Gadamer, “Meaning and Concealment of Meaning in Paul Celan”

Meaning and concealment of meaning in the poetry of Paul Celan––with this theme we do not actually legitimize a particular perspective from which to guide the interpretation of Celan’s art, but rather simply articulate what anyone experiences upon becoming acquainted with Celan’s work. One feels the attraction of a precise meaning while also being aware that this meaning is withheld, perhaps even deliberately concealed. What is behind this style of poetry, one typical not only of Celan, but indeed of an entire generation, and how do we deal with it?––these are the questions we must ask ourselves. Addressing the former does not require is to pose theoretical considerations; it requires us to read.

            Perhaps to begin a general observation will suffice. Contemporary poetry seems to strive to permit the gravitational pull of words to operate fully without constraining them by means of logic and syntax. This blocklike speech, in which the individual words that stimulate impressions are situated next to each other does not mean that words cannot be conjoined in the unity of an intention of meaning. But the accomplishment of this is a challenge left to the reader. It is by no means the case that the poet arbitrarily conceals and obscures the unity of meaning. This is precisely how the poet releases the multidimensionality of the associations of meaning which is suppressed by the practical unity of intention in logically controlled, one-dimensional everyday speech. it is a mistake to think that because the semantic associations are not unambiguous one can understand nothing of the poem. Moreover, it is a mistake to think that the unity of speech-intention is missing. This is what makes the poem.

            The poem reads:


We are near, Lord,
near and graspable

Grasped already, Lord,
clutching one another, as if
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

Wind-awry we went there,
we went there to bend
over hollow and ditch.

To the watering-hole we went, Lord.

It was blood, it was,
what you poured out, Lord.

It glistened.

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord,
Eyes and mouth stand so open and empty, Lord.

We have drunk, Lord
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.


Nah sind wir, Herr,
nahe und greifbar.

Gegriffen schon, Herr,
ineinander verkrallt, als wär
der Leib eines jeden von uns
dein Leib, Herr.

Bete, Herr.
bete zu ans,
wir sind nah.

Windschief gingen wir hin,
gingen wir hin, uns zu bücken
nach Mulde und Maar.

Zur Tränke gingen wir, Herr.

Es war Blut, es war,
was du vergossen, Herr.

Es glänzte.

Es warf uns dein Bild in die Augen, Herr,
Augen und Mund stehn so offen und leer, Herr.
Wir haben getrunken, Herr.
Das Blut und das Bild, das im Blut war, Herr.

Bete, Herr.
Wir sind nah.

Papasquiaro’s “Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger fanatic”

The world gives you itself in fragments / in splinters:

in 1 melancholy face you glimpse 1 brushtroke by Dürer

in someone happy the grimace of 1 amateur clown

in 1 tree: the trembling of birds sucking from its crook

in 1 flaming summer you catch bits of the universe licking its face

the moment 1 indescribable girl

                rips her Oaxacan blouse

just at the crescent of sweat from her armpits

& beyond the rind is the pulp / & like 1 strange gift of the eye        

                                                                                       the lash

Maybe not even Carbon 14 will be able to reconstruct the true facts

The days are gone when 1 naturalist painter

could ruminate over the excesses of lunch

between movements of Swedish gymnastics

& without losing sight of the rose-blue tones of flowers he wouldn’t have imagined

       even in his sweetest nightmares

We are actors of infinite acts

        & not exactly under the blue tongue

                of movie spotlights

for example now / that you see how Antonioni passes by

                        with his usual little camera

observed b those who prefer to bury their heads in the grass

to get drunk on smog or whatever / so as not to add

                                                                           to the scandals

that already make the public roads impassable

by those who were born to be lavishly kissed by the sun

& its earthly ambassadors

by those who talk of fabulous copulations / of females you can’t believe

                                   in this geological age

of virbations that would make you 1 fervent propagandist for Zen Buddhism

by those who at 1 point were saved

from the accidents the crime rags call substantial

& that by the way––for now–-aren’t counted among the flowers of the Absurd

That’s how it is on the trapeze on the tightrope        

                                                              of this 1,000-ring circus

1 old man rattles on about the thrill he felt at seeing Gagarin

                              fluttering like 1 fly in outer space

& pity the starship wasn’t called Icarus 1

that Russia is so fiercely anti-Trotskyite

                                & then his voice dissolves / collapses

                                                between cheers & boos

Reality & Desire get thrashed / get chopped up

they spill out over each other

like they never would in 1 of Cernuda’s poems

foam runs from the mouth of the 1 who speaks wonders

& it would seem he lived in the clouds

                                   & not on the outskirts of this barrio

Wendy Trevino, “Brazilian Is Not a Race”


