Sunday, August 13, 2017

A slightly more successful, but yet paltry, Bactrian experiment

This is the final paper I turned in for a seminar on Walter Benjamin. My disposition towards that writer is more complicated on an emotional level than on an intellectual one, for more reasons than I care to disclose here and now. What this paper fails to do is elaborate, clarify, or simply explain enough (not unlike this introduction, or in fact this vain blog)--what it succeeds in doing is to gesture towards a Bactrian critique of critique, that is, simply, a description of the psychologically precarious situation of philosophy at the cusp of its disengagement not only with theology, but with theory as such.

I do not consider myself a sympathetic reader of Benjamin.
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Benjamin: The Sun Is Not Enough


This essay has two aims. The first is to read Benjamin, against prevailing norms, not as a political theorist, nor as a literary critic,1 but as a poet who takes philosophical discourse as his genre and prophecy as his project. This reading is necessitated, I feel, by the unique challenge of approaching Benjamin's writing from the perspective of academic philosophy.2 Though he aspired, ostensibly, to a place in academia, Benjamin's texts are usually more declaratory and prognostic than analytical. Because he dwells between political theory, philosophy, and literature, he is hard to categorize—but some degree of categorization becomes necessary to understanding much of his work, especially the fragments, as he himself will acknowledge in the text of his I take up here. At any rate, my point is not categorization for categorization's sake—I will argue that the difference between understanding Benjamin as a poet or as a straightforward theorist is the difference between finding in his work a writing that reveals, in a way poetry makes possible uniquely, the situation of thought in his time, or writing that simply performs a commonly radical analysis of European society. The second aim of this essay is to show how Benjamin uses the metaphor of constellation to adapt what he sees as philosophy's essentially Platonic character to a post-metaphysical, thoroughly materialist orientation, by re-inscribing Platonic form back over the metaphorical Platonic sun. My essay closely reads “The Epistemo-Critical Prologue” to The Origin of German Tragic Drama, paying special attention to Benjamin's understanding of philosophy as such and what he sees as its innate limits, in order to make the case that the best way to understand Benjamin's project is as a poetic (and atheistic) exercise in prophecy. Crucially, it is not his most explicitly prophetic work, but rather his analysis of truth in “The Epistemo-Critical Prologue” that really makes clear his disposition, tipping his hand and offering some clarification of how to receive his enigmatic oeuvre. Benjamin is a poet in spirit and in method.
When I refer to his prophetic work, I mostly refer to texts such as “Critique of Violence” or “Capitalism as Religion” where he speaks directly about divinity. Because, in my characterization, Benjamin's revelation is poetic—that is, contrived, not inspired by any divinely granted vision but crafted by his own hand—there can be assumed no divinity with which it originates. In the text examined in this paper, the image of the eddy in the stream of becoming is taken to be the metaphor for a purely materialist faith. Whereas in Eastern religion, for example, spirituality is symbolized by the lotus, which emerges out of yet maintains contact with the water, for Benjamin it is the eddy—the vortex, or the Strudel—that symbolizes the achievement of communion with what serves as divinity for him. For Benjamin, the true 'religious' experience is defined, metaphorically, by the turning-back of the water and the formation of an empty space within it. This kind of origin that “emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance,” I argue, reveals the fundamentally poetic quality of Benjamin's writing—he does not aim to advance any particular theory, nor inspire his readers to any particular comportment, but rather he carries out, in his writing, the work of the prophet. His efforts afford us a materialist transformation of divine knowledge—knowledge that is mercurial, irreproachable, and irremediably distant from the ordinary function of theoretical discourse. Yet, for all this, and because it is a scripture without any attendant theology,3 it remains for us more like a poem than anything else, a kind of art-object made of words.4 Benjamin's relative fluency in the German philosophical discourse of his day certainly informs this work, and one could even say that it is crucial to it, but I intend to show how that discourse cannot ultimately claim it as its own. For that reason, Benjamin's corpus should no longer be plumbed for insights simply to be lifted out and redeployed in academic conversations; or, when that does happen, it should be viewed as a literary appropriation, as if one were to press any poem into the service of a didactic argument. Perhaps even more so, the appropriation of Benjamin should be viewed the same way as the appropriation of any religious scripture, since, formally speaking, that is what he gives us.


