“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thought and Literary Form

In LA in March. This will be a blast:

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers Conference
Claremont McKenna College, March 9-11, 2012

Thought and literary form
“There is a well-established variance between philosophy and creative practice” (Plato, Republic, 607b). To translate Socrates’ words this way is not to claim that Plato does not mean to posit an “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, but rather to indicate that this disagreement is identified, in the first instance, at the level of practice. We therefore invite papers that investigate the variance at the level of procedure: how should we think about literature and philosophy when they seem to do the same things (invent persons and worlds; stage imaginary conversations; metaphorize; hymn and disenchant)?

Mark Payne
Department of Classics, the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought
The University of Chicago

“Experiments in Living”
In “Experiments in Living,” I consider the possible kinship between the scenarios and personae conceived by poems (possible candidates: T.S. Eliot, Joan Retallack and Jacques Roubaud) and the hypothetical scenarios presented in philosophical thought experiments—Chinese rooms, possible worlds, zombies and color scientists.  Recent debates about the relation between conceivability (that which we can imagine and represent to ourselves) and (metaphysical) possibility provide a new way of thinking about how the “golden world” given by a poet’s imaginings—her invented scenarios, his baroque personae—establishes a probative relation to the “brazen world” of actions and persons.

Oren Izenberg
Department of English
University of Illinois at Chicago

“Fear of Nothing: Heidegger’s Buddhism”
Jacques Lacan asserts that communication is based on a successful misunderstanding. This seems to be the case with the Western philosophical conversation with Buddhism. It seems very difficult to shake the idea that what is called emptiness (sh?nyat?) is absolutely nothing: an idea that made its way into Hegel's thinking at numerous key points and has stuck around ever since.

This concept of nothingness affects Joan Stambaugh, who puts an imaginary Heidegger in dialogue with an imaginary Buddhist. Stambaugh’s Buddhist slightly misunderstands Buddhism, and Stambaugh’s Heidegger also slightly misunderstands Buddhism. By contrast, Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist who emigrated to the UK in 1959, seems to understand Heidegger quite well. Indeed, from a Buddhist point of view, Heidegger himself lets himself say things that sound remarkably Buddhist.

This is not to say that Heidegger or Trungpa are masters of truth. It is, rather, to argue that there are different ways of thinking the form of philosophical dialogue. This form has of course been part of the Western canon since Plato, whose dialogues do often depend upon a strange double movement that consists both of a mutual misunderstanding, and a letting truth be “born” (maieutics) yet never grasped—and sometimes never even seen. Platonic dialogue has a necessarily contemplative element, I argue, that makes it similar to Heidegger’s and Trungpa’s strangely productive (non)dialogue, in which the one is “channeling” a kind of Buddhism (before he read or translated Buddhist and Taoist texts), and the other is “channeling” a phenomenological approach to Buddhist meditation.

My paper tries to follow the interlocutors—Hegel, Heidegger, Trungpa, Stambaugh—around the strange loops of their successful misunderstanding. I this way I hope to open up ways to think about the syndrome of which nothingness, and misunderstandings about it, are a symptom. My term for this syndrome is Buddhaphobia. The strange non-meeting of Heidegger and Trungpa allows for the possibility of transcending Buddhaphobia, not by rising above it, but paradoxically by taking it seriously.

Timothy Morton
Department of English
University of California, Davis

“Narrative Method and the Tentative Universals of Conrad’s Poetics”
Joseph Conrad’s fiction is striking in its seeming antipathy to philosophy.  Those characters drawn most to ideas and meditation constitute a menagerie of human failure—from Kurtz to Decoud, Razumov, various anarchists, and father and son Heyst. The very adjective “philosophic” consistently appears pejoratively, laden with irony, expressive of cynicism or falsehood. Yet early in his literary life, Conrad set forth a philosophical articulation of art which he repeatedly affirmed, insisting that art aims at “bringing to light the truth, manifold and one.”  But he qualified this aim in its method, which he juxtaposed against that of “the thinker” plunging into ideas, or “the scientist” plunging into facts.  Conrad’s artist descends instead within himself to find the terms of his appeal, engaging the “secret spring of emotion” for the sake of a momentary insight, a fleeting glimpse of tentative truth.

Conrad, then, is at once philosophic and anti-philosophic.  This paper will address that tension by considering his narrative method in light of a playful reference to Socrates in his novel Chance, a reference focusing less upon idea than upon manner. There Marlow, an internal narrator, characterizes Socrates as “a true friend of the youth [who] lectured them in a peculiarly exasperating manner”(15), even as Marlow offers a ‘peculiarly exasperating’ narration of his own arguably indebted to the Platonic dialogue, offering multiple voices that destabilize readers’ boastful certainties.  While many critics have noticed the deconstructive effect of Conrad’s fiction, recourse to a Socratic model brings out the intelligible precision with which Conradian narrative method also constructs an aporia that is not the ‘undecidability’ of post-structural theory, but a deliberate means of guided contemplation.  The tentative universals that emerge from Conrad’s modern poetics—unlike Platonic ideas—depend less upon logical assent than upon affective and sympathetic recognition of shared human experience.  Conrad’s complex treatment of universality and concurrent search for human solidarity remain most needful in our increasingly polarized political and moral environment.

Debra Romanick Baldwin,
Department of English,
University of Dallas

“True Mistakes: Aristotle and Anne Carson on Metaphor”
Anne Carson writes in her poem, “Essay on What I Think About Most” (whose first line is simply the word “Error.”), “Lots of people including Aristotle think error / an interesting and valuable mental event.” Referencing Aristotle’s praise of the initial feeling of mistake or disjunction necessary to a good metaphor (Rhetoric III. XI. 6), she expands this virtue of error to be essential not only to metaphor but also to poetic epistemology. Indeed, Men in the Off Hours, the collection in which this poem is a touchstone, could be described as practicing a poetics of error. Yet philosophy, particularly Aristotle’s brand, does not practice error but instead consistently aims for truth and accuracy. Although philosophers and poets might agree that metaphor involves a counterintuitive logic—two unlike things are actually alike, or the identity of a thing is clarified by what it categorically is not—they employ metaphor differently, according to their genre. Philosophers tend to use metaphors to zoom in on their argument and make a point, while poets tend to use metaphor to zoom of out the poem, enlarging its scope of images and ideas.

Is philosophy generically inimical to the necessarily erroneous process of metaphor, and poetry generically disposed to it? If so, then how do metaphors characteristically function in philosophical and poetic works? How does Carson manipulate Aristotle’s praise of error to create new formal definitions for her poetry? Do Aristotle’s metaphors in his philosophical work involve his audience with mistakes, or even irrationality, to a logically risky extent? I propose that a close reading of metaphors in both the Nicomachean Ethics and Men in the Off Hours will demonstrate the different expectations and limits philosophers and poets place on metaphor, and mistakes.

Katie Hartsock
Program in Comparative Literary Studies
Northwestern University

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