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Tag Archives: Kafka

Art: The Watch that Ticks Fast?

Found posted over at antagonist, this recounting of something Kafka said in passing on Picasso:

Recalling a visit with Kafka to an exhibition of French painting, Janousch reports that, in answer to a comment he made on on Picasso’s “rose coloured women with gigantic feet” which was to effect that Picasso was a “wilfull distortionist” Kafka replied: “I do not think so… He only registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Art is a mirror, which goes ‘fast’, like a watch – sometimes”.

(from The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head by Louis Begley)

Its odd that when you work to uncover an idea such as that which I excavated from Spinoza’s Letter 17, here: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination and here Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination, one stumbles upon it an even more extraordinary form. Here in the image of the fast clicking watch we have a romantic condensation of just that thought that governed Spinoza’s reasoning on affects of the future. And more, it was my unstated desire to suggest that indeed such a logic could underwrite some of the powers of art and political visioning. (It should be noted that Kafka has at least a tentative connection to Spinoza through the Jewish Prague circle with included Einstein: The Prague Esprit de Spinoza and Einstein’s Inception of General Relativity.)

But Kafka’s diagnosis of Picasso’s powers of depiction are eruptive. It is not merely the future that comes through the fast-ticking lens of the artist, but deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Amazing. Like long delayed stars’ light the great contortions of what we cannot imagine present themselves, and possibly those beauties. What seems conferred by art is a possibility from the potential of affects which totalize the soul, selected out through a logical intimacy with the times. What we CAN feel draw from the yet imagined possible of what we WILL feel.

The Prague Esprit de Spinoza and Einstein’s Inception of General Relativity

Einstein, the Violin and Kafka

I had read before of Einstein’s appeal for Spinoza, but had only taken this to be a wide berth affection for the powers of intellectual description and the whole orderliness of the Universe. I had not considered that Einstein might have causally been affected by Spinoza’s concept of Substance as modally expressive of objects (and ideas). But I came across this reference which seem to strongly suggest that while Einstein was busy playing violin and discussing philosophy in the Prague Circle – and working on his General Theory of Relativity – he indeed may have come under signficant conceptual influence of Spinoza’s idea of modally interdependent expressions of Substance.

Firstly, this was the brief Einsteinization of Spinoza’s Substance as expressed by Zimmerman:

Einstein’s idea was to actually include electromagnetic fields in his gravitational field equations by introducing them (by means of their potentials) into the metric components of space-time, in first place. As Wolfram Voelcker, Can Yurtoeven, and myself have shown at another place, this can be interpreted in terms of visualizing substance as space-time geometry in the sense of general relativity, representing gravitation, at the same time (16)

Loops and Knots as Topoi of Substance Rainer E. Zimmermann

But it was his reference to Lewis Feuer that got my attention (not to mention that I had never pictured that Kafka and Einstein could have ever been in the same room):

Einstein used to say that the special theory of relativity was in the air when he discovered it, that Paul Langevin, for instance, might have done so as well. The general theory, on the other hand, was, he thought, a unique achievement that would not have found an alternative discoverer. The discovery of the general theory of relativity was not, in Einstein’s view, part of an inevitable logic in the evolution of science; it did not arise from any discussion that was taking place in scientific circles, and Max Planck, among others, regarded Einstein as making a mistake in devoting his energies to this path of research. Evidently unusual circumstances may well have helped lead Einstein into what we might call his cosmological stage. Indeed, even as his circle of Marxian-Machian friends in Zurich and Berne was a cultural mainstay in his formation of the special theory of relativity, so likewise Einstein’s association with the Prague Circle of Jewish mystics and  intellectuals may have assisted his transition to a cosmological stage, a shift from Hume to Spinoza, and the formation of the general theory of relativity (xiii)…

The German University at Prague became, as the historian Hans Kohn wrote, the center from which a new German and Jewish intellectual movement began. Einstein attended the Tuesday meetings of this circle regularly at the home of a highly cultured woman, Mr. Bertha Fanta. Led by a young philosopher, Hugo Bergmann, later to become the first rector of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, the group also included among its members (and intermittent visitors) the young novelist Max Brod; his close friend, the later celebrated Franz Kafka, depictor of human bewilderment in a bureaucratic society; the writers Arnold Zweig and Jakob Wasserman; the student of Spinoza, Margarete Susmann; the philosophers and scholars, Erich Kahler, Felix Weltsch, and Hans Kohn; and the Berlin mystical anarchist, Gustav Landauer. Not a single Marxist could be found among them; furthermore, all were or were becoming Zionists and were to varying degrees touched with mysticism. Even Kafka under their influence found himself drawn toward their enthusiasm. Until after midnight they would read Kant’s Prolegomena to a Future Metaphysics or the Critique of Pure Reason. Einstein brought his violin, and when they were surfeited with metaphysics that would play chamber music with Hugo Bergmann conducting (xiv)…

In the Prague Circle Einstein also heard more of Spinoza’s blend of science with mysticism. When in 1913 their society Bar Kochba published a collective volume of essays, Von Judentum, with such contributors as Bergmann, Buber, Erich Kahler and Gustav Landauer, they also included an essay on Spinoza, “Spinoza und das jüdische Weltgefühl” (Spinoza and the Jewish Cosmic Emotion). Einstein in later years, describing himself as sharing Spinoza’s conception of God, also used the expression “cosmic religious feeling” as the favorite description for his philosophy (xv)

read the whole thing here: Einstein and the Generations of Science, Lewis Samuel Feuer

The Fabric of Relative Relations

It bothers some the way that Spinoza’s sometimes crude, mechanistic 17th century physics are extended centuries into the unexpected brilliance of the 21st century, making of Spinoza something of a long ignored prophet.  And perhaps it is fair to be bother by this. But really, in reading philosophers of the past and harvesting their potential for sense-making now, what is most important is to identify the ways in which they disagreed with others, and how those disagreement positions were lost or ignored by history. It is harvesting from the contingency of historical losers the powers of their genetic thought. And in a certain sense Spinoza is ripe for this, as he was active at a time when modern European society (and Philosophy) took distinctive turns away from him and his arguments. And at least in this case, the case of Einstein, if it were not so that Spinoza anticipated Einstein’s General Relativity with a kind of “field” being conception of Substance and the modes, it does seem the case that he conceptually did influence or inspired a signficant paradigm shift in conception in the Sciences, giving foothold to his claim that is concept that rules observation. And distinctly separating out “presaging” from “influence” may be a conceptually impossible task.

For example, as memorably Bennett (re)imagines Spinoza’s position in relativistic terms: “If there is (…) a pebble in region R, what makes this true is the fact that R is pebbly (which) stands for a certain monadic property that a spatial region can have. If the pebble moves (…), what makes this true is the fact that there is a continuous change in which regions are pebbly: The so-called movement of a pebble through space is like the so-called movement of a panic through a crowd.”    “Spinoza’s Metaphysics”

Returning to the original citation, interestingly, prospectively, it is not with General Relativity that Zimmermann finds the greatest resonance of Spinoza’s Substance/modal philosophy and physics, but with one type of attempt to resolve both Einstein’s GR with Quantum Physics, looking “outside” the world for their union. As he puts it…

During the last three decades, a basically different approach to unification has been put forward going back to an old idea of John Wheeler’s: If it is not possible to unify the competitors within the world, it might be possible to unify them outside the world, the basic idea being to introduce an abstract mathematical structure from which space and time (and matter) as fundamental categories of the world could be eventually derived. It is quite straightforward in fact, to notice the connotation of substance here: If we define our world in terms of fundamental categories such as space and time (and matter), then everything outside the world from which we might be able to derive these fundamental categories is the foundation of the world and as such it is non-being. Hence, the idea is to visualize the world as a variety which has become out of a primordial (actually pre-worldly) unity. If so, then the next step, namely to formulate this the other way round: that the world is in fact this primordial unity as being observed as a becoming variety by its members who have restricted means of perception, is relatively small. Contrary to what Einstein thought, space-time-matter would not be substance itself but only the latter’s worldly attribute. And what is “before” (and external to) the world, pre-geometry, would gain the connotation of a substance.

[link to PDF above]

The Buttle Principle

A Beetle in the gears of knowing and the notion of the Press of the Mind

Wittgenstein has a beautiful and striking analogy which he folds into his (No) Private Language argument. He compares any fact checking one would do in using a so called private language, to attempting to check for an error by buying several copies of the same edition of a paper. Such a process is cursed by its reflexivity. This analogy is specific to the example of an imaginary table of terms who’s check is only in the imagination:

If the mental image [recollection] of the time-table [for the departure of trains] could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what is said were true) (PI, section 265).

There are a few problems if we attempt to take this analogy as a knockdown argument for why one cannot have a recursive sense of rule-following and justification. Wittgenstein wants us to know that “justification consists in appealing to something independent”. You might have the feeling that you have remembered a train-time table right, but you cannot justify this feeling unless you appeal to some other, independent criteria (in which for him independent does not consist in another moment of recollection or thought process). Put another way, one can believe that one is following a rule, but one doesn’t know if one actually is until one is checked by an independent process. What seems to be missing from this appeal to outside criteria is that our memories, and our use of them, are not at all like a bunch of copies from the very same press (ones in which, if their are errors, they will simply be reproduced endlessly as the same). If there is a “press” of the mind, it is much more like one which is in print all the time, and one can watch the results of taking one “edition” as correct, and make provisional adjustments if a set of beliefs fail. That is, if one follows only one’s memory, and one misses the train, one might question if there were a better way of finding out when the train would be there. But checking by glancing again at the physical time-table may help with one’s accuracy, but not categorically so. For instance, how one read that time-table anew might not jibe with one’s strong recollection. One might make sense of this by reasoning that one saw it wrong this time, or that the time-table must be out of date, or even some rather odd conspiracies of the world, and one might choose to simply trust one’s memory all the same. There is no easy, conceptual way out to what is “independent”.

[One could say that checking the truth of a report by looking at the multiple products of a process, only occurs when the truth is of an nature where doubt is necessarily cast, where it is not readily believable.]

This is related to what can be called The Buttle Principle [I give immense credit to my wife here for pointing out the concept, and naming it]. Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil  opens with the bureaucratically automated typing out of the name of a man to be arrested. A beetle body lands on the typewriting mechanism and changes the printing process of a name of a terrorist from “Tuttle” to “Buttle”; in totalitarian justice the wrong man, an innocent shoe repairman, is arrested, tortured and executed. It becomes the “accident” which drives plot of the entire wistful and humorous critique of modern society. But now, given the metaphor of a printing press and editions of knowledge text, just where would the change from T to B lie? For instance, if you did as Wittgenstein parodies, after seeing in the small print of a newspaper that you, Buttle, were wanted for murder, it might do very well to check several copies of the newspaper to make sure it is so. Did a beetle simply fall into the mechanism at just that one moment of pressing the very copy one has in one’s hands? Suddenly (as is often the case with many of Wittgenstein’s otherwise convincing analogies) what sounds so ridiculous at first, when examined closely in real-world possibilities, is less so. 

One might ask, would the (mis)typing of the name “Buttle” in the movie Brazil  be part of the same press of an edition of knowledge? More exactly, are the given processes by which the name “Tuttle” had been inscribed in the system (an officer’s report, an original secretary’s typing), and the one where the name “Buttle ” is inscribed, to be understood as distinct or homogeneous? And in coordintion, would recalling again and again a train time-table in your mind really be simply running off more copies of the same edition of a newspaper? Would there be any sense of checking one aspect against another (what if you recall now that the time you thought that the train arrived was actually the date of your anniversary)? How much would all this self-referential conception of knowing be approaching what Wittgenstein called “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it” (section 271)? And when such a wheel turns, what is turning with it?

What is of interest here may be that the mechanism of inscription from the film is indeed tracking an alphabetized, rule-following procedure when it is “interrupted” by the fallen beetle. The name Buttle appears in a long string of T’s. To quote from the screenplay. :

The TECHNICIAN gets up and balances a chair on top of his
desk. He climbs up onto it attempting to swat the BEETLE
still buzzing about the room just out of reach. Beneath
him an automatic type-writing machine rattles away
compiling a typed list of names under the heading
“Information Retrieval, Subjects For Detention &
Interview”. The machine is being fed from a spool of paper
which is being rhythmically chopped by an automatic
guillotine which neatly leaves each name on a separate
sheet, with the title above each name, each sheet
following its predecessor into a holding basket. In CLOSE-
UP we see the names on the sheets of paper building up in
the holding basket: TONSTED, Simon … TOPPER, Martin F.
… TROLLOPE, Benjamin G. … TURB, William K. … TURNER,
John D. … Every name begins with T.

