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Re: [xmca] The Ubiquity of Unicorns

Hi all,
I think that English speakers tend to have problems with Heidegger, and the French philosophers, and the difference between Sein (Être) and Seinendes (étant), which translators attempt to render as Being and beings, with the problem that the plural form brings. Heidegger's work was concerned, a problematic he already found in Plato (in the concept of khora), to think about the difference between Sein and Seiendes, and what its role plays in consciousness. This is one of the fundamental problematics that Derrida has taken over and worked out (who uses concepts such as différance, khora, écriture, and others). Basically, the difference is undecidable, and you get into philosophy of difference. And thus the tremendous role of Heidegger to postmodern thinking. Anyone interested in Rilke and the tropes he uses should read the chapter in Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, which is precisely on the topic. De Man reads German, as French and English, and therefore has some credibility when he writes in English about the tropes Rilke uses in German, and in his later life, in French.

On 20-Oct-09, at 4:29 PM, mike cole wrote:

Thanks for all of that including the paper, David.
A non-German reader, I like the poem as translated, which mucks up
serious engagement with Rilke I guess. I have checked out other translations but like this one probably for idiosyncratic reasons. Those reasons, however circuitously, lead me to agree with the conclusion in the final paragraph.

odd but probably not accidental.

On Sun, Oct 18, 2009 at 10:40 PM, David Kellogg <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com>wrote:

I'm going to give two late cheers for eric's formulation "being does", at
least insofar as we are talking about cultural being in general
and aesthetic being in particular. But at the same time I want to reserve my third cheer for some kind of complement to the verb, and to put in a plug for a rather literal interpretation of the word "ideal" in the cultural,
artistic realm; I think in order to qualify as culture even material
culture really does have to have a utopian, unicorn element, but that
element is nevertheless irreducibly realist.

Mike likes to cite the Rilke poem about the unicorn. The English
translation he gives, though, goes like this:

The Unicorn by Ranier Maira Rilke

This is the creature there never has been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

I think this is a mistranslation; in the German the unicorn is "geliebt" or
"beloved", because in Rilke love is intransitive; it's not an object
oriented activity at all. There's actually a good paper on this poem and how
it was derived from the unicorn tapestries at Cluny at:

http://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/10065/66/4/Segal+-+Rilke +&+unicorns+revised+paper+_April+2007_.pdf

It turns out that intransitivity is an important trope in Rilke generally,
and of course it was a favorite device of the German neoromantic lyric
poets, who believed you could get a kind of unmediated sense of reality by
stripping verbs of their arguments, like petals from a flower.

Adorno is scathing about all of this. It's sometimes hard to read Adorno because he seems so irritated all the time, until we remember that he really had a LOT to be annoyed about. In this case, what he is eating him is the "jargon" (or "aura", as Walter Benjamin says) of a secular sacred language,
a language which pretends to be unmediated by human lips.

What infuriates him is the philosophical rehabilitation of the linguistic work of Heidegger, a devout Nazi whose main criticism of the extermination camps was that they were too newfangled and modern (presumably real Germans would have strangled the Jews one by one with their bare hands). It's really Heidegger who likes to say things like "Being is" and above all "death is"
(yes, I know that Hegel said it too). But even Rilke likes to speak of
"encounters" and "statements" as if what was encountered was a unicorn and statements were not concretely instances of who says what to whom and why.

Habermas says, in a book that would have greatly annoyed Adorno if he had lived to read it (The Theory of Communicative Action) that our knowledge has the structure of propositions. I think Adorno would prefer to say that it propositions have the structure of knowledge, but that knowledge is composed of questions as well as statements. I'm not sure he would agree that it is
composed of imperatives; I think imperatives are too sly about their
subjects and objects; in linguistic terms, they don't have enough argument

One of the things I most like about the unicorn paper (link posted above) is the historical research. Segal points out that unicorns are reported in
almost all the major cultures, and go back many thousands of years.

Take, for example, the Chinese unicorn, which is probably the oldest
speciment. During the early Ming Dynasty, when Zheng He was sent on voyages of discovery to Africa, he captured a pair of giraffes and had them brought back to China. The emperor then had them widely exhibited, because of a tradition which held that the discovery of a unicorn during the reign of an
emperor was an extremely auspicious sign. One of them survived, and I
remember seeing an astonishing realistic portrait of it, which for reasons I never understood, did not have any of the usual polygonal marks on its skin.

When I was researching a book on the great Chinese famine of 1962-1963, I interviewed an old woman who said she had eaten part of the giraffe (which is still called a "qilin", or a unicorn, in Chinese) in the Beijing zoo. She
remarked wistfully that it was a time when
nobody could afford hopes for the future.

The ubiquity of unicorns is really clear evidence that they really do
exist, or rather it would be evidence of their existence except for the fact that insistence on the NONexistence of unicorns is an important feature of all these instances. To me, it is evidence of something even more wonderful;
the literally IDEAL component of even material culture, the element of
culture which suggests, not its reproductibility but rather its
perfectibility. And that's what Adorno is really complaining about, and why
he can't find any culture worthy of the name on television.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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