Thursday, January 29, 2009

Option 1 - The Death of Meaning

Lyotard's essay "Can Thought Go on Without a Body?" is difficult and full of many difficult passages. It is an intriguing essay, but hard to really engage with without understanding some of the more difficult parts. Parts of the first paragraph on page 11 are particularly hard to understand, and this is what I shall focus on.

By far, the most difficult sentences in this paragraph are in the middle of it: "Look here: you try to think of the event in its quod, in the advent of 'it so happens that' before any quiddity, don't you? Well, you'll grant the explosion of the sun is the quod itself, no subsequent assignment being possible." At first glance, this passage seems almost gibberish. 'Quod' has no definition by itself, outside of such latin phrases as 'quod erat demonstratum' (QED). Quiddity, according to thefreedictionary.com means "The real nature of a thing; the essence". A paraphrase of this passage might read then: 'Look here: you try to think of the event logically before its true essence, don't you? Well, you'll grant the explosion of the sun is the logical end itself, since nothing comes after it.'

The passages before and after naturally provide some context. Before the above passage, he says: "You'll have been seduced and deceived by what you call nature, by a congruence of mind and things. Claudel calls this a 'co-naissance', and Merleau-Ponty spoke of the chiasmus of the eye and the horizon, a fluid in which the mind floats. The solar explosion, the mere thought of that explosion, should awaken you from this euphoria." What Lyotard appears to be expressing here is that philospohers and the like glory in this sort of co-existence of the mind and the things that surround it, and shape it, but that this attitude will not serve them in the end, when everything is dead with the sun. That this positive attitude of the mind and things takes for granted the existence of the earth, and betrays the transitory and chance nature of human existence.

The passage after the first one, likewise provides context. In it, Lyotard states: "Of that death alone, Epicurus ought to have said what he says about death - that I have nothing to do with it, since if it's present, I'm not, and if I'm present, it's not. Human death is included in the life of the human mind. Solar death implies an irreparably exclusive disjunction between death and thought: if there's death, then there's no thought." What he seems to mean here is that when one person dies, there are other people to make sense of that loss, to understand it. But when all life is extinguised by the death of the sun, there is no one left to make any sense of it; it is just over.

The first passage, then, implies that logical thinking and most human endeavors are meaningless, because when the sun dies, it will all be over; not remembered, not even forgotten, because there would be no one left even to forget it. These passages, and indeed, the whole essay, need to be so difficult because without it the gravity of the situation, the death of the sun, would not be understood at all. If he were to simply say that 'After the sun is dead, nothing will matter' it would make no impression on any reader. Something stated so bluntly is easy to ignore; but by making the passages so difficult, the reader must wrestle to understand the meaning, and by doing so, also wrestle to understand the nature of the death of the sun, and thus Lyotard's point.

3 comments:

tricia said...

Your points are well-thought out and well-arranged.

In the first paragraph, you use the word 'difficult' too many times-3. There are a great many words that could be used instead, without such redundancy being felt on the reader's part. I also took note of the 'with without' sentence, which required a second read. Your introduction is less an introduction than a... um... a... I don't know what to call it. You tell us what you'll be doing, but it might be better to lay out your argument. Yes, Lyotard's essay is complex, it's hard to engage in, and it requires knowledge to understand some of the more difficult passages. Tell us, maybe, why you chose that particular passage:

The first paragraph on page 11 brings to thought some of the most difficult ideas of our 'inhuman' times. I will seek to reword Lyotard's argument so that its contextual meaning will be more readily understood and engaging.

At the end of the second paragraph, I love how you reword the idea with more simplistic and direct language. It's quite helpful and lays a solid ground for the rest of your argument. Can you pull your own definition of 'quod'? I feel, in order for an author to justify the making-up of a word, he would have to have a very solidified idea of what that word needed to portray.

Third paragraph: what do you mean by... 'the transitory and chance nature of human existence."?

Fourth paragraph: Good. You seem to have an understanding of the ideas Lyotard presents. You explain them well.

End: I totally agree with the reasoning behind the complexity of the article. It's almost like a 'self-discovery' text. When you whittle down the wordiness and fluff, you are left with your own little discovery, your own little truth. In a sense, you could not fully comprehend that truth unless you had yourself come to find it.

