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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Production of Presence, A Sampling

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 10:31 AM

Lindsay Water’s Chronicle article got me interested in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. So I ordered it and it arrived yesterday. I’ve not yet read it in full, though it’s a short book. But I’ve blitzed through it looking for the “good parts.” In particular, I was looking to see whether or not a book with that title and subtitle would be talking about things I thought it s/would be talking about. I was not disappointed.

Here are some passages from the book, with page numbers in brackets following each passage. Note that, while I have a certain sympathy for Gumbrecht’s ideas - such as I apprehend them through a brief and cursory acquaintance - it would be a mistake to think that, in presenting these passages, I am prepared either to explicate or defend them.

* * * * *

“Metaphysics” refers to an attitude, both an everyday attitude and an academic perspective, that gives a higher value to the meaning of phenomena than to their material presence; the word thus points to a worldview that always wants to go “beyond” (or “below”) that which is “physical.” . . . the word “metaphysics” plays the role of a scapegoat in the little conceptual drama of this book. “Metaphysics” shares this scapegoat position with other concepts and names, such as “hermeneutics,” “Cartesian worldview,” “subject/ object paradigm” and, above all, “interpretation.” [xiv]

What this book ultimately argues for is a relation to the things of the world that could oscillate between presence effects and meaning effects. [xv]

First, the dominant human self-reference in a meaning culture is, then, the mind (we might also say consciousness or res cogitans), whereas the dominant self-reference in a presence culture is the body. Second, it is an implication of the mind being their dominant self-reference that humans conceive of themselves as eccentric in relation to the world (which is see, in a meaning culture, as exclusively consisting of material objects). . . . in presence cultures, humans consider their bodies to be part of a cosmology (or part of a divine creation). [80]

Third, knowledge, in a meaning culture, can only be legitimate knowledge if it has been produced by a subject in an act of world-interpretation. . . . For a presence culture, legitimate knowledge is typically revealed knowledge. . . . The impulse . . . for such events of self-unconcealment never comes from the subject. Revelation an unconcealment, if you believe in them, just happen, and once they have happened, they can never be undone in their effects. [80-81]

There is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them-and this is why I like to refer to them as “moments of intensity.” For what we feel is probably not more than a specifically high level in the functioning of some of our general cognitive, emotional, and perhaps even physical faculties. [98]

But how is it possible that we long for such moments of intensity although they have no edifying contents or effects to offer? Why do we sometimes remember them as happy moments and sometimes as sad moments-but always with a feeling of loss or of nostalgia? This is the second question that I want to deal with, the question of the specific appeal that such moments hold for us, the question about the reasons that motivate us to seek aesthetic experience and to expose our bodies and minds to its potential. [99]

If aesthetic experience is always evoked by and if it always refers to moments of intensity that cannot be part of the respective everyday worlds in which it takes place, then it follows that aesthetic experience will be necessarily located at a certain distance from these everyday worlds. This very obvious conclusion brings us to a third layer in the analysis of aesthetic experience, namely, to the situational framework within which it typically occurs. [101]

The most important consequence that follows from the insularity of aesthetic experience is the incommensurability between aesthetic experience and the institutional propagation of ethical norms. [102]

* * * * *

There is, of course, more. But that’s enough to get started.

One might think of Wordsworth’s spots of time, Joyce’s epiphanies, and the consequences of Proust’s crumbs.

One might also think of the rather large - if uneven and dispersed - literature on altered states of consciousness (ASCs) that has grown up since the 60s. Quite a bit of work was done by psychologists interested in the effects of psychoactive drugs. Some useful (older) anthologies:

Ornstein, R. (1973). The Nature of Human Consciousness. San Francisco, W. H. Freeman.

Siegel, R. K. and L. J. West (1975). Hallucinations. New York, John Wiley & Sons.

Tart, C., Ed. (1972). Altered States of Consciousness. New York, Anchor Books.

More recently, Benny Shanon has published The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Oxford 2002. Which I’ve reviewed in Ayahuasca Variations. See also:

Austin, J. H. (1998). Zen and the Brain. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Oubré, A. Y. (1997). Instinct and Revelation, Gordon and Breach Publishers.

Reuven Tsur is interested in ASCs and poetry and discusses the subject in chapters 17, 18, and 19 of Toward A Theory of Cognitive Poetics (North-Holland 1992).


It’s on my to-be-read list as well, Bill. Thanks for the preview—those excerpts sound simpatico, albeit in a more “Germanic” mode than I’d deploy (aesthetics needs to account for moments of triviality as well as “intensity"), and without direct reference to recent work in neuropsychology.

By Ray Davis on 12/30/05 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nope, no neuropsychology. Heidiger is Gumbrecht’s man, though he would not call himself a Heideggerean (xvi).

