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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eleven from '11

Top four most visited posts of 2011:

Bullshit again
Eucatastrophe vs. Yog-Sothery
Occupy Wall Street: the supply of demands
We have still never been modern

Seven of my own favorites, either because they got some good discussion, or because I got something off my chest, or just because:

The stone (on Holy Saturday)
Homeopathic immortality
Beyond alienation

No overlap. The public is an ass.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sir Michael Dummett, RIP

I learned from Brandon at Siris that Sir Michael Dummett has died.

It is too often the foolish caricature of Analytic philosophy that it contents itself with the question of the meanings and syntax of statements and has stepped back from the grand questions--the questions the "man in the street" thinks of then the word "philosophy" comes up: questions of the nature of space and time, of the relation between truth and appearance, and the meaning of life. Dummett--a student of Quine, a specialist on Frege--was unapologetic about the "linguistic turn" in one way; he maintained that
Other forms of intellectual enquiry seek to determine which propositions are true. Metaphysics seeks to determine what it is for them to be true. (Thought and Reality, p23)
This meant that metaphysics had
to unravel the nature of propositions – of the thoughts we are capable of thinking.(ibid.)
But Dummett did not believe we needed to stop there, and he provided over the years many explorations into the question of time, of ethics, and indeed of the existence of God, for which he resuscitated the usually scoffed-at argument of Berkeley. I'll add parenthetically that I consider this ability to make use of discarded and discredited arguments one of the signs of the catholicity of thought that philosophy requires--a feeling at ease with the whole stream of the millennia-long conversation and an indifference (which is not the same as hostility) to contemporary trends.

Somewhat presciently, he ruminated in his book on The Nature and Future of Philosophy that
It is by no means obvious that universities...should support philosophy but for historical precedent. If universities had been an invention of the second half of the twentieth century, would anyone have thought to include philosophy among the subjects that they taught and studied? It seems very doubtful.
Dummett attributed the continuing existence of philosophy departments to the inertia of tradition; but as the last few years have shown, when pressed down against the bottom line with the heel of the call for "results" on their throat, universities will be ready to cut loose from tradition without thinking twice.

He had a wide range of other interests. I remember my astonishment years ago when a friend informed me that Dummett had written two books of the tarot deck. I have read A Wicked Pack of Cards, and while I am not persuaded by him that there is no esoteric tradition behind the deck, Dummett makes a strong case that it was primarily a tool of recreation, not divination; and that it likely had its origin in the 15th century,pace the fanciful speculations of the 18th-century occultists (and their successors). (See his response to Frances Yates' review of The Game of Tarot.)

Maybe more significantly, Dummett did serious work in election theory; and he was for about half a century a champion against racism in the U.K. He and his wife co-founded the Institute of Race Relations in 1958. In 2001 Dummett was still at it, arguing that much European opposition to immigration was at least tacitly racist, this being particularly so in Britain. (When he was knighted, he called for the replacement of the entire staff of the British Home Office.)

I cannot of course demonstrate this, but I suspect that Dummett's work in this regard shared a root with his religious faith as a Roman Catholic, a confession he quietly maintained since the 1940's. Dummett was thoughtfully engaged with his faith in its doctrinal and its ritual dimensions. Staunchly in sympathy with the calls for a vernacular Mass, he was appalled by any number of other innovations that came in its wake. His essay on the matter (here) insists and laments:
Liturgy is an art form; one especially in the service of God, but an art form none the less.... [I am] one who for many years longed for the liturgy to be translated into the vernacular; and I was sustained by the thought that, when it happened, it would be carried out by people who would have such sensitivity to language.... Alas, it has been carried out by people with tin ears both for English and for Latin, who moreover thought themselves entitled to revise the liturgy when it did not please them, not just to translate it.
(This sort of thing will get knowing nods from the choir, and raise a "huh?" of incomprehension for the rest; that's fine.) Dummett did not restrict himself to questions of liturgical style. He defended the doctrine of Real Presence (while criticizing the Thomistic presentation thereof); he argued against the Roman church's position on contraception; he criticized modern philosophers for "worshiping" science and insisted that (as Ombhurbhuva reminded me in a comment on the last post)
the price of denying that God exists is to relinquish the idea that there is such a thing as how reality is in itself.
Dummett's colleague Philippa Foot, a professed atheist, recounted in an interview (included here) that she once asked him,
“What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?” And he said, “How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.”
But Dummett insisted his faith had experienced long periods of doubt, often brought on by reflection on the problem of evil, which, as he wryly conceded in his Gifford lectures, gave the atheists "a local argumentative advantage." In an autobiographical essay included in the book The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, he gives an account that will sound familiar to anyone who has done any of this wrestling:
I have undergone several periods when I have been overcome by such doubts; during them, I have not ceased to attend Sunday Mass, but have abstained from the sacraments. My doubts have always been global rather than local; my reasons for believing in God are philosophical rather than affective; they can suddenly strike me as unconvincing. ...But most usually my doubts have been engendered by what troubles everyone: can a world in which such suffering occurs be one made by a God who is said to love?...That world looks as if governed by uncaring forces. The pain of animals is a good example ...As for human pain, it is not its mere occurrence that has usually troubled me: after the Cross, no one can say to God, ‘You don’t know what it is like.’ ...What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyone’s soul is supposed to pass into eternity?
Dummett did not shy from the matter:
I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found...I remain a Catholic, and hope to die one.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ancilla theologiae ?

A word of clarification re. my theological posts. The subtitle of this blog is Open Letters on Philosophical Praxis. I take it for granted that philosophy is aimed at the cultivation of experience of a particular kind. There are plenty of snide ways of saying what philosophy is not (yawn yawn "grammatical analysis," "footnote-chasing," etc.), but it is obvious to me that these just name strategies of thought that have on occasion got out of their bottles; I'm not interested in breaking them on the wheel. What I [want to] do here is understood as keeping open the question of philosophy's status as ancilla theologiae. If it were not for the issue of "whose theology?" I would say there is no "question" about it; but theology proves itself to be both the willing and the unconscious handmaid herself of so many ideologies that considerable reticence is called for. In some moods, I would say that philosophy opens onto theology, that theology is the silent culmination of philosophy; but that leaves a great deal of talk which is certainly understood as theology, and this is the stuff I worry about.

In another mood I would suggest that, at least in our postmod situation, the handmaid is like Gorakhnath, and the onetime queen of the sciences is like Matsyendranath. These two sages from Medieval Indian lore are disciple and master respectively, but Matsyendranath once entered into a trance and is eventually found by Gorakhnath as an amnesiac prisoner in the retinue of the enchanting Queen of Ceylon (or is it 1,600 different queens? the stories differ). A brief recounting of this myth is found in a paper by Mircea Eliade here (reprinted as chapter VII in his book Myth and Reality.) The disciple disguises himself as a dancing girl and in a long and symbolic dance he recalls his teacher, by hints and gestures, to his right mind. (There is a whole range of hermeneutic and historical issues that this legend raises--questions about the roles of sex, sexuality, and gender in Indian religion, about the lineages of the Natha Sampradaya [an initiatic tradition, ascetic and in some cases tantric], its relation to Buddhism, and so on. You can see some of that explored in this post by Mike Magee, but I'm not getting into any of it here.) My illustration simply means; theology has forgotten itself. Philosophy is (in this analogy) a disciple; but its role today is in part to raise the issues that theology itself ought to; to convene theology; to call theology to itself.

This sets me apart from plenty of people whose work interests me quite a lot, I know. And there is of course a further tension: of its very nature, philosophy encounters aporiae which can be addressed by the response of faith, but to take this step is in some sense to leave philosophy behind. The philosopher would therefore always in some manner be aspiring to leave his own mode of existence qua philosopher. I do not think this tension can be resolved, at least not on its own level--the level (at least) of discourse. But it can be exploited, and exploited philosophically--that is, for the purposes of cultivating philosophical experience. By this phrase I mean, among other things, the entry into such tension or aporia fully, so that they inform ones whole life. This means, n.b., tha tone continues to "live"--to act politically, socially, and so on--i.e., without the caricature of "paralyzed thought" which supposedly skepticism brings on--though this may be a requisite stage, Socrates' stingray numbness (and let's face it, in one of its modes philosophy just is skepticism). Philosophy in the way I mean it (and this is the way the tradition going back--yes, pretty much continuously--to Plato means it) never lets go of the question quid sit deus?--but for philosophy at least, it remains a question.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

From Christmas to Easter, every Sunday

At Christmas Day Mass I can't help but be struck as was T.S. Eliot's Thomas Beckett in Murder in the Cathedral:
whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.
Eliot has Beckett remark to his flock, "Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion." But indeed, this is what the Church does every Sunday.

