the third volume in the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick put out by Citadel Press, and which contains a different set of short stories.

As Norman Spinrad notes in his ‘Introduction’, this collection represents ‘a kind of fascinating time capsule’, constituting as it does ‘the compressed short fiction apprenticeship of a writer who was to go on to become one of the great novelists of the twentieth century and arguably the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time’. As Dick’s early philosophical writing, the stories show the signs of imaginative genius: tightness, compression, visionary definition. There is that Villette sense of inevitable gestation; their conception strikes one as having involved an unconditioned organicism, a faultless development. Each story hits like a mathematical equation, or a crystalline structure that has sprung suddenly into being. There is a phrase in ‘Survey Team’ which describes the way each vision enfolds the reader’s attention: ‘the semantics hut’.   

Most crucially, in philosophical terms, these stories display the emergence of Dick’s concern with anthropology. In a note written in 1976, he observed that in ‘Second Variety’, ‘my grand theme – who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human? – emerges most fully. Unless we can individually and collectively be certain of the answer to this question, we face what is, in my view, the most serious problem possible. […] I keep working on this theme; to me nothing is as important a question.’ In this post I want to suggest that Dick, rather like Karl Jaspers, evolves a ‘transcendental anthropology’ (in Thornhill’s phrase), upon which to ground his thinking about human-being. For Spinrad, empathy is indeed both ‘the great theme and the spiritual core of Philip K. Dick’s whole career’: ‘the empathy that, in the end, is finally what distinguishes the human from the machine, the spiritual from the mechanical, authentic being from even the most cunningly crafted pseudo-life’. A transcendental anthropology founded on empathy is one open to incorporating, as a key term, the experience of the vulnerable – for instance what Dick’s note to ‘Small Town’ calls ‘the frustrations of a defeated small person’. It also foregrounds human singularity, and interrogates unfreedom, for instance in its communist form. This is how razor-fingered robot-life is discussed in ‘Second Variety’:

‘“It only takes one of them. Once the first one gets in it admits the others. Hundreds of them, all alike. You should have seen them. Identical. Like ants.”
            “Perfect socialism,” Tasso said. “The ideal of the communist state. All citizens interchangeable.”
            Klaus grunted angrily. “That’s enough. Well? What next?”’ 

Allison, in ‘The World She Wanted’, thus refuses planned interchangeability in favour of an existentialist upholding of individual experience, when she asserts that ‘“We each have our own world”’. ‘“The Great Designer has to be economical – like all good artists. Many of the worlds are similar, almost the same. But each of them belongs to only one person.”’

The story ‘James P. Crow’ focusses in on robots as prime emblems of what Spinrad calls ‘baleful anti-empathetic pseudo-life’, for example because they are key players in what Jaspers (in The Spiritual Condition of the Age) termed the modern ‘world of advanced technique’: the unfree realm of planned, mechanical functioning. Discussing the matter with L-87t, Crow contrasts ‘“Robots who think and plan and design machinery”’, and who are ‘“purely intellectual”’, to ‘“emotional humans”’:

‘“Humans and robots are completely different. We humans can sing, act, write plays, stories, operas, paint, design sets, flower gardens, buildings, cook delicious meals, make love, scratch sonnets on menus – and robots can’t. But robots can build elaborate cities and machines that function perfectly, work for days without rest, think without emotional interruption, gestalt complex data without a time lag.”’

Dick expands the emotional life versus mental life split into a division between manual (human) and intellectual (robot) forms of labour; a divide presaged in the racial divisions of 1950s America.

‘Human beings had their place. They were understood and wanted: as body servants, entertainers, clerks, gardeners, construction workers, repairmen, odd-jobbers and factory workers.
            But when it came to something like civic control coordinator or traffic supervisor for the usone tapes that fed energy into the planet’s twelve hydro-systems – ’

But the intellectual labour performed by the robots within the society of ‘James P. Crow’ is purely technical. It is a practice of the sort of focussed (‘without emotional interruption’), unimaginative, invariant intellectual life which we see gaining precedence in our bureaucratized, tick-box educational system now, increasingly centred as it is on consumerist league tables and standards of false achievement. ‘The Lists were geared to robot minds. Made up by robots, phased to a robot culture. A culture which was alien to humans, to which humans had to make difficult adjustment. No wonder only robots passed their Lists.’

