30 May 2010
While it may well be true that one cannot step twice in the same river, for fresh waters are always flowing in upon us, and while it may also be true that one cannot go home again, on the other hand one not only can retrace one’s steps, one is often bound to do it, if not under an obligation to do so. We may not step twice in the same river, but a new man steps into a changed river even while recognizing it as a river he once knew as a younger man. And one returns to a place that was home, however changed, and recognizes it as a part of one’s history.
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29 May 2010
After another long day’s drive, back in Córdoba it feels like a crisp, cool fall evening — which, in fact, it is. After my experiences in San Salvador de Jujuy and Salta I was looking forward to seeing Córdoba in the evening, after dark. My impression was the Argentinian cities look better at night. I know that this is an absurd generalization based on an insufficient sample and subjective impressions; nevertheless, it is my impression, and indeed I thought that Córdoba did look better this evening as compared to when I first saw it in the light of day almost two weeks ago.
A city at night is in some ways more like a portrait than a photograph. Part of the art of a portraitist is not only to capture a likeness, but also to reveal the countenance of his subject in its most flattering aspect. With a little care, a city can present itself selectively as the portrait painter presents his subject selective so that it appears in its best light. And light is literally central. The careful lighting of a city at night can make it more attractive than it is during the day, and the fact that unattractive sections of the city are not highlighted in this way makes them fade into the background. Selective maintenance, security, and traffic control can also contribute to the effect. Moreover, during the day a city is busy being a city, carrying on the ordinary business of life, but in the evening people come out to enjoy themselves, and this changes the experience of the place. So my evening walk around Córdoba left me with a very good impression. I am pleased to have seen the city in this light.
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28 May 2010
Today I departed from the quiet tranquility of El Bordo de las Lanzas, about which I cannot say too many good things, and headed back south on Route 9. As with the drive north, so too with the drive south: a light rain fell much of the day, which for an Oregonian is a pleasant enough day, except for visibility while driving, especially after dark.
How can I describe driving in Argentina? I thought about this a lot as I made my way south today. In addition to the light rain compromising visibility, add to this motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles on the shoulder of the road, and at times in the lane of traffic, some with lights and some without lights, and moving at a much slower speed than the rest of traffic. And then there is the occasional horse, or horse and cart, and some pedestrians. On top of this, there is the constant jockeying to pass on the two-lane highway, so that on-coming traffic is always peeking out from slower on-coming vehicles to see if it is safe to pass. This gives a picture of the complexity of traffic here. On the highways of Argentina I was unable to attain that level of philosophical contemplation that I mentioned in yesterday’s The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding.
In comparison to traffic in the cities, however, traffic on the highways is a breeze. The cities of Argentina are much bigger and busier than I expected. Traffic in them is chaotic at best, and potentially traumatizing for the faint of heart. There is a high degree of what I would call “lane ambiguity.” In fact, there are no lanes painted on the road at all, and you must make your way as best as you can through the swarming motorcycles and double-parked cars in narrow streets. In addition, there are horses pulling carts and bicycles with over-laden trailers competing for the scarce space on the roads in with cities.
Sarmiento thought that the cities would bring civilization to Argentina. Now I am not so sure. Life at El Bordo de las Lanzas was eminently civilized if it was anything, and indeed represents a higher level of civilization, in a sense, than anything I have encountered in the cities. The idea of a civilization based in the countryside, as opposed to a civilization based in cities is something that I earlier connected with the civilization of Europe’s medieval feudalism, but it would be well worth thinking about the possibility of a civilization of the countryside as a possibility of the future, as I have elsewhere speculated that the Vikings represent an alternative to settled civilization. Just because a possibility is not realized and embodied in the world of the present does not deprive that possibility of its validity and value, though we tend to think that paradigms of the past have been abandoned because they failed. This is not always the case.
