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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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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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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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.

 

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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Properties and Predicates

I just finished a very nice little book by Douglas Edwards about the philosophy of properties, appropriately titled Properties.  The arguments Edwards covers are entirely from the analytical side of the fence, most of which are from the past forty years or so.  I was familiar with some of the arguments and unfamiliar with others.  But even if you are well versed in this area, I’d still recommend the book because of the masterful way Edwards put the various approaches into conversation with one another.  Properties is designed primarily as an introductory text, so it’s plenty accessible to the uninitiated too, and Edwards provides excellent definitions and examples for key concepts before discussing them in the context of existing arguments.

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That’s as far as I want to go by way of a review.  I really want to record some thoughts I had about properties and predicates as I was making my way through the book.

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Graham Harman takes the Leibniz Challenge: A review of Immaterialism

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No, it’s not the one about absolute vs. relative space.  In fact, the challenge Graham Harman takes up in his latest book, Immaterialism, wasn’t so much a challenge issued by Leibniz as a throwaway comment about real objects and the Dutch East India Company.  Having rummaged through the dustbin of philosophical history, Harman found Leibniz’s comment, uncrinkled the paper, and stuck it to his refrigerator door.  At least that’s how I imagine it.

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“Scientism” is not a word I like to use.

brainnetworkThere’s a part in The Being of Analogy where I claim I don’t really know what “scientism” is supposed to mean.  That was a bit of disingenuous rhetorical flourish used to distance myself from the term, and I probably shouldn’t have said it.  I know perfectly well what it means and why it exists, but I’m still uncomfortable with it.  I’ve been uncomfortable with “scientism” ever since I made the transition in graduate school from physical anthropology to English studies, which is when I first encountered the term.  I identified then as a lone scientist besieged by an army of deconstructionists, and, as such, “scientism” smacked of glib, kneejerk anti-intellectualism.  It still feels pretty kneejerk to me, but I no longer see it as glib or anti-intellectual.  My beef with it now is that it’s too ambiguous and it’s often a gateway to either hypocrisy or disengagement with science.

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