  1. Representation as the limit of philosophy

The method of Benjamin's writing is explored, sometimes obliquely but often in an explicit way, in his “Epistemo-Critical Prologue.” It is there we find one of his clearest elaborations of his thinking on the function of philosophy and what he understands to be its limits. He takes up what he terms the Platonic theory of ideas and its understanding of truth:
Again and again the statement that the object of knowledge is not identical with the truth will prove itself to be one of the profoundest intentions of philosophy in its original form, the Platonic theory of ideas. Knowledge is open to question, but truth it not. Knowledge is concerned with individual phenomena, but not directly with their unity.5
The Platonic philosophical paradigm, by Benjamin's reckoning, aims toward the unity of phenomena, which is the concern of truth. Under the Platonic theory, truth resists knowledge, which is defined by possession.6 The method of knowledge is defined as acquisition of an object and its subsequent representation—it having not been represented prior. The method of truth, on the other hand, is defined as the self-representation of a form in consciousness. The unity of knowledge, therefore, can only be conceptual; the unity of truth is essential. Truth comes to be defined by essentiality. Benjamin illustrates the difference between truth and knowledge by examining beauty:
But can truth do justice to beauty? … Plato's answer is to make truth the guarantor of the existence of beauty. This is the sense in which he argues that truth is the content of beauty. This content, however, does not appear by being exposed; rather it is revealed in a process which might be described metaphorically as the burning up of the husk as it enters the realm of ideas, that is to say a destruction of the work in which its external form achieves its most brilliant degree of illumination. This relationship between truth and beauty shows more clearly than anything else the great difference between truth and the object of knowledge...7
The Platonic idea achieves unity through a kind of destruction. As the husk of matter is incinerated, the form is achieved, ephemerally. Presumably, the “realm of ideas” in an inferno because it is, metaphorically, the sun, the form of the good. Benjamin will maintain the cohesion of this general Platonic metaphor, referring later in the “Prologue” to the relation of ideas to objects as directly analogous to the relation of constellations to stars.8 In the case of beauty, truth offers a guarantee that it “can never be devalued”9 which is the guarantee of an authentic Platonic idea. But it isn't, for Benjamin, that knowledge has no role. Concepts, which are to knowledge what ideas are to truth, ferry phenomena into the realm of ideas:
The significance of phenomena for ideas is confined to their conceptual elements. … Ideas are timeless constellations, and by virtue of the elements' being seen as points in such constellations, phenomena are subdivided and at the same time redeemed; so that those elements which it is the function of the concept to elicit from phenomena are most clearly evident at the extremes.10
If they are to be ordered into a constellation, phenomena must first be stars, metaphorically speaking. In order to become fuel for stellar fire, they need the husk of a concept that would be burned away as they ascend beyond the realm of knowledge, up into the cosmic plane that is the realm of ideas.11 Knowledge is subordinate to truth, but necessary, in Benjamin's understanding, for the achievement of the Platonic idea. The Platonic theory requires an employment of concepts to break down phenomena, destroying any artificial unity, so that they might be constellated in order to achieve true unity. But it is important to recognize that for Benjamin, the idea is in this way only represented. The salvation of the phenomena is not the achievement of a phenomenal idea, but a representation of one—“It is the function of concepts to group phenomena together, and the division which is brought about within them thanks to the distinguishing power of the intellect is all the more significant in that it brings about two things at a single stroke: the salvation of phenomena and the representation of ideas.”12 In fact, representation is the limit of philosophy, for Benjamin.13 If the Platonic theory of ideas is the most philosophical theory, for him, then the Platonic form is the most philosophical concept. This is not the form of knowledge, but it is still, to Benjamin, representational.
With the metaphor of constellation, Benjamin complicates the Platonic worldview. He does not subscribe to classical metaphysics, and so the-sun-as-the-good is not a notion that would suffice for him, even metaphorically. By adding the element of constellation to the metaphor, he replaces a metaphysical order for a thoroughly material one. The sun has been modernized—it is no longer a divine mystery, but one star among many. Yet mystery has been brought back into the world, or at least, this universe, now tied not to the one star but to the order and motion of stars in general.14 To discern a constellation in a grouping of stars in the night sky is, for Benjamin, the ur-philosophical gesture. But vision is insufficient to his own ends, which are not strictly philosophical:
The being of ideas simply cannot be conceived of as the object of vision, even intellectual vision. For even in its most paradoxical periphrasis, as intellectus archetypus, vision does not enter into the form of existence which is peculiar to truth, which is devoid of all intention, and certainly does not itself appear as intention. Truth does not enter into relationships, particularly intentional ones.15
The limit of philosophy, then, is found precisely in that it traces the constellation in the sky. That is a necessary step, but for Benjamin it is still only the work of representation. The glimpse of the constellation is not concomitant with the becoming of it. The “form of existence peculiar to truth,” being “devoid of all intention,” cannot by definition be achieved in the conception of a constellation. Only the self-representation of the form—the constellation—in consciousness can be rightly considered as truth.


  1. The empty origin

So what would it mean for a constellation to represent itself (in consciousness)? This, as I understand it, is the question posed upon reaching the limit of philosophy. The metaphorical constellation is a re-inscription of form back onto what is supposed to be the origin in classical metaphysics, the sun. In Benjamin, the sun is replaced by the eddy. The truth of form inheres in the constellation as the mysterious—divine?16—motion of the stars, not the blinding light of one star.
Origin, although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis.17
The process by which a constellation comes into being is its conceptualization—but coming into being is not the genesis of becoming. The signification of a group of stars in the sky binds a meaning to a shape. That is historical—but not original. Even the science of the formation of each star, calculations of their gravitational relationship, etc. would remain on the level of knowledge, not truth. The truth is in “the process of becoming and disappearance” that presents the stars, the history, and ourselves. The origin is not the pure light of the sun, but the turn achieved through the knowledge of the constellation. The constellation “swallows the material” analogously to how the transition into the realm of ideas burns away the husk of matter in which the form had inhered. Yet, going one step further, the order of the constellation creates a form that exceeds form. It reveals the stream of becoming by turning it momentarily backwards, creating an ephemeral vortex in which to experience this. That is what I mean by characterizing Benjamin's work in the “Prologue” as a re-inscription of form back onto the sun.
The metaphor of the constellation is poetic not merely by dint of being a metaphor, but by what it accomplishes in thought. Benjamin identifies representation as philosophy's limit. Constellation moves beyond representation by granting access to the stream of becoming. It is clear that for Benjamin, origin can never be manifest in any representation, and hence cannot be accessed philosophically. Theory of any kind is insufficient for his project. So how else to characterize his writing except as poetry? This is not a bad thing at all—especially if we accept Benjamin's own terms, it is the way to carry thinking beyond not only antiquated metaphysics, but beyond the boundaries of representation.
The constellation is a material idea. It is not a coincidence that it is imagined on a cosmic scale. If it is “the task of the philosopher to restore, by representation, the primacy of the symbolic character of the word, in which the idea is given self-consciousness,”18 then it is the task of the poet—Benjamin—I think, to fulfill the self-representation of that self-conscious idea in his own consciousness. What is so nebulous about Benjamin's project, and so mercurial about his writing, is that it isn't clear what exactly that fulfillment entails. But that is precisely why I think we can only read him, ultimately, as a poet. The fulfillment of the self-representation of truth, as an idea—a self-conscious idea, no less—seems thinkable only as writing—more exactly, the experience of writing scripture. What else would the self-representation of truth be except prophecy, divine revelation? Benjamin can only, ultimately, depict this possibility for us by offering up a scripture of his own creation. Without a metaphysics, without a theology, and the scripture's task is simply inscription itself. Benjamin's writing can only succeed in granting us a material idea—the constellation—that in turn opens the possibility (if the project is successful) of thinking the idea, and hence the truth, as material.


