Monday, November 17, 2008

Some thoughts on the new

Kascha, is productive imagination really reducible to accidental evolution? The issue here, as Noah points out, is the possibility of something new. What I think Husserl's work suggests, and what I tried to point out earlier, about this possibility is that the new always grows out of the past. Hence, our new is, perhaps, not as new as we'd like it to be; on the other hand, it also gives us precisely the means to effect change. We have to reach people where they're at (hit 'em in their horizons, so to speak), which of course isn't news to anyone, especially not to rhetoricians, who have been doing this type of thing for centuries. But maybe this isn't 'just' rhetoric: maybe there is something essentially true--and something essential about truth--in it.

But what would it mean that the new always grows out of the past? It doesn't mean, I don't think, that we can't have anything new. It just means that what strikes us as new--precisely in order to strike us--must be relatable to our past. This is true in the first case of things that we try to start: in order for me to want to change my habits, some experience must strike me that accords with those habits (and other past experiences), in a particular way; either I have an experience that I can't make sense of, and I change my habits to try to make sense of them (e.g., I encounter a woman doing something I had previously thought only men could do; this leads me to change how I understand women and their potentialities), or I experience my habits negatively (i.e., with some kind of pain, usually spiritual/mental/emotional), and this makes me want to change my habits (e.g., I find my present understanding of men painfully restrictive in some way, say, because it doesn't let me have true meaningful friendships; in response, I try to change how I understand men and their potentialities). The first of these is the 'trailblazer' model of cultural change, and is what makes us venerate the Jackie Robinsons and Barack Obamas of the world. The second is the empathy route, and is what cross-cultural exchanges are supposed to foster (i.e., I make friends with people who are different, then their pain at societal injustices become my friend's pain, and hence my pain, rather than just 'their' pain). These two are connected, of course, but I think slightly different.

But what about the possibility of my experiencing something new that comes from elsewhere, that is, something not of my own production? Must we distinguish here between self-revelation and other-revelation, between self-affection and hetero-affection (to use Michel Henry's terms)? And doesn't my characterization of the new as coming out of the past prevent the possibility of something totally new, wholly other, coming to me?

This was precisely Levinas' worry with Husserl. It is why Levinas insists on the newness and alterity of the instant, and prefers to think of time as the 'instant' (of newness, of incoming sensation from 'outside' me) rather than as ec-stasis (the stretching of the present into past and future). I think, though, that what Levinas ultimately ends up doing (and Derrida too for that matter) is a question of changing how we understand the subject in order to make room for the advent of something other. However, this change is still undergone on the basis of a certain prevalence for the present subject, and the present growing out of the past. Without this, we would have no horizons, and hence no ability to experience the incoming (as other or as anything else). The totally other is so other as to not even appear to me. This is why Levinas' account of time as futural is based on an immemorial past, a past that was never a present for me (and hence comes from the other), but that is still part of my past (as horizon of my present). This is where I 'first' encounter the other, and makes the other constitutive of me.

I guess, then, my answer to Kascha about how we change is by recognizing that what I have (and understand and am) is always an experience that I have received by interacting with my world (that is, with myself and what is other than me). This is a fancy, ontological and phenomenological way of saying that we can't change what we think and do until we realize that what we think and do aren't just the 'way things are', but they can be different. We can't learn until we learn that what we think we know might be wrong. Hence, the first step in not repeating cultural gender stereotypes is in recognizing, not just that there are gender stereotypes, but recognizing all the things that I think which are actually affected by those stereotypes, things as small (but as important) as how tough I think my 3-year old nephew should be vis-a-vis my 3-year old niece.

This point seems so banal, but it's the best I can do right now. But thanks for letting me think through some of my dissertation stuff. It's been helpful to me. Hopefully for you as well.

1 comment:

Mlle. Le Renard said...

check out Bachelard's theory of time in Dialectic of Duration or Intuition of the Instant. Like Levinas, he disagrees with Bergson that time is a continuity and plenum, but rather that it must be composed of instants. I wonder how Levinas's theory relates to Bachelard's? (his is much earlier)