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Jazz: Reading Descartes Otherwise

Descartes being different from “Descartes” (for instance, as “Descartes, the father of modern philosophy” has largely been a history of repeating, debating or detesting, even summarily rejecting Descartes who is, in fact, in my view, a free thinker, restless traveler, letter-writer lucky enough not to have to make money, yeah, true, but anxious enough to rely on the feedback from prudent and loyal friends, also true), and the “I” of “I think,” a case of so many “I”s situated and springing as such at this very moment, however all illusory, as a Buddhist might say at this point…

Kyoo Lee, when not in class, globetrots to check on the latest and oldest spectacles on the market. While on the move, she has also been writing, with the glasses on, about allegory, blindness, camera, children, cinema, dream, idiocy, irony, encounter, eyelid, letter-writing, madness, melancholia, mirror, parody, party, scream, scurf, silence, sleep, etc., some of which are published or forthcoming. Here she talks about the difference between Descartes and ‘Descartes’, his ‘advanced mask’, the role of time in Cartesian subjectivity, Bourdin and Descartes, slow reading Descartes, other feminist readings of Descartes, dioptrics, Foucault and Derrida, dream narratives, God, Descartes as stylist and avoiding the continental/analytic divide soas to talk to everybody.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Kyoo Lee: A serial distraction becoming an attractive method in itself.

3:AM: In a most evocative and strangely compelling sequence you say that Descartes has been overread and underexplored – are you saying that contemporary interest in Descartes has been far too narrow and distorting?

KL: Descartes being different from “Descartes” (for instance, as “Descartes, the father of modern philosophy” has largely been a history of repeating, debating or detesting, even summarily rejecting Descartes who is, in fact, in my view, a free thinker, restless traveler, letter-writer lucky enough not to have to make money, yeah, true, but anxious enough to rely on the feedback from prudent and loyal friends, also true), and the “I” of “I think,” a case of so many “I”s situated and springing as such at this very moment, however all illusory, as a Buddhist might say at this point, another point to bear in mind, I believe that “we,” this indeterminate, open-ended community of readers I am engaging here, wherever or whoever we are and whenever you will find or come across us, would 1) benefit from disabusing ourselves a little of this heavily historicized and ideologically-sedimented “Cartesian complex” we have inherited from and relayed to so many channels of “modern” and “postmodern” discourses including “global” as we say today, and could instead 2) re-member, re-compose and re-play (t)his otherwise “colonial, imperial, reductively rationalistic, inhumanly mechanistic, disembodied (or “dead white European bourgeois able-bodied presumably heterosexual male,” well, innit?)” philosophy of “meditative” consciousness critically and creatively through a multi-dimensional close reading.

3:AM: You note that Descartes ‘advanced masked’ – and you ask what happens in and around his acts of mediated self-reflection, self-introspection and dialogue. What’s driving your interest here? Are you working to find something other than ‘western, white, male, single, bourgeoise’ in the Cartesian subjectivity?

KL: Think I’ve been trying to “know yourselfie” in that very manifold speculative selfiehood—something I myself seem to have found out more recently.

3:AM: What role does time play in the Cartesian ‘cast’ – is this what you label ‘Janus temporality’?

KL: Reading in time and of time or as time unfolding … shortly after the book was out, I was talking about it with a friend, Kimiko Hahn, a poet, who said she loved the title, and I remember recalling with her that it is, yes, a “reading of the thinking of Descartes,” not just about Descartes’ thinking, and it is a point I myself had not been fully aware of until I said it in that dialogue, although that is what it says in the title, upfront, yes, “reading,” and now, I also remember being a little impressed by myself in readvancing that point right there; maybe then, reading, especially self-reading, is like freezing time through a gesture of re-member-ing the “originary” self on the one hand and unfreezing the cast around it on the other hand, both at once, from which, each time, all the membranes of time show their “Janus” face or more precisely interfaciality, an enduring figure of differential self-reflection sliced by time.