Conclusion: The possibility of a material totality

Platonic redemption is achieved in the idea when it attains totality.19 Benjamin seeks to preserve this end in his transformation of Platonic theory from a metaphysical to a material science. Through the re-inscription of form in the metaphor of the constellation, through the doubling-back of the stream to form an eddy, he believes that he succeeds:
The tendency of all philosophical conceptualization is thus redefined in the old sense: to establish the becoming of phenomena in their being. For in the science of philosophy the concept of being is not satisfied by the phenomenon until it has absorbed all its history. In such investigations this historical perspective can be extended, into the past of the future, without being subject to any limits of principle. This gives the idea its total scope.20
The totality of the idea is achieved, materially, through this future-perfect mode of perspectival extension. By pervading the history of a phenomenon, philosophical representation can impart timelessness to the idea. For Benjamin, origin is “an entirely historical category,”21 which means that for him, philosophy is necessary (though insufficient) to truth insofar as it provides the origin its history. If truth is found in the emptiness of the eddy, philosophical representation is its boundary against the turning water. That is the means of its imparting the timelessness proper to the idea. Redemption then means the ephemeral formation of the eddy, from which the stream of becoming can be momentarily experienced.
Now I can make sense of the angel of history, who occupies the eddy in which the idea is totalized and truth inheres:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.22
The stream of becoming reasserts itself always. Whatever turning-back is achieved is only temporary. This is because the action of turning is driven by philosophy, and the space within the turned water is held open by philosophical representation. But because it is thoroughly historical, and the water is constantly in motion, philosophical representation cannot maintain this action eternally. Its representations only last so long. Even constellations are in motion, slowly losing their form. Benjamin, by re-inscribing this form over the stars, transforms the Platonic theory of ideas from a metaphysical to a material science. His is a poetic writing that produces an atheist scripture. As he says in thesis X, immediately following thesis IX about the angel of history:
The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.23
If we follow Benjamin, we would be monks without God, pursuing a wholly material divinity. This pursuit could only be communicated poetically.




Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 2013. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 2003. Print.
1(nor as a philosopher)
2To be clear, I don't believe the perspective of academic philosophy is the supreme perspective, but rather, for the purposes of this paper, simply the one from which I approach Benjamin's writing. Whether Benjamin himself believes philosophy to have a special supremacy is, in part, what I investigate here.
3That is, unless one counts the emergence of Benjamin as the cult figure of a particular subculture, with its penchant for hagiography and preoccupation with doctrinal matters, as a kind of theology; but I think that would be unfair to theology.
4To be clear, I don't mean that to denigrate his work by calling it art—in fact, one implication of this paper is that reading Benjamin as a poet might be the only way to redeem his writing.
5The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 30
6ibid, 29
7ibid, 31-32
8Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” ibid, 34
9ibid, 31
10ibid, 34
11Here I want to note that, in Benjamin's understanding, concepts have already been linked to the material, by way of their being proper to knowledge rather than truth.
12ibid, 35
13“It is characteristic of philosophical writing that it must continually confront the question of representation. In its finished form philosophy will, it is true, assume the quality of doctrine, but it does not lie within the power of mere thought to confer such a form. Philosophical doctrine is based on historical codification. It cannot therefore be evoked more geometrico. The more clearly mathematics demonstrate that the total elimination of the problem of representation—which is boasted by every proper didactic system—is the sign of genuine knowledge, the more conclusively does it reveal its renunciation of that area of truth towards which language is directed. The methodological element in philosophical projects is not simply part of their didactic mechanism. This means quite simply that they possess a certain esoteric quality which they are unable to discard, forbidden to deny, and which they vaunt at their own peril.” ibid, 27
14This is the transformation from a metaphysical to a material paradigm.
15ibid, 35
16The “stream of becoming” seems to be the closest thing to actual divinity in Benjamin's writing, and to inhabit the Strudel seems to be the closest thing to authentic religious experience. (I discuss “authenticity” in this context later, in the conclusion.)
17ibid, 45
18ibid, 36
19ibid, 46
20ibid, 47
21ibid, 45
22Illuminations, 257
23ibid, 258

Thursday, June 15, 2017

a short essay on Humboldt's Ansichten der Natur

I turned this in as a seminar paper for a course on Naturphilosophie. I'm not invested in redeeming Humboldt per se, but I present this as an attempt to reveal how he conducts philosophy 'by other means'.
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The Mediate Role of Nature in Humboldt's Views



This paper offers a speculative analysis of a conceptual, philosophical problem that arises in Alexander von Humboldt's View of Nature—the problem of intellectually accessing the Absolute through Nature. A working heuristic assumption of this paper is that for Humboldt there is, in the first place, a kind of Absolute which is found by turning away from human affairs and looking into Nature. I acknowledge that in the text the concept of Nature is vague, while the Absolute is not explicitly named at all. Part of what makes Views of Nature such a rare kind of work is that it is both an account of a material, topographical exploration as well as an abstract scientific inquiry. One upshot of this is an inherent ambiguity in the use of much of the terminology. However, Humboldt is clear at times about the promise he supposes Nature to hold, especially contrasted with the banality of human affairs. For example:
Thus does man, at the lowest level of animal brutality or in the vainglory of his elevated civilization alike, ever make for himself a wearisome life. … He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner workings of the sacred force of Nature, or, surrendering to the instinctive drive that has glowed for millennia in the breast of humanity, he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.1
This is not the only overture to a primordial serendipity attainable through investigations into Nature. While that passage suggests a kind of metaphysical oneness, a passage just preceding it, describing the bio-electric capacity of eels, contains a more genealogical gesture towards unity:
This is the wondrous struggle of the horses and fish. That which, invisible, is the living weapon of this denizen of the water; which, awakened by the contact of moist and dissimilar parts, races through all organs of animals and plants; which thunderingly inflames the broad roof of the heavens, binds iron to iron, and steers the silent, returning motion of the guiding needle—all, like the colors of the refracted beam of light, flow forth from One Source; all melt together in an eternal, all-encompassing power.2
It is language like this that makes me confident from the outset that Humboldt has some notion of Nature as an Absolute, at least in the sense of a total unity. One of two tasks of this paper is to bolster that judgment. I claim that Humboldt's Nature functions as a mediate term for a fundamentally empiricist idea of the Absolute, insofar as accessing the Absolute depends on the modern scientific investigation of Nature. Nature affords the intellect sole access to the Absolute by making manifest the “flow” of life.
It is necessary to acknowledge that Humboldt's method is neither a traditional nor standard modern philosophical approach. Rather than elide or diminish that fact, I'd like to use this paper as an opportunity to embrace its idiosyncrasy. His method has roughly four elements, as I see it—empirical observation, namely the 1799 expedition of which the book is partly an account; encyclopedia, especially in the aggregation of diverse cultural and scientific geographies; classification, as in the chapter on the physiognomy of plants; and what I will call speculative meditation, or meditative speculation, in those instances when he sketches historiographical connections or makes philosophical claims. Because this is a philosophical analysis, the basis of my investigation will be the comparison of two parts of the text that fit the latter category—his speculation about the colonization of California by Buddhist sailors, and his meditation on the Rhodian Genius. But I do not intend to neglect the other three aspects, and hope to draw attention to the way they help define the Absolute for Humboldt, so that the pursuit of Nature becomes a holistic—even embodied, material—endeavor, and not a mere theoretical inquest. I aim to show that, rather than presenting a scattershot text, Views of Nature coheres around a method that works to reveal Nature as a means to the Absolute without naming it as such. The speculation about the lost Buddhist pilgrims and the meditation on the Genius are not departures from his investigation, but integral to its exposition of Nature in this role. The second task of this paper, aside from securing the notion that there is an Absolute for Humboldt, is then to reveal how his work subtly but surely pursues it through the study of Nature.

  1. From the jungle to the heath
Before taking up Humboldt's speculative meditations, I'd like to bring attention to two pairs of images conjured by Humboldt, including that contained in the passage I partially quoted above. In these pairs, an impulse to turn away from human affairs and toward the reality of the cosmos that might make sense of his naturalism can be found. For even presuming my ascription to Humboldt of a yearning for the Absolute is granted, the question would remain: What need would there be for Nature? Why would the Absolute be mediated, and why specifically by something called Nature? Humboldt seems to take an approach which is both universalist and empiricist when it comes to the desire to seek “spiritual peace”—a concept which merits its own explication, but which here is assumed to be an experiential counterpart to reaching the Absolute, or at least its possibility—by looking to either the plants or the stars. It is universalist in the sense that this desire is shared by all people, civilized or not. It is empiricist in the sense that it advocates a turn to the material, living, and observable world rather than a retreat into any kind of pure abstraction of ideas. Humboldt's Nature functions, therefore, as a mediate term for an empiricist idea of the Absolute.
To get a better sense of the impulse toward spiritual peace, I would highlight two examples given by Humboldt of the tragic condition of humanity in its confinement to its own engagement. The first comes at the end of the opening chapter, and describes a tribe in Guyana that erases its own footprints in the mud of the riverbank, so as to avoid pursuit by its bellicose neighbors:
Though tiger and crocodile battle horses and cattle in the steppe, we see on its forested bank, in the wildernesses of Guyana, man forever armed against man. With unnatural desire, some tribes here drink the blood drained from their enemies; others, seemingly unarmed and yet equipped for murder, strangle the enemy with a poisoned thumbnail. The weaker tribes, when they take to the sandy bank, carefully brush away the traces of their timid steps with their hands.3
So this passage leads directly into the one cited above, “Thus does man, at the lowest level...” This benighted tribe has to resort to erasing its own physical traces so as to avoid falling prey to other humans. I would compare this to a second textual example of a 'pitiful' condition, this one more civilized. While the tropical peoples, by Humboldt's reckoning, struggle with an overabundance of life, human and otherwise, northern peoples struggle with a dearth of it:
The sickly plants within our greenhouses provide but a weak image of the majesty of tropical vegetation. But in the refinement of our language, in the incandescent imagination of the poet, in the depictive art of the painter there open rich wellsprings of compensation. From this, the power of our imagination creates a living picture of exotic Nature. In the cold of the North, in the starkness of the heath, the lone individual can acquire for himself that which is being explored in the most distant latitudes, and thus create within himself a world that is the work of, and is as free and immortal as, his own spirit.4
Both the Native who erases his own footstep and the European who constructs shelter for his plants and himself do so not in struggle against Nature per se, but against its vicissitudes. There is nevertheless a stark difference in the way they approach these particular predicaments, one that I think, if put in context with the rest of the work, actually proves illustrative of the mediate role of Nature.
The difference is that while the Native does his best to erase his mark, the European relies on his mark, and continually develops it. Why is that? For Humboldt, this is not a question of racial difference, or any other supposed difference in kind on the level of humanity. All of humanity shares a basic condition of strife, along with a spiritual yearning for a loftier harmony. Rather, for Humboldt, the difference between peoples is determined by geography:
...the knowledge of the natural character of different parts of the world is connected in the most intimate way to the history of humanity and to that of its culture. For even if the beginning of a culture is not determined by physical influences alone, still a culture's very direction, the character of a people, the bleak or cheerful attitude of humanity depend to a great degree on climatic conditions...The influence of the physical world upon the moral, the mysterious interworking of the sensory and the extrasensory, bestows upon the study of Nature, when lifted to higher considerations, a charm that belongs to it alone, and that remains too little acknowledged.5
The difference in behavior between the Native who erases his mark and the European who develops his is not, for Humboldt, indicative of a difference in kind on the level of their humanity. Rather, it is a contingency of their environments. It is a difference in psychological tendencies, cultural practices, and even philosophical understanding, but one rooted solely in their contingent, environmental relationship to Nature.6
In fact, these behaviors, in their divergence, serve as evidence of the underlying sameness of their humanity. The two archetypes of humankind share the impulse to find spiritual peace in Nature. For the Native, whose jungle is superabundant, that means becoming invisible, so as to fold quietly into the Nature that is already established around him; for the European, whose heath is barren, that means first finding a way to access Nature. This is not some kind of benign or inverse Orientalism on Humboldt's part. He is neither fetishizing nor exceptionalizing the Native. Rather, it is the empirical fact of the proliferation of life-forms in the tropics that motivates his privileging of the jungle vis-à-vis Nature. The Native is simply a human who happens to take the jungle as his habitat.7
Between the jungle and the greenhouse, then, we can find the mediate place of Nature in one sense—that is, humanity can both exceed it, as in the native tribes who run amok in the tropical rainforests, and fall short of it, as in the northerners who must strain all of their creative faculties to wanly approximate it. So one human could be led to erase his mark, while another enhances it. But Nature's mediate place is not merely between extremes of human behavior, but between human affairs and spiritual peace. At least, that's how Humboldt himself characterizes it. I'll quote again the two alternatives he suggests for one who wishes to gaze away from human carnage: “He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner workings of the sacred force of Nature, or...he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.” Nature can be located not only between an excess of forms and a scarcity, but between the minute physiognomy of a single plant and the vast heavenly cycle.
Yet it is not there merely to exist in between. Whether one pursues the plant or the star, for Humboldt, that pursuit begins empirically. What peace is to be found—what Absolute—is accessed through the natural object, in a real, material way. Nature mediates the Absolute insofar as, in order to find respite from one's particular condition and attain a more fundamental communion with life, one must access the universal Nature through its particulars. This is ultimately what his method offers.
Why wish to 'arrive at' and 'inhabit purely' Nature at all? It seems that for Humboldt, there is a spiritual peace that only Nature can offer, which is itself the sense of unity with the cosmos. This inherent motivation, too, lends this “spiritual peace” the quality of the Absolute. But even in the now twice-quoted passage that presents the alternative of the plant or the stars, it is only the plant that is a living, natural thing. Why is Nature, with the specific connotation of biology, privileged over the lifeless motion of the stars, or of earthly geology for that matter?
The study of Nature, for Humboldt, as quoted above, has “a charm that belongs to it alone” when “lifted to higher considerations,” and I take this to be important for understanding the work done in Views of Nature. The figure of the northerner in the greenhouse is one who strives to achieve what the paucity of Nature in his environment has failed to deliver. I believe the difference between the pursuit of Nature and the study of it is that between the two axes I delineated above, namely, the 'horizontal' axis of human behaviors and the 'vertical' axis that runs from the soil to the sky.
Humboldt is doing work that has not yet been done, and his hybrid method reflects the innovative, exploratory quality of his task. He is neither the Native erasing his tracks on the sandy bank, nor the European exercising the imagination in a greenhouse—yet he incorporates aspects of both into his work. This rudimentary synthesis is not the product of a dialectic, but reflects his established belief that Nature is the universal determinant of human expression. The study of Nature, therefore, involves elements from the full diversity of human culture—thus the encyclopedic aspect of the text.
Two of his speculative meditations are especially illustrative of this underlying assumption of the text, and what its implications are for the study of Nature. Humboldt isn't neglecting to perform a standard philosophical exposition for lack of ability or opportunity, but rather because the study of Nature is not best suited simply by authoring a treatise. In the speculation about the Buddhist priests, or bōzu, reaching California and colonizing Mexico, and in the meditation on the Rhodian Genius, Humboldt suggests that the study of Nature exceeds the bounds of mere intellect. This should not be surprising, given his commitment to empirical researches.

  1. California dreamin'
Speculation about Japanese contact with native peoples on the western coast of North America has been around since at least as early as Humboldt. More recently, beginning in the late twentieth century, the anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis has worked for a large part of her career to hypothesize about a connection between the Zuni and the Japanese of centuries past.8 This theory has not been widely accepted in the academic community, though it is commonly maintained that it is not inconceivable that a sailing ship blown off course off the east coast of Japan could wind up in California or the Pacific Northwest, carried by a fortuitous combination of currents and winds, with its crew still alive.9 However, mainstream anthropology today maintains that these contacts, if they occurred, would have been very rare, and almost certainly would have resulted in the enslavement, absorption, or even murder of the crew by native peoples—a far cry from the kind of organized cultural foundation that Humboldt imagines. Nonetheless, my interest in Humboldt's fantasy is not in its potential veracity, but rather in what it says about the study of Nature.
It's notable that Davis, in her work, which is the most recent major development of this speculative notion, makes much of the parallels of the Zuni and Japanese languages; Humboldt lacks a linguistic connection between American Natives and East Asia, but wants one:
Could it be, perhaps, that...civilized Asians passed over to the New Continent? If these newcomers had been inhabitants of the steppes, where agriculture was not pursued, then this bold hypothesis, which through language comparison has heretofore gained little favor, would at least explain the conspicuous absence of actual cereal grains in America. perhaps there landed on the coasts of New California, battered by storms, one of those Asiatic priest colonies whose mystic reveries induced them to venture on long sea voyages, and of whom the history of the populating of Japan at the time of Qin Shi Huang-ti provides a memorable example.10
There are a few important things to note about this. As I mentioned, Davis seems to have taken a cue, intentionally or not, from Humboldt. She asserts that linguistic connections between Zuni—an isolate—and ancient Japanese dialects are significantly strong.11 It's also important to note that Humboldt really does try to make empirical sense of this claim, linking it both to extant agricultural practices and the recorded history of Imperial China. But the most crucial, and ultimately philosophical feature of the claim—the one that, even if it were to prove thoroughly, empirically false would still be important—is the idea that these supposed Asian colonists were motivated by two things—escape from human conquest, and mystic reverie.
Humboldt expands significantly in the notes on this speculation, which is only fleetingly mentioned in the body of chapter one. There, he asserts the “probability” that the Natives of the western Americas were contacted and influenced by Asian civilization—he simply says “associated with”—has been demonstrated by comparison of calendars, architectural styles, and comparative mythology. Humboldt has written before about the cultures of Guatemala and the Yucatan, and it is in those regions that he believes Asian influence to show most strongly.12 But, most importantly for the purposes of this paper, he believes that the Asian contact was both intentional and mystically-inflected:
A small number of individuals from the educated caste of priests could have perhaps sufficed to bring about great changes in the social conditions in Western America. The yarns once spun about Chinese expeditions to the New Continent really refer merely to voyages to Fusang or Japan. On the other hand, it is possible that Japanese mariners or Sian Pi from Korea, battered by storms, may have landed on the American coast. We know historically that bonzes (Japanese bōzu, “Buddhist monk”) and other adventurers sailed the East China Sea in hopes of finding an elixir of immortality.13
In Humboldt's imagination, it is monks who take a meditative journey across the eastern ocean. The discovery of the Americas would then be the result of a kind of leap of faith. This would not put Humboldt far out of step with the common European idea of the New World as a place of providence. It also mirrors the legend of the Fountain of Youth, supposed to be found in Florida, that famously motivated Ponce de Leon.
The fantasy of the monks' journey is significant because it reveals what Humboldt wishes were fact. The tale would be poignant, if true, because the Americas would assume the role of a geological manifestation of the monks' reverie. The land of purest Nature would be the land of purest spirituality. Thus Humboldt implicitly identifies what the monks are seeking—he seems to think of it as some vague kind of divine enlightenment, but presumably falling under the broad category of “spiritual peace”—with what can be found in the Americas, that is, Nature. I do not know Buddhism; but neither, to my knowledge, did Humboldt. Regarding Nature, two things are important—that the monks were escaping human affairs to seek a higher peace, even if that meant setting off into an obscure ocean; and that their reverie was reified in the abundant Nature of the Americas. The Nature of the Americas is implied, in the fantasy, to offer the chance to “turn away” that the Old World simply might not, if this turning away is so deeply empirical, and not a merely religious gesture.
This land Humboldt explores, then, would become a kind of empiricist Zion for the likes of the bōzu. Nature would become a medium by which not merely to continue their meditations ad infinitum, but to attain divine heights that were simply impossible back in Japan. The trip outward into the unknown, escaping society, was a leap of faith, and carried the risk of fatality. It was an act that could have readily, even probably, resulted in death. Serendipitously, it did not, and the monks—so the story goes—were able to found entire cultures on the basis of mysticism, even though those societies later collapsed.
Thus Humboldt's fantasy binds spiritual yearning to the Americas, the place of purest earthly Nature. Moreover, his characterization of the Native as a human determined by such a vivacious environment—as all human cultures are determined by the character of their natural environment—is not jeopardized by the presence of indigenous urbanity, as in the cities of the Yucatan. With this story, these cities become not urban societies like those of the old world, but priestly cities whose foundation began in an escape from Asia. In that way, Nature's function as the medium of the Absolute is preserved in his account. Even urban civilization, the pinnacle of human social life, becomes, in the context of the Americas, subsumed under the monkish quest for spiritual peace. The turning-inward of society is transformed into a continuation of an originary turning-away.
The fantasy of the monks thus serves an important function in the text. It maintains both Humboldt's notion of environmental cultural determinism and the relationship between Nature and the extremes of human behavior. It does so by offering a genesis that frames Native urban civilization in the context of Asian monasticism.

