Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Getting into Bed with an Aphorist: On Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Bed of Procrustes'

La Rochefoucauld, my penguin edition of the Maxims informs me, ‘shattered the norms that govern polite society’. Nietzsche’s aphorisms, writes scholar Alexander Nehemas, ‘tore down the Western metaphysical tradition’. And Nassim Nicholas Taleb, says the blurb to the newest addition to the aphoristic tradition, ‘demolishes our illusions […] and pre-packaged narratives’. Why is it that this talk of aphorisms becomes so violent when to the general reader they are encountered as elegantly pithy pieces of wit? Yes, aphoristic writing, in some hands, does open up bold new avenues. But surely the great aphorist is in the business not of demolition but of surveying, of pointing out what is so, or what La Rochefoucauld calls ‘laying bare the human heart’.

Rather than casting aside the ‘illusions’ of social relations, aphoristic thinking is essentially mediated through the ambiguities, paradoxes and resulting absurdities that are (sometimes comically, sometimes tragically) concomitant with our socially imbedded existence. The aphorist is no more able to destroy this imbeddednes than any other observer of human behaviour. What is distinct is how the material is registered. Perhaps one ought to be putting this aphoristically. Martin Kusch, a blogging don, does just that when he uses an illustration of the criminal and the criminologist. Whereas the former enters a house looking for the obvious valuables (the laptop, the television, the jewellery), the latter enters with an eye for the minuscule (the fingerprints, the drop of blood, the flake of skin). Kusch concludes: ‘The aphorist is the criminologist, the rest of us are criminals’. Writers such as La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort had the knack of pointing out things that, though not hidden or mystical, were for various reasons unacknowledged –or even obscured- by other discourses.  

If ‘pointing out things’ sounds like one of the most unhelpful definitions since Baldrick’s dictionary entry for dog (‘not a cat’), it is due to an aphoristically-informed suspicion of over-definition. ‘Aphorisms’, writes Taleb in the introduction to his wonderful The Bed of Procrustes, ‘lose their charm when explained’. Were we to summarise the content of the aphorisms of a Nietzsche or a La Rochefoucauld, and in so doing brutally sever form from content, we would in the main receive a number of banal theses exploring various gaps between “ideality” and “reality” and the triumph of self-interest. The most we can say for definition is that they are prose fragments of varying length. The shortest can also be called maxims and axioms, and the longer, paragraph-length aphorisms are like those found in books by the gloomy Cioran. Therefore, would Taleb’s book not be better served by asking what kind of thinking is conducive to this aforementioned charm?

Take one of Taleb’s aphorisms: ‘The fool generalizes the particular; the nerd particularizes the general; some do both; and the wise does neither.’ A summary would seek to neutralise the potential for paradox and ambiguity: Taleb is not “against” the idea of moving between particularity and generality (this is, after all, the space in which aphorisms roam). He is merely opposed to a way of thinking that regards the particular and the general as discrete concepts; both the nerd and the fool seek to impose the form of one onto the form of another, when it is precisely the case that both universals and immediacies are essentially bound up with one another in the same instance. This relates to Taleb’s wider suspicions of the epistemological concepts with which we divide the world into normative states. It only took the discovery of a black swan to disprove the certainties of the concept ‘all swans are white’, thus disturbing our world vision.

However, what such analysis (literally: breaking up) does is itself impose a positivistic formula onto a statement that negates the idea of positivistic formulae. The title of Taleb’s book alludes to the Greek myth of the bed to which the unlucky guests of Procrustes were brutally re-modelled to fit by either stretching or lopping off limbs. This grotesque metaphor for the adjustment of empirical facts into an arbitrary theoretical index is not something that aphorisms can totally overcome. But, just as the underrated aphorist Chamfort sought to show that ‘truth lies somewhere in between’, Taleb belittles both sides of the argument by way of illustrating the limitations involved in taking sides. Whilst there have been aphorists such as Pascal who have written for the purposes of expressing personal commitment in a way that lends itself to doctrinaire moralism, the tradition to which Taleb belongs resists pushing any kind of agenda. 

It is unsurprising that there were so few utopian idealists or anglophone pragmatists who were attracted to this form, and it would be hard to find a famous aphorist who belonged to an organised intellectual movement or subscribed to a popular school of thought. Indeed, the most successful exponents in the aphoristic canon led isolated and often troubled (and even troubling) existences. La Rochefoucauld wrote in old age after a life that had in both public and private been marked by disappointment and lost opportunity; Chamfort led a life of chequered fortunes and, after falling on the wrong side of the revolution, spent his final year disfigured and in constant pain after a series of botched suicide attempts; Nietzsche was, erm, Nietzsche. And Taleb, at once philosopher who maligns the financial and academic worlds and successful wall street trader and university professor, is a man of contradiction and enormous singularity. Each one of them refuses to conform to conventional models in both life and philosophy. What they find in the aphoristic tradition is a space for reflecting on problems and limitations without restricting themselves to a system concerned with generating solutions.            

For instance, look at a terrific aphorism from Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human, ‘A comedy scene which occurs in life’. It describes an instance where a dinner guest desires to impress company with a witty opinion, and thus will go to great lengths to manipulate the conversation for this purpose, but has his thunder stolen at the last moment. ‘What’, asks Nietzsche, ‘will he do? Oppose his own opinion?’ The essence of this aphorism is in the tone. We arrive at the ironic crux not to receive moral guidance but to witness the seemingly illogical logic of social interaction. By ending on a question Nietzsche is showing how the facts of life (and, therefore, aphorisms) do not lend themselves to absolute certainties. How boring life and dinner parties would be, the suggestion goes, if people actually said what they believed in and were not vain and constantly out to impress. Yet if they acknowledged this to others there would cease to be any more sociable occasions.

Nietzsche’s aphorisms in HAH and elsewhere seem to emerge as flashes of revelation out of his musings on what it means to ‘become what you are’; as with the state of his free spirits, the cognition of clever opinions is here shown to be a sociably anti-social product rather than a merely solitary one. As many of his aphorisms illustrate, the great masterstroke of society is that it manages to accommodate and contain everyone’s selfish interests whilst giving off the image of being in a healthy and principled state. The problem is the solution and the solution the problem. Similarly, when Taleb writes that ‘You remember emails that you sent that were not answered better than emails that you did not answer’ the point isn’t that this has been previously unknown to us but precisely that we carry on untroubled by the awareness of the various minor hypocrisies that abound in our thoughts and actions. 

This is not to say that the aphorism possesses a greater amount of truth than is available to others in society. Truth is a commodity that is fought over by politicians, academics, journalists and talkshow hosts. Whilst not arguing that it doesn’t exist in some form, truth is far too tainted by the grubby materialism of the vox pop to interest our aphorists. Rather, as they do not strictly commit themselves to any ideological cause they are free to experiment with pushing ideas further than a discourse troubled by accuracy and neutrality would be willing or able to. Thus, Chamfort can go from criticising the folly of the rich to the envy of the poor and their utopian sympathisers without being tied down by the demands of argumentative consistency.

Linked to this is a major misconception that aphorisms are “throwaway phrases”, written “offhand” (as opposed to…?) to provoke or to titillate. ‘It is waste of emotions to answer critics; better to stay in print long after they are dead’; ‘I take a ritual bath after contact, or correspondence (even emails), with consultant, economists, Harvard Business school professors, journalists’ etc. How can one take Taleb’s “funny little gibes” seriously? I suppose (to use an off-the-cuff prefix) an aphorist would respond by arguing that the whole idea of serious writing is to throw away personal registers and thus, in favouring authoritative objectivism, disown the fact that the writing is coming from the subjective voice of an individual. We are constantly aware when reading Procrustes of Taleb as Taleb. His preferences (to idleness, to poetry) and his prejudices (to economists, to the internet, to academics) are idiosyncratic rather than prescriptive.

As important as these points are, they are still only surface scratching. As was the case for the aphorism on universals and particulars, it is too crude to speak of subjectivism and objectivism as if they are separate entities (indeed, this objective way of thinking is only half right). Aphorisms have far more interesting things to say about the phenomenology of writing. Their fragmented aspect gives them the aura of words that stand alone and above the historical moment from the which they emerge. Whilst they might not always claim universalism, their stylistically seductive form seems to imply that their singular act of conception sufficiently validates their argument. Whilst raging against other authorities, aphorists nevertheless relish imparting their own codes of conduct, e.g. Taleb’s satirically laced ‘To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers’. 
Yet, as the above quotation demonstrates, you can’t be completely free of context-specific idiom. References to emails, economics and big pharma counteract the aphoristic form’s tendency towards ahistoricism. It refuses to document experience but cannot help being of product of experience; this is in part analogous to how Nietzsche built empirical observations into an existential ontology that rejected empiricism. It reminds us that even when the maxims of La Rochefoucauld seem their most abstract in discussions of passions versus reason they are ultimately contributions to the philosophical debates on 17th Century that, as the cliché goes, culminated in the age of Enlightenment. This tension is not the fault of the aphorism but its modus operandi. It wants to live its life as an individual but can’t get around the issue of living with, for and because of others. But at least aphorisms find their distinction from most forms of human expression (and book reviewing especially) in understanding the many merits of brevity.   

