From a Dunce President to Duns Scotus and Back Again: Another Conversation with Eric T.

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If you aren’t subscribed to Eric Taxier’s blog (The Mystery Bin), you should be. Eric T. is a musicologist who also traffics in metaphysics; and his insights into aesthetics, object-oriented ontology, and music are both rare and profound. You’ll want to hitch your wagon to his star now.

In the year and change since I started this blog, Eric T. has become a generous, challenging, and invaluable interlocutor. Thanks to him, some of the best stuff in this blog has existed underground, in the Comments sections. He has been kind enough to permit me to publish our latest conversation as a separate post. The real philosophical dialogue (distinct from the dramatized Platonic-style dialogue) is actually one of my favorite genres of scholarly literature, and when it is done with humility and good faith, I find it more productive than the co-authored monograph or the edited volume. The following, then, is a micro-contribution to that genre. I have edited out some of the salutations and my frequent apologies for being so late to reply, and I have also prefaced each entry with relevant themes. Other than that, what you see is what you get.

Briefly, we began with the topic of equivocation in contemporary political discourse in response to my short entry on Donald Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments. We then went on to discuss the relationship between the rhetoric of equivocation and philosophies of equivocity/univocity, referencing both Medieval theological and contemporary debates, citing a range of figures including Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou. We also talked about equivocal philosophy and the naturalization of nature–there citing the work of Arianne Conty, Felix Guattari, and Bruno Latour. The thread ended up with a discussion of aesthetic causality, in which we staked out positions on the relationship between withdrawal and endurance in Harmanian objects. As you’ll see, I largely came around to Eric T.’s POV on the deep distinction between withdrawal and endurance.

If nothing else, this dialogue serves as an excellent primer for the thinkers and philosophies mentioned above. But if you already have positions staked out on these things, some of the arguments in this thread might persuade you to think otherwise, as they have for me. Please read on!

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The Rhetorical Problem of Our Time

Equivocation.

I think I must give off a sort of Louis Theroux vibe. People on the most extreme fringes feel comfortable opening up to me for some reason, even as I make it clear that I’m not with them. This has given me the opportunity to have frank conversations over the years with fundamentalists and radicals of just about every ideological flavor. In each case, the currency of the realm is equivocation. Its function is not to prove that Side A is right by virtue of the fact that Side B has done bad things too; it is to show that Side A and Side B are the same, and so the only choice is Side C, which just turns out to be Side A by another name. It’s simple. It’s lazy. But it’s still the most effective way of sewing moral confusion. Mind you, this is nothing new…But add it to the epistemic confusion caused by information overload, and you’ve got a rhetorical H-bomb.

Equivocation is reason why Trump has been able to thrive where other politicians might have crashed and burned. And it’s why when Trump eventually does crash and burn, others will likely thrive in his place.

His “many sides” response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA is the most disgusting example yet of Trump’s equivocalist rhetoric. The scary thing is that he was probably on mental autopilot when he said it. Equivocation is a worldview as much as it is a rhetorical tool.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been pursuing the slippery topic of similarity in recent years, which unfortunately is understood as being…well…equivocal to equivocation (i.e. the repetition of the same essence). I think we need to be able to think past repetition as being repetition of the same. Equivocation is a way of casting similarity as the repetition of the same quality which differs only in proportion (i.e. quantity). Deleuze got the closest to a new way of thinking repetition when he saw difference as emerging out from the amplitude/intensity of the repetition of the same. But like the equivocal understanding of similarity, this just reduces quality to quantity. I believe we need to think repetition as a distortive, qualitative thing which can best be understood by a radical re-thinking of similarity.

 

 

 

 

Memes, Millennials, and Meaning (and Anaphora)

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Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.

Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:

Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.

I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.

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Badiou’s Number and Numbers: Part {0{0}}

I left off the last post asking what Badiou gets out of his reliance upon Zermelo-Fraenkel axiomatic transitivity, given its crippling exclusion of pathic interaction. His characterization of ontology in terms of the inconsistent multiplicity of ordinals is certainly capable of describing the possibility of existential novelty (or emergence), but performs poorly for novelty itself. For similar reasons, Levi Bryant claims that Badiou makes a category mistake by confusing essence with existence, Badiou’s set theoretical truths describing only the former. But, Bryant concedes, it is quite a powerful description of essence. Here I want to talk a bit about just why it is such a powerful description of essence.

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Badiou’s Number and Numbers: Part {0}

Usually during winter break I try to get a scholarly project started. I tend to flounder until the last few days of the break, when the ideas seem miraculously to come together. Then the semester begins. Any project begun during break quickly dissipates, and if I’m lucky, I can pick up the pieces and turn it into something else a little later on. But during this break, I went in a slightly different direction. I simply spent much of my off time rereading Alain Badiou’s Number and Numbers.

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I had read and cited Number and Numbers before, but always had the nagging sense that I had under-read it. The first time through, I read it as the 240 page book it appeared to be. This time, I read it as the 900 page tome it really is. Number and Numbers is one of Badiou’s least celebrated books, but it’s my favorite. It is to the Being and Event books what the Prolegomena is to Critique of Pure Reason. It’s a stripped down book of pure ideas without much meditation on their implications. But like the surreal numbers Badiou champions, it’s a dense, dense fabric. It’s the thought process of a genius on full display, but it also gives us a glimpse of Badiou the teacher. What he gives the reader is difficult, but he’s gentle and generous in the delivery. Credit here must also go to Robin Mackay for the beautiful translation.

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Taxes, Death, and Lacan

I’m not often drawn to the Lacanian reading of things. There are a few reasons for this, none of which approach anything like a refutation of Lacan. I always feel that I’m not particularly interested at present, but that some day I will be. Anyway, for someone who does Lacan well, I’d refer you to Levi Bryant, who, in terms of raw IQ, is pretty much unrivaled in his field.

Still, I can’t help but think there’s something Lacanny about the current national debate around facts, which, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting and the CIA’s findings about Russian mischief, appears poised to upend the sustaining illusion of our nationhood. What follows is not a Lacanian reading, but Lacanny conjecture.

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It begins, perhaps, with the argument over climate change. That was the first major clash between basic science and politics. Religion and science had of course clashed before that, and those clashes inevitably spilled over onto politics; but if there is religious opposition to the science of climate change, it is because the politics of climate change denial has spill out onto religion, not the other way around. In any case, climate change denial is not an article of faith for most sects.

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I wanted badly to touch it.

Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.

I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.

But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.

The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment.  There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.

Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.

But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.

The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.

 

Žižeks will be Žižeks…

Well now you’ve gone and endorsed Trump. Forty whacks with a wet noodle, you lil’ rascal.

230px-slavoj_zizek_in_liverpool_croppedSlavoj Žižek’s recent thoughts on the U.S. presidential race have made him some new friends at Breitbart, outraged others, and made the rest of us do the Lucille Bluth eye roll (see “Martha Stewart Needs to Get Somewhere…“). It has also revived the old discussion about the decline of the public intellectual.

Quartz‘s Olivia Goldhill has offered a particularly thoughtful piece on the subject, arguing that Žižek’s recent pronouncement is the latest sign that philosophy has become so decadent and insular that it has lost sight of its purpose entirely. As we re-adjudicate the matter of the public intellectual in contemporary culture, we are likely to, as Goldhill does, invoke past greats like Sartre, Camus, Arendt, and Foucault. And it’s true that when it comes to public intellectuals, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

But I would urge caution before laying the problem entirely at academic philosophy’s feet. To do so is to misunderstand the relationship between the philosopher and the public intellectual. When the likes of Arendt and Foucault were asked to talk in a public forum about social issues, they were not being asked to ‘do philosophy’ in a public forum. Rather, they were asked to give their opinions on social issues because they had done important philosophical work elsewhere. Their importance as philosophers translated into credibility as public thinkers. This is not the same thing as doing philosophy in public. You can see this division most clearly in the work of Noam Chomsky, who is the last living public intellectual of that previous era (although I think Chomsky has always adhered to the division too strictly).

Part of Žižek’s problem is that he has built his brand on philosophical readings of pop culture so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he is philosophizing, publicly opining, or just performing.  Actually, I don’t think that’s a problem in and of itself because he has made some really significant philosophical contributions that way. The point is that Žižek is a difficult figure not because of the philosophy he actually does in the public but because he does philosophy in the public at all. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the mold of the public intellectual.

As for his stupidity and naive nihilism regarding a President Trump, I chalk that up to the perils of academic superstardom. He’s been surrounded by sycophants for so long (and academics can be champion sycophants) telling him that everything he says is brilliant and revolutionary that he sometimes believes it himself. It’s precisely why Jerry Seinfeld is no longer funny.

So yes, philosophy has become decadent and insular. There are some really good philosophers out there working on that problem as we speak. But the decline of the public intellectual also has to be an indictment of the public itself. At best, people with advanced degrees in Philosophy (or any of the Humanities for that matter) are considered vestigial organs, and and worst, they are the First Estate circa 1789…or perhaps the last druids hold up on Anglesey.

We seem much more content listening to the public opinions of people who only make opinions for a living. That’s the real death of the public intellectual.

 

 

My Conversation with Eric T.

After I posted my review of Graham Harman’s Immaterialism back in July, I got a reply with some truly insightful comments and questions from a reader, Eric T. Since I’m new to WordPress and am generally a dunce when it comes to tech, I had unknowingly disabled comments until earlier this month. But when I did find Eric’s comment, we began a thought-provoking, challenging, and mutually instructive correspondence in the comments section of that post. I recently asked Eric if I could publish that conversation as a separate post, and, happily, he agreed.  The conversation began with Harman’s book and has somehow morphed into the metaphysics of participation in the Clarke-Leibniz debate. I think you’ll enjoy finding out how we got there.

(I’ve offset the comments in italics and non-italics for clarity.)

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Zizek on Populism

I recently came across Zizek’s (with apologies for the inappropriate orthography) post on The Philosophical Salon, in which he defends himself from tweeters and comment sectioners. I’m not terribly interested in the specifics of his rebuttal, except to say that it’s a fascinating state of affairs when the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift seem far better equipped to defend themselves than Slavoj Zizek. “The medium is the massage” and all that.

As always, though, Zizek has a way of turning the perfectly intuitive into something worth arguing.  I’m referring to the following passage from Part Two of his defense:

The stance that sustains these tweet rejoinders is a mixture of self-righteous Political Correctness and brutal sarcasm: the moment anything that sounds problematic is perceived, a reply is automatically triggered—usually a PC commonplace. Although critics like to emphasize how they reject normativity (“the imposed heterosexual norm,” etc.), their stance itself is one of ruthless normativity, denouncing every minimal deviation from the PC dogma as “transphobia,” or “Fascism,” or whatever. Such a tweet culture, combining official tolerance and openness with extreme intolerance towards actually different views, simply renders critical thinking impossible.

Again, I have nothing to say about the specifics of this, as I have neither the expertise nor the ethos. But in general terms, he points to something I’ve been struggling with for a while: How does one separate an authentic political movement from just another iteration of populism? Although populism goes hand-in-hand with reactionary thinking and so mostly afflicts those who identify with the Right, that’s not always the case. Badiou has devoted much of his career to figuring how to draw the distinction between a properly transformative Event and a reactionary episode. However, Zizek points to something much simpler. Perhaps populism is just a multitude with an orthodoxy (which of course is a contradiction).

Or maybe I’m just looking to preserve my own ego, for instance, for having been a wheaty Bernie Sanders supporter without being a chaffy BernieBro.