Do you think that the government is
winning the battle against

On yes. Our morale is much higher
than theirs, we’re fielding all their
strokes, running a lot of them out,
and pretty consistently knocking them
for six. I’d say they’re nearly out
of the game.

The TECHNICIAN is tottering on one leg on the chair on the
desk as he strains to swat the BEETLE. Swish, swash, oops,
WHAP! Gottcha!!

But the bombing campaign is now in
its thirteenth year …

Beginner’s luck.

The BEETLE’s career comes to a halt … squashed flat on
the brilliantly clean ceiling … or has it? As the
TECHNICIAN clambers down from the rickety heights, the
BEETLE’s carcass comes unstuck from the ceiling and drops
silently into the typewriting machine which hiccoughs,
hesitates and then types the letter “B” and hesitates and
then continues so that the next name is BUTTLE, Archibald.

The TECHNICIAN fails to notice this and the machine
continues smoothly TUTWOOD, Thomas T. … TUZCZLOW,

What I suggest is that there indeed is a component of justification (though justification is not reduced to it) which indeed is like checking several copies of the same edition, a self-editing proof, whereby one could internally look at the inscription stages of “Tuttle” and the context of one copy of “Buttle” and say, there is an error there.  I believe that this is the case because even in intersubjective conditions the appeal to something “independent” only ends up being the causal nature of the world. That is, a group of people sharing criteria still have no “independent” appeal for their means of justification, other than the causal results of following them. (What is the ultimately “independent” criteria which is available to the totalitarian system of justice, concerning Mr. Buttle’s innocence?) As a consequence, part of the mechanism for justification is also the internal sense of cohesion betweencriteria events, the special rational character with which beliefs stick together and support each other. Buttle just should not be in the T’s.

In a certain sense, me checking whether I remembered a train schedule right by turning over my own recollections, is like the totalitarian beareucracy in Brazil checking over whether they arrested the right man. If indeed they did pay attention to the internal discrepancy of texts, the Tuttle to Buttle shift, and be self-critical to it, they might have an additional explanation for the constitutive pleas of innocence by Mr. Buttle. The wheel that so turns is always connected to the world, and it is experienced as having its turnings caused by events in the world. The recursivity of an internal cohesion, though not sufficient for intersubjective justification, plays as a grounding for its possibility. The “independence” is always relative to a dependence, which in the end is causal. And coherent self-reference is always open to self- (and therefore other) critique.

This calls to mind another analogy of the printing press, one used by Spinoza to explain Descartes “proof” of God.

For example, if someone were to ask through what cause a certain determinate body is set in motion, we could answer that it is determined to such motion by another body, and this again by another, and so on to infinity. We could reply in this way, I say, because the question is only about motion, and by continuing to posit another body we assign sufficient and eternal cause to this motion. But if I see a book containing excellent thoughts and beautifully written in the hands of a common man and I ask him whence he has such a book, and he replies that he has copied it from another book belonging to another common man who could also write beautifully, and so on to infinity, he does not satisfy me. For I am asking him not only about the form and the arrangement of the letters, which which alone his answer is concerned, but also about the thoughts and meaning expressed in their arrangement, and this he does not answer by his progression to infinity.

