The Logic of Bamboo
“… unlike the trees, bushes, and shrubs, the few shoots of bamboo along the back fence began to multiply… and, at first, we were enamored by the vitality of its soaring elegance. . . and when the fleshy stems of its invasive roots began to proliferate and crawl below the earth’s skin, it became clear that some form of intervention was necessary… and in an attempt to contain and control its territory within the overall design of our yard, I chopped down all that shot up outside of its original placement. . . and what I deterritorialized in one area, quickly rete rrito ria lized in another, again and again…
… and so, bamboo won’t stop, it won’t stay in one place, the more I hack away at it, and the more I uproot its rhizomatic tangle, the more sustained its audacious improvisations, and the more persistent and viral its intensive curriculum… and by extending its limitless, nomadic reach under the fence, it’s now mapping the neighbor’s yard… and as the knotted spread of its machinic roots assemble and re-assemble, expand and re-expand, its lean and sinewy canes rocket here, there, and everywhere among our trees, bushes, and shrubs… and up through the cracks of our sidewalk and driveway… and drifting into our garage… and its unpredictable movements stirring my nervous system… and igniting the synapses of my brain… and affecting memory and cultural history… and irreducibly emerging onto these pages… and… and…” ~ Gilles Deleuze
Herbert Marcuse writes about ‘the closing of the universe of discourse’. Discourse has a universe and if it is closing in on itself, a metaphorical ‘Big Crunch’ of discourse, then the questions, ‘what can be done?’ and ‘can we jam the collapse?’ take on an air of urgency, panic even… an image of walls closing in, claustrophobia, frantic attempts at escape, light, air and breathing room slowly squeezing the life out of fragile bodies; no place to be, no space to think, thoughts crushed and compressed into a ‘one-dimensional’ existence – flatlined. “Don’t panic, but our planet is doomed. It’s just going to take a while. Roughly 6 billion years…” warns the quantum physicist. What of Marcuse’s universe of discourse? Is it similarly doomed and if yes, how much time remains? What can be done?
In ‘One-Dimensional Man’, Marcuse implies that a ‘language of total administration’ exists today, walks and stalks among us, undetected and wreaking havoc, collapsing structures that have and continue to hold (for now) the universe of discourse ‘open’. Marcuse speaks of ‘habits of thought’, habits in that the communicative environment in which we live, our inhabited ecosystem of thought, has an impact on how we think, how far our thoughts – our imagination – extend horizontally, vertically, how critically and passionately we follow and are still capable of tracing rhizomatic pathways of meaning-connections beyond a shallow ‘sound-bite’ like engagement.
Power stalks this ecosystem in the form of Media, Politics, Interest Groups and Big Business; apex predators feeding on a wild excess of thought dwelling below, trimming and manicuring sprouting imagination as resistance as play as a ‘joie de vivre’, planting mono-cropped thought and thought patterns, replacing concepts with images, the transcendent with the immediate. Marcuse writes: “in the expression of these habits of thought, the tension between the appearance and reality, fact and factor, substance and attribute tend to disappear. The elements of autonomy, discovery, demonstration, and critique recede before designation, assertion, and imitation” p.85. He speaks of the tyranny of the propositional sentence-thought structure as suggestive commands where “the noun governs the sentence in an authoritarian and totalitarian fashion [whereby] the sentence becomes a declaration to be accepted – it repels demonstration, qualification, negation of its codified and declared meaning” p.87.
In a universe where the noun governs and sits at the nodal-pivot point of discourse, “self-validating, analytical propositions appear which function like magic-ritual formulas. Hammered and re-hammered into the recipient’s mind, they produce the effect of enclosing it within the circle of the conditions prescribed by the formula” p.88. These evil people… these evil people… these evil people… we know them… here they are… here they are… let us point… them out… these Terrorists… they echo in our minds, invade our dreams, upset our ‘Freedom’ – another noun!
Terrorist as a noun dominates a sentence and implies, “analytically, a specific set of attributes which occur invariably when the noun is spoken or written… transgression of the discourse beyond the closed analytical structure is incorrect or propaganda… speech moves in synonyms and tautologies… the analytic structure insulates the governing noun from those of its contents which would invalidate or at least disturb the accepted use of the noun in statements… the ritualized concept is made immune against contradiction” p.88.
Think of Trumpism and the war on Terror. Remember Edward Said. Think how we are bombarded with images, how our thoughts and emotions come framed and pre-packaged, how the Terrorist becomes such and such a person with such and such a profile – read ‘home is where the hate is’ and how “Trump’s fixation on demonizing Islam hides true homegrown US terror threat”.
