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Invisible presence (fragmented)

February 19, 2012

Sometimes, of an afternoon, particularly those where the sun breaks on the windowpanes, I find myself visually arrested, in a bedroom or hallway, by the play of dust motes in the column or shaft or beam or patch of light. These swirl, be it fast or languorous, about one another no design in their movement apparent to my eye. Yet I am transfixed all the same, indeed to the point where it is no longer clear precisely what it is that so holds my attention.

For a time, I consigned this wonder to that cabinet of mysteries from which there is no rational issue, but, in time, as I turned the question over in my head, sometimes among the orange-lit sycamores of my walk home, other times with a mouthful of tea, I began to take note of other such occurrences, never precisely the same, but structurally or formally similar, akin to a family resemblance. And so I pressed at those similarities, keen on what such an inquiry might yield if pursued, if indeed it yielded anything at all.

Such moments enumerated.

The subtle lines like a knife above a radiator in the drafty hallway of a French boarding school. No students about. Snaking and bending, lacking smell and taste and substance but undoubtedly there, right before the eye. Heat in this numbing corridor, wind sucking at the casements.

Also apparent above asphalt roadways in summer or a parking lot full of vehicles, the entire lot, as it were, seething in the distance.

The first step out the door into the winter evening. In the illumination of the street lights, condensing water vapour clouds just the other side of my teeth. Deep inhalation, then exhalation, a brimming fog. Enthused like a child, my breath hanging in the air.

The flocking of black-capped chickadees to the end of a rural drive in winter, the concrete snow-locked. Pecking and probing for something practically invisible to the human eye, grass seeds, so I was told, their shadows light on the snow. Seeds otherwise safely hidden. With the birds, revealed. Often called snow birds, in the manner of other straightforward associations.

A slumped bough above the water, light, reflected from the canal, rippling on its bark. Light in the air, light on the water, light on this limb. Hard-pressed to say that the light is in one of these places rather than another. Also seen on the underside of a bridge or the lower sections of the waterside ramparts. The ripple of the sun on an endless sheet of silk.

A semantics/pragmatics question posed to a native speaker of a language which is not mine. Eyes turned up in the head, itself cocked at an odd angle. Stammering. Sentences begun but never finished. The blunt force of the conclusion: that cannot be said. As if at the encounter of some wall or doorkeeper barring entry, lodged within the brain, linguistically delimited.

At what do these experiences gesture? Most simply, they are unusual experiences of some presence, a presence to which we pay little mind, if we notice it at all, a presence invisible but here visually manifested via an otherwise empty or insignificant medium. It is in this that their mesmerizing quality consists: the sudden concentration of signification in the insignificant. This unexpected concentration, I suspect, is the source of my inability to articulate, for the longest time, precisely what drew my gaze to these moments, finding something where I expected there to be nothing.

To my knowledge, two related strands of Western social thought center on conceptions of the void. The first emerges in the myth of the atomistic individual, the second in the spatial metaphors underlying democracy.

Even beyond the strict bounds of the first, I tend to think of space, air, the neutral as empty, simply waiting to be filled by some object or other. Yet, this space is, in truth, already brimming with objects, with something. It could even be said that these million particles crowd the space between us in such a way that we touch, that you and I touch, that we are always touching, no matter the distance or obstacles.

At this moment, I cannot help but think of last summer, where in the light of an August afternoon passed in my room, I spent some minutes slapping the sheets of my bed, watching the dust and dead skin explode from their black folds. In the column of sun stretched from floor to skylight, the motes revolved about some center. I noted at the time that, if I focused on an area within the whirling, the motes slowed to the point where the motion perceived seemed equal parts illusion and verity. Fascinated, I thought of a story I had read in which the author compared the light of the American South to gold paint dripping and wondered why time seemed to still, never ceasing to strike the mattress every few minutes and stirring the dust again and thinking on the particles lying outside the sun, likewise there, but invisible.

