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landscaping notes: 2010
January 23, 2011


Kindred life has eras indeed. But the value of locality grows and enriches through the years, and the value of years with others one really loves being with is inestimable.

But others can’t do one’s ownmost work, obviously (except inasmuch as we involve each other). Love of solitude has grown for me. I cherish the time now, even though I may greatly miss someone I love. Their being here won’t do my work, and creative fidelity is not a compensation for something missing. In particular, bibliophilia is not a syndrome.

My various projects so overlap with each other (which I vaguely note too often, maybe): subparts gaining relative autonomy, moving “up” into a possible count of the prevailing set of projects. One grows to divide into more-manageable autonomies—altogether making ephemeral any actual acount of the set.

I buy books through the year that are pertinent to some project or region of projects (though managing to live with more non-purchased bibliographic listings and less actual purchasing, but still—), which gather as little piles on a table over some months, like jagged hills on a flatland. A given 3 together are an anticipated travelogue or collusive seminar that may gain a few more members before I route them away. The lot becomes a landscape of others’ accomplished projects (so impressive, I have to own them, to later eat them), each pile a beckoning conversation among friends to be enkindered for my anticipated enjoyment.

But really, a little group’s items only nebulously belong because they share an abstract (the nebulous) project region. To cite titles here might risk seeming to have no sense of focus at all, because The Project which prospectively integrates it all is very large (though quite definite). That’s inaccessible in brief. Nonetheless, the accumulation of 2010’s items means something, and must be dealt with (i.e., items routed away), in order to afford play space for 2011.

Here’s Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Freedom, recalling to me (deeply stored away) Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: invention of the human. “The” idea between them (at a proximal, if not facile, level) is that an originality of our evolving nature (long ago no longer primarily biological) was born to Elizabethan England embodied monumentally by Shakespeare’s sensibility. That adds to a large-scale interest in cultural evolution, including literary modernity (with other modes of mode-rnity).

Greenblatt is sitting atop Joanna Picciotto’s awesome Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (atop has no significance; it’s an unwitting historical inversion). Says the book jacket (though I read the 30-page, synoptic “Introduction” before daring to buy the 840+ page thing): “In seventeenth-century England, intellectuals of all kinds discovered their idealized self-image in the Adam who investigated, named, and commanded the creatures. Reinvented as the agent of innocent curiosity, Adam was central to the project of redefining contemplation as a productive and public labor....Tracking an ethos of imitatio Adami across a wide range of disciplines and devotions, Picciotto reveals how practical efforts to restore paradise generated the modern concept of objectivity and a novel understanding of the author as an agent of estranged perception....”

There’s no direct relationship between those two books, but I see profundity in a kindredness I make between them, ultimately about an evolution of cultural relativity—a profundity belonging to us: their great work, my happenstantial inspiration, albeit displaced into a project on literary psychology that’s become distant (but eventually contributing to my sense of cultural evolutionarity).

Adjacent to them on the landscape—an adjacency meaning little, but more than any relationship to more-distant little stacks—is Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture; Susannah Carson’s editing of A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 great writers on why we read Jane Austen; Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: mischief, myth, and art; and Adam Phillips (a philosopher and psychoanalyst), On Balance.

The book jacket of Phillips’ book notes: “...It is not always clear when it is realistic to aspire to a balanced view, or if it helps us get the lives we want. ‘Balancing acts,’ he writes, ‘are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it....Imbalance makes us take notice....In his exhilerating and casually brilliant [O, those marketing people] explorations of case studies, fairy tales, works of art, and literature, the paradoxes inherent in our appetites and fears are revealed....”

On the margins of the landscape (by no means comprehensive of my bibliophilia, merely part of what didn’t get routed to projects and storage during 2010) are two authoritative books on Nabokov, two anthologies of writers writing about Paris, Edmund White’s little biography of Proust, Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way, and a third copy (others stored away) of poet John Ashbery’s Notes From the Air (which I’ll give to someone someday), where the air would be our metropolitan times of the past couple of decades.

Roland Barthes was giving a series of lectures around the time of his death, recently published as The Preparation of the Novel. Here also is Gregory Currie’s Narratives and Narrators: a philosophy of stories.

