the dialogue

“The principal influence on the origin of dialogue as a genre was of course Socrates: his associates wanted to bear testimony to the personality and teachings of a man who refused to write anything himself and whose philosophic ideals – in theory, at any rate – were of cooperative dialectic. Yet tensions between dialogue and democracy are immediately apparent in Socrates’ activities. In Plato’s Protagoras, the character of Socrates insists on conversing by way of short question and answer; yet in the Gorgias, we are told that such a method (brachylogy) is impossible with a large audience and can only take place with a select few. So Socratic dialectic, which arguably could not have flourished outside a democratic context, is nevertheless a pursuit of the leisured elite.

When we consider Plato himself, the most brilliant practitioner of the dialogue genre, the tensions and ironies multiply. Quite apart from the general irony that all dialogues written by a single author are in a sense monologues, Plato was one of democracy’s most implacable critics, and one of the central reasons for his hostility was that the Athenian democracy had put Socrates to death – at least partly, it could be claimed, because of the way he did dialogue, interrogating self-appointed experts and deflating their pretensions to knowledge. Yet Book One of the Republic can itself be read as an implicit critique of the historical Socrates’ style of dialogue (and of course Plato’s works do not just consist of brief question and answer: there are plenty of longer speeches, including, with tongue doubtless in cheek, one in the Protagoras about the origins of brachylogy). Furthermore, to add an extra layer to the complexity, Plato’s own dialogues, including the Republic, would almost certainly not be permitted into the ‘ideally just’ (and certainly not democratic) state outlined in the Republic: they break many of the censorship rules laid down there. Plato’s dialogues, in other words, simultaneously arise from the culture of democratic Athens and offer a robust critique of that culture, and would be banned by the philosopher-rulers whom Plato (apparently) advocates instead.”

(from Angela Hobbs, “Too much talking in class”, review of The End of Dialogue in Antiquity, ed. Simon Goldhill, p. 17 in the 18 & 25 Dec 2009 TLS.)

jon cotner & andy fitch, “ten walks/two talks”

Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch
Ten Walks/Two Talks
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

This is a book that I read entirely on public transportation: on the way to a party on Saturday night and making my way back home from a brunch in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon. This feels wrong, to a certain extent: this is a book, as the title suggests, that’s about walking and talking. It’s difficult to square these pursuits with reading, which for the most part is a solitary activity and one that can’t be done while walking: to read is necessarily to abnegate the outside world. It’s not entirely impossible to combine reading and walking – I remember reading The Recognitions for the first time while on the mile-long walk between work and home one summer – but that was a walk that I’d taken many times over already, and I’m not sure how much I got out of that reading of the book. It was college: maybe it was more performative than not.

This is a small book, consisting of four sections, divided by seasons, each section introduced by a recaptioned reproduction of prints from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The first and third contain narratives of five walks from what might be five consecutive days in New York City; told in the first person, the narrators seem to alternate. The second and fourth sections contain transcriptions of two conversations between “J” and “A”, whom we might assume to be the authors: reading these sections, the reader can work out who is responsible for which sections of the walks. Upon scrutiny, the book’s structure becomes less clear: the walks sections are headed “Early Spring” and “Late Spring,” while the talks are “Early Winter” and “Late Winter”. The second talk refers back to the first talk, but the temporal location of the walks is unclear: we might reasonably presume that winter comes before spring, and that the talks are a result of the walks, but there’s no concrete evidence for that. Internal evidence in the walks sections suggest that they happen in March and April of 2005. 

It’s in the talks that the project of the book becomes clear: these sections of the book presents a transcription of two conversations, with all the strangeness that appears when oral language becomes written language (as in, for example, Ed Friedman’s The Telephone Book, transcriptions of his telephone conversations). Conversation is a very different thing from a printed interview. Here, for example, is an extract from the first walk, headed “Central Park, 9:10 p.m.”:

J: Sure I’d wanted to cross the park today, but spent hours printing a writing sample for UCSD: a total, maddening loss of time. In fact one guy caught me losing my cool. I explained only printer troubles . . .
A: Let’s move down the mic a bit.
J: make me lose my cool.
A: I got I got caught bowing to the Huddlestone Arch waterfall by this shadowy figure who . . .
J: A scary . . . (p. 23)

Here the mechanics become apparent with the reference to the microphone that’s recording this conversation. The speakers’ voices overlap; punctuation is something that exists in written language, not spoken language. It’s possible there’s a certain amount of self-consciousness that comes with speaking when one knows one is being recorded: subjects bounce back and forth very quickly. (In the second talk, the recorder is switched off at a point when the speakers become aware of those surrounding them; then it is resumed, with the explanation that they’ve moved.) The reader can make sense of most of it with some effort.

Once it becomes apparent how the talks section works, the reader immediately starts wondering about the walks. A representative paragraph, from the last walk; the speaker is near Riverside Park:

A townhouse I otherwise appreciated held patriotic ribbons wrapped around the porch. A dog crossed with its owner calling Stephen, wait! Two Scottish terriers looked less intelligent side-by-side. An old Japanese woman wore a bowler hat. The question Was she attractive? made no sense I was attractive. She needed my gaze and I delivered it. (p. 57)

The speaker here is recording everything he does on his walk; however, this is written language, something not composed in the moment. One can’t very well walk and write at the same time; it’s possible he’s scribbling notes to himself, or using a voice recorder, but his person does seem to be in the moment. One wonders, in passing, if these walks, ostensibly taken alone, were actually taken together, with one of the authors walking and one recording; but that also doesn’t seem like it would pass without notice.

A passage late in the second talk explains the concerns at stake:

A: Yeah as soon as something gets put on paper [Cough] chance I’ll retain it. Or perhaps you know: when the Laotians began to write, which happened, I believe mid-seventies (a French priest designed a print language for them), they lost half . . .
J: Socrates talks about this in the Phaedrus. He refuses to write since it would weaken his memory.
A: Hmmm I’ve heard an implicit anxiety throughout Plato’s work is that, for the first time ap appears the potential for discource to be preserved – to pick up new interpretations the author couldn’t anticipate, interpretation justified by textual proof. And this anxiety leads to conceptions, you know Platonic conceptions of forms (an idealized world; a world more permanent than the written one coming . . .
J: So you think Plato’s disdain for the empirical world derives . . .
A: His . . .
J: [Muffled] books ambiguous?
A: Ambiguous in a way things hadn’t been. A new temporality develops through them, as Plato’s thought becomes our thought. (pp. 82–83.)

The book is an attempt to get back from language what’s lost when put on paper – with the recognition that it has to be a book. What Plato says on the pages of the Phaedrus doesn’t, in the end, matter quite so much as how we internalize it. The discussion then moves to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and how we presumably lost many of the works of the pre-Socratics there; I was left wondering if the book might not be paradoxically more fragile than the remembered text, though on looking back, that’s not in this book. 

In the first talk, we find the reason for the Hiroshige illustrations, in a discussion of how the light brings to mind one of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:

. . . . As always in winter months I’ve I value Asian, specifically Japanese art, for training us to recognize the splendor of bare branches.
J: That’s why I go back to Asian poetry and painting, to to track the beauty of each season but not catch myself . . . and escape the trap of longing for summer in the heart of winter. (p. 28)

One senses that this is what this book is attempting to do.

orality now

“The mouth is our sustainer: with it our body is fed and our soul made articulate. Orality as a developmental stage is as early as any, near to our deepest and often most desperate feelings. The spoken language is learned at the point, and in the manner, in which we learned to live; when we heard love, anger, anxiety, expectation, in the tones of the parental voice, and later began to find the words we had heard forming in our own mouths as if the ear had borne their seed. Moreover, we still communicate at the daily and most personal level by speaking, not by writing, to one another. If the telephone suggests physical closeness at the price of spiritual distance, E-mail promotes that impersonal intimacy sometimes experienced by strangers. Writing has even lost the kinetic character the hand once gave it, or the portable conveyed through its worn and pounded keys. Prefab letters pop onto a screen in full anonymity now, as if the mind alone had made them, our fingers dancing along over the keyboard as unnoticed as breathing until something breaks or the error beep sounds. As Plato feared, the written word can be stolen, counterfeited, bought, released from the responsibility of its writer, sailed into the world as unsigned as a ship unnamed or under borrowed registry. Suppose politicians were required to compose their own lies, use their own poor words, instead of having their opinions catered – how brief would be their hold on our beliefs; how soon would their souls be seen to be as soiled as their socks.”

