Thoughts from a Forest of Fallen Trees : The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Side of Existence

(If a philosopher falls in the forest who really cares?) Critical Theory, Deconstruction, Ethics, Religion and other such Things.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tasting the Scape of Ipseity

To explore the being of the person who is responsible and says “I” Derrida turns to the poetic insights of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Derrida asks, “what taste could this je, this I have?” and “what does it mean for an I to feel itself” By turning to Hopkins’s notion of Selftaste, Derrida shows how the responsible person is affected by the scope and scape of ipseity. While Hopkins’s poetry is said to deal with nature and its landscape the primary focus given Hopkins’s Catholicity is on the person and how this person tastes, feels, touches and senses the various scapes of haecceity in all things. Derrida writes,

In Hopkins extraordinary lexicon, what comes to effect, identify, think, proves this selfhood, in truth that by which selfhood affirms, affects itself, “selves” itself operates on its own selving as Hopkins will say is not thought, consciousness or reflection but taste.

Taste from the Latin gusto is the faculty by which a flavor of a thing is discerned. Gusto relates to the Sanskrit word jus, which means enjoy and be pleased. Taste and touch are related. The Middle English tasten and the Latin taxere both mean to touch. When we touch and tax, we assess and estimate the worth of something.
Close to St. Francis, Hopkins not only tastes the landscape but all the inscapes of being human that range from joy to deep despair. Selftaste can have no final assessment because its worth is without price and beyond the cost of calculative accounting. This Selftaste to follow Derrida is priceless (san prix). “What is absolutely precious, the other in his or her own dignity, has no price.... every one is worth as much as the other, precisely beyond all value: priceless”
Flavor is the smell or odor that gives rise to savoring or relishing. Relish from the Old French word relais is that which is left behind; it is the something that remains in a scent, smell or after-taste. That which is tasted is consumed. We consume what is produced. Things are produced so that we can consume them. Rather than a pure product, we consume the left overs of things. In other words, this fine fruit, this medium-rare steak, this Merlot wine, this Cuban cigar, this exquisite body is always already a by-product of some other thing. Taste and smell is what is left behind. Taste automatically engages the question of mourning.
The question of taste for Derrida engages the issue of the cannibalism within mourning; how the other is incorporated, remembered, retained in the crypt of memory; bound together in what Kierkegaard in Works of Love calls “the kinship of death”. The crypt as Derrida reminds us in Glas, “organizes the ground to which it does not belong”. While it will always be possible to taste the thing, the taste of the thing never yields its Selftaste. Even when one says, “ I love the way you taste”, Selftaste remains elusive and cannot be caught or contained by the palate.
Related to the word flavor is the word smolder. Smolder means to burn and smoke without flame. We can taste this smolder in the fall, in the decay and excretion of things, in the spring which the freshness of flowers, trees, grass and green boils over the landscape. Hopkins will write,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

While the natural world according to Hopkins, “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell, the flavor can never be exhausted for “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”. In “Pied Beauty” Hopkins raises the issue of responsibility when he declares “ all things counter, original, spare, strange”. Spare from the Old English sparian means to refrain from harming, to allow to go free. Strange means alien, foreign, from elsewhere, unknown and unfamiliar. We are close and yet strange to ourselves. Following Kristeva we are “strangers to ourselves”.
Vigilance calls us to protect the person bound in a bond of singularities, by not harming, by guarding freedom so as not to reduce the person to a force or a maker of systems. To protect the uniqueness of persons Derrida argues,

The responsibility of what remains to be decided or done (in actuality) cannot consist in following, applying or carrying out a norm or rule. Whenever I have at my disposal a determinable rule, I know what must be done, and as soon as such knowledge dictates the law, action follows knowledge as a calculable consequence: one knows what path to take, one no longer hesitates. The decision then no longer decides anything but is made in advance and is thus in advance annulled. It is simply deployed, without delay, presently, with the automatism attributed to machines. There is no longer any place for justice or responsibility (whether juridical, political or ethical).