Dark joy may be integral to creative eros (“AEros”?). My enjoyment of psychological transgression—though securly anchored in lucidity about what’s most likely good and true and appropriate—has no boundaries. Care Crosses the River, writes Hans Blumenberg late in his life (67; died at 76). This important European philosopher, “drawing upon an intellectual tradition that ranges from...medieval theology to astrophysics,...works as a detective of ideas scouring the periphery of intellectual and philosophical history for clues—metaphors, gestures, anecdotes—essential to grasping human finitude....[whereby a] Gnostic center is recovered: Care creates the human in its own image, as a reflection of its narcissism.”

In On Ceasing to Be Human, Gerald L. Bruns brings literary inquiry to bear upon our rhetorics of incipient post-humanity: “During the past thirty or so years, the very concept of ‘being human’ has been called into question within a number of different venues—cybernetics, animal-rights theory, analytical philosophy (neurophilosophy in particular). This book[’s...] main concern is the link between freedom and nonidentity” among leading European philosophical voices of recent decades, as if brought together as an unending discursive dinner party or moveable feast or seminar, including “Jacques Derrida, each of whom is, in different ways, a philosopher of the ‘singular,’ where the singular is irreducible to concepts, categories, distinctions, and the rule of identity.”

Giorgio Agamben’s Nudities is a “mosaic” of “secret affinities,” altogether a “piece of the finely nuanced philosophy that Agamben has been patiently constructing over four decades of sustained research. If nudity is unconcealment, or the absence of all veils, then Nudities is a series of apertures onto truth....Nudities shuttles between philosophy and poetry, philological erudition and unexpected digression....”

Lastly in that little group is an old title I put off buying until it was convenient (part of a large order): George Bataille’s Eroticism: death and sensuality, which would be supplementary to my dark interest in relations of artistry and transgression.

Having no group (resting alone) is Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder: the closure of metaphysics and the opening of awe. “Western philosophy’s relationship to ‘wonder’ is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, wonder is said to be the origin of all philosophy. On the other hand, it is associated with a kind of ignorance that ought to be extinguished. This study argues that by endeavoring to resolve wonder’s indeterminancy, philosophy has secured itself at the expense of its own condition of possibility. Strange Wonder locates a reopening of this primordial uncertainty....through the thought of [Levinas, Nancy, and Derrida by] tracing wonder as an awesome, awful opening that exposes thought to devastation as well as transformation. Insofar as wonder reveals the extraordinary through the ordinary, Rubenstein argues it is crucial to the task of re-imagining political [...and] ethical possibilities.”

Jodi Halpern (I mentioned last week) got me interested enough in psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott that I obtained his Playing and Reality and Adam Phillips’ study of Winnicott.

I’m enchanted by Sissela and Derek Bok each writing a book on happiness at the same time. What a marriage that must be, between the well-known philosopher of public policy (Sissela) and former president of Harvard (also a well-known professor of public policy). In Exploring Happiness: from Aristotle to Brain Science, S. Bok “ponders the nature of happiness and its place in philosophical thinking” and contemporary public discourse, “as well as the latest theories advanced by psychologists, economists, geneticists, and neuroscientists.” D. Bok, The Politics of Happiness: what government can learn from the new research on well-being, details a complementary concern for empirical research.

Caring for our vast landscapes of societies belongs to societies themselves, which public policy “parents,” educates, otherwise facilitates, and supports. The school of public policy dwells virtually in its hills, embodying a Janus-faced engagement with breadths and heights, outer-oriented articulation of our scientific humanity and inner-oriented articulation of our scientific humanity. At heart, “policy” is an endless discursive party and seminar, play of work in play, interplay of genres and voices.

Selfidentical aspiration in the well-growing life crystallizes into lifeworldly policy. The humanities are so many facets of inquiry shaping conceptual policies about our character, nature, and prospects.

Mitchell Aboulafia’s Transcendence: on self-determination and cosmopolitanism argues that “the relationship between the self-determination of individuals and peoples has not been adequately addressed....The book’s guiding thread is a unique model of the social development of self that incorporates biological influences and is indebted to [pragmatism].” But my interest here is to critique such 20thC sociocentrism, relative to the human interest in conditions for the possibility of inquirial discovery, creativity, and innovation; yet, to vest ourselves in deep time, not of mere “biological influences,” but in our evolutionarity, finding our evolution expressing broadly evident intelligence in nature wholly emergent from biological selformativity (which I would understand relative to leading evolutionary theory)—the intelligence of Earth, I like to say, best expressed as our planetary self-presence (which has reached a really self-determinative scale, well articulated by Bryan G. Norton’s Sustainability: a philosophy of adapative ecosystem management).

