Aphorisms XII

Are we doomed to be too late to understand our lives? Like looking up from a book, looking out of the train window and seeing a forest fire, but then looking back to the book, and carrying on reading, before arriving at the next station and thinking – I need to get another ticket, wait, did I see a forest fire? No… I can’t have.

Like the owl of wisdom always flew too late. But now its skeleton sits rotting under the branch, and we’re still watching the sky. You might say, if you wanted to be melodramatic about it.

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People argue about which Star Wars films are the correct, canonical ones like historians of Christianity and theologians  argue about which books should and shouldn’t be in the Bible. And each side has their own unrelated set of reasons and talks past the other much of the time.

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You know something strange is going on in argumental space when you begin defending yourself before you’re even attacked. Something about the constitution of linguistic identity – the scarecrow searched for to lean against.

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There is a bias of representation in public talk towards public values. I don’t mean ideas that benefit the public, but ideas that are communally understandable.

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Questions are always very personal things and you are unlikely to get the answers you want. Better not to bother, do the answering yourself – but then, if the question is productive for either side just in the asking, then that’s okay.

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Patriotism is the aesthetic aspect of state-craft. (Sometimes, when it’s not a kitsch activity, filling living rooms up with mugs with royal faces.) Aesthetics is so subjective that it should worry you if states have to rely on it for any reason. It begins to give the impression that states aren’t just machines for stability and health, to serve their citizens, (which of course, they have only recently come to be, and only in some states and in fits and starts) but something more. Their vision becomes exclusive, and excludes all those who don’t share those aesthetic values. Even those whose aesthetic vision of a geographical region or its history is more real, are excluded when the simplified aesthetics of patriotism becomes the mode of expression. In fact, in my experience, as aesthetic vision it always seems completely detached from the real history of a country. It’s a bad machine.

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I’m sure I’ve expressed this thought before. The notion of untranslatability, although capturing something true about the activity, can express a kind of confusion. Translation is a term with mathematical origin, meaning the transformation whereby some shape, retaining its original size and internal relations, is moved across the coordinate plane to arrive in another space. All that differs is the space the shape is resting in. But languages aren’t a smooth space like a coordinate plane. To explore the metaphor, push it til it breaks – moving from language to language necessarily involves some dilation, some reflection, some change within the internal relations of a shape, here standing in for a sentence or the material it’s dealing with. This is just part of what translation is, when it comes to languages. So all translation in language, is untranslation if you take the basic metaphor too seriously. There is some give and take. The confusion is not realising that all translation involves change and gain, and loss.

What’s more, to know something is ‘untranslatable’ is to know that something is missing from the new sentence in the new language. But if you know what’s missing… Why not add it in, or note it down? If you note in the ledger what has been gained and lost, you know the current balance… So, it also expresses a worry that it is bad if forms change when we change language. But that’s what changing language is. Its changing form.

Because of all this, it strikes me that mentioning untranslatability becomes a kind of shibboleth amongst translators that serves some social function, maybe shoring up a kind of essentialism about language.

Basically, emphasis on untranslatability values form over content.

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Since the will (free will being an instance of this general concept) is a story that is very finely woven into our civilisation, it is never going to go away as a problem. It is a story that causes so much. And that is the thing – in a way it’s true because it causes so much. Of course, there’s a lot resting on the level of fidelity that we can achieve in terms of modelling human decision making (or whatever you like to call it.) And also on what level of complexity decision making has, and how deeply self-referential it is. If I had to guess, I’d say in some, it’s so self-referential as to be unparsable. And that language, that is culture and cultus both subsist and develop within this layer of unparsability. I don’t know though.

If this story as a node within our cultural connections were to vanish, that wouldn’t at all mean the co-vanishing of the story of duties, of rights, of responsibilities, of choice, of decisions, of wants and needs, of personhood, of disappointment, of joy, of happiness. Of oppression, of self-image. That one missing node would simply rejig some of the others, they would take up some of its negligible slack.

Nevertheless, maybe we should steel ourselves for 400 years of argument against the concept of responsibility due to its not straightforwardly physical nature. Maybe all social concepts will end up being stripped from us, til we just do what we do, and say nothing about it. But hopefully not.

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When you don’t use social media socially, you see it after a while, in the absences, the gaps and silences in those around you. You see the life in negative that has been absorbed into the activity with phones, the tithe of attention. Its fine, it’s just part of modern living.

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There’s a kind of experience that casts light onto all other experience, and that is the experience of unsought kindness. First, intelligent, free kindness. Second, free and kind interest. Third, kind and interesting freedom.

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I’m sorry for these experiments in a dead form that should probably stay dead!

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