Sunday, 7 January 2007

The Unconditional (2/8)

One of The Unconditional’s favourite conditions is flesh, the condition of knowledge. The Unconditional is fascinated by knowledgeable flesh. Loves the stuff. There is a risk here that we sweep some vulgar Cartesian dualism under the boundless twister mat. Thinking about how the hand or face ‘possesses’ knowledge is quite close to thinking there existeth cognition goo, the brain abrim with it, but the body splotched with it. That superstition can be broken down into a midden of more or less sensible suggestions.

(Every suggestion in the following midden is supposed to have something to do with knowledgeable flesh). You may not be able to remember your PIN, but ‘your hands remember’ which keys to punch. / You may be walking through a tangle of lanes, your thoughts elsewhere, & find yourself safely arrived at your destination. / You may be well on your way to work before you’ve ‘woken up properly.’ / You may find it difficult to scan poetry unless you count the syllables with your fingers. Try: “perpetually signifying there” (109). / You think differently depending on how you have eaten, slept, drunk (coffee? Spirits?), whether or not you have a cold, or a stomach ache, or a headache. / After a sharp blow to the head, your personality may change. / Once you have learned to ride a bicycle you probably won’t forget, but nor can you prove to yourself that you remember how to ride one, except by riding one. / You do some things ‘by reflex.’ / Some reflexes seem to operate independently of higher-order knowledge: e.g. flinching from curry thrown at your face. In others, the status of higher-order knowledge is ambiguous. For example, before you ‘know what you’re doing,’ you might grab a bottle of bleach out of your baby’s hand. The act implies access to information about the likely behaviours of babies & the likely effects of the substance on their bodies, as well as a prejudice that babies should be stopped from poisoning themselves. / “A baby of fifteen months opens its mouth if I playfully take one of its fingers between my teeth & pretend to bite it. & yet it has scarcely looked at its face in a glass, & its teeth are not in any case like mine. The fact is that its own mouth & teeth, as it feels them from the inside, are immediately, for it, an apparatus to bite with, & my jaw, as the baby sees it from the outside, is immediately, for it, capable of the same intentions.” (Marcel Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 410). / You may not actually ‘feel’ nervous while speaking in public, but notice your hand is trembling as you raise your notes. / “My mind says no, but my heart says yes.” Or, “my mind says no, but my body says yes.” / “If my hand traces a complicated path through the air, I do not need, in order to know its final position, to add together all movement made in the same direction & subtract those made in the opposite direction” (ibid. 161). / There exist special sunglasses which flip incoming light, so the wearer sees an upside-down world. This experience of the world is temporary – rather than getting used to moving around in an upside-down world, after a few minutes the wearer starts to see the world the right way up. (If you then remove the shades the world is seen upside-down again, until another readjustment takes place). / You may not remember how to do something on a computer unless you actually do it; you may make it surprisingly difficult for yourself by only adopting an unusual posture (turning the computer screen 45 degrees away, for example). / Some tasks which are second nature to you may become difficult to achieve if you attempt them in different clothes, in a different posture, while putting on an accent, or while unusually excited or melancholic. We usually describe these difficulties as ‘being unable to “get inna the zone”,’ ‘being distracted,’ that kind of thing. / A lot of your mental processes could plausibly be organised by spatial metaphors. Could these mental processes take place if you’d been born a brain in a vat, & never had an experience of a body in space? Could a thought as obvious as ‘getting through the day’ be compromised, no longer work correctly?

A final example, which I find the most confusing of the lot, is about interpretation. ‘The restoration of the bodily to the conceptual’ could be part of a procedure for ideal interpretation. E.g. ‘When you feel as I do, you truly understand me.’ (That particular formulation is a bit rubbish; how could you recognise that you feel as I do – maybe, only with the help of your true understanding of me (a special case of the hermeneutic circle)? The “as” of “feel as I do” is also an astonishingly complicated cusp. I don’t think it can just indicate a relationship of resemblance. But what would do instead? & the way in which “ideal interpretation” might generate attainable benchmarks needs sorting out. You can see however that the intuition might be worked up into something meticulous & robust).

These suggestions have various amounts of purchase on the ‘knowledgeable flesh’ theme of The Unconditional. Some are probably more persuasive or familiar than others. They may all seem like special cases, perhaps distributed within the fault-lines between subject & object, or between body & mind. But my hope is that some will seem not to be exceptions, or seem only exceptionally clear examples of why certain attitudes to subject & object, & to body & mind, will not do.

The sense in which they will not do in The Unconditional develops from a Heideggerean context. I don’t think I need to know Simon’s Heidegger or anybody’s Heidegger very well to grasp this sense, but if any of this is new to you, you might want to add a pinch of salt because it’s new to me too. Heidegger is notoriously difficult. I don’t intend a generalised whine about how difficult he is: I am pretty persuaded there are good reasons for it. But partly because of this difficulty, I am going to sneak up on him quite gradually, by way of some of The Unconditional’s other philosophers and characters.

No comments: