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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A little bit from Žižek, a little bit from....

In conversation with Glyn Daly, Žižek remarks:
I do consider myself an extreme Stalinist philosopher. That is to say, it's clear where I stand. I don't believe in combining things. I hate the approach of taking a little bit from Lacan, a little bit from Foucault, a little bit from Derrida. No, I don't believe in this; I believe in clear-cut positions. I think the most arrogant position is this apparent, multidisciplinary modesty of 'what I am saying now is not unconditional, it is just a hypothesis,' and so on. It really is a most arrogant position. I think the only way to be honest and to expose yourself to criticism is to state clearly and dogmatically where you are. You must take the risk and have a position. (Conversations with Žižek p45)
Two different ills are attacked here. Žižek is opposed to eclecticism ("combining things... a little bit from [X], a little bit from [Y]"); he is also opposed to what he here calls "apparent, multidisciplinary modesty" which merely offers hypotheses. The latter, he thinks, is, beneath its veneer of humility, "the most arrogant position."

A bit ago, I commended, with reservations, a breezy little book called The World is Made of Stories by David Loy. I referenced there a mostly-positive review which nonetheless had problems with the way in which Loy presented his case:
what a curious tale it is: a kind of mystical hotch-potch in which Sartre rubs shoulders with gnosticism, psychotherapy with Advaita Vedanta...
I suppose this is sort of thing Žižek has in mind; and while I think it's an approach that risks shallowness on the one hand and pedantry on the other, and while I share some doubts about the default relativism which I think Žižek is targeting, I think (to take a dogmatic position) that Žižek is simply wrong in his brusque dismissal of "combining things." (I confess I do not understand why Žižek thinks this must go hand-in-hand with the "arrogant" relativism he denounces, but here I want to address just the point about eclecticism.)

One indefatigable and loyal commenter to SCT, (Ombhurbhuva), recently urged meto "try venturing out without the bodyguard of authorities," which I take to be a suggestion to forgo engagement with a preexisting literature and simply start, as it were, from scratch. (He'll correct me if I've got him wrong, I trust.) One reason why I believe my approach does not collapse into mere commentary despite being a quite continual engagement with what I have read (and continue to read), is that I am unapologetically eclectic in precisely the way Žižek abhors-- in fact, far more so. I don't even find Žižek's example especially eclectic. "A little bit of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida...": could anything be more predictable, or more dated? Fast forward a decade or two, and we have: a little bit of Deleuze, a little bit of Badiou, a little bit of Žižek. There is hardly anything "multidisciplinary" about this. But take "a little Badiou, a little Strauss, a little Levinas," and we're further out--despite the fact that all three of these are admitted platonists of one sort or another. And taking a bit of Longinus, a bit of Wittgenstein, and a bit of St. Maximus--this, I should think, is in danger of being billed as merely syncretic. So be it. I have no truck with reducing philosophies or religions or etc. etc. to any one perennial message, but there is in my mind no question that there are perennial perplexities; and if I read Aurobindo back-to-back with Thomas Reid, it is not because I expect them to agree with each other (or with me!) but precisely because in navigating their differences, I may be more likely to triangulate towards the experience of insight.

So I have more than a passing interest in thinkers like Victor Cousin or Hermann Lotze, who were both called eclectics by contemporaries (Cousin, to be sure, also by himself). Both were philosophers of extraordinary influence in their day, whose stock has now fallen till their thought is only the concern of specialists. Perhaps this has more than a coincidental connection to their eclecticism; maybe Lotze's realism-idealism was so influential for a while for the same reasons that it eventually fell from favor--that it was so clearly a synthesis of doctrines of its time. Maybe.

On the other hand, one man's eclecticism may simply be another man's anomaly. I'm frequently bemused by the dismissals or critiques of this or that--say, a strain of ecological or economic thinking--on the grounds that it's somehow tainted with something suspect or impure, that it tumbles you in with strange bedfellows.