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27 May 2010
One of the metrics that I employ to asses and compare my vacations is my relative level of philosophical activity. Sometimes when I travel my mind shuts down completely and all I can think about is where I will find my next meal and a place to sleep. Other times, however, my mind continues to be active and I work on new ideas while on the road. Up until now, my best philosophical vacation was when I went to Paris in September 1996 for two weeks. This trip to Argentina, I am happy to say, now easily ranks with my trip to Paris as one of my best philosophical vacations ever, in terms of formulating new ideas. I have a lot of material that I hope to put in coherent form and either post here or bury in a manuscript to be published someday.
When I was employed as a truck driver I found the experience of driving to be a quasi-meditative activity for much of the day. While this is not the case in cities or in heavy traffic, at night on an empty road there are few distractions other than a deer or two, and the mind is free either to drift or to focus. When driving, I would set my mind a problem on which to work, and let it work as it would until my destination.
Today I realized that horseback riding is a similarly meditative activity, though, like driving, not at all times. At anything more than a walk, riding a horse is not relaxing or meditative, at least for me. I am in no sense a born horseman. I can stay on a horse and make my way well enough, but I cannot claim much more than that. But at a comfortable walking pace, I can set my mind a problem at the outset and let it work away, sometimes with profitable results.
All civilizations have required some form of transit of goods, and one can imagine that whether that transit takes the form of a caravan in the desert, a mule train in the Andes (I was told that it took about two months to make the trip from Salta to Potosi by mule train), a ship at sea, or a truck on the highways, those who have taken on this peripatetic life have had structurally similar experiences of short periods of rapid and intense activity when one arrives at a depot, followed by long periods of undifferentiated time while one is on the road. Whether one wiles away this undifferentiated time or puts it to good use is a matter of individual inclination.
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22 May 2010
Sometimes a classic work reveals itself as a classic in its first few paragraphs. I can still remember the first time I read the opening sentences of Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror (and I must note in this context that Lautréamont was an Uruguayan). I learned subsequently that Gide had said of Maldoror, “Here is something that excites me to the point of delerium,” and this I can fully understand. And so it was with a certain measure of excitement that I read the first few pages of Sarmiento’s Facundo. The power of the work is immediately apparent. Sarmiento opens with a memorable evocation of the landscape of Argentina. The prose is confident without being arrogant and masterful without being pedantic, and these are among the necessary qualities of a classic.
For Sarmiento, it is the vastness of the Argentine landscape that is its central feature, and for him this is not a virtue. “Its own extent is the evil from which the Argentine Republic suffers,” and “Immensity is the universal characteristic of the country,” are typical passages from Sarmiento. This vast wilderness of the Americas, in Sarmiento’s view, has shaped a people defined by their struggles with this wilderness, and the consequent attitude to life formed in such a context if brutal and barbarous. I think that Sarmiento would have agreed, after a fashion at least, with what Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”:
“From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”
Sarmiento had a different valuation of these “intellectual traits of profound importance” than did Turner, but that these intellectual traits derive from the frontier experience Sarmiento would have agreed. Sarmiento’s work has been known by many names, among them Civilization and Barbarism, and it is his central concern that Argentina be civilized. To this end, his two prescriptions are cities and education.
One might suppose that Sarmiento had experienced the sublime in the landscape of Argentina, and reacted to it not unlike Pascal, who famously wrote, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” (Speaking of Pascal, I was interested to see, while driving around Cordoba, that there is a Blaise Pascal University in the city.) Indeed, Sarmiento quotes Humboldt in a epigraph to the effect that, “Like the ocean, the Pampas fill the mind with the impression of the infinite.” The infinite is a paradigmatic form of the sublime, and it is common for authors to invoke the infinite when they have no better way to communicate their feeling of being overwhelmed to the reader.
It has often been commented that the Mediterranean civilization of southern Europe has been primarily an urban civilization, a civilization based in and upon the cities of the region. One especially thinks of this in connection with Italy and southern Spain, though it is true to a greater or lesser extent in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin, i.e., the former scope of the Roman Empire. One speaks of the Cento Citta, the “hundred cities” of the Italian peninsula, and this, of course, was the center of Roman power.
The defunct Roman Empire remains with us in many ways, and one of these ways is the urban structure of the civilization of the region. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Roman Empire, centered on the Mediterranean, was economically based on trade and slavery. Trade takes place between centers of trade, and cities are centers of trade. In any case, Sarmiento, perhaps without realizing it, has reiterated this Mediterranean conception of cities as the center of civilization. In Facundo he wrote, “All civilization, whether native, Spanish, or European, centres in the cities, where are to be found the manufactories, the shops, the schools and the colleges, and other characteristics of civilized nations.”
In contrast, northern European civilization has its medieval roots (from which modernity was continuously derived, without any “strategic shock” separating medievalism from modernism) in manorial estates, ruled by a local sovereign enfranchised by a higher sovereign in exchange for certain feudal duties. Feudalism was always stronger in northern Europe than in the south. It is almost ironic that northern Europe has since become a center of great commerce while southern Europe languishes in a perpetual twilight of genteel decline.
The Mediterranean civilization of Spain was brought to the New World by the conquistadors, who simply iterated the only world they had known, although under changed conditions. Although the conquistadors knew only Spain when they left their homeland, they were among the best traveled men of their age, and by the time they had secured their conquests in the Americas they had seen things and wondered at things that no European had previously seen. One need only read the famous accounts of Cabeza de Vaca or Cortes or Pizarro to understand that these men understood that they entered a New World with its own ways, its own civilizations, its own peoples, when they encountered the Americas.
Apparently, some of these conquistadors eventually habituated themselves to life on the Frontier, for life in the Southern Cone is most definitely life on the frontier. In Argentina we are as far from the gold of Mexico and the silver of Potosi as if we were on the frontier of North America. One is also a long way from the centers of civilization. And so we find in the literature of the southern cone — and not only in Sarmiento — a lively interest in the meaning of civilization – how it should be cultivated, how it can be extended, what its fate will be in the wilderness of the New World.
The Estancia Jesuitica in Las Carreras is a small outpost of civilization deep in the hinterlands of Argentina. A relic not of conquistadors but of the Jesuits, it represents a European idea transplanted into the New World, but in Las Carreras we are so distant in the frontier, so far from the centers of civilization, but it is local character that prevails, and not the important European idea. Civilization, in moving from point A to point B, is transformed by its translation in space and therefore cannot be said to possess perfect symmetry. In so far as civilization has always concerned itself with symmetry, order, and harmony in the many orders of life, its failure of symmetry over space and time is not necessarily a failure of the idea of civilization itself, but it is an interesting component of civilization and further evidence of the incommensurability of civilization.
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21 May 2010
It was a very long drive from the Estancia La Paz near Jesus Maria to the Estancia Jesuitica in Las Carerras, made the longer by the fact that I got lost several times with the result being that I took a less than optimal route. The drive, however, took me through a variety of landscapes. It also took me from the faded elegance of the Estancia La Paz, which is all about a European sensibility transplanted into the New World, to the charm and rusticity of the Estancia Jesuitica, which is unmistakeably an outpost in the New World. Thus the journey was cultural as well as spatial.
Another factor contributing to the length of the drive (something I should have accounted for but failed to) was that Route 9 passes through some cities of considerable size. Most cities in South America don’t have anything like a “ring” road that allows you to skirt the center of town, so the main road brings you right into the middle of things and it can take a good amount of time to negotiate through the center and out the other side of the city, all the time staying on the main route. For those who are familiar with the cities and their roads there are probably better ways to do things, but it was all new to me.
The reward for my long drive was to have arrived at the rustic hospitality of the Estancia Jesuitica in Las Carreras under a sky now completely clear and in which the stars are so bright that I can see the Milky Way despite the moon being half full. It is quite a sight to see.
Thus I can truly say…
The stars at night are big and bright,
Deep in the heart of Argentina…
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20 May 2010
Once upon a time, in my earlier years of travel, I immersed myself in my destination by immersing myself in cities. I would get a room as close as possible to the historic center of an ancient city and try to walk to everything from there. This was partly an economic decision, as I did not rent a car in my earlier travel, and walking is an inexpensive way to get from place to place, though also a thoroughly enjoyable way to do so. But, as the Marxist distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure makes clear, the economic cannot be clearly separated from the other aspects of a culture. Or, rather, there is something artificial and arbitrary about the distinction between the economic and the aesthetic if one attempts to make it absolute — somewhat artificial and arbitrary, but not completely so.
