Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, June 22, 2015

Clumsy language sacred ravishing

Three days ago I learned that my friend Sundin Richards, poète maudit, was dead by his own hand.

Poète maudit. How he'd roll his eyes if he read that. His life was not a quotation. But he was fulfilling a tradition after all.

He came upon the scene in his late teens, shockingly ambitious, anomalously gifted, scandalouly good-looking, walking a teetering line between bravery and bravado which he followed to the end. The first night I met him I infuriated him by mockingly citing a remark from Rimbaud about systematically deranging the senses. We became good friends, often arguing, reading poetry, drinking until early in the morning. But I did not have his predilections and stamina for alcohol, let alone "harder stuff," and I was no street fighter. I stayed out of his way when he was in his rage and his cups. In later years, when we lived in different cities, he would call me up and talk about having read Moby Dick yet again, or argue the health and optimism, spring and all, of Doc Williams against my dour Eliot and the cruelty of April. He thought I was wrong about all kinds of things. "Do you really believe in God?" he'd say, and I'd ask, sometimes only with a raised eyebrow, Do you really not? I don't think I convinced him of much. Not explicitly. It didn't matter. Those kind of arguments you get only with the ones who love you. They're how the love happens.

He taught me how to understand modern and postmodern poetry in the absence of rhyme. "The line," he would insist to me over and over, "is the original punctuation." He said this to me until I got it, and it made me understand how all punctuation, all notation, flowed from an originary music. His poems are tracings of the fissure between inner and outer -- the hidden and the expressed. Not that there was anything hermetic about his poems. The ins and outs here are just the ordinary ones: spirit and labor, the breath and the hand. The neumes (from pneuma), which comprise the West's first musical notation (another sort of punctuation), are graphic indications of hand motions. In his own work the lineation is crucial. Read The Hurricane Lamp with attention to breath. Slowly, and more than once.

For these past three days I have been thinking of a story Sundin often repeated: an anecdote about John Berryman, one leg already over the rail of the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, turning to give a small wave to the passing traffic, before he took his last step into the air. Today, unexpectedly, I found this post about Berryman's last poem, and it made me wonder, how much of our art is a long, slowed-down, wave from a precipice? A gesture of greeting as we are already going?

My feelings about him were conflicted. Like he was. When he was drunk, he was first irascible, then belligerent, then incoherent. It hurt to talk with him when he was like that. Towards the end, he knew he had alienated many people who loved him. If I always set aside at least a day to see him when I visited Salt Lake, this was also in the knowledge that I'd be flying away again. And yet I loved those afternoons, pulling books off the shelf and saying, Have you listened to this one lately? I can still hear him reading Tennyson, Stevens, Blake, Pound. I will never forget him reading "Saint Judas" by James Wright. For all his extraordinary experimentation, Sundin was extremely sensitive to the plain old music and feeling for which one turns to poetry, and knew -- first-hand -- that these were sometimes in direct proportion to each other. When he read aloud, the attention he gave others' words was precise and reverent.

He would concede, if you caught him unguarded, that he'd poured a great deal of pain through words. But there was always a residue, and he would not have wanted it otherwise. I'll say of Richards what he said of our friend the poet Glenn Parker --
He knew that the singing was no mend for the wounding, and that this was a good thing.
I had discussed with him the possibility of doing an interview for this blog. He'd agreed, but we hadn't started on the exchange yet. I have inevitably subjected my last phone conversation with him -- two weeks ago -- to the fruitless forensics of memory for the slightest whisper of suicide. Pointless, obvious. It was everywhere and nowhere in his work. I can't help this fumbling over all those words, even though I know he'd not have wanted it. I turn back to his poetry, and I find his inscription to me on the title page of his book:
What the heart wants is often perfected by the hand.
My post's title comes from his poem "Dirty Stories." That line is one of the finest and most succinct definitions I know of what our projects of poetry and philosophy share. I can't really summon the resources of eloquence, and I don't want to. I'm leaving so much out. I commend him to the objective of all our argument, beyond all objects, beyond all my arguing and all his objections. Now he's given me the last word, and I'm giving it back to him. I'm going to end with the poem's final phrase; it's what I have of and for him now, for now (and what else is there?):
Everything bends to
the purposeless

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Deconstructor in the Darkness

In this post I have some apparently strong words, at least in passing, for a few writers, some of whom I know occasionally read here and/or have been kind enough to post a comment in days of yore. I esteem their intellectual force, their erudition, and their passion. I hope they will correct me, on- or off-blog, if I have mis-characterized them or their positions.*

I wrote last time about the human recoil from the world, a tendency to find the world anything from mildly irritating (but inherently so) to utterly unacceptable. I took the initial impetus from Houllebecq's article on H.P. Lovecraft, where Houllebecq describes Lovecraft's art (and his own, and indeed all art) as arising from a fundamental dissatisfaction with the world. Thomas Ligotti, Lovecraft's clear successor as master of horror (and a better stylist), has turned this dissatisfaction into a whole (s)creed; for Ligotti -- not just for his characters, but for Ligotti himself -- existence is a hateful thing. Before anyone gets all clever and thinks "Well, Tom, why doncha just kill yourself then, huh?" -- though of course no one reading here would say such a thing -- I'm going venture that this question comes just a bit too quick off the tongue. Reasonable or not, there's more than a hint of something defensive (and changing-the-subject) about it. And those like Ligotti, who have already decided that human beings just can't bear to confront their real status as accidents in an accidental universe, can smell that defensiveness the way a shark smells blood. So we'll go a different way here, and ask after this intense animus that loathes, as Ligotti says, "everything that exists."

This cosmic pessimism has been informing an ever-broadening trend in philosophy of late, a trend that takes its cue from Cioran and Battaile. As soon as I cite both of these names, I realize that I must qualify things: there is no party line here, and not even any consistent stance; "hatred of the world" is mixed up cheek-by-jowl with a certain style of Nietzschean "affirmation." Nonetheless, I'm going to try to assert that there is a recognizable (albeit minority) common esprit in what one could loosely (and no doubt contestedly) call a school. It began to come into its own with the work of the no-longer-neglected cult figure Nick Land, whose first book was The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, and whose collected essays bears a title, Fanged Noumena, that perfectly sums up this subgenre of critique + horror. In the last decade, this subgenre has shown signs of coming dangerously close to being almost mainstream. Eugene Thacker's Horror of Philosophy trilogy -- re. which see this interview (pdf) with Thacker -- even had a little 15-minute session in the sun when he got some free publicity from an unlikely menage of Glenn Beck, NPR's Radiolab, HBO's True Detective and JayZ's wardrobe designer. (JayZ was filmed wearing a t-shirt that had Thacker's title for volume 1 -- In the Dust of this Planet -- on it in great big letters that pretty much replicates the book's front cover; not long thereafter, a similar shirt was worn on True Detective. Already, in an interview at the Wall Street Journal's website, True Detective director Nic Pizzolato had fessed up: he based the apparent nihilism of one of his characters on several books, including Thacker's In the Dust... and Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Radiolab thought the whole nexus of things was weird, which it sort of was, and worth doing an entire show on, which is open to question (but, for those of you tracking The Conspiracy, it just so happens that Thacker and Radiolab host Jad Abumrad are brothers-in-law.... On the other hand, Thacker says he'd never heard of JayZ.) Anyway, speaking of conspiracy, Uncle Glenn's team got hold of it, and Beck did a spot about how Eugene Thacker works at the New School, where some other people used to work who used, in the first half of the 20th century, to advocate eugenics.... After a sort of "think about it, people" pause and a meaningful gaze into the camera, Beck went on to advocate for Vince Vaughan's t-shirts instead. That's philosophy in TV and radio, folks.) A bemused Thacker remarked that doubtless more people had his title than had read his book. Like I said, almost mainstream. Which is to say, almost passé.

This fate had already befallen the last crop of nihilisms, the carnival of deconstruction. I want to argue for (if not unassailably establish) a clear descent of spirit from deconstruction to this more recent philosopho-horror, despite the latter's tending to arise amidst fellow-travelers of speculative realism, who present a stance opposed to the linguistic turn of which deconstruction was supposedly the nth degree. Deconstruction likewise passed from cutting-edge to what-did-you-expect, and likewise did so via mass entertainment. Slowly and inexorably, nudge by meta-wink, American TV in the '90s became rotten with hipness; nothing was taken quite seriously; just "seriously enough" to keep the money a-spending --a sly "heh, get it?" hanging in the background like a billboard. "But wait," I hear someone say -- "what? -- why blame deconstruction for that? And anyway, Derrida isn't a nihilist... is he...? I mean he's all about the free play of the signifier...." Like most questions about deconstruction, this one has to be answered, Yes and No. On a certain exoteric level, I think it is quite defensible to hold that Derrida was more or less what Rorty thought: a liberal ironist. But where Rorty just shrugged off the corrosive effect ironism had on liberalism, Derrida -- more the philosopher -- was clear (yes, clear) that there was no way of theoretically heading off irony at the pass. In a great deal of ostensibly "deconstrutive" work by a generation of grad students and teachers, this ironism turned into an end in itself. If these days it's more frequent to object to Derrida as a stylist than as a philosopher, it's only partly because the latest academics think his questions are beside the point; it's mainly that they simply and without much ado stipulate his basic positions, and regard a basic mastery of "deconstructive" moves as just part of the academic toolbox. If someone does argue with Derrida, it's usually a straw-derrida who "argues" that "everything is language," or some such. But the take-downs of Plato, the cavalier regard of the tradition as something to bend to your own agenda, the clever drive to trip up Aristotle or Rousseau or Kant -- that's here to stay. (I know, I know -- "basic positions," indeed! The reductionism of it! But I'm not going to write a six-paragraph sidebar of intro-to-deconstruction.) I learned a great deal from reading Derrida and I honestly count myself among those who can read him for pleasure; but I think there is no question but that some of the allure of deconstruction was its apparent licensing of a free-for-all which spun off some downright awful work. Whether it was any more awful than work produced under any other fashion is disputable. But the close affinity between deconstruction and hyper-ironism is not. Deconstruction was a fixation upon the mise-en-abyme, a vertigo of criticism; and part of its thrill was its apparent capacity to undercut any and all received stories. It was, in short, not "conservative" in the sense Amod Lele uses the term.

What is often overlooked about Derrida’s work, especially his early work, is that it was also scary. A lot of his imitators merely enjoyed playing with nihilism, as if they had defused it, though of course the frisson (if any) of their texts depend upon there being a real danger, and edge, to them. To be sure, this cannot all be laid at Derrida's door. It was the inevitable conclusion of the trend which Lionel Trilling had observed about his students in his 1961 essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature":
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”
It was wanting to eat this cake and have it too that gave rise, in the generation after Trilling, to the aforementioned bad faith of hip hyperironism, as it pooled and shallowed-out from Ivy League to Madison Ave. Hundreds of glib instructors teaching the latest deconstructive tricks did further this, mostly unknowingly I'd bet; they were generally liberals who didn't think things through. Derrida himself knew better, and his Abyss is actually frightening, if you read him with an eye unjaded by overfamiliarity. Here is the conclusion of his famous essay "Plato's Pharmacy" on the Phaedrus, in Dissemination. Even thus excerpted, it's a long quote, but I have my reasons for offering it at length:
Plato mutters as he transcribes the play of formulas. In the enclosed space of the pharmacy, the reverberations of the monologue are immeasurably amplified. The walled-in voice strikes against the rafters, the words come apart, bits and pieces of sentences are separated, disarticulated parts begin to circulate through the corridors, become fixed for a round or two, translate each other, become rejoined, bounce off each other, contradict each other, make trouble, tell on each other, come back like answers, organize their exchanges, protect each other, institute an internal commerce, take themselves for a dialogue. Full of meaning. A whole story·. An entire history. All of philosophy.
he ekhe touton logon . . . the sound of these arguments rings so loudly in my head that I cannot hear the other side."
In this stammering buzz of voices, as some philological sequence or other floats by, one can sort of make this out, but it is hard to hear: logos beds itself... pharmakon means coup... "so that pharmakon will have meant: that which pertains to an attack of demoniac possession, or is used as a curative against such an attack" ... an armed enforcement of order... a shot fired... a planned overthrow... but to no avail... like cutting through water.... and a stroke of fate... Theuth who invented writing... the calendar... dice...
kubeia... the calendar trick... the unexpected theatrical effect... the writing trick... the dice-throw... two in one blow... kolaphos ... gluph... colpus . . . coup . . . glyph . . scalpel... scalp... khrusos... chrysolite ... chrysology...
Plato gags his ears the better to hear-himself-speak, the better to see, the better to analyze.
He listens, means to distinguish, between two repetitions.
One ought to distinguish, between two repetitions.
-- But they repeat each other, still; they substitute for each other .
-- Nonsense: they don't replace each other, since they are added ...
-- Precisely ...
One still has to take note of this. And to finish that Second Letter: "...Consider these facts and take care lest you sometime come to repent of having now unwisely published your views. It is a very great safeguard to learn by heart instead of writing...
to me graphein all'ekmanthanein.... It is impossible for what is written not to be disclosed. That is the reason why I have never written anything about these things... oud'estin sungramma Platonos ouden oud'estai, and why there is not and will not be any written work of Plato's own. What are now called his... Sokratous min kalou kai neou gegonotos... are the work of a Socrates embellished and modernized. Farewell and believe.Read this letter now at once many times and burn it ...
-- I hope this one won't get lost. Quick, a duplicate... graphite... carbon... reread this letter... burn it.
il y a la cendre. And now, to distinguish, between two repetitions....
The night passes. In the morning, knocks are heard at the door. They seem to be coming from outside, this time....
Two knocks... four...
-- But maybe it's just a residue, a dream , a bit of dream left over, an echo of the night... that other theater, those knocks from outside....

Now read that back to back with Lovecraft:
And then I heard the other voice. To this hour I shudder retrospectively when I think of how it struck me, prepared though I was by Akeley's accounts. Those to whom I have since described the record profess to find nothing but cheap imposture or madness in it; but could they have the accursed thing itself, or read the bulk of Akeley's correspondence, (especially that terrible and encyclopaedic second letter), I know they would think differently. It is, after all, a tremendous pity that I did not disobey Akeley and play the record for others - a tremendous pity, too, that all of his letters were lost. To me, with my first-hand impression of the actual sounds, and with my knowledge of the background and surrounding circumstances, the voice was a monstrous thing. It swiftly followed the human voice in ritualistic response, but in my imagination it was a morbid echo winging its way across unimaginable abysses from unimaginable outer hells. It is more than two years now since I last ran off that blasphemous waxen cylinder; but at this moment, and at all other moments, I can still hear that feeble, fiendish buzzing as it reached me for the first time.

"Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!"

But though the voice is always in my ears, I have not even yet been able to analyse it well enough for a graphic description. It was like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species, and I am perfectly certain that the organs producing it can have no resemblance to the vocal organs of man, or indeed to those of any of the mammalia. There were singularities in timbre, range, and overtones which placed this phenomenon wholly outside the sphere of humanity and earth-life. Its sudden advent that first time almost stunned me, and I heard the rest of the record through in a sort of abstracted daze. When the longer passage of buzzing came, there was a sharp intensification of that feeling of blasphemous infinity....

("The Whisperer in the Darkness")
I want to linger for just a moment on this last phrase of Lovecraft's. If you remember your Badiou, or even your Descartes, you can guess why "infinity" would be relevant here. Badiou is explicit in desiring to "secularize" the notion of infinity, to strip it of the numinous aura theology has always found there. (Speaking theologically, he's right of course. There is nothing "holy" about infinity per se, and we're indebted to Badiou for reminding us of this. Like everything else, infinity is a symbol, and we didn't need Lovecraft to point out that it is at best an ambiguous one; already Pascal had famously expressed his terror at "the silence of those infinite spaces.") But a laicized infinity is one thing; a blasphemous infinity another -- in fact, the opposite. If I may do a little Structuralism 101 here, something can only be blasphemous -- the word "blasphemy" only has meaning -- if it is granted that there's such a thing as worthy worship, adoration, love. Lovecraft here is trading off the sense that something in the horrible sound feels like an affront to the Holy; and although of course Lovecraft doesn't believe there is such a category, his attempt to drive home the extreme horror occasioned by hearing the recording relies on this -- is, so to speak, living off the capital accumulated in an earlier, and expressly religious, culture. You can't blaspheme anything except the Holy. If "the idea of the Holy" has no traction for you, well, then the most you can do in that direction is offend people -- usually people you regard as small-minded, as lying to themselves, already. Which, let's face it, may give you a short-lived rush of power, but is pretty low-hanging fruit, and you're fooling yourself if you make it anything like an index of artistic integrity or philosophical radicalism. I'll return to this question of the blasphemous at the end.

To be sure, it is itself a kind of deconstructive move to counterpose these passages from Derrida and Lovecraft, with their buzzing voices, their intimations of "outside...", even their references to a "second letter", which, despite seeming like a bit of a stretch, is surely fair game by the anarchic "rules" of deconstruction. In the mid-90's in many English departments, one could have make a whole term paper just out of the sentence, "though the voice is always in my ears, I have not even yet been able to analyse it well enough for a graphic description." (Just think about what Derrida did with Nietzsche's umbrella...). There are many such passages in Lovecraft, which I'll omit for the sake of keeping this manageably readable, but it's important to underline that for Lovecraft's fiction, the "beyond" or "far away" from which comes the horror is also very close, all too close. One might say that there is no hors-texte:
"What do we know," he had said, "of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers."
("From Beyond")
This last passage, with its arch promethean tone about overcoming human beings' narrow perception-mechanisms, is important for the way it shows the dovetailing of a certain scientism with horror. It is in this arena that deconstruction's scary tone has recently resurfaced. Indeed, I am pleased to note that this experiment of mine (I copied it out of an old notebook) has been validated by Thacker:
I would argue that this makes philosophy interesting. Particularly if one "mis-reads" philosophy in this way. If we were to adopt a method, it might be this: read works of philosophy as if they were works of horror.... something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this thought that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility.Certainly there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought.
That's from volume 2 of Thacker's trilogy, Starry Speculative Corpse. (Excerpt here.) Thacker doesn't identify what he's doing as deconstruction, but his self-description of his method as "mis-reading," complete with scare-quotes, is lifted out of deconstruction's play-book, and he has the good faith to acknowledge that there's something like a joke to it; like a commercial from 1996, it's not to be taken too seriously.... And yet, the joke is very ambiguous. I do not think he can concede that, as David Chapman contends, nihilism is silly.

Note, especially, the point at the end: that the "unthinkable" is part and parcel of horror. Now Thacker is well aware that philosophy, and more particularly, theology, has repeatedly opened up upon a kind of unthinkable, and yet that it has not always ended in horror (or some desperate warding-off thereof). But he seems to take it as read that science has today cut off recourse to the theological. You can't read Thacker (or any number of others*) without sensing the overlap between horror and scientism, though perhaps you do need to read a little more than the t-shirt; and perhaps, too, Thacker would't put it like that. (Besides Ray Brassier, other names that occur to me here are Nicola Masciandaro, Ben Woodward, and of course Reza Negarestani, whose Cyclonopedia opens with a scene that wears its Lovecraftianism on its sleeve, and whose The Mortiloquist features and foregrounds a thematics of torture and biological corruption that would give Poe or Sade or Clive Barker something to think about. More recently, Leon Niemoczynski has begun to articulate what he calls a "bleak theology," in what I consider a different but related register.)

I am now deep into Thacker's trilogy and have also read After Life and much of his work with Alexander Galloway, The Exploit: a theory of networks (pdf here). You can look to the links above, or listen to this lecture, for a representative introduction to this set of themes in Thacker's work; or read a different one; see too this or this from Craig Hickman for some introduction if you aren't familiar. In the Dust of this Planet begins (and means to begin) where Lovecraft's narrators usually end -- sure enough, with "that which cannot be thought:"
The world is increasingly unthinkable.... to confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all -- an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.
But we might start even before page one, with the Table of Contents:
Preface ~ Clouds of Unknowing
I Three Quæstio on Demonology
II Six Lectio on Occult Philosophy
III Nine Disputatio on the Horror of Theology
"The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids"
The three numbered chapters, the three-six-nine of the sections, and the little Latin teasers all give whiffs of a medieval tradition, as though Thacker's book were a kind of grimoire. He draws freely but selectively from Pseudo-Dionysus, Eriguena, the Beguines, the Carmelites. (My guess is that much of his readership doesn't know this tradition -- over a thousand years of it -- very deeply. If they are relying on Thacker for their introduction, this is a bit like relying on Derrida for your introduction to Plato.) (In volume 2, he turns to the Zen-inflected Kyoto school. Here there are some precedents, for Buddhism and horror are not strangers to each other.) He has mined this theology for whatever is relevant to his argument, and of course there's plenty, for this is where one finds the great works of negative theology, the impossible articulation of what Ps.Dionysius called the divine darkness.

You can see how a phrase like that would appeal, and appeal it has. In the past ten years or so, this "Dark" has been a proliferating meme. Dark Materialism, Dark Pantheism, Dark Ecology, Dark Enlightenment (this one, somewhat different in nuance, is Nick Land's neoreactionary way of conflating the Enlightenment project with the dark ages). The main point in common which I am considering here is the way "Dark" signals the limits of thinking in a way that carries an emotional resonance of allure and dread. A primary philosophical precedent for this is in the aforementioned Christian tradition of negative theology -- the awareness that any discourse about God, Who is wholly and unequivocally beyond any of our categories, can only proceed by negation and tend towards paradox. Thacker's work, like a good deal of this recent trend of "dark" a/theology, tries to show -- or rather, to take as stipulated -- that the overwhelming-of-thought in Ligotti or Lovecraft is more or less the same as in Ruysbroek, Eckhardt, The Cloud of Unknowing, and so on. One can make some headway with this strategy, for after all, as St Gregory of Nyssa writes,
one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.
(Life of Moses)
Nonetheless, I have not discovered (though I would like to -- please tell me if I am missing it) in any of this recent "Dark" trend any work that really wants anything to do with the possibility of actually meeting the living God; I suspect the authors would be frankly amused at the very notion, or perhaps, a little horrified. Great Cthulhu is downright cuddly compared to the "FIRE" Pascal wrote of, for instance. All these "dark" a/theologies draw extensively upon negative theology for tropes of liminality, unspeakability, radical disjuncture that somehow remains radical presence; all are very interested in the swamping of our capacities. But they drain this tradition, either systematically or through advised negligence, of anything that would actually have to do with creation, redemption, and above all, with love. "Infinity" is appropriated, here as in deconstruction, as a feature of mise-en-abyme, and becomes not the occasion for philosophy to glimpse the wider context of its attempts at articulation, but instead as a kind of brute feature.

This is the academic-philosophical equivalent of the false sublime, what Brandon at Siris recently called, in an excellent post, the fake-awesome. In entertainment, this fakeness centers upon various spectacle that aims to be impressive and usually just feels flat. Brandon gives three characteristics of the false sublime. He points out that because
the sublime, or genuinely awe-inspiring, is by its nature overwhelming. Precisely what makes it sublime is that it in some sense exceeds our capacity to take it in,,
The fake-awesome tends toward incoherence.
This first aspect means that false sublimity confuses, and in practice it generates what Harry Frankfurt calls Bullshit. I've blogged a good bit about this before. If you remember back to the '90s, you'll recall that deconstruction was on the Most Wanted List for bullshitting by the defenders of Reason and Truth, and not always on trumped-up charges. Nonetheless, deconstruction's moves got predictable, and of course there was a counter-attack which used (not always prudently) deconstruction as a new way of drawing a Kantian "limit" to reason alone which would again "make room for faith;" to use deconstruction as a new vocabulary and occasion for the "return to religion." (Levinas was especially important here, though not always deeply understood.)

Against this, Badiou, Meillassoux, and Brassier -- to name only three -- made various strong rejoinders. Each seems to be arguing for a thinkable absolute, and so apparently is articulating a set of arguments that would seem to be opposed to the "unthinkable" of horror; and yet their thought has repeatedly been appropriated (and Brassier has expressly abetted this himself) in this nexus of "Dark" metaphysics, materialism, etc. The reason for this is that the "absolute" in every case winds up being precisely chaos, the aleatory unreason to which reason devolves when it decides to dispense with itself. In his third volume, Tentacles Longer than Night, Thacker unpacks this in the context of Poe's "The Black Cat:"
the narrator continues, if I can’t explain it then there must be someone else who can. In lieu of this, he can only hope that someone else (doubtless we, the "dear readers") will come along and provide an explanation, some explanation, any explanation.
What cannot be accepted is that something happened for no reason. But this event is not just an everyday event. It has the character of being out-of-place, of not fitting into our everyday or even scientific modes of explaining the world. It threatens the order of things produced by we human beings, living human lives in a human world largely (we presume) of our own making. That something, that event, might threaten this order of things,
and that it would happen for no reason -- this is, for the narrator of "The Black Cat," the real horror. It is a thought that cannot be accepted, without either abandoning reason and descending into the abyss of madness or making the leap of faith into religion and mysticism. It is as if, before Poe’s story has even begun, the horror tale itself is in a state of crisis.
(excerpt here.)
I would suggest that the "crisis" in question is one that arises precisely because the "leap of faith" has been ruled out in advance. Kierkegaard, with whom everyone associates the phrase, asked:
When people nowadays -- as is in fact variously announced -- will not stop at love, where is it that they are going? To worldly wisdom, petty calculation, to paltriness and misery?
(Fear and Trembling, "Prolegomena.")
To which the answer is, pretty much: Yep.

A different variant of this denial of sufficient reason, associated with Žižek and Badiou (and later with Meillassoux) associates the upheaval of the without-reason with a special category, what Heidegger called Ereignis, "Event." Badiou assimilates this to a Deleuzo-Mallarmean throw of dice. One of the most perceptive and articulate young philosophers I know of, Pete Wolfendale, a man who is staunchly aligned against any back-door "return to religion," nonetheless pegged this a couple of years ago as an attempt to keep, as it were, the prerogative of divine freedom without any divine. In the excerpt I'm going to give, Wolfendale traces a genealogy of this, which I am not going to unpack here, but I leave it in because his concluding account of the inversion of Leibnit's theodicy is so damn brilliant. Speaking of
the dominant axis of indeterminism in contemporary continental thought,
Wolfendale goes on to note how
[t]he combination of this vulgar Kantianism, or neo-Leibnizianism about Freedom with a resistance to theism (be it derived from the Heideggerian rejection of onto-theology or the Lacanian rejection of the big Other) demands a strong form of metaphysical indeterminism, in which nature is always ‘fractured’, ‘incomplete’ or simply subject to the whims of a ‘hyperchaos’. This is because the natural order is supposedly insufficient to account for the alternative causal order of Freedom (the Lacanian symbolic, the Badiouian Subject/Event, Fichtean facticity, etc.), meaning that there must be points at which something other pokes through into nature. Yet this supplement can’t be conceived as itself governed by sufficient reason without collapsing into some kind of positive theology. This is the point at which the neo-Leibnizians part ways with Leibniz. However, the effect of foreclosing the supplement to sufficient reason constitutes a turn to negative theology, albeit a more extreme form of it than the traditional judaic variety (even that of Levinas, for instance). We might call this a negative deism. Whereas Leibniz’s God freely chooses the best of all possible worlds, because his essence contains infinite goodness, the deviant Leibnizian non-God of the negative deist has no essence to speak of. It is the equivalent of Lovecraft’s Azathoth – a non-sentient, absolutely indifferent, writhing hyperchaos.
In short, incoherence has for this metaphysics become an ontological principle. Wolfendale opines that this indeterminism is actually politically dangerous, and his diagnosis is worth attending to, but I'm not going to follow it here because as is so often the case with his posts, I can't do it justice without making it more or less the whole occasion of a very careful point-by-point treatment. What I do want to underscore though is that, although I disagree with Wolfendale about the issue of theism, I strongly concur that those who want to take this tack are more or less cheating, trying to have things both ways; an aversion to theism is strongly and almost Freudianly joined with a deep draw to the moves of theology. It's hard not to see this as the latest chapter of the secularization Carl Schmitt posited in the famous opening of Political Theology's chapter three.