(Letter to Jelles (40), March 25 1667

I hope that you notice the comparison in printing press analogies. We have in Wittgenstein the “absurd” notion that if we only referred to our own sense impressions and our beliefs about them, we would be like someone who is looking again and again at multiple copies of the same edition of a newspaper. And we have in Spinoza the notion that if we simply refer to the recursivity of actions of the proliferation of copies of a book (rule-followings?), we really have gotten nowhere in answering the larger question for an “independent” (conceptually distinct) cause of their production. The causation, either in the case of a self-referential series of experiences which attest to facts of the world, or a proliferation of rule-following expressions taken as shared criteria which produces formal justification, is “the world” experienced as causing both our experiences and our beliefs, and the experiences and beliefs of others. And writing, as an inscription, is understood to be an affective process. That is, both our experiences and our beliefs cause and condition the inscription process itself. Part of having beliefs is understanding that self-regulation and critique takes in account The Buttle Principle. That is, our experiences of a fact may indeed be the result of non-intentional error (the “beetle” in the system). As such, their cause can lie within physical causation, and ignored. All the same, the The Buttle Principle also allows that errors can be re-inscribed back into the intentionality of the system (Buttle must be guilty if the system finds him so, the train must be late since my memory never fails me). In this way cohesion can, as an autonomic sense of “right”, overide any Intersubjective Critique or Reality Principle that might serve as a correction. This is part of the ballast that subjectivity provides to social forms of knowing.

For Spinoza, if one could encapsulate, this causation ultimately resides in an immanentive expression of a totality which is taken to be vastly causal, which from our perspective is bootstrapped largely through affective (Joy rather than Sadness) and imaginary (picturing what makes us more powerful) means. For Wittgenstein it is much more a case of an immanence of organization which bubbles up, games stacked on games, as criteria become shared and communicated, part of this dependent/independent differential which helps create the “public” nature of language. In the middle, I believe, the two meet.

It should also be of a happy note that the beetle of Terry Gilliam’s film conflates the Ungeziefer of Kafka’s Gregor’s subjectivity, and Wittgenstein’s own Beetle in a box. One could say, two isometric reflections of the same phenomena.



Some Doubt about Skeptics

A conversation over Doubt

Duck, over at Duckrabbit, has been voicing some kind of difficulty in understanding just what the Skeptics of communication are after (he seems to mostly have Derrida in mind). Clearly communication works, and it happens all the time. So when someone like Davidson (or Gadamer) comes along with a rather neat theory that helps explain just how this happens, the groudwork of this capacity, Skeptics appear to be in kind of denial of some of the most obvious and beneficial of things.

These are some of my thoughts on the issue, important enough to write aboutr since I share with duck a love for Davidson:

From duck’s post “Davidson and Gadamer”:

But as Clark was describing it, Derrida’s charge seems not to be one of relativism, but instead of dogmatism. Where we assume that communication is successful (such that our task is to explain how such a thing is possible), it may yet be that there is instead a “radical rupture” of some (necessarily) mysterious kind. This claim sounds to me like the ontological cum semantic equivalent of Cartesian radical epistemological doubt: offended by our seeming complacency concerning the apparent smoothness of typical conversation, the skeptical soixante-huitard imp hops in with dire warnings of ruptures and fissures and cracks, oh my!

My thoughts were as follows, and his response:

One wonders why “ruptures and fissures and cracks” have to be necessarily of the disastrous kind. (Do errors in replication prove necessarily foul in DNA?) Are not, and is not, Derrida’s point that fissures are irruptive of creative force? That mistakes and mis-mappings can be productive? Yes, along with Davidson we can theorize that my predictions are governed by a ballast of successful prediction, but too, there is a counter-weight of the play of a successful mis-understanding, the way that possibilities of discovering “what one meant” (even what you yourself meant), are what is endemic to rupturing meanings.

To offer an example from the aforementioned. When Descartes spoke of the centrality of Hyperbolic Doubt, did he in any way have in mind (mean?) the Hyperbolic lenses he was attempting to devise? (Is this conflation a malapropism of sorts, an accidental blurring of argumentative clarity, which should have chosen another word?) This is a rupture in meaning, one that brings down, and at the same time fortifies from another perspective, what the Cartesian project was.

Indeed, not only are successes, but I believe Derrida’s point is, so are failures, in their very failure nature (an inclusion of what seems should be marginal).

“Lions, and Tigers and Bears” have purposes too.

When he had responded in an affirming fashion, I thought we had come to an agreement. Gotten was the play of language, and its creative possibilites, come from the borders of sense:

duck wrote: Maybe that is his point (let’s be charitable). And maybe that’s even true (I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be, in some sense). But it would take a serious misreading of Davidson to think that that posed any serious threat to his project (on my not entirely faithful reading). (Gadamer too, I bet, but I’m less sure there.) Thus my comparison to skeptical alarms.

