Future, Present, & Past:

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

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, February 28, 2011

Minor metamorphoses

I am trying some new looks to improve readability on the blog. If anyone has any feedback about this, please let me know. I love the deep-dark background, but I'm told it's hard on the eyes, so I'm thinking of something a little more... parchment-like? (It's hard, because you can think you've got it perfect, and then discover--say, when you sit up straighter--that perfection includes the precise angle of your laptop screen.) Without, however, re-designing the whole look of the place.

There are a few glitches in the sidebar, so please be patient for a bit while I get the colors sorted out. Not all of the gadgets respond to the one-size-fits-all html, apparently.

I hope to finish this molting during the next week or so.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Music of the Arab revolutions

I've argued many times that music is the intersection par excellence for metalepsis. Plato knew well that music and politics were weird twins. It remains true to this day.

One discovery I made recently is the mixtape compiled by the Libyan political group Khalas. "Khalas" is a word meaning "Enough," and in this context means "Enough Qaddafi." Khalas has been active since 2009, struggling to raise the profile of the anti-Qaddafi movement in Libya; its moment seems to have come. The compilation it has made, however, is of music from around the Arab world--Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt-- fraught with lyrics about the movements against dictatorial regimes. The music is entirely rap and hiphop, all in Arabic, and all protest music concerning the upheavals that are sweeping the Arab world. It is worth listening to even if you can't understand a word; but for some good commentary and translation, you can read a transcript of an interview with Abdulla Darrat, one of the founders of Khalas, here.

To my alarm, the website for Khalas, http://enoughgaddafi.com , seems to be shut down. I hope this is only temporary. The mixtape can I think be accessed here. It's not clear why the site is down-- it's an American site, run by exiles-- but one has to wonder about the timing.

More on the Mixtape here or here, including links to the various artists who appear on it, and ways to stream or download.

Addendum: To clarify: whatever one's politics, I think it is arguable that on a certain scale, the Arab revolutions are potentially a geopolitical change more significant than the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. (Alternatively, it could turn out to be a case of plus ça change....) Be that as it may, I have not always had a lot of time for protest music of any sort, the lyrics of which are frequently cringe-making with resentment wear their populism on their sleeve. Since I do not speak Arabic I can't critique these lyrics at all; but I love the way the diction of Arabic works with the delivery of hip-hop, and the way this once-American mutation of drum-machine, urban discontent, and musical scavenging has spread to a part of the world Americans frequently misconstrue and fear. (It is possibly not coincidental that its origins are in a part of America that Americans also often misconstrue and fear.) Cultures are much more long-lived than political regimes. I have forgotten now where I read that the Ayatollah Khomeini was once asked what he feared in America. Not its military might, he replied; but he did fear its blue denim jeans and its rock music. In a lot of ways I am probably on his side in that--I too loathe the spectre of McWorld. Capitalism will certainly make its move on Libya (and make no mistake, these moves are being considered even now); but there is something in musical innovation that exceeds capitalist co-option.

Beauty will yet save the world; but it won't be pretty.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two late obituaries: Julius T. Fraser (1923-2010); Matthew Lipman (1922-2010)

I am sorry to say that I am very late in learning of the deaths of two philosophers, almost exact contemporaries, who ought to be more well-known. J.T. Fraser died last November; Matthew Lipman last December.

A moving memoir of Fraser can be read here on Frederick Turner's blog (Fraser's work on time informs Turner's aesthetics from the ground up, especially in Beauty: the value of values.)

Fraser's books on time were some of the first books of philosophy I stumbled upon in my local library growing up. Fraser argued that time is not a single thing; it is a whole series or hierarchy of different temporalities which all serve to mediate or resolve tensions of the previous level. Energy flies from itself at lightspeed and is (as per Einstein) literally timeless; in its coalescence, matter enabled things to happen; but of course, at the cost of any particular form being destructible. Life emerges in part as a navigation of just this difficulty, with its drive to reproduce, whereby the template of life, so to speak, survives its material base. Consciousness itself arises as yet another wrinkle in this same dialectic.

From all this, it would be hard to avoid the impression that Fraser's work presents a kind of evolutionary Hegelianism. There's a certain truth to such a summary, but like any summary it leaves out the essential. In fact, Fraser's philosophy seems (to me) far more inspired by a close study of 20th-century physics than German idealism. Fraser founded the International Society for the Study of Time, which has continued this grounding in interdisciplinary studies and empirical research.

It is worth noting that another starting-place for Fraser was von Uexküll, from whose concept of umwelt Fraser derived his emphasis upon the experiential aspect of whatever temporal level was in question. It's worth pointing out, given that a number of SCT readers are currently reading Graham Harman, that Fraser speaks explicitly of the umwelts of nonliving objects. At the same time, Fraser remains a Kantian when he says,
it is obvious that a world of distinct and only partially overlapping umwelts--of young children, birds, viruses, molecules--are still features of ourumwelt. ...they may be taken as real only to the extent that we can know and comprehend them. There is nothing inconsistent about the situation. It is the conscious human mind that searches for order among inorganic and organic phenomena, then writes natural philosophies about them; it is not the other way around. It is we who are capable of thinking ourselves into the position of radiation, particles, or field mice, and of outlining the boundaries of their universes to the limits of our capacities. (The Genesis and Evolution of Time, p. 23.)
This avowal of the uniqueness of thinking is also the conclusion of Matthew Lipman:
To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking. I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity, and magnetism and gravitation. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something very special.
This citation is from Lipman's first novel, Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery. Harry is a fifth grader, and he writes the foregoing sentences in a report on "The Most Interesting Thing in the World." Matthew Lipman was a pioneer in philosophy. He did not (as far as I know) write any revolutionary interpretation of Kant or Aurobindo; his innovation was not so much in what he taught as in who he taught it to. Frustrated by the apparent incapacity of college students to engage in critical thinking (this was in the late 1960's), Lipman left Columbia University to found the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, hoping that teaching philosophy to grade school students would cultivate the capacity for critical thinking he found lacking in his undergrads.

To this end, Lipman wrote several novels aimed at pre-teens, as well lobbying strenuously for the teaching of philosophy to children. He insisted that kids as young as 6 or 7 years old could learn to reflect critically. This is sometimes held to be argued contra Piaget and others, who maintained that this intellectual capacity did not usually come into play until later; but in fact, much of Lipman's practical work is addressed to children at about age 10 or 12, when (according to Piaget) children start to acquire this facility. His work has since had worldwide success. (I initially learned of Lipman via the blog of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, which coincidentally is located in my own city of Seattle.) One can see a number of videos on philosophy for children online (E.g. here; the link is to the first of seven parts of a film featuring Lipman; the other parts can be found following it. The sound quality is bad; but there are other videos linked as well.) Lipman's hope to cultivate critical thinking seems to have some empirical validation; his obituary in the NY Times mentions that some 3,000 New Jersey middle-school students in New Jersey who took his philosophy course showed nearly almost twice the academic progress in a year as their "non-philosophical" peers. I am not especially eager to validate philosophy as an adjunct to "academic achievement" in general, but as a teacher of school-children I can confirm what probably ought to be obvious to anyone who thinks about it: children are born to philosophize, and what's more, ask far more ambitious questions than most grad students.

You can read a couple of interviews with Lipman as well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Insomnia: passivity terminable and interminable

A while ago I posted a meditation on sleep, waking, sunyata and the in-itself. It has long seemed to me very telling that Levinas, one of the thinkers under whose tutelage I remain lo these decades after first reading him, begins his ontological investigations with an exploration of the theme of insomnia.
It is as a modality or modification of insomnia that consciousness is consciousness-of-..., a gathering into being or into presence, which, at a certain depth of vigilance where vigilance has to clothe itself with justice, is essential essential to insomnia. Insomnia, wakefulness or vigilance, far from being definable as the simple negation of the natural phenomenon of sleep, belongs to the categorial, antecendent to all anthropological attention and stupor. Ever on the verge of awakening, sleep communicates with vigilance; while trying to escape, sleep stays tuned in, in an obedience to the wakefulness which threatens it and calls to it, which demands. ("God & Philosophy," in The Levinas Reader, p 169).
It is a thematic of the inescapable, of being which cannot be declined because it does not belong to intentionality but rather vice-versa (Levinas calls it "formalism without intentionality"). This motif of irrefusable experience, a kind of irruption of strangeness unavoidably close to the self (so close that it is the self-before-identification, I might say), is shared by Levinas with another thinker from eastern Europe, another claimant of Nietzsche's mantle, E.M. Cioran. Cioran defines man as the animal that wants to sleep but cannot. A fine essay on this aspect of Cioran's thought showed up late last year on the blog Heterodoxia; I just noticed it. There is also an excellent post on Cioran at Dark Chemistry.

A common response to Cioran is recoil from his unremitting pessimism. His philosophy is indeed a litany of refusals of consolation. He does not so much parry as laugh (bitterly) at every proffered reason to prefer existence to nothingness. Cioran's philosophy is a modern restatement of the wisdom of Silenus: the best thing for man is not to be born, and the next-best is to die soon; or it would be, if only, if only. "We have lost, being born, as much as we will lose dying," he muses. And again: "It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late."

At first glance one might think Cioran's a spirit very close to the antipodes of my own, I who praise Rousseau and Leibniz precisely for their optimism (the optimism Voltaire found it so easy to lampoon). And yet, not just the articulation of his anti-vision, not just the "passion" with which he held it, incites my admiration. Nor is it just the mockery he directs at the pretensions of human prometheanism that make me want to make occasional common cause with him. It is rather the absolute commitment with which he follows the insight of, the wisdom of, suffering. Cioran's mother once told him that, had she known how unhappy he owuld be, she would have aborted him. And yet Cioran followed his despair not to depths, but to (as the title of his first book puts it) heights.

Nietzsche's critique of Buddhism was in part that it offered a soteriology of sleep. He believed that the turn of Europe toward the longing for nirvana was a losing of nerve in the face of existence, a symptom of nihilism. One can certainly critique this view of Buddhism, the very name of which derives from the Sanskrit word for awake. But however well or poorly Nietzsche mis-read the Buddha, his take on the First Noble Truth seems pretty solid. "Life is dukkha," suffering, thirst, craving, discomfiture. To the will to end suffering, (the Third Noble Truth), Nietzsche rejoined instead with a paean to suffering:
Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.(Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, 28)

You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? ...whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it--has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Beyond Good & Evil,"Our Virtues")
Nietzsche was, however, a better Buddhist than he knew; for the Dharma would direct one not away from one's suffering but back to it, with eyes wide open and mind attentive. As for his stipulation that human beings can will suffering "provided one shows him some meaning in it," we will come back to this.

The word suffer means, strictly speaking, to experience or to undergo (the su- is derived from the Latin sub-; compare the end of the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra: "Thus began Zarathustra's going-under," untergehen.) Strictly speaking, to suffer can be absolutely neutral in meaning. To be sure, dukkha has some strong negative connotations; but what this ought to suggest to us is that there is a fundamentally traumatic dimension to all experience whatsoever. This is why the Christian tradition refers to Christ's passion, the rendering of Christ as utterly subject; this is why this Passion is held to redeem created nature (and not, incidentally, only human nature) which, as a craving for experience which tends asymptotically towards non-being, is an inability to shut itself off.

I am thinking this to some degree alongside Michael Austin's thoughts on structuralism, which he defines as (among other things),
a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.
This should be thought in dialogue with a renewed reflection on aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime. As will be recalled, Burke considered the sublime to be precisely a kind of trauma--he calls the delight it occasions a "negative pain"--and Kant also remarks on the way in which the sublime is an incitement to a sort of fear. I would say, following a line I've tried to sketch before, that this involves a "summons" (to use Levinas' term) to rise to the occasion of one's own being; but also an anxiety that one will fail (will "miss the mark," in the Christian sense of sin).

Now obviously there can be more than one defense against trauma, even if one concedes (as Austin does not) that the Real just is traumatic. (I don't concede this either, but I come closer.) For instance, one might try, not to construct meaning, but to withdraw from the whole shebang. In this respect, Cioran takes insomnia to be the very mark of the human; man is the animal that wants to sleep and cannot. This incapacity to withdraw from passivity, this ultra-passivity, is very close to what Levinas also saw; and it is what Harman makes the sine qua non of relation: for an object to have a psyche is for it to be in relation, and this means for the object to be in the interior of a larger one. An entity which is furthest "outside" is (for that moment, and contingently) what Harman calls dormant, with advised reference to the connotations of sleep which we get in this loan-word from French. But note that this furthest-outside mirrors, in a strange way, the "withdrawing" of the object-in-itself in Harman's ontology (the notorious "molten interior" of objects).

I'll go on record here as recoiling from Harman's notion of the dormant object, an object that has no relations whatsoever. We can think of this, Harman says, as
an infinite regress downward in the world, with no tiniest layer of microparticle bringing an end to the chain of beings. But the same does not hold in reverse.... Imagine an ocean without a bottom, but with a turbulent surface where certain drops of water have neighbors below but none above. This is the model of the world that has resulted from our previous discussion.
This concept strikes me as almost brutal, a conceptual guillotining of a chain of relations that would otherwise be seen to obtain. To be sure, Harman has his reasons; he wants to decline the notion of a complete inter-relatedness of the world:
The idea of a universe as a whole actually seems like a fruitless abstraction, and there is some autonomy for the various different parts of the cosmos, all of which require work to be interwoven together, which proves that they are not already interwoven.
This refusal of the Whole, characteristic of a strain of postmodern philosophy, is a theme that links Harman to thinkers with whom he has, otherwise, considerable distance, including Badiou, Deleuze, and Derrida. On the other hand, the notion of work to be done to accomplish the interweaving, does I think capture something right, a pragmatist streak in Harman quite congenial to the process-theology inspired by his hero Whitehead. I cannot concede to Harman that the notion of the Whole is a barren one, a "fruitless abstraction," but I can acknowledge it as an orientation instead of a point of departure.

To wrap up this, as usual, widely-cast net of a post, I want to consider two sub-themes here. First is that there is a strange echo here of a thematic from Bergson. (Incidentally, we need to think Bergson in a way other than merely via Deleuze, not because Deleuze's influence is baneful but because any single reading of a philosopher is always reductive. Yet another reason to hope to see Jankelevitch's book on Bergson translated-- or even Benda's.) I want to tentatively suggest that the way Harman's withdrawing interior, refusing all relation, bends around Klein-bottle like to meet his dormant object, exterior to all others, is a curious example of what Bergson critiqued when he remarked that time had been "spatialized" in philosophy, that it had been thought on the model of space and not in its own terms (which he attempted to do especially in Time and Free Will). Harman goes some way toward this in his thinking of time, space, eidos, and essence as Heidegger's Fourfold. The recovery of an "exteriority" other than spatial is one of the grounding intuitions of Levinas (Totality and Infinity is subtitled "an essay on exteriority"); see especially his remarks on Bergson in Ethics and Infinity. Also, in denying (in the same essay) that dormancy is at all like death (the horizon of the future), Harman is both very close to and veering away from Levinas. Like almost everything in this post, this needs to be spelled out more fully.

The second point is that Austin wants to argue against what he's calling structuralism, a label he uses to describe a philosophy that sees meaning as essentially the provenance of the human. Austin lists Nietzsche among his thinkers "who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life," but I see Nietzsche (at least in the citations above) as standing in the middle of the stream that claims human beings weave meaning in direct response to the suffering that is inevitably theirs; he simply asserts that we ought to keep suffering, as it were precisely for this reason.

While I've asserted above that there is a traumatic aspect to experience per se (though the mention of Longinus, Burke, or Kant, on the sublime ought to alert us that this trauma is not mere suffering), I do not claim that humans are the inventors of meaning, whether we think of this meaning as more or less sufficient (like Cassirer) or falling pitifully short (like Cioran); and I concur with Austin that this notion is to be resisted. But I see structuralism, not as a philosophy that construes the real as trauma, but rather as the philosophy that articulates the experience of trauma thus universalized. There is a sense in which structuralism (a la Austin) is simply philosophy as such: that is, if we acknowledge the force of the Socratic claim that "the unexamined life is not worth living," as an answer to the Silenic claim that "not to be born is the best for man, and next best is to die soon." It is not necessary to consider human ingenuity the only source of meaning to admit either that meaning is a stay against trauma (pace Austin, the nonhuman world experiences dukkha galore), or to see the possibility that "examination" may be the way human beings make meaning.

Of course, there remains the question of whether it succeeds in answering the question, or merely of posing it. The Buddha (whose title, I have underscored before, means simply "awake") would suggest that insomnia, whether thought a la Levinas or Cioran, may be only the hither side of another sort of awakening altogether.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

We have still never been modern, and now it's too late

Tim Morton pulls on his big-ideas boots with a post that is going to make certain naysayers roll their eyes.

He lines up colonialism, correlationism, and capitalism, with its ecological mayhem as fallout. These "three C's," I'm tempted to call them, he construes as symptoms of a single meta-phenomenon (though he doesn't put it quite like this). Then to each of these, he opposes some very recent occurrence:

1) Revolutions in the name of universal human values from which the orientalist West excluded the other for two centuries, thus making those places such as Egypt suddenly emerge in front of the West
2) The rise of anti-correlationist forms of speculative realism
3) Global warming and the emerging reaction to it as a genuine nonhuman entity

He argues, too, that these three fly in the face of what we might have expected. Arab countries weren't supposed to have any democratic tradition on which to draw. It was deconstruction and post-colonial theory that should have spelled the end of correlationism. And ecological inter-connectedness (relationalism) should have unified the world into a single system of feedback. To Morton, these three phenomena spell the end of modernity, understood as the era in which his three C's were ascendant.

I would rather put it in Latourian, by saying that the last excuses we had for thinking we ever had been modern are falling away. This is actually my single biggest objection to Morton's post, and though I make some more minor quibbles below, it's the one I really care about. In the same way as 9/11 did not "change the world" more than it showed us what world we really lived in, these events Morton lists reveal that modernity is characterized almost solely by the insistence that "we are modern." It's a tautological era. There is a before-and-after in history, but that's not it. (Hint: see remarks on dialectic in the last paragraph below.)

To the minor quibbles, then. Of course, it's as dangerous to hang your philosophy on today's headlines as on today's science. Can this be viewed as opportunist? Yes. Can it be seen as over-confidently assuming that philosophy (and not just any philosophy but this new philosophy) somehow has the privileged lens through which to see current affairs-- or even assuming that current affairs give a kind of empirical proof of said philosophy? Yes.

Well, I say, go for it. Make me believe it. Get ready (of course) for the doubters (to say nothing of the mockers), but do it-- marshal your arguments, deploy your analogies, and ready your rhetoric to persuade. What philosophy worth reading was not audacious? I actually think Morton makes a good prima facie case; I just would love to see it spelled out and made a place one can live, so to speak, instead of just a store-front.

I do want to push back a little. First, on what Morton is calling "congruence". I'm not saying one needs to prove that imperialism and idealism are "the same," but their rough chronological coincidence, or even their having been made to support each other, is not quite enough. One can be an idealist or a correlationist without being a colonialist; one can even be a capitalist without being a nationalist. Or-- can one? (I mean, without paying the price of incoherence?) Do ontology and politics implicate each other (or not), and if so how? (Some preliminary work on this is done in this post by Morton, and in some very good comments especially from Slatted Light, as well as another post on Dark Chemistry.

