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Over at the blog of the very rational Colonel Chabert, there’s a rewarding exchange between her and Roger of Limited Inc concerning Derrida’s Specters of Marx. While I have to stay in the kiddie pool concerning most of the myriad topics they touched on, something the Colonel said about the tendency of a certain direction in French thought to over-apply the model of language resonates with a thought I’d been having about analytic philosophy of language and aesthetics. Back in the mists of time, there was a dispute between (one version of) Bertrand Russell and Frege concerning the structure of propositions. Frege, with his distinction between sense and reference, construed the proposition as a “representation” of a state of affairs: the sense of a sentence mirrors its referential composition, but it is something which is cognitively available to us in a way the reference of a word (the object it refers to) or a sentence (“the True” or “the False”) is not.

Russell disputed this in a 1904 letter to Frege: “I believe that Mont Blanc, for all its snowfields, is a constituent of that which is actually asserted in the sentence ‘Mont Blanc is more than 4000 meters high’. What is asserted is the object of the thought, and this in my view is a certain complex (an objective proposition [Satz], one might say), of which Mont Blanc itself is a constituent” (Quoted from Peter Simons, “On What There Isn’t”). Following Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, Russell’s early view of the proposition was adopted by David Kaplan for use in his “direct reference” theory of demonstratives; and with qualifications, it plays an important role in the theory of “object-dependent content” associated with Gareth Evans and John McDowell. What I mean to do here is apply the Rusellian proposition to the structuralist trope of “language of ——“.

If we consider propositions to have elements of reality as their actual constituents, it is far from clear to me that the idea of kinship, the unconscious, or economic exchange as a “language” necessarily has the consequence of “de-substantializing” the phenomenon under consideration; they are simply “linguistic” in being, as Russell says, certain complexes with a certain structure. Indeed, perhaps the usefulness of linguistic counters properly speaking depends on their having a real rather than als ob structural isomorphism with elements of reality. “So you’ve solved the problem, huh?” Not quite. The flipside of generalizing language as structure is that certain elements of experience resist categorization in this way: we do not have the systematic control over them we have over language, the control which allows us to form novel but grammatical sentences and draw conclusions.

For example, I think Nelson Goodman and Clement Greenberg made a fundamental mistake in talking about a “language” of art: the aesthetic experience includes a dimension which must outrun our ability to conceptualize states of affairs. I would even include the aesthetic experience of words in this — I think it’s no stretch to say that part of our joy in speechifying comes from the non-language in language, verbal cross-currents which are neither “mimetic” nor abstract. And as for economics, turning attention away from preferences as exhibited in the decision theory of marginal-utility to questions of the facticity of production and life in general is perhaps less of a “grammar” of economic praxis than a study of the way in which elements of society that resist “linguistic” regimentation form the base of our works and days.

Earlier this month (a productive one for posts, if nothing else) I offered a speculative application of hybrid modal logic to literary language. In thinking about that sort of thing, I’m operating at the limits of my abilities, which are well beyond the limits of what can be coherently conceived and formulated: but I think there’s room for a little more clarity, so I’m going to elaborate on a connection between hybridity and Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis that occurred to me some years ago.

In German Ereignis ordinarily means “event” or “a happening”; but it occurs throughout Heidegger’s work with slightly different valences, and assumes a central place in his thought following the Kehre or “turn” after Being and Time. His “secret book” from that time, only published in 1989, bore the title Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis); this was rendered by the English translators as Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning). Now, “enowning” is probably not a word you’ve been throwing around in your everyday speech, but there’s an etymological logic to it: eigen means “own”, in the sense of one’s own, and forms the root of the more familiar Heideggerian term eigentlich (“authentic”). Heidegger plays off this etymological origin in his use of the term, which leads other translators to render the word as “event of appropriation” or “propriation”: as for his own instructions, Heidegger insisted it was untranslatable.

Well, what the hell is Ereignis? Understanding the concept requires situating it within Heidegger’s later conception of the “history of being”; I’ve talked smack about that view of the history of philosophy before, but for the moment we’ll give him his due. For later Heidegger, “being” is not a brute fact or timeless dimension of human experience but something that irrupted into human consciousness with the Greeks and can undergo decisive changes (such as he hoped the Nazi-Zeit would bring). Ereignis is a word for that irruptive dimension, the historical point at which thought can latch onto Being: it is equally implicated in thought, being, and history.

What could this possibly have to do with the expressive facilities for talking about individual possible worlds? Well, consider this: each use of a “nominal” to refer to a point is a miniature instance of Ereignis (though Heidegger called it a singulare tantum, Latinspeak for mass noun, we won’t reopen that issue at this point). Using the nominal, we can talk about how something is in a way distinct from its “essence” as parceled out over different possible configurations. Furthermore, I think there is a natural-language phenomenon which illustrates this very nicely: plays on words like the title of this post, which “hybridize” sayings and phrases in a way that subverts figural expectations: that sort of hybrid language creates a path of access to a truly singular description, one which breaks the bonds of the “eternal return” of metaphor in cliche and offers access to a form of words which says one thing, be it true or not. (I’m attracted to this as a theory of prose, but perhaps it has the consequence that one is not speaking prose without even knowing it after all.)

Yesterday I went to see my yearly movie: for 2008 it was The Counterfeiters, a fine and moving film (though the new-style trailers, where the actors and actresses hype the movie like it was a zaibatsu they worked for, did not make me feel like reexamining my general cinema policy). On the way, I stopped by the library and posted a comment to Crooked Timber concerning John Yoo and academic freedom: however, it was gone by the time I got home from the theater. There are a lot of reasons to take exception to things I write, but I suspect that the suggestion that Yoo should be pilloried (“and I’m not sure I don’t mean literally”) may have been the problem. Though I guess I may be too old-fashioned a democrat for most people’s taste, I’ve thought it over and I do support pillory in this case. Let me explain.

Unlike testicle-crushing, pillory is an established American folkway: it’s a punishment meted out to citizens who shame the community through their actions. This seems meet: the idea that the US is a piratical corporation whose members reap benefits and enjoy immunity, while those outside it are fit to be blown up by radio-controlled missiles if they are a big enough “problem”, is not a good one. If US citizens are to enjoy special privileges, there should also be a sense of noblesse oblige — and Yoo’s ideas are incompatible with that. However, I suppose you could even make the case that it would be respectful of Yoo’s intellectual freedom to begin implementing his notion that people who are dangerous to the public life of the republic should be handled harshly with him. It only seems fair, really.

Via Computational Complexity, I see that one of my “colleagues” has proven that P and NP are equivalent. I don’t especially want to go back to the mental hospital, but I do have a few further thoughts about the matter. The Turing Machine is the dominant model of computation: it’s concrete, easy to learn, and fairly close to the actual structure of physical computers. But of course there are a number of equivalent models, and today I want to talk about P and NP in terms of derivations in a natural-deduction version of the lambda calculus. It is reported unto us tenderfeet that the λI-calculus is “nondeterministic”, but there is a feature of natural deduction derivations which has an interesting bearing on that status — their ability to undergo “normalization”, which casts them in a canonical form.

Normalization follows a few set steps, and it follows them in a set order. In other words, normalizing a derivation is equivalent to a deterministic simulation of a nondeterministic proof. (The keener-eyed among you may wonder whether this is an unwise thing to say about a process for an undecidable language like any of the polyadic predicate calculi, but I will remind you that what there is no mechanical test for is invalidity in first-order languages and if you’ve already derived it that’s not your problem.) And like deterministic Turing Machine simulations of nondeterministic Turing Machines, normalized proofs are a lot more extensive than regular proofs (unworkably so for the purposes of doing anything other than proving metatheoretical results).

How much bigger? What are the bounds on normalization of deductions? Normally, they’re hyperexponential: up to 2^D, D being the depth of the deduction. So one way of casting the P and NP problem — which might potentially be more amenable to interesting results — would be to see if normalizing proofs in a restricted language like the functions-only lambda calculus had the same bounds. But I think that’s not the only lesson proof theory has to teach us about complexity theory. In the original post, Mr. Waggish reminded me that it’s been known for a long time that computation with oracles can be tweaked so that P is either equivalent or not equivalent to NP. This would seem to throw a spanner in the works, as it were. However, something I wonder about is whether the use of an oracle is not equivalent to the Cut rule in the sequent calculus.

Like querying an oracle, the Cut rule makes an “irregular” piece of information available for use in a deduction: and just like querying an oracle does not make things Turing-computable which previously weren’t, proofs involving Cut can be converted to cutfree proofs. But cut-elimination in sequent calculi and normalization in natural deduction are essentially the same thing, so I wonder whether a proof-theoretical view of computation wouldn’t remove some of the “mental blocks” people have about what relative computability apparently teaches us about the P and NP problem: perhaps the question is not whether oracle “shortcuts” make it impossible for us to tell what is really up with P and NP, but whether the imposition of deterministic structure on a nondeterministic computation of any form cannot as a general rule keep itself within polynomial limits — something we might be able to know without “constraints” of our own.

Here’s a fun item from the past: ’80s New York shockmeisters Pussy Galore with “Dick Johnson”, from Dial M for Motherfucker. Though I really enjoyed Royal Trux, and will confess to liking the Blues Explosion a little, PG always seemed better on concepts than execution; but Neil Hagerty is allowed to tunefully dominate here, and the video captures the true essence of American indie culture — eating hot dogs at 7-11 with your friends.

And while we’re on the subject of Latin rappers, let me say something about Cicero (since hip-hop was in its origins a stylized and aestheticized version of black politics, I confess to running the different sorts of rhetors together in my mind on occasion). The celebrity of people like Victor Davis Hanson testifies to the fact that contemporary US interest in Greco-Roman antiquity runs towards 300-esque guts-and-glory narratives, with a philosophical sideline of possessing virtues that don’t actually do much good: but there’s no American city called “Thermopylae”, or “Nichomachus” — and that there is one named for Tully (though I’m given to understand it’s not an especially attractive location, and it certainly doesn’t come off well in Brecht) tells us that here historical borrowings from antiquity have leaned more heavily towards the rationalistic and republican.

Now, I have graduated from being the world’s worst Germanist to being the world’s worst Latinist, but I can piece together a thing or two out of Cicero’s orations, and remain captivated (for probably very immature reasons) by the idea of “Ciceronian style”. A few observations:

Cicero’s sentence structure, the way the connectives and clauses fit together, is in my estimation very close to ideal English style: abstracting away SVO-SOV differences between English and Latin, the weighting of different pieces of information through the old subordination and coordination provides just the right amount of statement per sentence. This is probably not an accident, and it’s certainly not a given (I can testify that “proper” English sentence-and-paragraph structure falls out of your mind if you read enough German aloud). The vocabulary is elegant without being prolix, and at least to my untrained eye there is little proto-modernist sloppiness in the expression: I’m building here on Erich Auerbach’s assertion that the progress of modern literary realism was inversely proportional to the amount of parataxis employed, and although he’s neither modern nor especially literary Cicero doesn’t employ much.

The political valences of Cicero, one of the greatest statesmen of the ancient world, seem strangely inapplicable to the present day: “we’re an empire”, and someone who disputed Rome’s imperial status (and was at least nominally on the side of the “people” against the optimates) seems not to fit into the contemporary political matrix. Enemy of Catiline, oppressed by Caesar, victim of Antony: it’s an exciting life story, but not one of capriciously exerting one’s will upon others, and I’m not sure how much that will appeal to minds formed by a morally permissive and politically repressive state of affairs. As for Cicero’s Stoicism, the Stoics have become a cheap joke for militarists who admire G. Gordon Liddy’s stunt of putting his hand in open flame at dinner with President Nixon and the like: but for me Stoicism in general is attractively proto-Christian without being overly Passionate, and so it doesn’t really seem like an unwise public philosophy. (Perhaps that also contributes to Cicero’s present inapplicability, though.)

On the topic of classical models: it sometimes occurs to me that if I were a Latin rapper, I ought to call myself “Montaigne”, for the purpose of putting together a “group” record called Montaigne’s Eses.

Perhaps every mentally ill person is a philosopher of mind manque; at any rate, I used to worry a lot about intentional mental states before I didn’t have any worth mentioning. “Intentionality” is the property of directedness towards a content, “aboutness”, that mental states and semantic tokens have; although the term originally derives from Scholastic discussions of voluntary acts, thanks to an expansion of its meaning by Brentano and Husserl saying something is “intentional” in that it possesses intentionality is different from saying that it is intentional in that you meant to do it.

A little while ago, intentionality was a major philosophical topic: there were all sorts of plans to either naturalize it as an unproblematic part of the physical world or socialize it as a consequence of the organization of collective life. Qua budding marxisant my inclinations were with the second option; I would be surprised if there was fundamentally anything but atoms in the void, but I suspected (which suspicions were later amply confirmed) that the kind of instrumental control “biological hypotheses” about psychological phenomena serve often creates illusions of being able to understand without the need for “charitable interpretation”.

However, I appreciate a good subjective-objective genitive ambiguity as much as anyone, and so I’m not quite proposing a “social practice” account of intentional mental states here; instead, I would like to float the prospect that social life is not the fundament of intentionality which compels us to take an “intentional stance” towards people we interact with but rather the end it tends toward, its fullest realization. Now, a Sellarsian would say that semantic intentionality, the ability of words to be about what they refer to, explains mental intentionality, the ability of our minds to focus on an actual or possible state of affairs; and for some people this is reversal enough.

