Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Have No Right To Despise The Present

Here's something that is exerting a bit of gravitational force in my brain at present. I've been writing about Foucault and doing some meditation. The juxtaposition of these two things has led me to start considering them together.

From Foucault's "What is Enlightenment?" (1984):

Modernity is distinct from fashion, which does no more than call into question the course of time; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the 'heroic' aspect of the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it is the will to 'heroize' the present.

I shall restrict myself to what Baudelaire says about the painting of his contemporaries. Baudelaire makes fun of those painters who, finding nineteenth-century dress excessively ugly, want to depict nothing but ancient togas. But modernity in painting does not consist, for Baudelaire, in introducing black clothing onto the canvas. The modern painter is the one who can show the dark frock-coat as 'the necessary costume of our time,' the one who knows how to make manifest, in the fashion of the day, the essential, permanent, obsessive relation that our age entertains with death. 'The dress-coat and frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul -- an immense cortège of undertaker's mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes...). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.' [3] To designate this attitude of modernity, Baudelaire sometimes employs a litotes that is highly significant because it is presented in the form of a precept: 'You have no right to despise the present.'

So writes Foucault.

Yesterday I spent 4 hours being silent, doing Zen meditation. 35 minutes of sitting, 5 minutes of walking. Then 35 minutes of sitting, 5 minutes of walking. And again. Then once more.

In part, this was an exercise in evading a certain kind of thinking. One's mind, reason - these are things that like to compare, to capture in language. It is difficult for this kind of thinking (rationalising, describing) to speak about the present without, in some way, despising it. And by despising, I mean something like 'comparing' - judging the present, either in relation to the past (beautiful fantasies, the construction of narratives) or the future (making the present meaningful by connecting it to hopes or anxieties). Meditation is a repeated action: that of releasing thought when it 'hooks on' to what is.

Now, this movement of capturing the present, of asking who we are: on a collective level, this is - or, at least Foucault thinks this is - the modern gesture. We incessantly pose the question: what is today? The attempt to capture the present, to describe it, to know it, can't be avoided. The drive of language - of theorisation, of assessment, of description - is unstoppable. And of course it should not be stopped. But description has a tendency to 'lock on' to things, to fix them once and for all.

Perhaps the problem is, then: how can the present be captured and described without closing down the possibilities of it being re-described? How can one feel the contours of one's present without attributing finality to this description? For after describing, laziness and self-satisfaction tend to set in. "The world is like this. Problem solved." How, then, can one describe the present, yet maintain an attitude of awareness and curiosity?

I think these questions are interesting. And by that I mean that they interest me. I also think they are particularly important at a time (and here I go with my little narrative about what 'today' represents) when the question of what philosophy is - what it should do - is up for contestation.