This is why non-technical – spiritual – intellectual life emerges as a crucial component of the transcendental anthropology evolved in these stories. Making a claim for a human’s intellectual freedom, the story ‘The Hood Maker’ recalls the way in which the word Geist, so central within the German philosophical tradition, refers to both ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’. ‘If he wore the hood his mind would be his own. Nobody could look into it. His mind would belong to him again, private, secret, to think as he wished, endless thoughts for no one else’s consumption but his own.’ In ‘Planet for Transients’ the idea of free, inviolate mental life (‘gnosis’) is culturalized, or situated along the lines of anthropological science within a shamanic context, when Dick returns us to the notion of a conveyance of tradition, or of a spiritual education gifted by a representative of ‘true man’ – an embodiment of Spinrad’s ‘authentic being’.

‘A human was wanted here too. A human brought with him valuable gnosis, odds and ends of tradition the mutants needed to incorporate into their shaky social structures. Mutant cultures were still unsteady. They needed contact with the past. A human being was a shaman, a Wise Man to teach and instruct. To teach the mutants how life had been, how their ancestors had lived and acted and looked.’

Dick’s concern with the human defined as a repository and transmitter of traditional gnosis – of spirituality which expressed itself in historical forms of culture – bears affinities with Jaspers’ concern with existence, ‘the key term’ (as Thornhill notes) in his transcendental anthropology.  For Jaspers, in the relation of existence to an ‘original unity of being’, Thornhill writes, ‘humans ceaselessly dispose themselves differently and originally towards the terms of their historical life: they thus become more, and more reflexively, human’. It is a matter of a continuous, if faltering, hermeneutic access to the transcendent background of history.

‘Existence reflects a progressive (although invariably incomplete) disclosure of original human capacities. Existence is thus a category of experience, in which human beings, in their historical immanence and particularity, relate themselves to the possibility of an originary unity of being. This unity is not produced by history. It is neither realized as a fact of personality nor an ontological fact of knowledge, but it is interpreted, in however fragmented form, as and in existence itself.’

In ‘Souvenir’, Williamson states that the inhabitants of Williamson’s World ‘“worship in common a vague animism. A sense of the general positive vitality of the universal process”’. Dick’s interest in (re)vitalization – which will become a central theme of his novel Ubik, of course – emerges already in the opening story of Second Variety, ‘The Cookie Lady’. ‘The change, the glow, was coming over her, the warm, rising feeling. She was blooming again, filling with life, swelling into richness, as she had been, once, long ago.’ We could argue that the sort of human spiritual life asserted within Dick’s transcendental anthropology is indeed comparable to that held out by a ‘vague animism’, in that for Dick, as ‘Planet for Transients’ shows, genuine humanity is by definition implicated with its environment’s natural vitality, just as animist spirituality is. In that story, the mutant life-forms represent ‘“endless varieties of life”’ which are adapted to the new conditions of the planet, to all the new ways in which ‘“Earth is alive, teeming with life”’. In contrast, the original humans have failed to adapt. ‘“We’re a rocket-ship stopping at an alien world on which we can’t survive.”’ This means, Dick asserts, that they (‘“Closed helmets”’) no longer represent genuine humanity. ‘“We’re the true humans,” Trent said. “Not any more. […] We’re one form, an old form.”’   

When Dick defines genuine humanity as implicated with natural vitality, he sees both humans and their environment to be impermanent, changeable: this perspective aligns his thinking with a Buddhist viewpoint. It also aligns him with Jaspers’ questioning of anthropological thinking which, as Thornhill explains, is underwritten by his definition of existence as ‘a possible relation to transcendence, which cannot be defined or articulated in fixed structures as a positively formed human quality’. Jaspers’ is a transcendental anthropology which refuses to be bound by the terms of anthropological science. To posit existence as a possible hermeneutic relation to vitalist transcendence, as Jaspers does, is to critique the freezing and curtailment – the reification – of humanity effected by anthropological sciences.

‘[Jaspers] and Heidegger are close together in their attempts to move the conception of the human being away from unitary realized models of human essence. “No anthropology”, Jaspers states, “recognizes what the living being of the human really is”. He thus rejects anthropology both in its guise as a positivistic science of human life-forms, and as a philosophical science of human nature and human attributes.’

A comparable sense of the denaturalizing, disunifying effect of (our interpretations of) transcendence on conceptions of the human, emerges from Dick’s representation of the experience of the vulnerable. In ‘Jon’s World’, the epileptic, Jon, experiences transcendental ‘visions of ultimate reality’, which seem to give him access to quasi-Platonist forms or Ideas: ‘“The world behind all this.”’ This access radically denaturalizes and fragments what we think we are experiencing here. ‘“A real world. Much more real than this. It makes all this just a shadow world. Only dim shadows. Shapes. Images.”’ Dick’s empathetic narrative point of view does not seek to distance the reader from Jon’s relation to transcendence, and instead affirms his identity as a member of the human family and a relative of all those who have sought to restructure our conception of what we can be.

