Sunday, July 15, 2007

Drilling: The miscellaneous and the marvelous

Inside Everything is Miscellaneous is an argument couched as going on (summing liberally here) between Aristotle and his sober ilk, all authority and taxonomy and arresting, hierarchic power on the one hand, and the miscellaneous hoardes, all amateur and passion and giving and open-ended on the other:
The way we've organized knowledge has been largely determined by these four properties of knowledge [single, unambiguous, filtered, dependent upon institutions]. We've tried try to settle on a single, comprehensive framework for knowledge, with categories so clear and comprehensive that experts can put each thing in its proper place. Institutions grew to maintain the knowledge framework. Their ability to certify experts and to vouch for knowledge made them powerful and sometimes rich.
And here's Walter Benjamin mapping something of the same conceptual terrain somewhat differently:
"For tradition puts the the past in order, not just chronologically but first of all systematically in that it separates the positive from the negative, the orthodox from the heretical, and which is obligatory and relevant from the mass of irrelevant or merely interesting opinions and data. The collector's passion, on the other hand, is not only unsystematic but borders on the chaotic, not so much because it is a passion as because it is not primarily kindled by the quality of the object--something that is classifiable--but is inflamed by its "genuineness," its uniqueness, something that defies any systematic classification. Therefore, while tradition discriminates, the collector levels all differences; and this leveling--so that "the positive and the negative" . . . predilection and rejection are here closely contiguous." (Schriften II, 313), cited by Hannah Arendt in her Intro to Illuminations.
So, when the miscellaneous shakes our certainty in the nature of knowledge, more than the future of the card catalog is at stake. Because a third order miscellany is digital, not physical, we no longer have to agree on a single framework. Things have their _places_, not a single place. We get to create our own categories, ones that suit our way of thinking. Experts can be helpful, but in the age of the miscellaneous they and their institutions are no longer in charge of our ideas.
Benjamin's polarity is far more charged with value than with matters of the true. As Arendt notes, Benjamin puts into contagious adjacency the collector and the revolutionary. Both are good at breaking established orders. Take a suicide bomber and pin him, wriggling, to the wall. His purpose is subverted, at least changed: he's no longer in service to Allah, but at the whim of the collector, who might merely be admiring his shoes, or his special grimace. Because the collector is not about rational ordering, or even passional use, but more about the whims of the performance of collecting.
"The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a subborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable." Benjamin, "Lob der Puppe," cited by Arendt in her intro.
Arendt discovers in "the collector's whimsical perspective" the peculiar bias toward the broken, the fragmentary, which she might extend to the century just past:
The figure of the collector, as old-fashioned as that of the flaneur, could assume such eminently modern features in Benjamin because history itself--that is, the break in tradition which took place at the beginning of this century--had already relieved him of this task of destruction and he only needed to bend down, as it were, to select his precious fragments from the pile of debris.
Odd, that "as it were" . . .. How come this rubble, instead of quiescently waiting to be selected, as it also does with T.S.-these-fragments-I-have-shored-against-my-ruins-Eliot, doesn't fly up and hit the collector upside his head? Why is the collector, at this violent juncture of tradition, sheltered from the storm and able to exercise his fancy?

I don't know the answer to that question. But the gesture of bending down, as it were, to collect the relictoid -- torn untimely* from its context, from whatever once made it typical, and without which it is defamiliarized, reverting to a purposeless dumb monstrosity -- is a key feature of fashionable blogs.

Blogs whose governing intelligences appear to be no worse for wear than Walt's collector or T.S.'s deflective self.

If Arendt and Benjamin (and Agamben and others) are witnessing a deep and upending rift in tradition and correct in assessing its scope, this might lend context to some of what Weinberger is getting at. Although David frames much of his discussion in the geekly mode of digital access and metadata, what he's pointing to is nothing if not an energetic tearing up of the pea patch:
Customers, patrons, users and citizens are not waiting for permission to take finding and organization information. And we’re doing it not just as individuals. Knowledge—it content and its organization—is becoming a social act.
This energy has been characterized as possessing inordinate strength and resilience. And there is often the claim that the technical has been a key factor in releasing it, if not channelling it, and that's fair. But the seemingly bottomless power of it - witness Wikipedia - has, I suspect, other, deeper roots than Silicon Valley. Arendt:
When he [Benjamin] was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of "over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged" (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work -- a mode, Benjamin suggested, of drilling -- with the writing as something secondary.
Benjamin's citations may have been systematically and clearly arranged, but they were torn from their context, their traditional placeholders, tagged and dragged willynilly to a new space in which they could play against each other, in Arendt's words, "in a free-floating state, as it were."

Tearing things from context enables them to float, puts them in a cloud. The excellent thing about clouds, as we are now learning, is that now one element, or polarity, comes forward, and now another. They wax and wane in strangely calm adjacencies.

For Benjamin, as Arendt notes, this was a truer method than attempting to "ruin everything with explanations that seek to provide a causal or systematic connection." Why this is so is, of course, unclear. Were it clear, we could provide a causal or systematic explanation and move on.

Traditionless USians always move on. They do not see there is no moving on.

*via Ray.

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Blogger Jon said...

delicious observations, Tom - to the heart of the matter.

7/16/2007 8:54 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

or perhaps the bowel? thanks Jon -

7/17/2007 8:45 AM  

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