stalking horses and other specters
The experience in which we meet specters or let them come visit us remains indestructible and undeniable. The most cultivated, the most reasonable, the most nonbelieving people easily reconcile a certain spiritualism with reason.
—Jacques Derrida (Archive Fever, p. 88f., trans. E. Prenowitz)
It is a curious sensation, reading Derrida and Isaiah Berlin alongside each other: they have such very different ways (styles, methods, means – I’m not certain what the best word is here) of trying to cope with or work around the inexplicable. Berlin cuts straight through, wrapped up in common sense and clarity like a greatcoat to keep out the storms and stresses of muddled thinking, whereas it does not seem to me that Derrida met a muddle he didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t muddle further (because its being muddled is what’s interesting about it, usually). Or perhaps it’s like someone building a fire to keep out the cold (Berlin) and someone else performing rhythmic gymnastics for the same purpose (Derrida).1
* * *
When I was reading about the Duke experiments in parapsychology, one of the things that struck me was the lack of thought given to limits. Certainly the investigators were interested in the physical constraints of subjects’ ability to state the order of cards correctly – how did distance or barriers affect the results – and they acknowledged that fatigue played (as I recall) a somewhat ambiguous role in accuracy. But what if their subjects’ ability was due to luck (not chance, but luck) and what if an individual’s luck is finite and cannot be replenished? The poor subjects doling out droplets of luck they will never have again, just as they will never have again those hours they spent completing the experiments.2
* * *
I had wanted, when I started writing this, to make a serious comparison of the two and draw out a point that I thought interesting about how they each, in their very different ways, deal with the pursuit of truth or truthiness or authority or whatever it is they are pursuing. I find, though, that I am left without ideas, without any means or modes of thinking – or desire to think – about the matter. There is only an impression, a mood, which will probably fade and I will entirely forget what it was I meant to say. Probably for the best: ‘The truth is spectral, and this [the repressed] is its part of truth which is irreducible by explanation’ (Derrida, p. 87).
- PF would advise me not to push the analogy too far – and I will, for nonce, resist the temptation to do so. [↩]
- What does this have to do with anything? Haven’t the foggiest – but it seemed relevant somehow. [↩]
Besides the general mental faculty, more or less developed in different individuals, of sentiment and artistic feeling, there exists more or less developed in different circles of society and especially in families, a special capacity which I call understanding. The gist of this capacity is a conventional sense of proportion, and a conventional and particular outlook on things. Two people of the same set or family who have this faculty, always permit an expression of feeling up to a certain point beyond which they both see only empty phrases. They both see where praise ceases and irony begins, where enthusiasm ends and pretence begins—which may all seem quite different to people having different ideas. People of the same understanding are struck by anything equally, chiefly on its comic, its beautiful, or its nasty side. To help this common understanding between people of the same set or family, a language of their own establishes itself—their own special turns of speech and even words, which indicate shades of meaning non-existent for others. In our family, this understanding was developed in the highest degree between papa and us brothers. Dubkóv, too, fitted well in with our circle and understood. Dmítri, however, though far more intelligent, was dull in this respect.
—Tolstoy (Youth, pp. 332f., trans. the Maudes)
Dear Professor ———,
It was with great interest that I picked up a recent translation of one of your books, as I hoped that it would provide a fresh perspective on what could perhaps be called ‘the current moment’. Although your book failed to be helpful in this regard, it did provide food for thought. Because you appear to champion the use of politeness rather than ‘authenticity’ to govern the rules of human interaction, I will of course offer my thoughts wrapped in such terms as civility will allow.
I am curious to know what you mean by phrases such as ‘neoliberal psycho-politics’ or ‘the neoliberal regime’. I see these terms bandied about (in your book and elsewhere), but they are rarely defined with any clarity. Perhaps I should grant that you intend merely to indicate the dangers of market-oriented capitalism, but you nowhere state this in your text and it caused me some confusion, as such phrases seemed mainly to indicate all of the (unspecified) elements of modern life that you happen not to like. Although it might fix your book at a particular point in time (rather than addressing all time), more specific examples might clarify what, if anything, you mean. For what have you to tell all time but the specific instances of this time?
In reading your book I was led to wonder if you have ever encountered, much less spent time with, a person who did not claim to be or manage to present themselves as neurotypical (hideous word, pathological in itself). You seem to believe that conditions such as depression (a narcissistic self-obsession or absorption in the ‘object-libido’) and attention deficit disorder (‘a pathological intensification of serial perception’, p. 7) are mental states over which an individual could have perfect control; you do not exactly say that such a person should, in that impossible phrase, pull themselves up by their bootstraps (i.e., by simply paying concentrated attention to something outside of themselves), but this is strongly implied. I do not say that you should care whether or not the people you know are authentically mentally stable (or happy or content or feeling at home, as you so charmingly put it, in the world) – as this appears to be beyond the scope of your public persona – but I would suggest that additional attentive research on the matter would not be amiss and would enhance the aura of authority that you seem to crave. To be at home in the world one must be made welcome, and you, I think, will have noticed (as I have) that the world, as such, is not always welcoming to all of its guests.
You deprecate the flattening of communication and advocate ‘deep’ or layered interaction. This appears to be in line with your desire for more rigid hierarchy in human society, but who determines where an individual should be situated in that stratification? Do you believe that there are human solids and human surds – and some will naturally rise to the top while others sink below? Who chooses the priests you long for? (At this point I would like to note that your repeated statements on the importance of life-and-death games are, perhaps, ill-advised. Ritual human sacrifice is not necessarily something to hold up as an exemplar (and I write this shortly after Easter).)