The most recent example I encountered is the one I mentioned last post, when I recounted being lumped in with a right-wing attack on public education. But further examples abound. Can one espouse a Heideggerian-inspired ecology without getting tripped up on the slippery slope into fascism? Can one preach localism or particularism in my political economy without aiding and abetting the white-collar scions of the Republican Party? Can one draw upon Marx and Sartre and Žižek without wanting to line those same scions up against the wall?

Žižek himself, incidentally, knows better than to practice the anti-eclecticism he preaches. If you put Lacan back-to-back with Damasio and Turing and St. Paul, you are an eclectic in my book.

I spend a great deal of time reading figures with whom I deeply disagree, but whose positions I do not feel I can in good conscience leave unconfronted. This isn't just "good form." I respect the uncompromising nihilism of Brassier, or the cheerful scientism of Dennett, or the fierce fury of Nietzsche, but I not only respect it-- I learn from it, I want to do it justice, I try to put myself through its fire.

Beyond this, though, I read many, many figures who apparently disagree with each other. This is not for the sake of eclecticism; philosophy is not a hodge-podge of Bartlett's quotations (and it has to be said that Loy's book does risk reading like such a mix-tape, with commentary). But it is one thing to illustrate one's claims or argument with what seems supporting testimony from someone else; it's another to spend the time in the crucible of another's thinking, not only "seeing the world through their eyes," but seeing why anyone would want to see the world thus, and then trying to articulate a worldview that keeps integrity while acknowledging the force of this vision. It may be too much to ask of a philosophy that it account for and accommodate (which does not mean satisfy), say, both Marx and Oakeshott, or Barth and Suhrawardi, or the Buddha and St. Paul; but if you don't understand why one would want to do this, you aren't really trying.

My own utterly disorganized and meandering thinking-out-loud is, in short, a messy dialectic. There is contradiction in it, and there's no getting it out.


  1. Hi Skholiast,
    I’m mentioned in dispatches, thank you. I meant that you could start not from scratch but from your own established body of wisdom. Rough swimming means a little flailing about, there’s no harm in that. I recollect the story of a return to your old home town, the photographic exhibition. Memory and distance, being both inside and outside at the same time can make the person(a) drop away into a shining void. There was more to it than that; the residue of mystery is the mark of the real, the limitless.

  2. Oh yes, this one.
    I don't mind being taken there, but I'm not sure I want to set out to go there.

    On the other hand, to cite yet another name: as Lewis Thompson puts it in Mirror to the Light: You can escape in a moment, but only in a moment.

    Yes, I see now what you mean, and that I somewhat misread your comment before. Thanks.

  3. In this day and age, because the publishing industry has pushed books on us from right and left for so long, we are all eclectics. The urgent question becomes one of how to put all that massive reading into one coherent whole. Writing about the rhythms of English prose, on page 311 (see link), George Saintsbury wrote this: “It has, I have no doubt, occurred to other students of elaborate rhythmical prose that curiously large proportions of the most famous examples of it are concerned with dreams; and I should not suppose that many of them have failed to anticipate the following suggestion of the reason. Dreams themselves are nothing if not rhythmical; their singular fashion of progression (it is matter of commonest remark) floats the dreamer over the most irrational and impossible transitions and junctures (or rather breaches) of incident and subject, without jolt or jar. They thus combine—of their own nature and to the invariable experience of those who are fortunate enough to have much to do with them—the greatest possible variety with the least possible disturbance. Now this combination, as we have been faithfully putting forth, is the very soul—the quintessence, the constituting form and idea—of harmonious prose.” I’m not sure what that has to do with the topic at hand, but I feel there is something worthwhile to consider there.


    By the way, on page 307, he examines what he says is the most beautiful sentence in English literature.

  4. As a self-avowed "eclecticist iconoclast," I obviously have a horse in this race. Still, it seems to me that an outright rejection of eclecticism is the highest sort of arrogance: It essentially asserts "I have nothing to learn from anyone else; no one else can have a valid idea or insight that I have not thought of on my own."

  5. To Gary, re. Sainstbury's observation: dreams "combine -- of their own nature and to the invariable experience of those who are fortunate enough to have much to do with them — the greatest possible variety with the least possible disturbance. "

    He relates this to prose style. I think I see his point. Badiou thinks mathematics is the language of being (well, he doesn't put it quite like that). I think we want something richer, more connotative. Thanks for this-- it's making the wheels turn. More, I hope, soon.

