Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ 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, January 18, 2020

Prize and consolation


Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don't just want to make him have feelings of such-and-such a sort; what I mainly want is to visit him, though of course I should like to be well-received too.
-- Wittgengetin, Culture & Value, p 58
My friend Kawingbird agreed with / objected to my last post, in which I hold that philosophy works by not-working, whereby
intense and difficult precision ... yields, at the right moment, to the graceful blur of letting-go, even if that means falling over backwards.
Quoth the Kawingbird:
No doubt this experience is one of the things philosophy does quite well and one of the things we love it for. But is it the *main thing* philosophy does? Is it *why* we engage in philosophical inquiry? I'll leave aside the first, more general question and answer the personal one for myself. No. I love this experience of "the perfect, broken unfinishable whole" emerging into view out of the inevitable (partial) failure of my inquiries. But it is the equally partial successes that keep me going....I want answers! Yes, every answer turns out to be another question. But that doesn't mean it's not also an answer. ...What you describe seems to be to be like the runner's endorphin rush, which gives us that beautiful and redemptive sense of connection to the ineffable, which makes even our failures and weaknesses look noble. A lovely compensation prize -- and probably necessary for weak and ignorant beings like us. But I still want to get to the top of that next fucking hill.
If we only wanted the endorphin rush, we could run on treadmills. Some do. Maybe Analytic Philosophy departments are the Gold's Gym of philosophy. In any case, most of us do actually want to go there, then there, and so on.  I do maintain that philosophy "works" by not-working, but I think it works. One cannot get even the consolation prize if one doesn't learn to try again, fail again, fail better. The non-success (or, better, the suspension of success) of philosophy cannot happen without the partial successes of which K speaks. 

As to which is the "main thing" philosophy does, and which the side-effect, I think one has to be willing or able to think two contradictory things at once. Supposedly it is "better to travel than to arrive," or so I have been told; but without a destination, no one in fact "travels." One of the few lessons I can actually point to having internalized from my days in Mormonism is the lesson that humility is a side-effect; it cannot be made into the primary goal without short-circuiting the whole process. And yet, there is something decisive about humility that really is the "goal" of ascesis. My wager is that philosophy works this way too.

I'll illustrate this via a philosopher for whom I take K to have a wary and diffident regard: Zizek. In Janet Malcolm's essay The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes:
Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly.  
If I had to summarize Zizek's essential point in his entire project -- his "one sentence," as Badiou / Canguilhem would say -- I would put it as a radicalization of Malcolm's account: the "unspoken agreement" does not function alongside the "strict" rules; the rules are a function of the unspoken agreement. Keep the law or "break" the law, if your concern is with the Law, you are not free. Zizek is a master at continually pointing out those ways in which what looks like "transgression" is a covertly-sanctioned way of performing "transgression." (This exegetical point, including the this-is-Zizek's-basic-core-contention claim, was made very convincingly -- albeit with some ramifications I don't concur with -- by Christian Thorne in a series of three essays on Zizek a few years ago.) This is why Zizek is frequently seen as an ambivalent figure for the Left; he's all for you having your fun, but he wants you to ask yourself where you are getting the idea of fun, and he's all too willing to point out that not just any "fun" is actually liberatory. 

Stage zero in this exegesis is just the terms of the "naive" argument: there is the law, there is breaking the law. Stage one would be: hold together both the law and the "breaking" of the law. The law works by being "broken."  Then the further step, stage two, would be to say: well, then: true freedom is to become indifferent to the law. Only then am I truly free of the Master. 

But if we risk the mockery of Kierkegaard (who spared no eye-rolling at those who tried to "go further"), we might dare ask, beyond Zizek: suppose we hold these two things together. If the real Law turns out to be the Law that always calculates with one hand what it forbids with the other, and "real" transgression, which is of course non-transgression because it is not concerned with whether it "transgresses," is just doing what you do without regard to the Law, is it possible to stand athwart this binary? If "transgression" can also point to a liberty beyond mere disobedience, so too perhaps the law, and even the capital-L "Law" of the Superego, might also point to a way beyond mere legal or moral rectitude -- to the Way, the Tao. Suppose, after all, that the law were not just some arbitrary, projected, Big Other's power trip.  Is it possible to actually keep the Law -- freely?

For a differently-balanced semi-analogy, take kawingbird's metaphor of the consolation-prize: this is a dynamic I observe frequently, watching middle-school basketball competitions, and the way this strange rite of passage continues to play out against the wider "conversation" of child-rearing practices, telling youth what "really matters", with the distant pantomime of professional sports projected on the screen of culture. One stance would have it: one plays to win. Another would have it: your only competition is with yourself; the most valuable prize is the one for "participation." Bah, says the first; hand out prizes for everyone and what is the point of a "prize"? And here begins the dialectic: there is a secret truth to this "Bah," which the giver of participation-prizes admits with guilty reluctance, because on some level we "all want to win;" but then, deeper still, the "what is the point of prizes?" question can be turned on the impatient "Bah"-er: Yes, what is the point? Are you so sure there is one? And then, the further question that turns around on this: but then, why hand out participation "prizes" at all? And beneath it all is the endless and unspoken question, what is the point of playing? What is a game?

My approach with regard to "problems" and "solutions" -- mechanistic or teleological nature, what commends or counts against democracy or aristocracy, whether "free will" is a mere façon de parler or a deep self-determination, whether one can coherently (claim to) think (of) "Nothing," and so on -- is analogous to this going-beyond. Like all analogies, these are imperfect, and my aim in jamming two analogies together here is precisely to highlight the slippage as well as the correspondence. In these analogies, the problem-and-answer dynamic is the Law, is "competition"; mere skepticism is transgression, is "everyone gets a prize"; and the dialectic unfolds from there. Philosophy has to hold together not only problems and solution, but problems and "unsolvable", and so on. But there is a moment in which one has to ask: if letting go of "solutions" is the "real" solution, can one let go of this, too? 

All of this can look, at a certain point, like so much hand-waving, which is why Kierkegaard had an easy target; it's what Timothy Morton likes to shrug off as "going meta-" -- a changing-the-subject maneuver, or worse, a kind of one-upmanship. There is an angle, or more than one, from which it just looks silly -- a slap-the-hand game, or children saying "to infinity no take-backs!" At this point the whole Rube Goldberg device stands revealed (and broken too) as, well, what a Rube Goldberg device is -- an apparatus of pointless detour; and one finds oneself still facing the ordinary tasks: how to cook the fish (don't overdo it). In moments like that, it can be hard to remember that something, after all, gave rise to the question in the first place. Where is the gap between that golden germ, the hiraṇyagarbha, and the flurry of confusion that was the dialectic eventually flowering into haywireity? 

It is absolutely not enough -- it can be exactly the wrong thing -- to "go meta." One must go meta at the right moment. Which may of course mean, not at all. Or rather, not yet, not yet, not yet... one step at a time... till you catch your breath and say, Wow, check out the view. The landscape will go meta on you all by itself.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Many sentences on one sentence on no sentences at all.


Speculum Criticum is a decade old this month. Posting has fluctuated but obviously the trend of late has been towards more and more rarely. This isn’t because I am thinking or writing less; it’s because I have discovered that my habits of writing, which were laid down long before I took up the keyboard, proved less adaptable to typing – and especially to the continual instant-revisability afforded by the computer – than I had anticipated. McLuhan was not mistaken about the ways technologies shape, not just the form, but the content and process of our thought. I think as I write, and I write better with a pen in my hand. Transferring such scrawl into typed copy with HTML tags involves a number of extra steps, my time for which has been scant.

