Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More, Too Much More, on the Hand


The deep ambivalence held within the human hand finds exemplary expression in the synecdochal hand, in the hand as simultaneously part of and figure for the whole human. Here the reflective hand-gazing of infancy, an originary experience of self-haunting, of captivation by the presence of being that, is as it were generalized and extended to others, so that its essential ambivalence (hand-as-instrument vs. hand-as-self) is split and projected onto different kinds of agents. The synecdochal hand thus takes two forms, each overcoming, one negatively and the other positively, the gap between being and hand. There is the hand of labor, a dehumanizing reduction of a being to a hand, a merely manual, ever-active, profane hand whose presence or touch is as literally proscribed as it is invisibly evoked though labor’s products and effects, the handmade. And there is the hand of power, a more than manual, sacred hand, a hand divinized into a being, the almost unmoving, all-grasping, commanding hand that, transcending manipulation and being manipulated, must be kissed, feared, invoked.

These two forms of the synecdochal hand come together in a definitive and mutually defining manner in the immixtio manuum of the medieval commendation ceremony, in which a vassal’s hands were held within those of his lord, the hand of labor (productive or military) within the hand of power. The legal content of the gesture, the exchange of service for protection, is contained within its symbolic fusion of hands as simultaneously instruments and embodiments of the two persons. The immixtio manuum thus operates through a fourfold meaning. Placing his hands in his lord’s, the vassal both gives his hands to his lord and gives himself into the hands of his lord. That is, he both gives his powers to the lord and brings his person within the lord’s power. Holding the vassal’s hands, the lord both holds the vassal with his hands and receives the vassal’s hands himself. That is, the lord both holds the vassal, the person, within his power and appropriates the vassal’s power as his own, as part of his person. Each significance is definable as one side of a moment of contact between a person and another’s hands as something distinct from yet bound to that person. The hands do not touch each other as such, nor do the persons. For these are inevitable possibilities whose meanings the gesture must invalidate or render invisible in order to fulfill its purpose. There can be no suggestion that the powers of the two persons, labor and the seigneurial power over it, themselves touch, share natures, or are interrelated in any substantial or mutual way. The ideological preservation of the latter as a distinct, self-sufficient thing, as an extension of intrinsic nobility, requires that. Nor can there be any suggestion that the two persons touch, for that would disrupt the asymmetrical, hierarchical feudal bond with the suggestion of mutual, equal friendship.

Rather, lord and servant can touch in the immixtio manuum, despite the threat of an improper contact between labor and power, because it is a gesture of covering and containment, of appropriation and sublimation, which are of the essence of power, as a force whose operation must be always at once operative and symbolically visible. The vassal’s hands do not so much touch the lord’s as are touched by them. Instead, the vassal’s hands, folded together, touch themselves, contain their own touch, and may thus be held by the lord without contamination. Indeed, it is more accurate to say that lord and vassal touch in the immixtio manuum not simply despite the threat of their improper contact but because of that threat. In other words, labor and power must touch so that their distinction and the distinction of the persons who wield them can be maintained relationally, so that their separateness is not overtaken by independence or simple difference, so that labor remains labor-for-power and power remains power-over-labor.

The consummate function of the immixtio manuum might thus be summed up as the production of the corporate body of the ruler within the individualized body of the lord, a production which has the form of a kind of alchemical transmutation, through the lord’s touch, of the laboring quality of the vassal’s hands into the non-laboring, powerful aura of his own. In other words, in giving his hands to the his lord, the vassal becomes a hand of the lord, and the lord’s hands become more than hands. Of course the ideological fiction, a reverse projection of the truth, is that the ruler’s hands are intrinsically glorious, possessing an aura that is independent of all that is beneath them. Thus the signaling of this aura in what F. L. Ganshof identifies as “the most explicit description of the act of commendation,” of King Harald of Denmark to Louis the Pious in 826: “Mox manibus junctis regi se tradidit ultro . . . / Caesar ad ipse manus manibus suscepit honestis” [Soon he delivered himself, with joined hands, to the king . . . and the emperor himself took his hands between his own glorious hands]. But what is most significant regarding the phenomenology of the hand, is that the immixtio manuum achieves this by capitalizing on the hand’s intrinsic ambivalence, its being always both self and instrument, so that the lord, economically and symbolically, becomes as the head of another as a hand.

A deeper implication of this reading of the immixtio manuum, in light of its continuities with Hegel’s master-slave or lord-bondsman dialectic, is that it points towards an origin for the dialectic not in the primordial encounter and contest between self and other, but in an analogous encounter and contest that is always already at play within the human being, more precisely, within the problem of embodiment, of being simultaneously a witnessing, commanding self and a witnessed, commanded thing. Via embodiment, one is always already an other, both in the totalizing sense of the thrownness (Heidegger’s geworfenheit) of existence, of self and body as a whole, and in the localizing sense of the ambivalence, the middleness of existence, of our being something between self and body, something both and neither. In these terms, embodiment is the primordial container of the encounter within which the master-slave dialectic begins:

"Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other."

As self-sublation, as the structure whereby the body is another self and the self is an other, embodiment is the dialectic in which master and slave, as well as the impossibility of total differentiation of the two, preexist in the to-be-slave and to-be-master. Through embodiment we are already one-in-two and two-in-one in a manner that both invites and renders impossible total identification with, either as master or as slave, one or the other. Whence the soul/mind-body problem as a problem of distinguishing (or deciding) between the two, the representation of their relationship as a debate, and the ideological “solution” of the problem (a solution that remains trapped within it) of differentiating between slave and master by reducing the slave to, and thus producing the master as more than, a body.

Whence also murder-as-suicide and suicide-as-murder, as acts which achieve the opposite of their purposes via the impossibility of a total split between self and other, both within one being and between two. Killing the other, the murderer loses his self, becomes a suicide, as Hegel says, “the trial by death . . . cancels both the truth which was to result from it, and therewith the certainty of self altogether.” Killing himself, the suicide kills an other, becomes a murderer, as Augustine says, “Non occides, nec alterum ergo nec te. Neque enim qui se occidit aliud quam hominem occidit” [You shall not kill, not another, and therefore, not yourself. For he who kills himself kills another in that he kills a human being]. Murder and suicide, as killing a body to negate a self or destroy its encounter with the body, disclose the nature of embodiment as already an encounter between self and other. The crucial role played by the hand in these acts, as precisely what must be turned in order for them to take place, is conspicuous in that it points back to a kind of tension within the hand itself as something whose very nature, as a dialectic of self and body, must be violated or silenced by their agents. To murder with the hand seems to murder the hand, not its instrumentality, for the murdering hand is an exemplary instrument, one that overcomes considerable external and internal constraint, but its humanity, its being a space of dialogue between self and body, of embodiment. If murder is a negation of another being via the conceptual and physical reduction of a self to a body (albeit of a self, a face, that escapes such reduction), an act that says to its victim “you are a body” and makes it so, does it not do something similar to the hand of the murderer? Is not this hand’s traditional pollution (miasma), the invisible clinging of the victim’s blood to it, a residue of this twin reduction in the murderer, the stain of a body that is no longer other than a body upon a body that still is, yet a stain that is paradoxically constituted of what it stains, and therefore, the murderer’s own body as a pure sign of his reduction of a self, and the human more generally, to a body, of his metaphysical error and transgression? Such an equation, an instance of the slimy as explicated by Sartre, is suggested in the relevant lines from Macbeth, which trace a transmutation of the blood which stains the hand into the hand itself: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No – this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine” (2.2.59-61, my emphasis).