As such, our conceptions of ourselves as autonomous, discrete individuals are brought into a question by the faculty of representation. I am not simply a fully formed being, sprung from the head of some god, possessed of all the faculties accrued to me through social means – language, mental representation, and so on. I exist in a constant relation not just to other individuals but also to the space that divides us; the motes of that afternoon are simply illustrative of a larger truth. This truth stands at odds with the disjointed view of Western society’s social components, particularly in the United States, where constant appeal is made to this myth in the elaboration of libertarianism and the mention of bootstraps and rugged individualism. These moments acknowledge or unveil a mutual regard, of sorts, or, perhaps, the need for such a mutual regard.

In this way, the statement “there is something there”, remarkable by dint of its structural symmetry, takes on an element of suggestion, one which points both to the development of intersubjective relations between persons but also the philosophical conception of the plenum, an idea that fell from popularity, though it never wholly passed into disfavor, simply losing currency with the non-academic population.

Indeed, in social considerations, the idea of the plenum does little in the way to offer itself to our thoughts, due in large part to the currency of the myth mentioned above. Articulated most forcefully by the rationalists of the 17th century, the idea of the plenum dictates that we, as beings composed of matter, exists in some sort of physical relation to everything and everyone in existence due to the fact that the material universe is completely full.

The particular conception differs from thinker to thinker. Though his intellectual descendants would back the idea of the fully extended universe, Descartes characterized reality as, alternately, clumps of matter and empty space, the matter swirling about into new constellations though never filling the void between these figures. Spinoza broke with his predecessor in maintaining that, because there exists only one substance, the material world is completely full, simply by virtue of being a singular entity.

Leibniz’s views diverge once again from those above, he being of the opinion that the universe is completely full and determined, that individual substances or monads, though independent, might be read as a sort of plan or status of the universe at a given moment, in virtue of the complete determination of one monad in relation to the rest. Put otherwise, everything, every substance has its concept within itself and, in virtue of the universe’s complete and mutual determination, the concept of every other substance within itself, at least, in principle. These concepts might understood in their entirety, in their infinite extension, as Leibniz suggest, by a non-discursive (intuitive) apprehension and intellect: in other words, that of god. In sum, the universe’s entire distribution at a given moment and all moments would be contained as it were in the mere being or existence of this substance; Leibniz’s monads thus offer a viewpoint or a window onto the world.

The Romantic philosopher and poet, Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, took up this notion of the complete and thorough determination of the subject in relation to the universe some hundred years after Leibniz, perhaps through his continued influence thanks to Christian Wolff, who both formalized and popularized the disparate tenets of Leibniz.

(and how we go about determining this relation freely)

The famous Greek thinkers of the atom, Democritus and Leucippus, held a view remarkably similar to that of Descartes: “By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void, and also in reality we know nothing, since the truth is at the bottom.” Their skepticism is nonetheless a mitigated one, as convention remains a strain of knowledge, albeit a rather inadequate one, concerned as it is with effects rather than causes. Indeed, the possibility for a knowledge beyond that of convention remains; in principle, it would be possible to discover correspondences between the shape of an atom, for instance, and the related qualia in the subject. For instance, hook-shaped atoms produce a bitter and white affect.

The essential here is not the possibility of renewing knowledge, of some more profound, scientific knowing, but the centrality of the atom and the void to this conception of the world. Indeed, both the atom and the void have a wider role in our own world and the conception of philosophy itself, for the void is a myth, something upon which we insist, perhaps indirectly, so as to preserve the individual in atomic integrity. Yet, in the two and half centuries since the publication of Kant’s first critique, these two poles of our worldview, of philosophy have bled into one another, sometimes crashing into one another, this combination coming perhaps more often in spurts, and most often in dribbles.

For the philosophical narrative of those two centuries, one which has not translated so readily into that of everyday life, which has, to a great extent, clung to the poles of the atom and the void, is rather one of the traditional or atomic subject’s lingering dissolution.


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