Great job Megan!

Megan Schwemer said...

Lyotard's essay "Can Thought Go on Without a Body?" is difficult and full of many challenging passages. It is an intriguing essay, but hard to really engage without understanding some of the more linguistically complex parts. Parts of the first paragraph on page 11 are particularly hard to understand due to the language used, and this is what I shall focus on and seek to explain by means of paraphrase.

By far, the most difficult sentences in this paragraph are in the middle of it: "Look here: you try to think of the event in its quod, in the advent of 'it so happens that' before any quiddity, don't you? Well, you'll grant the explosion of the sun is the quod itself, no subsequent assignment being possible." At first glance, this passage seems almost gibberish. 'Quod' has no definition by itself, outside of such latin phrases as 'quod erat demonstratum' (QED). From the context of the argument about philosophers and their disconnect with reality and emphasis on though, I take it to mean that Lyotard is using 'quod' to refer to a logical argument or result of an argument. Quiddity, according to thefreedictionary.com means "The real nature of a thing; the essence". A paraphrase of this passage might read then: 'Look here: you try to think of the event logically before its true essence, don't you? Well, you'll grant the explosion of the sun is the logical end itself, since nothing comes after it.'

The passages before and after naturally provide some context. Before the above passage, he says: "You'll have been seduced and deceived by what you call nature, by a congruence of mind and things. Claudel calls this a 'co-naissance', and Merleau-Ponty spoke of the chiasmus of the eye and the horizon, a fluid in which the mind floats. The solar explosion, the mere thought of that explosion, should awaken you from this euphoria." What Lyotard appears to be expressing here is that philospohers and the like glory in this sort of co-existence of the mind and the things that surround it, and shape it, but that this attitude will not serve them in the end, when everything is dead with the sun. That this positive attitude of the mind and things takes for granted the existence of the earth, and betrays the transitory and chance nature of human existence (that mankind is the result of chance processes of natural selection in a forbidding universe).

The passage after the first one, likewise provides context. In it, Lyotard states: "Of that death alone, Epicurus ought to have said what he says about death - that I have nothing to do with it, since if it's present, I'm not, and if I'm present, it's not. Human death is included in the life of the human mind. Solar death implies an irreparably exclusive disjunction between death and thought: if there's death, then there's no thought." What he seems to mean here is that when one person dies, there are other people to make sense of that loss, to understand it. But when all life is extinguised by the death of the sun, there is no one left to make any sense of it; it is just over.

The first passage, then, implies that logical thinking and most human endeavors are meaningless, because when the sun dies, it will all be over; not remembered, not even forgotten, because there would be no one left even to forget it. These passages, and indeed, the whole essay, need to be so difficult because without it the gravity of the situation, the death of the sun, would not be understood at all. If he were to simply say that 'After the sun is dead, nothing will matter' it would make no impression on any reader. Something stated so bluntly is easy to ignore; but by making the passages so difficult, the reader must wrestle to understand the meaning, and by doing so, also wrestle to understand the nature of the death of the sun, and thus Lyotard's point.

Adam Johns said...

Tricia - a good response, although one which is perhaps in modest danger of losing the forest for the trees.

Megan - Pursuing the Latin phrases was a good idea. Quod is a latin word, as those phrases make clear, meaning "that," more or less. Here's one list of definitions I got: "and, because, since, whereas, but, the point that, as far as, the fact that, now, to the extent that." So it means "that," and when he then uses the phrase "it so happens that," that's basically a synonym for quod. Actually, I'm glad you picked this phrase - I've always meant to think it through in more detail.

I think your paraphrase is pretty good. I would have done it differently, but I'm not sure my way would be better.

Your interpretation of the context also seems good to me - I liked the second contextual paragraph better than the first - it was, to my mind, more precise. For what it's worth, I'm convinced that at this moment Lyotard is at least indirectly engaged with the thought of Heidegger, who understands the essence of human life as death as a meaning-making limit. For Heidegger, and for Lyotard, life is "Being toward death."

So I liked your exploration, explanation, and contextualization of the quote. I think your discussion of *why* it's so hard is a little too easy. This is a generic justification of difficulty, one which could apply to any difficult philosophical passage, without being very related to the content of this particular passage. It's not entirely a dodge, but it kind of is.