Friday, May 06, 2005

Pascal's Sphere, borrowed from CK

Thank god there are people in the world less lazy than I.

Here's an excerpt talking about a grand project my friend Chris is undertaking (and everyone is implicitly invited to join in). He articulates questions that only have dim cumulus forms in me. He takes what are, for me, unsettling wisps of vapor, dim flashes behind gauze, and lays them out in letters. (thanks Chris!)

His energy, integrity, and intensity are to be emulated.

But as it is, I'll just cut and paste.

Taken From:

"Although I am currently the sole proprietor and inhabitant, I created an on-line community today at, it's called Pascals_Sphere

"The community name comes from Pascal’s Pensées #72 – titled “Man’s Disproportion.” There Pascal talks about the gap between the immense swath of nature we can see or experience, and the incomparably more vast conception of creation we can form if we try to imagine what we encounter through our senses (you can, for example, imagine infinitely more stars behind the stars you can actually see). I’m always interested in ways the finite and the infinite might connect and interilluminate. But for Pascal, what is produced by such interplay is a dazzling blindness that brings us into the experience of a truth about ourselves that leaves us changed.

"Pascal sets out to dizzy his reader, saying:

"The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, that imagination loses itself in that thought.

--Pensées #72 (p.16)

"It’s hard to conceive a more powerful claim – that if we try to imagine what we experience, the endlessness of the experience will connect us directly with the power of God.

"The logic Pascal here explores was also taken up by Kant and by Burke under the heading of the sublime, and although they didn’t invoke God directly (at least I don’t remember them doing so), they also say that trying to imagine totality opens it up to infinity in ways that leave us speechless and transformed.

"Pascal talks about how this line of thought can change our self-perception when he writes: “For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything” (p.17).

"In “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal” Borges notes that Pascal drew on one of humanity’s archetypical metaphors, and he outlines some of the key instances in which God or the infinite is imagined in terms of contrasting infinities as “an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Labyrinths, p.190). Borges writes that with this idea Pascal and other metaphysical thinkers situate humankind between the everywhere and the nowhere in order to produce a feeling of being lost in time and space. “In time, because if the future and the past are infinite, there can not really be a when; in space, because if every being is equidistant from the infinite and the infinitesimal, neither can there be a where” (Labyrinths, p.191).

"Pascal’s sphere is “fearful” because of the self-alienation that results when we cannot establish where we are in time or space (Kant considered these to be a priori categories. Without them, he argued, human perception is impossible). Pascal dislocates our sense of ourselves when he writes:

"Let us then take our compass; we are something, and we are not everything. The nature of our existence hides from us the knowledge of first beginnings which are born of the Nothing; and the littleness of our being conceals from us the sight of the Infinite. . . . This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within the vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.

--Pensées #72 (p.19)

"Drifting in uncertainty, Pascal’s solution is to have faith in a God we could not hope to understand. With Borges, as is true of our generation in general, the cultural faith in God has disappeared (this is what Nietzsche – or Zarathustra - meant when he said “God is dead.” God no longer serves the central cultural concept settling the West’s existential problems). With the disappearance of the centrality of God, Borges suggests, humankind disappears as well, because:

“No one exists on a certain day, in a certain place; no one knows the size of his own countenance” (Labyrinths, p.191).

"Borges’ conclusion is pessimistic. Anyone might be anyone else – or no one at all (these alternatives being rough equivalents). Hence we have no identity. Each of us turns out to be someone different than we thought, a chess piece sitting on a board that, in its turn, is but a chess piece on a yet larger board, which likewise is but a chess piece on a still larger board, and so forth. It’s chess boards within chess boards (circles within circles, or Gods behind Gods) all the way down.

"But I think there is another, a less corrosive, way to look at Pascal’s Sphere. If my identity is fluid, then I am endlessly responsible for what I choose and what I avoid in the way I connect with others. Cavell makes this point in a beautifully wrought passage:

"The fantasy of a private language, I suggested can be understood as an attempt to account for, and protect our separateness our unknowingness, our unwillingness or incapacity either to know or to be known. Accordingly, the failure of the fantasy signifies: that there is no assignable end to the depth of us to which language reaches; that nevertheless there is no end to our separateness. We are endlessly separate, for no reason. But then we are answerable for everything that comes between us; if not for causing it then for continuing it; if not for denying it then for affirming it; if not for it then to it.

The Claim of Reason, p.369

"This, I think, is the hope of a “community” like Pascals_Sphere – here we might try taking responsibility for what keeps us apart, and we might do it in the company of others who are as interested as us in fashioning new models of experience, sincerity, beauty, and ethics.

"I have no idea if something like this can work. But it does feel like it’s ours to try.

"Borges finds something frightful in Pascal's image of God as an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He feels it becomes a figuration of dread when God drops out of the picture. As Borges puts it, we don't know where we are in time and space. Thus the Kantian a prioris (those features of experience and knowledge that are constitutive of them as such -- everything we sense or know is encountered in time and in place) don't apply -- which means we experience a very different kind of identity -- if we can call it identity -- from the one we normally recognize as being human.

But isn't this what Thoreau's experiment in being present to all occasions means? Isn't pure presentness (let's pretend such a state were possible) another figuration of Pascal's Sphere? Everywhere becomes the center of creation. In terms of writing, Pascal's Sphere might be imagined in the way Cavell describes Emerson's procedure: Each sentence of the essay is its thesis. Certainly Cavell's approach to reading stands at this angle to the text -- he presses each word endlessly for its responsiveness trying in his turn to remain forever open to it.
"What do sincerity, obligation, love, and all of the other existentially central features of life mean, what do they become, when recontextualized in terms of Pascal's Sphere? The web confronts our generation with this question in pressing terms. Everywhere has now become someplace else, every identity can morph into another identity, this time is now flooded with all time. The spouse clicking away in the next room or in the chair beside you may be a thousand miles away with an illicit lover. This has always been possible in imagination. But now technology makes it possible to actually distribute identity in real time. The Lacanian Imaginary has become the technologically mundane.

"What would life, what would human relationships, be like if Thoreau's experiment in presentness were undertaken in our (rhizomic) place and time. Would it be worth living?

"Marxists, jihadists, and all varieties of fundamentalism say "no," life without foundations is not worth living. But I'm not ready to concede the point. As Thoreau said of his place and time, the experiment of living has not been tried. Life should be found wanting before we give it up for something safer.

"This experiment matters because, if we don't find our way into modernity as it is (rather than how we wish it to be -- the latter agenda belongs just now to the Neocons), then we are condemned to Hamlet's fate -- forever skulking, resenting, soliloquizing, but never acting until that last extremity, when we extinguish action itself. "


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