In order to protect the uniqueness of the person we cannot be satisfied with a neutral, and conceptual analysis that reduces the difficulty of our situation which is ultimately irreducible. Such systems deal with homogenization and calculability and “close themselves off from this coming of the other.” If we take seriously the uniqueness of each Self which according to Kierkegaard is “a work of the most faithful love” then we are necessarily involved in an excessive responsibility of which we cannot be absolved not even in the moment of death where according to Kierkegaard “all ways meet”. In Paul Celan’s haunting words, “ The world is gone, I must carry you”.
The various flavors of nature are meant to provide an awakening so that the fading fire of the Self can be mended. In Hopkins’s words from his poem “The Candle Indoors”,

Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault.

Is our taste so bleared and smeared that it requires mending with the help of salt? Salt is that which gives life or pungency. The pungent is what is sharp and poignant. Death is such a point. Once we realize that it is for the Self that we mourn how do we overcome the finality that “it is the blight man was born for” ? In Derrida’s words from a beautiful essay that analyzses the works of Gadamer and Celan we read,

For every time, and every time singularly, every time irreplaceably, every time infinitely, death is nothing less than an end of the world. Not only one end among others, the end of someone or of something in the world,....death marks every time, every time in defiance of arthimetic, the absolute end of the one and only world, of which everyone opens as one and the only world, the end of the unique world....for an unique living being, be it human or not.

Following Hopkins we can ask how things in the world touch us, seize us, take possession of us as we seek, visit, inquire and pursue what beseeches us? The Latin tactus relates to the word tangent. Tangent is a meeting point. It is the point at which responsibility is engaged or ignored as the Self meets/meats itself and others in a singularity and uniqueness that cannot be levelled off. In Hopkins words,

I consider my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself of I and me above and in all things is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive that the smell of walnutleaf or camphor and is incommunicable by any means to another man.

Though incommunicable by any means to another person, we nonetheless attempt to communicate. Though Selftaste cannot be communicated through lips, mouth and tongue, it can be witnessed.
Is this communication of what is incommunicable and yet witnesses, called poetry? Hopkins used unusual combinations of words, unusual word order and sprung rhythm in an attempt to explode out of traditional poetic confines. The poem attempts to testify Selftaste. The poem testifies but not in the order of cognitive reason. Hopkins poetry, following St. Augustine’s formulation veritatem facere does the truth by attempting to be a testimony of love. In Derrida’s words, “this love is “without jealousy that would allow the other to be”. The poem reveals the instress of Selftaste which is the energy which creates and sustains 'inscape' of the person.

Naming the Unnameable

In the phenomenological tradition, ” Mearleau-Ponty uses the language of Hopkins but unlike Hopkins seems to think that expressing what cannot be expressed is only a matter of knowing how to grasp the roots of language. Merleau-Pony writes, “language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave.” However, Merleau-Ponty argues, “the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken”. It is a matter of knowing “how to grasp it with all its roots and all its foliation- the most valueable witness to Being.
Is Hopkins expressing a mystical principle that eludes rational and emperical analysis? Such a proposition troubles the analytic system because it seems to embrace an “occult quality” to borrow a phrase from Leibniz. For the analytic tradition, an event that cannot be expressed is disturbing. Analytic philosophy cannot comprehend the aporia. There can be no unconditional or conditional secrets, only problems whose knots must be dissolved. Leibniz writes, “ the fundamental principle of reasoning is that there nothing without a reason, or, to explain the matter more distinctly, there is no truth for which a reason does not subsist”. Reason cannot communicate Selftaste yet according to Hopkins Selftaste is a truth of the person’s inscape. Is Selftaste the unfathomable ground?
In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes “that the world is my world shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language of which I alone understand means the limits of my world.” In Wittgenstein’s world, the solipsistic circle encloses the tongue to make it mute. However, this is not what Hopkins means by incommunicable. Can a new language be invented so that the Self can speak its taste; can express the taste of the aporetic situation? Can it name that which language cannot name, can come close to naming but never quite able to do so? Samuel Beckett’s words in The Unnamable express this aporia nicely. Beckett writes,

I’ve no objection, those are words, open on the silence, looking out on the silence, straight out, why not, all this time on the brink of silence, I knew it, on a rock, lashed to a rock, in the midst of silence, its great swell rears towards me, I’m streaming with it, it’s an image, those are words, it’s a body, it’s not I, I knew it wouldn’t be I, I’m not outside, I’m inside, I’m in something. I’m shut up, the silence is outside, outside, inside, there is nothing but here....I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Beckett expresses the aporia that provokes us. We must and we can’t but we must. Other poets and religious thinkers develop the same theme. For example, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Being-silent. Who keeps innerly silent, touches the roots of speech”. Thomas Merton develops a number of interesting reflections on the nature of silence and language. He writes,

Man cannot understand the true value of silence unless he has a real respect for the validity of language: for the reality which is expressed in language is found, face to face and without medium in silence. Nor would we find this reality in itself, that is to say in its own silence unless we were first brought there by language.

Would Merton’s analysis provide us with a solution that the logical positivists have ignored namely that language brings us to silence? According to Merton, this silence is not the silence of death but “the silence of infinite life” Merton’s point is that “we can no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality”. Far from placing Merton in an irrational stance, his reflections show that silence is “the mother of Truth”. Silence for Merton allows for a communion with reality. In silence, we see the nakedness of both inscape and landscape and this scape is related to love. For Merton silence brings knowledge of self and God. He writes, “by penetration to the mystery of my true self which is beyond words and concepts because it is utterly particular opens out into the silence and “subjectivity” of God’s own self.”
For Hopkins Selftaste is ultimately known by God but if two can commune in this silence, this Selftaste can be communicated otherwise than through language. Perhaps such a thing if we can call it a thing has been felt by us when face to face with a lover who astounds you on the staircase during a goodnight kiss or when you are holding your child in your arms. Such a thing can never be contained within the limits of reason alone. If one really believes in the haeccitas of Scotus then the universal cannot comprehend the singular. This is what Occam’s nominalism shows us as it protects the unique name of the person.
The Selftaste that constitutes selfhood is an auto-affection that according to Derrida “consists in touching oneself in taste of tasting oneself in Selftaste” But this auto-affection can also be hetero-affection even as it is a homo-affection. My Selftaste can by touched by the other such that I can love the other’s inscape. The inscape of the self is the unique pattern that following Duns Scotus and Derrida can be described as the univocity of being with a haeccitas or this-ness that is differance. Though incommunicable, this Selftaste can still be communicated in its unique strangeness of being-queer. Derrida re-writes Scotus’s doctrine of “this-ness” into the formula, “ to be is to be queer” In Hopkins’s words, “ All things counter, original, spare, strange.
The inscape of such unique self and thing requires that justice be given as we witness “each mortal thing”. Hopkins describes the person as Nature’s “clearest-selved spark”. Once the person disappears her inscape is lost to the world forever. Following Hopkins’s phrase “ the just man justices” Derrida will wonder how to do justice to the person, to the specter, to all the inscapes of the Self, to memory, to mourning, to friendship and to democracy-to-come that cannot be calculated according to existing models or rules or reason and which cannot be reduced by ontology or a phenomenology of presence.
In Hopkins words, “when I compare myself, my being-myself with anything else whatever, all things alike, all in the same degree, rebuff me with blank unlikeness.” This unlikeness is another word for Derrida’s differance. As Derrida writes, in “The Deconstruction of Actuality”,

differance marks a re-lation ( a “férance”)- a relation to what is other, to what differs in the sense of alterity, thus a relation to alterity, to the singularity of the other- it also relates, precisely because of this, to what comes, to what arrives in a way that is inappropriable, unexpected and thus urgent, unanticipatable: precipitation itself. The thinking of differance is also, therefore, a thinking of urgency, of what I can neither elude nor appropriate because it is other. The event, the singularity of the event- this is what differance is about

The scape is the scenery view of the Self that is unlike all other selves. It is impossible to get out of this cape or to gather the other into a self-identity. To escape the inscape, to leave a pursuer with just one’s cape is an impossibility here. However, this is precisely what is required if we are to put into motion a new thinking of the possible. A further reason that Derrida appreciates Hopkins is that he is developing an ethos of taste that goes beyond the aesthetics of taste developed by Hume and Kant. Though we cannot treat these rich texts here in the entirely a few remarks will suffice for what is being attempted here.

