If any discipline is haunted by the siren of a clean beginning, it is philosophy. The dream of clearing the table and starting anew is one which seems seductive and feasible enough. New beginnings! Since philosophy takes as its explicit object the very concepts with which it works, it seems possible that a single premise would suffice to clear the cache of the concepts, and begin developing anew, hopefully this time sailing past the knots and bugs of previous assemblages.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. But the siren sings on.
In The Five Senses, Michel Serres contrasts the strategies by which Odysseus and Orpheus defeated the sirens. Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship, and steals the song while being deprived of movement. His ship charts a straight course, piloted by his sailors with plugged ears, deprived of their sensory horizon. Orpheus, on the other hand, just pulls out his lyre, leaving both senses and movement in play, and improvises. He jams with the sirens, and translates their sound into his own music, disarming it, inverting it. The original mash up.
Odysseus represents the analytic attitude. Truly beginning anew, truly forming one’s concepts immaculately from nothing, being impossible, one can still work as though it was, at the expense of tying one’s hand behind their back. Leibniz and Descartes.
Orpheus represents the synthetic attitude – we take our beginnings in media res, and cobble the materials at hand together, inverting them and producing new children. We escape the deleterious assumptions of the past bedrock, upon which we’ve been fruitlessly turning, by fashioning it into new forms, bringing it to bear upon itself, and disarming its enchantment. A negotiation, an improvisation, a jam.
Odysseus forms his own center – as the boat trails past the rocks, the mast is a central point with an interminable gravity from which he steals the song and survives. For Orpheus, there’s not a center, only a pole, like a magnetic resonator, and a question of tension, of interacting forces. Accordingly, the center is cast to the winds, and everything becomes an endlessly developing, but fragilely provisional, network of relations…
We always have this choice when we dig into the foundation, pulling up the muck of sedimented and secret axioms. To power through by blinding or binding ourselves, or inverting things, and capturing the movement, as movement, in motion.
Cover illustration: Richard Anuszkiewicz, Norman Lassiter, “Trans-Lumina with Turquoise”, (1986), screenprint on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum.