“Where am I now, in the present?” Is there not some context missing in this question? To answer it, one would ideally need to know a bit about the outside circumstances of whatever or whoever is asking the question in order to communicate anything significant. Let me hastily throw some context your way, dear reader.
Here I am. This is all the context you need (“this” not being “this”, but “this” text, or alternatively and supplementarily, “this” surface upon which you read these words that “I” am, whether they are made of pixels lit up behind a glass screen or have quite unlikely been printed out in the old-fashioned manner with ink onto a sheet of previously living matter) in order to understand the essence of the matter. The context is everywhere you don’t look. Like all our senses, but perhaps to an even greater extent, vision is very limited on its own, and our brains are constantly filling the gaps within our field of vision itself. Our eyesight is so limited that we can’t even see its actual boundaries. To see is to infer. So look here and infer.
In Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, a curious Charlotte accidentally glances over her husband Eduard’s shoulder as he attempts to read about the Narcissistic anthropomorphism of the chemistry and interactions between elements. He cannot stand her rude carelessness. He chastises her:
“I do wish, once for all, you would leave off doing a thing so out of taste and so disagreeable. When I read aloud to a person, is it not the same as if I was telling him something by word of mouth? The written, the printed word, is in the place of my own thoughts, of my own heart. If a window were broken into my brain or into my heart, and if the man to whom I am counting out my thoughts, or delivering my sentiments, one by one, knew beforehand exactly what was to come out of me, should I take the trouble to put them into words? When anybody looks over my book, I always feel as if I were being torn in two.” (Elective Affinities, 51)
It can be inferred that it must certainly take a lot of effort for poor Eduard to put the thoughts of his heart into words. But why do written words, thoughts, and spoken words take this particular order? Why is Eduard so convinced that it would be entirely pointless to speak his thoughts if someone already knew them? Is this redundancy of speech and understanding universally true?
In 19th Century Germany, there was a strong desire to communicate effectively, to use all means, the most sublime being poetry, to bring about a reliable account of the most intimate and interior things. The means of writing, speaking, acting, painting, sculpting, in other words, the artistic technologies which were available to the Germans, were then on the verge of being homogenized. Every form of art, every particular medium was to be overlooked and elided for the sake of reaching a perfectly clear understanding of the common aim between all forms of communication: Translation of the transcendental signified.
This higher meaning, this Capital C Capital L Letter of royal, lawful, fatherly, sun-lit Truth without absence, without detriment, without loss, full of self-presence and self-sustaining clarity, is what all German poetry cashed in on and sold to every German reader. Poetry in the 1800’s was tasked with translating the untranslatable and passing this task on to other soon-to-be Poets who would in turn reproduce the essence of Poetry through their own clever rhymes and word associations. And like all hallucinating drunkards, the Poets of 19th Century Germany were entirely addicted to their futile task of making the most interior things exterior.
“Poetry as a ‘possession of the inner mind’ arises in erotic and alcoholic intoxication; authorship arises in rereading what had been unconsciously written in the delirium; poetic works, finally, are media for the hallucinatory substitution of realms of the senses.” (Discourse Networks, 109)
The medium of poetry was seen to be the ultimate conveyor of the meaning of meaning, the only true form of art for reassembling the assemblage of the resemblance of the semblance of identity. It stuns the reader into having an illusion of completeness, of harmony, of totality, and therefore of childlike bliss. “No one who is adult and sober, then, believes that a beloved voice dwells among the pages of a book. Intoxication or mania is a necessary condition for the production of the transcendental signified in its empirical nonbeing.”
This would have been the whole story if not for the fact that the discourse network of 1800 had ignored something even more crucial than the translation of an ethereal meaning. Eduard’s firm belief in the primary intimacy of his own thoughts was in grave danger of being torn in two. Fortunately for him, he was a fictional character who literally had no thoughts at all. Unfortunately for everyone else after the Age of Poetry, Eduard’s fear became a reality. But instead of a woman accidentally casting her suspicious gaze on the most private inner thoughts of a singular man, the whole Western world would end up exposing its (dis)contents on a global scale.