Returning to Brandon's post on the pseudo-sublime, the next characteristic he mentions is almost a kind of defense against the horrifying implications of the aleatory -- a warding-off of the spectre of Azathoth:
the most basic experience of sublimity seems to be when we experience something capable of terrifying us but under conditions in which we can be exhilarated rather than fully terrified. At least, historically that is one of the most common kinds of experience associated with it. If you are going to fake experience of the sublime or truly awesome, one has to manufacture something analogous to this.
This means that
The fake-awesome tends toward violence.
One could argue that "violence" is a relative term, but if we say destruction, we are very close to the unacknowledged cosmological idols of our time. In fact even in Meillassoux's (barely) more hopeful aleatory cosmology, creation is infinitesimally rare; destruction is the order of the day. Why destruction? Because under the aleatory non-regime there are far, far more -- infinite orders of magnitude more -- ways for things to fall apart than for things to "fit together" in an order. (Meillassoux might want to object here that with transfinite magnitudes, this is not the case. I am unpersuaded.) Moreover, the great sign under which Brassier's Nihil Unbound is written -- the sign of extinction -- is a special case of destruction, the destruction of mind. Some philosophy in this register -- David Benatar's Better Never To Have Been, for instance -- will valorize extinction to the point of commending it as a species-wide programme. Benatar does not promote mass suicide; he advocates what one might call radically negative population growth, by voluntary and if possible completely unanimous non-procreation. Violence? Yes, indeed, his absolutely sincere "voluntary" notwithstanding. I might go on (and might cite Wolfendale again) to argue that philosophy of this stripe will and indeed must wind up valorizing upheavals politically, which equates, in practice, to more pedestrian meanings of "violence." I'm not sure about this, however, and although I can come up with some obvious instances, I'm pretty sure these could be matched by counter-examples, so I won't press the point.

Of course, in the context of pop entertainment about which Brandon was originally writing, examples abound, and you hardly need to think about it to rack up a score or so, big or small, from movies and television. This is also true for Brandon's third characteristic:
The sublime is something so great that in comparison to it we are small; but also so great that even our capacity to recognize its greatness is a mark of our own greatness. The pseudo-awesome cannot capture the latter part; but it can do a lot to imitate the vastness of the sublime and awe-inspiring. Thus the fake-awesome has a tendency to try for experiences that are bigger and bigger and bigger, even if it comes at the expense of valuable small things,
which means that, in sum:
The fake-awesome tends to involve big spectacle trumping all other features of a story.
And if you press this far enough, you will get "spectacle" that by its very being-experienced swamps and undoes the beholder. The blasphemous horrors that drives Lovecraft's narrators mad.

The sublime is Pascal's infinite silences, the enormity of the physical universe which can crush a human being; but it is also, crucially, the human being, the thinking reed, who knows the universe as the universe does not know the human. The pseudo-sublime of the "horror of philosophy" trades upon severing this connection. The sublime does indeed leave us, in a sense, emptied and incapacitated; take this as an end in itself and you get all the Nameless Horrors of Lovecraft and Ligotti. This -- Pascal's terrifying infinite spaces, without the rest of Pascal -- is of course a cosmic indifference; but in order for it to work as horror, it is also, by a kind of sleight-of-argument, an indifference which is indistinguishable from malevolence. This Lovecraftian pseudo-sublime is the fun-house inversion of a theological version of the problem of evil, which we can compress into a parallel formula, according to God is a benevolence apparently indistinguishable from indifference. (It's important to note too that whether one aspires to follow the Tao, cultivate the apatheia of the saints, or striving after the Eightfold Path, one is aspiring to a sort of indifference oneself.)

This question of indistinguishability is at issue, but perhaps not pressed far enough, in the famous "parable of the invisible gardener" which John Wisdom (who deserves to be known for more than this little story) used to illustrate an argument concerning the relevance of empiricism to theism. Two travelers return to find their garden mostly wasting away but a few plants surprisingly robust. "It must be there is a gardener who tends these," says one. But no neighbor has seen such a gardener, rejoins the other. "Perhaps he comes at night," the first replies. "But there are no footprints." And so it goes, back and forth. Anthony Flew stretched this story to turn it into a parody of incorrigibility, but in fact Wisdom was not primarily making this critique; he he was showing that the same empirical experience was amenable to various interpretations:
Each learns all the other learns about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says "I still believe a gardener comes" while the other says "I don’t," their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, or would find in the garden if they looked further.... One says, "A gardener comes unseen and unheard; he is manifested only in his works with which we are all familiar. The other says, "There is no gardener." And with this difference in what they say about the gardener goes a difference in how they feel toward the garden, in spite of the fact that neither expects anything of it which the other does not expect.
The point here is that a benevolence apparently indistinguishable from indifference is distinguishable -- in its effects on how one feels -- from an indifference indistinguishable from malevolence. (A further question is whether either one of these is a coherently conceivable concept.)

The ontological exaltation of the aleatory leads us to a weird mutation -- the opposite of the Kantian aesthetic principle of "purposive purposelessness." In the blind Oops-universe, humanity and indeed all sentience is a purposeless purposiveness. Kant's aesthetic is remembered in part for the way he deploys the difference between the Sublime and the Beautiful; and I suspect that one reason why the false sublime Brandon so skillfully describes is now so ascendant, is that we have too drastically separated these. As though anything that pleased also flattered, as though beauty was by definition ideology. (It seems worth underscoring Addison's account of the sublime as "agreeable horror." My sense is that in this fixation on all things Dark, there is some conflictedness about the "agreeable" here -- a strong motive to foreground the disagreeable as much as possible, all the while trying to forget that, after all, it is motivated to do this.) It may seem a small thing, but Dostoevsky did not say that sublimity will save the world.

I mentioned Benatar's anti-natalist book Better Never To Have Been (also cited, by the way, in the interview with Pizzolatto about True Detective), the title of which comes from the mocking advice Silenus gave to King Midas' question of what was the best thing for man. "Never to be born," the satyr told the appalled king. And, for good measure, "And next best, to die. Soon." I've written many times about this melancholy conclusion, and I maintain that those (like Ligotti) who believe philosophy is intentionally holding this notion at bay are right. Where I part company with them is to hold that the Socratic prescription of an examined life is truly a cure intended in good faith. "Examination" is not just a high-sounding name for its opposite (denial) or a subterfuge for distracting yourself with "bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct." The disagreement about this is, again, the cleavage plane between two apparent indiscernibles which are in fact the occasion for a decision. Is the universe an indifference indistinguishable from malevolence, or is it a benevolence indistinguishable from indifference?

One of the ways -- probably the privileged way -- that these visions differ, is how they plays out in the question of prayer.

This is not a crazy out-of-left-field application. The question of prayer is as old as philosophy. From Plato on, it has been asked, what sense it can possibly make to pray. (It is at issue in significant portions of the Laws, a dialogue which is almost a litmus-test for "kinds of philosophers" -- far, far too many sneer at the Laws as a work of Plato's ostensibly conservative, curmudgeonly dotage.) Does it make sense to speak to -- to petition, thank, praise -- an apparently indifferent Divine, a "presence," if that's what God "is," which philosophy cannot but construe, a la negative theology, as absence? And -- if so -- how? What sort of sense? In my opinion, the most extensive and deepest meditation that prayer has occasioned in modern philosophy is the introduction to Book III of Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption, "On the Possibility of Entreating the Kingdom." Getting into Rosenzweig's book will make this post officially Too Long ("too late," you are saying under your breath), so I'm going to leave off; but I want to underline the way the recent crop of the "dark" philosophies that flower in the chilly hothouse of horrorology and hauntology all -- or almost all (Masciandaro may be the exception) -- absent themselves from this question. They want to make use -- sometimes with considerable apparent erudition -- of the metaphysics of mysticism, of magic and demonology, but seem to me (though I'd love to be corrected) to be universally allergic to the question of prayer, without which none of the tradition of negative theology matters, for that tradition is one not of discourse, but of practice. Ps. Dionysius, Eckhardt, St Teresa of Avila, aren't spinning theories. They're speaking of experience.

When it comes down to it, though, it isn't a question of the "plot" or the argument of any of these "dark" works. Thacker's account is different from Land's, which is different from Masciandaro's, and so on. But the general esprit is unmistakable: this is philosophy that doesn't just believe that the world is empty of meaning, or even that this emptiness is horrible, but that takes a certain bleak delight in this emptiness; and moreover sees its countenancing of this horror as evidence of its strength, even if a strength-in-abjection. Well, who can blame people for taking what cold comfort they can? Bertrand Russell made the stance of quiet desperation in the face of an indifferent universe into a sort of noble ethical imperative. The more recent stance of horror-philosophy or vice-versa is what is left when all ethics has been digested into aesthetics, and aesthetics into its opposite. It can still appropriate the tags of previous contexts, but what it can offer is at most a sort of attempt at blasphemy. You get this loud and clear with Land. More often, it's just a fake sublime -- magic circles and paraphernalia, gibberish ("Ia! Shub Niggurath!") and violence, overwhelming emotions and the "unthinkable" -- but no devotion, humility, or indeed even address. But any theology, even an atheology, divorced from prayer is simply not real. What I say about God is of no interest, not even to me, except insofar as it effects what I do. The place where doing and saying intersect is the performative, and prayer is performative theology par excellence. This means, to return to an earlier point, that blasphemy -- also a performative, after all -- can be a kind of para- or inverse prayer, albeit always parasitic on prayer itself. To be sure, as C.S. Lewis wrote,
All prayers always, taken at their word, blaspheme
Lewis' point is that of negative theology: every literal statement about God is a lie. And if there were only the literal, that would be the end of it. Lewis' faith is that there is more, and not just "more" but something else: the poem concludes with a petition to God to translate "our halting metaphor" into the "great unbroken speech."

And with this metaphor of translation, there is a question of (non-)identity of (in)discernibles. What are the "terms" of this imagined speech? What would it mean for it to be "unbroken" (say, into particular "words")? And by what "translation" can blasphemy be sanctified? We could well deem this yet another occasion for deconstruction, construing every prayer as dangerously supplemented with an admixture of blasphemy. But in order to do this, we'd have to grant that there is such a thing as prayer.