Taste Ex-Humed and Re-Kanted

In his, Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion Hume makes a distinction between the delicacies of passion that makes us sensitive to joys, sorrows, and the delicacy of taste, which makes us sensitive to the arts. Hume argues that the delicacy of taste improves the delicacy of passion. Passion must be remedied by taste if possible. In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume attempts to show how there can be a universal recognition of greatness if there is “a proper functioning of taste”.
Our taste functions properly if our conclusions are consistent with the experiences of other nations and ages. The way in which taste is developed is through practice or by observing many works of art and making comparisons. Taste is perfected once it is free of prejudice. Hume further claims that “ the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature” though he acknowledges the variations in how taste is applied. Given Hume’s “academic” and “skeptical” philosophy, there is no room for justification of substance and of selfhood. The issues that Hopkins and Derrida deal with would be dismissed as unapproachable by Hume whose thinking in this area is reductive.
Hume argues that a higher and more refined taste “enables us to judge of the character of mean, of composition, of genius, and of the production of nobler arts”. By cultivating this taste, “we shall form juster notions of life”. Hopkins does not reduce taste to sentiment. Hume’s insights are very different from the Fransciscan inspired Hopkins who affirms “the just man justices”. In other word, it is not a matter of cultivating a culture of taste so that we can form “ juster notions of life” . In this scenario, taste would be the springboard into justice. One can of course have a taste for Shakespeare and still be a serial killer or have a taste for classical music and think nothing of executing millions of innocent persons.
In thinking of Hume’s reflections of taste and its cultivation I am reminded of the Island of Dr. Moreau where the dog-human, the canine-man does indeed recited W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming while all the while being driven by the need to-be-canine. Taste reduced to sentiment and palate can never become a witness to Selftaste.
For Kant, the judgement of taste has a number of characteristics and combinations that seem incompatible. The judgement of taste is made from a subjective basis. For example, we take pleasure in contemplating an object or a work of art. We view Warhol’s portrait of Mao, Chris Ofili's “The Holy Virgin” Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Tabac” and trust that others will find our taste to have a universal validity. Kant argues, “the judgement of taste is aesthetic” However, this subjective judgement must have a universal validity. To call something beautiful is to demand that others find it beautiful.
Kant’s problem is to explain how this combination is possible. While scholars have devoted considerable energy to dissolving this problem, I will not add to their efforts here. The problem as I see it is not a demand to take pleasure in an object or to even attends to that object. The demand is to attend to the person who cannot be placed within any kingdom of ends that would level off Selftaste into a bland and tasteless uniformity. Kant argues that when we call an object beautiful, “we believe ourselves to be speaking with a universal voice and lay claim to the concurrence of everyone”

