Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rehearsing and the Future Perfect Tense

One of the interesting consequences of my reading the papers of Alfred Schutz is that he says things that send me back to past things I have written.  Consider the following passage from his paper, “The Problem of Rationality in the Social World:”

The image of a dramatic rehearsal of future action used by Professor Dewey is a very fortunate one.  Indeed, we cannot find out which of the alternatives will lead to the desired end without imagining this act as already accomplished.  So we have to place ourselves mentally in a future state of affairs which we consider as already realised, though to realise it would be the end of our contemplated action.  Only by considering the act as accomplished can we judge whether the contemplated means of bringing it about are appropriate or not, or whether the end to be realised accommodates itself to the general plan of our life.  I like to call this technique of deliberation “thinking in the future perfect tense”.

Back in 2008, when I was reading John Dewey’s Art as Experience, one passage jumped out at me in relation to my thoughts about “rehearsal:”

As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.

Here is how I reacted to that text at that time:

This is very much the spirit in which I launched this blog in the first place. While language may not be the embodiment of ideas, ideas only achieve functional value when they are made sharable; and they can only be made sharable once they are rendered in some "perceptible form." That perceptible form may not necessarily involve language (which is one of the key points that Dewey develops in Art as Experience); but, at least in the history of Western civilization (such as it is), text has probably become the most popular of perceptible forms when it comes to sharing ideas. Hence the motivation behind the title of this blog: a place where I can "rehearse" ideas by composing them in the medium of words. This "rehearsal" is not just for the benefit of those who choose to read my words; it is also for my own benefit, as I wrestle with the process of composition to bring the idea to a point where it is as perceptible to me as it is to others, after which my attention can shift from wrestling with the text to wrestling with the idea.

From this point of view, rehearsal is not only a matter of thinking in the future perfect tense but also a means by which those thoughts assume that “perceptible form.”  The future perfect is a hypothesized future, which may never emerge as an “actual” future.  Thinking in the future perfect is thus an “art” of reasoning about hypotheses as if they were true, because the reasoning that ensues is more important than the hypotheses themselves.

Lydia Davis escalated this interest in the future perfect to a higher level by dealing with the infinitive form of this construct.  This led me to conclude that the very construct of the future perfect infinitive was a product “of prior generations trying to come to grips with the complexity of their own thoughts in such a way that others could effectively understand those thoughts.”  This “coming to grips” may also be construed as a matter of rehearsal.  We are always having thoughts.  It is hard to imagine our not having any thoughts at all, although I suppose that this is an ideal to which Zen aspires.  The problem is that we do not know what to do with all the thoughts we have.  Schutz’ concept of “thinking in the future perfect tense” offers a guideline which amounts to rehearsing how we can put our thoughts to use.

Jacques Derrida had his own occupation with the future perfect.  We encounter it in the rambling “Outwork” essay in Dissemination, in which he tries to “come to grips” with the concept of a preface.  When I wrote about this essay last month, I suggested that it could be reduced to a relatively simple question:  Why would you say what you are going to say when you have already said it?  I then suggested that another mind would not necessarily understand what you said unless it was endowed with a system of perceptual categories similar to your own.  From this I concluded:

From this point of view, writing a preface is a strategy for making sure that the reader has those categories that are prerequisite for making sense of the text to follow.  Thus, it is less a matter of saying what you are going to say and more one and more one of inducing a set of perceptual categories in the reader such that, when you get around to “saying it,” the reader can then figure out what you “mean.”

I would now carry this one step further.  The preface not only provides the categories but allows (if not obliges) the reader to rehearse working with (or coming to grips with) those categories.

Tempting as all this may sound, I should now make a confession.  I cannot yet honestly say that I have come to grips with Derrida’s “Outwork” essay!  It is a text that almost forcibly resists sustained attention, and I am willing to guess that this may be part of Derrida’s strategy as the writer of this text.  Thus, rather than plug my way through that text, I make ventures into other texts (such as those of Schutz and Friederich Nietzsche), which, in ways I cannot really explain, empower me to return to Derrida.  To some extent I may be following the advice that the Bøyg gives to Peer Gynt in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Go roundabout!”  As I put it the last time I invoked this literary reference:

It is through a roundabout course that we encounter aspects of the account we seek that we may not have considered, because we thought they had nothing to do with the point we were predisposed to make.

Derrida clearly wants to undermined reader predispositions.  The reader who undermines Derrida by way of a “roundabout” path through other texts may actually be getting into the spirit of his game;  and perhaps reading Derrida’s text has more to do with game playing than with “knowledge sharing!”  As with any game, “practice makes perfect;”  and what is rehearsal is not an act of such practicing?

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