Whatever the ontological status of miasma, whether wholly imaginary or something between the poetic and the phenomenal, it offers, as a visible invisible, a concrete instance of a more general real relation (perhaps one that can only be concretized in the imagination) between the hand and the invisible embodied self. The hand, as intimate periphery and instant instrument, is a conspicuous locus of embodiment as a dialectic between self and body, a dialectic that subsists at the most literal level in our continual inner dialogue with our hands, our telling them to do things and learning how to do things by listening to them. Our being so fully in and so obviously other than our hands is embodiment writ small, a synecdochal sign of our being body and something other than body. The hand signifies this doubleness of being in the countless ways it is always more than a hand, but also gesture, a presence, a purpose, an intelligence, and so forth. This otherness of the hand, its always being more than a “mere” hand, is not simply something that is read of the hand, but of the hand’s very essence as a thing whose nature and function are determined by its being possessed by something other than it, by consciousness. This possession is not something static for fixed – our hands are not ours as things that are simply there – but is itself a modulation, a movement in consciousness, a self-body dialogue that represents consciousness’s continual negotiation of its identification with the body. Sartre’s example of bad faith, in which a person’s subconscious self-withdrawal from their hand distinguishes themselves as consciousness, as an immaterial self, perfectly unveils this dialectical movement:

"But then suppose he takes her hand. . . . To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charms. . . . We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation; she speaks of Life, of her life, she shows herself in her essential aspect – a personality, a consciousness. And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing."

Yet the inert hand remains a hand. It is not a thing, but a hand-being-a-thing. And this possibility, the hand’s ability to be physically and discursively merely a hand, points, across the limit of the boundary between self and body, towards the essentially conceptual, linguistic nature of the hand.

The hand is not simply possessed, but is itself its possession, such that “hand,” the category through which the hand is possessed, or word-idea that possesses the hand, touches the hand itself as the medium through which the hand operates, through which one has and uses hands. Whence the human ability to use other parts of the body as hands through their possession as such. In the same way that language does not consist of words but of their speaking, such that a word is not only there to be used but is its own speaking, its own utilization, so the living hand is not the hand per se but its being used, not as something that is there to be used, but as using, as utilization itself. And the essence of this utilization, in turn, consists in having the hand, in consciousness, in language, such that we can say that the hand is a place where having a thing and having the word for a thing are most perfectly fused. Thus Heidegger’s account of this relation as the hand’s humanity in Parmenides:

"Man himself acts [handelt] through the hand [Hand]; for the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man. Only a being which, like man, “has” the word, can and must “have” “the hand.” . . . The hand exists as hand only where there is disclosure and concealment. . . . The hand sprang forth only out of the word and together with the word. Man does not “have” hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man."

Privileging language, Heidegger traces the humanity of the hand by following the word through it into writing and so laments the typewriter as a technology that “tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word.” But what is more deeply at stake here, what this account worries over but is in danger of eliding, is the relation between labor and language within the logos of the hand and with it the fact, noted by Engels, that “the hand is not only the organ of labor, it is also the product of labor.” If the human essence is founded on logos and the word is “the essential realm of the hand,” what is the status of the operative hand, the hand of labor, within this relation? In the incarnational coming to be of the hand “out of the word and together with the word” – a description that both acknowledges and frustrates the relation between manipulation and language, both essentializes and accessorizes the hand – where is labor? Does not the hand, via its very intelligence, point to a shared space of language-as-labor and labor-as-language, an originary place within the dialectic of self and body where thinking and manipulating, gesturing and speaking, touching and knowing are acts of a single organ, a single logos, a hand of the hand?

Labor and language have an essential but ambivalent relationship within traditional definitions of the hand. As a conspicuous point of contact between soul and body, the hand is both a place where labor touches language and a place where the two must be definitively distinguished. In the De partibus animalium, Aristotle takes pains to disqualify Anaxagoras’s view of the hands as a cause of human intelligence:

"Standing thus erect, man has no need of legs in front, and in their stead has been endowed by nature with arms and hands. Now it is the opinion of Anaxagoras that the possession of these hands is the cause of man being of all animals the most intelligent. But it is more rational to suppose that his endowment with hands is the consequence rather than the cause of his superior intelligence. For the hands are instruments or organs, and the invariable plan of nature in distributing the organs is to give each to such animal as can make use of it; nature acting in this matter as any prudent man would do. For it is a better plan to take a person who is already a flute-player and give him a flute, than to take one who possesses a flute and teach him the art of flute-playing. For nature adds that which is less to that which is greater and more important, and not that which is more valuable and greater to that which is less. Seeing then that such is the better course, and seeing also that of what is possible nature invariably brings about the best, we must conclude that man does not owe his superior intelligence to his hands, but his hands to his superior intelligence. For the most intelligent of animals is the one who would put the most organs to use; and the hand is not to be looked on as one organ but as many; for it is, as it were, an instrument for further instruments. This instrument, therefore, – the hand – of all instruments the most variously serviceable, has been given by nature to man, the animal of all animals the most capable of acquiring the most varied handicrafts."

Seen through the scope of these counterarguments, the idea that human intelligence could derive from the hands threatens not only the dependence of the hand’s operation on intelligence, but the whole teleological and providential fabric of the natural world whereby bodies are disposed in the best possible way and the human is the best animal with the best body. And yet the notion of the best that governs this argument, best as the most intelligent, is a space of significant tautology. The best explanation, the most reasonable explanation, is the one that preserves the superiority of reason, a superiority that is constituted relationally, by reason’s various relations to what is other than it: being a cause rather than a consequence of the hand, being prior to (as potentiality to act) the use of the hand, being capable of the maximum number of things with the hand. In other words, the argument, as reason’s argument, has the character of a self-preserving mechanism, a preservation of the independence and autonomy of the rational self (as master) vis-à-vis the dependence and contingency of the hand (as slave). The master (reason) does not derive from, depend upon, or learn from the slave (hand). Nor is the master’s nature constituted by being the master of the slave. The slave is indeed a most excellent slave, but he does not add anything to the master or alter him in any way. The slave does not introduce anything new into the master. Everything the slave can do, the master already knows how to, as the flute to the master flute player. In short, the slave has the character of a gift, a most excellent gift for a most excellent master.

The limitation of Aristotle’s account of the hand lies not only in its assumption of an intelligence that exists prior to and independent of the hand, as something to which the hand can be given, but more deeply in its elision of the dialectical interplay between hand and reason, soul and body, in the operation of human nature, an elision that is barely concealed behind the flute and flute player analogy. Just as giving a flute to someone who cannot play it is the only way to create a flute player, so the knowledge that uses the hand as the instrument of instruments exists only in relation to the hand itself. It is a product of having hands. The distinction between the hands and the intelligence which uses them remains. And we may say that knowing how to the use the hand as such is a potentiality of intelligence. But we cannot say that it is a potentiality only of intelligence. The hand has its own potentialities and knowing how to use the hands is as much about teaching the hands to do and learning from the hands how to do. As Bachelard says, “every hand is an awareness of action.” In other words, the operation of the hands touches and blurs the boundary, central to Aristotle’s Ethics, between faculty and habit (ethos, habitus), first and second nature:

"Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre."

On the one hand, the hand is like a faculty, an already present bodily power not created by use but ready to be put to use. So the hand can be willed into use in a manner similar to other faculties, as something that is already capable of what is asked of it. In the disagreement between Anaxagoras and Aristotle, this aspect of the hand is contained in the fact that both assume the hand as unique physical instrument, as an organ animals do not possess. That is, if an animal did possess a hand it would either not know how to use it or become intelligent as a human. This reifying concept of the hand is countered in the Romance of the Rose, where Nature imagines what would happen if animals had reason: “Hands would not be a problem, for the monkeys could work with their hands, so they would in no way be inferior to man; they could even be writers.” On the other hand, the radical instrumentality of the hand, its being so expressly constituted by its use by something other than hand, defines the hand as an acquired or habitual function. The hand actually becomes the hand by its being used as a hand, by the taking shape of the human person around and within the hand, which is of the essence of habitus as a stable disposition or second nature, as the condition of having the potential for something in such a way that doing it is natural, easy. Everything our hands do we have learned to do with our hands. But who has taught whom?

