16 June 2010

What a philosopher is not

Three brief encounters: 1) Concerning my work in philosophy, I was recently asked if I learned about “meditation and that kind of thing”. 2) If this confusion over what philosophy is to those outside the university should seem surprising, consider the fact that the column in the NY Times devoted to exposing the public to philosophy is called “The Stone”. 3) A seller on Amazon (GRACEANDPROVISIONS) advertises a used copy of a technical book on modality with the “warning” that the book “contains false doctrine and will come with a free truthful Bible tract” (in caps). Interestingly, on casual perusal, no other book in this seller’s catalogue (including The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche and The Chinese Way in Religion) is accompanied by this comment.

While an explanation of the last of these oddities would be apposite (and much appreciated), the philosopher’s onus cannot be explanation if for no other reason than that explanation presupposes criteria of understanding that are either unavailable for those to whom it would apply or are those that in this case would require the very explanation of what is not understood. History has shown beyond redemption that the price for justification is the very existence of philosophy. The philosopher is not the defender of reason (since those for whom such defense is necessary are those from whom it is) nor its advocate (what would be gained from convincing the faithful that philosophy contains no “doctrine”)?

There are many ways to renounce the philosophical imperative. Among the most perilous—yet the most naïve—of these reproduces the activity of philosophy as a leisure (schole): a bourgeois endeavor for young people who have nothing better to do or for the disenchanted and socially awkward. The onus of the philosopher is not to explain what philosophy is but to advance what philosophy can do. The only philosophy to survive the present barbarism shall be that which refuses to believe that this—the melancholy, solicitude, and enjoyment of experience—is sufficient.

07 June 2010

Parmenides in the Night

What are the desiderata for a critical philosophy? Reference to its object cannot be separated from the contingency of subjective experience, which manifests in the need or the demand for criticism in “destruction”. Destruction, however, is not merely negative and could only be so if we considered the dialectical character of criticism a method. The relation of criticism to its object—or, more precisely, to the world of critique—then becomes a problem of indirect signification or distance, i.e., the continuous separation of criticism (and thought) from its object—the non-identity of thinking with its object (and, ultimately, to itself). Hence the “negativity” of dialectics consists in its resistance to identity-thinking (whose preconditions include the affirmation of a world according to the reification of categories). The task of criticism subsequently becomes an aesthetics (or perhaps an ethics) of subjectification—i.e., what are the forms of experience through which non-identity appears such that we can “give an account of ourselves”?

But: is this the only model of dialectical criticism? In Kant, the non-identity of subject and object is rigorously maintained, dialectically, in discourse through the mediation of language. What if, on the other hand, we could speak of a “dialectics of the idea” (idea as neither intentional nor reflective)? The idea as structure and not object—hence not quite an “objective idealism” but an “ideal idealism” in which we refuse the notion that the idea of the idea is an idea (Plato, Parmenides). If form is the principle of being, the idea secures the relation of being to thought with the consequence that the idea of an idea is simply representation.

16 May 2010

Some pedagogical notes on music

Citing a sentence by Chopin, Ravel claims that no one has understood it: “nothing is more detestable than music without hidden meaning”. The ideal of affirmative culture presupposes, of course, this very dictum—that music expresses the highest meaning of human experience insofar as it mimics the spiritual language of the heavens. Until we began searching for meaning—whether such meaning is understood as the cosmic language of creation in mathematical proportions or the expression of the genius’ original intuition—“music addressed itself to the emotions. It was then shifted to the understanding, but understanding did not know what to do with it”.

That was 1910. Understanding still does not know what to do with the paradoxical universality of music. The significance of something like Beethoven’s Ninth is immediately apparent, yet in the face of such a profound musical idea we find ourselves excessively poor in our ability to give an account of it and are often reduced to the embarrassed repetition of banalities that would be otherwise inexcusable were it not for the lack of alternative expressions.

We will never understand the musical idea, however, as long as we approach it by analogy with the concept.*

* Music, Jorge Bolet once said in a master class, is “the art of communication between two people by means of musical sounds. So whatever you’re doing at the keyboard you’re telling them in musical terms—in musical sounds—exactly what you’re thinking or what the composer thought”. The word “thought” here should be understood literally and precisely.

The first approach to the musical idea, of course, must be in listening (which we know after phenomenology and critical theory is a historical activity). Apart from the effects of what Adorno called the “regression” in listening—i.e., the neutralization of form by fetishized music—what we lack are the proper analytic concepts (yes, concepts) for listening.** As Adorno points out, fetishization extends even to “serious” music, which “mobilizes the pathos of distance against refined entertainment”. One way we see this occurring is the inane quibbling over the “correct” or “best” interpretation of a piece in precisely the place where the notions of measure or truth are nonsensical.

**The fundamental analytic concept for listening in music is the line. This concept, of course, originally comes from Schenker with the appropriate modifications from the row (Schönberg) and structure (Boulez).

Rather, the dialectical character of listening is of the sort Plato had described in the Phaedrus as the collection and division such that we are “capable of discerning a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many” (266b). Yet, as Leibniz has shown us, the result ofeither collection or division results in the unity of a “one” in the same sense.

In short, it is not “listening to Mozart” that makes us smarter but being able to experience singularities.

This is why, given the choice between two interpretations of a piece, the choice is not that of a “correct” or “better” one; the appropriate question to ask is what idea is being expressed and whether it is being done consistently.