Not me, though: I want to say that semantic meaning is the fundamental constituent of social structure, and as such represents the relative “perfection” of the proto-intentional mentation and gregarious behavior we share with animals. (Relative indeed, though; the ambiguities and apparent “defects” that linguistic expression possesses cannot but reflect the real conflict and suffering in our lives, and the strategic overdetermination of those slippery signifiers cannot be dispensed with.) This might seem to lend itself to a social theory which is Hegelian in a bad sense, celebrating the perpetual improvement of the human race’s ability to express itself through an ever-expanding and complexifying “world society”. So I will address one possible complement which is not “Whiggish” or “progressive”: the idea that classical models in literature, art, or politics are exemplars of what is called in psychology (and sometimes the philosophy of mathematics) “cognitive control”.

We know more than Dante; he depicted the world through Ptolemaic epicycles, and we live in a heliocentric one. Maybe we (some of you, anyway) have more and better brain cells in your head than his disease-ravaged medieval one. But his ability to universalize some very local phenomena (the intricacies of Florentine politics) into timeless human drama represents a pitch of perfection regarding the ability of self-consciousness to coordinate words and deeds; we would like to be able to control our relationship to our more complex environment as well as him.

So perhaps the donning of masks from history, as famously remarked upon by Marx at the beginning of the 18th Brumaire, represents an essential and unavoidable form of rationality with respect to the ebb and flow of perceptions taken from and spilling out into contemporary society. At any rate, “socializing intentionality”, or the intentionality involved in socializing, requires a great deal of careful thought before we can declare its “hard problems” beaten: “doxastic kinematics” are so fantastically complicated, and the social forms they operate in so manifold and historically/culturally/politically/sexually striated, that a simple “social pragmatism” about intentional content would be, well, crazy.

(An Historically Materialist Analysis of the “Elitism” Flap, With Very Limited Apologies to Merle Haggard)

A few days ago the blogworld was aflame with concern regarding Barack Obama’s “misstep” at a San Francisco fundraiser, where he said working-class voters frustrated with economic hardship turned to “values” politics as a coping mechanism; the New York Times column where William Kristol helpfully explained this in terms of a Political Science 101 reading of Marx added more fuel to the fire. People seemed to have moved on to the “boy” comment, but since one of the things I have managed to successfully be in my life is a Marxist I’m still concerned. The “Marxist” charge has legs: but in a way it’s very unfair, and in the way it’s not unfair it should be no discredit to Obama in the eyes of anyone.

If elected, Obama would be the first president to have received his schooling after the tumult of the ’60s had institutional effects: and since he has always been a left-leaning person, part of the effects on him were almost certainly the effecting of a fairly thorough acquaintance with Marxist theory. But his choices as an adult and politician are not “Marxist”: no variety of Congregationalism views itself as an opiate of the people, and his advisers Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power have never been Marxist heroes (to put it mildly). Obama has not opted for a life on the radical left, which is why he’s acquired the clout and support that has gotten him so far in the presidential contest; and to suggest that his convictions are a throw rug concealing a two-way radio to Moscow is McCarthyite garbage.

But there is a sense in which Obama has clearly profited from acquaintance with Marx and Marxists, although I won’t have to get out my East German copy of the Grundrisse to discuss it. Like Marx and the better sort of socialist politician, Obama is a grown-up in his analysis of society: what he was really doing in saying “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” was challenging the maturity of political discourse concerning the woes of the “heartland” (which as an Illinois politician he has a much greater connection to than either Clinton or McCain).

This strikes a nerve, since the arrogantly-useless product of nepotism W. has set the cause of mature American leadership back immensely, and the sedulously adolescent message-tweaking of Clinton and tantrum-throwing of McCain are unlikely to offer major improvements in this area. The US can ill afford to have another intellectually and emotionally immature president who sells us and the world idealistic garbage in tandem with pointlessly killing people abroad and undermining our society at home; and even if you like guns or God or nursing a grudge, you should recognize the “Marxist” Obama is the one who will try to be “as radical as reality itself”.

This Whitey song’s Wire-y enough that you might like it”, said the proprietor of FoundClothing, and she was right. Based on a sample of two (this guy and Sonny J), the thing to do in the UK these days is to think of a play on your name, record the tracks yourself, and put together a band for live performances. Though “Wrap It Up” apparently uses amphetamine sales as a metaphor for interpersonal turmoil, we in the US are still amused.