The difficulty of answering this question is the difficulty of distinguishing in any final way between primary and secondary, given and acquired, natures in the human being. So the possibility of asking this question is the ambiguity of embodiment, of our being simultaneously a body and something other than a body. “To be a body,” as Levinas writes, “is on the one hand to stand [se tenir], to be master of oneself, and, on the other hand, to stand on the earth, to be in the other, and thus to be encumbered by one’s body.” The hope, the wonder, the beauty of the hand is that it points towards a resolution of this difficulty, this ambiguity, this encumbrance. As the hand is an organ or means through which the human being becomes itself by becoming another, so does it synecdochally indicate the instrumentality of the whole body, not as its being the instrument of an independently existing consciousness, but as the instrument of consciousness itself, as the very organ or means by which consciousness is produced and realized as the consciousness of a more than corporeal being. In other words, the hand has the nature of a fulfillment, conceivable in both ontogenetic and evolutionary terms, of an originary habitus, a primal having of oneself, equatable with consciousness itself, that is the foundation for all other habit-ūs. Such a having is not having as the possession of something distinct from oneself or the holding of an object within one’s power. Rather this originary having is essentially the having of identification, the having of something as oneself that, being the equal of having something that has oneself, equals having oneself, the self-possession that, as a kind of magical product of possessing and being possessed, equals one’s very being. In these terms, the hand, as that which holds, is the physical ground of being as a metaphysical self-holding. The hope of the hand is that it manifests the identification of self with body, the holding-being-held at the heart of embodiment, not as a mistake or metaphysical predicament from which one must escape, but as an instrumentality, as an opening into freedom and possibility. As a site of marriage between the who and the what, of seamlessly being something that is in itself patently other than oneself, the hand speaks embodiment as the means of realization in the fullest sense, that is, not only as intellectual and/or material manifestation, but as the very making of the real, as the means through which anything is happening at all. The hand reveals embodiment as the identification, the simultaneous and non-contradictory making two of one and one of two, that is the foundation of the world as event, of the world as the very space of selves.

But this hope, which promises something like a reclaiming of matter for the spirit or an incarnational opening of the body as other than body, rather than representing an overcoming of instrumentality, rests within it, rests within and depends upon embodiment as instrumentality, upon the body as hand, upon labor . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Beyond Beyond: On High on Fire's "The Yeti" (4th installment)

ETYMOLOGICAL EXISTENCE. Etymologically, existence means something like what stands forth. Yeti is a Tibetan compound, yeh-teh, meaning something like person-animal or little manlike animal. The Yeti’s existence is therefore something like the standing forth of a small humanoid animal. And that is all the Yeti is, that is all the Yeti does! The Yeti is, so to speak, its own etymology, a truly namable being who is its own perfect instance, a non-derivative yet particularized nature. This does not mean that the Yeti’s existence lacks purpose. Rather, the Yeti’s existence is something between the purpose-bound existence we call “life” and the purposelessness of absolute existence: “Existence exists. Being Existence it has to exist. Hence Existence, the Reality, cannot have any purpose. It just is. It is self-existing. Everything – the things and the beings – in Existence has a purpose. All things and beings have a purpose and must have a purpose, or else they cannot be in existence as what they are. Their very being in existence proves their purpose; and their sole purpose in existing is to become shed of purpose, i.e., to become purposeless” (Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing, 62). The Yeti does not “live” beyond the mountains of ice, he exists there. Yet he does not simply exist, because his existence is constituted by a purpose, not a purpose identifiable with any other existing thing or being, but the purpose of his own being, which is to stand forth as a small humanoid animal. This means that the Yeti exists on the path to purposelessness and lives on the boundary between purpose and the purposeless – a liminality most evident in the Yeti’s solitariness. Does this mean the Yeti is lonesome? It is impossible to say.
His secret lies in the skies
EMPYREAN CONSPIRACY. Just as the Yeti is an open secret, something everyone knows about without actually knowing, without understanding, so the Yeti’s own secret, at once the secret he carries and the secret of himself, subsists in a present elsewhere or local beyond, in a place we can point towards but not to. The sky has this character above all through its dimensional dimensionlessness, its being so deep, so expansive that it appears flat and so perfectly flat that it contains extra dimensions. Which is of the essence of skies as a plural singular and singular plural. To be in the sky is to be in the skies, a multiple of itself, in something more than sky. To be in the skies is to be in the sky, a totality of themselves, in something greater than skies. The perfect circularity of the sky’s self-otherness thus leads both everywhere and nowhere. The skies are everywhere, but the place of this everywhere, the place of the sky, is nowhere. Where is the sky? Where the secret is. As secrecy is constituted by location, the undetermined elsewhere-being of a desired-to-be-known, so the location of the secret in the sky unveils the nature of secrecy itself as a something that is something else, a something else that is at once nothing at all, nothing else. In other words, the secret and the sky share an identical shape, the shape of a transparent covering of nothing. The sky covers its nothingness, both the nothingness of its location (its being nowhere) and the nothingness of its substance (its being emptiness), through its very transparency, a transparency which, against the background of the unthinkability of nothingness, becomes the illusory substance of infinite space. Likewise, the secret covers its nothingness, both the nothingness of its location (it being only where it is not) and the nothingness of its substance (its being an unknowable unknown), through its very transparency, its total lack of content, which, against the backdrop of the unthinkability of nothingness, becomes the illusory substance of mysterious significance. Which means that the secret and the sky also share the shape of a perfect lie, a lie that operates not through deception but through openness, by being such a fully open space for belief that we are led to place within its placelessness a truth we can never know, to lead ourselves by the nose into the fiction of a wholly external beyond. What compels us to do this? Nothing but (fear of) our own mystery. Because the only place where the universe might be is within the self and because a secret can similarly only be where it is not, in the unknowing self, we place our true self as a secret in the sky, build an empyrean where the self’s truth can live, unknown, locked in the safety of an unknowable knowing other. Why? To hide, to sleep, to preserve the privacy of superficial and self-centered being, to build and worship a god who knows us so we do not have to know ourselves, to avoid absolute honesty, to delay facing our own unknown knower, the God we do not know, to kill the unkillable question, who am I? . . . and all the other excuses (a.k.a. well-timed lies) for why we cannot risk ourselves. “He who speculates from the shore about the ocean shall know only its surface, but he who would know the depths of the ocean must be willing to plunge into it” (Meher Baba, Discourses, II.191) – a willingness that is nothing other than our being in the present, the nunc stans, where fear and speculation give way to the irreparable instant act of love: “’And what of our delight when the knight, almost before the fearful voice has ceased, without giving his situation a second thought, without stopping to consider the peril to which he is exposing himself, or even shedding the burden of his heavy armour, commends himself to God and to his lady and hurls himself into the boiling lake and, all of a sudden when he least knows where he is bound, finds himself amidst flowery meadows, far finer than the Elysian fields?’” (Cervantes, Don Quixote, I.50). Thus the transparent deeper meaning of the sky as the locus where the Yeti’s secret lies, the place exposing secrecy’s lie, the self-facing mirror where there are no secrets. The Yeti’s secret is that the Yeti, like other secrets, is not a secret. “And perhaps after all, there is no secret [Cf. Derrida]. We incline to think that the Problem of the Universe is like the Freemason's mighty secret, so terrible to all children. It turns out, at last, to consist in a triangle, a mallet, and an apron, – nothing more!” (Melville, Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, [April 16?] 1851). But if you want to dream about the Yeti’s secret, to believe in the Yeti (whatever that means) instead of be friends with him, or if you want to deny the Yeti’s existence all together, to disbelieve in the Yeti (whatever that means) instead of be friends with him, the sky will not stop you, but lovingly reflect your own gaze, lighting all things with the look of what you take them to be.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Beyond Beyond: On High on Fire's "The Yeti" (installment the third)