(William Gass, “Finding a Form,” p. 43 in Finding a Form.)

productive changes of sense

“For treachery is always what occurs when a text, a work of art, or a concept travels to faraway places and becomes something completely different from what it was at its source, within its context of origin. These are felicitous acts of betrayal, productive changes of sense. Misprision, misreading, and misuse are the three virtues of cultural exchange. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Oswald Spengler recognized as much. Behind his pessimism and his debatable partitions, Spengler, the first to diagnose an inexorable “Decline of the West,” also noted the importance of intersections and influences, of this ‘art of deliberate misunderstanding‘ indissociable from each culture’s pure essence: ‘The more enthusiastically we laud the principles of an alien thought, the more fundamentally in truth we have denatured it’ – something he already seemed to celebrate, praising the ‘trace’ of Plato in Goethe’s thought to illustrate his point, as well as ‘the history of the “three Aristotles” – Greek, Arabian and Gothic.’ ”

(François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort, pp. 336–337.)

beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

“Norbert A’Campo of the University of Basel once asked Grothendieck about something related to the Platonic solids. Grothendieck advised caution. The Platonic solids are so beautiful and so exceptional, he said, that one cannot assume such exceptional beauty will hold in more general situations.”

(Allyn Jackson’s Comme Appelé du Néant— As If Summoned from the Void: The Life of Alexandre Grothendieck”, Notices of the AMS, vol. 51, no. 10, November 2004, p. 1194.)

finishing things (2)

“We know full well that the entire work has to be imperfect and that the least secure of our aesthetic contemplations will be the one we write about. But everything is imperfect: there is no sunset so beautiful that it couldn’t be more so, or light breeze that brings us sleep that couldn’t give us an even calmer sleep. And so, contemplators equally of mountains and statues, enjoying days as we enjoy books, dreaming everything, just to turn it into our intimate substance, we shall also make descriptions and analyses, which, once made, will become alien things, which we can enjoy, as if we had seen them in the afternoon.”

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, from note 153 in Alfred Mac Adam’s translation, which is note 176 in Maria Aliete Galhoz & Teresa Sobral Cunha’s edition of the Livro do Desassossego.)


“Max smiled. He said, ‘I shall take refuge in the Phaedrus. You remember at the end Socrates tells Phaedrus that words can’t be removed from place to place and retain their meaning. Truth is communicated from a particular speaker to a particular listener.’

‘I stand rebuked! I recall that passage. But it is a reference to mystery religions, isn’t it?’

‘Not necessarily. It can apply to any occasion of learning the truth.’

‘Do you think Hannah – desires the true good?’

Max said after a long silence during which Effingham found himself nodding with sleep, ‘I’m not sure. And I don’t think you can tell me. It may all be to meet some need of my own. I’ve meant all my life to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. And here I am at the end – and I haven’t even set out.’ He spoke with a sudden fierceness, cutting and lighting a cigar with quick precision and moving the ash-tray farther down the table with a loud clack. He added, ‘Perhaps Hannah is my experiment! I’ve always had a great theoretical knowledge of morals, but practically speaking I’ve never done a hand’s turn. That’s why my reference to the Phaedrus was damned dishonest. I don’t know the truth either. I just know about it.’ ”

(Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn (1963), pp. 100–101.)

effingham i

(Frank Stella, Effingham I (1967), in the Van Abbemuseum.)

. . . and again

“The generation is unceasing. Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body want to reproduce the person. But it also – as Diotima tells Socrates – prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Lycurgus. The poem and the law may then prompt descriptions of themselves – literary and legal commentaries – that seek to make the beauty of the prior thing more evident, to make, in other words, the poem’s or law’s ‘clear discernibility’ even more ‘clearly discernible.’ Thus the beauty of Beatrice in La vita nuova requires of Dante the writing of a sonnet and the writing of that one sonnet prompts the writing of another: ‘After completing this last sonnet I was moved by a desire to write more poetry.’ The sonnets, in turn, place on Dante a new pressure, for as soon as his ear hears what he has made in meter, his hand wants to draw a sketch of it in prose: ‘This sonnet is divided into two parts . . .’; ‘This sonnet is divided into four parts . . . .’

(Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 4–5.)

attn. thomas friedman

“. . . But when I hear other kinds of discussion, especially the talk of rich businessmen like you, I get bored and feel sorry for you and your friends, because you think you're doing something important, when you're not. Perhaps you regard me as a failure, and I think you're right. But I don't think you're a failure, I know you are.”

(Apollodorus, in Plato's Symposium, trans. Christopher John Gill)