Second reply to Gripegut – Robert Boucheron

Image: Georges de La Tour, ‘Quarrelling Musicians’, 1625-30

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story, and other magazines.

Second Reply to Gripegut

Just as all intelligent persons may wonder at the persistence of folly in the world, despite the achievements of science, the abundance of information available online from reliable sources, and the real progress in logical argument made by contemporary philosophers, the patient reader may gasp at yet another installment in the ongoing controversy between Gripegut and myself, an exchange that began with my “Brief Note on the Contingency of Immanence.”

As the article was published in an obscure journal, and as the busy reader must surely have forgotten all about it, here is the gist: if immanence is taken to subsume the sum total of all observable instances of its occurrence in the universe, which is to say the admittedly vast number of discrete epiphanies that are or might be evidenced in time and space, then any statement as to its properties and character, or what we may metaphorically call the ambient temperature of immanence, is contingent on the physical location of the observer, the moment at which data are recorded, assuming for the sake of argument that a comprehensive method could be devised, as well as on the amount of time allotted for the observations, since it is obvious that new data arise constantly, and that any such project must be in the nature of a statistical sample rather than an exhaustive account.

It therefore follows that immanence, whatever its true or inherent makeup may consist of, can only be apprehended in this limited way. As a corollary to the foregoing, since the apparent nature of immanence cannot be distinguished from its essence, the two may be said to converge. To put the matter in vulgar terms, at the level of popular culture, such as a stand-up comic’s one-liner, which even a philosopher for whom English is a second language may grasp, “What you see is what you get.”

Outraged by what he misinterpreted as an admission of the impossibility of ever obtaining an accurate view of immanence, Gripegut attacked my initial article as “an unwarranted cry of despair.” His review then strayed into completely new territory, a consideration of immanence as the multivalent projection of some ill-defined metaphysical thingamajig, a Jungian or New Age mist that rises from the damp like a “life force” or a “spirit of the universe.” My first reply showed how primitive such conceptions are, and how shaky a foundation they would make for any attempt at the superstructure of a higher discourse.

Yet in his rejoinder, that is precisely what Gripegut attempted. The scaffolding is erected, the mason heaps his bricks on the planks, and the mortar is mixed in its revolving drum to a smooth, putty-like consistency. It only remains to slap the wall together. But the season is winter, the sun has barely cleared the horizon, and the mortar will freeze before it sets; that is, the sun will set before the chemical reaction of cement hydration is completed. And what will support this jerry-built house, this flimsy construction, this architectural fantasy? The stones below are loose and ill-fitting. They already slip, and the mass crumbles. It is not at all solid, as the builder would have us believe, but ready to disintegrate.

Incredibly, he maintains that immanence binds the whole together through the mystery of adhesion, or something like that. In Gripegut’s hands, immanence seems to be nothing more than a quality of stickiness, a superior brand of aerial glue. Perhaps he stood too long while waiting for a bus on a frosty morning, near the construction site of a school. Perhaps he admired the skill of the masons, and regretted the circumstances of his bourgeois youth in a foreign country, a social environment which made it impossible to pursue such a virile occupation. Perhaps the bus was running late.

While it is true that the action of gravity and perhaps other forces over vast distances is poorly understood, that astronomers in our day have deduced the existence of “black holes,” objects which are extremely massive but which emit no light and thus cannot be seen directly, and furthermore that interstellar space, far from being a void or vacuum as once was thought, teems with a variety of zooming asteroids and stationary dust, our incomplete knowledge of the universe cannot be put forward as an excuse to indulge in theories of physics such as parallel universes and unobservable subatomic strings, hypothetical structures that purport to explain the inexplicable. Gripegut’s account of immanence does no more than build castles in the air, like a cloud of smoke from a professorial pipe.

The argument for one inclusive universe is simple enough. To posit more, whether a universe in reverse like a photographic negative, or an infinity of worlds is to stray into unchecked speculation, a mental excursion that leads nowhere. Immanence rightly understood places us in the here and now. Contingency informs the manner in which we perceive it.

The way in which we talk about these important topics is another subject altogether. I allude to the field of rhetoric, and the difficult relationship of language to the things it denominates, including the highly abstract language of numbers and equations. The charitable reader might at this stage be tempted to attribute the debate between Gripegut and myself to no more than a difference of opinion, a war of words that bears only a tangential relation to the substance, which is to say, to the underlying reality of immanence.

Though it goes against the grain to concede even a minor point of order, and though a scholar steeped in dialectical pedantry might seize on such a concession as “proof positive” of weakness in an argument, if Gripegut says truce, I am willing to risk it. Let us admit a sincere commitment on both sides to immanence, and let contingency go hang.

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