Thursday, December 8, 2011

Discursivity, Curves, Luce Irigaray, and a Living Logos

William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve
This morning I was on my way to discuss with some intellectual lady friends whether or not logic is a male construct we might better dispense with. I told this to two of my male friends on my way out the door. "What," exclaimed one of them, "you had better not try using logic to debunk it!" I tried to explain the much-discussed difficulty of using a male-made language to talk about modes of being potentially external to it, when the other friend picked up a knife in the dish rack and said, "We men call this a knife. What do you women call it?" 
The word logic, of course,  comes from the word logos, therefore language itself is supposed to be inextricable related to logic. "Well," I said, "We call it a stabber...," thinking more about what a noun does than what it is, or how a thing should really be described by its actions, as a verb...or......But really, my answer arrived on the walk, a sort of roundabout route, an esprit déscalier which is only natural, considering. As I walked to the cafe where we were to meet, I started thinking about all the other things we call the "knife." It is a stabber, yes, and a spreader. A pricker and a slicer, a threat and a promise, a tool and a cold metal is many things, much more than a knife. And then I thought about Luce Irigaray's "This Sex Which is not One," and the difference she elucidates between the male focus on the one phallus and the fact that women's erogenous zones are everywhere. What did this imply about logic? I thought about the idea of multiplying instead of reducing, of infinite proliferation, and, of course, I thought of Musil's sketch "What is a Street" wherein he mocks the 2x2=4 people whom, were you to ask them, "What is a street?"  would be annoyed by the stupidity of the question and answer: "a street? why a street is a street. period." The other kind of person, the seer, Musil calls him (or her) knows very well that a street can be many other things as well, that it is not just a daybright conduit for people to move in one direction on in the normalcy of easy answers, but that it just as well can be something dark, mysterious, many branched, maze-like, with dead ends and underground passages, a means to become lost or to really find one's self. And then I started thinking about the essay form itself, as I walked, more or less in a straight line, about  Musil's "essayism," and I kept muttering the word "discursive" to myself.  What is discursive? Does it have to do with curves, like cursive writing? Does it suggest something inherently non-linear and perhaps a- or rather pre-logical? A somewhat submerged mode of being that we wander in while groping after subtle and elusive correspondences before they are sharp enough to come to the surface and make it in the cold hard world of logic?  It turns out that, indeed, discursive comes from dis- (apart) and currerre (to run), and is thought to mean "to run about". While this may impart an image of a chicken with its head cut off, I would prefer to see it as a meandering (as Renee put it when I asked her at the cafe), or as a mapping of a multiple amaze-ment of ideas and connections (as Alex described her excitement with a new definition of logical thinking we were approaching in our circular discourse). We concluded (for the moment) that we are not against logic at all, but resistant to a very limited form of specious logic which insists that everything can be explained with a simple monological cause and effect example. While it may be true, in other words, that A seems to lead to B, this does not mean that there are not a million other things happening at the same time all around this straight line...a round, curvacious universe of occurrences, sensations, valuations, emotions, ideas, memories, associations. 
 Logical abstraction necessarily cancels out most of these phenomena in order to temporarily see patterns and, as Musil writes (about this human process of metaphor-making, whereby we always leave something out in order to make two things seem alike), in order to "bring beauty and meaning into the world," if only for a moment. So, while any equation or simple definition is almost inherently false by virtue of its incompleteness, not to mention the Heissenbergian Uncertainty Principle, it may be beautiful or useful or partially correct. Ironically, to adhere rigidly to simple logical equations is very illogical when one takes into account the extreme complexity of the universe! And here I am debunking logic with logic!
It is certainly a good deal easier and more efficient to declare how A seems to lead to B in a simple limited explanation than to describe the multitudinous aliveness of the world and how our every thought, act, and refusal to act alters it in ever millisecond. No wonder we sometimes seem dumb-founded, or stymied by the language of simple statements and the stronghold of the "obvious" (why, a street is a street; a knife is a knife, a kiss is a kiss, etc.). While we work to articulate this complexity, this world that is not one, we would do well to wonder at the strange topsy-turvydom which declares the stuttering, stammering seers of new worlds, the pioneering founders of new languages and customs, stupid, when compared to those who think they already know or who rest comfortably upon the laurels of an already constructed system of prejudices and assumptions. For, insofar as one can only see or understand something that one already conceives of or has a word for, it is quite a heroic and daunting task to hearken to a presentiment of an "other" way of seeing and to try, amid all the haziness of the vision and in opposition to the clarity and dominance of the status quo,  to articulate what it looks like, what it might bring us, how it might be integrated into what we already have. If only the world as it is would not feel so threatened by the world as it could be. If only the limited form of logic would welcome the more curvacious discourse of a richer form of logic instead of shutting it out!
For, as my friend Dharman once wrote, the logos is not merely a function of "a Greek, intellectualist prejudice. In the beginning of John's Gospel ('In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,'etc.), the Word being discussed is not just an idea. It is the burning bush that is not consumed. It is Yahweh, who really refuses to take a name (which would freeze what is above all Dynamism itself)".
Musil, in a note on his sibling experimenters Ulrich and Agathe, writes: "Speech possessed for them a high level of reality. Things became real in words first [only in words]....Agathe still believed in the original magical power (enlivening power) of the Word--the world was said to have been created from the Word, but it continues to be created by it...logos: discussion: he who possesses the Word possesses the thing".
 Note: the world  continues to be created by the Word, so we should choose our words with love. We will keep logos, for now at least, with the proviso that it be a living logos, not a brutally divisive and limiting knife.


  1. Dear Genese,

    It is wonderful that you talked about pre-logic as a way to experience the world. I was recently struggling with Deleuze and Guattari's idea of the pre-signifying systems, one that comes before signifying, coding, or reducing elements in the world to elements of speech that in turn close down into signs, objects that are gendered, sexed, privileged, and possessed. I often feel (sense, sensual) that music and poetry, and speech itself, are pre-signifying; murmurs, stuttering, speaking in tongues or in a foreign language, irregular syntax, metaphor, slippage, a kind of practiced groping for an expression of consciousness and existence that cannot, and should not be limited to a knife is a knife. My heart is not just my heart, my self is not just my self; I am a multiplicity of selves. Cheers to living logos and to love.

    Your friend,

  2. Genese - You are so much more forgiving than I am! When a person, usually a male, responds to my challenging idea by picking up a knife, I call that a threat, with intent to oppress...or, as the case may be, continue oppressing....

    This week I am reading Leonard Shlain's Alphabet vs. the Goddess, which explores many of the ideas you are trying to articulate here, i.e. the relationship between language and particular the correlation between the development of literacy and the oppression of women through the suppression of female-characterised, right-brain values and myths...and what I am coming away with is how impoverished this left-brain emphasis is.

    Side note: how interesting it is that the word "discursive" holds within it both the male-and female-typified characteristics of (respectively) meandering digression and orderly analysis. Thus (and as usual) in the undercurrents of our language we attempt to recreate the dual/collaborative nature of reality, the unified power of the creatrix - the Word before the (written) word.