Briankle G. Chang likes… er…
Paul North, Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe: The Logic of Likeness (Zone Books, 2021), 328pp.
In the blurbs for the beautifully produced Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe by Paul North, two esteemed scholars write that the book is unlike anything they have read, stating: “it is very rare that one comes across a book like Paul North’s Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe.” Both commend the book for its high quality and agree that it is quite unlike the many titles that address the topic of likeness, that this book is like few others, to which it is nonetheless akin or comparable. These two scholars think highly of the book and say so, but the praise they offer is clearly not like what is said in and by the book. Yet precisely for this reason, or like reasons, the reader is encouraged to pick up the book and find out whether he/she likes it or not.
“This is like that,” we say. And in saying that, we mean, or should mean, that “two things, this and that, are alike in this or that respect,” which is to say, this and that are unlike in other respects. But saying this about this and that amounts to admitting that any this and any that are both like and unlike, that, beneath their apparent opposition, likeness and unlikeness are both one and the other at the same time. If this were the case, and it seems it is, we have to admit also that when we say that “this is like that,” we are in fact saying either too much or too little – we are saying either something so trivial or self-evident as to mean nothing or something that is so broad or far-reaching as to over-run meaning or sense.
In any event, a book, this book, may be like or unlike other books. This reader might like this book, unlike that reader who likes another book. The same goes with things other than books. In saying of things that they are like or unlike, the things so described are perchance set adrift, but also brought together in some fashion, linked and delinked in a manner that quietly liberates our thinking about them from given or familiar grooves of thought. Taking this, or something like it, as a starting point, Paul North dives bravely into a world of likeness that is not exclusively ours and, through it, unravels the very logic, also not of our own making, that is more proper and adequate to the world than any ontologically or semiotically oriented theory can ever be. Introduced by this effort is a “diagonal” approach to life, nature, and everything in between.
It is an approach that, rather than obeying the division of labor marked by established disciplines, cuts across regions of being to uncover how things communicate across kinds and levels, how they train, or pull on, one another in terms of contagion, affinity, affection, and attitude (rather than logic or rigid causality). This approach North calls homeotics – a truly materialist mode of inquiry that transcends ontological categories and causal reasoning as readily as the slide from one thing to its “like others” is swift and fluid. Unlike semiotics which begins with the movement from signifier to signified and back, and unlike ontology which looks toward being through beings, homeotics tracks the flows of likeness that enable one thing to touch, even penetrate, another in forming a whole in universal, optimist harmony. This is like that. Or not. Either way, they yield and display as this and that. This is how the world comes to be, for without this or that, if there is only this or only that, there would be neither this nor that, and there would be no world.
Yes, this is like that. Owls like to fly at night, so nocturnal birds of prey and the dark are alike. Through likeness, this goes through that to another this or that, each pushing itself toward further like others, becoming a particular this or that on end. “What something is, something is like” (135), as North puts it aptly. Never simply this or only that, likeness circumradiates, “around-shines,” to use North’s own word, folding and unfolding in and as what he, extending the idea originally developed by Paul Krammerer, calls the “series” or “sequences” that so crisscross one another as to bring forth the world it also perforce liquefies. Like a radiating light, likeness permeates the cosmos, which for the most part remains dark because lighted items overlap and so dim the illumination. At certain moments, something lights up when a this, a rabbit, brings near a that, a duck, configuring a rabbitduck to draw out of darkness a distinction between them and, through this distinction, perception precipitates but only as long as the play of likeness keeps the distinction lit, and only as long as the one who sees it knows what a rabbit and a duck look like respectively in the first place.
Likeness, as North reminds us, is not a perceptual object. It can only be grasped, provided we recognize that the “grasp” here necessarily involves something not merely moving about, but unfailingly moving away from itself qua its immediate appearance or denotative meaning. Philosophy has never been enthusiastic about chasing moving targets in its pursuit of truth. Consequently, while philosophers end up seeing things and fret about their individuation, homeoticians begin by looking for and discerning something else. To a homeotician or any diagonal scientist, instead of beings sorted or to be sorted by kinds, and instead of arranging sorted beings in ascending or descending order with Being or Reason on top or with substance at the bottom, there are only intercalating stages of coming to presence, flat stages upon which likeness performs, or forms itself, by making things alike or unlike across domains of becoming that communicate at a distance.
Seen in this light, likeness should be understood as purely adverbial; it is the fleeing taking place of the phenomenal that happens to endure. For this reason, neither traits nor things to which they are attached exists in itself. If they do appear as such, if they do show themselves as privileged items in our midst, it is thanks to the light travelling through the atmosphere of likeness, in which they endure and obtain. In the end, the message of the homeotic is this: everything in the world likes likeness, and the world enlikens itself, just as things enliken those, especially those, that are not like them. After all, if the world is self-sufficient and appears well-ordered, if the world’s autarky is not mimetic or representational, it is because everything in it yields and display others, enlivening an image of the world that is but a self-image in ever-wandering likeness.
Featuring seven chapters organized arboreally through branching theses and sub-theses, Bizarre-Privileged Items in the Universe stands tall and solid, yet porous and leafy. With insights and tireless analyses, North leads the reader to see though appearances, demonstrating, section by section, how things come together and how they fall away, all the while keeping in focus a logic of likeness that is beyond logic as we ordinarily think of it. In the process, North’s capacities for thinking and writing shine brightly on every page, aided in no small measure by the sensitivity to language only a talented literary critic such as him is likely to possess. At the end of three hundred pages or so, a vibrant cosmos emerges, one more Baroque and closer to the real than those constructed to date. In this world, in this paradise, in the best of all gardens ever built, bizarre-privileged items, and ourselves too, live, thrive, and survive.
Briankle G. Chang teaches in the Communication Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His recent publications include a translation of an interview with Marie-José Mondzain on image, subject, and power, published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (2021) and “Seeing What?: Four Images and Their (In)Visibility,” to appear in Cultural Critique.