But maybe such a misreading is itself irruptive of creative force! If so, create away.

But it seems that he still harbors doubts about the Doubters, as he protests against the seemingly nonsensical aims (ambiguity intended) of these overturners of “communication”. He makes a very good point, in that one has to get a grip on what Skeptics think communication is, if one it understand why they are so resistant to it. But the extent of “charity” seems strained for him:

duck: I’m not sure what skeptics about communication think communication is, that we may so easily doubt that it occurs (that is, that it is the default case). It’s not the magically total and transparent availability to one of another’s mind. It’s when you have some idea what (i.e. in the world) they’re talking about, such that you have some idea whether or not you agree with them (or can do what they ask, or whatever). Set the conceptual bar too high, and voilà, “breakdowns and aporia.” Just like epistemological skepticism.

And these are my thoughts on the matter. I am not a Derridist, but I think it is important to understand the nature of that project, the over-riding metaphor or trope that it is operant there, that sense-making is power distribution in the service of “clear appearance”, so to see the possible consequences of “transparency of mind”:

I agree with Musicalcolin, when she/he says,

I understand Derrida’s critique to be something about the totalizing power of interpretation. That is, interpretations may succeed, but in that very success may also be an imposition.”

“Those Skeptics” are not perverse deniers of the capacity to communicate, rather they are the critics of reified communication (the capacity itself) as it comes to be dogmatically passed down in social forms. Wittgenstein’s playful Language Gamees can become a bit more Kafkaesque in courtrooms.

What is at stake here though, in the transparency of minds question, is that if indeed the process can be anchored in some particular, fixed discriminating way, one may be able to “see into” someone else’s mind, and categorically determine that they are not “making sense”, or, in a more Davidsonian way, that the sense that they make is based on having “bad beliefs” (apparent to everyone). The Skeptics want to say, there is no vantage point from which “sense” can be divorced from structures of power. Such structures, and their discourses, rest upon an essential capacity to make minds transparent. All the good stuff, the transparency that helps us connect, plays right into the mechanisms of defining what is sense and what is not. And any definitive way that “transparency” is achieved, becomes a mechanism of control. (It is for this reason, of course, that Descartes’ invented his radical doubt, to unhinge himself from social forms of power, in project of attempting to look straight into the ration divine.) Skeptics, like Derrida, are not interested in simply throwing wrench-doubt for doubt’s sake into a supposedly well-oiled and beneficent machine (communication): Hey, can’t you see how well this stuff works! Rather, they are bent on undercutting the bonds of meaning, at a radical level, so as to open up a space for counter discourse, speaking ever out from the shadow of meaning, from the periphery.

For Derridists and their sort, the issue of miscommuniation it is not just as duck says, a product of setting the “conceptual bar too high”, a kind of “we are just asking too much from communication in the first place”. It is more gaining a space for critiquing occasions where the bar doesn’t seem high at all, where we seem to see unproblematically (but thoroughly culturally invested) into the minds of others, and come to know “just what they are thinking”.

It is absolutely essential, and combinatory, that we understand what other people are thinking, but but something more than just “communicating” has happened when we do so. Keeping track of this more, is what I believe Derrida (and others) are after. When the world coheres, it is “our” world.

I thought this topic is worth posting, as it actually shows a kind of Davidsonian truth, one that undercuts Derrida’s point to some degree (all “knowing” is not simply a “presencing”, but also is a bodily “doing”). When describers of communicablity have difficulty accepting what a skeptic about communication has to say, it very well may be that they mean different things when talking about what “communication” is. What communication is, is both a homogenizing process (“if you become enough like me, you would agree with me”) and a self-transformative process (“if I become enough like you, I would agree with you”). It touches on the very boundaries of, and experience of “the self”, our perimeters of coherence and perception. I think that duck was very right in his intuition to refer to the “lions and tigers and bears” of rupture in communication. For such creatures can very well be the playthings of adult-child fantasy; Derrida, at his worst, can be seen as playing a tedious and impish game of “gotcha” and pin-the-phallus-on-the-argument-donkey. But ruptures in communication also can be, and do in history become, the very real terrors which help construct our Emerald City of “transparent minds”, for better or worse.


So is it wrong to ask, What is in the basement of the Emerald City of communication?