Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grave Levitation: Being Scholarly

[T]he problem of knowledge is a problem of possession, and every problem of possession is a problem of enjoyment.—Giorgio Agamben[i]

Pleasure and pain occur as follows. When a lot of air mingles with the blood and makes it light, which is a natural occurrence, and pervades the whole body, pleasure is the result. When the unnatural happens and the air does not mingle, the blood gets heavier and weaker and thicker, and pain is the result.—Diogenes of Apollonia[ii]

Gravity is a mystery of the body devised to hide defects of the spirit.—François de La Rochefoucauld[iii]

Mainly, the question is how light or heavy we are—the problem of our 'specific gravity'.—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science[iv]

Our world has inherited the world of gravity: all bodies weigh on one another, and against one another, heavenly bodies and callous bodies, vitreous bodies and corpuscles. But gravitational mechanics is corrected here on just one point: bodies weigh lightly.—Jean-Luc Nancy[v]

[I]t must have been like seeing one of the huge pillars of the church suspended like a cloud.—G.K. Chesterton, describing Thomas Aquinas’s levitation[vi]

Medievalist bodies, embodied medievalists! How do medievalists become bodies? How do bodies become medievalist? What is the place of pleasure in these becomings? These are terrible, silly, impossible, questions to inflict on ourselves. Yet insist and inflict I will, like a perverse medieval mystical body, like a flagellant subjecting you to the spectacle of my own affliction.

There is of course a more generic question here, a typical but powerful question about the place of the body and its pleasures within the broader set of practices to which medieval studies institutionally belongs. This question flows in many directions and could lead me to consider the medieval as a site within corporeal hermeneutics generally and how the study of medieval stuff contributes to its practical and theoretical evolution. And here there is an unmistakable medievalist presence, for example: John Milhaven’s recuperation of mystical bodily knowing and mutual loving so as "to affect all areas of human decision and action"; Hans Gumbrecht’s call, also grounded in a premodern cosmocentric subject, for "a relation to things of the world that could oscillate between presence effects and meaning effects"; Carolyn Dinshaw's invitation to a queer tactile historiography that works "through affective connection . . . and the collapse of conventional historical time;" Giorgio Agamben's stilnovistic pneumophantasmological indication of the neither-subjective-nor-objective as the "'third area' that a science of man truly freed of every eighteenth-century prejudice should focus its study"; and my own hyperarticulated desires, buttressed by the temporality of Talmudic pilpul and the sensuousness of medieval exegesis, for commentary as the spicy form of geophilosophical becoming.[vii] Such lines of flight invest in the present embodied space of pleasure as the proper place of scholarship, the workshop of its facta, and speak towards the realization of mobile communities that may supercede, perforate, and perfect the conventional forms of life they inhabit.

Here I wish not to float past but to orbitally slingshot my way around this discursive mass so as to arrive somewhere else. The metaphor has special meaning in relation to the observed gravitational anomalies whereby spacecraft have inexplicably increased velocity during Earth flybys.[viii] It suggests, perhaps as the local analogue of the similarly anomalous accelerating expansion of the universe that we live in or lives in us, the potentiality of gravity to be something otherwise. So I fling myself towards scholarly pleasure measured gravitationally, as affecting the weight of bodies, hoping to arrive at medieval studies in the middle of the moment where the heavy becomes light, where gravity is flight.

Pleasure's deep relation to gravity is evident generally in our tendency to speak of its quality in terms of weight. Pleasure presents itself through a scalar sense of my body's weight, a mood of relative corporeal heaviness or lightness. Joy is literally uplifting and sadness literally depressing. In regard to pleasure more specifically, the relation is clearest in the context of the distinction between love and lust, which I take as wholly applicable to the quality of intellectual desire. As Meher Baba explains, in terms that invite translation into the relational spaces between scholarly subjects and objects, the amorous zones of philology and philosophy,

In lust there is reliance upon the object of sense and consequent spiritual subordination of the soul to it, but love puts the soul into direct and co-ordinate relation with the reality which is behind the form. Therefore lust is experienced as being heavy and love is experienced as being light. In lust there is a narrowing down of life and in love there is an expansion in being. To have loved one soul is like adding its life to your own. Your life is, as it were, multiplied and you virtually live in two centres. If you love the whole world you vicariously live in the whole world, but in lust there is an ebbing down of life and a general sense of hopeless dependence upon a form which is regarded as another. . . . Lust seeks fulfillment but love experiences fulfillment. (Discourses 1.160)

These distinctions speak especially to how otherness and sameness function as twin containers for lustful, appropriative scholarly relations whereas loving, expansive scholarship is a movement in relation to an object whose being is not collapsed by these alternatives, what Agamben names whatever being, "the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is."[ix] I will highlight the crux of the distinction, the moment where lust gives way to love, where heavy self-centered movement becomes a mobile multi-centered lightness, where bodies become planetary. This moment is grounded in the potentiality of lust as already a form of love, an already that is visible as the inescapable movement or desire of gravity itself, "a dim reflection of the love which pervades every part of the universe" (Discourses 1.156), "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stele" (Paradiso 3.145). That it is the other stars who have Dante's final word unveils love's unity with an originary otherness legible in gravitation as a motion toward other centers, i.e. a movement whose perfection would realize the old definition of God as a sphere whose center is everywhere and/or the Nietzschean death of God—"The middle is everywhere. Crooked is the path of eternity"—for which Meister Eckhart famously prayed: "I pray to God to rid me of God."[x] In other words, the lust-to-love transition, as a movement of being, is a kind of corporeal cosmic flow between the poles of gravity's double signification of singular essential weight and omnipresent primordial movement.

So the medieval studies I am thrown into is a gravely levitating scholarly being, the lovely becoming light of weight in all senses: metaphoric, literal, and above all in the truest most palpable sense of the phenomenal poetic zones of indistinction between the two. This means, in tune with the Heraclitan oneness of the way up and the way down, not flight from but the very lightening of gravitas itself, the finding or falling into levitas through the triple gravities of the discipline: the weight of the medieval (texts, past), the weight of each other (society, institutions), and the weight of ourselves (body, present). Towards this end I offer no precepts or to-do list, only an indication of the wisdom and necessity of doing so, of practicing our highest pleasures, in unknowing of the division between poetry as knowledge and philosophy as joy[xi], in opposition to the separation between thought and life that best expresses "the omnipresence of the economy,"[xii] and in harmony with the volitional imperative of Nietzsche's "new gravity: the eternal recurrence of the same": "Do you want this again and innumerable times again?"[xiii] This Middle Ages? This medievalist?

The medieval possesses me with a peculiar specific gravity, like Chaucer's being "a popet in an arm t' embrace / For any womman, smal and fair of face," like Boccaccio's authorial weightiness—not grave but so light he floats on the water, like Dante's body made macro [thin] by a poema sacro, like Aquinas's airy bovine corpus, like the fiery mealtime conversation of Francis and Claire that seems to consume the nearby church, like the floaty Neoplatonic discourse of Monica and Augustine: "And higher still we ascended, thinking and speaking and wondering."[xiv] These light weights pull me to levitate gravely in a way that may be called aggressive contemplation, thinking contemplation both in the medieval sense of the hermeneutic fruit that gives "a foretaste, even in this life, of what the future reward of good work is" and in its original meaning, to mark out a space for close, augural observation.[xv] As Hugh of St. Victor explains, whereas meditation is an "assiduous and shrewd drawing back of thought . . . [that] is always about things hidden from our understanding," contemplation is "a keen and free observation of the mind expanding everywhere to look into things . . . [and] is about things as manifest."[xvi] Such work, as the Cloud of Unknowing explains, has the proportional power of "suddenly and graciously" making pleasing and beautiful the appearance of the "worst looking man or woman."[xvii] Contemplation, setting up shop at the ancient place Nietzsche calls "the whole Olympus of appearance," attends to surfaces as the deep space of life, the place of pleasure where the burdens of understanding the past and planning the future become an unpredictable baroque frame for remembering the present. Aggressive contemplation, like the accelerating centerless expansion of the cosmos, does not wait for but moves forcefully into itself, territorializing the unbounded, unwalled space of its pleasure with nothing other than pleasure's movement, the ravished-ravishing taking place of taking pleasure. Here our seeing totally does not translate into the life-deferring instrumental transparency that keeps us from speaking to each other. Here, responsible for my own happiness and for producing the perfume of its truth, I float with Aquinas and burn down the church with Francis. Or as the appropriately named heavy metal band High on Fire sing it, "Come all ye losers, don't you know you're the children of life? / Follow me now and we'll burn down the pillars of time."[xviii]

[i] Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Roland L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xvii

[ii] The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 200.