  1. The Rhodian Genius
The seventh chapter of Views of Nature is more straightforwardly presented as a story—“The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius: A Tale” is the title. In this tale, a mysterious picture, unclaimed by an unattributed to any of the numerous artists in the city, is hung in the Syracuse of antiquity. People of all classes are perplexed by it.
In the foreground of the painting, youths and maidens were to be seen, crowded together in a group. They were unclad and well formed, but not with the slender figures admired in the statues of Praxiteles and Alcamenes. The strong build of their limbs, which bore the signs of hard labors, and their human expressions of longing and sorrow—all seemed to strip them of anything heavenly or godlike and bind them to their earthly homeland. Their hair was adorned simply with leaves and flowers of the field. Imploringly they stretched their arms out to one another, but their solemn, mirthless gaze was directed to a Genius that, surrounded by a bright shimmer, floated in their midst. A butterfly sat upon the spirit's shoulder, and in his right hand he held aloft a blazing torch. The shape of his body was rounded like that of a child, his countenance divinely animated. Commandingly, he gazed down upon the youths and maidens at his feet. Further characteristic elements of the painting were not distinguishable...14
Following the speculation about the Japanese monks, it's fair to note the resemblance of this description of the Genius to certain traditional representations of both Jesus and the Buddha. This is merely, I think, an attempt to give the character the strongest possible spiritual connotation without reference to Christian theology or the doxa of any particular religion (which Humboldt avoids in this text). It's also important to note the naturalized description of the youths and maidens, who are said to be bound to the earth, and lack the effete slenderness of the contemporary urbane ideal. Their reaching to each other indicates the turning-inward of society, but the sad gaze toward the Genius indicates the desire for spiritual peace that has motivated so much of the text to this point. This painting, then, seems to portray what is attainable through the study of Nature—that is, a commanding position apart from and above brutish society. The people who are caught reaching out for each other yearn for this condition.
It is important to note that this “spirit” is described not as a god nor a prophet, nor even a priest or holy man, but rather as a genius—in other words, in a purely intellectual term. Given that Humboldt has spent the first six chapters of the book detailing an empirical path to spiritual peace, this isn't surprising. Eventually, the story goes, a companion piece arrives on a commercial vessel:
It was of the same size and similar coloring, though the hues were better preserved. Again the Genius stood in the middle, but without the butterfly and with his head bowed, the extinguished torch pointed earthward. The circle of youths and maidens were now almost falling over him in many an embrace; their glance was no longer solemn and obedient, but bespoke a condition of wild abandon, the fulfillment of a long-nurtured desire.15
Here, the Genius has been stripped of both the living representation of Nature—the butterfly—and the light of the intellect—the torch. I would compare the butterfly and the torch in this story to the plant and the star in the first chapter. The butterfly on his shoulder and torch in his hand allowed the Genius to bear with him the promise of both the plant and the star, that is, of the empirical involvement with Nature and the accession thereby of the Absolute. But in this second iteration of the painting, bereft of both, the Genius is wrangled back into society, not necessarily malevolently by the people, but animalistically at least.
None other than a philosopher, in the story, is tasked by the Tyrant with reinterpreting the Rhodian Genius in light of the new companion piece. Epicharmus, a Pythagorean, was a philosopher who skirted the city and even the house of the Dionysians, choosing to live in the suburb of Tyche. “He occupied himself constantly with the nature of things and the forces within them, with the development of plants and animals...before the broad ocean his eye, as he put it, was afforded a view of the unlimited, the infinite, after which the mind strives in vain.”16 Humboldt is not so subtle about this character; Epicharmus seems to be the ideal of a Humboldtian intellectual.
Yet the Rhodian Genius offers him something he has not been able to find on his own: “For sixty years I have pondered the hidden wheels that drive Nature onward, the differences in the forms of matter, and today at last, the Rhodian Genius lets me see more clearly that which, until now, I only suspected.”17 What is revealed? That inorganic matter seeks its own kind, while organic matter, under the sovereignty of the Life Force that “imperiously asserts its rights,” ignores the “friendship or enmity of atoms described by Democritus” as it unifies disparate materials. Life Force, then, is to Epicharmus what the Genius represents. The people in the painting are the 'like elements' he commands; when his torch goes out and the butterfly departs, they clump to him automatically, thoughtlessly. Epicharmus relays this truth to his students, then bids them take him one last time to the ocean vista, before which to die.
What the tale of the Rhodian Genius does for the larger project of Views of Nature is, then, to offer a unification of classical philosophy with the study of Nature. The empiricization of “Life Force” and its representation in the figure of an intellectual guru, along with the role Epicharmus plays in the tale, serve to provide a pseudo-historical grounding for the method Humboldt develops. The tale of the Rhodian Genius is both an origin story for the study of Nature and a raison d'etre for Humboldt's text.
What Epicharmus sought in death is something that the bōzu, in Humboldt's earlier story, actually found. Epicharmus gazed across the sea in his final moments. The promise of the Americas, then, is to actually venture out across the sea. What the northerners could only approximate in art has become, for Humboldt, empirically achievable in the New World.

Conclusion—After Epicharmus
Humboldt is continuing the philosopher's work in View of Nature, but not necessarily in the mode of what came to be called philosophy. The Genius of the painting and the Japanese monks both represent the promise of projects that exceed mere intellectualism or even meditation. Rather, they apply knowledge of Nature to a kind of governance. In the case of the monks, that entails, in Humboldt's imagination, the material escape from the Old World, and the foundation of fundamentally mystical civilizations in the Americas, among superabundant Nature. In the case of Epicharmus and the Rhodian Genius, it entails mastery of the Life Force and its sovereign reign over matter.
Both stories illustrate what Humboldt aims toward in his work: Views of Nature strives, in its idiosyncratic way, to further the pursuit of the Absolute—a spiritual peace identical with the “One Source” or the “Life Force” that animates all living matter in the world—by establishing its accessibility through Nature. Humboldt defines humanity in broadly universal terms as a way of establishing an idea of environmental determinism in relation to human culture. Anchoring the spectrum of diverse human behaviors around Nature in this way, he is able to elevate the role of Nature above the internal logic of any particular belief. With the exceptionalism of the study of Nature established, Humboldt is able to assert empirical, scientific investigation as the sole viable means towards the spiritual peace afforded by the Absolute. It offers this not because of some merely intellectual superiority. The northerner and the tropical human are equals, to Humboldt, as are their cultural practices, including European science—all is determined by the environmental relation to Nature. Rather, empirical study of Nature is unique in its ability to move its undertaker closer to the Life Force, which is only accessible through Nature.
Humboldt thus advocates for the study of Nature as a turning-away from human affairs not for its own sake, and not to permanently abandon the community of humankind, but to seek out that force which orders life, and without which life could not be. That this force is the very possibility of life lends it the air of spiritual peace. He treads neither the path of the northerner working in the greenhouse nor the tropical native erasing his own footprints, but through a syncretic effort follows the imagined wish of Epicharmus. The Americas, to Humboldt, realize the mystery that the philosopher of antiquity saw in the ocean horizon. He intends to develop a method that allows one to use the condition of Nature there to attain the spiritual peace that eludes us in the Old World.


