Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bachelard on Classification and "Reasoning Cabinets"

I picked up and read yesterday Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. It had been on my list of books to read for along time. I had seen many references to it as an interesting book about space in the physical and imaginative sense. Alas, I found it rather disappointing. In fact, it read as if the author had collected literary passages by various writers, psychologists, and philosophers about space on index cards, classified and arranged these cards in roughly ten heaps, called "chapters:" "The House. From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut;" "House and Universe," "Drawers, chests and Wardrobes," "Nests," "Shells," "Corners," "Miniature," "Intimate Immensity," "The Dialectics of Outside and Inside," and "The Phenomenology of Roundness." It is not that these passages are uninteresting, it's just that they do not add up to anything all that interesting. If Bachelard is right, then this may have to do with the fact that "the poetic image is essentially variational, and not as ... the concept, constitutive" (xix). But I am just as doubtful about his confident claims about "the poetic image" and "the concept," as I am about his so-called "phenomenological" method.

At one point, he comments on the way he ends a chapter, saying: "No doubt it is very rash on the part of a writer to accumulate, in the final pages of a chapter, disconnected ideas, images that only live in a single detail, and convictions, however, sincere, which last only for an instant." And then asks "what else can be done by a phenomenologist who wants to brave teeming imagination ...?" (147). I don't know. But then I don't know about "images that live in a single detail" either. I only know that it isn't just the final pages of the chapter on "corners" that is an accumulation or disconnected ideas and images.

Still, there are interesting ideas, juxtaposed in interesting ways. The one I found most interesting is found in the most interesting heap or stack, the one on "drawers, chests, and wardrobes." It concerns Bergson's prejudice against classificatory concepts. According to Bachelard, Bergson thought that a "philosophy of concepts" is inadequate. "Concepts are drawers in which knowledge may be classified; they are also ready-made garments which do away with the individuality of knowledge that has been experienced." Concepts represent "lifeless thinking" because they represent "classified thinking" (75). Bergson wrote: "Memory ... is not the faculty for classifying recollections in a drawer, or writing them down in a register. Neither register nor drawer exists ..." "Faced with any new object, reason asks ... 'in which of its earlier categories the new object belongs? In which ready-to-open drawer shall we put it? With which ready-made-garment shall we invest it?' Because, of course, a ready-made garment suffices to clothe a poor rationalist ..." (75). Drawers, "cerebrial" or otherwise are the wrong image.

To his credit, Bachelard finds that Bergson's "'drawer' metaphor remains a crude instrument for polemical discussion" (76). It invariably kills imaginative thinking just because it is a metaphor or a "false image," not having "the direct virtue of an image formed in spoken revery" (77), whatever that means.

Bachelard, turning to the next index card, then introduces the story told in Henri Bosco's Monsieur Carre-Benoit, in which, "it is not the intelligence that is a filing cabinet, the filing cabinet is an intelligence" (77). Carre-Benoit has real affection only for his solid oak filing cabinet. "It replaced everything, memory as well as intelligence. In this well-fitted cube there was not an iota of hazyness or shiftiness, Once you had put something in it ... you could find it again ... Forty-eight drawers! Enough to hold an entire well-classified world of positive knowledge. M. Carre-Benoit attributed a sort of magic power to these drawers concerning which he said that they were 'the foundation of the human mind" (77)

Shades of Luhmann, one might think ... but, no, there is no foundation of the human mind in Luhmann -- and positivism is even more of a "no, no." What we need is infinite internal branching ability! Without it, no serendipitous discoveries. But, if Bachelard is right, Bosco "has succeeded in embodying the dull administrative spirit" (77). And wasn't Luhmann an admistrator first? Doesn't this critique of "Schubladenken" concern die "Zettelkastenmethode" at least indirectly? Perhaps, but we must return to Bachelard ...

... who continues the Bosco story and reports that the maid abused "the foundation of the human mind" to store mustard, peas and lentils in it: the "reasoning cabinet had become a larder," which leads him to the sagacious but trite conclusion that "many erudite minds ... lay in provisions." End of story. Or shoud I say index card?

So, now you know why Bachelard collected all the passages about spaces. I just wish he had thought more about their contents and not simply used them for "variation."

Disclaimer: I don't know whether Bachelard actually used cards or "fiches." But the book reads like it.

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