Metal takes sonic substantiality to its outermost aesthetic limit: the reality of sound so loud it can hurt (befuddle the boundary in the organum spirale), the fantasy of sound so solid it can kill. Whence Doom, or, drowning under quaking mountains of sound: “Shockwaves rattle the Earth below with hymn of doom” (Sleep, “From Beyond,” Sleep’s Holy Mountain). Thrash, or, hacking
Exists a creature of frost
and being hacked to bits with finely ground axes of sound: “Modulistic terror / A vast sadistic feast / The only way to exit / Is going piece by piece” (Slayer, “Piece by Piece,” Reign in Blood). Death, or, being disembowled from within by chthonic rumblings of sound: “We’re turned inside out / Beyond the piercing cries” (Obituary, “Turned Inside Out,” Cause of Death). Black, or, freezing to death in infernal ice wastes of sound: “The burning corpse of god shall keep us warm in the doom of howling winds” (Xasthur, “Doomed by Howling Winds," Xasthur). Heavy Metal = ritual death by sound disclosing the self’s reality. UNFREEZABLE BEING. Being frost, the Yeti cannot be frozen, not because he is already frozen, but because he transcends freezing. What transcends freezing? Being. Being is unfreezable, not only in the silly sense that it is beyond temperature, but in the sublime sense that, as the very reality of existence, it cannot be fixed, solidified, rendered a manipulatable thing. To freeze is to reify, to make a thing out of something that is not a thing. And life, being, is not a thing! Whence Merleau-Ponty’s critique of the “freezing of being” which science performs upon the world via concepts (e.g. time, force, space) that fix and objectify phenomena: “In developing the concept of the thing, scientific knowledge was not aware that it was working on a presupposition” (Phenomenology of Perception, 63). Whence Heidegger’s counter-picture of moving through space one already inhabits: “When I go toward the door of the lecture hall, I am already there, and I could not go to it at all if I were not such that I am there. I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the room, and only thus can I go through it” (Building Dwelling Thinking, 157). This is the language of unfreezing, the poetic-philosophic language that melts being, rescues it from scientia experimentalis and returns it to itself as its own element, a language that is unafraid of its own experience. For, “against repeated claims to the contrary, modern science has its origins in a unprecedented mistrust of experience” (Agamben, Infancy and History, 19). Where is the place of this return? Where is our being restored to itself as such? The heart. Neither physical nor intellectual, yet both, the barzakh of soul and body, the heart is a liminal creature within us that is us, the ourselves that is ours, the possessed possessor and given giver, a creature which not only experiences the return of being to itself but is itself this very return, a return we experience as warmth: “In one of his hands he appeared to hold something all aflame, and he seemed to say to me these words: Vide cor tuum [behold your heart]” (Dante, Vita Nuova, 3:5). Following the fallacy of naturalism (vide Husserl) past the place where consciousness is disregarded as hallucination, the “scientist” climbs too high: “the scientific mind goes on up the mountain until its heart freezes and dies. But this mind is becoming so staggered by the vastness still beyond it, that it will be forced to admit the hopelessness of its quest” (Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing, 56). High in that vastness, in a beyond he cannot reach, the Yeti walks, unfreezable, at home. The Yeti’s frozenness, his being living frost, is being’s infinite warmth, seen through the eyes of those who cannot see.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Beyond Beyond: On High on Fire's "The Yeti" (second installment)

Or perhaps there is a way for elemental creatures, through their very liminal nature to make themselves recordable as external objects? POETIC TELEPORTATION. “Mountains of ice” is already beyond mountains, which are more truly made of rock. And the line maps our travel beyond that, into a landscape that is so beyond that the only way to get there is to already be there, in the beyond beyond. This is the accomplishment of poetry, to transport us into the presence of things by placing us inside speaking them, to teleport, via the chamber of musical commemoration of language’s “own inaccessible originary place” (Agamben, Language and Death, 78), to within speaking distance of the beyond. Cf. the Himalayan sage Milarepa’s “Upon the lofty crystal peak of the snow mountain in the east / is the auspicious white lion roaring”