& I’m not sure how important that is
When you’re from Ukraine. I don’t give a fuck
What Elizabeth Bishop said. Never
Did. You can like her I’m just saying I
Don’t care what she had to say about race.
I will not center some racist settler
Woman’s mistaken ideas about
The world in order to make love & hate
Less complicated. Why destroying what
Destroys you is more difficult than you
Expect every time: that complication.
Which is to say I’m not sorry: Clarice
Lispector was white, that passage sounded
Anti-black & that’s not “fucked up” to say.


When I said race is relational what
I meant is people are racialized in
Relation to other people who have
Power. It isn’t enough to not like
Mexicans. Where I’m from, many of us
Mexican-Americans resented
The Mexicans who came from South Texas
To shop for designer clothes. They were rude
& treated at least the working class &
Poor & undocumented Mexican-
Americans as bad as the “Anglos,”
Which is what we called the white people, who
May or may not have hated Mexicans
Who worked with a few of them anyway.


I took dance classes with two Mexican
Girls. They went to private school in Brownsville.
I remember thinking one of them was
Very pretty. I remember seeing
Them shopping in the mall once & my mom
Pointing out how they were shopping alone
With their parents’ credit card & she watched
With what seemed like awe as the pretty one
Paid for an expensive GUESS jean jacket
& complimented her taste. My cousins––
Some of them––were Mexican too. I thought
I was whatever they were. Those teenage
Girls shopping with their parents’ credit card
Were definitely from Mexico though.

Gadamer’s hermeneutical exegesis of the first poem from Paul Celan’s Breath-turn

welcome me with snow:
whenever I strode through the summer
shoulder to shoulder with the mulberry tree,
its youngest leaf

DU DARFST mich getrost
mit Schnee bewirten:
sooft ich Schulter an Schulter
mit dem Maulbeerbaum schritt durch den Sommer,
schrie sein jüngstes

This is like a proem to the entire sequence. It is a difficult text which begins with strange directness. The poem is controlled by a sharp contrast. Snow makes everything the same, freezes and stills. Yet here it is not only accepted, but welcomed. This is because the summer, which remains behind the speaker, was apparently impossible to endure in the profusion of its germinating, budding, and blooming. Clearly, no actual summer lies behind the speaker, just as the You addressed in the poem does not mean winter or make an offer of real snow Apparently it was a time of abundance, in contrast to which the sterile deprivation of the winter works like an act of charity. The speaker strode through the summer shoulder to shoulder with the tirelessly germinating mulberry tree. The mulberry tree here is undoubtedly the emblem of germinating energy, and the constantly lush production of new growth is a symbol of an insatiable thirst for life. Unlike other shrubbery, the mulberry tree produces fresh leaves not only in the spring, but throughout the entire summer. I don’t think it’s correct to recall the old metaphorical tradition of baroque poetry. Admittedly, Paul Celan was a poeta doctus, but more importantly, he had an extraordinary knowledge of nature. Heidegger told me that up in the Black Forest, Celan knew more about the plants and animals than he did.

Scattered Thoughts on Delany and Le Guin

Near the end of Samuel R Delany’s Trouble on Triton, a delightful metatextual scene occurs. There, our ‘protagonist’ who is traveling with a political delegation to earth from the moon Triton discovers the avant-garde theater troupe with which s/he’s hopelessly entangled partaking in an archaeological expedition in Outer Mongolia.

“That is you!” Scraggly-bearded Windy, dusty from labor, came up the pile, a pail with things in it held out from his thigh, his other arm waving for balance. “What in the world are you doing here?”

“I was … I was just walking by. And I … What are … ?”

