Reconstructionism

Day 102: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

Zak this morning I find myself in the middle of a very busy season as well as of Umberto Eco’s Trattato di semiotica generale.  I’m not really sure which of the two deserves more of my attention.

What’s the difference between a gerund and a gerundive? …

The reason I bring up Eco is… well… how can I explain?

That!  That phenomenon is exactly the reason I’m bringing up Eco.  You know that feeling, where you have something to say, but you can’t seem to find the words to say it. How does that happen?  I mean, I use words to think, don’t I?  How could I have a thought for which there are no words?

… About four hours of excruciatingly dry explanation.

Or have you ever said a word over and over so many times that it seemed to lose it’s meaning?  Frog legs, frog legs, frog legs… frog legs…

We’ll there’s a word for that.  It’s called jamais vu…  The neglected cousin lurking in the shadow of déjà vu‘s limelight.

Anyway, my question is basically this: which comes first, thoughts or words?  As I put it a while back:

Which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

Or maybe the title of that post captured the question more concisely:

“What are words, even?!”

Well, it’s a difficult question… one that would take a lot of words to answer.  Faced with problems like these my first impulse is usually to read some ancient Greek:

“In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1)

I guess that solves it.  Words come first.  That’s what that means right?

But what about every time you’ve tried to say something and the words just wouldn’t come?  What about that time you forgot the word for piano and accidentally called it a “pumpkin”?  Or when you had an entire conversation with someone about your pet cat before realizing that the words “your pride and joy” were probably intended to refer to your daughter instead?  Or what about that time you gazed longingly into someone’s eyes, and all the brokenness of the world seemed to somehow reconstruct itself for just a minute—but the only words that would come to you were a dry exposition on the meaning of the term fungibility in modern philosophical usage?

What… are those examples a little overly specific?

Anyway, one thing Umberto Eco brings to the table is his insistence on the general semiotic function of culture as a whole, not just of language.  Zak, I believe there may be some contributors on this blog who feel that language is a precondition of moral agency.  Eco says that (moral) intelligence can exist without language but semiotic function is the same thing as intelligence.

I’m not sure if I feel language has much to do with morality.  I do believe there’s something moral about expressive clarity… you know, that magical phraseological tension that happens only intermittently between the usual drunken babbling of life.  Every once in a while you pick up a book and encounter this mystical sort of translinguistic purity… something that seems to escape the limits of words and directly expresses l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The so-called deconstructionist perspective that’s dominated literary theory since the later part of the last century seems to represent a breach of faith in that Amor which gives structure to the universe.  On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with our desire to move beyond the pedantry of a purely structuralist reading; it’s perfectly understandable.

But at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that the very act of reading is predicated on structure.  The moment the receiver of a semiotic expression loses faith in the structural integrity of that message, he or she ceases to be a reader.  A reader is someone who intentionally seeks to reconstruct the coherent meaning of semiotic fragments.  Human contact simply cannot exist without that reconstructive process.

It’s a good thing that semiotics have been deconstructed.  I think Derrida’s school would be cool with me saying this: without deconstructing, how would we ever be able to reconstruct?

Frog legs,

Tim

 

 

Americanata

Day 90: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I just picked up this book from the library.

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I can explain… it was an honest mistake.  I went to the bookstore the other day to pick up a different book, but they didn’t have it.  Then I saw this monster.  Umberto Eco’s Writings on Medieval Thought.  It was too late.  I had seen it!  How could I resist now?

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A sense of scale

I have to return it in a month, and the library has a strict “no backsies” policy—one of the many reasons I miss the old country.  *Sigh*  If it turns out to be half as good as I’m expecting I think I’ll have to go out and buy it.

Anyway, just starting to read this thing has got me thinking about a few things.  One of them is this: how intense does an experience need to be for us to enjoy it?

Thomas Aquinas was opposed to the use of instrumental music in Church.  He was afraid that the aesthetic rapture elicited by the music of instruments would be so overwhelming that it might prove an obstacle to focused worship.

Now Zak, I listen to a lot of medieval music… some of it with instruments… I don’t have a clue what this crazy old man was talking about.  I mean it’s very beautiful music.  That’s why I listen to it.  But distracting?  Enrapturing?

