Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eternally returning to the virtual

On page 244 (Ch.11: The Narrative Adventure) of The Blank Swan, Elie Ayache wrote that "to capture (...) the singular 'how' of creation as such" will provide for "our perception of the creature as a result of the act of creation, our perception of it against the backdrop of the virtual it is emanating from, will allow us to read, in the static and actual and settled creature, a continual and eternal return to the virtual. As it actually, definitely, 'eternally' exists, the creature eternally returns to the virtual."

Nietzsche's idea of the "Eternal Return" is often borrowed by various thinkers and adapted to their need, which is fair indeed, because Nietzsche himself did not close this idea (that he himself borrowed from various sources: mythologies and poets) into a strict interpretation, leaving ample room for his readers to comprehend it in their own way.
A few years ago, I myself pondered over this idea, and came to consider it as a return to the materiality of the body, a necessary and eternal travel from the abstract to the material, where thought (I personally used the word "regard" in french, I don't know how to translate it in english, in order to convey its polysemy, associating the ideas of seeing, considering, thinking, caring, guarding, absorbing, mirroring, repeating, ..., Nietzsche would perhaps talk of "will to power") eternally returns to the body in order to reaffirm itself (by again moving away from the body, in order to later return to it) in its freedom, in acting. It seems to me that it adheres to the sense of the following sentence from Elie Ayache found on page 234:

"Thought wakes up with the body pushing it from behind, and it is soon to be itself literally pushed outside of the room."

This eternal return of the "regard" to the body from which it comes, is also the return, I believe, of the thought onto the creature from which it emanates. It eventually is through the consideration by thought of the negation of the body that is its origin, that body and thought are articulated into a relationship of eternal return. But the negation of the body can also be seen as the affirmation of contingency (and its necessity), it is therefore an eternal return of the actual to the virtual, which is the perspective described by Elie Ayache.

Furthermore, I think that this ability for us "to read, in the static and actual and settled creature, a continual and eternal return to the virtual" is particularly well-represented in chinese art. Calligraphy painting, for instance, is all about enabling the viewer to enter and to experience the process of painting, that is the virtual:

This is the character li, which means strength, but there is no depiction of strength here, nothing substantial differentiates this painting from 力. What is apparent however is the way this painting has been realised. We can easily imagine ourselves drawing this exact character, the brush strokes are clearly visible, Wen Shen, the author of this calligraphy did not do anything to conceal his technique, on the contrary, he's displaying it, we can imagine the tension of his hand, the speed of his strokes, even the angle of the brush on the paper. This painting does not represent 力, it represents itself, it is a painting of the painting.

Similarly, chinese landscapes do not represent a landscape, they again represent the painting of the landscape:

Again, Chen Jun here doesn't make any effort to conceal his technique, on the contrary, sharing it is the whole point of the painting.
This philosophy of art is further developed in the works of Zao Wou Ki, whose explicit ambition is to paint the Dao, which is nothing else than the virtual:

The stress on the process of actualization that underlies chinese art obviously has its counterpart in chinese philosophy and most importantly in the Dao De Jing (道德經).
Interestingly, just as virtue and virtual shares an etymological connection, the Dao De Jing relates both concepts quite closely in the first chapter of the De (德, virtue):

上德無為而無以為也 (shang de wu wei er wu yi wei ye) (1)

which translates literally (and according to Henricks whose book is referred above) as:

The highest virtue takes no action, yet it has no reason for acting this way.

Or, in other words: The highest virtue remains virtual

This idea is of course pervasive in all traditional chinese philosophy, it is sometimes referred as the "Wei wu wei"(為無為) principle, and it can be found to some level in the teachings of all Daoists, but also in Confucianism. The De Dao Jing (to use Henricks order), that is, the Book of the Virtue and the Dao, or to use a purely western vocabulary, the Book of the Virtue and the Virtual, is unique in linking both the notion in such an explicit manner. It indeed seems to say that to be virtuous is to remain in constant proximity with the virtual, at the edge, one could say, between the virtual and the actual.
It is, in this sense, that Art has an educative function, it is what formed the thought or the "regard", to remain virtuous, by not interrupting the eternal return to the virtual away from(and pushed by) the actual, by remaining not in the "can be" (The Blank Swan, p.437) which is already too much on the side of the actual (into an ontological beingness), but rather in the "also can". This expression which is often found in Singlish (Singaporean english) obviously comes from the chinese ye keyi(也可以), the "ye"(也), meaning also, acts as an untotalizer of the range of possibilities. Indeed, this expression often comes as an answer to a request, which assumes implicitely, that the demand was rather out of the range of what is normally requested, the interlocutor then replies that it can also be done (even though, in practice, this expression is more pervasive and exceeds this context).

也 is also found in the above verse (1) of the De, here it is widely believed to just be an emphasis, an affirmative marker, as it is only found in the MaWangDui version, and not in the more commonly used version of WangBi , its importance is therefore neglected. However, I believe that it should also be understood here as an untotalizer, a differentiating operator, that extends the meaning beyond its literalness. Far from emphasizing then, I think it may well be a de-emphasizing marker, a prompting to forgetting in the sense Elie Ayache is proposing on page 248:

"Forgetting is the point of inflexion and reversion to the surface that is necessary for writing. By contrast with the sum total of possibilities, clear and yet confused, forgetting makes the writing thread obscure yet distinct."

A lot could be said now of these ideas of clarity and obscurity, in relation with chinese thought, I leave it to the readers to appreciate for themselves, maybe through the works of Francois Jullien, or maybe by looking also at the works of Zao Wou Ki.


Paul Boshears said...

I very much enjoyed this. If you (or your readers) are interested in further reading, I highly recommend Ames & Hall's Focusing the Familiar: A Philosophical Translation of the Zhongyong (中庸). From the University of Hawai`i Press. In their introduction they discuss the co-creative nature pedagogy in Classical Confucian thinking.
They translate the first passage of the in a manner that evokes Levinas and Derrida (particularly if we look to them for politics of friendship).

Jean-Philippe said...

Thanks for your appreciation and for the reference, I will have a look at it as soon as possible.