The Mimetic Square

February 21, 2011

There’s something strange going on with Plato’s divided line. It is a complicated “something strange,” as it often is with Plato, and requires some elucidation. There is an analogy going on between shadow, thing, idea, and form. If we call these S, T, I, and F, we are told, “S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F)”—that is, that not only do shadow and thing bear the same relationship to each other as idea and form, but that this is the same relationship as between the sensory and the intellectual. That “S:T::I:F” I can accept, but why must the parts of this equation be proportionate to its whole? It results in a number of odd claims, foremost, that T=I. In what sense are things and ideas the same?

Let us leave aside this question for a moment. The above equations allow us to construct another geometrical shape, not a divided line but a divided square, which will serve much the same purpose. Plato actually does this, in the Laws, when talking about things divine, images of things divine, things human, and images of things human. As examples of these, he gives mountains, shadows of mountains, houses, and pictures of houses, but it is easy to see how they could be reinterpreted to be analogous to form, idea, thing, and shadow. So let us look at this square:




We can see that S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F). Additionally, T=I, insofar as the area of the rectangle THING equals that of the rectangle IDEA. Granted, this portrayal ignores the human half of the divided line—noesis, dianoia, pistis, eikasia—for to include those would require a divided cube. But for our purposes it is enough. The geometric reason for T=I is more clear now; S:T::I:F, but also S:I::T:F. S is two steps removed from F either way. One wonders, what are the philosophical implications of this?

The concept of mimesis, seems to recur here as well—as should perhaps not surprise us, for Plato was discussing art when he described the square in the first place. Recalling earlier, when mimesis was divided into reflection and representation, it seems that we can associate each with one of the two identical elements, T and I. Reflection seems associated with T; a mirror attempts to show us things, and Plato’s complaint is that it does a poor job of it. Representation, on the other hand, can be associated with I; a representation of a separate reality, a heterocosm, can offer nothing to our understanding of reality save general laws that we infer from our comparison of the world portrayed with our own, and Plato’s complaint is that the laws inferred are false. Mimesis begins in SHADOW—in fictions—and tries to bring us into THING and IDEA; Plato says that, without the guidance of philosophy at least, it fails. But worse, it seems, is that it cannot bring us from THING or IDEA towards FORM. Even when mimesis works perfectly, reflection can only bring us from the top of the bottom, and representation from the right to the left; it is not clear that they can build on each other, that together they can bring us from SHADOW to FORM.

Because I enjoy diagrams, and because I like to play with words, I like to label the rows and columns in this divided square. I do so as follows:






But, of course, I could not defend the claim that FACT=FACT.

McCarthy’s Parataxis

September 17, 2010

So, it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Oops. Anyway, I’m drawn back here by the most recent post on this blog written by a fellow UD student. It argues that Cormac McCarthy is a bad prose stylist; as anyone who has read this site over the last four months knows, I have no choice but to disagree with that. I’m not going to try to defend McCarthy’s style generally, but I do want to talk about why one particular sentence that was picked out as egregiously flawed is actually, in my mind, quite brilliant.

The sentence in question is this, excerpted from The Crossing:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

The charge is that it makes gratuitous use of repetition in an attempt to sound “literary” without actually communicating anything. This charge is based on the idea that the reptition used here serves no real purpose. I intend to argue that this is false, that in fact, it reflects an important part of McCarthy’s aesthetic of human action.

What this sentence communicates, and what would have been impossible to communicate without such repetition, is how complex a seemingly simple action really is, and thus how much skill is required to do even simple things. McCarthy could have said “He finished his breakfast and thanked her,” and that gets across the same idea, but it abstracts the various actions involved in finishing the breakfast into just “finished his breakfast.” By listing all of them, McCarthy gets across how non-trivial even that most trivial of actions really is.

At the same time, however, McCarthy links each of the actions by “and,” but only mentions the subject once — he doesn’t say “He ate … he wiped … he ate … drank …,” but rather “He ate … wiped … ate … drank …”. This makes us still feel as if we are witnessing a single agent performing a single action, even as we see that action broken down into its constituent parts. McCarthy is making us see “eating breakfast” in a new, strange light — ostranenie and all that. And he’s not doing it just by describing it in a completely nonsensical way; there’s actually a log behind the way he’s using parataxis to say something about how we can abstract a sequence of complex actions into one single action.

So McCarthy is stylistically modifying our understanding of the action of “eating breakfast.” So what? Why is strange-ifying breakfast a literarily intelligent thing to do, rather than just an author trying to fill dead space between interesting scenes? Well, I’d argue, it has something to do with the emphasis McCarthy places throughout his work on everyday life, and how even manual labor can exalt, rather than degrade, the human spirit. He turns the same paratactical trick to turn various complex tasks performed while training horses into single actions. It’s logical effect is the same in both instances, as is its emotional effect, which is to slow us down and make us appreciate how much skill is involved in what we are witnessing.

Therese also complains in her post that “one of the things that rapidly turned me off about the novel was just how banal and quotidien the dialogue was.” Well, yeah. It’s the same thing going on here. The dialogue itself isn’t epic because the characters are not in fact epic; it’s how McCarthy presents them that makes them epic. McCarthy lets their dialogue be mundane because he wants to prove to us that the insigificance of what someone says should not be taken as proof that they are insignificant people. This interpretation is supported, I think, by the very subject matter of the book. The Crossing is in large part about how what the world views as significant is not always what is actually significant. The main character, after all, is not Clyde in the novel’s Bonnie and Clyde couple — he’s Clyde’s brother.

I could go on about Cormac McCarthy’s style, but just say this: while he sometimes goes over the top in his descriptions, I don’t think he attempts anything for pure “literary effect” — every “trick” he pulls is trying to accompish something specific. Also, punctuation is extraneous.