Some choice aphorisms: 

A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation  Taleb

An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion  Taleb 

Education makes the wise slightly wiser; but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous  Taleb 

If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated  Taleb

Usually, what we call a "good listener" is someone with skillfully polished indifference  Taleb  (c.f Tony Blair)

I wonder if anyone ever measured the time it takes, at a party, before a mildly successful stranger who went to Harvard makes others aware of it  Taleb

In most debates, people seem to be trying to convince one another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves  Taleb

For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two  Taleb 

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process  Taleb

Double a man's erudition; you will halve his citations  Taleb --Quentin Skinner is pwn'd. 

We find it to be extremely bad taste for individuals to boast of their accomplishments; but when countries do so we call it "national pride"   Taleb

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful  Taleb

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don't say about themselves  Taleb

We are often prevented from appreciating aphorisms proving the falseness of the virtues by our excessive readiness to believe that in our own case these are genuine  La Rochefoucauld

In most men love of justice is only fear of suffering injustice  La Rochefoucauld

When we resist passions it is more on account of their weakness than our strength  La Rochefoucauld 

Physical calamities and natural disasters forced us to live in communities. Living in communities added to these natural problems; the drawbacks of living in society led to our need to be governed and government increases social evils. You've just read a resume of the history of mankind  Chamfort

Before being generous, you must be fair; before adding ruffs to shirt sleeves, you must first have a shirt  Chamfort 

Society can be divided into two main categories: people who have more appetite than dinners and those who have more dinners than appetite  Chamfort

A stupid man showing a brief glimmer of intelligence creates the same feeling of surprise and shock as cab-horse breaking into gallop  Chamfort 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Human Traces: Vanishing in Northern Ireland

‘The disappeared’ of Northern Ireland, ‘los desaparecidos’ of Spain, ‘the missing’ of Latin America: all have ‘vanished into thin air’. There is something curious about the words we use to talk about abduction. They describe not what became of the victim but rather the blank space left by the victim’s absence. This negative description admits to the obvious lack of knowledge about what happened; indeed, this is precisely why these cases are so disturbing for friends and relatives. It is an empty space filled over time by a mixture of dread and hope about what is imagined to have happened to the victim. There is also something about them that captivates our collective imagination. Perhaps it is the ghostliness of disappearing without a trace, and of not being fully dead in the minds of relations who yearn for some kind of closure. In effect, I think our attitude to life’s end clings to classical narrative structures: we think it proper that everybody’s life is due some kind of formal acknowledgement through funeral ceremonies and the like as a way of putting a lid on a person’s contribution to humanity. It is the brutal denial of this that makes the mass graves that accompany genocide and massacres so appalling to us.

37 years ago Peter Wilson ‘vanished ’ after leaving his home in the Beechmount area of west Belfast. Earlier this month his remains were discovered buried on a beach in the picturesque Glens of Antrim after detectives received an anonymous tip-off. It is believed that Wilson perished at the hands of the IRA, despite being Catholic and having no obvious political affiliation. It was probably more the case that his learning disabilities made Wilson a vulnerable target for a group of thugs wanting to make a bit of noise and not considering the legacy of misery to which they were consigning the Belfast community. Wilson’s case is sadly not unique. When it was set up in 1999, The Commission for the Location of Victims Remain had a list of 16 people who went missing during the Troubles; to date it has recovered the bones of 7, Wilson’s being the most recent find. The discovery of remains offers at least a kind of ‘catharsis’ for relatives. But for others like Anne Morgan the ‘plight is ongoing’; her brother Seamus Ruddy is still on the CLVR’s list. Every year Morgan joins a commemorative walk through Stormont, reminding her countrymen that ‘every effort needs to be made to bring our loved ones home for Christian burial’.