The defiant investigation as an effort to resist analytic closure and unified ideology, championing instead contradiction, openness of thought, critical consciousness. “The fact that a specific noun is almost always coupled with the same ‘explicatory’ adjectives and attributes makes the sentence into a hypnotic formula”; a refusal then to telescopically associate Terrorist exclusively, predominantly and automatically with Muslim and Arabic and ISIS; a refusal to accept the ‘established image’, sticky, yes, that has been ensured, but not inevitable, not yet totalitarian.
The magical and hypnotic images which “convey irresistible unity, harmony of contradiction” must be refracted to regain their ‘concept-hood’. For the “language which constantly imposes images, militates against the development of concepts. In its immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking” p.95. Concepts, Marcuse writes, are “taken to designate the mental representation of something that is understood, comprehended, known as the result of a process of reflection. This something may be an object of daily practice, or a situation, a society, a novel”. Never denoting one particular concrete thing but always comprehending more, existing in the abstract and general, cognitive concepts refer to a thing’s “historical totality”, thus existing as an “excess” of meaning.
The “noun can enter into certain relationships, but is not identical with these relationships” writes Wilhelm von Humboldt. This stirs up the idea of an excess of meaning, perhaps an excess of relationships, a flourishing of imagination and thought and links usefully back to the ecosystem metaphor; jumping on this ecosystem metaphor, one finds the concept of ‘redundancy’ as a critical factor in ecosystem resiliency; one reads: “Systems with many different components (e.g species, actors or sources of knowledge) are generally more resilient than systems with few components. Redundancy provides ‘insurance’ within a system by allowing some components to compensate for the loss or failure of others: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.”
Where “language is an old-growth forest of the mind” as Wade Davis suggests, a most ancient, integrated and interconnected network of relationships and meanings, what does a clear-cutting, a fracturing and a fragmenting give rise to? Arrested development. Petrified concreteness. Vibrant and bubbling sets of relationships between Noun, imagination and concepts – flatlined. Life dies (almost, hah!). Thought withers. Result: “once the ‘unrealistic’ excess of meaning is abolished, the investigation is locked within the vast confine in which the established society validates and invalidates propositions… ideology sustaining facts” p.114.
And “people who speak and accept such language seem to be immune to everything – and susceptible to everything”, p.93.
Remember Hannah Arendt and ‘the banality of evil’; she reports: “In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” A chilling moment in history – ‘Es ist eine Frage des menschlichen Verhaltens’, so Eichmann. It’s a question of people refusing to be ‘Persons’, so Arendt.
Ordinary people carried out Trump’s immigration ‘Muslim’ ban; an echo of the past? One reads: “A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.”
The question we then need to ask ourselves is: What will we do? This is not a hypothetical question. In ‘Trump and the Activity of Thinking’, Geoffrey Sanborn writes: “The value of the thinking process, a process that operates throughout our species and beyond, is that it makes it possible to be something other than the same old self, to find oneself in new conjunctions with others. The more attuned we become to the thinking process, the more aware we become that each thought has, as William James argues, a “halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,” a “fringe” that consists of “the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” And the more aware we become of those vapory extensions beyond the body of the thought — the more we sense in ourselves the movement toward a thought and then past it — the more aware we become of each thought’s non-finality. “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,” writes Henry James. Whatever one says or does creates the possibility of further saying or doing. Whatever one perceives creates the possibility of further perceptions.”
Das “Schreckbild einer Menschheit ohne Erinnerung” / “The spectre of man without memory” – W Adorno. Thinking then as an expander of relations and an unfreezer of thoughts but only and only if, Marcuse writes, it “militates against the closing of the universe of discourse and behavior”, destabilizing and transcending the closed universe by comprehending it as a “historical universe” p. 99. Memory and the remembrance of the past – exploring the ruins of old-growth forests – “may give rise to dangerous insights, and the established society seems to be apprehensive of the subversive contends of memory… remembrance breaks, for short moments, the omnipresent power of the given facts. Memory recalls the terror and the hope that passed” p.98.
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” so writes Ludwig Wittgenstein. A call to consciousness? How limited do we wish our world to be? How much room to be and think and live do we need, all of us, together?
T.S. Eliot responds: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”
Let facts thus no longer remain stabilized and insulated; let analytic structures be stretched, used, deformed and made to groan and protest, as Foucault urges. Let thinking be free and let it be a “Leidenschaftliches Denken” as Arendt cherished and embodied it.
And let us forever be chilled by the spectre of the magic-authoritarian features of language, a language that may, if we do not remain vigilant, no longer lend itself to discourse, or as Roland Barthes wrote: “il n’y a plus aucun sursis entre la denomination et le jugement, et la cloture du langage est parfaite . . .” / “there is no longer any delay between the naming and the judgment, and the closing of the language is complete”.