Sunday, 18 August 2013

Watt's Pot

Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance. And the state in which Watt found himself resisted formulation in a way no state had ever done… Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot… it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot… for it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt
In so far as a word always designates a concept not a thing it will always rebound off the thing. That is, the word 'pot,' in "What is a pot?" or "Where can I buy a pot?" does not refer to an orange pot or a heavy pot or a clay pot or a large pot. Whereas any individual pot will have to be orange or brown or heavy or light. Any particular pot will have, will consist in, attributes which are not contained in the word 'pot'. And these particular qualities - which, we might say, entirely make up the individual pot -  the concept does not touch. They stand there in their contingency and the concept rebounds back into the ideal realm of concepts which is its proper home. K. Selwob, Philosophy in Samuel Beckett

That may well be true, and it shows how easy it is to extract philosophical ideas from Beckett's prose. But what I think also happens in the passage above is that the emptiness of 'pot' begins to infect the surrounding language, a language that begins to shake with the emptiness of 'pot', producing a kind of madness,  which is not the madness of the author, or of Watt, but a madness of language. It is this effect, this 'Watt effect' which so frequently makes us laugh, a mad laughter which is actually inseperable from Beckett's prose - a new laughter which is in fact the affect embedded in the prose, the continuation of the prose within the body of the reader. ... 

This 'madness of language',this destabilisation of language, would need more precise stylistic analysis - the way for example that 'pot' and 'Watt' and 'Knott' and 'pot' start to knock into one another, an assonance rising above sense. But the point here is only that the philosophical idea is seized upon for its repercussions within language, for literary effects rather than any specifically philosophical conclusions. Or, just as philosophy uses fictional characters as philosophical personae, so does literature use philosophical concepts as literary devices - to destabilise language and to produce new affects and experiences.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Philosophy and its Double



 "The delight I take in my thoughts is delight in my own strange life." Wittgenstein

In philosophising you are, whatever else you may be doing, drawing your own portrait, delighting in your own form of life unfolding and ‘expressing’ - extending, completing - itself. Philosophical activity is not only directed at its object but angled back into the soul of the philosopher - work on philosophy, Wittgenstein* suggests, is work on oneself.

There is no position round the back of life from where it can be viewed; there is, in the most seemingly neutral or austere perspective, a force of life enlarging and investigating itself.
The infection of thought by 'life' is not fatal. That is, thought is not usurped, discredited or debunked by its double, life. It's just that the Double is seldom the object of philosophy but is the proper object of literature. 

What is Beckett’s Unnameable, Alain Badiou implies, but the Cartesian Cogito made fiction. The 'I' cut off from all certainty, locked in its own dubiety; or kept alive by the actual or potential glance of Others ( a disembodied head in a shop window): what are the repurcussions of this terrible isolation within language, within the whole realm of affect. Let us detonate this scenario within the mind, the body and within language rather than simply in the realm of the concept. 

Literature takes philosophical positions or philosophical starting points, of course. And this is what leads to the attribution of philosophical intentions to literature (the “critique of Cartesian rationality” attributed to Beckett). But what literature is interested in is the dimension of affect that clings to such positions and (or) the repercussions of such positions within language.

* In the early Wittgenstein, by contrast, this 'life' dimension is perhaps absent. He aspires to a chaste and mathematical abstraction - a thinking that is just thought thinking by itself, following only the immanent laws of logic, indifferent to people and bodies. 

Language, Literature and Philosophy: Three Quotes

"Beyond the ideas which are chilled and congealed in language, we must seek the warmth and mobility of life" Bergson

"the great writers have all had and have all sought to give us a direct vision of the real, in cases where we perceive things only through our conventions, habits and symbols." Bergson

"to language, then - to language alone - it is, that fictitious entities owe their existence, their impossible, yet indispensible existence." Jeremy Bentham.