I’m worried that my fellow travelers on the Left may be making too much of the recent election in Alabama. First of all, the election was close. And as of this writing, Roy Moore has yet to concede defeat. The conspiracy machines are turning. This thing might be taken to the courts, and the United States does not have the best track record when it comes to letting courts decide elections.
The grim possibility that partisan judges might be empowered to interpret the will of the voters notwithstanding, I am concerned with the way the Left is interpreting this political moment. The Left, you see, still acts as if there were such thing as an arc of history. Richard Wolfe’s latest column for The Guardian, “Roy Moore’s stunning defeat reveals the red line for Trump-style politics,” is typical of this view. The thinking is that we have had our reversal of fortunes, and now we’re undergoing anagnorisis, or recognition. Soon, after his family tears itself apart, the mad King Lear will fall and we will have our catharsis. That may well happen, but the problem with such a view is that encourages us to wait and spectate. We’re all watching a play while a mob stands outside the theater with torches, ready to burn the place to the ground.
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!
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.
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.
Eamon de Valera
Modern Irish nationalism, which we might place in the time after Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement and before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, was a weaving together of three, sometimes conflicting ideological strands: socialist politics, Gaelic linguistic revival, and Catholic identity. These three strands were exemplified by the passions of three of the most important figures in modern Irish nationalism, each of whom had strong personal connections to nations beyond Ireland and who, therefore, helped to imagine an Irish nation (as was often the case among postcolonial nationalisms). There was James Connolly, a Scotsman by birth, who injected continental socialism into Irish nationalism; Patrick Pearse, both the son of an English father and an Irish language teacher who endeavored to take the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) into the vanguard of militant, revolutionary politics; and Eamon de Valera–American born and of Spanish-Irish descent–who, as both Taoiseach and President of the Republic, ensured that Ireland’s political and educational infrastructure would be unwaveringly Catholic for generations to come. Both Connolly and Pearse were executed by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. De Valera was a dominant presence in Irish government until his death in 1975. The socialist strand was effectively crushed in the civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces, though republican militants in the North would remain nominally faithful to it through the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement era. And there are signs that the other two strands of nationalism in Ireland are weakening in contemporary Ireland. A 2016 census, for instance, showed that the numbers of people who identify as religious and who speak Irish and a daily basis have dropped since the 2006 census. An old fashioned nationalist might say that Ireland is once again becoming West Britain, and that most people in the Republic wouldn’t feel the difference if they were being governed from London instead of Dublin. And indeed, despite their Gaelic names, the two dominant political parties in the Republic–Fine Fail and (especially) Fine Gael–have melded into two species of Tory. It would, however, be more difficult to make that case since the Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-American order. Despite what sometimes feels like the suffocating influence of British and American media culture, Ireland is clearly hitching its political wagon to Europe, which is what a figure such as Connolly would have envisioned all along (minus, of course, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fine Gael). So, assuming that we are not hurling rapidly into a post-nationalist era (and it sure doesn’t look that way at the moment), what will nationalism in Ireland look like in coming decades? What might that tell us about the future of other nationalisms in the wake of the Anglo-American order’s decline?
It’s the fourth month of my pseudo-retirement from scholarly pursuits. It’s been a sort of reverse-sabbatical, I suppose. Not that I’ve been idle. Besides the increasing demands of a job at an institution whose future is uncertain, I have been trying to make up in four months what students in Ireland have fourteen years to do. I doubt very seriously that I could pass the Certs at this point, but that’s a goal for the not-too-distant future.
Part of the joy of learning a new language is that you get an insight into a culture that would otherwise be unavailable to you. Saying that you get an insight into a culture by learning its language is, of course, as meaningless as it is true. But I would say that in the case of Irish, it is more meaningful than true. It must be said that here in the 21st century, Gaelic is much more a part of Ireland’s politics than its culture. I’m not sure I’d have any better handle on Irish customs and traditions if I spent a year there trí Ghaeilge (if such a thing were even possible) than I’d have through English. Even the weakest version of Sapir-Whorf won’t hold up in Ireland.
I’m finally going after my lifelong dream of learning Irish. I had several chances in the past to do this, but I always put it off. It might have been the “Never meet your heroes” principle. I’m very much in the honeymoon phase right now, so we’ll have to see in a few months how I feel. But for the moment, it’s like a warm, loving blanket, albeit with a lot of velar fricatives.
It’s true that languages have individual personalities. Some of those personality traits must be more or less common to all learners of a language, but most, I’m sure, depend upon the learner’s own encounter with the language. English and Romani are, at this point, water for fish. I feel different from one to the other, but I can’t easily see outside myself from within them (if that makes sense). Languages I’ve studied in a sustained way are French, Thai, and Russian, and my relationships with each of them couldn’t be more different.
It always seemed to me like French sits at the cool kids’ table. Being able to speak and read it opens up a lot of doors, but it’s hard to bootstrap your way into it. Unlike English, it reads a whole lot easier than it speaks. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a particularly difficult language to pick up if, like many learners, you associate individual words with textual units. The boundaries between spoken words are of course blurry in any language for the learner, but I’ve never been able to completely shake that problem in French. Plus, French is deeply idiomatic, which, again, is a problem for anyone trying to begin from the ground up. Mind you, all natural languages are idiomatic (every language is an eccentric poet), but, man, you really feel it in French. I’ve gotten better, then worse, then better, and then worse at it over the years. But from those few glimpses inside, I can say that it’s considerably warmer and more vulnerable than its cool, cerebral exterior would suggest.
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.
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.
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.
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.