[iii] "La gravité est un mystère du corps inventé pour cacher les défauts de l'esprit" (Collected Maxims and Other Reflections [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], V.257).

[iv] The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambrdige University Press, 2001), 5.380.

[v] Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 93.

[vi] Collected Works, 11 vols. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 2.505.

[vii] John Giles Milhaven, Hadewijch and Her Sisters: Other Ways of Loving and Knowing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 120; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), xv; Carolyn Dinshaw, "Getting Medieval," Journal of the History of Sexuality 10 (2001): 203; Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, 59; Nicola Masciandaro, "Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy," Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development (forthcoming).

[ix] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 2.

[x] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “The Convalescent,” 175. R. Schürmann, Meister Eckhart, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978, p. 219.

[xi] "The scission in question is that between poetry and philosophy, between the poetic word and the word of thought. . . . the scission of the word is construed to mean that poetry possess its object without knowing it while philosophy knows its object without possessing it. In the West, the word is thus divided between a word that is unaware, as if fallen from the sky, and enjoys the object of knowledge by representing it in beautiful form, and a word that has all seriousness and consciousness for itself but does not enjoy its object because it does not know how to represent it. The split between poetry and philosophy testifies to the impossibility, for Western culture, of fully possessing the object of knowledge (The scission in question is that between poetry and philosophy, between the poetic word and the word of thought. . . . the scission of the word is construed to mean that poetry possess its object without knowing it while philosophy knows its object without possessing it. In the West, the word is thus divided between a word that is unaware, as if fallen from the sky, and enjoys the object of knowledge by representing it in beautiful form, and a word that has all seriousness and consciousness for itself but does not enjoy its object because it does not know how to represent it, that is, of language). In our culture knowledge . . . is divided between inspired-ecstatic and rational-conscious poles, neither ever succeeding in wholly reducing the other. . . . What is thus overlooked is the fact that every authentic poetic project is directed toward knowledge, just as every authentic act of philosophy is always directed toward joy" (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, xvii).

[xii] Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit: General Considerations and Firsthand Testimony Concerning Some Brief Flowerings of Life in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and, Incidentally, Our Own Time, trans. Randall Cherry and Ian Patterson (New York: Zone, 1994), 18.

[xiii] “The Recurrence of the Same,” notebook entry from August 1881, cited from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Graham Parkes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xxii; The Gay Science, 4.341.

[xiv] Sir Thopas 701-2; "io confesso d'esser pesato, e molte volte de' miei dí essere stato; e per ciò, parlando a quelle che pesato non m'hanno, affermo che io non son grave, anzi son io sí lieve che io sto a gall nell'acqua" (Boccaccio, Decameron, ed. Cesare Segre [Milan: Mursia, 1966], 676); "Se mai continga ch 'l poema sacro / al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra, sì che m'ha fatto per molti anni macro . . .(Paradiso 25. 1-3); "One effect of Thomas's amazing concentration in prayer was that several times, as he prayed, his body was seen lifted off the ground, as it if followed the movement of his mind, as with him who said 'The Spirit raised me up between earth and heaven'" (Bernard Gui, Life of St. Thomas Aquinas, ch.23, in The Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Biographical Documents, trans. and ed. Kenelm Foster [Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1959], 42); "And in the meantime Saint Francis had the table prepared on the bare ground, as he usually did. When it was time to eat they sat down together: Saint Clare with Saint Francis; one of the companions of Saint Francis with the companion of Saint Clare; then all the other companions gathered humbly at the table. And as a first course Saint Francis began to speak of God so sweetly, so deeply, and so wonderfully that the abundance of divine grace descended upon them, and all were rapt into God. And while they were enraptured in this way, their eyes and hands lifted up to heaven, the people of Assisi and Bettona and those of the surrounding area saw Saint Mary of the Angels burning brightly, along with the whole place and the forest, which was next to the place. It seemed that a great fire was consuming the church, the place and the forest together" (Little Flowers of Saint Francis, ch. 15, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, ed. Armstrong, Hellmann, and Short [New York: New City Press, 2001), 3.591); "Et adhuc ascendebamus, interius cogitando et loquendo et mirando opera tua" (Augustine, Confessions, 9.10).