The Gloria in excelsis, called "a most ancient and venerable hymn by which the Church, gathered in the Holy Spirit, glorifies and entreats God the Father and the Lamb" in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, occurs in the entrance rites of every Sunday Mass. Its opening clauses,
Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis,
are of course the declaration of the angels before the shepherds, which Eliot has Beckett cite from Luke 2:14 (it can also be "peace to men of good will," depending on your translation). Commencing its worship with this phrase, the Church is already doing what it later declares expressly, "joining with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven," with which words the Mass proceeds to declare
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
The Sanctus comes as the final words of the preface for the Eucharistic prayer. That is: the Mass identifies the Church with the angelic choir, implicitly at its beginning, and again explicitly at the beginning of the Eucharist proper. There is thus a sense in which the Church is, with every Mass, recapitulating the distance and the conjunction between Christmas and Holy Week; and this sense is in some wise bound up with its angelic vocation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Václav Havel: "hope is not optimism"

As Advent, the "season of waiting," winds to its close, Václav Havel has died.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. (Disturbing the Peace p 181)
This is a motif that runs through Havel's work from Letters to Olga to his many late addresses, collected in The Art of the Impossible. In the wake of Havel's death I have been turning this distinction over in my mind. I have said before that philosophy is in some sense optimistic, but Havel's "hope" is far closer to what I mean.

I know it's a strange thing to contend: that philosophy is "hopeful." But philosophy arises (in Greece at any rate) out of the question of whether life can be good. The tragedians were by no means sanguine about this, and Solon's famous warning ("Call no man happy...") is meant to resonate with the sad wisdom of Silenus: Best for man is not to be born, and next-best, to die soon. I believe Socrates means to counter this dour tale (and if I were writing a paper, here would be the place for all the stuff about Alcibiades' characterizations of Socrates as Silenus in the Symposium). Socrates says that life can be good, and he tells us what makes it so: "examination." He does acknowledge that life can be not worth living; but he believes he has found an answer to this, the one thing needful, which his fellow Athenians neglect, at risk of moral bankruptcy.

In the same place, Havel says that hope
transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable sign in the world. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can't--unlike Christians, for instance--say anything concrete about the transcendental.
In pointing beyond the horizon of the world to indicate the unspecifiable grounds of hope, I suspect that Havel is following in the steps of his friend Jan Patočka, whose essay "Negative Platonism" (included here) tries to show that the Socratic orientation of philosophy towards a horizon was inherent in thinking itself. Havel's reticence, his confessed inability to "say anything concrete," is the fitting response to a hope whose articulation would seem to take us even beyond the premises of the meaningful; and Havel is right to gently chide Christians who have been far too ready to wax loquacious on the street address of God, though it is difficult to see how one might entirely avoid "saying too much" here. Havel himself seemed to hold out interest in the Gaia hypothesis and the Anthropic principle, proposals which certainly risk at least as much in the way of trespassing beyond the articulable, at least when explicitly connected to "the transcendental."

Asked whether the death and return of Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings, was meant to suggest the passion of Christ, J.R.R. Tolkien demurred:
Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write. Here I am only concerned with Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees. (Tolkien, Letters, #181)
Tolkien was of course a Roman Catholic and accepted some measure of our capacity to be explicit about hope, but this explicitness in the end turns out to be always framed by liturgical language and action. Art, he insisted, could not sustain the link between hope and the primary world; it required routing through the imagination.

Even here, of course, one risks a great deal, because the line between art and thinking in general is blurry. All such speech turns out to be a figure of speech.

I hear in the many voices which either expressly avow nihilism--some with a show of regret, others with a kind of unseemly and ill-concealed eagerness--or else impatiently wave it aside as a distraction from their empty triumphalism, a perverse celebration of the mortification of hope. In other quarters, the post-humanists offer bizarre anticipations of a kind of all-too-concrete "hope" of a different kind, not merely seeking refuge in just such a "secondary world" as Tolkien described, but seeking to make it the primary world; indeed to re-make this secondary world over into the primary one. This project will turn out to be the nihilistic one of erasing experience altogether.

One must be willing to (advisedly) risk "saying too much," in facing down the perverse celebrants of the mortification of hope. As Saint Leo the Great said, Inde oritur difficulas fandi, unde adest ratio non tacendi (The difficulty of speaking comes from the same source as the reason for not keeping silent.) I know nihilism from the inside, as does anyone with faith worthy of the name. if I did not, it would be hard to persuade myself that such an attitude is not an abdication of the life of the mind, but one of its essential forms, a necessary part of its life-cycle.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"
From imprisoned dissident to president of his country, Havel could have seen the course of his life as a pure vindication. But for millions of human beings who had the misfortune to, say, die in prison (Patočka was one) before the Velvet Revolution, this eventual historical denouement made no difference--at least none we dare name; the very attempt would tip us over into kitsch. The stature of Havel's character is shown by the fact that he knew very well, after his success, that such "turning out well" meant nothing in terms of hope. What counted was the surety--the faith--that it made sense. But the nature of that "sense" cannot be specified. One can at best try to hazard its grammar, not its content.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to avoid not thinking -- some non-foolproof tips

Harman, here:
Holism has now evolved from a formerly minority position into a sort of universally accepted cracker barrel wisdom, good for scoring easy points on fossilized and oppressive reactionary patriarchs who are supposedly naive enough to miss the way in which “everything is connected.” The problem is that this is an idea once but no longer liberating. Ideas have lifespans just like humans, and just like humans they can fall into a robotic decadence. My wager, as Badiou would put it, is that interconnectivity is a spent force, and that the intellectual theme of our time will be the recovery of a more robust and weirder model of autonomous individual things.

My first reaction to this was, "liberating" is not the first criterion by which I evaluate assertions. But I always question my first reactions.

There is a real sense in which formerly daring positions become substitutes for thinking. It is much, much harder than one thinks to escape from this. The feeling of "scoring easy points" seems to give validation, for defeating an opponent (or at least, in one's own opinion, taking them down a notch) is a fairly satisfying simulacrum of being right, and all the better if the opponent is one of the establishment.

My own way (certainly not foolproof) of navigating this danger is roughly threefold. Each of these modes carries its own risks.

First, I read widely, from no single school. I know I risk eclecticism in this way; a more grave danger is a kind of scatteredness or shallowness, a dilettantism. I'm not too afraid of this because I consider philosophy a matter of life and death, but it is true that one can't study everything.

Second, I avoid in-crowds where I can. I value friendship above most other goods and even think that the question of friendship is one of the few perennial philosophical matters; but I cultivate an allergy to the subtle allure of relationships in which mutual interest in the truth is eclipsed by a creeping disdain for all those poor benighted other sods who just don't get it. The risk here is a certain loneliness and (again, more dangerous) a chance of being broad-minded-to-a-fault.

Lastly, in those positions that rub me the wrong way, I try to find these in their strongest form. (This is at least half of why I am drawn to Badiou, for instance). This is of course a venerable technique of keeping oneself honest, and I have to admit I think it would do a few contemporary debates a world of good; but it too carries a danger, of remaining in polemical mode too long and failing to articulate a position of one's own.

I'm sure I succumb to all of these in different degrees. What I don't do is look for the cutting edge.