Second: Morton's three reasons for seeing his counter-phenomena as "paradoxical" are uneven. His political counterfactual is negative ("suposedly Arab states have no position X from which to do this job, but it turns out what they have is fine") whereas his philosophical and economic/ecological counterfactuals are positive ("supposedly positions Y & Z were going to do these job, but it turns out it was insufficient"). This somewhat hobbles his presentation, and I am not sure whether or how it affects his case.

The other push-back is: no, deconstruction didn't propel us out of "modernity," and ecological relationalism did not solve the eco crisis. But they are (one could argue) essential moments in the dialectic. And make no mistake, if you are going to argue that these three C's and their transformations are all of a piece, you are standing on the shoulders of Hegel. And this means (among other things) taking a very long view. Which, I hasten to add, is what Morton's critics will need to do, rather than focusing--as will certainly be tempting--on the immediate (e.g., "we don't know what sort of regime will emerge in Egypt yet,", or even "God! what a topical, fly-by-night desperate play for of object-oriented relevance.") That is, if we are doing philosophy here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What Egypt tells us about America

Commenter after sage commenter, reminding us that things in Egypt could go wrong, urge caution: how do we know, really, what the "will of the people" here is? What if the demonstrations are staged? Could we be missing part of the picture? Suppose Mubarak resigned and--well, something worse took his place? And so we have the sages warning us to balance ideals with realism; he may be a bad guy, but he's been our bad guy. At least he's not the Muslim Brotherhood. And we certainly wouldn't call him a dictator.

This is politics within the limits of prudence alone. We are reminded, in case we'd forgotten, that there have been some revolutions that sort of turned out badly. Better to wait, in the name of supporting "stability in the region," to see which way the wind is blowing. And then, when the headlines announce the winner, we will declare (with due reference to a carefully-crafted selection of our previous comments) that this is who we were for all along, and offer congratulations to The Egyptian People.

Such a policy is being consciously pursued at this very moment, doubtless spun this way and that by a thousand scrambled cables (which in due time we will read on Wikileaks) pressing for restraint, for respect for human rights, for maneuvering the right (Israel-friendly and "moderate") parties into position. The public face of it is equivocation and what Joe at The Disorder of Things calls
the dark art of evasive support, leaving no doubt that he’s all for Egyptian democracy that doesn’t change too much, too fast, and, most importantly, doesn’t compromise the key strategic interests of the US.
This art is shrugged off as realpolitik, a regrettable necessity, and those who object to it are mocked for being Utopians or at the very least naïve.

The studied ambiguity of the Obama administration on Egypt reminds me of nothing so much as the cautious, step-by-step articulation of a position of maximum maneuverability by Tariq Ramadan, whose grandfather Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Ramadan has been roundly, scurrilously criticized by opponents for sly, weaselly, shifty taking-back-with-one-hand-what-he-gives-with-the-other. His call for a moratorium on stoning (rather than simply declaring the practice an abomination), his "saying different things to different audiences," has been and remains the occasion for the most defamatory spite I have encountered in the intellectual press. (I've written about this before.) Most problematic for Westerners is Ramadan's not-distant-enough relation with his family's legacy, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Egypt during most of Mubarak's rule and which is the object of a lot of worried speculation about what might "come next." (In fact, Ramadan recently declared that the scale of Egyptian uprising took the Muslim Brotherhood by surprise.)

I went last Saturday to listen to Ramadan speak at an event hosted by Seattle University. A thronged auditorium filled mainly, but not entirely, by academics. I sat next to a woman who had listened to Ramadan the night before in his address to a local mosque, and I asked her closely about that talk. "If anything," she said, "he was a bit hard on Muslims. He urged us to be at our best in American society. He said, 'I am not so interested in how you can integrate into American society. I am interested in how you can contribute.'"

Since Ramadan is often accused of saying different things to different audiences, I was especially attentive to any difference between this report and what I heard him say. Would he just "play the crowd"?

It would be very easy to say yes, though my neighbor thought his talk was fairly consonant with what she had heard the previous night. Little I heard Ramadan say would have raised an eyebrow in any liberal, educated academic. I was, in fact, somewhat disappointed. He got some applause and some appreciative "Mmmm"s from the audience, but always for saying more or less what the crowd already thought, or would have thought on its own. "Sometimes it is important to question the way in which we ask the questions," he said, meaning that there is not a monolithic entity called "Islam" confronting a monolithic "West." Mmmmm. "Yes, Muslims need to think through their conceptions of women and of gender. But don't we think that the West needs to do this too?" Mmmmm. For a "controversial intellectual," Ramadan gave about the most uncontroversial lecture (in that context) he could have. (About the only exception: he did eventually mention Egypt and said "we must not support dictatorship, anywhere." It was still pretty safe, but it was at least an explicit position. He's said so again, here.)