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow. I am really interested in this work. As I said earlier, or implied, I spent a period of the 70s seeking ecstatic experiences in literature, and believe I achieved it a couple dozen times. One of the indicators was uncontrollable weeping, of the pleasurable variety. Now I don’t actually know how unusual this is, maybe many people experience it regularly when they read Nietzsche or Rilke. I am certain that many artists achieve the state, and it is likely just a matter of degree of intensity. I also don’t know how valid it was, whatever that means, or if it was pathological. If pathological that could be interesting in itself, considering the “situational framework” mentioned above. But please blow me off it my comments don’t belong here, or if you find them useless. Really

1) I have read “Eden Express” by Mark Vonnegut, and my ecstatic experiences do not match his descriptions of his schizophrenic episodes. There was no sense of a general order or clarity.

2)"There is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them”... mostly true, the particular aesthetic moments did not clarify the work or a communicable interpretation. However there was a sense of the benevolence and good intentions of the author toward his audience.

3) “Why do we sometimes remember them as happy moments and sometimes as sad moments-but always with a feeling of loss or of nostalgia?” I had few sad moments, but several when I was terrified of the author, in the sense of Rilke’s encounters with the Angels. Or “If he is a genius and I am not, how can I know he is not crazy and malicious?” Nor did I feel loss or nostalgia, which I hear is common to mystical experiences. Just a sense of peace. I felt it to be an unrepeatable Gestalt effect, that further study would dissipate. This is mostly true, tho the feeling is partially recoverable on return to the work. If I wanted the ecstasy, I needed to move on to a different work, with an entirely new set of meditation methods appropriate to its nature. Why the great and difficult works? Hey, Hemingway couldn’t provide the rush. I seemed to need content that would alienate, appropriate it, and then force it to the background to get the “presence effect”. Mandalas can’t be simple.

4) I have never attributed anything particularly mystical to the experience, unless sensing an author’s benevolence is a hallucination. I usually, without much reason except a very casual study of the brain chemistry of mental illness and hallucinagens, assumed it involved serotonin and endorphins, tension and release. Just an extension of my 60s life, looking to get high.
Epicureanism at an 8 level out of ten.

Possibly more about meditation than reading, although like I did learn a little something each time, and it would be a weird coincidence for my joy to occur at the exact place the author intended a peak or release, for example Zarathustra’s Roundelay.

Wow, this is longer than your post. Sorry if I have wasted your time.

By on 12/31/05 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No apology necessary. You’ve posted an interesting set of observations.

By Bill Benzon on 12/31/05 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, you know what happens when you feed the trolls. :)

I lack the language and tools and training so I could just be rediscovering bad Foucault or Derrida or something (whom I haven’t read), but I will give this a shot.

What could I mean when I say a text can be a mandala, an object of contemplation, of apprehension without comprehension?

Certainly not words as art objects, as if I was staring at Urdu, or a piece of Islamic calligraphy.

An example: There is a child, Leverkuhn’s nephew I think, in Doctor Faustus named “Echo” whom Leverkun loves. Leverkuhn must not love, so the child suffers migraines unto death in consequence. (Hey, I am interpreting, badly from memory). There is a realistic narrative which contains the child. There are resonances in this story to themes about Leverkuhn as artist and his creations.I can chew on this stuff forever without really understanding what Mann “means”.

But “Echo” is primarily a symbol. Mann was a Symbolist writer, and called an “architectonic” writer. He built structures of symbols.
Now usually symbols are overinterpreted, or used in reductionist interpretations. [Maybe all interpretations of a symbol are reductionist. I don’t know what a symbol is. Can even narratives
be symbols?] But is it possible to not interpret “Echo” at all? Could one simply perceive the symbol in the same manner we view a dab of paint in a painting? And could we “read” Doctor Faustus not, or not only, as a dynamic interactive process of interpretation but also, or instead, as the direct perception of a static object? A painting in words, narratives, symbols, ideas? A reader of Mann usually never stops, even after the book is set aside, never finishes or “fixes” the interpretation.

Ideas? Well I will just slap the kid with an interpretation. “Echo” is “creativity.” Do I really understand, in the context of the novel, or
some wider context, what Mann is saying about creativity in his use of “Echo”? Not easily, if at all. “Creativity” has just become another
symbol, to be overinterpreted or not interpreted at all, but contemplated. Are “ideas” objects or symbols?

Well, if they are, or can be, then I can approach or apprehend Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in the same way I apprehend Mann. As a static art object, an arrangement of symbols that elicits pleasure purely as form without meaning or interpretation, or an arbitrarily fixed interpretion. And then available to some kind of direct perception, or if not perception...umm, stuck. Conceptualization?

In any case, in Gumbrecht’s terminology, the “presence effect” instead of the “meaning effect.” And my thesis might be that that the “presence effect” or revelation in (thru?) a text is attained(?) when you “fix” the interpretation.

By on 12/31/05 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment


1) I used the idea of meditation to describe my experiences with literature, but I really don’t understand what I did or how I did it, to this day.

