multivalence is the new ambivalence

Category: (pseudo)theory

meaning of life

from Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A very short introduction

Religious fundamentalism is the neurotic anxiety that without a Meaning of meanings, there is no meaning at all. It is simply the flip side of nihilism.

ترتكز الأصولية الدينية على اعتقاد مرضيّ بأن غياب المعنى الأكبر هو غياب للمعاني كلها. هي إذن الوجه الآخر للعدمية.

‘What is the meaning of life’ looks at first glance like the same kind of question as ‘What is the capital of Albania?’, or ‘What is the colour of ivory?’ But is it really? Could it be more like ‘What is the taste of geometry’

“ما هو معنى الحياة” قد يبدو للوهلة الأولى سؤالاً عادياً، مثله مثل “ما هي عاصمة ألبانيا؟” أو “ما هو لون العاج؟” ولكن هل هو حقاً كذلك؟ أم أنه أقرب لسؤال من نوع “ما هو طعم الهندسة؟”

Wittgenstein was alert to the difference between real questions and phoney ones. A piece of language can have the grammatical form of a question but not actually be one . . .  ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ might sound like a reasonable sort of question to pose, but only because we are thinking along the lines of a question like ‘Whereabouts in the body are the kidneys?’ . . . Wittgenstein came to believe that a great many philosophical puzzles arise out of people misusing language in this way.

تنبّه فيتجنشتاين للفرق بين الأسئلة الحقيقية والأسئلة الزائفة. فإنه يمكن لمقطع لغويّ أن يكون له نفس الصيغة النحوية للسؤال دون أن يكون بالفعل سؤالاً . . . “أين موقع الروح في الجسد؟” يبدو وكأنه سؤالاً قابلاً للطرح فقط لأننا نلجأ عادةً إلى التفكير على غرار سؤال مثل “أين موقع الكلى في الجسد؟” . . . وقد توصّل فيتجنشتاين إلى الاعتقاد بأن العديد من الألغاز الفلسفية تنشأ عن حالات مشابهة من سوء الفهم وسوء الاستخدام اللغويّ.

Surely the reason why we cannot talk about the meaning of life is that there is no such thing as life? Are we not, as Wittgenstein might say, bewitched here by our grammar, which can generate the word ‘life’ in the singular just as it can the word ‘tomato’? . . .  How on earth could everything that falls under the heading of human life, from childbirth to clog dancing, be thought to stack up to a single meaning?

أيكون السبب وراء صعوبة الحديث عن معنى الحياة هو أنه لا وجود أصلاً لتلك الكينونة المسماة بالحياة؟ بل أننا نبدو هنا — كما يمكن لفيتجنشتاين أن يقول — مأخوذين بقدراتنا اللغوية التي تمكّننا من ابداع كلمة مثل “الحياة” في صيغة المفرد كما لو كانت “برتقالة” مثلاً . . . إذ كيف يمكن لكل تلك الأشياء التي تقع تحت مسمّى الحياة البشرية، من آلام الوضع وحتى الرقص الإيقاعي، أن تجتمع في معنى واحد؟

Ludwig Wittgenstein with crazy eyes

Wittgenstein with the crazy eyes. Commonly thought to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. So this is what you look like if you think too much.


like silence?

..if matters are non-coherent, then to try to describe them as non-coherent may miss the point since it insists on generating a form of coherence. Some other allegorical mode might be better. Some other kind of gathering. One that stutters and stops, that is more generous, that is quieter and less verbal.

–from John Law, After Method: Mess in social science research

women & memory

From David R. Blanks, “Gendering History: Europe & the Middle East”, Alif, 1999.

On feminist writings in medieval Europe: is important to recognize that these early feminist writers were just that, writers. They were not activists. They had an agenda –which was to redress the balance vis-à-vis male stereotypes of women– but they did not have a plan. No strategic plan, no network. Mostly they were working in isolation [which] explains why efforts were so often replicated. Generation after generation of women were forced to reinvent the wheel because the knowledge of their own history was being denied to them: “thus each woman had to argue as though no woman before her had ever thought or written” (Women & History). The lesson is simple. If women are to take control of their futures, they must reclaim their pasts.