Link: Infinite Life

August 4, 2010

This is a fascinating article about the late 19th century/early 20th century studies in set theory and infinity. I particularly like the accompanying picture. Since I’m not sure the link will work (TNR might be behind a paywall), I’ll reproduce it here:

Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.

The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

January 27, 2010

Ferdinand de Saussure was a brilliant Swiss linguist from the early 20th century. The Magnetic Fields are a synth-pop/indie-pop/I-don’t-understand-pop-genres band who specialize in ironic and depressing songs sung, if it makes sense to say it, in a dead-pan manner. One of these has written a song about the other; I’ll let you guess which way it went.

Recently “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (youtube link) has become one of my favorite songs, both for its catchy tune and (primarily) for its extremely clever lyrics (line numbers added in brackets to facilitate discussion later):

I met Ferdinand de Saussure
On a night like this
On love he said “I’m not so sure
I even know what it is
No understanding, no closure [5]
It is a nemesis
You can’t use a bulldozer
To study orchids”

He said…
So we don’t know anything [10]
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything
about love
But we are nothing
You are nothing [15]
I am nothing
Without love

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure [20]
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying “it’s well and kosher
to say you don’t understand
but this is for Holland-Dozier-
Holland” [25]

[chorus 2x]

First of all, let’s look at some of the rhymes he chooses. For example, between lines 1 and 3. See what he did there – rhyme “Saussure” with “so sure”? They’re pronounced the same, but they’re different words, spelled differently. He does something similar in lines 18 and 20, between “composer” and “composure” – in the same location in the stanza as the first time. I doubt it’s coincidental, particularly since it’s a fitting thing to do in a song about Saussure, whose linguist theory said difference between phonemes is how we decipher meaning. It also seems related to Derrida’s “differance“.

Anyway, this stanza is about how Saussure doesn’t know what love is. Why? Because “You can’t use a bulldozer / To study orchids.” This is maybe my favorite two lines in the song. The implication seems to be that Saussure is a linguist who approaches language scientifically, and love is something unscientific. But I think something a bit more complicated might be going on here. It’s about having a structure, a framework, versus having content. (Incidentally, structure v. content may be makings its way to my Dictionary soon; it’s related to deduction/induction, though.)

See, the problem is “No understanding, no closure” – he can’t diagram love and finish the diagram, close it, because love is not found in the structure of the mind, it is in the content of the mind. The bulldozer/orchid metaphor isn’t just about destroying something beautiful with an ill-fitted tool, though it is that; it’s also about the building of a structure (bulldozers are used for construction, even if they do knock things down) being unable to explain something non-structural. This fits again with Saussure’s linguistic theory, which looks only at the structure of language, not the content.

After this the chorus sets up the opposition of the song: Saussure says “we don’t know anything … about love,” but the narrator insists “we are nothing … without love.” The repetition here (“we don’t… I don’t… you don’t…” and “we are… I am… you are…”) I find interesting; it brackets off the fact that this is “about love,” “without love”, making us consider the statement first generally, then about love specifically. Saussure wouldn’t just say that we don’t know anything about love; the same applies to beauty, truth, God, other people. In his structuralist system, we can’t say anything or know anything about these things, the things that really matter; we only know about how they interact with each other, nothing about their content.

But it is this claim about love, specifically, that the narrator objects to. Why? The second stanza addresses this: the narrator is “a great composer,” a song-writer. And it’s “all well and kosher / to say you don’t understand,” but Saussure must die – why? Because he says more than “I don’t understand.” He says “we can’t know anything.” He moves from saying his system can’t make sense of something to saying that the thing cannot be known. Does the narrator believe it can be known? Or only that we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility?

Now, that reference to “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” I had to look it up, but that’s the name of the song-writing and production team behind a lot of Mo-Town songs – songs with names like “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” etc. Songs that don’t consider love philosophically, but rather presume love is important and just sing about some particular love, in terms of love as an emotion. It is for these that the narrator shoots Ferdinand de Saussure. He shoots, apparently, because that approach, that assumption of love, cannot coexist with Saussure’s claims.

But is it because they are right and Saussure is wrong? Or because the narrator wants to preserve their innocence (really naivete) from the harsh truth Saussure revealed? I don’t know if the song answers that explicitly. In support of the second theory, the narrator says “we are nothing … without love”: so the narrator acted to stop us from becoming nothing, as would have happened if Saussure succeeded in destroying love. Also, the love of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs is hardly deep spiritual love – it’s little more than glorified lust – so it would seem odd for the narrator to consider that the truth of love that needs protecting. In this interpretation the song has a somewhat nihilistic bent.

But on the other hand, the narrator is a song-writer himself – and he writes about love. I find it hard to believe a man could do that if he believed love was not real, as he would have to, under the first interpretation. So either the song is even more nihilistic than we had thought, or the narrator still believes in love, and did not allow Saussure to claim that love cannot be known because he believes he can know love, through music, through art.

Then why did he not say what love is, in response to Saussure’s doubt? Because he does not know himself. In this interpretation, the singer is, albeit with respect to love rather than God, a kind of Christian nihilist, a la Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. He does not know what love is, but, taking a leap of faith, he believes that knowledge is possible, and that love itself is possible. But it cannot be understood through philosophy, through reason, through Saussure’s methods; rather, it can be known only through art.

Of course, the song-writer for the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, is gay and was raised Buddhist, so any Christian undertones are likely unintentional. But the nihilistic slant is there, as is the conflict over having faith in something not understood.

PS: This post is 1157 words long, and has 11 tags – probably a new record. But they’re all relevant, so I can’t remove any!

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