La ubicuidad de π

Recientemente se estrenó la película The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), inspirada en la vida del prodigio en matemáticas indio Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan. El film se basa a su vez en la biografía del mismo título de Robert Kanigel y se centra más que nada en la relación de Ramanujan con el matemático inglés G. H. Hardy.[1. Robert Kanigel, [amazon ASIN=”0349104522″]The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan[/amazon] (New York: Macmillan, 1991).] Por cierto, existe otro libro de ficción que también se inspira en la relación de Ramanujan y Hardy, su título es The Indian Clerk, del autor estadounidense David Leavitt.[2. David Leavitt, [amazon ASIN=”1596910402″]The Indian Clerk: A Novel[/amazon] (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).] Continue reading “La ubicuidad de π”

Camus, el moralista

De acuerdo a la Encyclopédie Larousse en ligne, un moraliste es un

Un escritor que describe y critica las costumbres de su época y desarrolla, a partir de ellas, una reflexión sobre la naturaleza y condición humanas. [1. Traducción propia del original: “Écrivain qui décrit et critique les mœurs de son époque et développe, à partir de là, une réflexion sur la nature et la condition humaines”. ]

La historia de las letras francesas, nos advierte la misma Encyclopédie, “abunda” en este tipo de moralistes: Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Montesquieu, Voltaire, para nombrar los más conocidos, fueron todos escritores preocupados por juzgar, muchas veces en forma “lapidaria”, las costumbres y valores de la época en la que vivieron, ridiculizando particularmente sus contradicciones y manierismos. Su objeto de estudio era, en clave ortegaygassetiana, el hombre y sus circunstancias. Continue reading “Camus, el moralista”

Octavio Paz y la crítica

De Octavio Paz nos dice J. Agustín Pastén, en su excelente monografía sobre la labor crítica del poeta mexicano, que el mismo es un “crítico practicante en busca de una poética”. En Pastén resuena, a su vez, la propuesta del crítico uruguayo Emir Rodríguez Monegal quien en otro ensayo — también sobre la labor crítica del poeta mexicano — sugiere que la suya, la de Paz, es un ejemplo de “crítica hecha por el creador”; en otras palabras, de “crítica de practicantes”. Continue reading “Octavio Paz y la crítica”

The Critic as Clown

Clown 1910Thinking about the Chomsky-Žižek controversy — see previous post 1 and post 2 on this topic — in which the American called the Slovenian a “clown”, I’ve been wondering whether we should consider the words ‘critic’ and ‘clown’ as complementary rather than exclusionary. Then I recalled that Terry Eagleton did actually explore a similar idea in an old essay on William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, part of his excellent collection Against the Current.[1. See “The Critic as Clown,” Against the Current. Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1991), págs. 149-165.] Continue reading “The Critic as Clown”

Criticism and Dvořák

Continuing on my research about the crisis of criticism, I’ve just finished reading an essay by pianist Sarah Rothenberg on criticism in the world of music.[1. “Measuring the Immeasurable,” in Maurice Berger, ed.,The Crisis of Criticism (The New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 147-168.] Rothenberg begins her essay describing a visit of Antonín Dvořák to America in 1892. The event, that included Dvořák’s premier of his “From the New World” Symphony, was reviewed by New York Daily Tribune‘s music critic Henry Krehbiel.[2. See also a commentary on Krehbiel’s article by Michael Beckerman: “Henry Krehbiel, Antonín Dvořák, and the Symphony ‘From the New World’,” Notes 49.2 (Dec., 1992), pp. 447-473.] What stroke Rothenberg the most about the review was the fact that it included “fourteen musical examples, with a total of eighty bars of music” (148). She explains:

The presence of excerpts from an orchestral score quoted freely in a daily sold on streetcorners speaks eloquently of a defined relationship between critic and reader, composer and audience, producer and consumer. While Americans were, for the first time, quite self-consciously attempting to put a distinctly American imprint on the European tradition of concert music (for the issue of American identity was a large part of Dvořák’s project in this country), there was nevertheless, quite unself-consciously, an accepted notion of the relevance of such discussion and an expectation of musical literacy for those who wished to enter into it. (148) [highlights are mine]

Rothenberg goes on explaining some of the reasons why such “musical literacy” was possible. For instance, she observes that up to probably the time of Dvořák’s visit, around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most people only had two ways to enjoy music — either by making it by themselves or by being “in a room where someone else was making it” (149). And this could be said not only of music but of many other art forms. In fact, we don’t need to stretch the idea too much to include painting and, consequently, to connect her assessment with Benjamin’s essay on the lost of aura in industrially reproducible art.

I have always understood Benjamin’s idea of aura as a way to represent the experience of evaluating, of assessing value in artistic goods. Metaphorically Metonymically, the aura is a — somehow mystical, it’s true — way to account for that experience, to understand the economy of desires that connects producers and consumers of artistic goods through ‘use value’. In my view, a consequence of Benjamin’s analysis is the recognition that mechanically reproducible art creates recurrent bubbles that abruptly destabilizes that economy. Eventually, the effect of this loss of aura is an artistic market that is completely fetishized or commoditized.

What Rothenberg describes is a similar process. By introducing mechanically reproducible music, that auratic experience between listeners, performers, composers, and score is, as she describes so well, loss forever. But she goes beyond Benjamin, at least in my view. Why? Because she introduces into her analysis the role of the middlemen.  Critics are the middlemen in the economy of desires that operates in art. And although middlemen are usually associated with unscrupulous car salesmen or shark speculators, Rothenberg’s analysis demonstrates that despite all the bad imagery middlemen play an important role here. Good critics help leveling the  playing field without distorting it.

The function of the middlemen is to help the negotiating parties in understanding each other. In the economy of desires involved in art, it means negotiating between producer’s and consumer’s expectations about each transaction. Critics help both parties in agreeing on a common language to express their needs and wants, on what they bring to the negotiating table. The combination of industrialized art consumption and the disappearing of the critic brings as main consequence that both producers and consumers of art goods lack of a common language to articulate their needs and expectations other than the language of money — therefore the unavoidable fetishism. As Rothenberg remarks, modern consumers of music are incapable of understanding a piece’s score and therefore the only way they can assess value — on their auratic experience — is in terms of money or any of its proxys — such as ratings, sales, popularity, etc.

So, paraphrasing Rothenberg’s title, facing the dilemma of their inability to measure the immeasurable, contemporary art consumers are left with only one option: to measure the only measurable variable we have left, money. In another post I’m going to talk a little bit about this, the relationship between money and criticism.

(Literary) Theory and the Humanities

Recently, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Science, a bipartisan congressional group charged “with determining the top ten actions that the congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, and others should take to ensure national excellence in the humanities and social science fields,”[1. See news release.] released a report summarizing the current state of these disciplines. Their findings are unsurprising. Basically, they conclude that the humanities (and the social sciences) are in decline.[2. I should say that The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann disagrees. In a recent blog he argues that rather than declining the humanities are undergoing a renaissance: “Yes, the percentage of lit lovers on campus is near the lows of 30 years ago. But a far higher fraction of all young adults finish college today. As a result, the portion of college-aged Americans with a degree in a humanities discipline has jumped by around one full percentage point.”]

Some hard data. In 1954, 36% of undergraduates at Harvard University majored in a humanity discipline against 20% today (according to a recent report).  Bachelor’s degree completion in humanities spiraled down from 14% in 1966 to 7% in 2010. The percentage of would-be Humanists has declined in Harvard from 27% to 18%. And all this seems to be part of a national trend.

In a society that believes that there is no value “beyond the buck” — to paraphrase actor Jack Lemmon in a Charlie Rose’s interview about his 1973 film Save the Tiger — the humanities certainly are unattractive. There is no buck in (most) humanist concentrations — for instance, humanists earn an average of 25% less than engineers. And although some studies have argued in the past that money don’t buy happiness, a more recent one seems to suggest that it isn’t the case actually. We know that today happiness and success are totally reified — that is, we believe them to be embodied in some concrete object external to us such as money and/or commodities (e.g., smart phones or tablets). Certainly, the kind of skills that a well-rounded liberal education offers can never be a guarantee of making big bucks — and having access to the kind of commodities some people would consider markers of success. No surprise them that recently some people have even questioned the idea of getting a college education at all. As Michael Ellsberg said a couple of years ago in a New York Times op-ed,  “we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. [But] a shortage of job creators.” Being “job creators” an euphemism for people who know how to turn a fast buck. He would probably argue that we don’t have a shortage of Humanists either.

British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his The Significance of Theory (Blackwell, 1990), argues that the phrase “crisis of the humanities” is a tautology. “Historically speaking,” he explains,

the idea of the humanities, at least in the modern period, arises at a point where certain kinds of positive human values are felt to be increasingly under threat from a philistine, crassly materialist society, and so must be marked off from that degraded social arena in a double gesture of elevation and isolation. How could the humanities not be in crisis in social orders where it is perfectly clear, whatever their own protestations to the contrary, that the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck?

In other words, in a society that denies our having any “positive human value” — since we are helplessly violent, insatiably greedy, and unashamedly unsocial — the only option left is being valued based on what we possess. Since the humanities help us to “savour the human as such,” no surprise to find it under attack from a social order in which “the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck.”

However, as Eagleton argues in his essay, the humanities play an important role in contemporary life precisely because of this state of affairs. Through the humanities we construct and reproduce “forms of subjectivity” that are indispensable for our society to function properly. The humanities remind us that “being human” demands having some space beyond the tangible — a mythical space that some people may call religion, others philosophy, and a few literature. Being human, a human subject, is as priceless a feat as being a Christian or a Muslim, just to mention two instances of subjectivity most people might resist to trade for a buck — as the famous credit card commercial states, you can’t put a price on them. Nonetheless, being priceless is not the same as being worthless.

As Kenneth Burke would’ve argued, there is a big difference between naming a thing and pricing a thing. Although both processes involve some kind of “magic,” they are not of the same kind. The latter involves a hiding of things, while the former involves an uncovering. They are two different types of symbolic action. One serves the purpose of reducing antagonism, since as symbols prices operate in the marketplace to reduce friction and facilitate the exchange of goods. On the contrary, the other raises antagonism, because they involve a critical process, a deep questioning of assumptions and beliefs, a constant monitoring of our “associational clusters.”[3. Cf. Kenneh Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form. Studies in Symbolic Action (New York: Vintage, 1957), 3-117.] Pricing things is mostly a relational process while naming things is implicitly dialectical, since it seeks — to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse — to uncover the “other than [those things] are.” And in this dialectics resides its subversive potential. No wonder the humanities represent a threat to our current “social arena”!

A crisis in the humanities seems to me just another symptom of a crisis of imagination. As Marcuse himself explains in his One-Dimensional Man (Beacon, 1966), in our contemporary society “reason repels transcendence,” and through its analytic, neo-positivist flavors[4. And today’s neo-liberals are symptomatically-neo-positivists. See Amoroso et al., Unified Theories (The Noetic Press, 2008)] it seeks to “exorcise such ‘myths’ or metaphysical ‘ghosts’ as Mind, Consciousness, Will, Soul, Self.” I will add ‘imagination’ to this mix. The result of this process is a vacuum of the human as such, since humans are not the one-dimensional caricature of the “consumer subject” or the “proletarian subject.” Pricing things is a form of atomization, of disintegration into an emptiness of undistinguished particulars. There is an implicit negation of universality in the whole idea of the marketplace as the dominant metaphor of contemporary society. But a similar process occurs when left-wing irrationality seeks to reduce humans as such to a blank slate void of any subjectivity or moral agency. Right-wing ideologues trade the universal for a configuration such-and-such of barely connected particulars; left-wingers do the opposite, trading the individual particulars for a monolithic social dough. The failure of imagination resides on both sides of the political spectrum anyway. And it’s precisely because of this that the humanities, as a “mythical space” in which universals and particulars fight a constant battle, may be awfully helpful.

Some Notes on Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Talking about “The Riddle of Poetry,” as part of his Norton Lectures at Harvard University,  Jorge Luis Borges referred once to a famous sonnet by the great English Romantic John Keats: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in order to explain the ‘riddle’ hidden behind the language of poetry.

At this point, it might be a good thing to say that, according to Charles Cowden Clarke — who by the way happens to be the one source of the whole story — this sonnet was written one night of October 1816, soon after he and Keats had spent a whole night reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s books. So impressed was Keats with Chapman’s translation that after he and Clarke parted “at day-spring” Keats sent his friend a letter containing the famous verses as a gift.

Borges knew Keats’ poem by heart. During the lecture, he used the last sestet to illustrate one important point — that language is not only a ‘medium’ for communication but also for “passion and pleasure.” Here is Borges’ rendering of Keats’ sestet:

Then felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or’ like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -and all his men
look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

I think that Keats’ sonnet and Borges’ reading of it are an excellent way to approach the problem of translation, particularly Walter Benjamin’s take on it. But first let’s talk a little bit about Benjamin.

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

In his introduction to a translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Benjamin asks whether a translation is meant for readers who do not understand the original — to which he responds that it isn’t. The task of the translator, he explains, is “finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of” the original’s “mode of signification.” Therefore, a translation is no meant for an idealized reader or readers but for the language those readers use — to release in it “that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”

What is this “pure language”? A few people have tried to provide an interpretation to this enigmatic  term.


For instance, translation scholar Susan Bernofsky argues that this ‘pure language’ is some unmediated form of a (still) non existent global language…

For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.

There is an intrinsic impossibility in Bernofsky’s program though. This distillation of a global, all-encompassing messianic  ‘pure language’ requires something that is either outside of history or, at least, at the end of it. Why? Because, as she says, such a language doesn’t “point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside” it. Basically, it is ‘pure form’, a non-entity in much the same way an abstract point is a non-entity, ‘pure form’, in the realm of mathematics. Can this non-entity really mean anything? What is the relationship between it and the point of its production? On the other hand, can language — written or spoken, visual o textual, etc. — really exist outside of history? Is there any clear relationship between language and history?

Brecht and method

At the end of his book on Brecht’s method, Fredric Jameson adds an epilogue in which he discusses three additional “temporalities.” Jameson’s book is mostly a reflection on Brecht’s praxis and its connection with his “productivity.”

I think here Benjamin is referring to a work’s historicity, in the Jamesonian sense. Each literary work has its own historicity embedded into its language. The fact that translations are part of the afterlife of literary works seems to support this idea. If what a translator wants is to find that echo of the original “mode of signification,” then his/her task is no other than reconstructing the original’s totality.

For Benjamin, the best translation is the literal one or, better yet, the interlinear. The juxtaposition of the literal translation and the original facilitates the turning of the translated words into the original. Rather than trying to convey some concealed meaning, the task of the translator is thus to express the “central reciprocal relationship between languages.”

The Argentinian critic Beatriz Sarlo argues that behind the translator’s task there is the impulse to undo the Babelian project — the drive for mutual misunderstanding. Benjamin doubts the feasibility of such a project, since the task of the translator doesn’t relies on the similarities among languages but on their differences.

Sobre Borges y la neurona de Jennifer Aniston

Funes y la memoria

Estoy leyendo el libro [amazon ASIN=”9789500735032″]Borges y la memoria: Un viaje por el cerebro humano de “Funes el memorioso” a la neurona de Jennifer Aniston[/amazon] (Sudamericana, 2011) del neurocientífico argentino Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. El mismo es un paseo ameno y bien escrito sobre el tema de la memoria, desde la perspectiva de los últimos descubrimientos científicos en el campo de las neurociencias y la neuroingeniería, y todo ello conectado con la historia “Funes el memorioso” de Jorge Luis Borges. Rodrigo Quian Quiroga es un graduado en física de la UBA, con un doctorado de la Universidad de Luebeck. Además, ha ejercido la docencia e investigación en diferentes instituciones de los EEUU y Europa, incluidos el famoso Caltech y la no menos prestigiosa UCLA. Hoy día, Quian Quiroga se desempeña como profesor en la Universidad de Leicester, en el Reino Unido.

Lo que Quian Quiroga hace en su libro es demostrar lo cerca que estaba la intuición de Borges (o más bien debería decir la de él y la del psicólogo preferido de su mentor Macedonio Fernández, el estadounidense William James,[1. Según Jaime Nubiola, Borges fue introducido a la lectura de James de manos de su mentor, el escritor Macedonio Fernández. Este último era un amigo cercano de su padre y un ávido lector de James. Se cree que Fernández mantuvo algún tipo de correspondencia con el psicólogo norteamericano, aunque no hay evidencia sustancial para apoyar la tesis. En todo caso, sabemos que él estuvo a cargo la edición de algunas de las obras del filósofo estadounidense y que quizá buscó la ayuda de su pupilo bilingüe para ese trabajo. Cf. Jaime Nubiola, “WJ and Borges again: The Riddle of the Correspondence with macedonio Fernández“, Streams of William James 3.2 (Fall 2001):10-11.] cuyos libros devorara el joven escritor en su juventud) de entender el funcionamiento del mecanismo cerebral que controla la memoria humana. Más importante aún, Quian Quiroga describe al detalle los procesos involucrados en el procesamiento de conceptos abstractos en el cerebro, demostrando además, como bien intuyera su paisano del siglo pasado, el rol que cumple el olvido en su generación. Como nos dice Borges de boca del narrador de su cuento, “Pensar es olvidar diferencias”, lo que el trabajo científico de Quian Quiroga pareciera finalmente haber demostrado con casi absoluta certeza.

Borges, Benjamin y la neurona de Jennifer Aniston

Debo añadir que la conexión entre Borges y los avances científicos descritos por Quian Quiroga pueden extenderse a otra figura monumental del siglo XX, el crítico y filósofo alemán Walter Benjamin. Lo que el neurocientífico argentino ha descubierto es que para formar conceptos complejos, la mente humana requiere de un proceso eliminatorio que reduce la detallada información provista por los sentidos a una fracción mucho más manejable que se ubica o asocia con unas pocas neuronas cerebrales. Por ejemplo, Quian Quiroga ha encontrado, luego de una serie de experimentos con electrodos cerebrales aplicados a pacientes epilépticos, que fotografías de la actriz Jennifer Aniston pueden asociarse con neuronas específicas del cerebro; claro, asumiendo que el susodicho paciente sea un aficionado de la actriz.

En fin, de manera metafórica, la información del mundo que nos viene de los sentidos entra al laberinto de nuestro cerebro donde debe pasar por millones y millones de pasadizos y puertas, abandonando en cada una de ellas una porción de la información original. Al final del camino, estas ruinas, como las llamaba Benjamin,[2. Particularmente, en su obra El origen del drama trágico alemán (1928).] constituyen una versión dilapidada y desgastada del original, pero al mismo tiempo, como las alegorías del Barroco alemán, las mismas constituyen una imagen del todo, una suerte de holograma, eso que solemos llamar ideas, conceptos.

Creo que debo trabajar más esta conexión, pero lo definitivo es que el libro de Quian Quiroga abre una puerta interesante que conecta el mundo de la literatura, la psicología, la filosofía y la ciencia de una manera que de seguro Borges habría disfrutado enormemente. Definitivamente un buena lectura.


Thinking on Critical Thinking

This season I got myself involved with a book circle to discuss the book Teaching for Critical Thinking by Stephen D. Brookfield. I should say that ‘critical thinking’ is one of those notions I found somehow problematic. What do we mean with ‘critical’? What do we mean with ‘thinking’? Those two words by their own are quite complex and rich in meanings.  Do we mean ‘critical’ negatively, as in ‘being critical’? According to the Manchester Academic Phrasebank, ‘being critical’ means:

questioning what you read and not necessarily agreeing with it just because the information has been published. Being critical can also mean looking for reasons why we should not just accept something as being correct or true. This can require you to identify problems with a writer’s arguments or methods, or perhaps to refer to other people’s criticisms of these.

Do we mean ‘critical’ positively, as a detailed evaluation of the virtues of something? Which is what we mean most of the time in the literary realm. So, exactly, what do we mean?

Then, we have ‘thinking’. What do we mean with ‘thinking’?  Is it analyzing, problem-solving, developing theories, hypothesizing, using ‘reason’? Is it a process, a way to go from A to B methodically, systematically? Not according to Heidegger. He used to argue that this way of ‘thinking’ was just ‘one way’ of ‘thinking’ but not the ‘only’ one — and probably not the ‘best’ one either. Ludwig Wittgenstein pretty much agreed with him on this. For Witt, ‘thinking’ was subservient to language usage, since we first speak and only then think. For instance, he says that we don’t suffer pain until we understand the meaning of ‘pain’ itself.

By the way, there is an interesting piece by Michael S. Roth on this topic, particularly in the humanities, that I will comment another day.

But I’m coming to the circle with an open mind and we’ll see what comes out from this experience. I guess I will keep my invisible friends posted on the reading as much as I can.