In so many of these cases the effort not to forget so as keep memory alive is combined with a contrary but no less intense impulse to know for sure what happened so as to put the dead to rest. Spain has recently undergone a similar exhumation of its past after half a century of memorial oblivion. Like Northern Ireland, Spain, in striving to move on from its troubled past, had previously urged its people to forget the atrocities, in its case the worst period of Franco’s rule in which thousands of rebels were executed or starved to death in camps. However, the passage of time seems to allow for younger generations unaffected by historically specific political allegiances to begin to ask questions about their father and grandfathers. Spain has launched an equivalent of the CLVR, The Association for the Recovery of History Memory, which has so far discovered 5000 sets of remains. The significance of the establishment of both these government-funded organization should not be underestimated. Rather than this radical re-opening of past wounds being located, as it previous has been, at grassroot levels outside the governmental apparatus and in the left wing media it is being conducted in the respectful garb of officialdom.

However, there are some problems with this current enthusiasm for finding the disappeared that I would like to sketch. It is of course essential that a country face up to the crimes of its past and that collective pain is redressed. The present situation in Rwanda reminds us of the perils of enforcing a ‘pact of oblivion’; often it just serves as a political weapon with which to attack opponents, charging them with ‘stirring up tensions’ and ‘inciting hatred’ for daring to refer to history. One needn’t have to go around digging for bones to sufficiently acknowledge the past. As the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrates, whilst the Muslim Bosnians may have their independent government they still hold that the country will never more forward into a South Africa truth-and-reconciliation epoch until there is some kind of collective acknowledgement of the Srebrencia massacre (the Serbian parliament unconvincingly continues to deny the charge of genocide).

Yet it is not the case either that unearthing the hidden horrors of one’s national past is necessarily a productive solution to political squabbling. Remains such as Peter Wilson’s carry huge emotional and symbolic capital that can be easily manipulated, shifting public discourse away from the legitimate approaches to truth recovery. The bodies do not so much put tensions to rest as provoke (understandably so) demands for justice and retribution that can very often demobilize agents of conciliation and bolster the causes of extremist groups by asserting cultures of victimhood.

At this point it is essential that I make clear that I am not saying that this is what is happening at the moment in either Spain or Northern Ireland. What I am saying is that all such instances as these contain the latent potential for the exploitation of historical memory and it is understandable why many countries have opted for denial over confrontation. I worry that there is the widespread perception that it is always better to know than not to know.

To better understand what I’m getting at, both here and elsewhere in this blog, I will turn to George Sluizer’s excellent 1988 film The Vanishing. The film begins in fairly standard ‘lady vanishes’ territory. Rex and Saskia, a couple traveling through the South of France, stop off at a busy service station. Saskia goes to the shop to get a drink but doesn’t return to the car. She has disappeared. Rather than turning into the attempt to track down Saskia in the form of a police procedural, the film flashes forward 3 years to show Rex still obsessed with finding out what happened to her. Memory seamlessly intersects with and interrupts Rex’s present efforts to move on. What is at the centre of this mystery is not whodunit but howdunit. This is made plain when Saskia’s abductor, Raymond, tracks down Rex and offers him the opportunity to find out what happened to his lover. Rex has no choice: if he instead turns Raymond over to the police they would have no evidence with which to charge him and Rex would have to live with the ‘eternal uncertainty’ of not knowing what happened to Saskia. However, in order to find out the truth Rex will, in Raymond’s ingeniously perverse logic, have to undergo what Saskia went through.

What is truly fascinating about Sluizer’s film (as well as, for that matter, Tim Krabbe’s novel on which the film is based) is the suggestion that Rex’s obsession with Saskia’s fate is not so different from the sociopathic obsessions that drive Raymond. The latter is one of the more interesting of screen murderers. He is a thoroughly decent family man who has a wry sense of humour and even enjoys a joke or two with Rex in the car on the way to the spot where he abducted Saskia. Indeed, Sluizer presents him in a perversely endearing light, depicting his fumbling and often comically misjudged attempts to lure ‘the right sort of women’ into his car. He explains to Rex that after performing a great act of heroism in rescuing a drowning child he became obsessed with imagining the possibility of committing a great evil. Raymond is unable to counter his urges to visualise this; he has to know what it’ll be like. We are expected to discern in Raymond a dark reflection of Rex’s own willingness to follow Saskia’s footsteps so as to make definite his imagining of what became of her. However, as anyone who has seen The Vanishing through to its stunning and profoundly disturbing end, the reality of this kind of confrontation with the dead is not a symbolic moment of healing, reconciliation or catharsis. After being drugged by Raymond, Rex wakes up to find himself six feet under the ground in a coffin. This is a horrific realization of what it means to really know. Even being reunited with the remains of a loved one, along with sketchy outlines of how and when they died, will not put a decisive end to anxious curiosities. But then, if this is the case, would anyone really want to know, or are the disappeared best left in memories of happier times?    

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Clocking On: philosophy, cinema and Christian Marclay

Like many people who wandered unknowingly into The Clock it was a couple of minutes before I arrived at my Aha! moment. Just as you are puzzling over why the British Art Show 7 is showing a video installation composed of clips from well-known movies, with many of them featuring clocks, it hits you: the time in the film clips is the same as the time on your watch. In the darkened room you can observe such moments of recognition as heads nod up and down between blue-lit phones and the screen, and people begin to wonder if this really will ‘follow time’ for the full 24. 

You bet it does. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which is currently at the Nottingham Art Exchange as part of the Show before moving on to London next year, is partly a celebration of cinema, partly a radical philosophical exercise and wholly a miracle of editing. Marclay seamlessly weaves together moments from thousands of films, with enough of them making some reference to the exact time to enable the montage to be structured against the time zone in which it is being exhibited. The clips vary in length, and often one film can make several appearances throughout a given period; indeed, at one point it felt as if I were watching a version of The Transporter remixed with scenes from À Bout de Souffle and Moonraker. Such celluloid splicing places films from disparate contexts within a surreal dialogue, and has the likes of Paul Scofield and Adam Sandler sharing screentime.    

What is impressive is how Marclay has crafted something so compulsively watchable out of what on paper sounds as gripping as ‘drying paint: the movie’. I sat transfixed for over 2 hours, finally being driven out not by boredom but hunger. Much of this is down to the elegance with which Marclay accomplishes the transitions between clips. Aural as well as visual aspects are often paired, such as the sound of a tapping pencil in one clip being subtly modified by the chugging of a steam engine in a succeeding one. ‘Sound’, Marclay says, ‘is the glue that holds the piece together.’

This does not so much rewrite the grammar of film as make explicit what is essential to the cinematic experience. Fundamentally, we love movies not simply because they tell stories or portray realistic characters (literature and theatre have been doing this quite well for millennia) but because they present us with a rich tableau that records the geography, both literal and emotional, of human life. In many senses, cinema panders to our voyeuristic tendencies, of witnessing but not participating in moments of love and pain, violence and sex. Clock provides us with an undiluted fix of startling and varied images.   

Time is the bedrock. To one extent, our willingness to passively enter into the plights of others is secured by the assurance that the experience has a specific duration. Even at the gloomy Nordic heights of Bergman, we are only expected to give our existential all for the 90-minute running time. But to go deeper, Clock reminds us of cinema’s narrative dependence on time. So many of the clips demonstrate that the real villain of thrillers is the ticking clock, contriving impossible plots for our heroes in their race against time. Elsewhere, from being late for a date to growing old and considering mortality, cinema functions as one of the most thorough and complex meditations on the phenomenology of time. A moment from Clock showing a boy drawing a watch on his wrist that transforms into the real ticking object illustrates how something that is essentially a human invention becomes in the collective consciousness a universal truth around which we plot our lives. Moreover, the status of Marclay's project, a montage of fragments wrenched from their discrete temporal contexts that in turn function to validate our own time zone, seems to point towards a more general constructedness. 

Marclay developed calluses on his fingers from all the mouse clicking involved in the two-year editing process. After leaving Clock I think I developed a form of chronophilia. My heightened sensitivity to time in not just its passage but also its visual forms got me thinking that a world in which the principal means of receiving time is digitalized has lost something. The clock faces that appear in many varied and ornate forms in Marclay’s film have all but vanished from our homes and are fast disappearing from urban spaces. I fear that my generation has lost all reverence for time, reducing it to a purely functional role and commodifying it under the slogan 'time is money'. We want to have second-by-second updates at our fingertips and we can't be doing with the eccentricities of the archaic classes with their cuckoo clocks and other ticking hobbyhorses. Yet I cannot help thinking that time, like cinema, deserves better than the bleeping figures of the digital aesthetic.