Thursday, July 23, 2009

Prologue: Phusis, Poiesis, and the Pre-History of Time-Lapse



Substance, Nietzsche argues in The Gay Science, has not always existed. Once mankind lived in the midst of a substanceless "absolute flow of becoming": "In order that the concept of substance could originate--which is indispensable for logic although in the strictest sense nothing real corresponds to it--it was necessary that for a long time we did not see nor perceive the changes in things" (171). Perhaps, Nietzsche speculated, we are not momentous enough beings to perceive change in its purest form:

We are not subtle enough to perceive that probably absolute flow of becoming; the permanent exists only thanks to our coarse organs which reduce and lead things to shared premises of vulgarity, whereas nothing exists in this form. A tree is a new thing at every instant; we affirm the form because we do not seize the subtlety of an absolute moment. (Quoted in Barthes 61)


A kind of epistemological natural selection, Nietzsche theorized, thus governed the rise of substance--the evolution of a common-sensical, material, stable, vulgar world--and the elimination of a perceptual awareness of perpetual metamorphosis.

The beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything "in flux." At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitutes a great danger for life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency--to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just--had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong. (171-72)



Bergson meant much the same when he argued, in Creative Evolution, that "A man is so much more a 'man of action' as he can embrace in a glance a greater number of events: he who perceives successive events one by one will allow himself to be led by them; he who grasps them as a whole will dominate them” (327-28).

But the human mind has not always turned its back on becoming, despite the adaptive, evolutionary pressure to do so. Phusis has had its 20th century reincarnations.


It was Owen Barfield's contention, central to his whole understanding of "the evolution of consciousness," that Greek thinking--indeed Greek consciousness--"was in a certain sense alive" (Romanticism 51). Because the Greeks were more "at home . . . in the coming-into-being, or becoming" than we, whose thought is "built . . . on the secure but rigid framework of logic . . . and can only deal with the 'become,' the finished product . . . ," their thinking reminds us today of "a blossoming flower that is still moist, alive, in movement, becoming." Heraclitus witnessed the "universal flux"; we can only perceive and think the "is." The turning point, according to Barfield, came when "Anaxagoras set over against the for-ever-changing world of growing and decaying substance . . . the other principle of Onus or Mind" and "antithesis (hitherto unapprehended) between Spirit and Matter" became common sense, logic triumphing over logos and judgment over justice.

Still immersed within the experience of becoming, "conscious in it," the "Greek mind could not at first be conscious of it as such." Thus, Barfield argues, those "laws" of nature which we now conceive abstractly were to the Greeks "still apprehended as living Beings." That aspect of nature perceptible by the senses "was itself the sum of the accomplished deeds of another invisible part--that of the 'Forms' as we will call them. Indeed the Greeks tended to lose interest in the Nature which had become. . . ." It was natura naturans which captured their imaginations, not natura naturata.

But we, in our static thought, have made such evolution-in-progress, such becoming, into a mere theory. We now have, Barfield insists (alluding to the thought of Bergson), no experience of evolution: "Now it is one of our four fundamental 'Laws of Thought' that a thing cannot both be and not be, and so obvious does this appear to us that when we hear Heraclitus maintaining the opposite, we are inclined to stigmatize him as a verbal quibbler. This is because we can only think 'is'; we cannot really think 'becomes' except as a kind of cinematic succession of 'is's'."

The very word "evolution," Barfield has observed, once had a very different meaning than the one infused into it by the 19th century mind as it changed the meaning of the older word (which still carried vestiges of the Greek awareness of becoming) to denote the cosmos it was then in the process of engineering, and this change reflects the modern loss of the experience of evolution. For once the word had suggested an "unfolding, a gradual and uninterrupted process of change from one form into another, towards which it has tended from the start--from one form into another through a whole series of intermediate forms, the one imperceptibly merging into the other." Once "evolution" called to mind transformation (onto-genesis) not mere substitution (a succession of "is's," or phylogenesis) as it did for Darwin--a transformation in which could be witnessed "a change from potential form into actual and spatial form, the typical instance being a seed or an embryo evolving by growth into an independent plant or animal."


Like Barfield, Martin Heidegger found the pre-Socratic Greek mind attuned to the emergence and establishment of the "real" with a consciousness quite different from our own. In characteristic Heidegger fashion, he illustrates this difference through what might be called phenomenological etymology (a method which he shares with his British contemporary). The Greek word for our "nature," Heidegger shows in his Introduction to Metaphysics, encapsulates this change of consciousness which the western mind has undergone.

For phusis really meant to the Greeks, if we translate it properly (avoiding the "logomorphic" imposition of our rational mind-set upon what was in reality a pre-rational logos), nothing like the given, known, "natural" world suggested by "nature" (a Latinate word which, in typically Roman fashion, became routinized, obliterating the sense of wonder implicit in the Greek equivalent).

Phusis was, rather, nothing less than "self-blossoming emergence (e.g. the blossoming of a rose), opening up, unfolding, that which manifests itself in such unfolding and preserves and endures in it" (Metaphysics 11-12; my italics).All truth--to the pre-Socratics aletheia, the unconcealed--was, Heidegger explains, the result of the "gathering in" (the root meaning of logos) of the fruits of this unfolding in a process they knew as poiesis, of which techne was understood to be only a sub-set, a lesser activity. George Steiner has explained this difficult aspect of Heidegger's philosophy of being with admirable clarity.


Once, says Heidegger, nature was phusis, the archaic designation of natural reality which he reads as containing within itself the Greek sense for "coming into radiant being" (as is still faintly discernible in our word "phenomenon"). Phusis proclaimed the same process of creation that generates a work of art. It was, in the best sense, poiesis--a making, a bringing forth. The blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being (en eauto) is at once the realization of phusis and poiesis, or organic drive--Dylan Thomas's "green fuse"--and of the formal creative --conservative dynamism we experience in art. (137)


The Greek awareness of phusis, in which a tree might be recognized in fact as "a new thing at every instant," could not long be endured, however. phusis became natura merely; becoming became become; what Heidegger calls the "ought" was imposed upon the world of perception, and truth became almost exclusively a matter of correctness, not revelation (Mehta 138, 147-51). And whether we accept as explanation Nietzsche's Darwinistic historical epistemology, or Barfield's theory of the evolution of consciousness, or Heidegger's history of Being,

Yet throughout the history of the West, it seems, certain individuals, despite the pressure to forget becoming and concentrate on the objective "is," have retained an atavistic awareness of phusis, have kept alive an "openness to the mystery" even in a time which Heidegger has characterized as the "oblivion of Being." (All great genius, Nietzsche had speculated, may after all be atavistic.) For a distinct sub-species of the race, such a consciousness might even be called "species-specific." After all, as Steiner observes, phusis and poiesis have always been united--and the "blossom breaking from the bud and unfolding into its proper being" always an ever-present reality of perception and imagination--for the artist. Artists, being the antennae of the race, have never forgotten their allegiance to the "self-blossoming emergence" of things; artists have kept alive for the species an authentic awareness of becoming.

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