Why Sebald put pictures in his books

In a recently published video clip of W. G. Sebald reading at 92nd Street Y in New York, he explains why he puts pictures in his books:

I put these pictures in in the first instance for my own satisfaction. But as I kept doing this I realised that conceivably they had other functions in the text which one could acknowledge. They hold up the flow of the discourse and, as one knows, as a reader one tends to go down this negative gradient with the book that one reads towards the end. Books have almost by definition an apocalyptic structure. And it is as well therefore to put weirs in here and there who hold up the inevitable calamity. 29:19-30:08

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Review of Hamann and the Tradition in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has just published a review of Hamann and the Tradition (Northwestern University Press, 2012), edited by Lisa Marie Anderson, to which I contributed a chapter.

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The Genius and the Soil: Open Access and the Politics of Information

The following article was originally published in the April-May 2013 edition of Red Pepper (Issue 189).

Who can share what on the internet? There is an increasing awareness of debates around illegal sharing through high profile court cases and controversies in the news – through things like the Pirate Bay, Wikileaks, or the recent tragic case of Aaron Swartz. But what about legal sharing? What kinds of information should we be able to use and share with others as a matter of principle?

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The Hegemony of the Eye

Insofar as the most innovative instruments of the era – the telescope and the microscope – extended the range and acuity of one sense in particular, scientific experience tended to privilege the visual, with its capacity to produce knowledge at a distance, over the other senses. Even when Bacon castigated normal vision for staying on the surface of things and failing to pay attention to the invisible world beneath, he hoped that ultimately its secrets would be “brought to light.” Paracelsus’s metaphor of “overhearing” nature’s secrets was laid to rest. Abetted by innovations in the perspectivalist depiction of space on Renaissance canvases, which seemed to be in tune with the rationalized universe assumed by the new science, the hegemony of the eye meant not only the denigration of the other senses, but also the decontextualisation of experience in general. A few unheralded figures aside – the Portugese philosopher John Poinsot (1589-1644) has been recently raised from obscurity to play the role of rule-proving exception – modern thinkers tended to suppress the semiotic and cultural mediation of experience and seek to ground it firmly in pure, primarily visual, observation and controlled experimentation.

Martin Jay, Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 37-38.

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Zeno of Citium on Flute-Playing Olives and Harp-Bearing Trees

In his On the Nature of the Gods Cicero alludes to Zeno of Citium‘s discussion of flute-playing olives and harp-bearing trees:

“If melodiously piping flutes sprang from the olive, would you doubt that a knowledge of flute-playing resided in the olive? And what if plane trees bore harps which gave forth rhythmical sounds? Clearly you would think in the same way that the art of music was possessed by plane trees.”1

  1. Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, trans. Francis Brooks (London: Methuen, 1896), Book II, §VIII. []
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The Sleepless City

From Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (New York: Macmillan, 1980):

SLEEPLESS CITY, in northern Nigeria. The inhabitants have the singular habit of never sleeping, and have therefore no idea of what sleep is.

The city is a particularly dangerous place for strangers. If a traveller should happen to overlook the local nocturnal custom and fall asleep – as he is probably accustomed to do at night – the natives, believing him dead, will proceed to dig a large grave and with great ceremony bury him immediately.

(A.J.N. Tremearne, Hausa Superstitions and Customs, London, 1913)

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Diderot on Living Marble and Self-Replicating Harpsichords

Denis Diderot explains how he can make marble come to life ‘whenever he pleases’ in an imaginary dialogue between himself and his friend Jean le Rond d’Alembert, mathematician and co-editor of the Encyclopedia.

In the following passage he has just informed d’Alembert, much to the latter’s astonishment, that he knows how to make marble have “active sensitiveness” like that which is possessed animals and people.

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Hamann and Benjamin on the Concept of Experience

Next month I’ll be giving a paper at the upcoming The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin conference at Goldsmiths, University of London. Here’s the abstract:

In his 1917 essay “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy”, Benjamin wrote: “The great transformation and correction which must be performed upon the concept of experience, oriented so one-sidedly along mathematical-mechanical lines, can be attained only by relating knowledge to language, as was attempted by Hamann during Kant’s lifetime.”1

In this paper I will look at Benjamin’s reading of Johann Georg Hamann, and how Hamannian themes shaped the development of Benjamin’s philosophy – in particular the turn away from philosophical reason (“the unnatural use of abstractions”2) and towards a richer understanding of language and experience.

I will argue that Hamann’s account of the relationship between language and experience (including his reflections on what language is and where it comes from, and his broadening of the concept of experience from one predominantly focused on evidence to one that accommodates religious and aesthetic feelings) anticipates many themes in Benjamin’s philosophy – and that his style and writing strategy may also have exercised an influence over the latter.

Finally I shall close with a philosophical examination of their proposed re-evaluation of the concept of experience, and how this might contribute to contemporary philosophical debate.

  1. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 107-108. []
  2. Hamann: Writings on Philosophy and Language, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 79. []
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When Leibniz met Spinoza

In 1676 Leibniz found a pretext to visit Spinoza in The Hague, having learned that Spinoza was at work on a philosophical treatise of great importance. Spinoza showed Leibniz the manuscript of the Ethics, and the two men discussed philosophy together over several days. Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.

Nicholas Jolley, Leibniz (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 18.

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Guardian piece on Europeana open data release

I just published a short piece on the Guardian Datablog about a big release of open data from Europeana, Europe’s digital library, which was announced earlier this morning.

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