* One thinker who has worked on Lovecraft and who I have left out of account here is Graham Harman. While I strongly agree with Harman's claim (in "On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl") that "nothing resembles science fiction more than philosophy does," this is at least in part because I concur in principle with Derrida that the line between philosophy and literature "in general" is far from clear. Harman's specific considerations and appropriations of Lovecraft seem to me idiosyncratic, at least in the context of these other thinkers (Thacker, Brassier, Land, etc). It would be more interesting and pertinent here to consider Harman's own metaphysics as a species of, or as an alternative to, horror, for it can certainly be argued (and has been) that the "withdrawal" Harman posits of every real object whatsoever, is a modulation of another theme from negative theology. This is an argument Harman rejects:
The response of object-oriented philosophy is that this claim sets up a false alternative between two extremes: direct propositional access to the world on one side and ignorant silence on the other. But these are really no different from the two false alternatives of Meno's paradox, both of which Socrates opposed with philosophia, a love of wisdom without direct access to wisdom.
I have some sympathy with this rejoinder of Harman's, though I do not take "negative theology" as a slur and believe it is more continuous with philosophy than his critics want it to be. But as readers are well aware, this post is long enough.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"...a little fed up..."

A while ago I re-encountered a citation from Michel Houellebecq's book on H.P. Lovecraft, tellingly subtitled Against the World, Against Life. I've read only portions of this work, so I may not be being fair to Houellebecq, whose other works I have not found to my taste; the only novel I have finished (it was very elegantly written and structured and left me feeling empty) was Lanzarote). The citation from the Lovecraft book is:
Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.
(Excerpt here.)
My reaction to this as I thought about it was complicated and went in stages. Initially I sighed a kind of exasperated eye-rolling "whatever." It is difficult for me to summon up patience (or even belief) when people tell me that "loving life" is somehow, I don't know, a little bit beneath them or something. Moreover, it is somehow grotesque that a novelist should assert that love of art and love of life are, at bottom, incompatible. If a novelist cannot be expected to realize without having to think about it that famously-inventive human nature will be ready to supply you with an endless series of examples of "inconsistencies" no matter how surprising, then I don't know who can. There is, moreover, something both naive and staggeringly condescending in this disparagement, a condescension I find even in Milan Kundera, a novelist I love and who helped shape my worldview, but whose blind spots are painful to me. Kundera describes kitsch in more than one place as an attitude of fundamental "agreement with Being," and between the lines it is hard not to read an aggrieved impatience, as if with something pitiably lacking in experience. This is not just the sad head-shaking of a mild curmudgeon, but the twitch of one who suspects every ontology of harboring an ideology. (Kitsch is the "denial of shit," Kundera explains in what is still his masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. John Berger took him to task for this, in an essay called, appropriately, "A Load of Shit." Far be it from me to dream of adjudicating between two such giants. I would just point out that Kundera's stance obviously finds the "unacceptable" in the realm of aesthetics, which is not so much an answer as an avoidance of the problem.)

Well, I had got about this far in my reaction when I noticed a kind of twitch of my own. Something was out of place. And as I sat with it, it came into focus: Who am I kidding? Me, an unqualified "affirmer of life"? Ha! I am a little, and more than a little, "fed up" with the world. I have moods in which I can summon a "critique of existence" that would make a Manichean blanch and teach anti-natalists a thing or two. The universe is indeed endlessly plentiful, "full of a number of things," things like the inventiveness of police interrogators, serial killers, and psychopathic parents; of mold spores that consume spiders from within, and wasps who lay eggs in living caterpillars, to say nothing of the more mundanely red-in-tooth-&-claw nature. There are sailors trapped in sunken, slowly imploding submarines; there are children who awaken to a rocket exploding their house, their parents or siblings or themselves shredded into pieces. There are suicides and lifetimes of regret, there are brilliant minds dwindling into the twilight of demetia, there are car accidents and and fatal undiagnosed birth defects, tsunamis and earthquakes. And there are "lesser" sufferings: failed love affairs, disappointments and betrayals, misunderstandings and victimizations arising out of a thousand different tangled motives and half-motives and lazinesses and bad luck. To all of this I remain deeply and entrenchedly unreconciled. I am unreconciled, indeed, to a universe that has so much as a skinned knee in it. I would say incorrigibly unreconciled, if I did not believe (or remember that I believe) that "for God all things are possible."

I spend a great deal of time with children whose disappointments and concerns can look laughable from my going-on-50 years, and I remember all too keenly the anxiety or fear or pain I felt over matters that seemed like the end of the world. The fact that they pass into triviality does not negate the angst of the child who has lost a toy, or the awkward teen with her face breaking out, or the kid so afraid of being punished that he tells a lie. Part of me is walking away from Omelas well before anyone has been tortured in a broom closet. An evil need not be irrevocable to be unacceptable, because the band-aid and mother's kiss that makes the skinned knee "OK" is not different in kind from the imagined reconciliation of all things that Ivan Karamazov so politely declines to welcome. In these moods, I call Ivan a wuss. In these moods I am what Arjuna was called: Bibhatsu ("he-who feels repugnance," Calasso translates). Don't talk to me about "Nay-saying." Look the fucking monster in the eye.

And yet. There is a snag. The problem of evil is deep, very, very deep, deeper by far than any suspect who think it is a knock-down argument against the existence of God (or a good God, anyway). And this is because to feel the problem as a problem (as opposed to a kind of existential neuropathy) entails an answering awareness of what could be the case instead. Think about the problem of evil very long and if you are honest it will land you smack in the middle of what Amod Lele calls, with admirable symmetry, the problem of Good. (That "think about it" is crucial.) Notwithstanding all my repugnance, there is yet a gulf fixed between me and Thomas Ligotti's verdict:
In a state of anhedonia, everything is revealed in its true purposelessness and inanity. ...[A]nhedonia...is an eminently rational state.... Emotion gives an illusory focus and meaning to our lives. When the feeling is gone, so is that sense. This sense is a motivator yet it also fools you into thinking that something is important when it’s not in the least .... I couldn't possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists.... humans can’t handle unpleasant realities and what those realities are. But we’re predisposed not to think about those things in a way that will affect how we live, or to think about them at all in most cases.
Now here is some repugnance one can sink one's teeth into. Ligotti isn't merely saying that life is pointless, but that everyone who denies this -- and that means pretty much everybody tout court -- is simply mired in a kind of laughable self-deception. Laughable, or enviable, but Ligotti says it with a snarl that turns envy into resentment and resentment into disdain. One can feel a legitimate pity for Ligotti's awful situation, since anhedonia is obviously by definition a Hell-state; one can feel a kind of admiration for him, too, as he has turned his affliction into an occasion for deeply unsettling horror fiction, and has honed his craft until he's one of the finest writers in the genre, and, by some standards, beyond it. But both the admiration and the pity may well miss the point -- may be evasions of the point. After all, one can ask: Is the reason for the chasm between me and Ligotti simply that I am not anhedonic? That my brain is one way and his another? And doesn't this slip aside of the question of who is right?

Well, that is one answer and possibly close to what Ligotti himself would offer; but it's an answer that prescinds from the very notion of giving reasons for answers; its explanation is not on the same level as the question. It cheats itself out of the right to a little word there in the first sentence of the quote above, without which, its position deflates into a mere mistake (though not a stupid or an easily-avoidable one). You know the word in question: it's the four-letter word "true."

I found myself thinking of this issue of "world-critique" when I re-read an old post on Transcendence by Amod Lele at Love of All Wisdom. Lele is not writing about the radical pessimism Ligotti exemplifies, but rather about those forms of political or anti-political critique which see something amiss in the world and set themselves to fix it. One of Lele's main exhibits is Marxism, but he is at pains to underline the similarities between this and any spiritual "Ascent" tradition which sees something lacking in the ordinary, real world, and wants to transcend it. Some of this underlies a continuing, on-again off-again conversation between Lele and myself about gnosticism, immanence and transcendence, a little of which is explored in the second part of my interview with him, and some of which is touched on in the comments to an earlier post on Eric Voegelin. For Lele, "transcendence" goes along with finding the world bad. Either you want to get the Hell out, or you want to rebuild it from the ground up. In either case, it's what he glosses as "hatred of this world." But the point here is not, if I can put it so baldly, the "world," but the "hatred." For Voegelin, "gnosticism" is primarily a mark not of a kind of cosmology, but of a response to an existential experience of alienation. Of feeling alone, adrift, at odds. "A little bit fed up...", or more than a little. "Against the world, against life."