“The last time I seen you is on some damn moon two hundred and fifty million kilometers away. And he’s just walking by, he says!”

“What are you all doing?” Bron asked. “On Earth?”

“The usual. Micro-theater for small or unique audiences. Government endowment. Just what it says in the contract that brought us here.”

Bron looked around. “Is this one of her … ?”

“Huh? Oh, Christ, no! A bunch of us from the company just decided to volunteer a hand with the diggings. They’re into some very exciting things.” Windy laughed. “Today’s biggest find, would you believe it, is a whole set of ancient digging implements. Apparently someone in the immemorial past was also trying to excavate the place.”

Readers of Delany will recognize in the astonished cry – “What in the world are you doing here?” – the question of all of his books in some way traverse – how is it possible, in this world, for I to say you, and for you to say I? And how is it possible in this world for any I and any you to find each other in any case, here of all places?

And where?

An archaeological excavation of another archaeological excavation.

Between the present and an arche, an origin that might substantiate a self or give continuity to a tradition, there stretches an untraversable distance prolonged even further by the very search for an origin. This distancing of what is to be found by the very act of searching for it in Delany’s works takes the form of an amnesia, an aphasia, and an alexia.

In Dhalgren, The Kid flees and forgets, forgets fleeing, and flees forgetting. In Babel-17, The Butcher who has no word for ‘I’ helps stop a saboteur who turns out to be himself, who he has forgotten. In Triton, the trouble is that Bron cannot forget the past (or even remember the past in a catharsis that would constitute its forgetting and the forging of a future).

Part of the delight of this scene for me is how in displacing its origin it recognizes the origin of a writing that occurs in this displacement. A writing that questions both origins and originality. The writing of an archeological rather than an anthropological science fiction. In this way, Delany places himself as inheriting the tradition of Ursula K Le Guin while also disrupting its continuity.

Of course, at least this much is clear: Delany gives the epigraph “An Ambiguous Heterotopia” to Triton in direct conversation with Le Guin’s epigraph to The Dispossessed, “An Ambiguous Utopia.” But we can go further.

An epigraph to one of the Neveryon books borrows from Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge:

But there is negative work to be carried out first: we must rid ourselves of a whole mass of notions, each of which, in its own way, diversifies the theme of continuity. They may not have a very rigorous conceptual structure, but they have a very precise function. Take the notion of tradition: it is intended to give a special temporal status to a group of phenomena that are both successive and identical (or at least similar); it makes it possible to rethink the dispersion of history in the form of the same; it allows a reduction of the difference proper to every beginning, in order to pursue without discontinuity the endless search for origin …

Foucault continues a few pages later, saying that the role of this theme of historical continuity is “to preserve, against all decentrings, the sovereignty of the subject, and the twin figures of anthropology and humanism.” Against the decentering work of Marx and Nietzsche, “One is led therefore to anthropologize Marx, to make of him a historian of totalities, and to rediscover in him the message of humanism; one is led therefore to interpret Nietzsche in the terms of transcendental philosophy, and to reduce his genealogy to the level of a search for origins.”

The amnesia, aphasia, and alexia that Delany traces and traverses, is a decentering peculiar to a forgetting of origins. Forgetting fractures the kind of continuity that totalizes history in the nature of progression or justification. The kind of continuitiy that remains – if it can be called that, but nevertheless a temporalizing historicity remains – is only the inertia that follows from the awareness that I have forgotten. A remembrance, but not of a memory, a remembrance, but not a nostalgia. An archeology of this present will not find origins, but will only find futile searches for origins in its stead.

Le Guin’s supposed anthropological tendencies have been often noted, at least from the biographical perspective – her father was the first person to receive an anthropology PhD in the United States. But much more could be noted about how her anthropological approach doesn’t frame itself in relation to the ‘primitive’ but rather to the present. Like how in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness she speaks of fiction’s lie This lie is no longer the philosopher’s noble lie, but rather is an untruth that offering no guidance nor extending the present into the future, seeks merely to see the present as if it were unimaginable.

If this is anthropology, then it’s not the humanism of totality and continuity.