Ramadan's call for a modernization of Islam is (I believe) sincere and potentially powerful; he is learned and has a wide appreciation of the tradition of the Western philosophical and artistic tradition as well as that of Islam, and bringing these into dialogue is desperately needed. Insofar as this is the case Ramadan may indeed be an "important intellectual;" but this breadth is not depth. Breadth is, among other things, a degree of comfort with ambiguity. Depth is a not being satisfied with comfort. He may in fact not be satisfied, but nothing he said that day led me to feel he was challenging us not to be.

However, this relative lack of depth is not Ramadan's alone; it is ours (mine, that of the Western liberal intellectual). In listening to him, I realized he was articulating the common moral intuitions of modern, conflicted, liberal individualism-- pressing some of those intuitions far enough to be stated in a way that pleased his audience with a kind of clarity, but never really challenging them, never revolutionizing them, nor pressing the contradictions inherent in them to a point at which insight might spark. (I hasten to add: this is an impression based on listening to one lecture, as well as reading a number of Ramadan's writings. Maybe things are different studying with him in person. He was certainly affable enough face to face, and I can well imagine his charisma working well in a seminar.)

It is very striking that most of the snide attacks on Ramadan come from the political quarters which find the Obama administration's waffling over Egypt perfectly understandable. Egypt is a situation in which we have to be careful. The President may be an equivocator, but he's our equivocator. And this is because, in our hearts, we are equivocators. Ramadan's strength, like Obama's, is the strength of contemporary liberalism, and his weaknesses are likewise the weaknesses of liberalism.

I am thinking, as I write this, of one of the most insightful articles I have read about Obama, this one by Esquire's Tom Junod, from a little over a year ago. Junod sees Obama in terms of "positive discipline," a philosophy of child-rearing for Heaven's sake, but exactly the right place to look.
the principles of positive discipline are virtually identical to the principles of community organization, which is what started him in politics — positive discipline is community organization writ small. Indeed, I have heard the principles of positive discipline espoused from the pulpits of leftish churches and also at a support group I attended to learn how to deal with a relative who is mentally ill. They have currency everywhere, especially among the class of educated people who hand out dried fruit for Halloween instead of candy, as the Obamas did. We are in the middle of a profound social experiment in which our assumptions about power are being challenged in the most fundamental way — that is, in our own families. Barack Obama, then, is not the agent of change; he's the fulfillment of a change that is already occurring culture-wide, in every place but politics. That's why the Republicans fear him so much; why, while waiting for him to fail, they just come off as the political party for people who want to hit their kids.
This tolerant-to-a-fault culture, to which I belong and which I will champion as the right way to do things, has nonetheless more than a touch of ambiguity to it. We run smack into this troubled conscience when we try to think about "tolerance of intolerance," when someone raises the spectre of those who "cannot be modernized," when we worry about clashes of civilizations or the suicide of reason. But we also meet it in unexpected places, as when we see an essay like Amy Chua's in the WSJ, or Jennifer Senior's in New York magazine, go viral. The web firestorm which made Chua briefly (in)famous over strict parenting (and, if there is justice in the world, will get her publicist many, many more clients), the weird argument/sigh-of-relief over Senior's essay illustrating Daniel Gilbert's passing observation (in Stumbling on Happiness that a number of studies show that parents are less happy than nonparents, and, significantly, less happy than they think they are themselves-- these are little blips on a cultural barometer that ought to tell us that our relationship to the most fundamental aspect of culture--having children--is very conflicted. And if you're wondering what on Earth this has to do with whether or how to support a revolution in Egypt, I want to say it has everything to do with it. Our liberalism and individualism, our espousal of self-realization, of the "ethics of authenticity" in Charles Taylor's phrase, has--we know in our hearts-- its blind spots, and when these are pointed out, we stammer. Sometimes for 5,000 comments at a time. Maybe there's a point to hitting your kids after all? Or am I just mad at them for getting in my way?

I find that something about the Mubarak regime and the U.S.' foot-dragging over it, comes into focus when one asks the question of whether there is a point to hitting your kids. Or at least forcing them to practice the piano for seven hours, or making damn sure they do not watch one. more. second. of T.V. before they finish their homework. How willing are we to sacrifice democracy in the name of Israeli stability, or keeping oil flowing, or getting the Egyptian trains to run on time? Maybe there's a point to Mubarak hitting his people?

Barack Obama is well described by Tom Junod:
He is the first truly modern president, because he is the first president to govern as if there is no evil, only lost opportunities for good. He is the first post-evil president.
He's a symptom of our cultural moment, of one trend that has been growing and will continue to grow if larger considerations don't crush it. But the tolerant liberalism he represents has a troubled conscience, and a lack of concepts for this conscience, precisely because the language of conscience involves words like "evil." This is precisely where the breadth of contemporary thinking founders on its own lack of depth.