3:AM: There’s drama in this reading – perhaps you could say something about the exchange between Father Bourdin and Descartes where Bourdin sees that the subtractive doubt threatens to extend atheistic doubt forever – you show how Descartes responds to this worry of Bourdin to illustrate how Descartes works with his masks don’t you?

KL: True, curiously enough, René, our drama queen never seems to take it off, the invisiblized philopoetic capital of being/Being thus made/marked, which, I suspect, sustains—as in the phenomenological enactment of “suspension”(Epoché, ἐποχή)—the very dialogue on and among the souls, a very Catholic confession … yes, or no?

3:AM: Why do you recommend a slow reading of his texts? Is it to find a different text, the ‘phenomenal text par excellence’ as you put it?

KL: There’s that, and somehow I’ve come to see that slowing-down attracts and accommodates infinity as well as velocity more readily, quickly, even economically: we see this sort of contrarian mystery of lifetime in breathing, eating, playing tennis, speaking, sleeping … just being mindful in and of the “instant,” not unlike that state of the mind Buddhist meditation zeroes in on … like the other day at the Poetry Project’s 50th Anniversary Gala, Anne Waldman, the poet, repeating herself reflectively in the middle of her saying, or reading, that the ‘“older” you get, the “older” memories come to you,’ or something like that, and following on that, I’d say that slow reading is a sort of elastic archival attention to the momentous moments of time folding back on and into itself, where its lifeline lies & emerges, won’t you say?

3:AM: How far does your alternative Descartes overlap with other alternative readings such as Susan Bordo’s and Richard Rorty’s?

KL: As far as they would allow, and actually, I don’t even know where my fish or little darling is right now, especially as it has been with the readers for quite a few years, but just in comparison to Bordo’s, I’d say mine is more phenomenologically-oriented, and to Rorty’s, less binary, and in any case, probably somewhat “queerer” than theirs.

3:AM: Rorty thought he needed to put forward an anti-Cartesianism to respond to the way Descartes was used in the academy – but you think this is just another case of Cartesian modernity at work again don’t you – is it that you want to keep Descartes free for rediscovery and not be shackled by trending modernity of any shape? Or are you saying like Bruno Latour that no one has ever been modern?

KL: Yes, the former is more or less what I had in mind back then, but now, not unlike Latour, I find myself beginning to dwell on some epochal contexts of my “Cartesian” deconstruction more broadly, taking the multi-layered world-historical milieu from more nodal, interstitially intercorporeal viewpoints, from which I seem to have been following, while drawing however clumsily or tentatively, a sort of reading map for a trans-lingual/disciplinary/cultural, diachronic con-temporization, or say, modern-ing (rather than “modernizing”) of the philosophical classics such as not only the Meditations but also Daodejing, The Second Sex, etc. also read together in some actual “dialogues,” and so at this point I might as well say, in response to and speaking past Latour in some ways, that everyone or everything might have been “modern” anyway all along, having been born this or dead that way, anyway, à la Lady Gaga too.

3:AM: Can you tell us about the three guys that you take your title from – starting with what you think we should make of the blind man and his walking stick from the ‘Dioptrics’? And why is Merleau-Ponty important here to you – and wrong?

KL: Again, I am inspired by your insightful question that also clearly indicates you have not only read the book but really read it: something like Touching Them Again could be the title of a hypothetical sequel to Reading Descartes Otherwise, and in addition to Emmanuel Levinas, where, I suppose, this wisdom of “the Other” in part could have come from (cf. Otherwise Than Being), Maurice Merleau-Ponty functions indeed as a—if not the—discursive bridge from Descartes to, say, Jacques Derrida or Gilles Deleuze, his tactile phenomenology of perception, in particular, where he sees vision not so much objectively distancing itself from the world as engaging it “interweavingly (chiasmatically),” which is why “the blind man and his walking stick,” this modern metaphysiorical set for modeling the mechanism of immediated vision matters so much to not only Descartes’s Optics (cf. see also Denis Diderot’s Letter On the Blind for the Use of Those Who See) but my own text, for the composition of which I owe infinite thanks to my dear friend, Helen Tartar, former Editorial Director at Fordham University Press, who practically mothered this book all the way through, whose knitting needle I still often feel in my brain, or dare I say, soul.

