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.

 

 

 

 

Before You Reach for 1984, Mind the Paperweight

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It’s been reported that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed the day after Kellyanne Conway’s instantly infamous “alternative facts” blunder. So the cloud of lies, acrimony, ignorance, and intolerance that was this week may have a silver lining. I hope as many people get a chance to read Orwell’s masterpiece as possible.

But I fear that if they’re simply looking for allegory (in the mode of what I call correspondence similarity), they’ll be missing out on what makes the book a masterpiece in the first place. If you simply want some insight on the authoritarian mindset and the ease with which a populace can go from civil and critical to cruel and cretinous, I’d point you to Orwell’s essays and memoirs. And anyway, Trump is really more of a Berkshire boar (Napoleon, Animal Farm) than a Big Brother. 1984, I submit, is a novel about beauty.

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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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The Onion or NYT Op-ed?

Columbia professor who sabbaticaled in France for a year reports that Europeans take a much more nuanced approach to things.

Take a look.

I am well aware of the excesses of so-called identity liberalism; but out here in the provinces, it is not just a play thing of the bored, hyper-privileged kids who populate Professor Lilla’s classroom (who will be fine no matter what they look like, no matter who is president). Out here, being black and female and gay and poor and Muslim still burns white hot with political energy. Identity politics was not the undoing of the Clinton campaign, but perhaps the failure to address geographical identity was. Lilla is from Detroit. He should know better.

Elvish Wisdom

Yesterday I reached for my Marx but found myself holding Tolkien. Tolkien himself preached against using fantasy as an escape because doing so makes your own mind a prison. So let’s say I was looking for some simple wisdom and perspective. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s one pearl:

 ‘I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,’ exclaimed Frodo. ‘I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect it in our own Shire. Can’t a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?’

‘But it is not your own Shire,’ said Gildor. ‘Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourself in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’

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.

 

 

Programmed to Self-Obstruct

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I’m writing this about an hour before the third and final debate of this sordid presidential campaign, and it is resoundingly clear that no matter how well Trump does to clear the decumbent bar the country has set for him, the republicans are thinking past him.  The watch-phrase of this final month is “checks and balances,” as in checking what might be a sizable mandate for Hilary Clinton.  Translation: Ramp up the obstruction.

Democrats, on the other hand, are allowing themselves to hope for the first time in a while.  There were at first whispers of a Senate win, and now they’re speaking quite loudly about taking the House. But I wonder how much it will matter even if they do get what they want. This is not me furthering that obnoxious American habit of equivocating everything in politics, dismissing both parties as corrupt and useless (I always suspect those people just end up voting republican in secret). Democrats are disappointing, but republicans are worse. What I worry about is the possibility that the institution of congress has grown so moribund that no change in leadership will be able save it.

When I hear the recent talk of “checks and balances,” I get taken back to October 2010, when republicans were poised for a massive win in the House. Conservatives at that time talked about checks and balances against Obama, but even centerists and liberals were capable of seeing a silver lining. The prevailing argument in those camps was that if the republicans did take the House, then they could no longer continue to act as petulant children. They would have to take some responsibility for governing the nation. But we know what happened. The dysfunction didn’t just get worse; it got fully institutionalized.

Congress has always been a favorite punching bag for Americans. It’s the branch of the federal government which comes closest to direct democracy, and it’s inherently messy. But it’s never been this close to not functioning at all. We know the reasons why: the persistent, racist denial of Obama’s legitimacy; intensive post-2010 gerrymandering; turning voter suppression into a science; the emergence of the automatic filibuster. In fact, I think the first sign of total collapse will be when a piece of legislation hits the Senate floor without being filibustered–the filibuster being so automatic that everyone forgets to actually invoke it. These measures were introduced as a virus, meant to crash the Obama program. But it is looking like this bug has now become the distinguishing feature of whole operating system.

My concern is that a shift in party control, even if accompanied by wave of good natured bipartisanship sweeping across the aisles, may not matter much. Even if the democrats take control of congress, the right may still be the most active force in government. This is because the post-Obama right wing agenda is nihilism, and the method is entropy. If your goal is the annihilation of public institutions, then all you have to do to win is let them disintegrate. To do this, you needn’t negotiate and persuade; just obstruct. And if the operating system is already programmed to self-obstruct, you need only sit back and watch it happen.

The consequences of this virus in the operating system are already visible. The burden of legislation is falling on the executive and judicial branches. But the virus is now crashing the judicial OS, meaning that power is becoming ever more concentrated in the executive branch. We already have an oligarchy, but we are slouching towards autocracy. Checks and balances indeed.

What to do about this? I’m not sure. Move to a parliamentary system? Learn to stop worrying and love the virus?

 

 

 

Mylan and Dr. Malcolm

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Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park), one of the great characters in pop-fiction/film, couldn’t have said it better:

If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now your selling it.  You wanna sell it…

Malcolm was talking about making dinosaurs, but it could just as easily be said about Mylan’s jacking up the price on Epipen when it found out a generic was going to be allowed. This action is going to cause a lot of immediate pain. The callousness of companies like Mylan is morally reprehensible. But this particular company’s profiteering is just part of the rot. The underlying rot is the capitalization of intellectual property, the buying and selling of patents on the open market.

Why should we expect Mylan or Turing or anybody else in big pharma to have any moral investment in the drugs they sell? They didn’t, as Malcolm said, earn the knowledge for themselves, so of course they take no responsibility for it.

Suggested reading: Philip Mirowski’s Science-Mart.