Before I get into it, here’s a relevant passage from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art in which he describes one of Van Gogh’s studies of peasant shoes (One finds oneself in a dangerously forgiving mood when reading philosophy written this beautifully.) :
A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet…From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quite gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. The equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-withing-self.
This passage was on my mind as I left the movie theater last week, having finally given Star Wars: The Last Jedi a go. It’s hard to overestimate the impact Star Wars has had on the worldview of what is now three generations of Americans, including my own. Unlike many of my compatriots, however, it’s never been a religion for me. Or at any rate, I’m an apostate. I, for one, thought the prequel movies were jolly good fun. I had no real expectations of those movies, nor for The Force Awakens. But since I was such a fan of Rian Johnson’s Brick and Looper, I’ll admit I might have set the bar a little too high for The Last Jedi. In the end, it was no better or no worse than the last four movies. Nothing gained, nothing lost. But it was apparently a real let down for the faithful because the expectations of this one were that it would dig deeply into Jedi mythology and lay down some canonical law for any future fan fiction. For me, the film’s pronounced lack of substance was actually kind of thought-provoking. I couldn’t help but think about what fantasy tells us about the truth function of art about which Heidegger is speaking in his essay.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
There’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.