As for Holism, I consider Harman one of the strong points in the case against it. His strength does not lie in his characterization of it as no-longer-liberating. (And of course this is hardly the main thrust of his critique.) He's certainly right that it has become, in some circles, a default position. (On the other hand, there is also a case to be made that reductionism remains the ideological default mode of western culture.) Which position currently holds the attention of the doxa, in whatever circles, is not really the main question. The challenge is to formulate whatever position you hold in a manner that thinks. It is always worth asking oneself if one is scoring easy points. But that is because philosophy is above all a spiritual discipline, not just the construction of arguments.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Transformation, death, "Chinese" thought, and "Western"

At his blog Intra-Being, Andre Ling raises the question:
At what point does death pass from something inevitable and therefore quite acceptable to something violent and therefore more unacceptable [?]
This question intersected in my mind with a passage I recently encountered in François Jullien's The Silent Transformations. Jullien has seemingly become the Sinologist these days, at least in certain philosophical circles; I do not know what Asian studies departments make of him. His many books translated so far all tend to run the compare-&-contrast ploy: here's what our Western philosophical tradition, inherited from the Greeks, makes of such-&-such a matter; and what does the Chinese tradition say? In The Silent Transformations, the issue is the nature of change, and Jullien argues that Chinese thought tends to regards change as far more gradual and less catastrophic; and this has rendered Chinese philosophy more sensitive not only to small and incremental change, but also to processes that are cumulative and ultimately transformational.
To put it bluntly, there is even an inversion between Greek and Chinese thought in this respect, and the latter opens up an initial breach.... on the one hand Aristotlean nature, the phusis, is conceived as being a subject-agent: it 'wants', 'aims', 'undertakes', is 'ingenious' and sets up 'goals'. The Chinese sage or strategist on the ohter hand displays no ambition other than to 'transform' just as nature does (hua is their master word). (The Silent Transformations, pp 8-9)
I am by disposition suspicious of overarching accounts of "Chinese" or "Japanese" or "Indian thought", just as much as I am of "Greek" or "French" (There is as much difference between Kitaro Nishida and Kukai as there is between Malebranche and Deleuze), so I take all this with a bit of whatever cross-cultural seasoning is appropriate. (I note, e.g., that Jullien refers specifically to Aristotle, but contrasts him with the generic "Chinese sage or strategist.") I hasten to add that I am radically unqualified to question Jullien's scholarship; I merely protest that a culture rich enough to inspire a scholarship of such caliber must have more texture and variation to it that the repetition of what I can't help but consider cliches. After all, the various disputes between rival schools of Confucianism (let alone between Mohists, Buddhists, and so on) were certainly experienced by participants to be substantive disagreements. I raise my eyebrows when I come across a question like this one about the process of human ageing:
Would not this constant and silent passage which constitutes ageing, as undeniable as it is, teach us more about life itself; does it not definitely already let us glimpse what is effective, so widespread and discreet is it that it is ordinarily imperceptible, about all we project and busily construct about the End? But European philosophy has no less placed death as the gleam on the horizon, as a culminating, fascinating and apocalyptic point, towards which everything converges and will be suddenly resolved: the place where, tearing aside the veil, the anticipated Truth is finally to be revealed.... If philosophy had transferred its attention to the transition of ageing, as something which we are nevertheless faced with everywhere and which has always already started, it would undoubtedly have refrained from making death a point of scrutiny which definitively cuts off everything, an invitation, in a great game of double or nothing, to the wager of Faith or rather to the tragic hardening. It would have approached death as the ultimate result--the avatar--of ageing that begins so soon, no longer as a Rupture and a leap into the Indescribable, but in the dependency and continuation of ageing....it would cease to be an enigma and become an epilogue. (pp 58-9)
Suffice it to say that I have my doubts as to whether death is experienced as a non-enigmatic "epilogue" across the whole of Chinese philosophy.

However, these qualms aside, there is something worth examining here. And here, too, is where we intersect again with Andre Ling's question, with which I began. I won't unpack Ling's whole post, which is rather long and worth reading in full. He has recourse to some fruitful work of Tim Morton's which strikes me as interesting, in part, precisely by virtue of grounding a nonviolent ethic in the Harman-inspired trope of 'withdrawal,' i.e., the radical disconnected-ness of all beings (rather than the usual cliche--for which I still have some strong affinity--of pervasive inter-connection). (For a different take on this, look at Amod Lele's early post on Speculative Realism here). Ling takes up this notion and runs with it till he comes to what he sees as the problem:
Morton’s point seems to be that non-violence is the key to existence for any object: an object can only continue to exist if it is able to get along with itself and with others. This means that inconsistencies are not cancelled out but rather multiplied and amplified. It is the proliferation of inconsistencies that permit an expanding co-existence to take place. Violence, it seems to me, becomes a kind of icing on the non-violent cake of being. While non-violence is what makes being possible, that very being itself sustains a variety of violent encounters. In a sense, to the extent that the encounter between two objects is always between a real object and a sensual object – between a subject and a caricature – every encounter contains an inevitable violent dimension. The idea, then, that somehow the ontological necessity of non-violence for being translates into the possibility of perfectly non-violent existence seems to be difficult to uphold. ...How do I avoid merging the recognition that violence is an inevitable feature of the world (it also has an ontological foundation in the caricaturing that goes on in all inter-objective relations) with the idea that, therefore, violence should simply be accepted?
Ling's question is the same one that is made pressing (and left unresolved) by the Bhagavad-Gita.

To conclude, or rather suspend for now, two brief and provisional observations:

First, One might consider the birth of the philosophical mind in the West as the rupture from that participatory consciousness for which (by contrast) there had been a community with the dead, for which "the ancestors" had remained a part of the cultural conversation. Formerly, it had been actually experienced as meaningful to think of death as a transition, and there were even those for whom traffic across this border was considered risky but possible gambit. Is the distinction Ling draws--"beauty is when one object’s ego is dissolved by its encounter with another object. Violence is when an object is reduced to its traces"--pertinent here? Does philosophy begin in the conflation between beauty and violence --i.e., in the characterization of persuasion by beauty as unfree? (I myself want to draw a distinction here between the sublime and the beautiful.)

Second, Jullien contends that China proved somewhat resistant to giving inroads to Christianity in part because of its difference in its conception of time, and of death. But of course, the decisive divergence here is not with "Greek" thought but with "Hebrew"; the Biblical concpetion of time as tending towards an historical telos. And here what seems pertinent is the way the manifest and unmanifest worlds infer or implicate each other. The Chinese "Great Triad" of T'ien, Ti, Jen ("Heaven," "Earth," "Man"), is--despite Rene Guenon's stern words against parallel-mongering in the first chapter of his monograph--closely akin, not indeed to the Christian Trinity, but to the three points Franz Rosenzweig lays out in The Star of Redemption, a philosophical work whose Biblical inspiration I trust needs no belaboring. The difference, however, is that Rosenzweig delineates God, World, and Man insisting upon their confrontation of each other in a kind of ontological bruteness, as it were; he insists upon them as ontologically independent, their relationship unmediated; this is what Rosenzweig means by "smashing the All," in a move as emphatically non-monist as philosophy has seen. For Rosenzweig, God, World and Man are mediated by nothing-- by the Naught. In China, this naught is capable of a sort of paradoxical mediation, for (to quote Guenon, who I recognize is not a standard authority among Sinologists), "the Tao is simultaneously Non-Being and Being, while at the same time not really being anything apart from Non-Being". (The Great Triad, p 19, n.8) I bring in Rosenzweig here not only because he illustrates in a compelling way the philosophical consequences of a sustained encounter with Biblical thinking (and in a way not overdetermined by Christianity), but also precisely because he begins his great book with the subject of Jullien's paragraph above, the question of death.

There is a great deal more to say--on inconsistency, the naught (= the void in Badiou? withrawal in Harman? etc.), decision, and so on.... but enough for now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Banalization of infinity

Thinking further re. the Nirenbergs' critique of Badiou which I referred to last post, it strikes me that the oddest part is their casting of his equation mathematics = ontology as politically motivated, as trying to furnish an iron foundation for a 21st-century marxism--their analogy is to Engels' Dialectics of Nature. This seems to me to get Badiou wrong in a subtle but important way. Badiou is up-front with his motives. Whenever he talks about the lamentable philosophical effects of neglecting the matheme, it is always with reference to what he calls Romanticism. Romanticism, in turn, is that school which makes definitive the thematization of finitude. Badiou's re-casting of set theory as ontology is a move intended to laicize and banalize infinity once and for all, to render it incapable of lending comfort to the obscurantism of crypto-theology; and, let's be clear, for Badiou there is no other kind.

Can we really be surprised at so-&so's Rabbinic Judaism, or so-&so's conversion to Islam, or another's thinly veiled Christian devotion, when nothing is said that does not boil down to this: that we are 'consigned to finitude' and 'essentially mortal'?...The truth is that this disentwining [between mathematics and philosophy] renders the Nietzschean proclamation of the death of God ineffectual. Atheists, we lack the wherewithal to be so, so long as the theme of finitude governs our thinking....The only way to situate ourselves within a radical desecration is to return infinity to a neutral banality, to inscribe eternity uniquely in the matheme, and to abandon conjointly historicism and finitude. (Conditions, pp98-99)

One could cite any number of other passages, but let this suffice. Badiou's casting of mathematics as ontology or vice-versa is simply a radical secularizing move, to deprive "Being" of any lingering penumbra of holiness The "Question of Being" is, in this way, to be answered. This is what Badiou means by "Heidegger as commonplace." (It's also, incidentally, one of the essential connections between Badiou and Meillassoux.)

Now obviously I don't see things this way. There is (or can be) a finitism without pathos. (And forcing the banalization of infinity as he does obliges Badiou to read Cantor quite against Cantor's own sense of himself.) Spelling this out would be another and much longer post. But while Badiou's politics are not beside the point, they don't motivate the project in the same way. Yes, Badiou's critique is heir to Marx. But as we know, Marx himself insisted that "the prerequisite of all critique is the critique of religion." In this, at least, I am on Badiou's side, by the way.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pythagoric snares

Those interested in Badiou should note the currently (and temporarily) available material online at Critical Inquiry, whose summer 2011 issue featured an article by David and Ricardo Nirenberg: "Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology." In Critical Inquiry's forthcoming winter issue (which, when it comes out, will render the links here dead), the Nirenbergs' critique is responded to by A.J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens, whose article is prefaced with some brief remarks by Badiou, the gist of which is (I quote) "What a disappointment!"

Bartlett and Clemens' description, which I read first, led me to expect some truly dismal thinking when I turned to the Nirenberg's original essay. The claim is, over and over, that not only have the Nirenbergs (who they, um, "cleverly" re-name Nini, with a nod to Derrida's Limited Inc, in a move that seems just depressingly nyah-nyah by the third instance) misread Badiou, but that they have done so willfully, or stupidly, or both—unless, that is, the Nirenbergs have not read him at all, which Bartlett and Clemens do not hesitate to insinuate may well be.

Suffice it to say that upon turning to the Nirenbergs' essay, this claim does not hold up. But their point that the Nirenbergs have read Badiou against his own express declarations certainly stands. This is not, to my mind, a coup de grace. One may well say, after all, that if the Nirenbergs can argue that Badiou's formulations can be put to serve positions which contradict other of his own explicit statements, so much the worse for Badiou. The real question is not whether the Nirenbergs have read from (or even into) Badiou statements which are contradicted by some of Badiou's own intentions (or, God help us, the secondary literature), but whether or not their readings are defensible philosophically. Certainly they arrive at conclusions about Badiou which I cannot share, but the condescending dismissal of their argument seems to me to be woefully beside the point.

To be sure, I am not of their position, nor of Badiou's, when it comes to the nature of philosophy nor of what they call "pythagoric snares." Their central contention—that, as they put it in their rejoinder to Bartlett and Clemens,
Badiou's thesis deliberately blurs essential distinctions between realms of discourse
—could be put as well to Plato (a point they concede in advance); but this is, I maintain, a constituent practice of philosophy, not a regrettable lapse of good philosophical discrimination but one half of philosophical praxis. The other half, of course, is knowing what one is doing, and continuing to make the "essential distinctions" which are nonetheless blurred. It must be said that Badiou reiterates these distinctions with a rare degree of articulation. If I think he lapses, it not in blurring the distinctions, for which the Nirenbergs fault him, but in doing so with too guilty of a conscience.

This is because I maintain that the Whole, with which Badiou is overtly willing to dispense, is a sine qua non of philosophy. The "blurring" for which the Nirenbergs reproach Badiou is, to my mind, the unavoidable (albeit deniable) practice of the "flip side" of articulation. The closest we come to this in language is poetic trope. Obviously, this thesis is close to unacceptable to Badiou, for whom it could (depending on just what we mean by "language" here) amount to conceding that poetry is a form of silence (as he puts it in his study of Wittgenstein), or—more tendentiously—a form of non-thought. On the other hand it is also unacceptable to the Nirenbergs, since for them it would license the "pythagoric snares" to which they object so strongly, mistakes (as they see it),
in which contingent aspects of mathematical models are used to reach cosmological or ontological conclusions.
They point, e.g., to Glaucon's discussion of the "nuptial number" at Republic 545 &c. I on the other hand hold that the account of political justice, or cosmogenesis, or the relation between word and object, in terms of mathematics or cookery or what have you is an echo of an archaic-&-perennial consciousness whose critique and defense are the twin sides of the proper vocation of philosophy. I therefore do not regard the "snares" in the symptomatic a priori objectionable terms used by the Nirenbergs; indeed I do not see such moves as "reaching conclusions" at all; I see them as being suggestive and pointing beyond the articulable realm. (Their example is a case in point, as would be obvious if they paused to consider—among other things—that it is Glaucon not Socrates who makes this argument)

A final word about the Nirenbergs' own tone. While hardly as persnickety as Bartlett and Clemens', there is something a little troubling about it. The conclusion of their essay states:
insofar as [Badiou's] mathematical ontology disguises the contingent in robes of necessity, it can only diminish our freedom. We can embrace the politics if we so wish. But we should not confuse this choice with mathematics, nor can we call it philosophy.
I have my doubts about this whole formulation, and Bartlett and Clemens do a fair job of explaining why one might be forgiven for thinking the first sentence naïve. I am not concerned with the naïveté, but with the tendentiousness. The implication is that Badiou has either deceived himself or hopes to deceive us into "confusing" politics with mathematics. Confusion is not the same as "blurring," or, to have recourse to an over-used but still pertinent word, problematizing, a discursive boundary. As I have elsewhere argued, it may be permissible to question Badiou's philosophy's claim to the title platonism. But it is pretty staggering to suggest that his platonism does not deserve the title of philosophy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Follow the argument

By now anyone who cares has doubtless heard more than they can take about the way #Occupy protesters have disrupted traffic and business and school, and how police have been "forced" to use batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. There have also been occasions at which a kind of ad hoc bonhomie flowered for a few welcome moments, as when in New York police told the drum circle, "we like that beat."

Most of the stories are not so cheerful: protesters doused with pepper spray by police officers attempting to clear a public street--except that the protesters were on the sidewalk; or hit point-blank in the face with pepper spray while they sat peacefully on the lawn, arms linked; or battered and struck by batons, again with arms linked in solidarity (a posture the chancellor of Berkeley insisted was "not nonviolent", whatever the hell that means. Did you need another reason to despair over the state of American higher education?)

You can go on iterating stories like this until you want to cry. As atrocious as some of the anecdotes are, no, they don't involve (so far) any real ammunition (if you don't count aerosols), and yes, yes, the police "are the 99% too." Yet neither the grim details nor the saving caveats are central to the Occupiers' concerns. With every line, such accounts point us to questions of crowd management, on police abuse of power, and to civic questions about "balancing rights." They could all seem, in short, a tremendous diversion of attention.

This diversion has had me thinking hard lately. The activist in me (struggling hard with the cynic) sees every story about police brutality as changing the subject--not as good press or bad press, but just the wrong press, press about the wrong issue. The problem is not police brutality. The problem is corporatism.

But. The philosopher must be concerned with the Whole. Socrates gave the philosopher a twofold rule: follow the argument wherever it leads. This means:

follow the argument wherever it leads,

and also,

follow the argument wherever it leads.

The first formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means that we see how issue opens upon issue and question upon question. What does it mean that a protest against corporatism has occasioned police brutality? What is the balance, in our tradition, between the right to protest and other legitimate civic concerns--sanitation, safety, commerce? While some of these debates are legitimate (the police, alas, are not the only ones victimizing people in protest camps, as allegations of rape make all too clear), some smell like opportunistic attempts to get rid of Something In The Way. At what point, or under what conditions, then, do these questions themselves cease being legitimate and become instead subterfuge for maintaining the status quo?

The second formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means: it is important that we should see that these matters are all intimately intertwined with each other, but that importance will be lost on us if we forget that they are intertwined specifically with the central matter of the economic system under which we have lived more or less since the Civil War, if not the Jackson administration. Keeping sight of this center is not just a concern for activists. It is (I insist) a matter for anyone who wants to think. The movement (if that's what it is) needs to think broadly, but also at length.

