THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS

Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world. The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm. The swooping flight of birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind; it is this script that was studied by the ancient augurs, who could read therein the course of the future. Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves they consume. Wolves urinate on specific stumps and stones to mark off their territory. And today you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the acuity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces-a bit of scat here, a broken twig there-of these animal Others. These letters print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other. Continue reading “THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS”

PERCEPTION IS PARTICIPATION

Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter- of tension , communication , and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor- as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation . We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation , by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

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Conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “Caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed worldviews, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects ” and natural “objects,” and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use. While both of these views are unstable, each bolsters the other; by bouncing from one to the other- from scientific determinism to spiritual idealism and back again- contemporary discourse easily avoids the possibility that both the perceiving being and the perceived being are of the same stuff, that the perceiver and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element, that is at once both sensible and sensitive. We readily experience this paradox in relation to other persons; this stranger who stands before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I , too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient . Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity- a mountain lion, for instance, that I unexpectedly encounter in the northern forest? Indeed, such a meeting brings home to me even more forcefully that I am not just a sentient subject but also a sensible object, even an edible object, in the eyes (and nose) of the other. Even an ant crawling along my arm, visible to my eyes and tactile to my skin, displays at the same time its own sentience, responding immediately to my movements, even to the chemical changes of my mood. In relation to the ant I feel myself as a dense and material object, as capricious in my actions as the undulating earth itself. Finally, then, why might not this “reversibility ” of subject and object extend to every entity that I experience? Once I acknowledge that my own sentience, or subjectivity, does not preclude my visible, tactile, objective existence for others, I find myself forced to acknowledge that any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

THE FOREST AND ITS TREES

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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION

Life is of the psychological order, and it is of the essence of the psychical to enfold a confused plurality of interpenetrating terms. In space, and in space only, is distinct multiplicity possible: a point is absolutely external to another point. But pure and empty unity, also, is met with only in space; it is that of a mathematical point. Abstract unity and abstract multiplicity are determinations of space or categories of the understanding, whichever we will, spatiality and intellectuality being molded on each other. But what is of psychical nature cannot entirely correspond with space, nor enter perfectly into the categories of the understanding.

Is my own person, at a given moment, one or manifold? If I declare it one, inner voices arise and protest—those of the sensations, feelings, ideas, among which my individuality is distributed. But, if I make it distinctly manifold, my consciousness rebels quite as strongly; it affirms that my sensations, my feelings, my thoughts are abstractions which I effect on myself, and that each of my states implies all the others. I am then (we must adopt the language of the understanding, since only the understanding has a language) a unity that is multiple and a multiplicity that is one; but unity and multiplicity are only views of my personality taken by an understanding that directs its categories at me; I enter neither into one nor into the other nor into both at once, although both, united, may give a fair imitation of the mutual interpenetration and continuity that I find at the base of my own self. Such is my inner life, and such also is life in general. While, in its contact with matter, life is comparable to an impulsion or an impetus, regarded in itself it is an immensity of potentiality, a mutual encroachment of thousands and thousands of tendencies which nevertheless are “thousands and thousands” only when once regarded as outside of each other, that is, when spatialized. Contact with matter is what determines this dissociation. Matter divides actually what was but potentially manifold; and, in this sense, individuation is in part the work of matter, in part the result of life’s own inclination. Continue reading “BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION”

LANGUAGE & ANARCHY IN THE DAODEJING

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Throughout the Daodejing there is a sustained suspicion of language.  Chad Hansen has even characterised this text as being fundamentally “anti-language.”  In describing the evolution of Daoism, Hansen suggests that “Since language is an instrument of social control, we should avoid it – and everything that goes with it.”  One point that Hansen is making here is well taken: “Trained discriminations are not a constantly reliable guide to behaviour.  Culturally motivated preferences based on those distinctions are, on the whole, unreliable.  And they control us in insidious, unnatural ways.”  But it might be a case of throwing out the baby with the befouled bathwater to extrapolate from the entirely reasonable claim about Laozi’s Daoism that “as anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority” and then to infer that this means “the way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language.”

While we might find a palpable irony in one of the world’s literary classics offering a critique of the language in which it is written, it is undeniably the case that a major theme of the Daodejing is that an uncritical use of language can lull us into a distorted understanding of the nature of the world in which we live.  That said, language also has an important function for Daoists who rely heavily upon oral transmission to pass on their ideas to subsequent generations.  Broadly speaking, in the absence of the divorce between philosophy and rhetoric that occurred in classical Greece, there is an appreciation in the classical Chinese tradition of performative and perlocutionary power of language that not only describes a word, but more importantly, commands a desired world into being.  The Daodejing is not an exception to this sensibility.

What then is the Daoist reticence in the use of language?  The Daodejing is not a discursive, expository Aristotelian treatise that, in a linear and sequential way, sets out to explain the way the world is.  Rather, it is a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition.  Michael LaFargue offers an alternative reading strategy for the Daodejing in suggesting that, rather than anticipating some literal, univocal interpretation for each passage, we ought to search the text empathetically for the point that it is trying to make relative to concrete life situations.  After all, even though empirically the claim that “a watched pot never boils” is demonstrably false, that does not diminish the saying’s psychological insight for those people who are given to watching pots.

The philosophical problem that provokes the Daoist mistrust of language lies in the possibility that a misunderstanding of the nature of language has the potential to promote the worst misconceptions about the flux and flow of experience in which we live our lives.  There is an obvious tension between the unrelenting processual nature of experience and the function of language to separate out, isolate and arrest elements within it.  To the extent that it is the nature of language to arrest the process of change and discipline it into a coherent, predictable order, there is the likelihood that an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character that it really is.

The assumption, for example, that there is a literal language behind the metaphorical can introduce notions of permanence, necessity, and objectivity into our worldview that can have deleterious consequences.  Corollary to such notions are dualistic categories, such as reality and appearance, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, reason and rhetoric, that encourage a finality and thus a kind of dogmatism in our judgements about the world.  Such assumptions in parsing our experience lead to the exclusionary prejudices familiar in foundational ways of thinking.

Of course, the alternative to this “myth of the given” foundationalism is not its twin: a divisive and intolerant relativism that promises a different yet equally final judgement for each discrete person or community.  In the Daoist processual worldview, there are not the gaps in experience that would permit either an exclusive foundationalism or an equally exclusive relativism.  The ethos of the world is not a given, but an ecological achievement that is increased or diminished by human participation and behaviour.  Morality, then, is an ongoing negotiation in which some consensual and thus appropriate good can be produced by considering the needs and possible contributions of all things concerned.

Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, A Philosophical translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant.

LOGOS AND DAO: A NON-METAPHYSICAL INTERPRETATION

Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.

One may say that Heidegger was trying to think in a non-metaphysical way in reaction to the dominant metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy, but the fact that Zhuangzi was thinking in a non-metaphysical way did not arise out of a genuine need to overcome a metaphysical opponent. Both thinkers are after a way of thought that is squarely located in this world, opposed to dualism, and that has no need for metaphysical principles. Heidegger argues that Heraclitus was not a metaphysical thinker in the first place, since the particular form of metaphysics that we are discussing did not arise until Plato.

There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change.

Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signaling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. As Heidegger says: “Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being”. Both the Daoists and Heidegger are extremely aware of the shortcomings of their respective societies’ current views of language, and both try to redirect us toward a different understanding of language that would take us closer to our world.

Both Heidegger’s Heraclitus and Daoists, then, suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. Such a form of responsiveness that Heidegger and Zhuangzi proclaim is not devoid of meaning, but is ultimately a form of responsibility: to follow the injunctions to let things be as they inherently are.

There is no real creator entity in classical Chinese thought, and metaphysical notions of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’ are largely absent as well. The assumed equivalents you and wu rather mean ‘present’ and ‘absent’, or ‘having’ and ‘not-having’. Most of the classical Chinese assumptions fit in more with a process-oriented worldview than with one that is based on a metaphysical and onto-theological one. As such, we would be well off to be more careful when interpreting concepts such as dao in familiar metaphysical ways. Maybe a non-metaphysical reading is more relevant to classical Chinese philosophy, and such considerations can also lead us, like Heidegger, to reassess our own most important notions, like logos, and, equally important, might give us resources to understand better the Chinese philosophical tradition, which is generally conceived as non-metaphysical.

Burik, Steven.  Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation
(Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 23-41)
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