Artistic exemplarity is complemented by theoretical and scientific exemplarity expressing a scary condition of our nature’s openness: the appeal of designing our own nature, whereby primordial exploration becomes very mysterious, bereaved of godly gyroscopes.

Our so-called “neural sublime” (mentioned recently) outstrips Romantic parentage, seeking now (for some minds) to anchor a high consilience in scientific designs that, I suspect, are best thought to be ultimately (philosophically) literary or trOpical. Designing minds are ultimately minds fallibilistically designing inquiry to better educe our evolving potential, a nebulous appeal rendered by Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: constructing the conscious brain, which I mentioned earlier, to wit (again), he writes: “Placing the [emergent] construction of conscious minds[, i.e., selves,] in the history of biology and culture opens the way to reconciling traditional humanism and modern science...” (30). Scalarity of Flow, so integral to optimal flourishing, is now a detailed focus of attention in neuroscience: Effortless Attention: a new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. Even empathy is a detailed focus of neuroscience.

Once upon a time, our concept of mind was projected into nature as everything somehow cohering by way of a singularity we mirror. Then European audacity located the singularity in humanity’s (Germanic) power of philosophical comprehension (which became politically devastating). Now, we seek senses of planetary equilibrium in hyperNet city, venturing to find mindality vastly distributed by way of more-progressive conceptual design. “There is a new way of thinking about the mind that does not locate mental processes exclusively ‘in the head,’ notes the book jacket of Mark Rowlands’ The New Science of the Mind: from extended mind to embodied phenomenology. “The new way of thinking about the mind has emerged from the confluence of various disciplines in cognitive science ranging from perceptual and developmental psychology to robotics. It emphasizes the ways in which mental processes are embodied (made up partly of extra-neural bodily structures and processes), embedded (designed to function in tandem with the environment), enacted (constituted in part by action), and extended (located in the environment). The new way of thinking about the mind, Rowlands writes, is actually an old way of thinking that has taken on new form[, which...] had its clearest expression in phenomenology—in the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty.” Rowlands goes for “a unified philosophical treatment of the novel conception of the mind that underlies the new science of the mind,” and I look forward to seeing what he does with influences I grew up with.

Where are we? Googling “the singularity is near” brings up 308,000 results in 0.15 seconds. Yet, the algorithmic concept is relatively unintelligent (though intricate—and patented), a long way from prospects that “intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” The book jacket of Nicholas Agar’s Humanity’s End: why we should reject radical enhancement notes that “proposals to make us smarter than the greatest geniuses or to add thousands of years to our life spans seem fit only for the spam folder or trash can. And yet this is what contemporary advocates of radical enhancement offer in all seriousness. They present a variety of technologies and therapies that will expand our capacities far beyond what is currently possible for human beings....Agar argues that the outcomes of radical enhancement could be darker than the rosy futures described by [its adherents].”

But the appeal of the darkness is like aspiring to merge with the gods we created. The box office appeal of science fictional spectacle has no apparent boundary. From heights to lowlands throughout, the nature of our presence is primordially prospective, yet ultimately born from our biomindal legacy of destining ourselves, by now at the vital level of planetary management. Many years ago, I began a journalism archiving theme (among tens of organizing themes in my archive) that I senendipitously called “environmental engineering.” Now (we know), such is not serendipitous. (By the way, there’s no School of Architecture at UC, Berkeley. It’s the School of Environmental Design. Environmental studies, re: natural science, are part of the School of Earth Science.)

Coincidently, progressive stances toward life increasingly leave lower species to their own designs, preserving their free space to never be faced with our presence. Adaptation doesn’t last unless it’s enowned by the ecology that sustains it. We can’t design other species’ evolution, only speak for ourselves and know the place of absence. This is how it goes with intelligent life: letting be, as a matter of appreciating the other.

Our planet is relatively young (I never tire of finding wondrous) among stars much older. 500+ planets have been discovered in the past decade, though none yet among the likely millions (among billions of stars in our galaxy) that may have incipient life, surely including a few planets, I surmise, that could let us know they know were’re here. Yet, They (the real gods, having no role in our plights and possibilities), in my story, leave us alone to evolve our own way into their Regional legacy we must learn to find.



  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis