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.
There are two myths about literacy which refuse to die. The first is that writing is simply recorded speech, and the second is that since the emergence of so-called “Internet 2.0,” we are moving back to an oral culture.
I’m sorry to say that linguists are among the main propagators of that first myth. Linguists are always quick to point out that writing came along at the eleventh hour in the overall story of human language, and that any impact writing has on speech is minimal. Both of those things are true, but neither of them warrant the further assumption that writing is just a derivative of speech. If that were true, writing—particularly alphabetical writing—would be much easier to do than it is. (As I always tell my students, writing never gets easier but you do get better at it.) More to the point, as David Olson argued, writing is a model of speech which therefore involves interpretation rather than coding and decoding.