There is, too, the third dimension--depth--which asks after what used to be called the existential meaning of these questions: what is human life that these politics can arise in it, what is politics that it sheds light on, or obscures, our human predicament? If you can ask these while not losing the urgency of the immediate task-at-hand (i.e., while tracking the argument), you are, in my book, a philosopher. Which of course does not make one immune from mistakes. Maybe the opposite. Probably.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints' Day in time and vice-versa

The Feast of All Saints is not just the last major feast of the Church Year, but, as such, is also the eschatological Feast.
Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
The Book of Common Prayer (ECUSA) contains a rubric specifying that "All Saints' Day may always be observed on the Sunday following November 1, in addition to its observance on the fixed date." This is an unusual feature; All Saints' is the only Feast of which this double observation is permitted. It is the last major feast of the Church Year; the day when the Church celebrates the company of all the Holy (i.e., the Church itself). (As is usually the case, "scholars are divided," but there are reasons to believe that in some parts of the pre-Christian world, this day marked the New Year.) I do not say that the Church intended the meanings which I find in this curious rubric (and I have not been able to ascertain how venerable it is--it may go back only to the preparatory materials for the '79 Prayer Book), but I think one may read an eschatological significance in the fact that, in this way, the Feast can be seen as bracketing the "ordinary time" of the week, falling on November 1 and then recurring on the Eighth Day of the week, the day of eternity. The Feast's temporal bivalence underscores the way the ontology of the Church is fundamentally eschatology: the Church itself, "the company of all blessed people," is the kingdom that is both coming, beyond the horizon of chronology, and is also now here. To use language that is a bit misunderstood these days, the Church Suffering is the Church Triumphant.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: the Supply of Demands

No one, I trust, is actually in doubt (as opposed to pretending to be in doubt) about what has made Occupy Wall Street protesters--from an unprecedented range of the citizenry--angry. What they want is, supposedly, a different question. The media keeps intoning that there's "no coherent message," no unifying purpose, no laundry list of policy changes. This is not wholly by chance. As Jodi Dean points out, the very question of whether to issue demands continues to be a matter of debate for OWS. (See also Ross Wolfe's post on some of the tension to which this debate gives rise.) There are some good reasons to decline to issue such a list. Many remember how well it worked when millions worldwide marched condemning the invasion of Iraq. They had a clear and unambiguous message. And that worked well, don't you think? Others see issuing demands for the 1% to take concrete steps to give up power as pretty much analogous to putting a slip of paper in a suggestion box that leads straight to the sewer. After a while, you start to get tired of that flushing sound. Still others see it as rushing to the process whereby the corporatists figure out "who we're dealing with here," and start to negotiate us down to an acceptable and meaningless settlement.

To critics overt or covert, this is either a convenient excuse to dismiss the movement, or a genuine sign of either impudence or incoherence. My suspicion is that if the movement seems that vague to you, so vague that you just "can't tell what the Occupiers are saying," you are being a bit vague with the truth as well. But even sympathizers can't help worrying that the movement discredits itself, looking like a mob throwing a tantrum whose only purpose is catharsis.

No doubt there are some loudmouths, some "troublemakers", among the Occupiers, people whose protest is just an angry fighting-for-your-right-to-paaaarty. But anyone who reduces Occupy Wall Street to this is fooling themselves. How deeply some hope that protesters will just get bored and go away.

Uncertainty over whether to make demands, and what the demands will be, is not the Achilles-heel that the scoffers want it to be. But it does signify a lacuna, a shying-away from the brink of something. That something is both complex, and very, very simple, and is of philosophical interest. You might even say it's the whole thing.

This has a complex side and a simple one. On the complex: in their heart of hearts, protesters, or the unacknowledged "leadership" among protesters, know (and, parenthetically, I would add that the allergy to this concept of leadership, the inability to construe it in any but a statist, authoritarian way, is a liability of the movement), that the way forward is not and cannot be a simple matter of some new (or old) legislation or judicial pronouncement. The system itself (were you waiting for me to sue the S-word?) is deeply flawed, and real solutions are beyond tinkering and adjusting. I am aware that disparaging associations are summoned by the phrase "it's the System, man." Condescending onlookers have been awaiting the moment when Occupy Wall Street is "appropriated by the far left" and they may take this sentence as evidence that the moment is upon us. (The real danger of any co-opting comes from a very different direction.) But to point out that a rigged game is not a "game" at all, but a swindle, is not to say that there cannot be such things as games, let alone to decry the concept of games. It is however to say that a real game will have to look and be something completely different than what we have.

To make this point with more sober and thoughtful analyses than I have patience for, I commend to you the take of Douglas Rushkoff (four related articles, here, here, here, and here) and a critique by Samuel Smith, mainly to the third of those foregoing links, (here). Rushkoff (writing in 2009, well before Occupy was a twinkle in AdBusters' eye) insists that the economy did not malfunction when it created the gargantuan disparity between the 1% and the ninety-nine; it worked exactly as it was supposed to. It is, frankly, dumbfounding to me how anyone could think otherwise.
The thing that is dying—the corporatized model of commerce—has not, nor has it ever been, supportive of the real economy. It wasn’t meant to be.... [A]fter America’s post WWII expansion, there was really no longer any real growth area in the economy from which to extract wealth. We were producing and consuming about as much as we could. Almost no commercial activity was occurring outside the corporate system. There was no room left to grow.... Making matters worse, all that capital that the wealthy had accumulated needed markets—even fake markets—in which to be invested. There was a ton of money out there—just nowhere to put it. Nothing on which to speculate. …So speculators turned instead to real assets, like corn, oil, even real estate. They started investing speculatively on the things that real people need to stay alive. What real people didn’t understand was that there is no way to compete against speculators. Speculators aren’t buying homes in which to live—they are buying houses to flip. Speculators aren’t buying corn to eat or oil to burn, but bushels to hoard and tankers to park off shore until prices rise. The fact that the speculative economy for cash and commodities accounts for over 95% of economic transactions, while people actually using money and consuming commodities constitute less than 5% tells us something important. Real supply and demand have almost nothing to do with prices. We do not live in an economy, we live in a Ponzi scheme.
Where Rushkoff may lose you is when he opines that the best thing that could happen is for the economy to really tank; not to close a couple of firms and send some folks to prison and have the Dow Jones lose a couple of percentage points, but for the market to fall 70-80%. Only then, he thinks, will we be able to rebuild an economy that serves human beings. Here is where Samuel Smith demurs, pointing out that the likely fallout from such a real collapse would be far, far scarier than anything we have witnessed; it would likely mean the unraveling of what people like to call the social fabric. It's not Smith disagrees with Rushkoff's analysis; it's just that he thinks Rushkoff's medicine might be worse than the disease:
Truth be told, “Ponzi scheme” is a mild descriptor for our current hegemony, and there are lots of people who deserve worse punishment than they’re likely to get.... My pragamatic side can’t get past the path from Point A to Point B, though.... If we “let it die,” yes, it will be hard times for “hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paid brokers and bankers.” It will also be tough on a lot of other people.... people are going to die. Lots of people. Children are going to starve to death in the streets. Maybe your children, but if not, almost certainly the children of someone you know. And since America is so central to the global economy, let’s try not to imagine what happens in areas that are already impoverished. If we’re lucky enough, at some point, to emerge from this holocaust, it’s pure fantasy to assert that a “real economy” is what results.
Now I would mention that some folks, like James Howard Kunstler, ArchdruidJohn Michael Greer, and Derek Jensen, have been saying for while a while now that this scarier something is coming whether we like it or not. (Smith cites Kirkpatrick Sale, another articulate doomsayer, but he sees far more common ground between Sale and Rushkoff than I do.) I have some reservations about these dour expectations--mainly because I think that when it comes to prognostication, the first and last word was said by Yogi Berra: "it's hard to predict, especially the future"--but I'll admit to being very pessimistic about the ecological long-term. It's also true that the dire warnings of chaos and mob rule are a trusty standby for One-Percenters who want to scare the rest of us into not fucking with things. (The specter of social anarchy and mob rule will sooner or later be invoked against OWS.)

Which, n.b., does not make the scary warnings meaningless. But the real question is not what motivates someone to raise this specter, but what motivates us to avoid it--what makes it scary? And there are reasons for this which are closer to home than the fear of turning America into the scene for a Mad Max film.

Replacing a broken system is far more challenging than calling for the punishment of a few CEOs--gratifying (and even right) though that would doubtless be. Most of us have no idea what such work would be like. It could go very, very deep. Perhaps not so deep as market-abolition (which is certainly on some OWS leaders' wishlists, but hardly on that of the 99% en masse), but then, we don't know how deep until we get there. This is why the sneer from critics, "What do you want to put in its place?" while obnoxious and know-nothing, has a significance beyond what the critics intend. I said above that the lacuna indicated by the question of "what we want " indicated something both complex and simple. Here we come to the simple part: not-knowing is real, and frightening.