In one of the few instances where you make use of a female pronoun in the book (indeed, the only one I could find), you state: ‘I can have someone else work for me by paying her, and this avoids entering into a personal relationship’ (43f.). First: is not engaging someone to work and paying them a personal relationship? If not, I pity your research assistant(s) and your graduate students. Also, why are your soldiers and priests and kings all given the masculine pronoun? Is there something peculiarly female about work or something particularly male about authority? Is this part of your natural hierarchy? Men kill each other for sport and women (preferably unpaid) prepare the food and do the laundry and take care of all the other trivial details that make possible vita contemplativa et vita activa?
In the main, I do not think your concern about social superficiality is wrong, but having presented your logical destination, you have chosen a peculiar and perhaps not wholly defensible route to get there. Certainly, ‘authenticity’ at the expense of meaning is not laudable (but it is not necessarily ‘pornographic’, either) – but isn’t this exactly the sort of social game you hold up for admiration, the courtly dance of politics and power? You say that people should read more poetry, that poetry is language at play – and this is not wrong, but it is not the whole; poetry is not the only or best game that language can play, though it is a pleasant one. That the rules of contemporary discourse are constantly shifting, that one cannot quite grasp them for more than a moment – does this not say something about one’s skills as a player of this particular game? If you do not like the game, why are you playing it, why are you commenting on it, why are you engaging with it at all? Perhaps it is not your game. I do not care for chess, so I do not play it; I do not therefore believe that chess is bad or a waste of time in general – although it is both to me. I mention this to you because, in some small way, I do care about the game of ideas and I think it has value and meaning – and I do not like to see the game thrown to satisfy one player’s hunger for a certainty that probably does not exist. There is always room for doubt – and it is perhaps in that room (which is not difficult to visit – the door is open, never barred) that the magic and ritual you say you long for may reside.
I remain your questionably sincere reader &c., &c.
— It’s a dialogue, of course.
— The book I was telling you about.
— What book?
— Paul Valéry’s Idée Fixe.
— I really liked it. It’s charming.
— I thought it was a rush job for a doctor’s organization.
— What? Huh. Really? Well, I mean – it does read like it was written in a hurry, but it doesn’t … hm. It’s just. Well. Anyway. Even so. It was the first time I really felt an exchange of ideas in a literary dialogue. It felt real, you know? Usually it’s just a form, the ‘characters’ are mouthpieces for an idea, not … characters.
— Who’s talking?
— No. In the Valéry dialogue.
— Oh, right. Well, there’s the sort of narrator. A bit gloomy. Misanthropic. Doomy, maybe. Likes to scramble around on rocks at the seashore.
— Not sounding like a great interlocutor.
— Not really, I guess. He runs into the doctor at the beach. Well. No. He tries to avoid the doctor who’s fishing at the beach, but they make eye contact and … you know. You can’t not say hi to someone once you’ve made eye contact like that.
— Well, you can….
— Maybe you can, but I couldn’t – and neither could the narrator.
— So they start talking.
— I mean, the doctor isn’t really fishing. He’s trying not to do anything.
— A workaholic?
— Yeah. So he goes to the beach to not work, but it’s hard. He doesn’t like it. So I think he’s glad when the narrator shows up. Lets him psychologize a bit. Feels more like work.
— I sympathize.
— Talking usually feels like work.
— Oh? Well, I mean…. Oh. I’m sorry. Should I…? I mean, did you want…?
— No, no. Go on.
— Ok. …Where was I?
— The doctor.
— Right. Oh. Hm. Well. At this rate I might as well just read the dialogue to you. I mean. I’ll just end up summarizing it bit by bit. And … hm.
— You said you liked how it presented ideas, while still seeming like a ‘real’ dialogue. What did you mean?
— Well, I guess… Ok. So they’re talking about how you can get stuck on this idea – the idée fixe of the title, but they end up calling it an ‘implex’, but I’m not quite sure … I might not be remembering that right. Anyhow, and it’s how you end up getting all wrapped up, tied up in this sort of knot around your idea, and you see everything in terms of the idea. It’s kind of for that reason – that he’s so tied up with his implex – that the narrator avoids all human contact and just likes to jump from pointy rock to pointy rock and kind of hopes to fall and hurt himself but doesn’t.
— So it’s weird. It’s a weird dialogue. They talk a lot about medicine and medical terminology and how weird that is, and also the separation of work and hobbies and how hard that is or can be, particularly if you are interested in the work that you do, if your work is kind of your hobby.
— Ok, I can see that.
— I guess, actually, what I really like about it is how the doctor talks the narrator down from his misanthropy. Like, their conversation jumps from idea to idea, sort of free association, sort of how the narrator was jumping from rock to rock. But it’s civilizing. I think it says in the note somewhere that it’s set in the past, sort of ‘back when people could talk in complete sentences’ kind of thing, you know?
— There was a time when people talked in complete sentences?
— Well, I mean, huh… I dunno. Not usually of course, but in Valéry they do. Most of the time. What was I saying? Oh, right. The doctor and the narrator manage to find a way to relate to each other and it’s nice – they go from idea to idea to … understanding, not an understanding of each other, but a shared understanding that they built up in their conversation. Anyway. They end up going to a movie, even though the narrator starts off a total misanthrope who thinks spending time with people is trash. It’s cute. Not like ‘meet-cute’, but just … human.
— Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure any of that is right. I read it a while ago and I haven’t really looked at it since. I mean, it’s stuck with me, but I’m not sure the things that stuck with me were actually in the dialogue.
— Are there any muffins left?
— I think so.
— Want one?