Orientation

Daily, I will call to the six directions. It is a simple, brief, and unadorned part of my morning prayers. There is nothing terribly symbolic about it. I haven’t any esoteric associations with the directions that I visualize or invoke. On a particularly thoughtful day, I might remind myself of what lies in those directions (work, my partner’s destination that day, my birthplace, family, etc.). It is a matter of orientation more than anything else.

The directions operate as complementary opposites, and I thought it might be amusing to do the same thing as an exercise of orientation in regards to time. I’m going to call the directions by citation, with quotes regarding time, in part because the act of citation captures something of time’s nature, too. Whimsically, I have given each a directional association from the spatial directions.

I’ll admit, some of this is an excuse to flip through some beloved and not recently read texts. Benjamin makes me nostalgic.

To Come from the Past

(NORTH) The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. — L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1)

(SOUTH) The past is never dead. It’s not even past. — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (Act I, sc. 3)

It seems best to start with the simple and profound. Between these two ideas can be framed a lengthy discussion of history, spiritualism, and literature. The power and potency of the dead, figuratively and literally, runs along this longitud; the traces of the past form the avenues of the dead. At the most practical level, the legacy of the past forms the material with which the present is confronted. The location of this or that city, this or that road, bears within itself the decisions of those foreign dead.

More subtly, but no less profound, there are the legacies of deed and word that become entrenched in habits of action, perception, and conception. Consider the racism that structures so much modern life. While some of it does rest on contemporary pressures, competition for work and land, a good deal more rests on a legacy of past pressures that have come to structure who gets perceived as a competitor and who as an ally. The past can resurface suddenly when the present comes under pressure.

They do things differently there…and sometimes that other way becomes ours, sometimes we are haunted by it.

To Be Modern

(EAST) The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal. Following Nietzsche…”acting counter to our time and thereby on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come”….[to make] apparent…the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world….[it is] apocalyptic… — Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition (xxi)

(WEST) No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never neen a modern world. The use of the past perfect tense is important here, for it is a matter of a retrospective sentiment, of a rereading of our history. I am not saying that we are entering a new era; on the contrary we no longer have to continue the headlong flight of the post-post-postmodernists…we no longer seek to be even cleverer, even more critical, even deeper into the ‘era of suspicion.’ No, instead we discover that we have never begun to enter the modern era….This retrospective attitude, which deploys instead of unveiling, adds instead of subtracting, sorts out instead of debunking, I characterize as nonmodern (or amodern). — Bruno Latour, We have never been Modern (47)

This young Deleuze gives us one of the more articulate visions of modernity, which encompasses both alienation and possibility. The alienation can be understood in terms of the North-South quotations, as the sense of the past being both foreign and alive, though we can’t divorce it from the alienation of the Up-Down quotations, below. The possibility rests in the engagement we have with that past in the present, our capacity to make transformations in it. That opens before the modern an idea that there might be a future in which the alienation is neutralized. We might say that because the past makes us squirm, it gives us the sense that we might yet squirm free of it. While our hand is held down, we may dream in our resistance of what it might be like for that grip upon us to disappear.

Latour takes a different tack, undercutting the distinctions that make alienation conceivable. To say, as modernists are wont, that we are no longer part of the state of nature or no longer embedded in the traditions of our ancestors, gets it all wrong. We have transformed our relationship to the state of nature, to the traditions of our ancestors, but we have at no point ceased relationship with them. That we squirm is just one aspect of the relationship and must be included rather than escaped from.

Like the first quotes, these form a tense pair, this one between struggle and acceptance. Latour’s attitude depends on that of Deleuze’s–to look back over modernity and see its failure to escape and the way that failure defined a new way of being requires that there have been a struggle. It is the specificity of our struggling that gives it substance, and which provides some structure for imagining a future in which that substance is different.

A Taste of Eternity

(UP) The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe. — Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Thesis XVIII)

(DOWN) The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair….[must] displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects–this  alone is the task of thought….it is also the utterly impossible thing…any possible knowledge…is also marked…by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. — Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (247)

The vertical axis in space provides a useful analogy for the eternal. The vertical cuts through the horizontal in a manner reminiscent of the eternal’s cross-cutting through the temporal. The complexities introduced have parallels in the the simpler schemes, but cannot be reduced to them.

‘Eternity’ serves as something of a placeholder, suggesting the broader complexity while acknowledging that our appreciation of those complexities is exceptionally partial. We speak of it mostly as that which does not fit back into our experience of time. There is an alienation and a hope proper to it. They are distinct from the alienation and hope proper to time, even though our understanding of one may inform the understanding of the other.

The alienation and hope that the taste of eternity motivates are with the nature of existence itself. The glimpses of it that we have in life give us hope that the temporal world may yet fully embody the eternal, but that it remans merely a taste suggests the fundamental inadequacy of our temporal existence to the eternal.

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One thought on “Orientation

  1. Pingback: As If a Tree in Spring | Disrupt & Repair

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