Grammar and temporality. That’s what comes to mind when I consider this blogpost’s brief. The present continuous—the am-reading—implies some kind of vague but unspecified reach. If we’re being pedantic about things, right now, as I write this, I’m only reading my own words as they begin to accumulate on a screen. This very curtailed present, if it amounted to the extent of my graspable stretch, would be too short to make this blogpost interesting. It wouldn’t—come to think of it—be enough to make a person, or a life, interesting. Curtailed presents are political, as I see it.
For a while now I’ve been interested in questions of time—or times, and what impacts them. The angle I’m taking above (i.e. verbs, time, or a kind of structural gaze) also has something to do with what I happen to be reading at the moment (however long this ‘moment’ might be or feel). There are certain kinds of time that our received, cultural grammars invite and others that remain concealed or harder to access. The socio-historico-political field influences our speaking/writing/thinking habits, as well as the verb forms we use, and others that we lose, that get flabby and fall away. Learning a new language, especially if the language is outside the linguistic lineage of your mother tongue, can diversify these possibilities. Learning Italian, for me, might not be as transformative as learning Woiwurrung. Language learning has as much to do with ontological scope and broad-mindedness as it does with manners for visiting other countries or for inhabiting your ‘own’.
The use of present continuous—the what I’m reading—tends to have a catchment that exceeds this flash of a moment; it has a variable but assumed duration, implied by convention but not always guaranteed by it. Time is vulnerable, as are the modes in which it synthesises or via which it forms. Do we agree culturally on the how-long? Do our shared practices produce it? As such, how can we know if the title’s grammar is meant to include what I have been reading recently, and have more recently again finished? Does it include the books I’ve got on the go? (the ones I may never finish, in fact—we can’t be sure). Should I just do a survey of open PDFs on my laptop, and of books lying around out of the bookcase—on my dresser, on the floor near the bed, on the coffee table, in the reading basket in the bathroom? Would this provide the kind of snapshot sought—the present as it continues? Don’t imagine I’m saying that the ‘present’ is the best we can hope for. No, definitely not. My temporal politics involve no fetishisation of ‘presentness’ … I know that jargon and choose to trouble it. Rather, I’m saying that a present (that, for example, can drop out in cases of severe trauma) is the very least of what we should hope for—temporally, as the basic weave that makes a life.
My drifting about in atmospheres of grammar and temporality also has plenty to do with a Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy course on Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense. As anybody knows who’s done one, an intensive course on a book is no guarantee that one will actually read it, or even begin reading it. Reading and enjoying a lecture series are different pleasures, though surely ones that reinforce each other. I’ve been waking up early, of late, and when I opened the text in the smudgy dawn light (a number of days running), I found the markings of previous forays—quite extensive, egad!—and yet, with Deleuze, one is ever able to begin again, and risking fewer spoilers than you’d think.
The book, from 1969, was written close to his other masterpiece, Difference and Repetition. Both address questions of time. The Logic of Sense, however, is also about events as Deleuze (and to his reading, the Stoics) framed them. For Deleuze, these events will have everything to do with language, more specifically, with human language as recognisable speech, as distinct from noises humans can make—as babies, for example. Jon Roffe, the lecturer, framed the book as asking a very classically philosophical question: how do we get from the noise of the baby to the language of the poet and philosopher? Where does meaning get in, and how to think this register precisely? ‘Events’ will be those some-things that escape the register of thick bodies and their causal bumpings-into. Events can’t even be said to exist per se, but they are that which are expressed whenever propositions are at play. Stuff We Say (or write… or think, arguably). Events are expressions, the ineffable mist that plays at the threshold between propositions (which also, from one angle, are just noises we make) and the world of bodies. Events don’t exist apart from the propositions that express them, but they are not at all the same as these propositions. Incredible, right? This delving into expression and its inner workings is a very provocative and beautiful thing—for poets, for painters, for lovers, for dancers, for anyone who wonders about meaning, even as it skirts the ubiquitous risks of fragility and being broken.
Deleuze’s interest in speaking-that-means throws me towards another book that I’m technically still ‘reading’ but which is now probably in Berlin, since it was borrowed by a roommate recently, when I was on a partially silent retreat, just as I was about to finish it. Its absence accounted for my lighter luggage and was accompanied by other ineffable lightnesses. Taking some distance from one’s life for a chunk of time, from one’s speech patterns and relationship to speech, and from the narcotic lure of devices, also produces a kind of baggage-shedding… There is both more gravity and less heaviness. The work is called A Book of Silence, by the UK writer, Sara Maitland. I can be a chilly audience for certain brands of nonfiction, but I came to respect Maitland’s labour, which—aside from anything else—really tracks a thorough and extended lived grappling with her query. She was on the search to interrogate what we think we mean by ‘silence’, identifying various plausible kinds and modes, querying its possibility (via Cage and others), and she delivers practice-based reports of its reach and timbre, as well as a decent précis of pockets of its history. She enacted artistic/Romantic-style retreats for the purposes of creativity and curiosity around self-expression, as well as ascetic sojourns of the kind that look to leave a self behind, to muddle boundaries and merge with a principle that can be called God.
My personal aesthetic is not only wary of fetishising presentness, but also silence—as a thing, to be gotten, to be hoarded. We all know the yucky hunch that the elite will be buying access to the quiet of the future, just like the water and the air (or at least that they believe this, and therefore sell their grandchildren’s futures up the [toxic] river with their voting choices). The fact that we know something of this preference—in terms of Real Estate, in terms of the fantasies we have when things ‘get too much’—is enough to demonstrate that less-noise (or not-noise-all-the-time) seems to be something we know to care about. We suspect, even if we struggle to act on it, that temporary withdrawals or breaks from the fever pitch of noise-as-stimulus can be interesting, even revealing and restorative. Note these words again: noise; speech; silence; meaning—I won’t divide these with any ‘and’ that might imply a binary slash. I don’t think it’s that simple.
What I know, as a practitioner, as a meditator, is that one of the sources of noise with which we constantly struggle, is the ‘noise’ inside us. This wouldn’t so much be the meaningless noise of the baby in the depths of undifferentiated terror, but rather the things we can’t bear to listen to. The Sound of Ourselves. Propositions Without End. The crowd of people ‘inside’ who vie for airtime. The demeaning voices. The conniving. The instrumentalist. The relentlessly satirical. The blathering. To evade or dodge some of these voices—which I’m bundling up with noise (but in Deleuze they are propositions which also exude the incorporeality that is expression, too)—people will nurse various addictions, use escapist methods of all kinds, as well as pine for, and objectify something called Peace-and-Quiet. The irony of the Silent Retreat is that it’s really very noisy—it’s just that the noise inside is revealed in all its athleticism, and there’s nowhere to run or hide. In this swill of propositions, one can discover that one is often tedious, reliably narrow-minded and/or paranoid, as well as nutty, with flashes of hilarity and astonishing strangeness. And, and, and…
To go back to Deleuze, in Logic of Sense, the concept of events-as-expressions allows the delineation of a realm where usual causality doesn’t apply. In the case of events—associated with the form of the un-conjugated infinitive verb (to dream, to green, to grow, to stutter, to obsess, to plunge)—they aren’t pinned down to common-sense time and place. Alice grows bigger and smaller at once. Time is other than the usual Present of what is called Chronos. The Aion (the temporality pertaining to Events/Expression as Deleuze defines it) is, instead, a time in which the present, with its rules of logic, isn’t. This ‘present’ is rather a mere division without thickness, and in its register, there is the always-already-been and the empty form of the future.
There is something about entering environments with more silence and less chit-chat where shared logics to which we all bow down are loosened just a little. Delight, despite our best efforts, reliably gets in—not-even-withstanding our neoliberalised moment’s insistence that it’s out of reach, or best put off till a More Successful Later. In shared silence, our tender madnesses can risk appearing. We find ourselves to be both boring and endearing. Less simpering, often plainer. With more whimsy and gravitas. We acknowledge our dual cruelties and innocence. We take responsibility without necessarily collapsing into being Nietzsche’s Ass. There’s a slippery lightness and nonplussed alertness that a withdrawal from the tithe of polite, personality-producing conversation relieves us from. It’s like the best kind of party. The ones where no one asks you what you ‘do’, where various strange projects are undertaken spontaneously, where discussions are of nonsense, or produce it, and then there’s lying on the lawn, holding hands with strangers until it rains.
This is a timely moment to note the other book I’m reading: Newcastle Professor Simon Springer’s The Discourse of Neoliberalism: the anatomy of a powerful concept. The thing I’m sleuthing in this work, and more broadly for my own queries, is the impact of neoliberalisation on time and how we live it. He calls it, memorably, ‘a symphony of sickness’. If you’re foggy on markers of its ideology, think privatisation, casualisation, rationalisation, the insertion of competition into every sphere of life, individualisation, and handing over ‘decision’ to the market, among other things. Neoliberalisation (Springer’s preferred nomenclature, for rigorous reasons), in all its local ‘expressions’, might have a lot to do with our Present Continuous becoming shorter and shorter. Its logics seem to desiccate our capacity for extended presents. It dooms us to a merciless, implacable Chronos (—a Chronos who uses too much coke and doesn’t care about drug mules or sex slavery). The stretch of what counts as a moment is shrunk or julienned into slivers of Nothing Matters, or Stakes are Unliveably High. Deleuze addresses this idea of the present in Difference and Repetition (written close to Logic). In it, our grasp of a stretch of time as ‘present’ has to do with our capacity as an organism—that is, ‘us’ as capacity per se for registering a stretch of difference and holding it together as a living present. (Gods, to speak poetically, have infinite stretches, and can grasp all of time as Now.) Neoliberal temporalities might (I reckon) prevail by creating strangling, mini-sized presents, presents you can’t even squeeze one leg into, let alone do up the zip. I see this creep, this smiling stealth takeover, and I plan to read and resist it. (A book I never finished was my German copy of Michael Ende’s children’s book Momo. The Time-Thieves were too terrifying for me, but I should toughen up and get it back on the bedside pile.)
Now, Spinoza tells us about capacities—and there is an ethics to moving towards things that increase our capacity. Note, this is not the same as the Obligation to Do that haunts the current moment. Neoliberalisation, while it talks the talk of capacity-building, tends to walk the walk of trashing or using up those we have. We end up, for one thing, marooned in the Imaginary Register where the Ego eats us Alive, and where we cease to worry about our impact on others, but rather worry about how our recent behaviour impacts on the Image that Others Have of Us [expletive in italics, vowels repeating like a forehead hitting the keyboard…]
We’re told that audiences have shorter and shorter attention spans. For me as a movie-viewer this can make a stimulus-every-minute-or-so pretty exhausting and frankly stupid at the commercial cinema. There is a noxious loop that instigates here. The less we can bear a stretch of time without jolt, the more we stimulate ourselves constantly, and then the more we are bludgeoned and the less we can bear a stretch of time… The coil tightens as we all know from phases where we check our phones repeatedly like dolts, seeking a paltry kind of pleasure that is none at all, but losing our taste in the same gesture for more languorous, sultry and drawn-out sensibilities. What has been stunning to watch, as iDevices keep us enthralled, is how much humans are addicted to working. We are all working for Google. For free. Isn’t our generosity face-melting…
I read a (necessarily) anonymous article in The Saturday Paper on 16 August, about casualisation in Australian Universities. Read it!—the perfect storm of questions of time, ethics, theft (of time and money) and neoliberal compliance, enacted by people who, of course, think they are Good People (don’t we all?). These people, also cogs in a bigger system, complying with logics they may not have bothered to read critically, who have found a way to make Australian universities profitable despite plunging levels of government funding, are definitely Not Listening. (Or, perhaps they cannot bear what is to be heard.) More sadly, they’re also sometimes smugly Not-Listening. Simon Springer offers a reminder that neoliberalisation is not a homogenous process, but rather a series of localised and often surreptitious consents and tacit givings-in that we could abstain from consenting to and playing along with. For this we need the critical skills to abstain from falling into line with those conventions—critiqued by Deleuze and not at all benign—that go by the moniker ‘common sense’. Neoliberalisation’s ideological force, if I’ve understood Springer’s take, has trained us to accept its tenets as Reasonable Thinking. Being Realistic. A desensitised Being Sensible. This is what we need to spot, assisted by rigorous accounts and deft concepts suited to the task. Some books are a real help, as are people—ideally well-paid and in continuing employment matching their expertise—who, with endless patience and generosity in spades, help us grapple with such books.
I could tell you about other readings (the Valèry-Gide, the Aranya, the Foster Wallace, the Hölderlin, the Dillard, the Connell, the Mann, the Vanderbeke) but I’m enjoying the resonance of the four here for now. Less is more, right? Yes, often, (as long as it isn’t a certain Minimalism). Deleuze gives us a way to think time in two ways, and to name that ineffable register of life which is the event-as-expression. The crucial register for art, for the relations that lean into the realm of meat-bodies, of solid, thick things (as we see in Lewis Carroll, one of Deleuze’s touchstones in the book). His close work gives me more accurate tools for thinking time and language, meaning and that which can be hard to name but is worth living for. Maitland’s book-length clump of propositions relating to silence of various kinds, in this way, exudes something additional and in excess of the words on the page. It’s the ‘mist’ that seems to express the traces of someone holding open a shared but often concealed aspect of being human. Funnily, for me, when asked ‘why silence sometimes?’, my answer has recently been: well, when we stop talking, sometimes we can feel the other in a new way, feel their animal body, their warmth, the thickness of them which is also, to our often-surprise, quite ‘meaningful’, sometimes it’s a lot. We might enter new grammars of gesture, improvising practices of consideration, of sensed proximity and space. The people we mightn’t ‘like’ so much, when they’re talking—because let’s face it, language is an excellent means of keeping people away from us—can be the animal-bodies for whom we feel an unnameable fondness if that talking-at-each-other is for a time suspended. (I fall in love with people I can be silent with. Or with people who talk without ‘splaining, so I can talk less… this took me a while—and some silence—to work out.) When we return to words, we take care of meaning a little more. When I resurface from silence, sometimes I speak more plainly. Sometimes, there’s poetry. If I’m really lucky, I listen better.
Antonia Pont is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She publishes creative and scholarly works, including poetry and essays, and is a columnist for The Lifted Brow.