I guess what I’m saying is, what ever happened to the days when maximum euphoria consisted in a few notes plucked out on a lute?  Today I go to concerts, and people are adding laser shows, eight-channel surround-sound, live electronics…  Even the sounds themselves need extra spice.  We add noise components, odd timbres, aleatory…  It’s all great stuff.  But what happened to mere music?  You know, like pitches and rhythms… harmonies, if you wanna get fancy with it…

I have a flat-mate who watches TV on her computer while listening to music on her phone at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do.  I’m a contemporary composer, so I’m used to noise.

The Italians have a word, americanata: “an action or behavior characterized by an unsophisticated taste for grandeur and ostentation, which is usually attributed to the Americans.”

If I have any ascetic impulse in me, it’s there out of selfishness, not moralism.  I want to enjoy things as much as I can.  That’s the only reason I’d prefer less over more.  I’m a fan of synesthesia.  It’s excess that bothers me.

I’m writing a piano piece of just chords.  One chord about every two to five seconds.  In between there’s nothing.  Just resonance.  I think it would go nicely with wine and dark chocolate, in an intimate setting, with friends.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Writing Rightly

Day 82: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

As a writer, or at least as someone who poses as a writer, I like thinking a lot about words.  Especially about unusual uses for words.

There are a lot of ways to use the word “right.”  People can be right-handed, right-winged, or just generally right about things…  In Italian, the word we use for “left” is sinistra, which comes from the Latin sinister, also meaning “left.” 

Today’s unusual usage for a spoon: determining a child’s dominant writing hand.

Incidentally, our English word “sinister” has the same etymology.  The ancients used to believe left-handed people were daemon-possessed.  That’s why right has traditionally carried auspicious connotations and left  inauspicious ones.  There’s a symbolism behind it all.

But discriminating against left-handed people is clearly not right.  I was born ambidextrous, so I know this first hand.  I used to drive my parents crazy by picking up my spoon with the opposite hand for every bite of cereal.  But I can’t discriminate against half of myself.  That would be not only logically incorrect, but also wrong.

In your last entry:

“At work, we have this commitment to ‘being curious over right.'”

But there are some things we simply can’t know first hand.  Like, Zak, as much as I’d like to know what it’s like to be you, there seems to be some kind of insurmountable barrier that separates us from each other.  I’m not talking about the Atlantic ocean.  Although that is one obstacle between us at the moment, it’s nothing compared to the ever untraversable threshold that separates one human consciousness from the next.

We all have different ways of handling that barrier.  Some people don’t deal with it at all, which is probably the saddest way.  Other people read and write things:

“I felt I had escaped for a moment from the prison of my own head and caught a brief glimpse inside someone else’s.”

And still others just try asking people lots of questions:

“Too often someone will state their point of view, perhaps more confidently than what they could […] back up if [we] continuously asked [them] ‘why.’”

Now that’s one very charming strategy.  I’m given to understand that philosophers call this “the Socratic method.”

Zak, when I first met you, before you married my sister, I’m pretty sure you were under the impression that the Socratic method was not only for philosophy but also for socializing.  Actually I’m pretty sure that exact thought must have been going through your head during that season of life.

“I like your green tee-shirt.”

“Thanks.”

“Is green your favorite color?”

“Um… actually, it is.”

“And why’s that?”

Zak, in other letters I’ve often bemoaned the lack of sound advice to be found in classical literature for picking up girls.  It turns out I’ve just been reading the wrong books all this time.  The Greek philosophers certainly didn’t let you down.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I feel like there are some cases where we’re better off doing right than being right.  (I’m sure that sentence must be on a bumper-sticker somewhere.)  Empathy is one of those cases.

If someone asked me why I believe the people around me are conscious, I’d have a hard time justifying it.  I guess I could appeal to older philosophical systems… Descartes certainly comes to mind… but in the end it wouldn’t be a matter of precise science.

We come into this world confident in a few things…  Maybe the burden of proof lies on the side that opposes our intuition.  I honestly don’t know.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

It’s Never Just Cereal

Day 78: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So my three flatmates and I are a bit like a dysfunctional family.  Yesterday one of them got back from her boyfriend’s house and found that a brand new cereal box she had bought before leaving for the weekend was empty.  I’m pretty sure the cockroaches ate it, but that’s not what she thinks…  There’s a thief among us!

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I think he’s kind of cute. what, with the little antennas. they were the previous tenants, who overstayed.

It’s impossible to be angry while eating a freshly baked pizza.  That’s the real problem in this apartment.  Everyone’s too skinny, and they won’t sit down to have a nice piece of my homemade pizza on Fridays.