Some people want nothing more than to go back to their old lives, the lives they thought they were planning before mortgages got foreclosed, before student loans caught up with them when they lost their job, before an accident or illness piled up a stack of bills and credit-card statements. And of course, no lack of strategy is going into trying to figure what it will take to get folks to do just that-- to go back to their old lives. That is just what the demand for demands means: it's a ploy to find the starting-place from which to bargain down to an acceptable arrangement which will get people to agree to go home. Those old lives were of course still lived under the old regime. There was plenty of foul play going on already, but it hadn't yet reached middle America yet. Steve Gimbel at Philosopher's Playground writes, the system has been for a very long time
a socio-economic-political game of calvinball in which those who have the most constantly change and rework the rules to make sure that no matter what happens, all wealth and opportunity is shipped up to the most well-off. As long as the middle-class was given new episodes of Friends and shiny SUVs to distract them, the whole thing could be masked. But now the shifting of wealth has undermined their expectations.
There's a lot in those little words "but now." What follows here is my take, not Gimbel's. What "But now" means is that it's no longer working--not just for the traders and racketeers atop the ladder, but for me and you. Implicit in this is that if we're just now waking up to the atrocious riggedness of the game, we weren't paying attention before. We allowed ourselves to be distracted by shiny SUVs and episodes of Friends. Even now, the would-be clever observation is raised that the activists are working away on iPhones and laptops, broadcasting their protests via the gadgets made by the corporate culture they decry. After you eliminate the smugness from this red-herring, there remains a little whiff of pertinence, and that pertinence inheres in the fact that we are indeed implicated in what we protest. We, too, are responsible. If we are honest, we can see this is the case whether you've been long-time champions of the cause going back to the '60s or before; or whether, like me, you've fought a long and losing fight against apolitical cynicism, or whether you didn't even realize until your city got Occupied that anything was wrong. (O.K., are there any of those?)

N.b., this does not mean that, since "we are all responsible", therefore no one is responsible. As Arendt noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem, this was more or less the tenor of Eichmann's defense, and it does not wash. There is more than enough responsibility to go around, but there are also different kinds of responsibility, and those who smiled and yawned and took their bailout-funded bonuses with one hand while signing foreclosures with the other are responsible in a whole different way than those who allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of consumerist security, whether by a suburban dream or a heroin syringe. But these latter, too, are a kind of responsibility, and if this makes anyone uncomfortable, well, it ought to.

Significant American social movements of the 20th century involved at least a twofold energy. There is the aspect by which one sees injustice and calls it by name. This was once fairly easy, e.g. in the days of segregation. But as prejudices and inequities have gone subterranean, there is harder work to be done on that front, both systematic and piecemeal, and it is the sort of thing where people of good will can sometimes disagree (and where those who are not always of good will can spout premature nonsense about the "end of racism," or sexism, or etc.). There is also the aspect by which one asserts than one no longer wishes to be implicated in the injustice one names. This part is harder, is ongoing--even in the times when an injustice seems plain as day. Even after one has consciously condemned and foresworn an injustice, one must catch in oneself the sneaky residue of condescension and inherited prejudice that lingers. Anyone can be surprised at an unguarded moment when they let slip an attitude they would never have expected in themselves. To accept that this occurs, you don't have to buy into notions of inherited guilt or pervasive institutional prejudice; good old-fashioned human fallibility, a failure to live up to our own standards, will do. The courage and commitment is called for on the part of activists as it is called for from those such movements aim to benefit. Internalized racism or sexism was and is real, and is still confronted. Coming out remains (and will for the foreseeable future) a defining and courageous moment in the life of anyone who is gay. Such decisions involve a resolution to no longer be part of the problem--a resolution that has to be repeated over and over.

The analogy between any of these with any other, including OWS, is obviously imperfect. I am not making the sophomoric claim that coming out of the closet, or refusing the stereotypes of one's own ethnicity, is equivalent to deciding to buy local or to opting out of the banking system. No form of resistance is just like any other. My point is that every resistance requires scrutiny of oneself and one's motives and a reiterated decision to take responsibility. Americans from every point on the political spectrum and from every social strata have been, to various degrees, lulled into an unsustainable worldview alien to human values. And we are still in it.

In his book Life, Inc., Rushkoff describes the "landscape of corporatism" as:
a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of theirdepression.
We need to understand how this happened—how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what—if anything—we are to do about it.
While we will find characters to blame for one thing or another, most of corporatism’s architects have long since left the building—and even they were usually acting with only their immediate, short-term profits in mind. Our object instead should be to understand the process by which we were disconnected from the real world and why we remain disconnected with it. This is our best hope of regaining some relationship with terra firma again. Like recovering cult victims, we have less to gain from blaming our seducers than from understanding our own participation in building and maintaining a corporatists society. Only then can we begin dismantling it and replacing it with something more livable and sustainable.
(Life, Inc.p xxv)
Thus the lack of a Mubarak or a Qadaffi for whose head to call is only a small part of what makes "demands" hard to enumerate here. More to the point is that we lack even a language for imagining a different set of values. What could we possibly want, in a country where, after all, we "have the right" to protest?!

When Slavoj Žižek addressed the New York protesters a few Sundays ago, he cited the old joke in which two friends plan, when one is going to visit a country with a repressive government, to circumvent the political censors by writing letters in blue ink if what they write is true and red ink if it is false. Then the first letter arrives and speaks in glowing terms of conditions in the country. Everything is apparently wonderful and readily available--"except red ink."
This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink. The language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom, war, terrorism, and so on, falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here: You are giving all of us red ink.
The invention of a language for our discontent is properly a philosophical matter. It is akin to what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of values.

This revaluation will need to break open the delivery-system whereby Americans have received and swallowed their political positions, all from trusted purveyors of opinion (media or government). In nothing have Americans been consumers more than in their consumption of ready-made political "positions" from an embarrassingly tiny subsection of possible stances. Kicking this habit means breaking apart the two-party system and very, very serious campaign and election reform. I am talking about measures which I don't expect to get a serious hearing, such as range voting and the abandonment of the electoral college. This seems a tall order, but it is probably more likely than Rushkoff's notion (which goes back to Silvio Gesell and beyond) of money bearing negative-interest.

Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to propel the US into democracy, given that the country never has been a democracy and was not intended to be one. But it is possible that it will at least elevate and expand the kind of politics, and even economics, that can happen here. Settling for a "new conversation" while the status quo continues will not be acceptable, but the status quo changes, in America, via just such conversations. Or at least, it could. I remain cautiously pessimistic.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tomas Tranströmer, "Open and Closed Spaces"

Tomas Tranströmer, a favorite poet of mine for more than twenty years, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month. This poem by him is one I have wanted to write about for a long time.
Open and Closed Spaces

A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside the gloves on the shelf.
There they suddenly grow, spread
and black-out the whole house from inside.

The blacked-out house is away out among the winds of spring.
'Amnesty,' runs the whisper in the grass: 'amnesty.'
A boy sprints with an invisible line slanting up in the sky
where his wild dream of the future flies like a kite bigger than the suburb.

Further north you can see from a summit the blue endless carpet of pine forest
where the cloud shadows
are standing still.
No, are flying.

(tr. Robin Fulton)
What I love here, among other things, is the way the poem revises itself. The gorgeous and dangerous way in which the terms that are introduced as a figure of speech in one line become substantive in the next. E.g., the way "...like a glove" (a simile) in line one leads on to the gloves (real gloves this time) being "laid aside" in line two, and then in line three they shift again from passively lying on the shelf to "suddenly grow[ing]" to dramatic proportions. A single word--in a mere simile, at that, that most garden-variety of figures of speech--has in three lines taken over and "black[ed] out the whole house"! This pattern continues, with "house" this time: the house is next seen from without, "away out among the winds." These winds will now (without ever being expressly mentioned again by name) shape what comes next: the whisper in the grass, the kite in the air, the clouds and their shadows. But the wind bloweth where it listeth. The poem refuses to be bound by its previous figures; at every step, the law previously laid down is amended. Thus the grass whispers "amnesty," (the law is not binding), but then the motion of the poem veers upwards from being so close to the ground: the boy sprints, a line slants up into the sky; a dream, "like a kite" but huge, introduces the first overtly temporal term ("the future") into a poem that has hitherto been dominated by the spatial; we are transported to a mountaintop; and in the last three lines, one sees the poem overtly correcting itself: what seemed to be steady is in fact in motion. And every closed space can open up. What the poem describes, it enacts.

If you can read Swedish, the original poem (and some others) may be found here. (There are English versions too.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011


"The Eternal Silence of Those Infinite Spaces

Terrifies me," Pascal wrote, meaning
those holes draped between stars--
voids that could swallow a trillion times
this ground we're walking. Yet from here
your fingertip covers them, pointing out
a star that's already moved on, leaving
a gap easier crossed, less freezing
than the gulf my fingers found that night
reaching vainly for yours
as we walked
                                      dumbfounding blank
we'd once held hands across
                                     Your after-image still shining.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"The God neither speaks nor conceals..."