In more recent travel, I have immersed myself in a country by immersing myself in the countryside. This is a very different experience. Indeed, I can remember the first time I traveled and woke up in a rural area instead of a city: I heard only the dawn chorus of the birds and the babbling of a nearby brook. It was a travel epiphany that has stayed with me in a vivid way, and has perhaps influenced by later choices in travel. There is also the circumstance that I have been traveling more in South America, and it happens that the kind of history that fascinates me in the Old World tends to be found in cities, whereas the kind of history that fascinates me in the New World tends to be found in the rural areas. Another way to formulate this would be to say that the most relevant institutions in Europe are in its cities, while the most relevant institutions in South America are to be found outside the cities. This is not the happiest formulation, and one could easily tear it apart. If you get my drift, you will understand me without my going into further detail. If you don’t get me, I probably couldn’t explain it short of a volume.
Now my focus has shifted to the point that I have entirely bypassed Buenos Aires. When I first thought of visiting Argentina, probably more than ten years ago, I simply assumed that I would spend the greater part of my time in Buenos Aires. When I planned this trip, however, I wanted to focus on the oldest ranches in the country and the most atmospheric colonial cities. While I would still very much like to see Buenos Aires, if I wanted to see both Buenos Aires and drive through the Calchaquí Valley, seeing Cordoba, Salta, and points in between, I would have to have more time for driving, or spend less time in each place. So I cut Buenos Aires entirely out of my itinerary and flew directly into Cordoba, deep in the heart of Argentina.
During today’s horse ride around the grounds of the Estancia La Paz I was once again impressed by the fungibility of the biome that I mentioned when I went to Florida last November. Not being a naturalist (in the scientific sense of the term, since I am very much a naturalist in the philosophical sense of the term) I cannot identify all the new species I am seeing, but I know that the biological world around me has been transformed, and that had I made the journey to Argentina on the ground, I would have seen the species of plant and animal life around me gradually change, some species dropping away and others appearing, supplanting those that fell away across the passage of space. (Actually, the biome would have been transformed around me several times as I passed into, through, and again out of the tropics.)
Here on the grounds of the Estancia La Paz there are enormous and apparently ancient Eucalyptus trees, larger than any I’ve seen before. And the trees are alive with birds. I risk making a fool of myself if I hazard anything more than the most obvious generalization, so I should just say that they looked like tropical birds, but to my uneducated eye they look like hundreds if not thousands of parrots. They certainly are colorful, mostly green. Up in the enormous trees are enormous nests that look like weaver bird nests, since they appear to be elaborately constructed of dried grasses, with a circular entrance. I don’t know much about the species diversity of birds here, but it seems like it would be a rewarding location for bird watchers. As I wrote above, the trees seem alive with bird life.
It is now fall in Córdoba Province, perhaps even late fall, and the landscape reflects this. Many of the trees have lost all of their leaves. It is quite cool at night, and the interior of the Estancia La Paz can be quite cool at times. The ceilings are quite high, and presumably in the interests of authenticity the fixtures have been kept original. In my bathroom I have a charmingly antique sink and a tub/shower combination that looks like it has been here for much of the history of the Estancia. Also, there is no television to be seen anywhere.
While I was quite stimulated by the landscape and the new sights, smells, and sounds, as is usually the case in visiting an unfamiliar destination, I also spent much of today’s horse ride thinking about the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and the relation of the distinction to phenomenology. While I was stuck in the transient spaces of the DFW airport I wrote a post about The Loss of Objecthood discussing some themes in object oriented ontology, and this was subsequently discussed in Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Philosophy blog and on the Larval Subjects blog. I was pleased to have this response, and it furnished me with much material for rumination.
I intend to return to these themes when I can do them justice, and when I do I will attempt to defend the unity of phenomena as phenomena, as against my understanding of what the distinction between primary and secondary qualities involves — namely, that all phenomena are equal, but some phenomena are more equal than others. It certainly is a fun idea that primary qualities can be mathematized, which is as much as to say that they are essentially quantitative in nature. A person could go a long way with this. But since Husserl is at issue here as well as the traditional distinction between primary and secondary qualities, one must wonder whether the mathematization in question is that of the “mathematical world” evoked by Husserl in the early sections of Ideas I or the mathematization that is part of Galilean science as it appears in the late Husserl, and most especially in the Crisis.
In short, is the mathematization in question to be a particular form of consciousness that directs itself at the world, and sees the world on its own terms, or is it a template placed over the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) in the interests of regimentation? These positions are only a little different, but, like the difference between any two men, while the difference may be small it is nevertheless important. As a partisan of the early Husserl, I prefer the latter formulation and, with it, the implication that mathematization is a way of seeing that enjoys no special privileges and confers no special status upon its objects. For comparison, consider the so-called “medical gaze” (regard médical) and the status it confers upon its objects. Is this a feature of the world, or an ascription of the physician?
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19 May 2010
All went well on the next flight out to Santiago after having cooled my heals for a day within (or, rather, passing through) the transient spaces of the DFW terminal. Once in Santiago, it was a few more hours of waiting (which felt like very little compared to DFW) in a new set of transient spaces, and then off to Cordoba. I requested a window seat for this flight, and am glad that I did. The view of the Andes was magnificent on this clear day.
I was exhausted by the time I reached Cordoba, but the prospect of a city new to me, though familiar to many, revived body, mind, and spirit, so I went for a drive and a walk. Cordoba is larger than I expected. This is no quaint little colonial town with a few streets. It is sufficiently large that I got lost trying to find my way out of the city, and it took some searching to find my way out and on to Ruta 9 northbound. Once northbound, I made it to the Estancia La Paz just at sunset — fortunate, as it would have been somewhat difficult to find in the dark. Also, it gave me a first glimpse of the beautiful grounds of the estate in twilight.
More later, but at present I am both hungry and tired, so I will go get something to eat (dinner is served here from 8:00 to 10:00 pm — a very civilized hour in my estimation) and then promptly collapse.
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17 May 2010
In geopolitical terms the southernmost portion of South America is sometimes called the “southern cone.” Truly enough, southernmost South America does look like a cone, although an inverted cone. In almost all mathematics textbooks you will see that a cone is represented as standing on its broad base and with its vertex pointing toward the sky. The exception to this includes illustrations of conic sections, which are sometime shown with two cones joined tangentially at the vertex, so that one cone appears in its usual posture while another appears inverted.
This resemblance of the southern cone to an inverted cone, however, is entirely due to a convention of mapping that places the North Pole at the top of a map and the South Pole at the bottom of a map. While is this the most familiar orientation of maps today, there is nothing necessary about it. In fact, many “inverted” maps have been produced in order to challenge our perceptions about the orientation of the world. Australians and New Zealanders have a certain interest in such maps and have produced many of them.
On an inverted map, the “southern cone” appears as a cone in its ordinary orientation, though I should point out that the “ordinary” orientation of a cone, as familiar as it is, is no more necessary or even desirable than the “ordinary” orientation of a map. Both the cone that we know and love and the maps that we know and love are conventions, and part of our love for them is like our love for our family: we don’t know anything different. However, familiarity is as likely (if not more likely) to beget contempt as to beget love, so if one experiences a bout of Weltschmerz (or even mathematikschmerz, if we are speaking of pure cones rather than applied cones) it may simply be a weariness with the familiar aspect of the world, and if we would but make an effort to see the world from a new perspective it might appear fresh and exciting and our world-weariness would vanish without a trace.
Which is as much to say that I am about to embark upon another attempt to see the world from a new (or, at least, somewhat new) perspective. As I write this I am waiting in the Portland aiport to catch a flight that will ultimately (if all goes well) deposit me in Cordoba, Argentina sometime tomorrow. So I have about twenty-two hours of travel ahead of me. I have my travel reading mentioned yesterday packed with me in my carry-on baggage, and look forward to expanding and amending my perspective on the world for the next couple of weeks.
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