Zak, you’re the philosopher between the two of us.  Maybe you could explain Edmund Husserl to me.  What’s that guy’s deal?  We talk about him a lot at the conservatory here in Milano, but Italians have a funny way of reading German philosophy…

Another flatmate wants compensation for all the cleaning she has to do.  That sounds like a nice deal for me too.  We should look into that.

Yeah, I ended up with all girls—grow up, people!

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Zak in twenty years

I mean phenomenology is great for natural science—despite whatever Husserl thought it was for.  I realize there’s something tidy about not making too many assumptions about the external world, or even about other people.  But aren’t some assumptions worth making?  I’d rather have Freud presumptuously tell me I’m sick and twisted than B. F. Skinner quietly intimating that he knows nothing about me.  It’s better to live with a vocal cereal-rights activist than with someone passive-aggressive who just quietly throws away all the toilet-paper.  Amusing as that is. 

So while I’m sparing you the gory details, we’re obviously having difficulty empathizing with each other.

But I insist on this: that human contact is the end purpose of language.  That’s why I’m writing to you, and that’s why I enjoy reading so much.  When I first read Dante it had a big impact on me.  I felt I had escaped for a moment from the prison of my own head and caught a brief glimpse inside someone else’s.  That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do in life, and I felt that this was an experience I shared with other readers.  Illusion or not, that’s how I felt.

Today’s unusual usage for spoons: clashing them loudly into a dishwasher at two in the morning to express how poorly washed you find them to be.

When Freud sat down his patients to explain how sexuality was the latent force behind all their thoughts and dreams, well, I’m sure they didn’t terribly appreciate that at first.  But at least he was assuming for better or worse that there was something to it all.  Something being expressed.

reading-297450That’s what it means to read a text—to assume there’s something to it all.  Some existing object encrypted within language.  If we don’t make that assumption, we’re not really reading, we’re just looking at little black shapes on pieces of paper.  If you’re merely a scientist, maybe that’s all you see.  But no one’s merely a scientist.  For me, a complete human, there’s conscious meaning behind those little shapes.

I’m not saying the meaning has to be sex… it could be contact in general… or fruit loops.

I guess what I’m saying is there must be something to this whole cereal craze.  I should make good assumptions.  I should try to take a peek inside my flatmate’s head and come to empathize with her deep feelings about cereal.  Let’s be honest.  We all know it’s never just about cereal.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Light

I open the gate
that leads to the future,
and step into Tuesday.
It gets on my shoe.

A littlest bit
of eternalest evening
creeping away
escapes from this poem.
Cryptic as night.

The brightest polyptych
piece I’ve yet seen
sitting on my toilet
depicts me a scene
of one little bow tie.
Broken in one piece.

It flips through the years
like channels online,
slips out of sight,
and of silence.
My fishes have rights.

I won’t write the name
signed by the painter
with the upper right conner
in invisible ink.

Today has just finished.
It truly is Tuesday
scraping my shoelace,
A vision of light.

Riddle of the Sphinx: The cat always knows

Day 24: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

First things first, I have some highly relevant news for you. In order to better curate cat photos and marinate on cat pun opportunities, I got a cat! Now, Tim, I know just what you might be thinking

WHAT?! YOU GOT A CAT JUST FOR THIS BLOG?!

Of course the answer is YES. Tim this level of humor takes dedication and time commitment. Of course next up will be continuing to grow my unique collection of spoons in order to build out unusual uses for them (we really should start a singular blog that captures that theme collectively…), but that’s for another time. So without further ado, I introduce you to Sophocles (who, coincidentally is a female cat and therefore goes by nicknames of Sophie and or Soph [long ‘o’ on both])

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Now I said at the beginning this is highly relevant because your question to me was about something she knows intimately.

You see, contrary to what you have suggested

No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.

I think Sophocles knows because…well…(s)he crafted the story. So when you pose to me this challenge, this enigma:

Do you believe in sphinxes?

Of course I do. Seeing as I have the expert on matters relating to Oedipus and the Sphinx, I have it on good authority that sphinxes exist, and therefore I believe in them.

What I mean, of course, is that there are enigmas that challenge each of us. These enigmas, if we do not wrestle with and find a way to resolve them, can devour us. We spend our lives finding meaning — perhaps in the beauty around us, or capturing inspiring sounds and music. We find meaning in families, religion, helping others through volunteering or perhaps our careers.