Christianity has always been scolded for being "world-denying," for flirting with gnosticism, and this despite its tooth-and-nail fight against the gnostics (a fight that, weirdly, also gets them bad press from a sector or would-be world "affirmers"). But what it has in common with gnosticism is what it has in common with ancient thought generally: Christianity affirms that there is a kind of story to the world. Like all ancient ways of thinking, its categories are narrative. Ray Brassier is commendably succinct in contending that dispensing with narrative is the way in which contemporary scientism, which he does not shrink from naming nihilism, differs from all past modes of thought:
conceptual rationality weans itself from the narrative structures that continue to prevail in theology and theologically inflected metaphysics. This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms.... the very category of narrative...has been rendered cognitively redundant by modern science.
I've said before that if there is (as I maintain) a truth to the ancient way of being and thinking, it is on the level of theme, not of plot. This is a distinction I took from C.S. Lewis; "plot" is just what happens in a story; "theme" is the world of the story, its whole gestalt, its "what-it's-like;" what gaming nerds call the flavor rather than the mechanics. I won't argue for this distinction, let alone my deployment of it, here; you can go read the two earlier posts for some of that. Here I want to note that the steely nihilism for which Brassier is justly renowned is, of course, also a theme, a theme of bleakness and the little blip of our meaningless lives in the Universe which just roils on, until it doesn't. To point this out is not some kind of logical gotcha -- I may have my correlationist moments, but I'm not stupid -- but it's worth noticing that this theme is enjoying an upsurge of interest and popularity. I don't assume that this means that "our cultural moment", or whatever, is any more deeply "fed up" with the world than any other; the obvious and overt nihilism of a culture is rarely the deepest symptom of its decadence. But I am interested in the recent philosophical intersections of horror and nihilism -- in particular, in the fixation in some quarters on all things "Dark," a thematics which, one cannot help but notice, frequently helps itself to all manner of associations deriving from precisely the "mythological" heritage of thought which Brassier says science is leaving behind. This is one place where Lovecraft's influence is overt, and "weirdly" mixed with the very different heritage of apophaticism -- a world-transcendence of another sort. I'll treat this somewhat in the next post.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Signal to noise

I've maintained before that the claim in Socrates' defense concerning what sort of life is worth living is not simply an exhortation to a certain ideal; it is a therapeutic rejoinder to the morose conclusion of the tragic world view according to which "not to be born is best, and next best is to die soon." My contention is that Socrates actually concedes that the "worthwhileness" if life is not a foregone conclusion, but holds that there is a good life, and that its sine qua non is (in the usual translation, with which I won't quibble for now) "examination."

Nietzsche famously faulted Socrates for his diagnosis of life, most obviously in The Gay Science, 340: his account of the hemlock scene. He takes Socrates to task for (Nietzsche thinks) construing life as a disease one needs curing of; hence, Nietzsche thinks, Socrates' assertion that he owes a sacrifice of thanks to Asclepius. For all his polemics and his posturing as Anti-Christ, Nietzsche's first and last opponent is Socrates; and here, in his stance as an affirmer of life, he exhorts: "O my friends, we must overcome even the Greeks!"

So it is really quite something to remember that Nietzsche also names a sine qua non. This Yea-sayer, this prophet of amor fati, declares that there is after all one thing without which life would be, well, not worth living:
Without music, life would be a mistake.
(Twilight of the Idols 33.)
This is not an anomaly in Nietzsche, who engaged at the beginning and the end of his career with the most looming musical genius of his era; who at the end of his life signed his letters Dionysius, the god of that very art which his first book had said was born "out of the spirit of music." Nietzsche is probably the most musical of all modern philosophers, the one for whom music is most central to his thought, more so even than Schopenhauer before him, or Adorno or Marcel after. (His own compositions, despite the sneers they got from Wagner, still hold up.)

A great deal depends upon how much difference one discerns between Nietzsche's sine qua non and Socrates'. For some, it's an open and shut case: they're diametrically opposed, 180 degrees apart! But others (and by no means the least Nietzschean) may say -- not "no difference at all!", but perhaps -- "180 degrees in what space?" For the space of reasons is not necessarily Euclidean. And neither is the space of music.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"We need ideas sufficiently different from our own": Interview with Amod Lele, part 2

This is the second half of an interview I conducted with Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom and the Indian Philosophy Blog, not to mention Boston University. In the exchange below, a number of threads from that first half are picked up, so I commend that first half to anyone who wonders to what any given remark is apropos. In the preamble to the first half, I introduced Lele, so I will direct you there for more background. I also detailed the genesis and manner of the interview process. It may be useful to remind readers that this text is a composite, made by merging a written exchange and a transcript of a voice conversation.

It remains for me to express my thanks again to Lele for being so game to engage in this. Some of my questions were simply aimed at clarifying, but I also hoped to do some in-the-moment thinking-through of problems, and I deeply appreciate Lele's willingness to go along with the process, in particular since, as he knew well, I had not tried this sort of thing before.

Comments are of course welcome on both halves of the interview.

* * *

Skholiast: You mentioned that your encounter and engagement with Buddhism was initially via Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand. This is not the way most westerners have met Buddhism -- usually in the form of Japanese Zen or more recently, one of the Tibetan lineages. You have remained strongly aware of the historical development of Buddhism and the differences between the traditions. I take it this is a matter, for you, of historical accuracy and aptness, and not simply a short temper with western "orientalism"? How has your account and critique of "Yavanayāna Buddhism" developed out of this historical and/or doctrinal concern?

Amod Lele: One of the more appealing things to me about Buddhism in Thailand was the idea of focusing on one’s own liberation. The political utilitarianism I’d inhabited up to that point had said what you were supposed to do was help everyone else get up to your level of external goods – even though at that very level I was completely miserable. I appreciated a system that gave good treatment of others its due, but acknowledged saving yourself as the ultimate goal – something a typical Western view would have condemned as “selfish”. At the very least, I saw it working on the the airplane-oxygen-mask principle: you need to save yourself to save anyone else. The contrasting idea that one might delay one’s own liberation to save others (as Mahāyāna is sometimes taken to say) struck me as something that could get in the way of that message I had found in Theravāda. In addition, I was still nonplussed by the proliferation of godlike Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, when one of the things that had first made me curious about Buddhism was that it wasn’t all about a god. So I viewed Mahāyāna with a lot more skepticism. I’ve learned a lot more from Mahāyāna in the ensuing years and these ideas no longer repel me in the same way, but what endures is a respect for Buddhist sectarianism. These differences between traditions matter, they mean something. The idea of Yavanayāna Buddhism seems to me a natural outgrowth of that point. The Buddhism of a Stephen Batchelor or a Henry Steel Olcott or even an S.N. Goenka is very different from the Buddhisms of Dōgen and Tsong kha pa and Buddhaghosa, just as they are all different from each other. And that matters too. One is often tempted to add that they are “not better or worse, just different”, but I think it is more accurate to say “both better and worse – and different.”

S: This remark you made about Theravāda is quite striking – the emphasis on taking responsibility for your own spiritual attainment. As if it were a kind of French existentialism, with a very different cosmology. And it feels like the question of cosmology is kind of what it comes down to – this notion that after all, the king talking to the monk is on a path, or a part of the path, that’s very different from where stands the person who’d be quite willing to take the kingdom – this notion that one can in some way sketch out a rough hierarchy (is that too strong a word?) of people, of stages of the soul – that is already a very, very different assumption from the common assumptions of liberalism – which wants that whole question to just go away.

A.L.: That’s right. But where there’s a real power in liberalism, a way that it can be beneficial, is that liberalism at its best is willing to say: “You can go ahead and establish that hierarchy of stages of the path, you can say that some people are better than others in some respects; you may even establish voluntary institutions organized around that principle. But what you can’t do is enforce that hierarchy outside the institution – or even, within certain economic institutions, where participation is at some level involuntary, because people have to work to eat.” And if one understands liberalism in that way, there are positive affinities between Buddhism and liberalism. Liberalism tends to say that religion is something in the private sphere. This is a very difficult claim to make about some – well, Christianity is in an interesting middle position here, but for, say, Islam, or Confucianism, or Dharmashastra in Indian ethics, it’s harder. Insofar as we’re going to recognize these as religions at all, which I think in the case of Islam we have to if the term religion is going to mean anything, that is not a viable position for them. One way or another, one of the fundamental tenets of Islam is that God commands justice; to not work for that divine justice is a shirking of your responsibility. But that’s not the case for Buddhism, especially not for Theravāda Buddhism. One of the interesting things about a Theravāda perspective (and similarly in a Jain perspective; they’re closely linked historically): to say that “religion,” which we’re going to identify with this tradition, goes into a private sphere—there’s not a whole lot of problem with that. There might be, to the extent that, say—nowadays there are protests against Christmas displays in shopping malls, and a similar protest might be lodged against visible Theravāda monks going about on their alms rounds; so once objections to religion in the public square go to, not merely religion affecting politics, but religion being visible at all publically, then it starts to clash with the practice of Theravāda Buddhism. But to say religions should keep their noses out of politics—that’s easier for a Theravādin than for most people who adhere to what we typically identify as religions.

S: In your thinking, the ascent - descent axis is complemented with a second one, derived from the work of Thomas Kasulis, that runs between the poles of integrity and intimacy. (I am struck by a sociological or anthropological dimension here -- perhaps not unrelated to your reading of Collins' Sociology of Philosophies.)

Is this 2-D map with its four quadrants -- integrity-ascent, integrity-descent, intimacy-ascent, intimacy-descent -- intended in your mind to give a relatively exhaustive taxonomy of philosophical dispositions? And, perhaps even more importantly, ought we to hope that it will help us adjudicate among them, or will it only be a classificatory tool?

A.L.: I suppose it depends on what we mean by “exhaustive”. Yes in the sense that I would hope we could helpfully place any existing philosophy somewhere between these ideal types. (I am not currently sure that we can – I am struggling with the case of Daoism, which I think may complicate the ascent-descent axis a lot – but that was the intent.) Not in the sense that one can exhaust the philosophies by placing them on the axes; there’s a ton that isn’t captured by them.

But yes, it is intended to be more than classificatory. My description of these as ideal types is indeed sociological, since it’s explicitly derived from Max Weber (my first two degrees were in sociology). But the intent of having those classifications is to go somewhere Weber never would have: to try and pull together a dialectical synthesis of a very wide range of philosophies, by synthesizing the opposing positions on two of the conflicts that divide them the most.

S: One of the places I have worked hardest to think along with you has been with regards to the axis of intimacy-integrity. You have noted yourself that this axis could be critiqued as conflating epistemological and ontological concerns: there are (it could be argued) two different issues -- a question of knowledge (is it personal and affective, or public and cognitive?), and a question of being, which curiously seems to come down to a doctrine of relations (are they "internal" to their relata, or "external," so that the relata could exist without those particular relations?) I am on record myself as holding that as a practical matter, ontology and epistemology are always mutually-entailing; but I am very impressed by your point that this particular "axis" of things and relations does seem to be distinguishable from other aspects of Kasulis' dichotomy. In fact, your explanation of why in the last resort you think they ought not to be separated is very much bound up with some of my rationale for linking ontology and epistemology -- or phenomenology. But in fact, this pairing seems meta-stable to me: neither absolutely separable, nor absolutely identifiable. It feels to me much like the "two" sides of a Klein bottle.
And it occurs to me that ascent and descent may actually be similar. These are "practical" terms -- they describe a kind of motion of the soul's aspiration -- from general to particular, or vice-versa; in this respect they are very like intimacy and integrity, in that they could be taken to name values. Obviously, though, this can also match an ontology, which may or may not map onto the practice in a one-to-one way. I think what I am getting at is close to what people mean by "Transcendence" and "Immanence". One might think that Immanence always goes along with descent, and Transcendence with ascent, but -- and here I hope you will forgive some very rough-&-ready use of what are, no doubt, problematic categories -- the example of the Christian-gnostic dispute (about which I have left hanging a comment exchange with you on my blog) points out the non-straightforwardness of this: Both Gnostics and Christians ostensibly affirm a "transcendent" power beyond this world; but this does not make them both "ascenders", for despite the later critique which insists that Christianity is mired in world- and body-denigration, the stakes for which Christianity fought the gnostics were the goodness of the world and the body. Similarly, although Immanence is the watchword for Deleuze's reading of Spinoza, one can make a strong case that Spinoza is an ascender. Deleuze himself, I think, is not; Laruelle, even less so. So it would seem that an ontology of transcendence or immanence can be at least provisionally distinguished from a spiritual aspiration of ascent or descent. Yet here again, I would not advocate adding another axis – and not simply because we don’t want to multiply dimensions until our conceptual coordinate space resembles string theory. Rather, it seems to me that these hybrids indicate where ontology and ascesis actually turn into, or occasion, each other.

A.L.: There’s a lot in this question (if it can be called that). A huge appeal of intimacy-integrity and ascent-descent as axes for me is that, unlike other perennial questions (say, free will) they go “all the way down”; they entail not only epistemology (/logic) and ontology (/metaphysics), but ethics and aesthetics and even politics. They tie a philosophy together. So in intimacy and integrity there is also that practical dimension: the Confucians take a strong intimacy approach, according to which the good emerges in our relationships, in a way distinct from both integrity descenders like Locke and Rand (individuals have rights and the good emerges from their worldly needs) and integrity ascenders like the Jains (we need to separate from the cruft of the world and abide in transcendental aloneness). That’s actually why I found it so important to pull out the ontological dimension of Kasulis’s distinction from the epistemological; out of his five criteria for identifying intimacy, four are epistemological, but it’s the remaining, ontological one that really feeds the practical philosophy.

On transcendence, one of the important points I see is the distinction between transcendence and the transcendent. That relates to another dichotomy I’ve discussed, between ātmanism and encounter – which, I realize as soon as I say it, I got from you. Within those philosophies that posit a transcendent reality, the questions: what is our relation to it? Do we need to ourselves transcend, to become transcendent beings, as the Jains and Buddhists and Gnostics would have it? Or do we simply need to love and admire that transcendent being “from below”, as Lévinas or Sirhindī or Ramprasad Sen would insist?

S: I’d like to back up now, back to where we started, to the cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ambitions we mentioned at the beginning, and ask you about your conception of what philosophy is generally. Your work obviously attends to traditions that are often billed as “religions” – a notion I note you do not make much use of. Moreover, your work has both a scholarly and an original dimension. Do you think – to put it slightly portentously —that these sorts of border-crossings are a necessity for philosophy in our time? Does it seem to you that “philosophy” as a general term remains meaningful and useful beyond western civilization, or are notions like “Chinese philosophy” more or less travesties and conceptual colonialism? (I think I know – generally – what you will say here, but I’m curious to see if I am to be surprised, at least in the details). More generally, do you think there is any sense in speaking of philosophy itself – a trans-cultural and trans-historical activity? And if so, what does it entail?

A.L.: I retain the literal sense of philosophy as the love of wisdom, thus my blog’s title; though I think philosophy does require the more specific sense of reasoning of some sort. Unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom is not philosophy, though faith-seeking-understanding is. I’m not enough of an anthropologist to say whether this is a human universal, but I suspect not, in that challenging received wisdom can be something of a luxury; when it’s a real question whether you can feed your family, you’ll probably just think what you’re supposed to think, and that’s as much wisdom as you need.
I find myself quite unimpressed by ideas like “conceptual colonialism” – even when applied to India, but far more so for China and Japan, which were not actually colonized. I’ve long been troubled by the prevalence of, for lack of a better word, white guilt: that is, in this context, the idea that a history of racism and colonialism means that the West and its categories should be assumed wrong, as if racism and colonialism were not things other cultures indulged in when they had the chance. “Philosophy” is of course not a word native to Asia, but neither is any other word in the English language. Translation is always a tricky business, but I think the word “philosophy” in this sense does a fine job of capturing what Rāmānuja and Xunzi and Dōgen are doing.

I suppose if it were of the utmost importance to us to get beyond the categories of colonial Englishmen (and I do think there’s something of value in such a project), what we would have to do above all is not write in English – or any of the other languages of the European colonial powers. In Marathi it’s natural to write about the work of Kant or Plato as tattvajñāna, and doing so would probably lead one to think differently about it, in a productive way. It’s my impression that there is a lot of really exciting stuff being done in modern Chinese right now. But I don’t know whether my Chinese will ever be good enough to access it! I suppose one helpful thing we can do is read people like Nishitani Keiji and Mou Zongsan, who wrote and thought about European ideas in Japanese and Chinese but are now being translated into English. Even though the end result is in English, the thought that produced it did not take place in English, and that can help us see beyond blinkers that the English language might otherwise impose on us.

S: So, your dissertation is available online, and you have publicly renounced any aspirations for a usual academic career, though it is plain that you enjoy teaching and find your work rewarding. Beyond your very successful blog (or perhaps in tandem with it) have you writing projects you care to share anything about?

A.L.: That should probably be “blogs”, plural – it’s tempting to rank the Indian Philosophy Blog as more of a success than Love of All Wisdom, because it’s more widely read and generates more engagement. I’ve also got an article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics, and a bibliography on Hindu ethics, currently in press. I have an article on intimacy and integrity in the works, and have been planning to write a methodological article on Alasdair MacIntyre as well. There’s more at the idea stages, too, but with the limited time I have to write this stuff I should probably focus on these more concrete plans.

S: Is there anything at all you’d like to share or speculate upon that hasn’t been touched on yet?

A.L.: A theme I noticed while answering these questions was how many times I wound up saying “I reacted to x negatively at first but eventually came to it”: Doull, Buddhist anti-politics, a philosophy tied to “religion”. I suppose that says something about my personality. In some ways my way of really engaging with something is to react against it. And I do find truth often emerges from conflict. That’s another theme I see coming up here, in the questions about Buddhist sectarianism and Ayn Rand: the differences between traditions can be productive in our attempts to find truth. I’ve been talking a lot with another friend who finds my ideas on hermeneutics a little weird, specifically the idea that one reads texts most productively by letting them challenge oneself (he even calls that the “Lele Doctrine”). But that’s certainly been what I’ve found: we need ideas sufficiently different from our own that they shock us enough to react against them (though not so different that we can’t even imagine what their truth would mean). In my experience at least, I’d say that’s how we really learn, that’s how we grow.

S: What I’ve noticed, as we’ve been talking, is that the conversation has turned in a political direction more frequently than I’d anticipated.

A.L.: Yes, I was noticing that too.

S: The return of the repressed.

A.L.: Ha!

S: So this does play into a question I find personally pressing, which I mentioned, and which I want to press further. There’s the issue of what philosophy is; and then there’s the issue of our moment in philosophy. Of course, Hegel thinks that, on some level, there’s no difference, really, because philosophy just is the articulation of its own historical moment; and the recapitulation of that in a broad vision – a system – to oversimplify, not to say Bowdlerize, Hegel. But I’m struck by – well, I’m a perennialist; and I really believe – if pressed, I’d go to the wall and say that philosophy is the really the same wherever you find it. (Not its answers but its concerns). And that it – philosophy – is always possible – though sometimes it’s more difficult than in other cultural situations. But the particular moment and circumstance of philosophy does change, and part of its historical task is to keep itself possible. So I wonder – a lot of this discussion we’ve been having about the encounter of religions with politics, the encounter of religions with one another—does this feel to you like some kind of essential work for philosophy now?

A.L.: Yes. That’s the short answer. The longer answer will probably be a lot more roundabout. It’s important to keep in mind that for Hegel, philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought, but that’s also an advance towards the truth. There’s an interesting question, in a Hegelian perspective, of what the task would be for someone who aspires to be a philosopher, who does not happen to be German, or even more so, does not happen to be a Westerner.

S: Ooh, yeah. Tough luck!

A.L.: (Laughs) Well, yeah, but it’s a real and interesting question. And now that I think of it, that question becomes very real and practical for Hegel’s most devoted applied followers, the Marxists. Their question, which was once upon a time a very live one, was, Can you skip stages and go straight to socialism? Or do you have to go through capitalism and perhaps even feudalism? And I’m not sure the answer is clear, from Hegel’s own work. He’s writing supposedly from the top of the heap, so his task is clear. But if I’m a Japanese intellectual in 1850, and I’ve got an education in the west and picked up Hegel, or someone’s just translated him into Japanese – what should I be doing, when I’m in this place that’s not in the forefront of philosophy? How should I handle that? I’m not sure that’s a question Hegel really asks. Should I be trying to make a sort of synthesis of my Buddhist, my Shinto society, with Hegelian philosophy? Or should I be trying to get it to the beginning of the process – to get beyond “Oriental despotism” and just into classical Greece and start there, so that we can move the process on? I don’t think he pays much attention to that question. This is one of the reasons I like to say that Hegel is strong with respect to time, and weak with respect to space.