Part of the problem that Delany finds in The Dispossessed (in a critique that feels so polemically desperate that it’s hard to accept or even receive) is that even there in a book that is about the incongruence of ideality and the society that attempts its revolutionary achievement, the incongruence of language and desire, and the incongruence of desire and sexuality – Delany finds the language of the book to be at odds with what it communicates, and what it communicates to be opposed to the book’s ideal form, and this ideality opposed to the real. In a strange hermeneutics, he finds a difference in intention and intended.

But that’s what it’s about right? That incongruence? The impossibility of our imagining an otherwise? An impossibility that collapses the future into the present’s disease and dismay at any instance of imagining? But the liberal idea of progress – the endless postponement of the future – is also just an idea – which is also the idea that imagination should be congruent to reality. And ideas can be overcome?

In Frederic Jameson’s 1982 essay “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” (where he cites both Triton and The Dispossessed with regard to the following), he inverts the common SF formula, where SF keeps the future alive even if only in the imagination. Rather, the deepest vocation of the SF that re(dis)covers utopian thinking, as Jameson will say,

is over and over again to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future, to body forth, through apparently full representations which prove on closer inspection to be structurally and constitutively impoverished, the atrophy in our time of what Marcuse has called the utopian imagination, the imagination of otherness and radical difference…

If Delany’s critique of Le Guin is framed within the desire that ambition should necessitate accomplishment, then all of his novels should also be leveled under the same critique, for the assumed nature of both authors is that they reveal the incongruence between the present and any future that might depart from it.

Delany at the final instance of the critique admits that the ideal model that a book proposes is illusory and must necessarily collapse into the language of the present that, as much as a tension twists it and in these books can be made to mean other things, will still collapse into signs and images that affirm the present.

What’s important, then, is not congruence but difference and maintaining difference before it collapses into the same.

In my last post, I tried to frame an analysis of ‘heterotopias’ and ‘utopias’ from the perspective of a space of difference, where difference is not to be seen as a boundary or a surface separating incongruous elements but rather some space that can be inhabited, a borderlands.

Some Fore-Thoughts for a Blog on Samuel R Delany’s novel Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia

A utopia, as its etymology displays, is itself a heterotopia. The word utopia as fashioned by Thomas More amalgamates eu-topos and ou-topos but retains both in pronunciation and meaning only the former signification. The good-place is also a no-place, not because a good future is impossible either to imagine or to instantiate, but because it must be purified of the place from which it is imagined or instantiated if a future is to be a good-place, that is a place at all.

As soon as the future is imagined from a place, it is shaped by that place in the manner of a purification or an inversion (or of an infection, unseen). it must come from this place. The no-place amounts to a concealing of a birth-place, and the good-place a concealing of the no-place. But this concealing can also be an active difference in the sense of a heterotopia. An active difference, this means seeing the tension between good place and no place without collapsing the difference into the one or the other. This means, above all staying with the tension, inhabiting a space of difference.

Instead of a concealing, there can be enacted places in which, as Foucault puts it, “the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” These places are heterotopias – mirrors, gardens, rugs, baths, forbidden places, placeless places. Heterotopias are different places in the sense of different than “the real sites, all the other real sites,” but also in the sense of a place of difference – for what is different from everything real and from the reality of that totality, also opens up a space of difference, an outside, a new.

A ‘different from’ having become embodied as a ‘difference’, also includes the difference between ‘difference’ and ‘different from,’ so that the very designation of difference is contested. ‘Different than’ we might say is subsumed into and set beneath that which it is different from, but ‘difference’ that also enacts the difference between itself and ‘different than’ must refer to an entirely different place, an entirely different real, one which can’t be reduced to the place from which it is different but also one which can’t cast off its difference and return to that which it was.

This space of difference entails an ambiguity, where ‘different than’ in the sense of ‘other to’ (both of which are defined in relation to a term that hierarchizes factically even when ontologically it might be transcended by this very otherness) blurs and contests and acquires autonomy as a ‘difference’ that elides the comparative ‘than,’ but which nevertheless is still a ‘different than.’

A simultaneity, a double consciousness – depending on whether one is seen or seeing. This space above all activates a way of seeing that is a seeing from this blurred space of being different whether one is seen or seeing. That is, it activates a way of being seen by something that is not yet real, but a way of being seen that is nevertheless, real.

