Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oeuvres As Minds And Minds As Processes

Grappling with authors at the level of their oeuvre is such an interesting thing to try and do. What does it mean to grapple with an author in their entire output?

This is something I've been reflecting on because of my curiosity about a few different authors. In particular, Collingwood and Zizek.

Collingwood is a writer I am so drawn to, who I am so excited by, but someone who I still have yet to grapple with adequately. I am familiar primarily with his later work and his posthumously published work. I do not have a sense of Collingwood in terms of his oeuvre. The Principles of Art, An Autobiography, The Idea of History, all of that was written between 1935-1940. I'm not at all familiar with his early work from the 1920s. Fortunately, I've just acquired a copy of Speculum Mentis, Or The Map Of Knowledge, which is his book from 1924. I believe that it is his statement about philosophy as the philosophy of experience, which in turn has to be a philosophy of ideas. He is typically known as an 'idealist' philosophy, meaning that our experience of the world has to do with our minds interaction with the world, or, in other words, that our experience of the world is dependent on our ideas of the world. Anyways, I hope that reading Speculum Mentis will help me begin to approach Collingwood in terms of his whole oeuvre.

I am experiencing the same feeling with Zizek. I have read two of his books, Violence and In Defense Of Lost Causes, both of which date from 2008. Unfortunately, Zizek has been writing since the 70s, and has been publishing in English since 1989. I wonder if I'll ever reckon with him at the level of his oeuvre. I wonder.

Foucault is one author who I feel, in some ways, I have come to terms with at the level of his oeuvre. Only in a superficial way, though. There are tons of things that he wrote that I haven't read yet. But I've read five out of eight of his books, and a lot of his essays and interviews. So I'm getting there with him. I've read critical books on him. So, you know. I feel like I know his oeuvre, and not just his works.

So that is the main reason I feel like I am wondering about this issue of dealing with an author as an oeuvre. Speculum Mentis sitting on my shelf really pushes this question for me.

But now I want to ask some questions about what it means to deal with an author at the level of an oeuvre. How is it different from just grappling with an author at the level of one or two books or articles? I have to answers. First, to grapple with an author at the level of their oeuvre is to grapple with someone as a mind and not just as a text. And second, to deal with someone at the level of their oeuvre is to deal with their mind historically, treating it as a process. Let me elaborate on these two ideas.

In college I think I was typically dealing with people who talked about 'texts', and what this particular text says. There is a lot of emphasis on the close reading of texts without paying attention to the author's intentions or the historical context. But I don't really like approaching books in this way. Each book is evidence of the activity of a specific mind. It is not merely a 'text', but is a mind attempting to convey its way of thinking. Furthermore, when we begin to approach an author across a variety of different texts, we can't simply think of those texts as isolated incidents, but we have to regard them as different appearances of the same mind. I'm not saying this very clearly, and I'm not feeling very capable of elaborating on it right now. But to summarize, we can't think of books as mere texts without contexts, especially not when trying to grapple with an author's oeuvre. We are much better off as dealing with them as a mind, and using their books as evidence of that mind.

This then implies that we have to learn to deal with authors as historical beings. We have to recognize that their views and opinions changed over the course of their work. We have to think of them historically, not as ahistorical texts.

The last thing I'll quickly say has to do with the notion of the virtual. I'm using that word in the sense of something that is almost but not quite actualized or real, something that is contained within but not quite explicitly there. I don't understand this notion of the virtual yet. It is Deleuze. But I do have a hunch that it has some implications for dealing with an author as an oeuvre as a mind. Wouldn't it be possible to detect the virtual element in an author's oeuvre? And wouldn't that virtual element perhaps be the 'mind' of an author. It would be the thing, the continuity, the theme, drifting in the background of the oeuvre. Accessing the virtuality of an oeuvre would be a way to find the mind behind the texts.

This is confusing me. But I think it makes sense in some way.

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