Although the new sequel to Vincent Hendricks’s program The Power of Thought (Tankens Magt) has neither women in it, nor does it treat any of the subjects I proposed in my last post on the series, should there be a sequel – which lo and behold, here it is already – I’ve decided to continue devoting some words on it at least for two reasons. (1) It’s been a while since I’ve stopped believing in the benefits of exercising my power to influence others in their acts, hence I have no expectations that anyone should consider whatever I may propose. Ergo, I didn’t hold my breath, and all the better that I didn’t; (2) the show begins with a poet and lists a number of deconstructivists among the guests.

This is already quite interesting in itself, as I find it rather amusing that the poets and the deconstructivists are called in to contribute thoughts regarding matters of ‘relevance’ in current societal debates. Not that they can’t rise to the task. Oh, they certainly can, the better of them, anyway, can, but they often use methods that go against the grain of anything ‘current’, ‘important,’ and ‘useful.’ If there’s anything compelling in deconstructive and poetic philosophy is the very idea of resistance. So, when the governments today shower us with injunctions against doing anything useless, old-fashioned, or unimportant that will not serve the lowest common denominator, or the liberals, the poet and the deconstructivist would first cross himself three times at having to listen to such stupidities, then make a point as to the usefulness of keeping the useless, and then throw himself off a cliff, after realizing that his words make no impact whatsoever, when and if impacting is nonetheless desired.

My reason to be amused at the situation is also due to the fact that just before Christmas it so happened that I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine about deconstruction. At a coffee and glögg gathering at the institute, I was almost late, yet in spite of being out of breath I managed to grab a seat at a solitary table, just before the welcoming speech. Not long after, I got flanked by two philosophers, a younger and an older colleague. The young one wanted to know why I was in such a hurry, and when I disclosed the reason, I caught the attention of the older one. I had just attended a PhD defense in the math department, and my older colleague wanted to know what it was on (something on parabolic lines in the moduli space of quadratic rational maps). We had met at such events previously, so I gave him the gist of the argument. As the younger philosopher only knew me as the Americanist he asked what I liked about math. I said: “its mystery.” To this he replied: “but math is not mysterious, it’s the most concrete discipline.” I ended a potentially disagreeing moment with the statement that we obviously don’t read the same math books. Then I ventured into some discussion about formalism and deconstruction, to which he said: “oh, you know, some of our formalist colleagues are not very keen on Derrida.” Vincent’s name was mentioned. I asked him: “are you sure about Vincent?” to which he replied cautiously – he thought I knew something he didn’t’: “well, I think Vincent likes Derrida on some days and on other days he doesn’t.” I asked him again: “are you sure about that?” And then I continued: “any formalist who doesn’t like Derrida on all days is a bad formalist.” I was being impolite, and he was baffled. Too bad he didn’t ask me to elaborate. I would have made a beautiful exposition.

So, then, all the more, let’s see it: Vincent, the poets, and the deconstructivists. Søren Ulrich Thomsen, a bona fide Danish poet talked about civility, or rather the importance of being earnest. In his argument, one simply has to be as sincere as possible in this globalized world in one’s encounter with the other, if civil order is to be maintained. Using as examples of formal politeness comparing driving in a taxi in the US and Denmark, he talked about the consequences of the lack of good manners, or excessive politeness. In the US, the black driver says to the white guy who leaves a tip: “Thank you sir, I truly, appreciate it.” In Denmark, it’s the opposite. If it’s not uttered, the following adjacent exchange is certainly felt on another level: the Turk, with olive complexion and bad Danish accent thinks: “racist pig.” The racist pig thinks: “bloody foreign pig.” All the while the car swifts by at considerable speed. And so it goes.

Now, while the poet wasn’t making any poetry today, in his call for a return to keeping old politeness values, as they are mechanisms for mutual recognition, respect, and equality, the historical context of the roots of politeness in the Enlightenment was mentioned, and the benefits of keeping anonymous in the modern city was mentioned. In other words, where in pre-modern class based societies saying to the mayor of the city, “hi sir, yes sir, I acknowledge your presence, sir,” is a good idea even though you think he is a pig, in the city, saying nothing at all to the lady at the cash registry is also a very good idea, even though you think she’s dull and may benefit from a piece of fashion advice. No boundaries are transgressed. And we should keep it that way, it was suggested.

Now, this is all very good. Imagine if we didn’t have any rules to go by. My goodness, there simply aren’t enough mountain peaks around for all of us to inhabit where we can just do our thing, without having to think of others. But no solutions were offered as to how one might replace an old-fashioned system of politeness with a new one. Vincent made an attempt, and his proposition that courteous behavior devoid of cultural manners and classical formation and education makes everything sound trivial, and banal, could have been picked on, but what Thomsen had to offer was rather trite, more descriptive than analytical, and based on anecdotal evidence and cluelessness about pragmatics, anthropology, or cultural studies. Basically he was merely voicing the concern that the conservative class and the establishment have entertained for ages: a multicultural society marked by difference rather than homogeneity is complex. Doh! (Actually at this point I rather missed the 60s, a decade when, both in Vincent’s and Thomsen’s view, a lot of deplorable things happened - but the whole 60s lot sure knew a thing or two about diversity, even though not all theories were as succesful as feminism, and queer movements).

The only really interesting thing Thomsen did say, however, and which could also have been seen in a philosophical context, but wasn't, was that a truly authentic person, who presumably is also cultured enough to be capable of avoiding dead metaphors, is the one who will at all times say absolutely nothing. Finally he was on to something. This was music to my ears – the music that nothing makes – but, unfortunately nothing was offered in support of formulating something interesting about that theory other than laughs – both Vincent and Thomsen laughed, and I’ll stake my head on the fact that neither of them had any clue as to what they were laughing at. So, on to solutions. But what was it that I began with? That if I said this or if I said that, no one would give a flying shit, so I’ll refrain. I did though comply with the rules that the show suggested: that we need to exercise more the personal touch. I gave you a personal story at the top of this post.

Apart from that let me also leave you with a fragment of a much more informed verbal discourse that I would have enjoyed more, had it happened. Here are some lines from a live interview with a deconstructivist woman, one of finest wit and intellectual caliber, the proponent for écriture feminine, philosopher, and poet, Hélène Cixous. She was asked to ponder on the significance of silence in a courteous exchange and the way in which it links to the importance of music for the poetic writer.

“I would say that the moment you attribute to a writer the poetic quality, music is there. Poetry is music. Poetry is the music of philosophy. It’s the song of philosophy. It’s primordial: it begins with the singing of philosophy. So I can’t even say that it’s important, it’s essential. It’s there. It precedes everything. That’s one thing. But what kind of music? That's why I say if you refer to music as a body of composed works, it's different. If you refer to music as the soul of philosophy, the singing soul of philosophy, then it’s everywhere. I can't write without it” (Cixous, Live Theory, 99-100).

Cixous’s thought made me think of how, if we cannot archive old manners, or invent new ones, we can perhaps turn to music, or to “the silent [that] makes the sound.” Principles in general – if incorporated without our exercising the capacity to distinguish – more often than not stand in the way of open-mindedness. Therefore I would prefer it if in a multicultural society we all started talking about how we can listen to each other beyond prescriptive and established principles, through listening to the music that we all are capable of producing via elegant, intelligent, and thoughtful prose or verbal discourse. Music cannot be buried. And if poetry is the music of philosophy, then philosophy cannot be buried. In other words, keep on thinking. Thinking is the only reality we’ll ever know.


Popular Posts