Heterotopias are above all ambiguous, for the reason that they are not necessarily good places, or (e)u-topias, for they don’t necessarily take upon themselves the revolutionary responsibility of saving the place from which they are seen to be different. In this sense, more than (e)u-topias which are doomed perhaps to conceal their no-place/birth-place, heterotopias can open up the new and the outside in such a way as not to reduce to, represent by, or invert it from the perspective of the present.

Foucault says, “places of these kind are outside of all places.” He says further that places of these kind, a kind that includes the space where we live which is after all a heterogonous space, “draw us outside of ourselves.”

Some Fore-thoughts on Gadamer and Rilke

Gadamer ends his presentation of hermeneutics and aesthetics by quoting from one of Rilke’s new poems. He does so almost with glee, for not only has he shown aesthetics to be comprehended within the hermeneutical project, he has also overcome the phenomenological ‘prejudice’ of intentionality, insofar as he has demonstrated that the linguistic nature of the work of art displays an excess of meaning. Intentionality is then inverted – the meaning that is intended is not my horizonal activity projected outside of myself in the mode of grasping or objectivating, but rather I am the one intended by the work of art. The language of the work says something which is greater than the author’s intentions and involves a timeless presence and contemporaneousness with itself (for instance the word classical not only designates a historical time period and a historical ideal this time period achieved but extends to any art that becomes a ‘classic’). Decisively, however, it says something to me. Hermeneutical interpretation is letting it be said to me, the letting myself be intended by the other.

It is in this regard that the Rilke poem is quoted with such a startlingly optimistic sense of closure: “You must change your life.”

Here is “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in full, translated by Edward Snow:

“We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a gas lamp dimmed
in which his gaze, lit long ago,

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the surge
of the breast could not blind you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward that center where procreation thrived.

Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt
under the shoulders’ transparent plunge
and not glisten just like wild beasts’ fur

and not burst forth from all its contours
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”

From this poem we can say two things about the past. That it still sees. That the place from which it sees is only the feeling of being seen by a past that is lost but lingers. This is the meaning of the double negative – there is no place that does not see, the placeless place of the past is localized in the rupture it creates in the present, the place where you feel seen.

Consider one of the most striking sequences in Theo Angelopoulos’ film, Ulysses’ Gaze. (This is such a poor translation of Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα because it Latinizes the Greek, but in so doing it reveals that the gaze of the past is a ‘blemish’ in the present – the past survives in how it wounds the present.) The film is about homeward journeys and a voyage to a homeward source that is no longer a home to which to return.

The various homeward cycles that are inscribed in the film – Odysseus returning home to Penelope then leaving for a death in a place where there is no word for ‘oar,’ that is where his journey cannot be recognized as a journey, Odysseus as Ulysses who in Dante’s underworld cannot return from the place beyond the world, modern Greece ravaged by neo-liberalism, austerity, the Balkan wars, and of course this filmmaker who seeks the source of Greek film – all present a past, an origin, and a home that is irrevocably lost.

So the, striking scene. The filmmaker remains on a train, and, while his lover on the platform (Penelope, whose actress slips through roles like the ghost of a beloved) is incredulous that he moves where he is taken, he tells her a story. The train picks up speed and in order to listen she begins to run.

“And then I heard a creaking sound, a hollow sound, as if coming from the depths of the earth. I looked up, and on the hill I saw an ancient olive tree slowly toppling over, an olive tree on a hill slowly sinking to its death on the ground, a huge, solitary tree, lying. A gash made by the fallen tree revealed an ancient head, the bust of Apollo, dislodged and rolled away, I walked on further past a row of lions, a column of the row of phalloi till I reached a small secret place, the birthplace of Apollo according to tradition. I raised my polaroid and pressed the button, and when the photograph slid out I was amazed to see it hadn’t registered a thing. I shifted my position and tried again. Nothing. Black negative pictures of the world. As if my glance wasn’t working. I went on taking one photograph after another, clicking away…”

Angelopoulos comments, “The filmmaker tries to take a picture of this event, but when he develops it, he sees that nothing appears. You see, the head had emerged from the spot where Apollo, the god of light, had first appeared. The light at such a spot, the source of light, was too strong for the camera.”