S: I just encountered a claim by Watsuji Tetsuro. He says the same thing, about Heidegger. Heidegger does not emphasize space enough. And it strikes me – though this may not be where you’re going – this is about ascent and decent. If, say, the Marxists were mistaken, and you couldn’t pole-vault over feudalism or capitalism, and that’s why the socialist experiments collapsed in different ways – part of this seems to be attributable to a lack of attention to the particular.

A.L.: Hmmm…. Yeah, that’s right. Marx makes for an interesting take on the whole ascent-and-descent question. There’s a sense in which there’s a universal there, that rides over particularities, and yet it’s a peculiar kind of historically situated universal, which some would argue is not all that universal in the first place. Doull has an argument which sees Marxism as almost of a piece with liberal individualism, because there’s a way in which it takes the individual’s own desires as paramount. He’s looking, in particular, less at Capital than at Marx’s early philosophical writings, especially that paragraph where Marx comes closest to envisioning what the ideal society might look like, and talks about this place where I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon…and criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” From Doull’s perspective, this is very like utilitarianism, in the sense that it’s a universalism of particularity, and takes human desire and self-expression, and elevates that to a universal, rather than have a universal that transcends individuals. This is bringing me back to -- there are several concepts which I’ve mentioned on the blog, which are related to each other, but not identical: ascent is one of them; transcendence is another; single-mindedness is another. There’s a very uneasy connection between them. Stalinism is a very single-minded philosophy, but not one that is –

S: Not “pure of heart!”

A.L.: No, not pure of heart, but who is? But whether Stalinism counts as a philosophy of ascent, or transcendence, is less clear to me, because it is so this-worldly; it takes the things of this world as its goal; not aspiring to a higher truth beyond that, in a way that I think even Hegel does. The truth in Hegel aspires to comprehend the earlier stages in a way Stalin’s doesn’t.

S: I think I may have cut you off earlier, when we were talking about the question of what is philosophy’s job now.

A.L.: Yes, thanks for bringing me back to that. To me, a lot of this comes out of the question of who does philosophize, and who needs it? There are many people who live good lives and don’t need philosophy. Those people tend to be in positions which are, intellectually, relatively unproblematic. The need for philosophy comes out when there are really big questions, that are not resolved. Often there are questions unresolved within a given tradition – I think that’s basically what analytic philosophy does. I view it as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition, and I don’t say that as a pejorative. There’s a place for scholasticism, and liberalism can have it and should have it – liberalism, and scientism, I suppose. But we are now in an age when we have unprecedented access to a wide variety of other traditions. And we’re recognizing, much more than before, I think, that they have found answers, which the western tradition has not necessarily found, and that we don’t know, yet, which answers are correct or where the correct answers are going to come from. I think it is really the task of the time, to be comparative philosophers, I think that’s what’s most urgently needed. It doesn’t fit very well in the academic disciplinary divisions, which is one reason I’m just as happy not to have a faculty career. But I’ve noticed – Macintyre, in some of his latest work has tentatively taken a few steps to starting to explore Confucianism. That’s difficult for someone who thinks that to really do something with a tradition you need to learn it as a “second first language.” But he’s trying, with Confucianism. In the second edition to A Short History of Ethics, he says “I should mention, this isn’t actually a short history of ethics, it’s a short history of Western ethics.” And Heidegger, you know, actually translated the Daodejing, or at least part of it, but never published it. I’m trying to recall the details, but someone – I think Gadamer—says “you have to understand, for a man of Heidegger’s generation, you would never say anything about a tradition that you knew so little about.” You had to really get into it deeply, to understand it. I don’t think Heidegger got there in his lifetime, but he recognized the need to try. Since Hegel, there’s been a recognition that non-western philosophy has to fit somewhere; by now, translations have reached a good enough point, and secondary scholarship, descriptive and explanatory scholarship has reached a good enough point, that it becomes possible for people to start really thinking constructively about other traditions. You notice, even someone like Sam Harris starts talking about mindfulness meditation, wanting to have a denaturalized Buddhism, somewhere in his militantly atheist philosophy. And Michael Puett’s over-enrolled class in Confucian ethics, as one of the most popular courses at Harvard now. There are these straws in the wind, that indicate that philosophy cannot go on just remaining western philosophy anymore; the alternatives present themselves too urgently. Academic philosophers with tenure can go on ignoring nonwestern philosophy, because their imperatives are their own, and they may just go on within their scholasticism. But insofar as they do that, they make themselves irrelevant to the way the world is going. Especially at a time when it’s hard to imagine China’s GDP not overtaking the US’s within our lifetimes – a time when the United States is so paralyzed by its own political dysfunction – we may move to a world no longer so unipolar, and where for the first time in centuries, one of those poles is not European. Figuring out what to do with Asian philosophy and western philosophy and the relationship between us, probably is the philosophical task of our time.

S: Americans’ multicultural competence, despite the ascendancy of that term, seems low and getting lower – our facility in other languages is not high, and – I mean, if Heidegger thought he was not competent! Most of us cannot touch the hem of his garment. And yet – there may be a bright side to the smorgasbord approach; emboldened by not knowing how incompetent we are, we are in general doubtless not so deep as Heidegger; but lacking his scruples we may be able to gain some ground he didn’t dare approach. Of course, we will still require depth to secure it; but maybe it’s good not to be so cowed by the centuries.

A.L.: I think there is actually something wrong with Heidegger’s reluctance to engage Chinese tradition in that way, and to some extent there’s a critique to be made of MacIntyre here: this idea that you have to learn a tradition as a “second first language” to be competent in it – well, who’s MacIntyre’s model? Thomas Aquinas. By some accounts, at least, Aquinas didn’t know any Greek; and yet became one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Aristotle, and founded this newly re-energized tradition of Aristotelianism which MacIntyre thinks is supremely worthy of emulation.

And conversely: the scholarship on Asian religions and Asian philosophy for the past thirty, forty years, has increasingly become this mind-numbingly dull drumbeat of a critique of everybody who’s talked about the subject before, of people like Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan: saying “Ha, ha, look at these stupid people and how wrong they all got it. Aren’t we so great because we’re so much smarter, and we know the tradition really wasn’t that way?” And yet, the thing about that line of critique is that there’s very rarely any sort of constructive alternative advanced—

S: It doesn’t tell us what they tradition was, just what it wasn’t.

A.L.: Well, they do kind of try to tell us what the tradition was; but what they don’t try to tell us is what the tradition could be. What Roy and Vivekananda, and Walpola Rahula, and Olcott, and [Anagarika] Dharmapala, and all of those people who get taken as whipping-boys today – what they were trying to do was re-invigorate their traditions, and provide them with the resources to be constructive contributors to the dialogue of the world. I read all this stuff from Don Lopez, and all these other people from the past forty years, as basically saying “shut up, go back in your hole, you can’t do that, the real tradition was what was there in 1500” – in a way that closes off that dialogue. It tries to portray these people, people like Vivekananda, as orientalists who had no respect for their tradition. But it seems to me that it’s people like Lopez who have a much deeper disrespect for the tradition, in that they want to pose this radical disjuncture, where the tradition is somehow not allowed to change and update itself. I think what was really going on – well, the problem with Vivekananda and so on was that they didn’t really have enough of a historical awareness, they weren’t quite willing to admit that they were doing something new. But I think that where we need to go now is a willingness to do something new. Nobody now, or at least, very few people now, and certainly not scholars of Buddhism like Lopez, will ever tell you that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate because it made all these incredible modifications to Indian Buddhism, to the point that it was completely unrecognizable compared to what the historical Buddha would have taught – even though it did all that. There are many ways in which the gap between Pali Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism is much larger than the gap between Pali Buddhism and the Buddhism of an Olcott or a Dharmapala. They’ll never say that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate, but they’re so ready to dump on, you know, modern hippie Buddhism, and say, well, that’s illegitimate. Even when it differs less. So part of that philosophical task, of constructive dialogue now, is accepting that some sort of modification of a tradition is a legitimate part of that tradition. While giving the respect that we want to give to the ancients, we should be ready to accept some amount of modification, change, perhaps even modernization, and reasoned differentiation. And I’m seeing some encouraging signs, in books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and David McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism, where people are saying, for instance: “Yes, what Ram Mohan was doing was something different from what came before him, but he also wasn’t just making it up. He was reading quite widely and thoroughly, he was engaged in the debates of his time, and cognizant of the debates going on in this world that really wasn’t influenced by the British. He was bringing them into this British environment, and made of them something different by doing so, but something that still had a connection to the tradition that came before it.”

S: I need hardly say that the same task is very pressing, though different and difficult to see in some ways because we sit in the midst of its cultural matrix, in terms of Christianity. An urgent requirement: to be able to authentically continue something, rather than merely repeat, or merely cut off at the roots.

A.L.: Christian theologians make for a good guide in all of this, because they have been thinking about it longer. The Asians have been confronting these issues for two or three centuries, but in the West it goes back considerably further than that, and these kinds of historical, methodological questions emerged in the context of Christianity, and especially in the rise of Biblical criticism. So I think it is people like MacIntyre, and Bernard Lonergan, and Charles Taylor, and James Doull, who all very much see themselves as Christian, who are methodological lodestars for those of us who do not see ourselves as Christian, and are trying to find interpretations of other traditions. Our path will not be their path, but if it’s going to be any good, it needs to be informed by theirs.

(The first half of this interview is here)