Works Cited


Humboldt, Alexander Von. Views of Nature. Ed. Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls. Trans. Mark W. Person. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2016. Web.

1Views of Nature, 41-42
2ibid, 40
3ibid, 41
4ibid, 169
5ibid, 160-161
6One result of the method I am attempting to draw out of Humboldt's text is the diminution of philosophy, at least in the sense of metaphysics, relative to the study of Nature.
7Hence colonists lose much of their European quality as they dwell in the tropics, for him.
8She has published a book stating her case, called The Zuni Enigma: A Native American People's Possible Japanese Connection. An overview of her work and its reception can be find in a Chicago Tribune article from 2000, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2000-07-19/features/0007190071_1_buddhist-monks-zuni-william-davis.
9Debris carried from Japan to the Pacific Northwest by sea is relatively common, e.g. from the 2012 Japanese tsunami. Wind currents too are capable of carrying balloons from Japan to mainland North America, as they did the Second World War's “Fu-Go” balloon bombs, which killed at least one American civilian and started small forest fires. http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2012/06/huge_dock_washed_ashore_on_ore.html; http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/01/20/375820191/beware-of-japanese-balloon-bombs
10Views of Nature, 35-36
11Thus, in Zuni, she provides something Humboldt is actively looking for, granted she finds it in North and not South America: “Up to now we remain insufficiently familiar with American languages to be able to give up completely, in the face of their tremendous variety, the hope that a dialect might one day be discovered that, with certain modifications, might have been spoken simultaneously in the interiors of South America and Asia, or that at least indicates an old interrelation.” ibid, 104
12Note that this is an area and culture distinct from and located geographically further south than the Zuni of Davis' work, who lived mainly in what is now the southwestern United States.
13ibid, 103
14ibid, 261-262
15ibid, 262
16ibid, 263
17ibid

Saturday, April 29, 2017

thoughts on "Views of Nature"

Humboldtvision 2017

The Sun is evil; that is to say, it is good. To take the Heraclitean view of nature—the chaotic noise of the jungle at night, animals being eaten alive, shrieking in pain, fighting each other, is merely the sound of balance. The Sun is the Platonic idea of the good, and so, negatively, it defines evil. The plant or the stars might show us the sacred process of life's becoming; the landscape shows us the being of Nature. The Sun is good from a distance (though one cannot even look at it), but up close, it is hell, a nuclear inferno, a wall of sheer explosion that is destined to destroy the Earth.
Life has adapted to the Sun; it did not begin with the Sun. Life began in a dark heat, in vents at the bottom of the ocean. That heat did not emerge from any landscape, but from the Earth's core and mantle—what could never be a landscape. The Sun generates intense radiation that would eliminate any organism; the spinning of the molten rock at the center of the Earth generates the magnetic field that shields us from these death-rays. What is the relationship of life to light, if it is the light-source that is certain to end life? The Sun is neither our origin nor our redemption—it is, factually speaking, our doom. Our inclination towards spaceflight is an urge to find refuge from the Sun, to return to the dark and miraculously find heat there. There must always be a kind of balance between light and dark—but, if we are ever to find serenity, darkness must dominate.



The Moon is a bone; it is the skull of the Earth. Formed from ejecta after a gargantuan collision early in the geological history of our planet, the Moon is Earth-sans-life. It is the Earth's skeleton. The Sun drew in the culprit object with its obscene gravity, back then. Today we see the Sun; tonight we see the Moon—our murderer, and our fossil. Thus, the entire play of the sky is fundamentally macabre. This is the issue of Heraclitean justice—what appears to be strife is often resolution. There is neither mystery nor dynamism between the Sun and the Moon. The vault of night is a crime scene. One brilliant day, we know, the Sun will finish the job it started: It will morph, expand, and eventually envelop the Earth, having sterilized it long before. The Moon is a glimpse into the future. Before it is devoured by the engorging Sun, the Earth will be purified by fire, and all life will be burnt away. The Earth will be a charred companion to the Moon.



So let's cut to the chase: What kindness, what love, what kind of peace could there be under such conditions? Economies of scale betray us: We have enough of a world to inhabit, but not enough to inhabit fully. We were losing life before we fathomed we would lose it permanently. The matter of experiencing the process of becoming itself is complicated by what appears, empirically, to be the certain doom of that very process. We have never been good at living in peace and harmony; and that was before we knew of this real Armageddon. We worshiped the Sun, sometimes the Moon as well, regarding them as benign. We have been like babies who do not comprehend a present danger. The Sun that looms over us intends to kill us. The Moon is the image of our future demise. God, the true God, the ur-God, means to destroy humankind. He is not dead—but we are, if we don't get out of here.
The only possible kindness is to escape together. Now, love could only be the love of life. This is not a humanism; our humanity, so intimately bound to the ill-fated Earth, is null. Truthfully, we've been aware of this since last century at the latest. The greatest miracle we could perform would be to master the life process, then the stars, then the cosmos generally. If we are to survive, we have no other choice. The Tower of Babel is meant to launch us beyond heaven, into the terrible vacuum. We still have not grasped the horror of 'outer space'—the shock has not even begun.