Other of life’s puzzles deal not with finding meaning but rather making meaning of what’s been given. Failed attempts at humor, a plethora of other “why me” moments, or perhaps something more serious like a lost job in a changing world.

One way to find answers, to start to understand how to approach these puzzles is to read. Perhaps it’s Sophocles and an ancient play about a patricidal, incestuous, eye-gouging king or, hopefully in my case, something more instructive about how great thinkers discovered and understood (and, taken further and more interestingly, the societal implications of the discovery) of the gene. Whatever it is, there is a keen responsibility to read carefully, to think diligently.

But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover […]

Reading helps us understand how to think about and address our own enigmas.

Man I love reading.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Dark Sayings

Day 23: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

I noticed that while 16 people liked my “Pigeons Rummaging” entry there were proportionately very few plays of the sound recording.  As I see it these data could only mean one of two things: either people are not that interested in the sound of pigeon feet crinkling leaves in the park, or the people who liked the post didn’t necessarily read it all the way through.  Zak, since the first of these possibilities is clearly ridiculous, I’m going to assume that most people simply didn’t read far enough to realize that they would have the opportunity to indulge in the distinct auditory pleasure that is pigeons stepping on dry leaves.

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Question marks, a common symbol of mystery

Your question, Zak, is quite a puzzle. To use the ancient Greek word we might even call it an ainos, that is, a “riddle or proverb,” or to use the classical Hebrew,  a ḥîdah or “dark saying.”  The Greek is cool ‘cause it gives us the word “enigma,” but I have to say I prefer the meaning of the Hebrew.  I mean, dark saying?  Is there any cooler sounding concept in all the languages of the world?  I wish English had a word that meant “dark saying.”

So in 3rd grade, Jimmy and Sally S. got together one time.  I think most people only heard about it through the grape vine.  They tried to keep it a secret at first, but as I understand, the turning point came when they almost spent half of recess together.  Obviously, that got people saying things, which is how I heard about it in the first place.  They broke up after school, and Sally S. is still single at the moment.  At least that’s what I heard.  Other people say they’re still together.

I bring this up as an illustration that third graders a very wise individuals.

It takes the light of wisdom to discern the secrets of a dark saying.  The ancient world is brimming with stories of wisemen who uncover the hidden meaning of enigmas and cryptic riddles.  There’s Solomon who discerned the dark sayings of the queen of Sheba, and then there’s Oedipus, for example, who solved the enigma of the Sphinx.  We all know the famous riddle of the Sphinx:

“THIS TEXT HAS BEEN CORRUPTED.”

…Or do we?

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Oedipus (right) answers Sphinx (left, in darkness)

You see there’s a slight problem.  There are actually many different contradictory versions of this story preserved by different ancient sources.  Kind of like gossip.  No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.  It’s quite an enigma.

So what do we do about this?  One option is to brush the whole thing aside.  You could simply say, “it doesn’t matter, because the Sphinx never asked anything, because, importantly, SPHINXES DON’T EXIST!”  Once you’ve said that, you can go find a third grader and tell them that Santa isn’t real and Christmas is just a capitalist consumerist trap invented by rich business owners.  This approach to literature is known as “Podsnappery.”

Another option would be to read the text anyway.  Sure it contains many contradictions.  Life contains many contradictions.  In fact, the less consistent a story is, the more interesting and realistic it becomes.

“I take a sip of my drink and think about the movie I wanted to write once. Something about a man who goes back in time to kill his dog or something. Oh well, it was too unrealistic.” –Flash365

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Deconstructed Church, Michael Jantzen

The duty of a reader is to uncover the light of truth buried in the obscurity of dark sayings.  There’s nothing wrong with being a Podsnapperist, but it’s different from being a reader.  Being a reader means engaging in the heuristic search for the underlying structural integrity beneath the surface of a text; it means, in the words of Solomon, “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  Basically it’s what you did with juicy gossip in third grade.

“We know how to tell many lies as if they were true. But we also know, whenever wish, how to speak the truth.” -the Muses, from Hesiod’s Theogony

Authors tend to hide what is most sacred to them out of view from the Podsnapping public.  But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover precisely what it was that a nonexistent sphinx said that one time in ancient Thebes.

“If I’m vague, it’s only because upsetting topics distract people from the real issues of the world like coffee cups and muppet babies.” –Rarasaur

Zak, let me ask you a question; maybe you can discern its meaning… Do you believe in sphinxes?

Until tomorrow,

Tim