Exists a creature of frost

(Songs of Milarepa, 50). Cf. Dante seeing Beatrice across an unspeakable distance that makes no difference: “ma nulla mi facea, ché süa effige / non discendëa a me per mezzo mista” (Paradiso 31.77-8). Poetry, a charge leaping the gap between the music of language and the language of music, is an art that makes nothing of distance, not through some supernatural power, but by disempowering our ability to see distances that are not there, so that the closeness of the image is revealed as the closeness of the thing itself, its only closeness. ASPATIOTEMPORAL METAL. Across time and across space, the song dreams the elemental being of the Yeti the only way it can be dreamed, elementally, that is, as Heavy Metal. Understanding Metal’s elemental character unveils the dream of the Yeti as the desire of Metal itself and thus reveals the song’s essential, elemental significance, not its academic significance (what it says about something else), but its apophantic significance, what it says about itself, and more deeply, the saying that is its being the event of itself. Being an elemental creature means being what one is made of, being a being that is its own substance. Within the Yeti, there is no space between creaturely being and frost’s existence. But human being, suspicious of itself, guilty and disoriented, is both haunted by a sense of being other than what one is made of and faithless of this other’s substantiality. Auto-heretics, we see everyday the ghost of ourselves and still do not believe. Instead, we conceive and feel ourselves as made out of something else, something more elemental than the self. So we fear and romanticize – one coin’s two sides – death as dissolution into elemental substance, as evaporation. Yet our voice, complaining or consoling, betrays itself, carries back to us its elemental, ownmost whisper, a voice within voice that is also ours, a secret suggestion that death’s loss is our missing of death, its darkness our blindness to it. What delusion, what silliness, to think that I am both other than and reducible to my elements, to cast myself as a spell of never being myself, neither in life or death! I AM. And my being here as body and self is not only proof but the very reality of that fact as substantial, ineradicable. “So, life through the medium of the gross body is only a section of the continuous life of the individualised soul . . . There is no unbridgeable gulf separating the finer aspects of nature from its gross aspect. They all interpenetrate one another and exist together” (Meher Baba, Discourses, III.55). The “impossibility” of our being here forecloses the possibility of our not being here, of death as such, wherever here happens to be. So, from the horizon of the beyond beyond, the Yeti calls us back to life’s continuity, self-continuous life, the happy life of being one’s own substance. Emblematically, Yeti is Yet-I, the self-saying speaking self that exists despite whatever surrounds it, the atemporal “yet” that is the I. Heavy Metal makes the Yeti’s call heard by elementalizing, physicalizing sound, by making sound, a “mere” vibration of elements analogous to the “mere” self (the self as made of body), an element, a substance unto itself. Maybe music does that, but no music does it more than Metal, the most exuberant experience of the substantiality of sound. Metal takes this substantiality to its outermost aesthetic limit: the reality of sound so loud it can hurt (as if to break the boundary in the organum spirale!), the fantasy of sound so solid it can kill. Whence Doom (drowning under earthquaking mountains of sound), Thrash (hacking and being hacked to bits with finely ground axes of sound), Death (being disembowled from within by chthonic rumblings of sound), Black (freezing to death in infernal ice wastes of sound). Heavy Metal = ritual death by sound disclosing the self’s reality.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Highly Interpretable Hardcore Himalayan Adventure (Esoteric, Obscure, and Loosely Translated!)

"As Milarepa proceeded on his way, a host of demons assembled and conjured visions of huge female organs on the road to shock him. Then the Jestun concentrated his mind and exposed his erected male organ with a gesture. He went farther, and passing an apparition of nine female organs, reached a place with a rock shaped like a vagina standing in its center -- the quintessence of the region. He inserted a phallic-shaped stone into the hollow of the rock, [a symbolic act] which dispersed the lascivious images created by the demons" (The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, trans. Garma C.C. Chang [Boston: Shambala, 1989], 20).

The "emendation" is by the translator, who also adds this absolutely wonderful note: "The meaning of this passage in the text is esoteric and therefore obscure; it may thus be subject to different interpretations. This is a free translation" (ibid, 22n30).