The Buzz

January 29, 2009

Ever wonder what a fly-bottle is? Wittgenstein mentions one rather casually, like it’s obvious. What is your aim in philosophy? He asks. To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. But, you know, why would a fly have a bottle? What’s he doing in there in the first place? What, in point of fact, does one do with a fly-bottle? Turns out, showing the fly the way out is the last thing you want to do. The fly-bottle’s purpose, its whole reason for being, its raison d’être, is to capture, confuse, and kill flies. A fly-bottle was used for pest control.

“Ludwig, how many times do I have to tell you? Leave the flies alone. They’re supposed to die in there. Go outside and play.”

It’s seems there’s two models of fly-bottle, one prevalent in Asian countries and the type they used in Europe. The European model looks a little more sophisticated, with an opening at the bottom that allows the flies to crawl in, rather than fly in the top, but the idea is the same, you lure the fly into the bottle with a succulent, fatted calf—or anyway a pile of sugar—and the fly, once inside, can’t figure out how to get back out. Your common house fly is phototropic; he will fly towards light. He doesn’t understand that while the glass lets light in, it won’t let him out. Confusion and repetitive action sets in. Often at the bottom of a fly-bottle you’ll find some sort of poisonous liquid; when your fly finally tires of buzzing the glass, he falls down and drowns. So much for phototropism. It’s an easy death.

 

One of the implications of this idea, though, is that once out of the fly-bottle, the fly has no more need of philosophy. He won’t have any moral issues to ponder; he won’t need to think about his place in society (such as it is for a fly); he won’t have any nagging epistemological problems, wonder about consciousness, other minds, the good life, virtue, justice…. He’s free, man! The examined life is not worth living.

Oh?

The phrase ‘the examined life’ comes from the Apology where Socrates, who is apologizing for nothing, explains: I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue…and that the unexamined life for man is not worth living.

So it’s a big claim: the greatest good. Socrates prefers to die rather than to live the unexamined life. And he proves it too. Over the years the examined life has become synonymous us with the practice of philosophy, with philosophy as a lived discipline.

The Examined Life is also the name of a new film by Astra Taylor. I haven’t seen it yet. It will be in New York in February, but the trailers are intriguing: Cornell West comparing the philosopher to a bluesman, a jazzman of ideas; Peter Singer bringing down the shoe industry with a deft, entrapping example. The list of names is impressive; in addition to West and Singer, there is Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler and of course Slavoj Zizek, who it seems, will give us a discourse on garbage and why we need to pay attention to it—perhaps because it attracts flies.

The fly is, after all, the perfect philosophical exemplum. It suggests a Platonic entity; it’s named for its essence; it seems singular and pure—if pure black. It seems minatory and evil too, a symbol of decay and decrepitude. In fact, it is a complex, evolved creature; the fly is a member of the order Diptera which includes mosquitoes and gnats, and if that suggests mere nuisance to you, this is the crowd that transmits malaria and dengue fever and encephalitis. The fly is a serious partner to the bacterial world that will one day inherit the earth, and, come Armageddon, it will be the fly that will help to transport the creatures to break down our carcasses and return them to the planet. How’d you like to be a fly on the wall for that one, eh?

Flies have been long time players in man’s history and culture. Jean-Paul Sartre named a play after them. The forth plague that attacked Egypt in the biblical account was flies. William Golding created a Lord of the Flies. One of the great horror movies involved a man getting his molecules mixed with that of a fly. I refer to the Vincent Price version of The Fly; remember the scene where the little head squeaks, ‘Help me.’?  For Emily Dickenson, the fly is a kind of gatekeeper for death:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
      The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
      Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
      And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
      Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
      What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
      There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
      Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
      I could not see to see.

Flies, it is safe to say, tend to be on the dark side of things. So Socrates was perhaps being injudicious when he compared himself to a gadfly in the Apology. This was not going to win him friends and influence people…

If you kill me, you will not easily find such another man as I, a man who—if I may put it a bit absurdly—has been fastened as it were to the City by the God as, so to speak, to a large and well bread horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being aroused by a kind of gadfly. I arouse you. I persuade you. I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere all day long. Such another will not come to you again.

Even if we grant that Socrates is in the process of doing something more like an apologia than an apology, as a defense, this has its problems. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere all day long. Oh great. Among the official charges Socrates faced was the famous ‘corrupting of the young’—which sounds kind of romantic to our ears today, philosophy corrupting the youth by teaching them to think for themselves and all that—but this is a serious charge. Why get into the gadfly thing?

Socrates’ position is simple. This charge of corrupting the young is not true. But standing before the Gentlemen of Athens, he raises the stakes with his first breath: He’s surprised by another falsehood his accusers have been spreading: that Socrates is a clever speaker.

You, Socrates, a clever speaker! No!

Unless, of course, they call a man a clever speaker if he speaks the truth.

Then, Socrates will consider admitting himself a bona fide orator.

Talk about a gadfly! Socrates has landed right in the collective ear of the Gentlemen of Athens. If you think I’m a clever speaker, then you confuse sophistry with truth telling. You think I don’t believe in the gods…

but I shall obey the God rather than you, and while I have breath and am able I shall not cease to pursue wisdom or exhort you, charging any of you I happen to meet in my accustomed manner: “…Are you not ashamed to care for the getting of money, and reputation, and public honor, while yet having no thought or concern for truth and understanding and the greatest possible excellence for your soul?”

For Socrates, the problem is truth telling, whether it is to the youth or the gentlemen of Athens, not corruption. The problem is a lack of flies—he may be the only one. Money, public honor, reputation: No. Truth, understanding, excellence for your soul: Yes. And if you need to be goaded into it, well and good, I won’t apologize for it. This is my purpose.

…and by the way, it’s you who are corrupt, not me.

Since the days of Socrates, we have developed a remarkable way to examine the world: it’s called scientific method.  You want to learn about flies, consult the scientific literature on the subject. Scientific method is self-correcting and communal. It tests itself in the hard school of reality. They used to think that fly larvae developed in meat via spontaneous generation; this is a theory that did not survive the invention of the microscope… but you don’t need me to tell you how powerful science and technology are. The question is, does science answer the Socratic injunction to live the examined life? Get a computer, a microscope, a few beakers, a cyclotron; get an advanced degree in particle physics, study molecular biology, know all there is to know about frog reproduction in Central America; study the cosmos with the Hubble telescope…is this living the examined life?

Yes, it’s part of it—how could it not be—but consider further: Think of the examined life as an imaginative life of questions. Science does. Think of it as the republic of the intellect, a vast, faceted thought experiment (like looking at the world through the eyes of a fly maybe), thousands of perspectives on the same thing. The examined life is always thought to be what philosophy does, but maybe it’s a larger notion. Philosophy lived. What humans do.

Flies perform on the human stage and plod through the microbial world: utterly inhuman, they invade our realm, our thoughts; they carry disease; a horse fly will bite to hurt. They symbolize decay, confusion, corruption, plain death—and they swarm around all of them. They are big enough to swat, small enough to elude our attention. They are ugly and frightening. They are fast enough and smart enough to evade our hands; they are stupid enough to land on our sticky fly paper. They combine a primitive solemnity with incessant movement. They swarm. They have an important ecological niche, whether we like it or not. They cannot possibly have an interior life—no, they can’t—yet they are somehow a part of our examined life…and we are poisoning the planet in an effort to control them. There is something wrong here.

Emily Dickenson, Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein get together one day to sort out this fly thing. It’s a closed conference, so we will have to speculate. What do they have to say to each other?  Will they reach some middle ground between poetry and philosophy? Will they examine how poetry examines life and how philosophy examines life? Will they find similar aims and goals in their respective work? The role of metaphor in poetry and philosophy? Will spiders come up? What is the difference between Ludwig’s use of a fly and his escape and Emily’s fly—and her escape? What does Socrates think of Emily’s death’s head fly?

But wait, the trio has come out on to the back porch, the perfect place for philosophy. It’s dusk. The mosquitoes are rising from the meadow. I wonder what they will have to say to us. Did you know Ludwig Wittgenstein could play the banjo? Let’s listen. He picks a few notes. Emily hums a little, Socrates takes up the harmony, and finally they sing—

Shoo Fly, don’t bother me…

Shoo Fly, don’t bother me…

Shoo Fly, don’t bother me,

For I belong to somebody.

 

Well, I guess that’s the buzz for today.

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