عن الكتابات النسوية في العصور الوسطى في أوروبا:

من المهمّ تقدير أن تلك الكتابات النسوية المبكرة لم تتعدّى كونها كتابات. فلم يكن لكاتباتها نشاط سياسي بحق. نعم كان لديهن هدف –إحداث توازن في مواجهة الصور النمطية السائدة عن المرأة– ولكن لم يكن هناك خطة أو شبكة تجمعهنّ. عملت أغلبهن في عزلة ونتج عن ذلك تكرار في المجهودات. فجيلا بعد جيل كانت كل كاتبة وكأنها تعيد اختراع العجلة لمجرد أن تاريخ من سبقها من النساء لم يكن متاحاً لها: فكان على كل كاتبة أن تناقش وتقدم الحجج كما لو أنه لم تفكّر ولم تكتب قبلها امرأة. الدرس المستفاد بسيط. إذا أرادت النساء إدارة مستقبلهن فإن عليهن أيضاً استعادة ماضيهن.

the nature of truth

Our preserved theories and the world fit together so snugly less because we have found out how the world is than because we have tailored each to the other.

— Ian Hacking

كون نظرياتنا وواقع الحياة راكبين على بعض مش معناه اننا اكتشفنا الواقع قد ما معناه اننا فصَّلنا كل حاجة على نفس المقاس.

love after love (f/m)

Recently I’ve been playing with the sexual identity of words.. when listening to a song or reading a poem, I change the grammatical gender and see what that does to the overall meaning. This is not always fun in English, where only the rarest pronoun occurrence is gender-specific (although that doesn’t mean we don’t prescribe a social gender to the text based on other factors… how many people would read this and imagine a man speaking?). But anyway, there’s an obvious way to get over that limitation of the English language: translate it into Arabic.

Arabic is a fully gendered language (grammatically I mean), but the generally followed rule of thumb is that a person is masculine until proven guilty! (In other words, when a sentence refers to both males and females or when the gender is unknown, everything defaults to the masculine.)

Now take a few seconds to think about how the following poem would translate (into Arabic or any other explicitly gendered language):

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Although this is one of my all-time favourites, and although I relate to it on a personal level, and feel that the words are speaking to me etc. –me being a woman who usually refers to herself in the feminine when there’s a linguistic choice– I somehow still managed to reach the 10th line before it occurred to me how strange it was that I was translating into masculine forms. I was doing it without thinking, perhaps partly influenced by the fact that the poet is male (the magnificent Derek Walcott*), and partly I guess by the defaultness of masculine in Arabic. I changed tack, then went over it again, and finally opted for a playful interchange between feminine and masculine. What I ended up with made me think of Virginia Wolfe’s Orlando whose protagonist changes gender halfway through the novel.

سيحين وقتٌ
تسعد فيه
باستقبال نفسك
على بابك، في مرآتِك،
ويبتسم كلاكما لترحيب الآخر،

ويقول، اجلسي هنا. كُلي.
ستحبَّ مرةً أخرى تلك الغريبة التي كانتك.
تقدِّمَ لها النبيذ والخبز. وتعيدَ مرةً أخرى قلبك
لنفسه، للغريب الذي ظل يحبكِ

طوال حياتك، الذي تناسيتِ
من أجل آخر، الذي يعرفكِ عن ظهر قلب.
انزع رسائل الحب عن رفوف المكتبة،

الصور، القصاصات اليائسة،
قشِّر صورتَك من على صفحة المرآة.
اجلسي. واحتفي بحياتِك.

That was the outcome of my self-indulgent exercise. The process was fun.. I may come back to the poem itself in a few weeks to evaluate.

* Let me take this opportunity and state for the blog-record, that if I had any say in the matter, Walcott would’ve definitely become Oxford poetry prof.. And that –and this is me speaking as a ‘practising’ feminist– I think that allegations of sexual harassment have nothing to do with his status as a poet nor with his suitability to deliver public lectures to students.

the immortality of pickles

Salman Rushdie on adaptation, in which he broadly includes adapting films, “translation, migration and metamorphosis”:

In my novel Midnight’s Children the narrator Saleem discusses the making of pickles as this sort of adaptive process: “I reconcile myself,” he says, “to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form – that is to say, meaning.”

The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act: how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or vegetable, or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film or your pre-pickle mango or lime, originally were.

Is it impossible? Is the intangible in our arts and our natures, the space between our words, the things seen in between the things shown, inevitably discarded in the remaking process, and if so can it be filled up with other spaces, other visions, that satisfy or even enrich us enough so that we do not mind the loss? To look at adaptation in this broad-spectrum way, to take it beyond the realm of art into the rest of life, is to see that all the meanings of the word deal with the question of what is essential – in a work adapted to another form, in an individual adapting to a new home, in a society adapting to a new age. What do you preserve? What do you jettison? What is changeable, and where must you draw the line? The questions are always the same, and the way we answer them determines the quality of the adaptation, of the book, the poem, or of our own lives.