This is where a thinker like Tariq Ramadan equivocates--he cannot quite come out and say of anything (say, the stoning of women) that it is evil, but simultaneously, his thinking needs this dimension. Moreover--and here Ramadan is superior to many of his critics, and many of his friends as well--he has access to a tradition which gives him this vocabulary; but making a close fit of that vocabulary with the liberal vocabulary is almost completely neglected. It is, in fact, an incredibly difficult challenge; I do not fault Ramadan for having made little headway in it. But I think he understates the challenge, and insofar as he does this consciously, this is an intellectual (and a moral) lapse.

At the risk of getting some Mmmm's of my own, though: this is a fault I share; this is where liberalism in general equivocates. The reason Obama looks so awkward when he tries to do prudence instead of vision is because he lacks--or has rejected--a vocabulary for the limits of liberalism. We don't want to seem unliberal, but we are--if we can admit it--scared. (How we envy, so much we try to emulate it, the sentiment heard repeatedly from interviewed Egyptian demonstrators: "All of a sudden, nobody is afraid anymore." And yet, we're a little afraid of that, too.)

Andrew Bard Schmookler contends that the loss of a viable notion of moral evaluation--of good and evil--is what has crippled the left, while the misuse of this notion has twisted the right. Thus the left is perfectly comfortable with Tariq Ramadan's equivocation (it hardly sees it as such), but is ever-more impatient with Obama's hedging his bets with regards to Mubarak; meanwhile (and, need I add, on a very different scale) it is critics on the right (relatively speaking) who lambaste Ramadan for "doublespeak," but who shake their heads over the naïveté of the left in its calls for an explicit declaration of support for the protesters in Tahrir Square. (Please note, I am talking about general positions here, and don't have particular commentators in mind. In fact, I would love to have counter-examples pointed out.)

The people of Egypt are not America's children. America does not get to tell them to finish their homework before they watch T.V., and it doesn't get to tell them that they cannot have elections unless they promise not to vote in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The head-shaking over Utopian naïveté (no matter how condescending) has a point. Political upheaval is scary and downright dangerous. There is no question that things could "go wrong" in a dozen or more ways. But what is naïve is to think that one could be safely on the right side of history. Breadth, here, is prudence. Depth is courage.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Etienne Souriau

From the time I learned the title of Etienne Souriau's book Les Differents Modes d'Existence, I have wanted to read it. I am often impressed by modality as an opening upon metaphysical problems. I consider Michael Oakeshott's Experience and its Modes one of the great (and under-appreciated) works of 20th-century philosophy. Paul Weiss' Modes of Being is one of the books that first drew me into metaphysics; I still remember reading it in the city library (I think I was one of the only people to check it out). And although Santayana's Realms of Being (a classic which still awaits its renaissance) does not expressly invoke the terminology of modality, I think of it as in the same camp. All these works have in common a willingness to have done with a single ontological category, and my impression is that they share at least this much with Souriau. I am gratified to find this borne out by Latour's rich essay in The Speculative Turn.

Three books with which I am familiar have excurses, of varying length, on Souriau. They are the very different from each other. The first is Mikel Dufrenne's Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. As his title implies, Dufrenne draws upon Souriau's work for the ample resources it offers aesthetics, but his work is one of general phenomonology. In particular, Dufrenne draws out ramifications of a distinction between an aesthetic object and a work of art which, he acknowledges, owes much to Souriau's differentiation between the phenomenal and physical existence, though Dufrenne notes that Souriau does not stop at these two modes. Dufrenne also reproduces a table from L'Avenir de l'esthetique in which Souriau delineates twenty-four aesthetic values on a sort of compass rose the twenty-four values are arranged in a circle (as it were on the hour and half-hour marks). These terms, starting at 12 o'clock and moving clockwise, are:


Now this enumeration may bring to mind Polonius' description of the Players' proficiency:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light.
But Souriau is not just delivering a litany, he is arranging a scale or a spectrum, which is why his values turn back around, so that different values are at 180° to each other (for instance, Beautiful/Grotesque, Pathetic/Fantastic), or at other significant "angles," which nuances our usual conceptions of aesthetic opposites; thus, e.g., Tragic and Comic are at four and eight o'clock, respectively.

However, this is a fragment of Souriau's work, out of context in Dufrenne, who, while he claims a great deal of influence from Souriau and expressly traces some of his own terms and applications back to him, is not engaged in exegesis, and does not present Souriau's thought in any systematic way.

Robert Scholes' Structuralism in Literature refers primarily to Souriau's narratological work, especially Les Deux Cent Milles Situations Dramatiques. Scholes does give a lengthy exposition of this work, with its curious combinatorics, its idiosyncratic astrological notation system, and its somewhat tongue-in-cheek structuralism. This ought to give fair warning that the chart I refer to above, for instance, is intended as a prop and not a skeleton key. (The Deux Cent Milles Situations in the title is a gentle chiding of the notion that one could reduce dramatic narratives to some small compass of "basic plots.") Additionally, Scholes has some material on Souriau's influence on Greimas, which Latour also mentions.