Experience in such listening is precisely the kind of musical education Plato had described in the Republic and why, if we want philosophers who can recognize ideas when they encounter them (instead of the parasitic activity of textual commentary prevalent in Continental philosophy and theory), we must learn how to distinguish Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, and Bronistlaw Huberman not to pass judgment but simply to discern the difference between them.

13 May 2010

Some recapitulations

1. Life without being (… or nature): Without further clarification, the term “critical vitalism” stands under the threat of implosion. Its integrity is predicated, moreover, on its differentiation not only from the two halves of its contradictory namesake but also from prior attempts at such synthesis, which have tended toward the disaster of culture that we now call “modernism” (e.g., romanticism). The current eco-political crisis demands a philosophy of life (in the objective sense of the genitive) that refuses the supposed relevance of philosophy to life (under the ideology of “lived experience”), the naïve materialism of life as either substance or matter (the object of biochemistry), or the vulgar systematicity of taking as its guiding principle the unity of the “living organism”. We still suffer these errors on account of the tendency to read concepts like the élan vital as a metaphysical principle of (evolutionary) biology with the consequence that life becomes either the movement of differenciation without difference (in Deleuze’s terms) or the abstraction to which we appeal when insisting on what we all have “in common” when we are actually at our most mechanical (when we say, for example, that we all have the same rights because we eat, sleep, and defecate). A critical vitalism requires, like Deleuze and, most recently, Jane Bennett have argued, a conception of difference that is sensitive to the violence of the negative and to a joy that has no need of it. Beneath the vulgar materialism of an illusory “dynamism of force” that struggles for more existence is precisely what Freud had described as the secret will to destruction. What vitalism must reject is both the anti-dialectical posture of a “cycle of life”(predator/prey, life/death) and the militaristic dialectic of production and consumption whose condition and limit is death.

2. Why write? (not for politics): Both French and English criticism have been encumbered by the dogmatic insistence that writing consists in giving material to ideas in language, with the consequence that the writer’s task is literary. The writer whose activity consists of putting words to a page betrays a complicity with at least a certain form of bourgeois idealism that safely ensconces language in words and sentences. Rationality thus consists of discourse and commentary and the critic believes himself effective by the possession of a quick wit, verbal acuity, and the appropriate amount of self-aggrandizing righteousness of character. The writer simply needs to be “committed” to a political task. No such criticism can escape the production of false discourse and the subsequent tendency toward quietism despite any protestations of radical or revolutionary commitment.

(Addendum) 2a. In 1929/30, Benjamin complained that “criticism has to secure its own power by developing a more effective attitude toward the relations of production in the book market. It is well known that far too many books are published. What is worse, a consequence of this is that too few good books appear. And those that have appeared have made too little impact. … The aim here, of course, is not to attack the commercial aspect of publishing … but to appeal to the misguided idealist whose patronage supports dangerous products”. In the eighty years since these lines were written, what Benjamin could not have foreseen was not only the absolute monopolization of textual production by capital but the entirely distinct onto/logical field of digitization and hyper-textualization of new media. As Benjamin points out, what is at stake here is more than simply a critique of the economy of textual production nor even of the dissemination of signifiers that were at one time meaningful within a shared field of intentions. Beyond the degradation of criticism as a mere refinement in taste (subjective judgment) or as political commentary, criticism must fight against the very ideology of discourse that, at one time, it had itself created.

This may seem paradoxical insofar as criticism seems to be precisely that which is excluded from public discourse. Habermas, for example, explicitly exempts “aesthetic criticism” from the modes of discourse available to the rational speaker in the ideal speech situation. Yet this is, of course, merely another symptom of the general collapse of criticism into its current ruins in blogs, syndicated newspaper columns, scholarly commentary, and user comments.

2b. In the comments to an online news article reporting the latest results from experiments performed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the majority of users aligned themselves with one of two positions: either the scientists involved in this project were guilty of an overwhelming “Anything But God” neurosis or of misplacing their priorities for the benefit of “merely theoretical” questions at the expense of pressing “practical” problems such as disease, hunger, and energy. What should be objectionable to the critic is not the defective logic or rationality of these comments but, rather, the philistinism that results from a posture of being “original” that masquerades as the supposed “right” to have and express an opinion (of course, what stands in need of finesse is not the right itself but its value). The very notion of “originality” has been irreversibly transformed into the anti-dialectical inversion of its authentic sense: we say that to be “original” is to be without precedent and to cast aside the bonds of tradition when being the one who has an origin means recognizing that we are not the first to arrive—that my opinion is our opinion. But this “we” is the abstract universality described by Hegel and Heidegger as the immature thought of thinking that does not yet know itself (or, more precisely, that does not yet know that it does not know, according to Socrates): this is the same adolescent reason (which is, incidentally, encouraged by certain sophistic practices of philosophy that promote so-called “general critical thinking skills”) that presumes to pronounce on any discourse with the “view from nowhere”.

06 May 2010

The "two cultures", again

Around April 27th, news broke on the Internet that, at the recommendation of Ed Esche, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, the administration at Middlesex University in London had decided to close all philosophy programs. International protests began immediately and within a day over a thousand people had joined the Facebook page for the campaign to reverse the decision (at the time of writing this piece, the group had over eleven thousand members and live student protests had begun across the UK).

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject at Middlesex, according to the UK’s national standard for evaluating the quality of research undertaken at higher education institutions (the RAE), with 65% of its research activity judged “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”. The department is recognized in the international philosophical community as one of the most important centers for the study of modern European (also known as “Continental”) philosophy in the English-speaking world and also boasts the largest MA program in philosophy in the UK in addition to its exceptional doctoral program.

In light of these facts, the decision has seemed ludicrous and has been routinely condemned as an “assault on the humanities”. This analysis, however, is as obvious as it is facile. The lessons to be learned here consist, rather, in those questions that are not being asked and the demands that are not being posed. Among these demands should not only be simply the reinstatement of the department and an acknowledgement of the “value” of the humanities but, rather, the rejection of any educational policy that prioritizes any value of education over others. Such a demand requires a serious public discussion of what the idea of a university consists given the plurality of values of education.

Articulating such a demand, however, requires a community of voices throughout the university and not simply from the humanities. It seems that reaction in the US has been marginal and largely confined to the blogs of Continental philosophy (and related areas of theory) for at least two reasons. On the one hand, it is easy to dismiss this news because the affected program is in the UK and, on the other, the decision affects a discipline that has often prided itself on its disinterestedness and autonomy from the exigencies of anything outside of itself (including, disastrously in this case, its material conditions). The current situation at Middlesex, moreover, seems to be simply a more extreme version of the problem the humanities have faced for at least the last forty years, i.e., the need continuously to justify their existence in the face of budget cuts that usually target them first. Many have been reminded, for example, of the razing of fine arts programs in both the US and UK in the 1980s.

Yet what Middlesex illustrates in a stark and dramatic way is a tension—perhaps a contradiction—that can no longer be happily ignored as we have been content to do for almost half a century under the ideal of “liberal education” that is anything but liberal (in the classical and not the political sense of the word). All involved in education hide behind an apparently universal agreement over the value of education while pretending merely to disagree about the means to realize it. But while no one seriously disputes the value of education, there are actually many values of education that, instead of cooperating, are currently rendered incompatible by the fact they are obliged to compete with each other on account of the privileging (either covert or explicit) of some over others by those responsible for managing educational institutions.

Yet the fault does not rest with university administrations alone. We are told that financial concerns were ostensibly the justification offered by administration at Middlesex: given an undergraduate enrollment rate lower than other disciplines, particularly in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the university has been pressured by its funding bodies to promote programs in business, vocational, and STEM subjects, which have higher enrollment. Initially, it seems that the university administration is merely responding to market demands, the way the management of a business would respond to its market demand. Of course, such a disposition toward university management indicates broader failures of morality and courage that cannot be explained away by mere complicity, which requires active, if unacknowledged, decisions of what really matters to us (which are revealed in times of crisis).

It is true that the economic situation in the UK is at least as bad, if not worse than, the US. Public funding has been cut across the board; last year, for example, the Science and Technology Funding Council—one of the UK’s largest funding councils—cut 25% of its research studentships and fellowships (which has contributed to the UK’s phased withdrawal from the international Cassini mission, for example).

It is also true that, historically, the fortunes of various academic disciplines have risen and fallen with the various cultural and political pressures that bear on education. A year after the Soviets launched Sputnik, in 1958 the National Defense Education Act declared that the federal government was required “to give assistance to education for programs which are important to our national defense” (in a political climate that naturally prioritized the sciences). Later, in 1965, President Johnson declared that every American had a right to as much education as possible and he signed the Higher Education Act to give every American the opportunity to go to college. But Congress had not directly subsidized higher education until the Civil War. Prior to that time, less than 2% of the population attended school beyond the 12th grade; higher education was conducted through private institutions for the provision of the cultured gentleman (and, of course, at the time this really did mean men). Towards the turn of the century, facing the need for more skilled labor, education was undertaken as a public concern not for the production of the learned and cultured but for the technically skilled worker. In 1870, only 9,371 bachelor’s degrees were conferred across the country; by 1940, that number increased to 186,500, largely thanks to government funding through the New Deal.

True to the same Progressivist roots of the New Deal, in his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education” and that “in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job”. The solution, then, is to provide increased access to higher education, which is a “career pathway to the children of so many working families”.

Yet here we must proceed carefully. Not only is there more than one way to receive the appropriate “training” for goods jobs (the classic defense of the humanities is that general “critical thinking” skills are required for any job), it is a mistake to conflate career opportunities as an effect of education with being the purpose of education. If education must have a purpose, what that purpose might be is multiple, as our own history attests: to impart culture, to train skilled workers for increasingly technical jobs, to produce informed citizens, and so on. These are not all inherently incompatible, but they are potentially so, and not every attempt at reconciliation among them is successful.

According to philosophy staff at Middlesex, “in a meeting with [Dean Esche, he] acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University”. While the university has not been forthcoming about what constitutes a “measurable” contribution, the implications are obvious: given reputation of the purged department and the international outcry, it is at least clear what the criteria for “measurable contributions” are not.

The administration at Middlesex executed in dramatic form the unspoken wish of many involved in education (whether students blowing through distribution requirements or faculty vying for funding from disciplines not only remote from their own but devalued by them): to install a single purpose for education (and the criteria for what counts as success that attend that purpose) at the expense of all the other competing purposes and values that education might hold.

Of course, the humanities are all too familiar with the demand to square their existence with the value of education (and often overcompensate by declaring themselves to be the only such value). But such a situation only exists to the extent to which the “value of education” is conceived—whether by the public or by university administrators—as one that, eo ipso, excludes the humanities (as “irrelevant” or “distribution requirements”). In 1974, literary critic Lionel Trilling presciently wrote that it did not seem likely that, by the end of the 20th century, anyone would again be able to articulate a compelling ideal of humanistic education. The Middlesex decision is an extreme example of a more generalized phenomenon: the demand for a “real world” education especially prevalent among community colleges and colleges catered toward adult and continuing students, the emphasis of going “beyond ideas” to “practical” applications of classroom learning, and President Obama’s suturing of education to the economy with the result that not a few school districts have explicitly adopted “business plans” for improving their schools with all the appropriate criteria that follow for what constitutes a good business.

When C.P. Snow delivered his Rede lecture of 1959 describing “two cultures” within education (roughly the sciences and humanities), among the ensuing controversy, intellectuals claimed that Snow’s description was too simplistic and antinomical. Yet Snow’s dismay is precisely what we seem to witness even here in the US where he thought his predictions may not hold: the initiated in the sciences and technical disciplines find themselves illiterate in the humanities, and vice versa—often declaring this illiteracy in other disciplines other than their own as a necessary mark of specialization. If Snow’s analysis were truly ill-conceived, then in response to the situation at Middlesex, what we should see are business schools decrying the decision to close the philosophy department and engineering students protesting alongside their colleagues in philosophy. In other words, we should see a shared commitment that admits the mutual implication of different values and purposes in education.

Such a shared commitment across multiple values requires, in turn, the refusal of any policy whose criteria for “success” or “measurable contributions” privilege any one value of education at the expense of others (what would it mean, for example, to “measure” the way in which a humanistic education shows a student a better life than one s/he may not otherwise have had). It is only by recognizing a shared commitment to education across disciplines, purposes, and ideologies that any of the individual crises we face in education can be addressed, whether we are speaking of poor performance by students or teachers, functional or cultural illiteracy, or financial problems. Prior to addressing any of these problems (e.g., what constitutes “good performance”, what standards might be set for “literacy”, how to remedy “mediocrity” when we don’t know what criteria are relevant for such a determination, etc), an effective educational policy must recognize that any solution must unite the various values and purposes of education instead of dividing them. Currently, however, we seem to find ourselves amidst another two cultures, this time of education: the liberal and the technical or vocational that fail to speak to each other in the same way Snow charged the sciences and humanities with speaking past each other fifty years ago. And just as Snow had pled for the two cultures not to remain at odds, so too these two ideas of education must not compete but must find a way to negotiate a shared commitment to education, for either of these at the expense of the other will find itself not only unsuited for the needs of our world but a poor offering for our students.

In short, the appropriate response to the closing of Middlesex’s philosophy department is not only to see it as an assault on the humanities but on the very idea of a university. More than that, as a public we must demand that, for the sake of education, the ones responsible for this attack have no place in it. What the current situation, both in the UK and the US, demands, in light of the preponderant tendency to usurp the liberal ideal of a university with its vocational cousin is a united front of all those who, regardless of discipline, fear that under the guise of economic concerns we will continue to produce a massive workforce but no educated public—when what we need is both.

19 March 2010

"Dialectics at a standstill"

1. The formal and the transcendental: The distinction between the formal and the transcendental is beholden to a naïve opposition of subject and object. Both idealism and materialism attempt to introduce a third term into this opposition: the idealists say that not everything is a thing because there is negativity (which takes a number of ultimately equivalent formulations: things disappear, there is time and death, there is language), i.e., there are subjects; the materialists say that not everything is an idea because there is (something called) truth and discourse, i.e., there are objects. Between ideas and things, the dialectician erects the structure of subjectivity.

The dialectician asserts that the ‘I’ of any subject is neither an idea nor a thing, so there are at least three irreducible ontological terms. But perhaps we should acknowledge at least four:* that which appears (usually nominated as “fact” or “world”), that to which appearances appear or the “place” of such appearance (the “subject” or “thinker”), the appearance of that which appears (“cognitions”, “representations”, or “ideas”), and that to which appearances refer (“forms”). For the sake of simplicity, we might name these, respectively, object, subject, idea, thought. A series of relations among these four obtain.

i. {subject, idea} In cognition, we feel and experience. That of which we do so are objects {object, idea}.

ii. {subject, thought} Just as objects are that to which cognition is referred, there are multiple subjects because in thinking subjects must refer to thoughts (in Frege’s sense of the word “thought”). Both thought and object exceed cognition.

iii. {subject, object} A world. Experience and thinking are always local.

iv. {idea, thought} Truth.

The naïve subject/object distinction, then, can be recast in two different orientations: either as {subject, idea} and {object, thought} or as world {subject, object} and truth {idea, thought}.

*”At least” four insofar as these do not, it seems, quite account for time.

2. Mediation without dialectics: There is no immediate unity of thought in being—neither in the divine intellect nor in the phenomenon of an ‘I’: this much is taken for granted. But not all mediation is dialectical. The disjunctions between expression and the expressed, for example, are often not the condition but the failure of meaning; something new emerges from the “infinite abyss of meaning” when the laws of sense dissolve or from the gaps and ruins of history. These have otherwise been called the minimal things (Gaché), the most subtle touch (what Derrida calls the “barely touching touch”), the objet petit a (Lacan), the void (Badiou), or perhaps even Bataille’s “expenditure”. What is at stake here is more than the naïve infinity of a reflection that, since Fichte, has failed in the task it sets for itself. What emerges not only from the failure of such reflection but even from the destitution of a world that refuses to be destroyed? How can the necessity of thought (including the sense of its imperative) be understood as more than a resistance against its dissolution (e.g., the persistence or conatus of life) but also as the construction of new objects (even from, but not requiring, the destruction of worlds)?

14 February 2010

Hope and despair

1. The latest version of the series of Netflix radio ads—in which a trivia host asks contestants questions to which the answers have no relation to the clues—opens with the following exchange: “if revenge is a dish best served cold, how is justice served?” The contestant confidently answers: “with a side of fries!” This is a quintessentially American sentiment, recognized even in Iraq when, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Suleiman Qasab opened a “MaDonalds” in northern Iraq after he failed to get permission from McDonald’s who said at the time that the company did not want to enter Iraq “because there is no democracy”. While it is a common object of satire in popular culture to identify the “spread of democracy” with the proliferation of McDonald’s around the world, it is difficult to imagine that this is in fact quite literally the case, such that what is intended to be parodic is actually the most accurate representation of the truth, especially insofar as we are to take these characterizations as parodic. The semiotics here are astounding. A parody is inherently a second-order structure: the truth of the matter, we say, is that a democratic politics serves the interests of justice, which is subsequently parodied by mapping that sign onto the mythologies and intensions organized by the signifier “McDonald’s”. But when the “truth” of the matter is the actual homonymy of the two levels, the literality of the truth consists not the homonymy but, rather, in the maintenance of the parody as parodic (such that we can still laugh at it). The “truth” of the matter is then nothing other than the fact that the most accurate representation of the truth is the hierarchy of truth and parody that cannot, reflexively, name its own truth lest its own structure collapse. “Democracy” or “justice”, then, fail to rise to the level of the concept but neither is their polysemy focused in something like Marin’s images precisely because it is of a pure neutrality such that it is not possible to produce a space of articulation between the concepts and material perceptions of something like “democracy” (which always fails to appear).

The semiotics of these Netflix ads fails reflexively in yet another sense. The final answer to the series of meaningless questions—which articulates some “truth” about Netflix—is no different than the ones that precede insofar as the relation between the question and the answer consists of an infinite series of significations, particularly insofar as these are causal relations. Whatever terms are featured about Netflix subscription, that these are the case at all is the result of a complex but hidden algorithm of libidinal manipulations (that result, for example, in “personal recommendations”) that implicate the user before s/he has even subscribed merely by virtue of being interpellated by the advertisement at all. And, as we know, it is the inability to have an account of the causal relations to which one is subject that results in the vacillation of hope and despair.

2. If there is despair, it is because the truth can never be made manifest (truth being, of course, more than a judgment). Amidst the pomp and ceremony of the Olympic games, for example, what remains invisible are the material conditions necessary for the glitter and spectacle (which is true not only of the current games, of course): the squalor and poverty only a few blocks from the taxpayer-financed Olympic Village are veneered behind the capital of commercial sponsors and publicity that make the rewards and literally “million-dollar views” possible (in short, the original politicization of the games has been completely usurped by its economization). Truth never appears in our world when, automatically and preemptively translated into the universal language and immaterial flows of capital, the thing itself never appears but always already reticulated into what, after Baudrillard, we might call the “system of objects” according to which the demands of economic necessity colonize the production of meaning in language itself (it is also, incidentally, for precisely this reason that Badiou thinks the study of number is necessary for a critique of capital since “Number is the place of the being qua being, for the manipulable numericality of numbers. Number ek-sists in number[s] as the latency of its being”).

3. Some, however, have persisted in their faith that there is hope because it is always possible to demand “democracy now!”. Both the left and the right agree at least on this: that our task is to honor the founding act of the Fathers either by returning to or finally accomplishing their task. We have the principles, we now have the communicative technology for the dissemination of information necessary for deliberative discourse and “consciousness-raising”; now all we need is a people and a majority.

Both sides, however, can already lay claim to the requisite conditions. When a flight attendant forces a plane to land because a Jewish teenager was praying or a college student is detained and interrogated by the TSA for possession of Arabic flashcards and a book critical of US foreign policy, these actions are condemned by those on the left as “violations of the Constitution” when the real question is whether it is precisely the kind of commitment we currently have to the empty signifier “America” that causes and sanctions such actions.

In a remarkably frank book (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies), Jodi Dean argues that a truly critical (my word, not hers) politics cannot continue to insist on the name of “democracy”:

“Because the appeal to democracy presuppose democracy is the solution to the problem of democracy, because it incorporates in advance any hope things might be otherwise as already the fundamental democratic promise and provision, it is a dead end for left politics. Entrapped by such an appeal, left and progressive contestation remains suspended between the discourse of the hysteric and the discourse of the university. … Left reliance on democracy thus eschews responsibility not only for current failures … but also for envisioning another politics in the future."

“America is ready for another revolution!” Palin announced at the Tea Party convention, without realizing that she is calling for nothing but the prolongation of the same revolution glorified in history. And what Palin herself signifies is the futility of an oppositional politics that insists on calling itself either “democratic” or “republican” (in the strict sense of those terms). What could be more representative of the American mythology than the anti-elitist, anti-academic (“we need a commander-in-chief, not a law professor”, she quipped) suburban mom thrust onto the stage? It is precisely for this reason that Stanley Fish praises Palin for the way she presents herself “authentically” with “the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety”. She is, quite literally, the ideal American politician, particularly when “going rogue”, i.e., not being a career or expert politician, means re-claiming the ideology that “anyone can govern” in a democracy.

We know, of course, that Palin’s rhetorical habits are the usual fare of simplifications and ideological drivel that are, however, also characteristic of any other dinner table conversation, which is precisely what she is able to mirror for “the people”—the people who are not law professors, economists, or environmentalists but the ones who simply speak the vernacular: “how’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Is not that question—the most brilliant preemptive maneuver to any oppositional politics the right has mustered in years—precisely the one question both sides are asking—and for exactly the same reasons? The left, however, is at a disadvantage insofar as it can only point to what has not happened (the recession wasn’t worse than it might otherwise have been); where it fails, strategically, is spinning such negative evidence in the way the Bush administration managed to present the “prevention” of a second 9/11.

Palin offers despair disguised as hope, while the left simply continues to hope. But as those such as Pieper and Marcel have noted, to hope is ultimately to be beholden to that over which one is powerless (otherwise, one could not say that it is “hoped for”) and, therefore, whether “the aim of describing and elucidating what is to be hoped for [is] supplanted by a program of practical action, of changing and producing things” (Pieper). This could be asked of either the left (the ones who demand revolution) or the right (the ones suspicious of “grand change”). What a truly oppositional or critical politics requires is not hope but discipline.

22 January 2010

The politics of resentment II

The discourse on democratic sovereignty has been rendered unintelligible by a series of false ideologies in the name of which the dereliction of political agency continues to mourn its own downfall. This is particularly the case with the left: even as it rejects the war ideology according to which there is only democracy or tyranny (friend or enemy, us against them), it fails to understand that rather than being the degraded form of monarchy, tyranny is properly the obverse of democracy—tyranny is a democracy that, as Nietzsche said, has lost its will (this too is the lesson of the only passage in Tocqueville that anyone bothers to read).

Liberalism has seemed to function by way of a non-sublatable contradiction: immanent to the operation of politics is a critique of that politics. But this structure maintains itself only objectively, which is to say that what fails to fall under criticism is nothing other than the fact that liberalism is predicated on objective criticism. But the limit of such criticism is its own failure; in other words, what cannot in principle fall under objective criticism is the failure of criticism. This failure manifests, however, as an ideology that masquerades as discourse when, in actuality, we witness the failure of discourse. The anti-dialectical character of liberalism makes it profoundly insensitive to the fact that when democracy fails the answer cannot be “more democracy”. When we insist on playing by the rules, we cannot at the same time object to them as we run to the umpire to cry foul.

The reaction from the left, in the general spirit of the court’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205), has been as incessantly exaggerated and “ominous” as the very language disparaged by the dissenting opinion. The decision spells the “end of democracy” by virtue of “silencing the average American citizen”. Quite apart from whether this might not be a blessing in disguise* or whether our fears have either already or will come to pass, it is not enough for those of us on the left to remain content with broad ideological protestations in the name of the phantasmagoric “average citizen” that, at best, serves as a sign for the real political subject.

*One is hard pressed to justify arguing for the notion that the flight attendant who forced an emergency landing of a plane because she thought a Jewish teenager’s prayer was a terrorist attack is competent to have a share in self-governance.

The decision turned on the question of free speech. Having rejected certain narrower grounds for the specific case of Citizens United, the court found that what was at stake was a constitutional question concerning the restriction of political speech. In essence, the majority opinion upheld two broad precedents: that the government 1) may not impose prior restraint on speech and 2) may not make a priori distinctions among speakers to serve its own interests (whatever they may be, whether we might agree with these interests or not) in the electoral process. On page twenty-four of the majority decision, they assert that “the Government may not … deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration” and that the very notion of speech presupposes that it is the voters who have the final say insofar as it is they who are addressed (see page forty-four). In other words, because what is at stake are limits to independent expenditures as opposed to direct contributions, the court declined to assert the government’s role in ruling the electoral field on the basis of the fact that the function of the latter is to constitute the former. The “undue influence” supposedly wielded by corporations is influence over the electorate.

Of course, the dissenting opinion noted that there are other forms of corruption besides quid pro quo arrangements, but as the majority opinion notes, “that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are [ipso facto] corrupt”. Aside from corruption, the argument from antidistortion relies on the dual thesis that 1) corporations exert disproportionate influence over natural persons and, therefore, 2) the government has an interest in leveling the field. Regarding (1), the majority opinion holds that this situation is non-unique to corporations and, if upheld, the government would be authorized to ban or regulate speech on grounds of association. This leads, of course, to consequences desirable by neither side: included in this prohibition are the media, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so on (see pages twenty and twenty-one of the majority opinion). Neither, the majority continues, does the First Amendment depend on the speaker’s (financial) ability (or lack thereof) to speak.

In response, the dissent argues that corporations are categorically distinct from natural persons (for example, corporations do not vote) and that corporations speak by proxy (page seventy-seven of the dissenting opinion). Even if this distinction holds, we still need to face (2) above.

Which, the majority opinion asks, is the greater evil: the effect of corporate expenditures on the electoral process or the intrusion of the government on free speech? Both sides essentially concede that the question at hand involves the ability of the government to place restrictions on speech (keeping in mind that more is at stake than simply capping the dollar amount on independent expenditures and that regulatory injunctions are functionally a chilling of speech), which it may do only in specific cases of government interest. We return, then, to the question of whether the government can take an interest in the electoral process.

The majority opinion opted for the former option: “courts, too, are bound by the First Amendment” (page nine of the majority opinion) and must refrain from deciding over which means of communication are to be preferred over others and that the rapid changes in technology “counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers” (for example, it is now well-known that the Obama campaign’s mobilization of online resources (e.g., social networking) was important for its victory, and that this is not only a medium that falls outside the monopoly of corporate power but also completely under the same First Amendment protections to which the majority opinion appeals). In other words, it is precisely in the name of constitutional democracy that the government must decline interest in the electoral process, even if its intervention would be in the service of that process.

If, then, it is in the name of constitutional democracy that non-corporations should protest against the power of corporations, it cannot be under the name of constitutional democracy. The left is then faced with two options: the political option is to develop new strategies; the metapolitical option is to re-consider what we think of as a political subject and to cease believing that the political subject is either equivalent or reducible to the natural person. Just as the majority opinion argues that all speakers are economically determined, so too even the natural person is a political subject by virtue of associations and mediations—the objection to corporations is simply non-unique.

20 January 2010

The transcendental dialectic

1. The One and the Two: The hermetics taught that the Kosmos is God’s image. But God himself cannot be presented in images: “He is hidden from our sight. … [But] thought alone can see that which is hidden, inasmuch as thought itself is hidden from sight …” The ban on graven images and the prohibition of idolatry maintains a rigorous separation between the world known through images and that toward which thought is drawn outside of itself. The totality of images is only possible by the exclusion of that which cannot be presented in an image. But, we should stop to wonder why that which cannot be presented should be forbidden from such presentation. To foreclose what is impossible to thought is the monist gesture par excellence. But this too is the fundamental dialectical question; in short, the choice between monism and dialectics is not essentially metaphysical but concerns what is available to thought: specifically, the dialectical gambit is that the impossible really is impossible, while the monist, by declaring the impossible as such, makes all things possible and thinks that all we need to do so is declare the limit.

2. Explanation and criticism: Both metaphysics and hermeneutics after Kant have thought that the task of philosophy is to explain the thought that explains the world (thus Kant imports logic into epistemology). Yet we all know how ineffective genealogy, etiology, and natural history are to the one who must form a life against the receding horizon of self-knowledge. No amount of theoretical understanding, for example, makes injustice tolerable and no explanation can provide a sufficient account of a betrayal. Instead, criticism’s material is not the unity of what is presented to thought but the cracks and ruins, the traces of the noumenal in phenomena. Such a speculative thought surrenders the desire for the absolute for the systematic destruction of experience.

The politics of resentment


Politics on the left in America has always been beset by a strange contradiction. On the one hand, as popular wisdom goes, our university professors tend to endorse a more liberal ideology (as the NY Times article above reiterates). Yet, on the other hand, despite the seeming monopoly on intellectual capital, the left has consistently been unable to mobilize its theoretical and intellectual powers in public discourse, which continues to be dominated by the right. It is revealing, for example, that the iconic figures of political rhetoric on the right are sophistic to be sure, but as Plato has shown the danger of sophism is that it is able to appear to us as philosophy. The counterpart for the left, however, is neither sophistic nor philosophical but rather a comic discourse. The right possesses masters of conviction such that even if any substance were lacking we would still be assured of the spectacle of righteousness; the left is content merely to roll its eyes.

The peculiarity of the contradiction lies precisely in the complicity of the left with sophism when ostensibly the university should be the one site where sophism is least tolerated. One might, disheartening as it is, be compelled to conclude not that philosophy is powerless against the sophism but rather that there is nothing other than sophism anywhere. Consider, for example, the explanation propounded by one group of sociologists to account for the accretion of liberal ideology in universities (reported in the above NY Times article): “when it comes to hiring, the majority of [institutions] will tend to support candidates like them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, values, and commitments” (i.e., liberals attract liberals). Yet, if this were true, what could be most anathematic to the philosophical purpose of a university than to insist that we should surround ourselves with people who think more or less as we do?

The last several months have demonstrated another strange contradiction between the left’s mandate and the failure of that mandate to be reflected in its own polity. Instead of thinking that the task of the left is to understand its opponents, the left has failed to understand itself. The left has, for all intents and purposes, quite simply ceased to exist, perhaps for more than forty years. Perhaps, one day, the left shall find a new voice, which we know will not be that of wisdom or of justice (in this, both sides agree that justice is not to be found on earth): when the objective conditions are such that the left no longer falls on deaf ears, it will be possible to speak only ironically.

13 January 2010

The desire for the absolute

In some religions, practitioners are advised not to look upon the dead and when confronted with an image of death to avert their gaze. In some cases, such an aversion or refusal to look is shameful or ascetic. Yet not all sacred practices are normative; some might be considered, instead, aesthetic. What is at stake in the prohibition against the viewing of death is the formation of a certain kind of body, which is to say the condensation of some habits over others, the formation of potentialities along some orientations over others, and the creation of certain tendencies of moving, acting, and doing that reproduce the conditions for life. But in every case, this diamagnetism is specific to the living material. In some sense, we might say with Aristotle that there is no such thing as pure matter—not because matter must be wedded to form but because the material is always multiple and always presents itself in composites (which has been a tenet of every materialism since Leucippus). Life itself is the complex of relations that comprise these composites.

This is the intuition to which the French spiritualists (after Bergson) attempted to give expression against the dialectic of the absolute while, ironically, surrendering to that very dialectic by taking it too seriously. Lavelle, for example, insists on a “pure experience” of existence or an “experience of real presence” that is made concrete in determinate consciousness, which itself creates an interval between the cognition and presentation of its objects. It is on the basis of this sympathy for existence that vitalism has always thought that the thinking of death was merely naïve and, consequently, that life should tend toward the fulfillment of eternal life (which, equivalently for Hegel or Lavelle, means achieving the original unity of thought and being).

We see this desire for the absolute disguised in various ways in philosophy. For example, the greatest pretension of philosophy is that thought should have an effect on the world (whereas the gambit of religion is the opposite—i.e., that thought is impotent against the destiny of a contingent world). Under the guise of a persistently naïve empiricism (to which Carnap, despite the genius of his Aufbau, must have recourse since for him there is only one domain of objects), analytic philosophy has simply renounced the task that philosophy has arrogated to itself and, without an account of its conditions, will continue to fiddle while the world (and itself) perishes. On the other hand, continental philosophy has yet to realize that philosophy must be about something other than itself. In both cases, however, we are caught within the temptation both to affirm and to deny the unity of thought and being, i.e., that there is no such unity (else the philosophers would rule the world) or that it is only on the basis of that unity that philosophy exists at all.

Yet between philosophy and religion—i.e., between a material or a spiritualist thinking—perhaps what we need to affirm is not only that “the gift of thinking to itself is betrayed by a thinking that insists only on thinking itself” (Desmond) but also that the very attempt for thinking to think itself is impossible. What is impossible, however, is not simply a negation of the possible, for the possible is itself the negation of the necessary. That thinking should find it impossible to think itself is not the condition but task of thinking. Every philosophy that fails in this task is unjust.

01 January 2010

The disappearance of appearance (après Baudrillard)

1. At the beginning of The Red Violin, an expectant mother sings a gentle motif to her unborn child. Each phrase resonates in the space around her, lingering in her voice as the next begins. In the next repetition of the motif, the theme is continued by a solo violin. As the last of her breath passes through her lips, the motif persists through the vibration of the strings, which are, of course, recorded mechanically for us to hear. We think of such a recording as discrete, that is indiscriminately duplicated and repeatable; that every playback is an instantiation of a master, which itself is a duplication of an original, human event. Instead, we might think of the recording as simply a prolongation of the original event—a time loop or a suspension of natural time—such that what was once beholden to the experience of the hic et nunc becomes exactly the ars aevi to which the medievals had attempted to give expression. In this way we deconstruct the original event from its repetition: the repetition is indistinguishable from the original; and the original is nothing other than its prolongation in the repetition.

But, what we fail to notice is that the recording is nothing other than the appearance of disappearance. The disappearance of the human voice is the appearance of its trace in the singing tone of the violin. And, of course, we know that the recording is a recording—we know that we are not in the presence of the voice that we hear and that that voice has disappeared. In the recording, we know that something has happened, but in its happening, the event disappears. The event never happens—we only know that it has happened. Disappearance always happens; disappearance is always an appearance—specifically, it is a double appearance: the appearance of that which appears and, reflexively, the appearance of a disappearance (in other words, there is no “disappearing object”, which is a contradiction in terms). Dis/appearance are not contraries but, rather, the archetype of disjunctive syntheses. Appearance is always already reflexively encoded in disappearance; it is disappearance that removes or distances the object and makes meaning possible.

2. This, however, raises a problem. Baudrillard—in one of his final and best texts—has already pointed to the hyper-reality of pure appearance, i.e., a purely objective appearance when appearance no longer requires being an appearance to anyone: “the modern world, foreseen by Marx, driven on by the work of the negative, by the engine of contradiction, became, by the very excess of its fulfillment, another world in which things no longer even need their opposites in order to exist … and the world no longer needs us” (we might also add to Marx Simmel’s analogous distinction between the quest for more-life, which results in twin excesses of hyper-ob/subjective more-than-life). The image is no longer a representation of anything but the image and the scene coincide. In the new movie Avatar, for example, life and CG become not only visually indistinguishable but coextensive. The image is no longer a copy but creates its own space of production in the very perceptions of those who undergo it (e.g., in the economy of drives, capital, and signification that make such an image possible). Dispersed among its objects, consciousness finds itself only “in the interstices of reality” where “in the visual flow in which we are currently submerged, there isn’t even the time to become an image” (Baudrillard).

3. If the logic of technical objects is inherently genetic, then nothing cannot not appear. Every identity, secret, process, torture, and google is subject to the sequencing of multiple retentions and subsequent dissemination. We might at first be tempted to think that appearance is the problem (in the midst of politics, capital, technology, fashion, etc). We might lament the “disappearance of the human” or our “posthuman condition” in the name of a vaguely romantic humanism that insists on the reduction of human life to biology, of consciousness to the brain, or of language to finitude. Under all these reductions, the human becomes caught in the contradiction of body and spirit: at once, “we are all just human”, limited in our perspective but “noble in reason, infinite in faculty”, prone to mistake and in need of a warm embrace; and we protect this contradiction by insisting on the schism of biology and technology. What happens when reproduction and replication no longer require the mediation of an eye, a feeling, or a decision?

Perhaps, however, we need to ask how a pure disappearance is possible (in Deleuze and Guatarri’s terms, this is the question of territorialization): the real disappearance of (all that has gone under the name of) the human. This is a question that we cannot even ask if we continue to think that this means the self-annihilation of human endeavor (e.g., nuclear war, global ecological destruction, genetic engineering, etc, which would be nothing other than the most conspicuous and permanent human signature). Before we can understand how disappearance is possible, first we must understand the ideologies and conditions of appearance. Before “something new” can appear, we must first disappear.