3:AM: The madman thinks his head is made of glass – what is this showing us and why are Foucault and Derrida helpful here?

KL: The madman is a test case, of ourselves, testing the boundaries of intersubjective rationality, especially skeptical or scientific modernity, and here, Foucault, the political thinker of in/exclusion is saying that this man of “unreason” with a questionable capacity for self-control/knowledge/reflection/understanding is being tested as if he were being “grilled,” sitting through a “qualifying” exam which, according to Foucault, the madman fails, resulting in his expulsion from the world of reason, whereas Derrida, more attuned to the nuance of this sort of metaphysical nonsense, is saying: well, Michel, no, that’s not exactly the case, since this man of ours, while (con)tested, is also a joker, a (poker-)player of reason, an auto-tester or teaser, and besides, he’s saying, it still is unclear who it is, “where/when” this logos plays out.

3:AM: You link the dreamer with numerous dream narratives in Descartes – is this to help us see the difference between the wild imaginative texts and the rather dry readings that have become familiar responses to Descartes?

KL: Yes, Descartes could just be that wild mushroom of yours, you dreaming yourself/ves.

3:AM: At one point you ask about Descartes thoughts about God: Is Descartes confused? Is he?

KL: The instant Descartes wheels God onto the last “stage” of his skeptical reflections, the ultimately outsourced authority figure kept at bay until then, from which the world gets re-stored almost instantly: such temporality is con-fused and con-fusing in quite a literal rather than (psycho)logical or moral sense since it fuses ontology, epistemology and theology so as to anchor its “objective reality,” as he later calls it.

3:AM: Is your Descartes more like Sterne or Montaigne – and do you think this reflects your other role as a post-modernist literature academic? (If you are one!)

KL: I do think Descartes is a great stylist, even in English, an engaging writer like Montaigne, maybe a sort of control freak version of Montaigne sometimes ironically staged as such, and I also think a thinker should also be able or allowed to write like a writer, so that more literary readers too can read more philosophy, sternly or not.

3:AM: Is this ‘continental philosophy’ you’re doing or is the analytic – continental divide something you kind of want to avoid by moving around with your jazzy reading so you can talk to everyone?

KL: How sweet, you have already repeated my answer, my dear. As Gertrude Stein says:

When they are very little
just only a baby
you can never tell
which one is to be a lady.

3:AM: And for those at 3:AM wanting to go further into your philosophical world then are there five books you can recommend?


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll,

Daodejing by Laozi,

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir,

Zhuangzi by Zhuangzi and this poem by Scott Thurston:

for Kyoo Lee

I loiter too much
in this court
for the deeper sense
to register intelligibly.

I commit to find value
but not deny it
where it lights
in someone else’s vision.

Having your
shiny bright thing,
polishing it until
the capacity reflects
back on you

to accept being valued.


Loving the spacetime in which meaning, no, value, no, meaning, no, value takes place, the vulnerability of the grand system. In the event it’s always movement, remaking it over again. I didn’t say but she brought this up, I didn’t address it even if it wasn’t a habitable space.


The self that shifts out from its seat becomes utopia recollecting itself. With you by my side, asked to create yourself in movement or resistance: we need to be a fixed sensation.

Outsourcing anger: a technique to interfere with what I could predict. Expressions of emotion, non-signifying gestures, presence: held in the trance of sounded verse.


Does the detour
deny us access
to our good?

Release the muscle
to free the constraint
of the emotion.

You thought that
where your soul
dallied, dividends
could be reaped:

movement and resistance.


Not necessarily making words distinct, but fighting back into movement. The second go at it broke through to a lower layer, pushing out attention from the inside and moving from there.

I felt as if I was wearing a wooden helmet of jagged pieces of wood roughly nailed together, reaching completion in a view of itself which is thought unfolded and unfolding.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 7th, 2017.