But I wanted to mark the occasion with something, and as I watched this lecture by Badiou, it came to me. In his tribute to Georges Canguilhem (chapter one of his Pocket Pantheon), Badiou calls him “the philosophical master of my generation.” In his lecture on The Immanence of Truths, which can serve as a short preface or advertisment to his book of the same title – volume III of Being and Event, due out in English sometime eventually – Badiou cites a remark by Canguilhem: “the great philosopher is the philosopher we know only by one sentence," and he adds: “if you have many sentences, its not a great philosopher.”

Well, doubtless I have many sentences. E.g., philosophy as the cool handling of hot matters. Or: Enquirie, Camaraderie, Faërie. Or: Sapere aude, Laudare cura. Not to mention paragraphs, pages, whole essays unwinding into suspended inconclusion. But if I had to commit to some single sentence, to serve as a calling card, a palm-of-the-hand discourse, to be known by as one recognizes Pascal by the wager, Descartes by the cogito, Bergson by time as duration; Buber by “I and Thou,” Socrates by avowal of ignorance, and Nietzsche by yea-saying; Wittgenstein by “Whereof one cannot speak…” (yes, even “late” Wittgenstein), Kant by the Copernican experiment, and Anselm by fides quaerens intellectum, I would hazard this: Philosophy works by not-working. Everything I work on comes back to this intuition of philosophy as chiasm between the intentional (even the inevitable) and the ad hoc.

But there is “not working” and “not-working”, as it were. It would doubtless be a bit of preciosity to turn a little hyphen into the mark of a whole doctrine, but let us say, there is a difference between indolence and wu wei; between sloppiness and the light touch. Or, as I have said before, between acedia and apatheia. In fact, the not-working by which philosophy works is a matter of intense and difficult precision that yields, at the right moment, to the graceful blur of letting-go, even if that means falling over backwards. It is a radical discipline of whatever-you-can-get-away-with, the honor one may find among thieves, and only among thieves. Philosophy is a bricolage, a Rube Goldberg device that begins with that smallest and most indispensable of things, a mustard seed of one genuine question, culminates with the wallop of the zen master’s stick that cracks the whole thing from top to bottom, and only then – if at all – unfolds into the wabi-sabi realization of the perfect, broken, unfinishable whole.

Of course, for every great philosopher with their “one sentence,” one finds a shadow-sentence, and another and another. Pascal’s wager is dogged by “the silence of those infinite spaces…”; Descartes chose for his motto not “I think therefore I am,” but the line from Ovid, Bene vixit, bene qui latuit -- “he lives well, who lives well hidden.” One could multiply these B-sides. Moreover, one makes a mistake if one thinks that one has as it were “boiled down” a philosopher to the essential once one has decided, or hit upon, the “one sentence” so that one need not concern oneself with “all the rest;” this at least is or ought to be the lesson from Hillel’s ”the rest is commentary – go learn.” There is no royal road to philosophy, and this means also no Bartlett’s anthology of quotations that will unlock “the” meaning of any thinker. Canguilhem may have been right that a great philosopher is known by a single sentence. But philosophy is not comprehended by sentences at all. It can take a great many sentences – and then, suddenly, none -- to make that clear.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Three addenda to mikras endeixeos


These are more or less just notes to myself, but since they are occasioned by the previous post, they may as well be posted too.

I had written:
Hillel’s lesson is not that “the rest” is negligible.
Hmmm. It is difficult to think of Hillel or Shammai and the English word "rest" without thinking of the Sabbath. Of course it's "just" a pun, and a cross-language one at that. Nothing serious there, right?

George Herbert:
The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
“Rich and weary;” one could do much worse than this for a close approximation to how Joseph Soloveitchik, possibly the greatest rabbinical thinker of the 20th century, reads Genesis 1 and 2 in his little classic The Lonely Man of Faith. According to Soloveitchik, the fact that Genesis 2 seems to start over after Genesis 1 is not an accident of redaction. The Bible tells two different creation stories, with two versions of man, because the human being is as it were divided, or, better to say simply, is two: the “majestic man” of Genesis 1 (“rich”), and the “covenental man” of Genesis 2, of whom it is said it is “not good” that man be alone, who is to tend the garden and not just to have lordship and dominion over the creatures of the Earth (“weary”).

Herbert in this poem deploys the English “rest” with painstaking and overt equivocation, using the slippage of meaning as a feature. “Rest” as residue, remainder? Or “rest” as peace, stillness, rejuvenation? “Rest” in the latter sense is withheld by God, in this reversal of the story of Pandora, and “the rest” of His gifts -- except rest -- are bestowed in order to assure that the tension between richness and weariness may assure that man will seek out God and not “rest” content with creation.

One would want to think this through with special regard to the Sabbath. I am thinking especially of the titular essay in Desmond’s collection Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Is perhaps the ostensible “quietism” of Wittgenstein more a sabbatarianism? A promise of or an aspiration for, not silence, but rest? And might this rest perhaps punctuate, structure, and order the “work” of philosophy, rather than provide its culmination?

Regarding this --
μικρᾶς ἐνδείξεως – the “little teaching.” The word “teaching” here might be better given as “indication” (the root is the same as “index,” or pointing)
The place of the indexical in Wittgenstein is fraught – early on, he seems to say that the indexical is the basis of all thinking (atomic terms “pick out” features of the world, e.g. redness, such that the relation between terms and feature is simply indexical – a kind of “thisness” or haecceity). Later, Wittgenstein famously gave the imperative: “don’t think; look!” (Investigations 66), which hinges upon the indexical in a different way.

These meditations on the “little teaching,” trace, hint, indication, sign, all belong among the almost endless commentary that has been generated by the Hasidic story passed on from Scholem to Benjamin, from Benjamin to Bloch, and picked up by Agamben to become a source of continual academic speculation:
The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different
And because pairing Zen with the Rabbis is something I like to do -- though obviously the resemblance here could be meta-critiqued til the world to come -- I'll end with a nod to the Compendium of the Five Lamps, via D.T. Suzuki:
Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this, when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters. (Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, p. 24)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

mikras endeixeos


Plato:
I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic--except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty. (Seventh Letter, 341 c-e)
A famous episode in the Gemara: a gentile approached the great teachers Shammai and Hillel, and asked for a summary of their teaching brief enough to be delivered while standing on one foot. The exacting Shammai, whose interpretation of halakah was stringent and uncompromising, was provoked by the question’s impertinence: a builder by trade, he took his cubit-length measuring rod and drove away the inquirer. Hillel took a different approach. Famous for his patience, Hillel said:
What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary; go and learn. (Shabbat 31a)
In Aramaic, the sentence rendered “the rest is commentary; go learn” is grammatically a single unit (someone may correct me here; I am trespassing on ground in which I am, to put it gently, inexpert). The declaration does not break into two parts at a semicolon, and trying to so break it would render it meaningless. That is: “go learn” is inseparable from “the rest is commentary.” Hillel’s lesson is not that “the rest” is negligible. It is inherent and inescapable; incumbent upon one the moment one accepts the summary. To prescind from the learning of the commentary would be to reject the summary.

In both the Seventh Letter and in the Epinomis (which reiterates the Letter’s claims about how the substance of philosophy cannot be committed to writing), Plato underlines again and again the difficulty of the philosophical life, and why it takes so much effort. It is only “after much converse about the matter, and a life lived together,” Plato writes, that the “spark” leaps from soul to soul.
This “much converse” and life lived together, then, must be related to the “little” teaching. The teaching “itself” is little, but the life and the converse are much.

Wiitgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 124: Philosophy is descriptive; it “leaves everything as it is.” Wittgenstein is writing about language, but his point still feels very apposite to Marx’s famous claim in the Theses on Feuerbach: philosophers have always offered various redescriptions of the world, but the point is “to change it.” Wittgenstein’s attitude vis-à-vis revolution is not obvious. Sympathetic enough to the call of Marxism to seriously consider relocating to the Soviet Union, he was also deeply elitist in bent. He had given away his fortune, gone to work as a village schoolteacher, and loved ordinary lower-class entertainment, but he knew himself to be an aristocrat of the spirit. (This tension is another reason I love him.)

Between this turning the world upside-down and leaving it just as it is, is the μικρᾶς ἐνδείξεως – the “little teaching.” The word “teaching” here might be better given as “indication” (the root is the same as “index,” or pointing) . It is not necessarily a doctrine; it is a clue, a hint, something ambiguous that must yet be interpreted but also that can be interpreted. It is irreducibly a hint; it cannot be explicated or paraphrased; but it can be read. Philosophy is inherently a hermeneutics. Of what Levinas might call the trace.

Heraclitus: The god at Delphi “neither speaks nor is silent, but gives a sign”: οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.) (Fragment 93)

What is the relation between the “little” indication and the “much” converse, between the teaching and the commentary and learning? Is this relation part of the teaching, or part of the commentary?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Mou Zongsan on the stakes of transmission


One of Mou Zongsan’s controversial claims in his Nineteen Lectures on Chinese Philosophy is that neither Wang Yangming nor Zhu Xi represented the “true” spirit of Confucianism in their time, but that this rather was preserved and passed on by Hu Hong and Liu Jishan. What immediately strikes the western reader is not the question of whether Mou is right or wrong about this; it is that Mou thought it was an issue – that it mattered and was a worthy and reasonable matter to dispute and deliberate, upon which one could hold one position or another, because it had consequences.

Despite quarrels and debates, the rise and fall of scholars’ reputations, the conceptual overhaul of whole schools, a frequent question in Chinese intellectual history is that of fidelity of transmission. It would be easy (and a bit of stereotyping) to call this a sort of “conservativism” of Chinese philosophy, or of Confucianism at least, and it is true that it is concerned with maintenance of a tradition and thereby with that of culture as a whole. If cultural forms become stagnant and mired in convention, the whole civilization suffers; but so, too, if all forms turn to flux, or – more likely – are merely neglected. This concern is part of where Chinese philosophy derives its essential urgency (and without such urgency, philosophy degenerates into what its critics love to lampoon, “armchair” reasoning) – there are social stakes.

Mou however would not accept the term “conservative” unqualifiedly. Citing the Analects (2.23), he quotes:
Following the times, rite can be contracted or expanded; this was done in the Three Dynasties: ‘The Yin folloing the Xia ritual; what they subtracted or added can be known. The Zhou following the Yin ritual, what they subtracted or added can be known. As to the successors of the Zhou, even after a hundred generations, it can be known.’ … Thus Confucians were not diehard conservatives, ‘clinging to the remains and guarding the tatters’ of Zhou ritual. Zhou ritual was not impractical in itself, for it you yourself had real life, it would be practicable. The most important thing was to revive men’s lives.
Nineteen Lectures, 3

Monday, June 24, 2019

Deleuze, Wittgenstein, history, and madness


I have been re-reading Deleuze, Dialogues (w/ Claire Parnet). The book again confirms my impression that I can't go along with him substantively -- I don't reject Transcendence; indeed I reject this rejection (which is not to say I "defend" Transcendence, I simply think in light of it) -- but I am coming to think I am closer to him (in some ways) in spirit than nearly all his exegetes & fans. I relate strongly to his improvisation. I can't quite love him -- because I can't quite trust him. But I might have, had I known him. In this, he is almost the opposite of Wittgenstein, who I fell in love with, but perhaps would have been driven mad by in person.

Interestingly, the fault in both Wittgenstein and Deleuze is the same: an indifference, indeed almost a hostility, to history. One cannot really picture either of them talking with Leo Strauss and having the conversation go well. But this manifests in different ways: Wittgenstein simply goes his own dogged way -- one can imagine him saying, after Luther, "I can do no other." (In Derek Jarman's eponymous 1993 film -- not always to be trusted, but accurate enough, in spirit, on this score -- there's a moment where Wittgenstein asks, "Aristotle? Why would I want to read Aristotle?") Deleuze, on the other hand, is brusque and suspicious. This is what I don't love / trust -- his suspicion calls forth my own. But I do "get" it -- his refusal to prostrate himself before the August Authorities. (I have tried before to say something of what this gets right and gets wrong.) It is as if, for almost any reference to the tradition, the onus is on the referrer to prove that they are not making some power-play. Deleuze is quite explicit:
The history of philosophy has always been the agent of power in philosophy, and even in thought. It has played the represser's role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger, and so-&-so's book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought -- but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despise. (p13)
As a teacher pf philosophy to the very young (my classes start as young as 8 years old -- and I know those who are brave enough to start with age 5) -- I am extremely careful to avoid swathing philosophy in a glossy coat of proper names, or pre-existing arguments. This is not just because of pedagogical concerns -- a desire not to intimidate. Philosophy is new every time.

I have heard, all too often, outsiders' surprise (with sometimes a hint of indignation): but don't you get exhausted with hearing the same old points? Some undergraduate rediscovers a quasi-Cartesian "Maybe it's all a dream" or a relativistic "who are you to say...?," or a righteous indignation at slavery or Stonewall; doesn't it get just a little tiresome? Don't you want to just say, Let me spare you the trouble -- these things have been thought about before?

Pointing students to their predecessors can be done with a light touch, if (and perhaps only if) one sees oneself as a student as well. This has nothing to do with false humility. One has a familiarity with the texts -- maybe with Greek or Chinese, even -- and some experience in thinking about the questions, including a sense of the lay of the land -- places where, or ways that, one is likely to go wrong. But those lessons are lessons in cleverness. It is easy to lose patience with cleverness (even Plato warns against it), but in my experience, the best way to make it irrelevant is to keep doing philosophy -- the examined life (life right now, not past-won laurels) and knowledge of ignorance.

I think Deleuze (wrongly) thought -- at least he implies -- that erudition is almost always cleverness. But he is not wrong that cleverness is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Indeed, he is himself possessed of an overabundance of cleverness, and indeed of erudition; and although he is cheeky to a fault, I like arguing with him. Wittgenstein's cheek, on the other hand, is a sort of intense seriousness and curious impatience with pseudo-problems -- by which I think he means -- if one pushes ever so gently -- the sort of problems that philosophers themselves do not take seriously, but pretend to. (Again, I believe there is effectively no difference in fundamental concern between the "early" Wittgenstein (who famously refused to acknowledge to Russell that there could not be a rhinoceros in the room) and the "late" Wittgenstein, who wants to critique "pseudo-problems." Both are concerned with the limits of theory and of articulability. No 180-degree reorientation; but there is a relationship: The late Wittgensetin wants to ask: what shall we do with the early Wittgenstein? What would it meant to really take him, or someone like him, seriously? Wittgenstein's greatest impatience is reserved for those who pretend to consider the problem on a theoretical plane, without ever asking what would happen in practice.)

Unlike Wittgenstein (who was a late-, untimely-born Ancient, bereft of history), Deleuze was, despite his quasi-animism, a Modern -- a conflicted (like all moderns) heir to the Enlightenment (in somewhat the way Nietzsche is as well). Alternatively, one might also construe Deleuze as an untimely-born early Modern; one who willingly accepts the challenge of modernity to start anew, and by this very token refuses to be bound by the supposed game-changing new regime of the three Critiques. Deleuze the self-described metaphysician is, on this reading, a sort of pre-Kantian -- as opposed to Wittgenstein's (arguably Kantian) critique of metaphysics-as-mistake, and his equally Kantian insistence on staying with what "can be said."

Perhaps I could not have gotten close enough to Deleuze to have good conversation, but I cannot shake the sense that if I could have, some real sparks might have lit. Deleuze famously dismissed Wittgenstein's legacy as destructive (despite Wittgenstein's own wholesale disavowal of any intention or indeed capacity to "found a school"); I would unhesitatingly say the same of roughly 80-90 percent of the Deleuzoscholastic flood which shows no sign of abating. But Deleuze himself is a different matter. He is (I am bound to say) wrong, but he has a kind of madness to him -- the more obvious but not necessarily most telling indices of which are the neologisms, the strange conflations of material and ideal terms, the methodic and methodological experimentalism (the authorship with Guattari, to say nothing of his engagement (alone and with Guattari) with schizophrenia and other guises of madness itself as a matter of inquiry. It's this madness (divine madness, as Socrates describes philosophy) that marks him as touched by the real philosophical fire, and which indeed is perhaps the most crucial way in which he resembles Wittgenstein -- and differs from (nearly) every "Deleuzian."

To be sure, Deleuze's madness is itself also modern -- it is philosophical, but it cannot conceive itself as divine.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

And/Or


I deeply dislike the question “What do you really want?” – a demand to name your desire. It has always seemed to me to have an impatience to it, a cut-to-the-chase subtext. And yet, if one cannot offer a reason for the hope that is within you, as the Epistle of Peter urges, something is clearly lacking. In short, the demand for demands may be motivated by all sorts of suspicious agendas, but it is not in itself an illegitimate query. What are the stakes?

I was asked it the other day. What is it you want out of philosophy? It wasn’t so difficult to answer – indeed, had I been a little more careful I would have realized the answer came too easily: I really do want to know. What is the biggest context-of-all-contexts, and how does that work, all-the-way-down? I want the truth.

And – I want to know how, and to dare, to act rightly. To “be a good person,” I believe is the way this is usually put.

The true, the good …. Belatedly, I recognized the terms I was using. I decided to embrace the obvious. Yes, the beautiful: I want to make something, something conducive to this only-life-worth-living, some kind of apt image of the whole. A work. A beautiful work. Maybe that would just be the examined life itself. Or maybe, an artefact. What have I been doing with all these notebooks all these years if not laboring at art?

Alas, I’m not really the sort of person who can leave something alone, when it looks as neat and pat as a made-to-order trinity. A host of reservations flooded in. The truth? Really? This was not just my inner Nietzschean sniggering at me, nor the Darwinian shaking his head: “That’s not really what we’re made for…” Of course I flinch at the truth. Suppose that it is terrible? As for the Good: Leaving aside the fact that I am, as far as I can tell, no further along the path than when I started, the fact is, being ethical costs me, and I balk at that cost about as often as I notice it at all. The balking costs me something too – that is what it means for this to be a question of the Good – but still, I balk. “The evil I would not do, that I do, and the good I would do, I do not.” Leave aside the questions of why this might be the case or how seemly (or not) it is to discuss (for myself I suspect that the less said outside the confessional, the better), but I am pretty much persuaded, by experience as well as by thought, that Father Stephen Freeman is right: I am not, in fact, improving, and moral improvement is not the point of Christianity, at least. (Perhaps it is the point of philosophy. Maybe that’s one difference. Maybe…)

And the beautiful? I want to make a beautiful work, do I? Closer to the truth would be: I want to have made one. Writing – to say nothing of thinking – is a chore, a tedium, is hard. I would far, far rather sit back with friends and a drink at my elbow having spent the day actively and productively writing, than actually spend the day writing. Most days in which I “write” are spent looking out of windows, staring into the middle-distance, frowning at notebooks, rifling through papers, pacing the stacks in the bookstore or library, moving between café counter and restroom.

In short, there’s nothing simple about these desires. They are more a form of conflict than a driving, life-filling passion. Or, maybe better: the way they motivate my life is by way of this conflict.

Moreover, this seems right to me. Insofar as thinking itself, thinking per se, involves a sort of esotericism, it seems to mean a prescinding from every easy shortcut to resolution. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that it was perfectly plausible that certain goods might be incommensurable. Strauss names some questions “perennial problems;” they have perhaps a limited family of possible “solutions” but no solution has ever been able to persuasively hold the field in perpetuity. Perhaps then there are some conflicts which need to be maintained as such, precisely as agon. Moreover, these terms foreground something that a word like “problem” or “question” does not: there is something difficult, something struggling, about conflict; and this, too, is why there is such a strong impetus – even an ethical impetus – to solve the conflict. Does pursuit of the good entail that we might have to put ourselves in harm’s way or to relinquish something upon which we had set our heart? Suppose the true does turn out to be terrible – why should I let the abyss stare into me? Is there a “best” form of social order – and what if it meant we must forego – or submit to – something less than best? Can a work of poetry or music or painting reveal to us die sachen selbst, or are we left only with a play of images that construe us as much as we them?

To leave these as mere “questions” would be to curate a number of possible answers, hold each curious sample up and turn it so it catches the light, always without that crucial quality the existentialists insisted upon: engagement. Or, for that matter, the Marxists and the conservatives alike: taking sides. The ivory tower armchair is a foolish and reductionist cliché, but it gets at something right: without commitment, philosophy becomes not a game, but not even a game; something idle, frivolous, with no stakes at all. “It is never enough to split the difference,” a friend said to me; “somehow we have to both answer and not.” Or as Michael Stipe put it: “I’ve said too much; I haven’t said enough.”

The whole tangle reminds me of nothing so much as the fourteenth case from the Mumokoan:
Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls disputing over which hall would keep a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: “If any of you can say a word, you will save the cat.” No one answered. Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening Joshu returned to the monastery and Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nansen said: “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”
Mumon comments:
Why did Joshu put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this, you will understand why Nansen’s deed was not in vain. If not, beware!

Had Joshu been there
He would have taken charge.
Joshu snatches the sword
And Nansen begs for his life.
This story has always called to my mind – for what seem to me obvious reasons – two others: the judgment of Solomon, and Schrodinger’s parable of the cat. As is well known, Schrodinger intended his thought experiment not as an illustration but a reductio ad absurdum of the Copenhagen interpretation; he was trying to call Copenhagen’s bluff. Since then, Copenhagen has called his.

In I Kings ch 3, the famous story goes, two women – “harlots,” says the KJV – are brought, along with an infant, before King Solomon. One of them has lost a child. Each one claims that the living child is her own. Solomon declares the child shall be divided between them; one woman acquiesces, and the other begs the king to give the child unharmed to the other; whereupon Solomon, discerning true motherly kindness, awards the child to the woman who begged for the child’s life. The story – and its many parallels from China to Pompeii, from the Jataka stories to Brecht (and even elsewhere within the Bible itself) – is again one about calling a bluff, indeed about more than one bluff-calling. (In the course of writing this post, I have read a number of feminist engagements with the Biblical story which seek to call its bluff. Some of them seem to me to manifest the worse characteristics of bad deconstructive readings, but it seems to me only fair to note that there are minority reports out there which want to contest the king’s wisdom, or the narrator’s.)

Overlay these stories on each other in a kind of narrative superimposition, and you find something interesting. The necessity of choice becomes a way of making a different choice. One contemporary commentary I discovered, which to my amusement also refers to the Biblical story (confirming my acumen, of course), imagined the “true” mother in the Biblical story scolding Nansen: Oh, you will kill the cat, will you?! You call yourself a monk! You ought to be ashamed! You know very well your vows do not permit you to take a life, any life. Nansen might have responded: break the vow, or break the cat; the vow remains, the cat escapes. In fact, the Blue Cliff Record, which also preserves the story, says that Nansen did not kill the cat; so too the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23b) actually ascribes the declaration “she is the mother” not to Solomon but to a voice from heaven. Textual tradition is always self-revisionary. There is saying, and saying.

Schrodinger wanted to insist: the refusal to choose works only so far, and no further. Bohr might have responded: the choice gets made willy-nilly. All you need is a Geiger counter. Nansen might have said: the cat is already dead-and-alive. So are you.

The either/or of the dilemma is supposed to press us to a moment where we cannot not speak. “Say a word,” Nansen commands the monks – dotoku, “express.” (It is also the name of a chapter from Dogen’s Shobogenzo). “Speak a word to me,” the disciples are always asking the elders in the Apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers. It is not just any utterance that is intended; it is a word meant for them; the request is also an act of obeisance.

Dogen also says:
when you use words to express what you have realized, you will leave unsaid whatever is inexpressible through words. Even if you can see that you have indeed expressed what you have realized, if you have not realized that not all things can be verbally expressed, then you will lack the look of the Buddhas and Ancestors, and you will lack the Bones and Marrow of the Buddhas and Ancestors.
C.S. Lewis opens his introduction to The Great Divorce with a clarification of his intention, self-consciously answering Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
[T]his is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable "either-or"; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found.
The great dilemma is not between Either and Or, whatever those may be. It is between And and Or; between no-dilemma and dilemma, between absolute reconciliation and insistence on discrimination. I know of almost no thinker who has embraced the former, though Erich Unger comes close here:
The genuine, and for a long time to come, the main activity of the mind consists in doing the exact opposite of what is commonly supposed. It is not to criticize or find out what is faulty, but to find out that which is true in any and every philosophical view that is put forward, or at least every view of historical repute. This means refusing to accept as ‘final’ any contradiction between conflicting views, since final contradictions properly belong to the end of philosophical enquiry. Consistency can never be achieved through an analytical or a merely critical procedure; consistency or systematicallity is the joint product of two faculties, differentiation and imagination. (“Do Philosophers Disagree?”)
It might seem that Hegel is the ultimate reconciler in the history of philosophy, at least in the West, and indeed, in his claim to have not philosophy but wisdom, he does seem to stake a claim to be beyond conflict. But the figure I know of who goes furthest in this direction is Brook Ziporyn, whose neo-Tiantai stance claims to offer grounds for asserting any claim whatsoever; a remarkable attempt to make Dadaism rigorous, or rigor Dadaistic... In Ziporyn's words,
“the differentiations between things, their conventional designations, as well as any cockamamie philosophical or religious theory or personal illusion about them, are just as ultimately true and untrue as their Emptiness … both of these aspects are just as ultimate as the fact that these two aspects are simply aspects of one another.”(Being and Ambiguity p 16)
To put things in a very rough-and-ready way, And/Or can be posed in terms of content or in terms of form.

And/Or is a choice between conflict and reconciliation, tension and synthesis. To choose reconciliation, (“And”) would thus not be to choose both sides, but only one side -- the side of “not choosing” -- but because one has chosen, one has willy-nilly chosen “Or”. And yet: if to insist upon decision (“Or”) is to claim that there is an irresolvable conflict or tension, responsive to no synthesis, this suggests that the other side (“And”) is never refuted. It has a strange status as a perpetually possible illusion, known to be an illusion and yet never able to be dispelled. Choosing one side implies choosing the other side. This is why And/Or remains a dilemma. The cat escapes. Which is doubtless what it really wanted; but it seems to escape by being split.

This game is not a game.

Monday, April 22, 2019

R.I.P. Robert Firmage, 1944-2019


Robert Firmage, who I interviewed on this blog two years ago, has died. Robert called himself a Platonist, a Taoist, and a Christian, not always in that order; I knew him as a philosopher; but he wanted above all to give his service to poetry and to that end he labored on translations from German, French, and Latin, from the Augustan era, the Middle Ages, the 19th and 20th centuries.

Robert's service to poetry and to philosophy were two aspects of a single devotion, to a world that always exceeds our capacity to say it, but which by that very token calls forth gesture after gesture, because we are called to love it, and love does not expend itself in its expression. Robert underscored this: "Only if we approach it with love can we understand the world," he insisted, in direct opposition to the scientistic demand for disengagement. This privileging of love, grounded in Plato and in the New Testament, and above all in experience, may sound cliché, but for Robert it was exacting and unsentimental. He worked on his translations with utmost attention to nuance; his philosophy, informed by Einstein, Heidegger, and the I Ching, was attuned to a dispassion as scrupulous any laboratory protocol. But he was also kind and grateful (for all his apparent gruffness); he was devoted to his wife Gertrud -- during every conversation I had on the phone with him, he would mention some care she had shown him, or some detail of their life together which incidentally illustrated his other thinking. And whenever we got together, it was in a cafe where he knew everyone behind the counter by name.

Poetry and philosophy: the praise of life and the study of how to die. I have no doubt that the attention Robert brought to this throughout his life stood him in good stead through the end. I am very grateful for the chance I had to share in his self-effacement and good-humor.

Memory eternal.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Drunken Philosophy in the Seattle Times


No long post this month -- between other commitments, writing, and a shoulder in a sling after tripping on some basement stairs, I have found lots of typing to be beyond me.

Here though is a brief write-up from the Seattle Times of the Seattle chapter of Drunken Philosophy, founded by Michael Shepherd, a conversation with whom I posted in two different parts a couple of years ago.

It's been a while since I was a regular at these, but I still go occasionally, and the article seems to get things about right: conversations are broad-ranging, engaging, civil, and yes, deep, at least sometimes. The story does not mention that the group is still among the largest philosophy meetup groups in the country (when I interviewed Shepherd, it was second. Not sure if things have changed since then.) The detail about tending millennial and male is accurate too, though I have never gone to a DP event and not met someone who was neither. I'd say the same about "white," too, although the photo(s), seem to show a number of white guys, and some of the twitter comments I've seen remark -- a bit dismissively, though not inaccurately -- upon this.

The real issue, though, is depth. I'm not persuaded that one can do much genuine philosophizing with folks you just met; this takes time and a longer arc of friendship. But if you want to encounter people who might become such friends, this is a good spot in the agora to hang out in.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Let no one enter here who has not studied Conspiracy Theory


I am a conspiracy theorist, of the common-sense variety: I "theorize" that shared interests make for alliances; and if those interests are served by secrecy, then secrecy there will be. The larger the stakes, the greater the interests, and so too the greater the need for secrecy. Because high stakes tend to be available only to players who are already powerful, they will also tend to have greater opportunities for secrecy. But conversely: the greater the stakes, so too the greater the likelihood of alliances breaking, and greater the difficulty of secrecy.

Those could be a sort of rough-and-ready set of axioms of any Conspiracy Theory 101. They aptly sum up both why it is reasonable to expect conspiracies, why they are likely to succeed in the short- to medium-run, likely to be unstable in the long run, and why they are likely to eventually come to light. And they do come to light: everyone knows what the Mafia is, and everyone knows what the Illuminati is too. The fact that most people believe in the one and few people believe in the other is incidental.

Conspiracy theory is fun to malign, until you need it. The notion that Democratic Party officials were complicit in a child-sex-trade cartel under a pizza restaurant seemed a little too good/horrible to be true, but the notion that Russian trolls have conspired with certain renegade wannabe movers-&-shakers on the political right, abetted by a cartoon frog, to place a New York pretend-billionaire in the Oval Office has become the bread and butter of the 24-hour news cycle. As I type, rumors are again rife that this-week-for-sure, we'll see the long-promised Mueller Report. I have no doubt that when it finally drops, the report will be full of Important Findings; those who have the patience and the obsession will be kept busy for a long time filling in the gaps. But while all of this has happened, it has remained sufficient to call someone a conspiracy theorist to discredit them -- as though nothing else need be said. What we believe in are collusion, and cover-ups, and maybe, when pressed, conspiracy. What we disdain is conspiracy theory.

I started reading conspiracy theory in the late 1980's and early '90s, before the X-Files, and before the internet dialed all this stuff up to eleven. I am entertained by it, but not dogmatic about it. Among my friends, at various times, have been a bitcoin-buying anarchist who refused to talk with me while my cellphone lay on the table; a former intelligence operative who has assured me that threatening messages had reached him via little details in the daily press; and fellow who looked me in the eye with an if-you-have-to-ask-you'll-never-know sigh, and told me, from his own personal experience, that once you have seen proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, it changes your life. Well that, at least, I could well believe.

I also was once invited along to drop off Richard Hoagland, author of The Monuments of Mars, at the airport after a presentation he'd given. Hoagland had not expected me, however, and when my friend who was driving took an unexpected detour, Hoagland became notably alarmed. "Wait -- what? -- where are we going?" There followed an awkward moment when it was suddenly very clear that he found it completely plausible that my friend and I might intend to murder him. How we moved past that uncomfortable impasse I don't remember; we wound up having a very interesting conversation about Bode's law, Copernicus' cosmology (all those nested platonic solids) and what it would take for Hoagland to acknowledge that his hypothesis of ancient Martian civilization had, Karl Popper-style, been falsified. (I was relieved to discover that there was indeed an answer to this -- he assured me that a complete absence of "lawn furniture"-sized artifacts on the Martian surface would convince him he'd been wrong).

Hoagland's scare underscores something, though. After all, one rises to prominence in the world of conspiracy theory by fostering suspicion and paranoia. This means that the higher one's profile, arguably the more paranoid you are; and the more warily you must regard everyone else, including -- perhaps especially -- your compatriots in the conspiracy-theory subculture. These, in turn, must of course regard you with the same arm's-length wariness. Thus Alex Jones, Jim Keith, David Icke, Robert Anton Wilson, Jim Marrs, Mae Brussel, Miles Mathis, Whitley Strieber, Art Bell, and on and on, have each been publicly suspected (not infrequently by one another) of being a psy-ops provocateur. (Mathis has voiced this suspicion of pretty much everyone). In a milieu in which paranoia is the modus operandi, atomization is a natural side effect. After all, if THEY are so powerful, then the higher your profile, the more you must be useful to THEM. Otherwise, why are they letting you make so much noise? Why haven't they offed you yet? The only real street-cred legitimization is -- death; not just any death, but the bullet-with-your-name-on-it kind. Don't trust anyone above the ground. Thus William Cooper, author of Behold a Pale Horse, gunned down by the Feds in true you'll-never-take-me-alive style, and Danny Casolaro, found with his wrists slashed ten times each when hot upon the trail of the sprawling conspiracy he called The Octopus, are among the only near-untouchables in this subculture. (Even they have not been immune.)

Well, then: Call no man reliable until he is dead.

That's one side of the paradox. The other side is more liberating. Like all theory, conspiracy theory aspires to explain; its explanatory mechanism, however, also conceals. A conspiracy must act in secret. The more powerful the (postulated) conspiracy, the greater the explanatory power; but also the greater its (hypothetical) capacity to deceive. And thus, the more your conspiracy theory explains, the less you can know; and a conspiracy powerful enough to control everything would undermine your capacity to trust anything, including the rationale that leads you to believe in the conspiracy.

The low-hanging fruit here would be: conspiracy theory is nonsense. This critique is easily parried: conspiracies are not regarded as all-powerful (indeed, narratively speaking, their allure partly depends upon the critics being scrappy, indefatigable heroes who could win; the meddling kids to the Illuminati's woulda-gotten-away-with-it); but the deeper point, beyond the betcha-never-though-of-that, is further-reaching, a kind of immanent critique: go deep enough into paranoia, and you cannot help but come out the other side. Ultimately, fear can contain the seeds of its own dissolution.

I thought of all this, again, in the wake of the death of Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche is a splendid cautionary figure for political philosophy, and maybe for philosophy as a whole, and if this claim is puzzling it is because philosophy has become too tame. Whatever his (sometime) weirdness and blame-mongering, LaRouche clearly aspired to be taken for a genuine intellectual. Look through the publications of his foundation, the Schiller Institute. That's Friedrich Schiller, my friends, not Adam Smith or Edmund Burke or any of a dozen likelier candidates for patron saint if you were aiming for a respectable-sounding political movement. What first strikes you when you flip through any copy of Fidelio (the Institute's glossy magazine) isn't the politics; it's the undeniable breadth of topics: Lincoln's presidency, the Newton-Leibniz dispute, cold fusion, Bach's compositions. This breadth is a sign of far more than middlebrows aspiring to high culture; there are good guys and bad guys in LaRouche's account of history, and those who are not for us are against us. Nothing is neutral. Euler's mathematics is evil, Riemann's is good. Bach's music is not just uplifting, it's a force for truth; Russell's philosophy is the opposite. And remarking upon any of it is, obviously, relevant to the cause. The same is clear from the dozens of essays produced by Miles Mathis: the ruin of culture since modernism turns out to be part and parcel of how everything you know from science and math is wrong (pi=4, for instance), and that almost nothing you read in the national news actually happened. That is: everything is connected.

I was first discovering this stuff at the same time as Derrida was crossing my radar, and I couldn't help but see the way Derrida would turn a stray comment from Rousseau into the lynchpin of a whole essay that seemed to show that everything you thought you knew was subtly undermined. Later I read Agamben, and there it was again: an obscure figure in Roman law becomes the thread that when pulled turns out to drag the entirety of European civilization behind it, from Byzantine theology to the architecture of Auschwitz. But you didn't have to be a cool European thinker that got cited in all the right grad programs; the same point had been made by Freud, after all (to say nothing of Jung and his eye for synchronicity): everything could turn on the most inoffensive-looking little detail. Or, as Richard Weaver (who was certainly not getting cited in all the right grad programs) had already said: ideas have consequences. But because history never proceeds in a straight line, tracing those consequences always looks a little ... paranoid. Guido Preparata is right to say: conspiracy theory is too important to be left to conspiracy theorists. The only thing that differentiates paranoia from the Socratic following the logos wherever it leads, is that Socrates is not afraid.

"Everything is connected" is both a banal bit of pseudo-profundity, and a truth the full weight of which no one really feels in their soul unless they are in the throes of a bout of enlightenment. It is, to be sure, not just easy to roll your eyes at; it practically elicits this response just by being said aloud. At least one reason for this reaction is not the pseudo-profundity but the fact that when acted upon, this truth winds up creating a lot of paranoid effects.

I don't presume to know whether LaRouche ever got within spitting distance of satori; that's certainly not my claim here. All I want to emphasize is that philosophy can look crazy from the outside. (Indeed, Socrates would say, it is crazy; but madness -- the right kind of madness -- is the greatest of all gifts.) It looks crazy because it's trying to do the impossible: to think the Whole. The more you attempt this, the more you get tangled in epicycles, which are not a bug but a feature of the very notion of system. Philosophy deploys system against systematicity. Most paranoia, alas, stops with the tangle.

Besides paranoia, the other extreme of fear is panic. Right away this name is a clue: panic is the all-encompassing, paralyzing or dissolving, fear in the face of Pan, the All. Of course. The All overwhelms.

Paranoia, the "it's-all-connected,-man" urge, is the attempt to hold panic at bay, to tame the threat by mapping it. To be sure, one can decide it was all a waste of energy, and return to a healthy agnosticism or one of the more standard-issue forms of paranoia peddled by the brand-name "Major Parties" ("Yay Republicans;" "Yay Democrats;" "Yay CNN;" "Yay FOX;" "Yay Science;" "Yay Family Values;" "Yay, Jihad;" "Yay Jesus;" "Yay [insert pop idol];" and so on). But if you want to really get out of paranoia, you have to go through, and that means it gets worse before it gets better.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

privilege


This year SCT will be one decade old. It is likely to be a year of scant posting here, but I am not closing shop. My aim is to finalize plans for a (small) book and to have made a significant beginning on the material therein. I will occasionally post some drafts that will perhaps be more rough than my usual work here.

Daniel Dennett says, I think in an interview, that he resents every moment he must devote to politics because it is time stolen from projects he'd rather be working on -- presumably the philosophy of consciousness. A friend who is pretty solidly rooted in the Straussian tradition held up this remark as a sort of smoking gun for the apparent bankruptcy (my words, not his) of the analytic scientism (ditto) he sees in Dennett. "Politics has to be where we start," he said. My own stance is far closer to my friend's than to Dennett's, but I have to say I see Dennett's point. The last several posts I wrote here feel far removed from my own immediate concerns; they are my way of trying to ward off the siren-call that "everybody's shouting," now as in 1965 when Dylan sang about it: "Which side are you on?" I will of course have more to say on this -- it is not so easily exorcised -- but I truly hope to spend more time on the questions that the crises of the day distract from. This is not to say that they are not crises. And if any one wants to say that it is from a "position of privilege" that one may put one's attention elsewhere, well, how could I demur? I am not in a refugee camp or fleeing from civil war or criminal cartels, and (so far) I am spared the worst effects of ecological catastrophe and the Ponzi scheme we call the national (or global) economy. But I take with absolute seriousness the claim of philosophy, the examined life, to be the life worth living.

We are told in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, that when Musonius Rufus was sentenced under the Emperor Nero to hard labor, digging a canal across the isthmus of Corinth, he was met by Demetrius, a fellow philosopher, who was dismayed to see him in such a state. Musonius responded to him:
"You are distraught, Demetrius, to find me digging across the isthmus for Greece? But what, I wonder, would you have thought, if you saw me playing the cithara like Nero?"
Or, if one wants a testimony from some less remote era:

When Jacques Lusseyran was imprisoned at Buchenwald, he discovered that reciting poetry kept him and his fellow inmates alive. In his essay Poetry in Buchenwald, Lusseyran is emphatic that "this is not just a manner of speaking;"
for us these were sensations ... poetry was completely lived by us, and not simply evaluated[.] We didn’t say, “It’s beautiful,” an expression which only has meaning for those who are happy, the sated. We said, “You see how much good it does!”

I hear skeptics growling, “He’s not going to tell us that they were
fed by poetry.” Of course not. We were nourished by a watery soup and a bitter bread. And by hope. Let skeptics not forget this! It was precisely in this matter of hope that poetry acted upon us. And it was in the thick of these most completely physical, material circumstances which I endured even to the point of suffocation, that I understood how utterly tangible are these things without weight which we call hope, poetry, life. ... To nourish the desire to live, to make it burn: only this counted. Because it was this that deportation threatened with death. It was essential to keep reminding oneself that it is always the soul which dies first – even if its departure goes unnoticed – and it always carries the body along with it. It was the soul which first had to be nourished. Morality was powerless. All moralities. As if they had been created by artificial conditions of existence: provisional peace, provisional social equilibrium. Ideas, knowledge, could do nothing either: they left despair intact. Only religion nourished. And next to it, the sensation of human warmth, the physical presence of other human beings. And poetry.
It is incidental that Lusseyran does not name "philosophy" here, though the secret ongoing trysts between Poetry and Philosophy in the course of their ancient lovers' quarrel are beyond the scope of this post. (Part of what esotericism means is playing liaison between them.) The crucial thing is to note that the life worth living can be lived in a prison as well as in a gated community. Maybe -- though one should not say such things breezily -- even better.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The fetishism of positions


“OK, but what do you believe? Do you think abortion should be illegal?”
“Do you think a trans person is the gender they say they are?”
“Do you think Israel should get out of the West Bank and Gaza?”
“Should pro athletes be able to kneel during the national anthem?”
“Doesn’t everyone have a right to health care?”
“Of course immigration should be done legally or not at all, right?”
“Do you or don’t you agree that there is such a thing as White Privilege?”
“Should public school curriculum be multicultural?”
“So what are the limits on free speech?”
“Come on, what would you do with a terrorist in a ticking time-bomb scenario?”
“Are you a Marxist? A Libertarian? Do you even care?”
“Wait – who are you going to vote for? -- You're voting, right?”

Policy questions, foundational questions, questions of the moment, “purely theoretical” questions…. But always the insistence: OK, but after all the weighing-the-options, what do you think? “What is your position on ----?”

Of course anyone can be the target of such interrogation, but I am going to consider the case of the philosopher. There are at least three (or four) ways that this question, this making-it-personal, arises. There’s an aggressive mode, an “OK, wise guy, if you’re so smart, you tell us how it oughta be done. What do you even want, anyway?” At worst, this is a mode of revenge for making us think off of our own beaten track. It’s an attempt to change the subject, or even to turn the tables; to impose a shift from the implicit questioning that happens in thinking-out-loud, to an explicit demand for some kind of “actionable proposal.” It really means “put up or shut up,” or sometimes just “shut up.” It’s a shaming mode: you and your armchair, your ivory tower. Get your hands dirty! It can also be a demand to “stop hiding,” quite dancing around behind “suppose” and “what-if;” in other words: Come out and fight if you dare.

There is also an abdicating mode; a mode that says, OK, Yes, I understand the options, but what has your imprimatur? Yes, there’s this way or this way to think about it, you can be a utilitarian or a communitarian, you can say some things are right or wrong no matter what; you can think there are tragic choices or that the idea of tragedy always serves the status quo. And on the ground, you can show how question after question can be asked in multiple ways. But after all of this “teaching the controversy,” aren’t you afraid you’ve legitimated the wrong thing with implying a false equivalence? Mightn’t you be dignifying some options just by giving them airplay at all? Don’t let me make the wrong choice! In other words, Tell me what to think; or even, what to want.

Sometimes there's an unstable hybrid mode that says: Please tell me you don't think this wrong thing.

These modes fetishize positions. They are not, of course, usually put forward in the stark and, admittedly, caricaturized forms I have sketched. Moreover, each of them is right about something, whether it knows it or not. The aggressive mode senses that philosophy is indeed “hedging,” in a sense. It thinks that by naming this “elephant in the room,” it can render the philosopher nonplussed – a breach of decorum! – and that this will save it, or at least buy some time. Sometimes, as rhetoric goes, it works.

The abdicating mode, too, sees something true: there is a real risk involved. One may well be, as Levinas says in the very first sentence of Totality and Infinity, "duped by morality."

The aggressive mode casts the philosopher as having no skin in the game, or as playing for hidden stakes – a different sort of “skin,” and not the kind everyone else has in the game. On the other hand, the abdicating mode sees “stakes” very clearly, and is panicked by them.

I say that these wrong modes fetishize position because they imagine that if the philosopher will just “state clearly” their position on such-and-such, something will have happened And they know what will have happened: the philosopher will be knocked off their high-horse; or the student will have been given a hand up. In the case of the hybrid, the fear may be that the student will be pulled down, though usually the conscious worry is that they "won't be able to respect" the philosopher any more.

The philosopher cannot answer any of these modes, because the philosopher knows that nothing will have happened if they answer. (Of course, plenty of teachers, and plenty of thinkers, do answer; they too can be prone to alienation and fetishizing. None of us is immune to to this.) Or, perhaps, they can and do answer, and they know that nothing has happened – because under the circumstances imposed by the assumption, nothing can happen. OK, you know that there are many, many people, doubtless very intelligent, who think such-&-such, as well as many others, equally intelligent, who think the opposite, and half a hundred shades in between. I have now told you my own intelligent opinion; now you have one more grain of doxa to add to one pile or another on the various scales. Or again: You are quite right: I have a different game to play in addition to the game about policy or about foundational principles. You challenge me to make a move about policy, or foundational principles. Here is my move. Now, what does that tell you about this other game?

The last mode of asking this question is personal. It just wants to know the philosopher as a fellow, as a comrade. It is not worried about getting the answer “right,” though it may well think there is or could be a right answer, and that this rightness is not a point of indifference. But what it is after is something like intimacy, or shall we say, encounter. Beyond all critiquable motives, beyond all “conservatism” or following-the-question-wherever, there remains the naïve and pre-legitimate (pre- because it comes before any criteria of legitimation) desire to know, Who are you? (Are you indeed “just asking questions?” Are you enjoying some subtle frisson that comes with provocation – and doing so under cover? Do you have a wish, a hope, of your own?) And this question arises in part because one is finding ones own way, and wants – hopes for – what? Guidance? Collaboration? Provocation? Company?

This mode sees the philosopher as pretty much the opposite of a troll. A troll is someone who is just fucking with you; they have no interest in you, only in your reactions; but in order to get your reactions, they must seem to have an interest in the subject at hand. In a certain sense (and put perhaps hyperbolically), the philosopher has an interest solely in you; the subject at hand is always the medium. And this in turn means that this third mode, this personal mode, itself begins already to take on this anti-trolling stance, by which one cares provisionally about the questions as they come up, but really these are all occasions for hanging out. This, by the way, is called friendship. It is not as casual as it sounds.

In the previous two posts I laid out a long double list of “positions.” They really have very little philosophical interest in themselves; they are meant only to be a lot of cumulative evidence for why I do not feel well-placed as either a “Progressive” or a “Conservative,” and that, after all, is a matter that really need only concern me – if anyone. But since I am not really all that atypical, I assume that there must be dozens, nay thousands, of ways in which someone could realistically be a halfway-thoughtful, semi-engaged political participant and not fit with the "political binary" of contemporary American lingua franca.

More or less missing from all of those lists were any extensive rationale. What I was presenting wasn’t a political theory; it was just a jumbled pile of stances, more or less raw, more or less without justification. This was partly from necessity -- I needed to provide a big-enough panorama to make the point I wanted to make: to wit, that it is possible (because it is a fait accompli) to maintain a number of positions that are at least prima facie at odds with the left-right spectrum. This is not a very revolutionary claim, of course. But it does press us towards an interesting question. Why, if someone like me is obviously possible, and on the assumption that I am not a freakish outlier (hmmm...), is the popular account of the "political spectrum" so pervasive? Has "the wisdom of crowds" just found the optimal way of sorting positions into a two-big-baskets setup? Or are there perhaps other interests that are served by the system that leaves so many other permutations out of consideration?

In the first edition of Capital, Marx uses a phrase which Zizek later appropriates as a brief definition of ideology: They do not know it, but they are doing it. True to form, Zizek cannot help but reverse this into “They know it very well, yet they do it.” Marx does not actually use the word ideology here – a word that by now has arguably become so overdetermined as to be useless, if only there was another (because those overdeterminations are part of the use), but the phrase is still a good brief pointer to this tangle of overdeterminations. In any case, in later editions, Marx considerably revised this chapter, but he kept the phrase – more or less. It is now, “We are unaware of this, but we do it,” and he is referring to the way we allow human relationships to be mediated by things. Soon thereafter comes the famous discussion of the fetishizing of commodities. I’m going to allow myself a gloss from the unlikely source Wallace Shawn, whose play The Fever I staged a bit over a year ago:
People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it.
Because the interpretation of Marx is fraught with difficulty, Shawn may not get Marx right in every respect; but I think he grasps the essence, which is brought out in a footnote Marx appends to the very phrase I mentioned before: We do not know it, but we do it. The footnote is to Galiani’s treatise On Money, and says:
When, therefore, Galiani says: Value is a relation between persons – “La Ricchezza e una ragione tra due persone,” – he ought to have added: a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things.
Positions get lumped into more or less ready-made ensembles precisely because positions are fetishized; in exactly the way Marx spoke of the fetishism of commodities. It is not a coincidence; this fetishizing of positions occurs because “positions” come to us as commodities. A pre-given position is a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things expressed as a relation between persons. It looks like two people having a conversation, and so it is, or would be, but the conversation cannot happen, because the people involved have given over their interaction to the mediation of things: readymade notional ensembles.

A dozen objections arise at this point. What? am I imagining some unfiltered, unimpeded "encounter" that would happen if only those pesky "positions" didn't interfere? Where is this golden age supposed to have occurred? How naive! Didn't I ever read Derrida? Wittgenstein? Nietzsche?

As it happens, I do think philosophy involves a sort of naïveté; but let's come back to that. It could also be objected: I said earlier that philosophy was interested in “you,” and that every “subject matter” was just an occasion or even a medium; what, then, is the difference between this, and the ideological deformation I am criticizing now? Part of the difference is in that phrase of Marx’s – they do not know it but they are doing it; for Socrates is to be taken at his word when he says that the difference between him and his fellow Athenians is that he knows that he does not know. Zizek’s inversion of Marx (“they know very well, and yet…”) rightly heightens the tension, because under late capitalism, irony – made into a mode of style and in some sense collapsed into style itself – has become a commodity like all others, and indeed the very mark of the self-knowing commodity – because in this setting, the ultimate commodity, the ur-commodity, is style.

But irony is only necessary, not sufficient, for philosophy. There is also a kind of earnestness, or what I referred to above as naïveté. "In all their actions men do in fact aim at what they think good," Aristotle says at the beginning of the Politics, and this what they think is where they – and we – start, though we may have grounds to revise this later. Philosophy is saved from meta- and hyper-ironism by this naïveté, which however is different from the insistence of either the aggressive or the abdicatory demand for “positions” because that demand wants those positions as an end, an answer, whereas philosophy starts there – and that is where the labor of building a position finds its raw material.

If the fetishizing of the commodity is a forgetting of and repression of the labor involved in making it, we forget, too, the labor involved in the making of a position. Philosophy reminds us and says: you want to understand? Roll up your sleeves. But the point is not to "make" a position. Positions have their meaning in the context of life. The examined life entails an examined politics (which means, also: law, civics, economics, education, culture...); and there is of course no politics without policies. Whether, in any given context, there are particular policies entailed by philosophy per se, is – like so many issues – another question. But I am dubious – if you really want to know what I think.