After 1900, thinking becomes unconscious. Rather than a laborious exercise in understanding, reading becomes an automatically programmed activity. Poetry turns inside out and no longer aspires to the grand delusions of the previous epoch where the Master Poet Goethe could say “There are no individuals. All individuals are also genera.” Now there were only individuals. Any generic category could be lysed open with components spilled out for close scrutiny. This was possible due to the emergence of unprecedented forms of media technology. What began to be recorded with terrifyingly increasing fidelity was only the individual, the particular, the supposedly inimitable. Nothing generic makes it through the fine-toothed comb of 20th century science. Now everything which had previously held the privilege of being intimate and unique was examined, X-rayed, analyzed, tape-recorded, etched into permanent external memory, and lost all rights to being called “beautiful” or “sublime”. A new technology crept up and replaced Poetry, choking it out for good. The vineyard was abandoned. No more grapes. No more wine. No more drunken translation.
“As a photograph of the soul, the talking machine [phonograph] put an end to the innocent doctrine of innocence. Circa 1800 innocence was a historical-philosophical limit concept; it referred to a region it itself made impassable. … Circa 1900, by contrast, the builders of automatons had carried the day. There was no longer any innocence below the recording threshold; there was only the tactical rule of anticipating counter reactions while recording.”
Now, instead of the unfathomable depth of the self, there is just accurate replication of tautological verbal material. An infinite expansion of the same repeating itself forever without break or pause. Continuousness no longer in need of re-presentation. Just the presence of what never had a chance to become worth repeating. It has become increasingly difficult to find anything enigmatic or interesting, other than compound interest itself. As Nietzsche saw all too clearly, we live in a desaturated, demythologized, rudimentary world of facts and figures which demand not only that we stay sober, but that we never indulge ourselves with the silly and ultimately pointless pastime of poetry. This conversion to the metrical system of scientific precision did not happen overnight. It was a gradual change by slight degrees, the most deceptive kind of transition, as Plato says in the Phaedrus:
Let me put the matter thus: When will there be more chance of deception–when the difference is large or small?
When the difference is small.
And you will be less likely to be discovered in passing by degrees into the other extreme than when you go all at once?
He, then, who would. deceive others, and not be deceived, must exactly know the real likenesses and differences of things?
And if he is ignorant of the true nature of any subject, how can he detect the greater or less degree of likeness in other things to that of which by the hypothesis he is ignorant?
And when men are deceived and their notions are at variance with realities, it is clear that the error slips in through resemblances [i.e. similitudes]?
Phaedr. Yes, that is the way.”(Phaedrus, 261e-262b)
The essential difference between the modern world and that of even a century ago is hard to spot. Unlike the difference between two persons, epochs are multilayered, multidimensional, and unstable designations of inaccessible events which are only known to have occurred through indirect inference. What we can say is that the ways people have spoken and written about their experiences is not uniform or universal across time. The findings of the most exact sciences have left us to determine that there is no fundamental human reality lying at the deepest layer of our selves which can be located and articulated at any point in time. In fact, as becomes evident through studying previous periods closely, the time and place any individual lives in determines almost everything they can say about their most intimate feelings and convictions. The name for these determinants and pressures upon an individual’s language is Discourse.
For the entire history of humanity, communication has been viewed as a powerful tool which does not merely convey reality, but also shapes it. First and foremost, it is tool for social coercion. Only very recently has it come to be seen as a tool solely for individual expression. The epigraphs and inscriptions in stone on tombs, towers, high walls, and statues were not meant to be read as personal statements, but as absolute declarations from the king or land itself, proving through the magically persuasive power of symbols that there is an order which has been established and guaranteed by the highest authority. The hierarchy between speech and writing, therefore, also reflects a hierarchy between the ruling body and the ruled subjects. In many cases, written symbols would not be readable to the general populace and would require verbal translation by official scribes or priests in charge of maintaining a barrier between the governed people and the king. This system gradually collapsed and writing took on a much different use.
It is only after the adoption of the alphabet, which uses phonetic elements which mimic the sounds of speech better than the older ideographic or logographic systems of writing, that communication becomes something unavoidably ambiguous, and therefore dangerous.