One other place I (unexpectedly, I admit) encountered Souriau, was Henry Corbin's book Alone With the Alone: creative imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. In a four-page-long footnote (pp290-293), Corbin draws heavily on three of Souriau's books, including Les Differents Modes d'Existence, comparing Qur'anic ta'wil (esoteric interpretation) to Souriau's account of transition from virtual existence to supraexistence, and waxing enthusiastic over Souriau's reinterpretation of angelology, especially in L'Ombre de Dieu (also referenced by Latour). This angelology (like Michel Serres') has some direct echoes, I suspect, in Latour's recent work on iconology and sociology of religion (e.g. here and here). Whether one gets a very clear idea of Souriau's own thought from the parallels Corbin draws between it and his own exegesis of Islamic mysticism, it is worth pointing to this long appreciative notice for the sake of a different frame for reading Souriau, lest Latour's welcome presentation become the default setting.

Until Latour's essay, the longest treatment of Souriau's philosophy I have come across is this essay, by Luce de Vitry-Maubrey, called "Etienne Souriau's cosmic vision and the coming-into-its-own of the Platonic Other". (Open (Scribd) version here.) It was published in 1985 and has not been followed (in English) by anything else I know of. I am extremely pleased to have found this article available online (it initially cost me some legwork in a couple of academic libraries), and I urge anyone interested in Souriau, or in Latour's recent work, to read it and compare it with Latour's Speculative Turn essay. It gives the most extensive overview of Souriau, in English, of which I am aware. This is so even in comparison with Latour's (much longer) article, if only because Latour is presenting primarily a single book, whereas de Vitry-Maubrey is concerned with an entire philosophical oeuvre. There are some apparent tensions between the two presentations. Latour writes:
Souriau fully and truly undoes the Kantian amalgam. We no longer have a knowing mind on the one side and on the other side things-in-themselves., with a point of encounter in the middle where phenomena are generated.... We have phenomena...that finally circulate with their own 'patuity' without having to be accountable to a support behind them or an intentional subject in front of them.(The Speculative Turn, pp320-321)
On the other hand, de Vitry-Maubrey writes that Souriau gives us not an undoing but a radicalization of "the Kantian reversal.":
Souriau accepts as irreversible the methodological progress brought about by the Critique: thought is a strictly earthly happening....But...according to Souriau, the full reversal Kant should have accomplished would consist in positing thought as a phenomenon sui generis (of which man is only the occasional cause) which draws both its form and its content from the existential complex from which it emanates.
For de Vitry-Maubrey, Souriau's thinking is an accomplishment of both the Kantian and the Platonic projects (the title of her article suggests the Platonic dimension), but she quotes Souriau (in L'Avernir d'Esthetique): "Plato can only be listened to by way of Kant."

Of course, this is a difference in emphasis, not a complete divergence of orientation. The apparent anti-Kantian animus currently informing Speculative Realism is more rhetorical than substantive; it's a matter of which elements in Kant one wants to emphasize. I have myself pointed out (this is my story and I'm sticking to it) that Harman's ontology, for instance, is a universalizing of Kantianism--it distributes the phenomenon/noumenon split equally and democratically amongst all entities everywhere. This is not surprising when one reflects that Harman has internalized so much of Latour; his ontology radicalizes what Meillassoux calls "weak" correlationism, that correlationism which admits (in theory) an inaccessible in-itself. One might call it a "Kantianism without reserve."

And just as Kant intended, this move empowers thought rather than stymies it. Latour's apparently un-Kantian Souriau, and de Vitry-Maubrey's ultra-Kantian Souriau are unanimous in their arguing for a Thought that is on its own, its own "mode," which gives rise to the ego rather than vice-versa (this is Souriau's reversal of Descartes and radicalization of Husserl). Although for Souriau thought is an earthly thing, it is its own thing, not to be explained away by reference to firing neurons, Oedipal drives, or Boolean operators. It is--at least, it seems at second-hand--closer to Santayana's Realm of Spirit, than to Descartes's Res Cogitans.

Now there are still questions. No matter how strong the anti-monist spirit animating an enumeration of modes, one still wants to ask: "Modes of what?" Despite my sympathy with a pluralist slant (I am an American, after all), I still think philosophy aspires to a vision of the whole. A real engagement of this sort of inquiry vis-a-vis Souriau's project can't be undertaken on the basis of secondary texts. It is devoutly to be hoped that the work of translation is commencing somewhere. Or, I guess, I could brush up my French, but that's a very tall order.

For those interested in more on Souriau:
A few biographical details, and some account of Souriau's work on film, can be found here.

And there is an essay comparing aspects of Souriau's aesthetics to the 10th-c. Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta here.

If you have access to JSTOR, you can read three articles by Souriau himself:
Time in the Plastic Arts
A General Methodology...
The Cube and the Sphere