[xv] Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 5.9

[xvi] "Meditatio est assidua et sagax retractatio cogitationis, aliquid, vel involutum explicare nitens, vel scrutans penetrare occultum. Contemplatio est perspicax, et liber animi contuitus in res perspiciendas usquequaque diffusus. Inter meditationem et contemplationem hoc interesse videtur. Quod meditatio semper est de rebus ab intelligentia nostra occultis. Contemplatio vero de rebus, vel secundum suam naturam, vel secundum capacitatem nostram manifestis" (In Salomonis Ecclesiasten Homiliae XIX, PL 175:116-7).

[xvii] "Whoso had this werk, it schuld governe him ful seemly, as wele in body as in soule, and make hym ful favorable unto iche man or woman that lokyd apon hym; insomoche that the worst favored man or woman that leveth in this liif, and thei mighte come to by grace to worche in this work, theire favour schuld sodenly and graciously be changed, that iche good man that hem sawe schulde be fayne and joyful to have hem in companye, and ful mochil thei schuld think that thei were plesid in spirit and holpen by grace unto God in theire presence" (The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher [Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997], 54.1874-80).

[xviii] High on Fire, "Hung, Drawn, and Quartered," Surrounded by Thieves


anna klosowska said...

so beautiful and so true--as continue our group conversation from the blog, T-shirt, etc., I just learned that in late Antiquity Socrates was considered somewhat a lightweight of a philosopher because his style was so one can be the foundation of thought for everyone, I guess :o)

Nicola Masciandaro said...

So glad you enjoy. And thought cannot be a foundation for thought, unless it floats! Which makes me think of Aesop's solution for how to build a tower in the sky: vultures carrying masons in baskets holding aloft meat on a stick! Human, animal, and the flesh between them--a perfect trinity!

anna klosowska said...

hmmm it's like incandescence

Anonymous said...

How do you write like this? What does the 'process' involve? Amazing. Sorry for these idiotic questions (no irony intended), just genuinely impressed/ perplexed/ curious.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Thank you Anonymous! That is a tough question, *how* one writes, to which I cannot think of a proper answer. If there is a process it is not something I intentionally follow. More like subconscious self-mimicry?

kvond said...

What if gravity (gravitas) was simply the time (tempo) it took to fall? The intensity (intensitiveness) of it. Levitation is not the capacity to ascend, but rather to fall in delayed fashion, to drift...down. And leadenness, the capacity to rift the air. This, the quality of a fall.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I of course like this idea very much. So if everything is always falling somewhere, corporeally and existentially and so forth, falling into something (cf. walking as falling), from a momentum that primordially exceeds all intention (givenness, habit, etc), then an entity's gravity expresses some kind of inner relation to time? the time of its being? Cf Deleuze & Guattari on "habit as the original synthesis of time." Here we might see the continuities between gravity, weight, disposition, carriage, facon . . .

This comes to mind: "The body comes gradually down and alights gently. At least, such is the general rule. But there are exceptions. Upon one occasion, Joseph of Copertino, having recovered his senses on the top of a tree, could not come down again--a ladder had to be brought" (Leroy, Levitation: An Examination of the Evidence and Explanations).

Nicola Masciandaro said...

p.s. just found your flying stone post. Perfect!

kvond said...


I just love the associations you come up with. Fantastic(al). Of course Joseph of Copertino could come down from his tree, but not of a music/time of his choosing. He would come down too suddenly, deeply, with too much punctuation.

And falling "into something" as a primordeal truth is really resonant (I see Lucretius's swerving atoms all in descent).

For some reason this reminds me of a subject I have been working recently, a post which explores the analog vs. digital codings which some bio-semiologist say typify life, wherein analog give us the material richness of bodily tracings, diachronically displayed, whereas synchronic digital (syntactic) codes provide dense venues of possible recombination (DNA for instance). As we fall "into" a deeper music of pre-existing material symphony, our notes must find their footing there, in the lower-down analog of body to body communications. Our levitations seem to allow ourselve to caught/hold our breath, just a bit, to delay the entry so as to gain syncopation, rhythm. We sometimes "ladder down" into it.

kvond said...

p.s. thanks for comment on the flying stone. I had not made the connection, but perhaps your post had communicated the association to Spinoza's illustration to me, giving me the substance of my post.

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