Light can be captured, but not the source of light. The first look sees what the first film cannot capture. The first glance is already a lost glance.This is the archaic aspect of Apollo’s torso, the anarchic perspective, an origin that is not related to an end but is seen only as the undisclosed in the disclosed, the concealed in the unconcealed.

Like many of Rilke’s new poems or thing poems of this era, after having studied with Rodin and attended with attentive regularity the Cézanne gallery, salon d’automne, the first and last lines wrap the poem up into a thing that exceeds itself.

Like also Merleau-Ponty’s observation that Cézanne paints the origin of light, the hazy coming into appearance that a tender gaze solicits of things, these new poems see more than what it seen, for what is seen is shaped by the seeing as the disclosure of the thing and the possibilities that it may become what it is that envelop the things as its aura.

The statue is not known but you whom the statue, though eyeless, “sees,” is known not only more than you know yourself, but also you whom you must be is known, too. On what authority is this understanding?

And to whom does it belong? For, that you must change your life does not specify any sort of authenticity as in becoming yourself, but the life into which you must change must also incorporate the past that sees you through your feeling of being seen. What must be brought into being is the in-between of the origin and the present, the lost past and the future. Their mediation and realization each in the other.

Some More Forethoughts for a Study of Body-Image and Self-Image

How do images become externalized? Although a genealogy of this transformation might resound with illuminating institutional contexts and far-reaching echoes in concepts such as ‘body-image’ and ‘self-image’ (if a self is assumed to imagine its body, then what imagines the self?), one point of departure that might reveal just how strange is the idea of an external image is quickly to consider the status of the image in Spinoza.

Initially Spinoza analyzes images and the imagination that produces them in the context of a critique of ideology (of error in physics, metaphysic, and religion). Yet, Spinoza does not consign images solely to error, nor does he deny their being the natural configuration of our life-world. Instead, images and the affections of which they are images become the very object of the third kind of knowledge that orients us towards beatitude.

Spinoza defines images as “the affections of the human body whose ideas set forth external bodies as if they were present to us, although they do not reproduce the shape of things. And when the mind regards bodies in this way, we shall say that it imagines.” An image is not a reproduction or representation that one might make or produce of an external body. Rather in image is a way of being affected by an external body that involves together the nature of one’s body and the external body.

To make present – this is not necessarily the temporal designation of memory, to make present the past which is nothing but to make present those bodies by which the human body has been affected. Rather, it is the very structure of the present, presence, and presenceing. An image is a temporalizing structure. Since for Spinoza affections of the human body are affects or moods, we might compare the affections together with the ideas of those affects that are images and imaginings with Heidegger’s equiprimordial structure of disclosedness as attunement and understanding.

Heidegger identifies three characteristics of attunement wherein moods disclose thrownness, Being-in-the-world as a whole, and an existential openness to the world by which encounters within-the-world can ‘matter’ to it. This latter characteristic implies for Heidegger a circumspective concern that has the character of “becoming affected in some way.” To be touched by anything or have a sense for something “in such a way that what touches them shows itself in an affect” is only possible for a kind of being that is in and attuned to the world.

An image as the sort of affection that has significance in disclosure, or for Spinoza that has significance in the involvement together of the natures of this body and that body, then, is neither a thing nor an image of a thing. It is even less a relation between these bodies as the splitting them off from each other. Images are at once the disclosure of the world and the disclosure of that kind of being in the world that is its disclosedness. Images are the present that has the characteristic of ‘together with.’

Although, the body and mind parallelism might not hold up in an analysis of Dasein, the absence of subject and object distinction in Spinoza is perhaps conducive to this comparison. For, in Heidegger and in Spinoza there is an openness, a not being closed off, that replaces a thought of the in-between that, though it might be close to this togetherness, still separates. The openness in an image that is not an internal depiction of an external reality – even less it is an external depiction of some inner reality – comes before those designations of internal and external.

Which is why it is so strange that image immediately means an external image – a photograph or a painting, yes, but even more immediately an advertisement, a television screen, a window through which is still visible at night some lonely light.

Some Forethoughts for a Study of Body Image

An image is the trace of an external body on this lived body in its spatial and temporal situatedness. That an image is a trace implies a confusion of absence and presence, such that that the external body can be made to appear to a lesser or greater degree of presence, even if it is absent in either space or time. This presence, though perhaps its paradigm is memory (the ability to make present the past), in its confusion implies extension, above all the extension of this body to a being-with an external body. Moreover, to make such an absence present is not to bring it into being or presence but precisely to determine the trace of the external body on this lived body as itself the externality of the external body.

For Spinoza the mind is only aware of its own activity and the activity of external bodies to the degree that it is aware of the activity of its own body through the affections whereby it is affected by or affects other bodies. But the mind is not external to the body, merely being the same body considered under different attributes of substance. To what degree then can we call an external body ‘external’? For not only is the mind aware of these bodies through its own body, but, moreover, individuality is not some simplification of the ego from its corporealization but rather bodies in their externality entering into a precise relationship to which corresponds an intensive, modal singularity.

This question is not the problematization of the existence of the external world but precisely the determination of the external world and the totality of bodies and their relationships which ‘world’ properly designates as external. In order for the existence of the external world even to be put into question implies an internality whose identity cannot break out of its enchainment to itself – an identity for which alterity and externality come from the far side of exteriority.

One way to breach this question is to consider the status of images in Spinoza. For mainly we understand images as external depictions or representations of a reality that is by definition there for all. But images for Spinoza are the traces of affections of the body in the two directions of mind affecting/being affected by body and body affecting/being affected by other bodies. That is, images occur at the border – or rather at the anterior determination of a border before there are borders – of self and other. In order for an image to become ‘external’ something very strange must happen – they must be anaesthetized.

An external image – a screen, a mirror, a sky, a portrait, a poem, that is any media in any manner of aesthetic mediation – is only the trace of this body’s having been affected by an externalized affection of the body that has been purged of any corporeality. You see you seeing yourself without realizing that it is your self that sees you. Where the ‘without realization’ is determined – this is the border’s first determination. A threshold becomes a wall when a body having been extended to an ‘external’ image cannot return to itself, having been walled off in the determination of exteriority.

Is this aesthetics? When I see the wind through the trees and the wind becomes the impression of a poem, for instance, in the ineluctable enigma of the wind’s longing through me for its loss do I only see my self seeing me without recognizing that this longing is my longing, that this self seeing me sees only the impossibility of its return to me or my return to this?

The wall at the border of inside and outside is not the skin of the wind but the screen and the television sky. The extension of the body then exceeds the body’s own delimitations – and what is extended is then not the body but the body’s skin past touch to the threshold where the outside is not touched but occluded in a false totality that excludes it, the body becomes an obesity, a combustible terrain, a consumer.

For, if all images are only traces on and of a body, then the paradigmatic example of this alienating determination of the outside is the body image and the warp and the weft on which it is weaved.


Simulation’s Similitude

The Bandersnatch fled as the others appeared
Led on by that fear-stricken yell:
And the Bellman remarked “It is just as I feared!” 
And solemnly tolled on his bell.

Depictions in media of simulation are boring. This is to say that in their self-referentiality – describing a simulated world by implicating you in it, describing a simulation by ceaselessly referencing its images as simulated – these depictions do nothing. They’re bored and boring, yet more than any other images, these keep boring themselves into our inane, simple-mindedly distracted minds.

Take a look through any reddit or twitter thread discussing the new Black Mirror episode (movie? game?) and you’ll see performed through recycled memes simulations of existential realizations. That’s the real horror of it all. The shiver-inducing realization that I live in a simulation by implicating me in images that announce their being simulations performs those existential reflections that I cannot grasp myself, I cannot think myself, but without spiraling into aporia, because the screen is always and only a screen.

Depictions of simulation are boring because of their similitude. Their images at once perform my being a simulation while also collapsing into mere images that do not disturb my reality.

Not only are such images that enact simulation rather simple, they simplify the world and you and then identify the simplification with the world.