2) A “presence effect” or revelation received by “fixing the interpretation” could be extended into other areas, and could be a description of
a religious “conversion event” I suddenly wonder if my ecstatic experiences with literature are in some way comparable to religious conversions,
as I remember the descriptions. I have never had a religious experience.

3) I can understand why an idea of “fixing the interpretation” would be less than useful to your work. Gumbrecht talks of “oscillating”.

“Fixing the interpretation” would be unattractive (if not called impossible or invalid or nonexistent or hallucinatory) to many liberals and academics. Various kinds of conservatives would understand and accept the idea. :)

By on 12/31/05 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An interesting pair of posts. I’ll get back to you in the new year.

By Bill Benzon on 12/31/05 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Couldn’t resist though it might contaminate my pure experience, went googling and visiting Stanford and Wikipedia to see if I could find some sympathetic theorists. A little bit of Barthes led to IA Richards and reader-response criticism. From there Umberto Eco and early Kenneth Burke and finally a guy who was interested in actual readers:Wolfgang Iser. An excerpt from “Act of Reading” showed that I was re-inventing a old wheel, in a possibly ellipsoid and useless form. Googling Iser brought me back to the Valve, where Berube...well never mind.

I may be ignorant as sin and dumb as a duck but even I can tell that the alienated isolated solipsistic act of reading is of little interest to theorists, probably with good reason. It’s anti-social. Me too. This place scares me.

By on 01/01/06 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On a different but not unrelated plane, people whose work-lives require physical presence and adjacency to the physical work (especially in “primary production”, an obsolete category of economics) are, in general, less-regarded and lower-paid than those who work with abstractions in offices and schools. Examples include warehousemen, factory workers, farmers, fishermen, loggers, materials handlers, miners, day-care workers, classroom teachers (as compared to administrators and scholars), prostitutes, personal servants, etc. When jobs of this sort are paid at all well, it’s usually because they’re so physically dangerous and strenuous that a 40-year career is unlikely.

Exceptions include actors, singers, and athletes. But these function as exemplary real presences appropriated by the abstract structures, with the purpose of keeping the abstract and the concrete from separating entirely, while at the same time maintaining the domination of the abstract. Celebrities prized for their authenticity and connection to the presences of everyday end up in terrible dilemmas, risking fraudulence on the one hand (visavis presence) and being treated as clown shows and stereotypes on the other (visavis ruling abstractions and money).

My claim is that unsubsidized, freelance writers, no matter how good or important they are, are primary producers of this sort, and that they can be analyzed like farmers and fishermen. Publishers are in the driver’s seat, advances are like company-store credit, and the actual royalties collected are seldom as much as 10% of the cover price of books sold.

If you look at the great writers and musicians of the past, many of them were undercapitalized entrepreneurs producing for a buyer’s market—just like farmers.

Literature, etc., may have a transcendent value which justifies the personal sacrifice, but economically analyzed, in most cases its just a bad career choice. This is one reason why so few writers affirm capitalism. Capitalism produces lots of literature and crops, but it doesn’t treat writers and farmers well. It’s the consumers who benefit in a cheap-food economy (especially consumers who have had the good sense to make their livings in finance and management and other abstract occupations of non-presence.)

(Not covered: surgeons. High status and pay, and presence is necessary).

By John Emerson on 01/01/06 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"What could I mean when I say a text can be a mandala, an object of contemplation, of apprehension without comprehension?”

Dizzy Gillispie was once talking about his attempts to make sense of the music Miles Davis played toward the end of his career. He’d listen to it and listen to, but he couldn’t get the “cohesions,” it didn’t hold together. Do you need any more than that, that it hold together in some intuitive way? Davis played purely instrumental music, no words to mean anything, but still, the notes have to cohere. And they cohere only if you understand the musical idiom.

“Are “ideas” objects or symbols?”

Why not both, with only one or the other being active in a given context?

As for “fixing the interpretation,” since interpretation isn’t my main interest, I don’t much care whether one fixes them or allows for multiplicity, though I do think that the “meaning” of literary texts is inherently elastic.
<center>* * * * *</center>
I’ve been playing around with the notion that, when I talk of reading1 with respect to a literary text, I’m talking about modes of reading oriented toward presence effects. There can be any number of such modes; what’s important is that they are all oriented toward presence effects.

Interpretation, that is texts of reading2, is about elaborating meaning effects, namely, the meaning effects of literary texts. Since meaning effects are different from presence effects, an interpretation that is framed as a desire to get “closer to the text,” as being somehow an act of reading that is continuous with the text, such framing is merely a mode of talk that is, in fact, mistaken. No matter how subtle or reflexive, a text elaborating meaning effects is not going to yield presence effects. They are two different things.

By Bill Benzon on 01/01/06 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Justus Buchler, a process philosopher heavily involved with CS Peirce’s work, classified judgements as “exhibitive, active, and assertive”. His “exhibitive” is what you call “presence effects”, I think.

I have never met anyone with an interest in Buchler’s work, not even on the internet. It’s a pity, I think.

By John Emerson on 01/01/06 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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