A friend writes me concerning the funeral of a friend:
The day after she died somebody close to her dreamed that she flew off with iridescent dragonfly wings (I got the email about this dream the day after her death). Yesterday at the funeral (under a big tent outdoors), one enormous, singular dragonfly flew around, and perched above the podium for the entire event.
It is hard to know "what to do" with stories like this, and this very incapacity is why they are invaluable. Not because they demonstrate irrefutably the bankruptcy of "the materialist world view;" and not because they show how desperately we narrativize and pattern-seek to gain a shadow of 'meaning' at any cost. Rather, because their experiential force is such that we cannot dismiss them, and yet they just won't slip easily into any preordained category. If we seize on them as "evidence" of something, we slip into superstition. But if we blow them off, we do violence to ourselves. (Many are indeed prepared to bite the bullet and do this, but the cost of this is the chemical gelding of their souls. What they see as tough-mindedness I see as the intellect on steroids--and courting analogous side-effects). The only rational and human (I will even say "faithful") stance is one that sees in them as what Heraclitus said: "The God whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign." This sign is not glossable (if it were, it would be "speaking"). It points us beyond this world, but not at the world's expense.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Wittgenstein, Reality and the Novel

This is directed at any philosophers or readers of literature in the neighborhood of the U of Hertfordshire. It's a plug for an upcoming (Oct 18) lecture by Bernard Harrison, who will be presenting a view of Wittgenstein he has been quietly and diligently refining and promoting for many decades now. Harrison is set apart from many for the close regard he gives to all ("early" and "late") Wittgenstein, which gives his stance, in my estimation, a thoroughness missing from those philosophies which try to valorize (or dismiss) one or the other. He is also an exceptional close reader of literary texts, and he reads with his heart as well as his mind. I, alas, am on the other side of the globe and cannot hear my old professor. If anyone learns of it being recorded, please let me know.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Michaelmas & St Bartholomew/Nathanael

September 29, The Feast of St Michael and All Angels:

In the Gospel mandated by the Lectionary for today, John 1:45-51, Philip tells Nathanael that "We have found the Messiah... Jesus of Nazareth;" Nathanael replies with what sounds like a proverb: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" When Jesus sees Nathanael approach, he calls him "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asks. "I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you." This is apparently enough to get Nathanael to exclaim, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus asks: "You believe because I told you, I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this: you will see the angels of heaven ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This little exchange attached to today's Feast often strikes one as a bit of a stretch at first; the story of Nathanael's call is the main point, and the bit about the angels seems an afterthought. It's widely taken to be an intentional echo of the passage in Genesis 28:10–19, in which Jacob dreams of a ladder or stairway between earth and heaven, with the angels going to and fro upon it; Jesus implicitly declares himself to be this ladder in some fashion, but just what this identity means is obscure.

Nathanael is often identified with the synoptics' Batholomew, (who, like Nathanael, is always paired with Philip), since John and only John mentions Nathanael and only the synoptics refer to Batholomew; but of course this has not kept many (including St Augustine) from thinking there are two people here. I am, myself, a Nathanael=Bartholomew guy, and I'll try to show why a bit later.

There is a hymn frequently sung on Michaelmas: Allelulia to Jesus, Who died on the tree, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me. The tree on which Christ died, the cross, is itself a ladder between heaven and earth, and as tree it recapitulated the tree in the center of the garden, which is also the world tree, the tree whose roots are in the underworld and whose branches are in heaven. (Sometimes, mythologically, this is inverted). This tree, axis mundi, comes with fruit (of knowledge, of immortality, or both), a woman, a spring, and serpent. I'm not going to list the occasions of this motif; it is ubiquitous, and one does not need to be a slave to pop Jungianism to accept that this widespread occurrence is significant.

Since we are in the matrix of the Hebrew scriptures, the tree which most concerns us is the one in Eden. In Genesis 3, the serpent is called "the most subtle of all the creatures," "subtle" here being a pun (in Hebrew) on smoothness, a connotation which even then bore on the serpent's smooth-tongued capacity to deceive; but it is also a pun on the nakedness of the man and the woman. These two are "smooth" because their skin is exposed; and the snake's smoothness, too, involves its ability to shed its old, rough skin for a shiny, slick new one.

Jesus' description of Nathanael as "an Israelite in whom there is no guile" refers to this entire complex of notions. What is an Israelite? A descendant of Israel, of course; Israel being Jacob, who saw the ladder and all those angels going up and down. Nathanael's name means "God has given," and what God had given was understood above all to be the particular land upon which they lived, a bequest whose legacy we know to this day. It is in the ladder dream that Jacob hears the voice of God declaring this gift for the first time: "the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants."

But what distinguished Jacob was precisely his smoothness; not only his trickery with Esau--a trickery which is turned back on him by Laban--but also the literal smoothness of his skin, which he and Rebekkah must guilefully disguise in order to deceive blind Isaac, in the story immediately preceding the dream of the ladder. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is thus (to put the matter no doubt too strongly) a kind of counter-Jacob. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is a kind of colloquial rejoinder to Nathanael's skepticism that there could be "anything good from Nazareth."

How this skepticism is broken through is strange. "Where did you get to know me?" "I saw you under the fig tree." "Rabbi! You are the messiah!" What on earth is going on here? I won't claim to provide the answer to this question, but I hope to explicate what I think are come relevant bits of its context, and perhaps to its pertinence to the Feast of St Michael.

The fig tree is perhaps not the Tree (of Knowledge), but it is the only fruit mentioned by name and genus in the Genesis account: "And they knew that they were naked (="smooth"); and they took fig leaves and wove aprons for themselves." The fig tree thus provides that under which one hides one's smoothness. These aprons (they still figure in the LDS Temple ceremony) are replaced later by "garments of skin" given by God. But Nathanael is not "smooth" in this way; he has no deceit, "no guile."

"Under the fig tree," according to some exegetes, also implies prayer and the study of Torah; according to this line of reading, the subtext is that Nathanael was engaged in some devotional piety when Jesus observed him. This may involve angelic mediation, as later elements of synagogue liturgy imply. Jewish tradition is ambivalent about angels, but Christianity is eloquent on them and sees (I contend) the angels as not just mediators between Heaven and Earth but as, in some sense, the very media of prayer or even of theological vision itself; the liturgy is seen as recapitulating or becoming one with the worship given by angels in the presence of God, who are frequently said (e.g. by Evagrios of Pontos in his 153 texts on Prayer) to be the agents of the "energization" of our prayers (see, e.g., text 76).

To be sure, neither Jewish nor Christian tradition is especially interested in angels for their own sake. Evagrios tells an anecdote of a monk who remained steadfast at prayer, even though two angels appeared to him; and the desire to head off any such interest clearly motivates the aforementioned ambivalence of the Rabbis (I believe there is, for instance, not a single mention of angels in the Mishnah). But the image of angels "ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" clearly identifies Jesus himself with the link--tree or ladder--which makes this concourse of energies between earth and heaven possible.

There is a further association, which I mention despite its cultural distance: the Bodhi tree, sacred in Vedic and Buddhist tradition, is also a fig, ficus religiosa; so "under the fig tree" is also where Gautama Buddha attained his enlightenment. This will of course rightly strike many as coming from far afield, but the archetypal emblem of the ascent of awareness from the base of the tree is bound up with the previously-mentioned set of images. It is here that Newagey enthusiasts will rummage about for the kundalini serpent rising from the base of the spine; or (closer to the Judaic matrix of the New Testament) of the ascent from the lower state of the soul called nefesh (frequently interpreted as the serpent in the Kabbalah) up the Sephirotic Tree of Life. These correspondences are indisputably inspired by free-association; whether they ought to be dismissed as "mere" free-association is a different question, but a methodological argument defending them would be a separate blog post.

The last connection that belongs here hinges on the aforementioned identity between Nathanael and Bartholomew. There is a famous depiction of Bartholomew by Michaelangelo in his Sistine Chapel Last Judgment. He is holding his own skin. This is because tradition has it that he was martyred by being flayed. That is, the tradition has preserved a connection between Bartholomew/Nathanael and the shedding skin motif, which thus connects directly to the Genesis story of the Fall. It should be noted that not every version says that Bartholomew was flayed--some stories speak only of his beheading--so there is some reason to think that this detail was intended to resonate with this wider constellation of notions going back to the Hebrew connotations of guile/smoothness.

I might mention, too, that Michaelangelo is painted a recognizable self-portrait on the skin of Bartholomew. Considering the artist's name, this may not just be the painter's exercise of his artistic prerogative. It is possible he knew what he was doing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The liberal bias of American media

Occupy Wall Streetis a very loose movement initially called by AdBusters, publicized by Anonymous, and motivated by everything from an itch for a moment of spectacle to the desire to see CEOs behind bars. It may be the Arab spring belatedly come to Manhattan; it may be the Invisible Committee's shot across the bow of America; it may be a bunch of naïve wannabes, sorry that they missed the Battle of Seattle, and trying to jump-start another manning of the barricades with a page out of Abbie Hoffman. One thing's for sure, you won't get much guidance from those institutions whose job it is to report the news with their mandated, university-intellectual-approved left-leaning bias. Because chances are you haven't even heard of Occupy Wall Street. On September 23, a full week after the protests began, the famously liberal New York Times managed a piece oozing with condescension. It took NPR, that hotbed of wobblies and fellow-travelers and whatever, nine days to deign to so much as mention the movement, and then only in response to listeners' indignation. This is after over a hundred a thousand arrests, and any number of protesters being pretty atrociously mistreated, including some women who were doused with pepper spray by a policeman who had to walk deliberately up to the barrier behind which they were shouting "Oh my God!" as they watched someone be handcuffed and manhandled. Watch the video; if it doesn't ruin the career of one of New York's finest, I hope it at least loses him the respect of his children.

Are the protests big? (Maybe getting bigger, anyway; see here.) Are they likely to really shake things up? Will it look like Tahrir Square? Will activists flood into New York and make the stock market freeze? Not if the "left-leaning" press have anything to do with it.

[UPDATE 10/1/2011 The first link in this post, for the moment, makes my virus-detection software break out in hives. So someone somehow has either poisoned the OWS site, or Norton is providing a service for the Power Elite. Current comments on safeweb.norton.com offer variations on "WTF?" Ain't live conspiracy theory fun? Stay tuned.]

[UPDATE 10/2/2011 Decent coverage from Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, the NT Times again does a two-step on the Brooklyn Bridge (this is really just a shift in emphasis--the same facts are reported lower down in the article.)]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Like I was saying

If I may be permitted a self-referential moment:
There is a secret link between this fear and the boredom we spoke of earlier: boredom secretes fear as a kind of attempt at self-cure. One can see this quite clearly in contemporary western culture, which has grown more fearful as it has grown more secure, for the periodic upsettings of security become more traumatic and they leave a viral half-life of unsettling phantoms, traumatic enough to drive one back into the arms of a comfortable boredom, in a terrible cycle.
This, a propos last post, where I was voicing my expectation that the blah-banal ironism of the '90s will make its resurgence as the "trauma" of 9/11 fades. This ennui should also serve as a palliative while America dwindles into the twilight of its historical significance.

(Incidentally, some of this feedback-loop has also been described by Lars Svendsen in his The Philosophy of Boredom and The Philosophy of Fear.)

It should always raise one's suspicions when someone claims world-shaking significance for their own field, but I truly believe that philosophy is the cure of this addictive cycle of boredom and fear. It has been fighting the Noonday Demon from the very beginning. It is, to be sure, a homeopathic cure; Socrates' words stun and numb at first.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Irony is Sincerity. ;)

I keep hearing how September 11th, 2001, made irony go out of the world or something. It's true that before, during the first Bush administration especially and then all through Clinton (ever notice how we tend to date things just like Bronze Age chroniclers, "in the second year of the reign of Sennacherib son of Sargon..."?) there was that crippling "hipness-unto-death"*, as some wit called it, spreading everywhere. It made especially TV commercials give off this evil glow of you-love-being-manipulated-by-this, sure-it's-all-lies-but-you're-kind-of-in-on-the-joke, making everyone complicit in their own cooption. One nadir of this, among many, was Madonna's Truth or Dare, the whole miserable glamorama of Yes-I-yank-your-chain, but I'm-telling-you-I'm-yanking-it; look at me, being all honest and forthcoming! Yeah, yeah, (wink), you're not fooled, you clever one.

This meta-meta-metastasizing of culture was often noted by commentators, of course, either applauding it, or resigning to it, or denouncing it, but it was on a runaway course that seemed unstoppable. (The very best, bar none, send-up of it I know is David Foster Wallace's short story "My Appearance", in Girl with Curious Hair.) Then.... then what? Then "the world changed forever"? Then we came "face to face" with some indigestible something that couldn't be assimilated into the snide, the trite, the in-jokey?

Even as the sirens wailed, and the smoke billowed up above the buildings, before anyone even knew just what had occurred, people in the street catching each others' eye were exchanging a secret, a half-acknowledged, dares-not-speak-it's-name recognition: "Something big is happening right now"--(this no matter where you were, Manhattan or elsewhere)--"and I'm here for it." Almost a jealousy of those who were on the spot. 9/11 was the ultimate in-crowd maker. "We are all New Yorkers," the T-shirts declared, wishfully. If you were conscious ten years ago, you are, whether you will or no, in the club of "Everyone remembers where they were when they heard." Later, by a week or so, we divided into camps: "Why do they hate us?" vs. "They hate our freedoms" vs. "Inside job," mutually-incomprehensible languages, but even this schism did not prevent unheard-of popularity ratings for a President who could not competently read from a teleprompter. It took seven more years of shame to grind that inexorably down to the 20-percent basement where it belonged. (Which more or less tells you how significant popularity polls are.)

Amod has some pertinent thoughts on how "never forget" has slowly started to be...forgotten. The fact that 9/11 has begun to "fade" somewhat from the foreground of national consciousness is no doubt all to the good, given the points he makes; but I fear it has not much to do with the balm of forgetfulness. The racism Amod names is still, to our shame, alive and well; so is the righteous indignation; and so is the pain for those who lost loved ones that day or in the wars that followed. But capitalism has moved on, as it must, not without a tear for the lost. What we've seen in the past ten years is the inevitable commodification of 9/11: the digestion of the event into a few stock images and some memes of patriotism, terrorism, "where-were-you-that-day," and so on. It started the moment someone called it "our finest hour" without cringing.

It may be the war that has slowed the resurgence of so-hip-of-you-to-know-it's-a-lie commercialism which went out of fashion for a brief time. It's telling that it arose and flourished as the long post-Vietnam era went on, as wars became TV events and, importantly, as America's economy continued to prosper. But the acidic corrosion of ironism is already picking up right where it slowed down, and it will be a triumph of capitalism when said ironism can flourish in the midst of a war and in the face of record-high unemployment. Slavery is Freedom, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and being borderline culturally-literate enough to recognize (or make) an Orwell reference is a bulwark against tyranny. No, seriously.

* I apologize for the surfeit of hyphenated phrases in this post. Really.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

of late

So during a month of "fasting" from the blog, I discovered to my great relief that I could still think with a pen in my hand. Typing words on a screen and writing on paper are very disparate modes of composition for me, more different than I can even articulate. There's something about the instant revisability of pixels that makes composition slower and more unsure, for me. I've found this translates to how I read online as well: on a screen, I am always scrolling down, before I've finished the paragraph; always looking for the bullet points, the money quote. After months and years of this, I began to get the queasy worry that something impatient and lazy had my mind its slovenly den. Would I be able to write anymore? Well, yes, as it happens, yes it is kind of like riding a bike. But the experiment demonstrated something more to me. I'm just plain happier composing on paper. The words covering the page in their indelible lines gives a shape to my thinking that the discrete increments of typing and the cut-and-paste-able blocks of computer text completely up-end. It's plain that this is an idiosyncracy of my own. Others have their own mental and creative hygiene, other conditions in which they can reach "flow," as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state of optimal creativity and production; for me, nothing beats a smooth-flowing, extra-fine-point rollerball, on the unlined white pages of a hardbound notebook. The lines are laid down indelibly; I can cross them out but I can't select-and-cut to make them vanish, or scoop them up and replant them three paragraphs later, and these restraints help me produce: without them, I'm just floundering. But of course transferring this to a blog post involves typing and transcribing, which besides being extra work always invites the revisionary demon, the "inner editor," who yes does valuable service but needs to learn how to be a little less pushy. The point here is that my posts will be fewer, not because I'm writing less but because I'm writing more. What I post will likely be shorter and just an indication of what I am thinking about off-screen. Questions are still welcome, more than welcome, because I think best of all when I'm actually engaging with a live person whose thoughts I can't anticipate because, well, they aren't mine.