Negation—wha. . .what?

18 05 2011

Perhaps I should not have used the term “negation”.

It carries a philosophical load—which is fine, and not unrelated to my use of it—but I wanted (also) to emphasize the more prosaic, i.e., practical, aspects of negation, as in: to negate, to eliminate as an option or consideration.

The germ theory of disease negated theories of miasma, Lavoisier’s experiments with oxygen negated phlogiston, industrial production of beakers and test tubes negated the need for scientists to blow their own glassware (which further negated the need for the knowledge of blowing glassware), fuel injection will likely negate carburetors, etc.

So negation could mean “overturn” (as with germs > miasmas or oxygen > phlogiston) or “leave behind” (as with glass-blowing and carburetors), that is, to negate may be to disprove or it could mean to render irrelevant or trivial.

Now, these practical effects may reverberate ontologically, such that the negation of the practical may serve to negate an entire way of thinking or being, or simply to serve as a signal of the instability of that way of thinking/being. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its discussion of paradigm shifts rendering previous modes of scientific practice inert, lays out a version of global negation, while current questions of the role of cyber-technologies signal uncertainty over what counts as “real”.

John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) is often quoted—hell, I quoted it a while back—to exemplify the agonized confusion over the discoveries of the natural philosophers:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and relation:

Natural philosophy took for itself the name science, and modernity marched on. The laments for the old world died with those who once lived in it.

William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” clearly echoes this lament, with the opening

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

The times they are a-changin’, indeed.

History is not a line, or rather, history only holds the line, such that events may loosen or smash that hold and the contents of that history scatter.

Some of those pieces are lost and even of those which are found, the meaning of the piece, precisely because it has been scattered, can only be guessed at. It is shard of pottery uncovered in the desert, hinting at something which once was, now gone.

But not everything is lost: it could be hiding in that proverbial plain sight. I’m much taken with the notion of the palimpsest—that is, of a kind of tablet which has been inscribed then scrubbed clean to be reinscribed—largely because I think that the previous inscriptions are still there, that, like words which have been erased from a page, the impression lingers.

Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology decries the transformation of the Rhine from a river in a landscape into a “water power supplier”, that is, it is no longer itself but a source of reserve power for a hydroelectric plant. Perhaps it could be understood as that river in a landscape, he muses, but “In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

Those who complain that Manhattan has turned into a theme park and that Times Square has lost all its gritty reality have not a little bit in common with Herr Heidegger.

I have a great deal of sympathy for this feeling, but even more skepticism for such sympathy; as I’ve mentioned more times than you probably care to read, we’re never who we’ve been.

So, again, I’m not taking the side of the past against the present, not least because I have no basis for such a taking of sides. Again, I simply want to trace the history of modern history.

I can’t raise all the inscriptions on the palimpsest, but maybe I can see some of what has been left behind.