  6. Hi Larry, & welcome to the comment box

    As I say, Žižek knows better than to practice the anti-eclectic line. I think he is opposed to a certain kind of academic fashion, which-- the more I think about it-- must have at least as much to do with the relativism I explicitly do not address in this post. I'm far more sympathetic to that stance of his (insofar as I understand it) than to the anti-eclectic stance. N.b., Žižek does not actually use the e-word himself in the passage I cite; that's all me. having said that, though, I agree with you that there's something arrogant about dismissing eclecticism with a word-- and not just arrogant; dangerous, too. It sets you up in an echo-chamber. I read froma wide swathe of conflicting positions and disciplines not because I am just perversely into genre-bending, but because I am, in principle, against in-crowds.

  7. "I hate the approach of taking a little bit from Lacan, a little bit from Foucault, a little bit from Derrida."

    This seems like irrational hatred since he gives no explicit reason for disliking the approach. Perhaps, he thinks that this approach does not result in a "clear-cut position". But there is no logical connection between combining ideas from different sources and lack of a clear-cut position or eschewing such combinations and having a clear-cut position.

    The more important issue is whether or not a combination of ideas from different sources is coherent or consistent. If it is, then we do have a "clear-cut position".

    "I think the most arrogant position is this apparent, multidisciplinary modesty of 'what I am saying now is not unconditional, it is just a hypothesis,' and so on. It really is a most arrogant position."

    Again, he gives no reason. Reiteration does not a reason make! Again, he strives to connect things or features which are not logically connected at all.

    Arrogance is independent of whether assertions are conditional or unconditional. It is the attitude someone has toward criticism which tells us whether it is arrogant or not. And, in fact, a dogmatic attitude is usually correlated with a dismissive stance toward criticism, and, hence, is a reliable indicator of arrogance.

    One shopworn technique of getting the attention of "intellectuals" is to invert truths. So, if you said a dogmatic person is likely to be arrogant no one will pay any attention to this truism. But if you invert it and claim that a person who acknowledges the conditional nature of his claims is actually more than arrogant than the dogmatic one, then you get reviews!

    "The World is Made of Stories"? LOL

    Well, I am looking at the world in my vicinity now and see tables, chairs, cups, books, trees, birds, clouds, etc. Although I don't see them now, I know there are insects in my backyard. Where are all the stories hiding?

  8. Thill,

    if you check out the original post you'll note that the clause "the world is made of stories" is a partial (and slightly mis-)quotation of a Muriel Rukeyser line, "the universe is made of stories not atoms." And you know, I know for a fact that stories exist, as I have both seen and heard them, and all the middle-sized dry goods you list could be construed as the summation of their particular story (just as I am the culmination of my life-story to date). As for atoms, I've heard a lot of stories about them, but I've never seen one. But yes, the line is from a poem and ought to be taken in that spirit, not the willfully tendentious one I've just employed.

  9. "all the middle-sized dry goods you list could be construed as the summation of their particular story (just as I am the culmination of my life-story to date)."

    You can, of course, tell stories about the world and the objects in it, but it is absurd to think that the stories stand in any sort of causal relationship to the objects, not to mention the objects being the "summation" of a story.

    The simple reason is that the objects were there before anyone started telling stories about them. Some of them were there even before any human being came into existence!

    You and I can tell all the stories we want about fire including fantasies about walking through fire holding hands with Agni the God of Fire and coming out unscathed, etc. But fire is going to burn us regardless of our stories or beliefs about it. This is plain common sense and someone needs to dial 911 if the storytelling gets out of hand and a person identifies the object itself with the story. LOL

    "As for atoms, I've heard a lot of stories about them, but I've never seen one."

    I'm sure you haven't seen microbes or viruses, but, nevertheless, I presume you have had nasty intimations of their presence?

    Atoms? Ask the Japanese whether they think, not merely whether there are atoms, but whether human beings know how to split them.