‘His own son. Retrogression. A thousand years lost. Ghosts and gods and devils and the secret inner world. The world of ultimate reality. All the fables and fictions and metaphysics that man had used for centuries to compensate for his fear, his terror of the world. All the dreams he had made up to hide the truth, the harsh world of reality. Myths, religions, fairy tales. A better land, beyond and above. Paradise. All coming back, reappearing again, and in his own son.’
[Since writing this post, I have seen that Jaspers scholar Alan Olson, in his review of Thornhill’s book on Jaspers (here), questions Thornhill’s emphasis upon the importance of Lebensphilosophie – as connecting Jaspers with Dilthey and Simmel – and maintains that ‘Jaspers’s indebtedness to Kant [...] prevents him from identifying with the romantic side of the “philosophy of life” or vitalism of any sort’. I guess a reading of Jaspers’ Nietzsche may be one way to try to establish more clearly the terms (if there are indeed substantial ones) of Jaspers’ relation to vitalist thinking…]     

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Jaspers Gesamtausgabe Funded

Here, over on the KJSNA page, there is news of a massive advance in recognition of the significance of Karl Jaspers' legacy: a 50+ volume annotated critical edition of his Collected Works is to be produced in Germany from 2012-2030.

'A major step in Jaspers scholarship was announced in Germany on November 8, 2011. The Joint Science Conference (a partnership between the Federal Government of Germany and the heads of government of the Länder) has approved nine major research projects with a total funding of 54.4 million Euros. One of these projects recognizes the importance of Karl Jaspers with funding of an annotated critical edition of Karl Jaspers’ Collected Works.

Starting in 2012, the timetable for this project is 18 years and includes four full-time positions for executive editors to oversee the production of more than 50 volumes. The headquarters for this project is located at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences directed by professors Thomas Fuchs (psychiatry) and Jens Halfwassen (philosophy), in cooperation with Dr. Hans Saner (Basel) and professors Anton Hügli (Basel), Kurt Salamun (Graz), and Reinhard Schulz (Oldenburg). The editorial focus of the Heidelberg group will centre on Jaspers’ clinical and philosophical writings, while the Oldenburg group in conjunction with the Hannah-Arendt-Center will address Jaspers’ political writings.’   

Interestingly, this division of labour broadly mirrors Thornhill's division of his treatment of Jaspers' thinking: early works and then 'Republican existence'.

The German press announcement comments that 'Karl Jaspers gehört neben Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger und Hans-Georg Gadamer zu den prägenden deutschen Philosophen des 20. Jahrhunderts.' Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger and Gadamer belong together as the defining German philosophers of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Blogging and Social Exclusion

Intelligent remarks over at the Working Notes blog [here], explaining why it's being closed down (though not deleted):

'I feel the blog is a good place for people who don't have anything more concrete to do on the intellectual level to just do something, put things to work. That's pretty basic, but I think it's true, and, far from being a testament to the laziness, etc. of such people--I don't mean to say this at all--it testifies to the absolutely incredible inability of our current society to make something of people's intelligence, skill, time, and desire to be useful: we have to ask ourselves what is going on when our society has to create a massive virtual repository for less professionally oriented intellectual work, give it none of the material benefits of the actual world of letters or make it subject to the same restraints or regulations, and then even have the gall to call it "self-publishing." [...] I also just want to recognize, on more of a human level, how lucky I feel that I'm one of the really, really fortunate ones out there now who has more concrete things to do intellectually.'

I agree with the drift of this - after all, a main reason why I never got a blog for the first seven years after being made unemployed by the University of Westminster was that I was still clinging to the idea of my intellectual work being 'professionally oriented'. I was too proud to get a blog: it seemed like an admission of worldly failure. But I would seriously question whether activities in the real world are necessarily 'more concrete' than activities in the virtual space of the blogosphere. I produced my PhD over the period 1995-2001 with basically no access to the internet, and I am certainly very glad that I had the opportunity to engage in intensive, library-based study over those years. But since becoming more addicted to using the web, particularly in the past couple of years, I do feel that I have acquired a breadth, or range (if not depth), of knowledge that I could never have acquired in twenty years in a 'concrete', real-world university. Seminar rooms and syllabuses can actually be quite constrictive - sure, at least you get to talk to people (the only thing I miss about academia), but what are you talking about? Academic institutions are very defined by their cognitive 'restraints' and 'regulations'....

This is precisely the attraction of Jaspers' existentialist advance from mainstream academic neo-Kantianism: it represents a liberation from epistemological reification. (In his review for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews [2002.08.03; here] of Thornhill's study of Jaspers, Alan Olson describes Jaspers' 'existential rescue' of Kant from Rickert et al. as 'a truly unique and not well-understood chapter in the history of early 20th-century German philosophy'). In less abstract terms: perhaps society might become less unfairly hierarchical - and the academic field less intrinsically paranoid about falling into the misfortune 'out there' in the wider society - if academics were to get out more, de-reify their working practices, and be less 'professionally oriented'. I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to happen, however, and can only strive to continue to be less professionally oriented on this blog - in emulation of classic works of 'creative scholarship' (para-academic cognition), such as Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael, Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, or Iain Sinclair's 'Nicholas Hawksmoor, His Churches'.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dickinson 724

Here is poem number 724 from the Reading Edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin.

Each Life converges to some Centre –
Expressed – or still –
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal –

Embodied scarcely to itself – it may be –
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar –

Adored with caution – as a Brittle Heaven –
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch –

Yet persevered toward – surer – for the Distance –
How high –
Unto the Saints’ slow diligence –
The Sky –

Ungained – it may be – by a Life’s low Venture –
But then –
Eternity enable the endeavouring

In The Spiritual Condition of the Age, Karl Jaspers raised the question of free will: ‘the basic problem of our time is whether an independent human being in his self-comprehended destiny is still possible’. In Dickinson’s poem, the freedom to know and claim a destiny is figured as a singular human’s progress towards her ‘Goal’: that is, as a project of perseverance towards an apprehension of her own transcendent nature. Yet this project, she understands, is a ‘low Venture’; our life on this earth is everything which is distant from the transcendental freedom suggested by the ‘Brittle Heaven’ and the ‘Rainbow’s Raiment’. In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe discusses this poem in the context of the Puritan understanding, which Dickinson shared with her spirit-mentor Emily Brontë, that ‘Humanity must obey mechanical and supernatural necessity’. Their imaginations perpetuate ‘LEAR’s world of monstrous necessity where union with Nature means living outside comfort with the forces of destruction’. The bitter, low, ‘Life’ or nature through which we move towards understanding of our transcendent human nature, is identified with (obedience to) what Howe calls ‘the dominant social system’, or ‘a phantom and desolate world where life is a void labour, and Death, Desire’s dream’: determinism, as laid down by religious fundamentalism and work ethic capitalism alike.

Dickinson’s poem encodes the dialectic of free will and determinism that still resonates in American culture today, in the superb film based on Philip K. Dick’s ‘Adjustment Team’, The Adjustment Bureau (in which the death of the romancing protagonists’ high-flying careers turns out to be desire’s dream, vanquishing the Bureau's career planning), and which appeared in Weimar times in Jaspers’ opposition of human freedom to Weberian modern ‘worldly order’, in The Spiritual Condition of the Age.

‘The interlinking of every aspect of human life into stable organisations is rapidly increasing. The transformation of human beings into functions of a titanic apparatus compels a general levelling-down; the apparatus has no use for human beings of high grade or for exceptional individuals, but requires only average specimens endowed with particular gifts. Nothing but the relative endures. The coercion of the life-order enforces an entry into the various associations, and interferes with freedom of individual activity in every possible way. […] The movement is towards the bringing to pass of a stable and definitive condition. But this ideal of a worldly order is intolerable to those who know their being to be established upon a claim to freedom.’

A wildly exceptional individual who propounded the democratic insight that there ‘Exists in every Human Nature/ A Goal’, Dickinson – like Jaspers – experienced the rift between a claim to apprehend transcendental freedom and the structuration of deterministic order, the purposeless everyday battle of life which makes the idea of heaven itself appear merely ‘Brittle’. No doubt this lived antinomy contributed to her agoraphobia. ‘Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, educated, reclusive, visionary women, rebels from a sin-obsessed Fundamentalist religion, felt God and Nature separating from each other’ (Howe). Perhaps precisely because it narrates her own existential condition, Dickinson’s poem is not content simply to diagnose the separation, and finally refuses to tolerate its weighting on the side of necessity – paradoxically, precisely when her writing admits that the ‘Sky’ is ‘Ungained’. In the final stanza, the grinding, everyday ‘low Venture’ through which we move towards an understanding of transcendence is flipped over, and its precedence stripped away, so that now the transcendental emerges as the enabling space within which the struggle of nature is held to be enacted. After death we can renew the Venture with faith, because ‘Eternity enable the endeavouring/ Again.’ Eternity, not the winners of the struggle, has been in control all along.
Next post: in the semantics hut with P. K. Dick