Derrida explains, “He who writes with the alphabet no longer even imitates. No doubt because he also, in a sense, imitates perfectly. He has a better chance of reproducing the voice, because phonetic writing decomposes it better and transforms it into abstract, spatial elements. This de-composition of the voice is here both what best conserves it and what best corrupts it. What imitates it perfectly because it no longer imitates it at all. For imitation affirms and sharpens its essence in effacing itself. Its essence is its nonessence. And no dialectic can encompass this self-inadequation. A perfect imitation is no longer an imitation.” (Dissemination, 138)The same goes for Discourse as well as the Thought that is thought to ground it. Eduard’s assumption that he has some private inner thought which must be translated into spoken words is betrayed when he confuses and conflates the words he sees in the book with those he intends to let pass through his lips. The medium which fosters and bears the words he wants to bring to life is neglected and yet must precede his act of enunciation. If the magic trick could have been pulled off flawlessly, if the woman Eduard intends to lecture would only have stood in front of him with the passive and attentive audience, there would have been no problem. The words in the book would have been perfectly imitated by the words in his mouth and therefore would have been perfectly identical. Instead, a gap is revealed by a simple glance from behind the speaker. This position is not accidentally the same position Plato occupies with respect to Socrates, who loves speaking and condemns writing. As Plato glances over the shoulder of Socrates, from that fatally problematic and untimely position, the fundamental relationship between Logos and Truth is troubled and doubled.
Like Eduard, Socrates would have wished to speak his mind without acknowledging his debt to an external, apparently dead, resource of thought-material. Rather than focus on the dependency of human speech and thought upon Discourse, Socrates looks upward in a manic fever dream towards the inexpressible and transcendental certainty of totally blissful wisdom. The mediums of Discourse, writing, and the arts are shunned and devalued as inferior copies which only feign at providing true accounts of things. Socrates ends up rejecting the written word as a deceptive imitation of the living, breathing speech that he manages to ceaselessly deliver all the way up to his death. But like Charlotte, Plato could not be satisfied with such a shamelessly simple preference.
Socrates and Eduard regret that memory is not permanent and wish that there were no need to distrust their own ability to retain information. There is a constant feeling of unrest and anxiety about forgetting within Socrates which, like the raving Korybantes, blocks any chance of his hearing anything but his own voice. The inner voice of virtue in the ethical man who scorns forgetting is in direct conflict with the voiceless multitude of power-driven society.
“‘It is most disagreeable,’ cried Edward, ‘that one cannot now-a-days learn a thing once for all, and have done with it. Our forefathers could keep to what they were taught when they were young; but we have, every five years, to make revolutions with them, if we do not wish to drop altogether out of fashion.’ ‘We women need not be so particular’, said Charlotte.” (Elective Affinities, 52)
As a writer and an artist, Plato filters the thoughts of Socrates into exactly what he, when he was alive, hated. The excess of writing, the extraneousness of art, the artificial resemblances and similitudes which deter one from reaching a final conclusion or understanding are where Plato stretches himself out to the fullest. The domain of the written word is one more intimately connected with our thoughts than Socrates could have dreamt. Today we are so thoroughly permeated by the materiality of signifiers, including those derived from Plato, that we barely notice their effects. They occupy and manage our blind spots. They insert themselves where our ancestors would have only seen gods and spirits. The Ideal realm of forms has been thoroughly stamped with layer after layer of signifiers, and it looks like there is no chance at restoring that original golden ground.
However, things are not so thoroughly one-sided that any transformation, no matter how gradual, could ever overtake and cover everything. The world is still riddled with unexplored and untouched mystery. Conversely, what was once explicit and exoteric has drifted into obscurity and become as misunderstood as the Oracle at Delphi. If philosophy has any future, it will depend on the willingness to be open to the trivial and mundane half-embarrassments of philosophy. To reckon with the profuse and profane, one must be able to read without the guarantee of understanding. As Kittler says, “After Nietzsche, the career path of makers of words presupposes not being able to read.” Rather than aim directly at the heart of thinking, the serious thinker would do better to shoot his cutting logical arrows at a more distant target.
So to answer the question, “Where am I now, in the present?”, to answer such a question, especially in light of all previous attempts to do so, would indeed be to get the point much too well.
- Derrida, Jacques, Dissemination, Trans. Barbara Johnson, 1981
- Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Elective Affinities : A Novel, 1809
- Kittler, Friedrich A., Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Trans. Michael Metteer, 1990
- Plato, Phaedrus, Trans. by Benjamin Jowett