Tasting with God’s Tongue

The event that perhaps unifies taste while still making it unique for each person is death. In “Countersignatures”, Derrida writes, “ I run to/on death. In other words, I run towards death, but also I run on death like a fuel, as an engine runs on petrol. I run on death, death is what makes me run”. Fuel from the Old French word feuaile means bundle of firewood. It relates to the Latin word focus or hearth. The secret of Selftaste is this fire or spark within each unique selved spark that gives us fuel and focus. Our Selftaste converges on Death. Here I can only trace the trajectory that such a reading would take. Our tongues would taste two testaments, old and new.
Job asks, “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt?” Psalm 34 commands, “ O taste and see that the Lord is good”. Psalm 119 declares, “ How sweet are thy words to my taste! Sweeter than honey to my mouth”. Luke 9 declares, “ But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Kingdom of God.” What salt will bring taste back? What taste will be finally able to discern the perverse so that the verse of God can be tasted with a sweetness that surpasses honey? Is this all that is required- a simple refinement in taste; a tasting of the right words so that we shall never taste death? How do we switch our taste for his taste so that the taste of death is avoided?
As always, St. Paul will have the last word. In his letter to the Hebrews he writes, “but we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” He tastes death for every Selftaste. He consumes it, swallows it completely so that no Self has to taste it. However, doesn’t this imply that we can now taste it all without fear of final death? His tasting has transformed the Selftaste of our tongue by giving the Real thing back to us without its poisonious after-taste. We can taste the fruit of the other’s Selftaste without fear of bad-taste. Is this what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross actually gives us?
How to travel, stretch toward and find direction towards this mute Selftaste that resembles a wound that I want to learn from you by heart? In Derrida’s words from Che cos’ è la poesia? “ You will call poem a silent incantation, the aphonic wound that, of you, from you, I want to learn by heart”. Here we find ourselves on the trajectory of Selftaste without any final tasting. This is the aporia of this thing we pursue here. In Derrida’s words from Signsponge (1976), his tribute to the poet Francis Ponge we read,

Thus the thing would be the other, the other-thing which gives me an order or addresses an impossible, instransigent, insatiable demand to me, without and exchange and without a transaction, without a possible contract. Without a word, without speaking to me, it addresses itself to me, to me alone in my irreplaceable singularity, in my solitude as well.

Does not Derrida here sound like a Fransciscan philosopher of the highest order who keeps the task of responsibility open; who keeps thinking with the aporia in order to avoid dogmatism? Derrida like Hopkins shows us the sharpness of the aporetic necessity we must follow for the sake of the other. When “thoughts against thoughts in groans grind”

No wisdom can forecast by gauge or guess,
The selfless self of self, most strange, most still
Fast furled and all foredrawn to No or Yes.

That what we seek in Hopkins words will also be “yonder”. It will always be elsewhere than the pre-determined site that our reason believes it to be. This Selftaste announces the messianic. Derrida explains that the messianic

can arrive at any moment, no one can see it coming, can see how it should come, or have forewarning of it. The relation to the other is the absence of horizon, of anticipation, there where the alterity of the other is an absolute surprise. If one can be prepared for an absolute surprise, then one must be prepared for the coming of the other as an absolute surprise- that is what I understand by the messianic.

The coming of the other arrives on a non-horizon which does not mean the absence of horizon. It is where the horizon would be punctured by the other; always open and without saturation.
To touch is to also reach the heart or secret of a thing. This secret and the secret of Selftaste will remain mute and incalculable. It will remain the most difficult to determine. Death is one tangent of the Secret. When Derrida speaks of the secret he does not mean conditional secrets such as professional secrets, military secrets, manufacturing secrets, state secrets, the secret ingredients in grandmother’s apple pie. The Secret which is the secret of Selftate is the perhaps the Secret that

Remains silent, not to keep a word in reserve or withdrawn but because it remains foreign to speech, without our ever being able to say in that distinguished syntagm: “the secret is that in speech which is foreign to speech”. It does not answer to speech, it does not say “I” the secret”, it does not corresponds, it does not answer: either for itself or to anyone else, before anyone or anything whatsoever.

Mute from the Old High German word mawen means to cry out. To be mute is to be unable to speak because of shock. The must is what is felt or experienced but not expressed. A mute is one hired to attend a funeral as a mourner. Will we not one day all become mutes? Do we not already mourn? Here we are on the verge, on the edge or border as we attempt to speak and communicate Selftaste without becoming absolutely mute.
Following Hopkins, this Selftaste will always be yonder; farther removed and yet closest to us. So close that we can taste its tang- it’s sharp and distinctive flavor, its point or sting. The honey-poison of the bee-sting that perhaps will not make us swell but will untie our tongue (solutio linguae) as we are detached to deliver this gift of Selftaste to the ones who both hate and love us much like Jesus on the cross refusing to taste sour wine and vinegar because his tongue had not only already tasted the tang of death but had always tasted the landscape of the kingdom come flowing with milk and honey, here, now.