So, Bandersnatch. A traumatized kid who’s trapped in a dull middle-class life, seeks escape in programming video games. Performative cyberpunk that really is not in the least deserving of punk or cyber prefix. You make decisions for him – from actual plot points to what breakfast cereal he should eat, what music he should listen to, whether he should bite his nails or scratch his ear – and he begins to realize that something is controlling him, thus descending into schizoid disassociation.

The fun is that when glimpsing the outside he realizes this, you who make his decisions are implicated because you are not really making decisions at all. The game returns in on itself and there’s only one ending. With all of the fuss on fragmented realities and decision trees, there’s only one game, there’s only one movie, and there’s only one ending, after which the credits roll. The game is always saying, you’re not doing this right, and returns you.

Someone or something is controlling him. This isn’t necessarily you. Free will crumbles beneath a government conspiracy, a media conglomerate, multiple realities, drugs, video games, etc. None of these images that depict the unthinkable outside with rather banal, conspiratorial tropes breach the real consideration of the outside as power.

The banality of most episodes of Black Mirror is their performative catharsis. Performing the extremes of technological manipulation, its frisson comes from the simultaneous realization that we live (or soon will live) in the world it depicts while also seeing it in and as a screen that’s only a screen, so distancing it, rendering it void. It collapses into its own logic. It presents our future as an alternate one that reflects the horror of this one while also being just an image, just an alternative, just a game.

For, to say that we live in a simulation is not only dull and banal, it’s also true. Simulation is banal because the world can never be rendered totally in a second-order description of it – you can’t eat your own mouth. But it’s also true precisely because we identify or confuse its simplification of the world with the world. This simplification is precisely the management of this world as a coherent world-system.

Dussel describes this simplification-as-negation in the introduction to his Ethics as the very project and self-justification of modernity.

“The ‘rationalization’ of political life (bureaucratization), of the capitalist enterprise (administration), of daily life (Calivinist asceticism or Puritanism), the decorporealization of subjectivity (with its alienating effects on living labor, criticized by Marx, as well as on its drives, as analyzed by Freud), the nonethicalness of every economic or political gestation (understood only as technical engineering, etc.), the suppression of communicative reason, now replaced by instrumental reason, the solipsistic individuality that negates the community, are all examples of the diverse moments which are negated by simplification, apparently necessary for the management of the centrality of a world system that Europe found itself in the need of perpetually carrying out.”

These simplifications – above all simplifications of subjectivity, postulating the I as an ego, and reducing all else to machinery (simulation media depends above all on this, for only an I or an ego can be simulated, not a body, not a corporeality) – are effects of modernity that totalize themselves into independent systems that are seen then to cause themselves.

This process of a simplification that replaces the world it simplifies is the horror of simulation.

Of all of the horrific signs that simulate control from above in this dumb show – the Netflix logo, the lion – the most horrific is the binary root of the decision tree. This is what D&G denounce as arborescent cartography.

“It is our view,” they write, “that genetic axis and profound structure are above all infinitely and reproducible principles of tracing. All of tree logic is a logic of tracing and reproduction. In linguistics as in psychoanalysis, its object is an unconscious that is itself representative, crystallized into codified complexes, laid out along a genetic axis and distributed within a syntagmic structure. Its goal is to describe a de facto state, to maintain balance in intersubjective relations, or to explore an unconscious that is already there from the start, lurking in the dark recesses of memory and language. It consists of tracing, on the basis of an overcoding structure or supporting axis, something that comes ready-made.”

The ready-made refers less to Duchamp and more to Heidegger’s logic of technology. One does not ‘learn’ a tool, but ‘uses’ it because one knows what it is in advance: “The mathemata are the things insofar as we take cognizance of them as what we already know them to be in advance, the body as the bodily, the plant-link of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing, and so on.”

One know what it is in advance because one relates to it through a structure that overcodes it in relation to you and its use, so erasing all other aspects of the thing that its simplification excludes.

Where there’s a decision tree, it’s never do ‘this or that,’ but even worse: to do ‘this or that’ is already a this and not that, a false choice collapsed according to a structure from the pure openness of a future.

Simulations are tracings are simplifications. It is then necessary for us to seek what this tracing or simplification excludes from the world with which it has become confused. A map of the unknown? An endless list of escape-routes that isn’t a list but a tangle?

Above all, not this trite, atroci-tv.