Thursday, June 30, 2005

Neoplatonism and politics

Jeff at the Bernoulli Effect points us to this bit from Woody Allen:
As a filmmaker, I'm not interested in 9/11 . . . it's too small, history overwhelms it. The history of the world is like: He kills me, I kill him, only with different cosmetics and different castings.... History is the same thing over and over again.
Jeff adds:
My mind is reeling over the last two days from the staggering ability of rich, spoiled Americans to forget what happened on 9/11. And Woody Allen is the ultimate New Yorker!
I'm a bit surprised by this reaction, for two reasons. First, what Allen said was pretty much the standard neoplatonic aesthete talking points: this world of politics and war, the prose of the world (per Hegel), is transitory; only beauty is eternal and worthy of the artist's endeavors, blahblahblah. We see this talking point elsewhere in the interview:
I'm probably more interested in eternal human feelings and conflicts....The same feelings and problems will persist 5000 years from now. Like the Greek tragedies which still touch us today, which still work.
In other words, while there may be different wars and struggles, there are certain things that are eternal: love, anger, etc. By contrast, particular conflicts are "ephemeral." Inasmuch as the artist's project is to tap into these eternal themes, those are the things that an artist should focus on. (again, I'm not defending this Romantic aesthetic, only making it explicit).

Second, it doesn't seem to me that Allen was saying that 9/11 wasn't horrible, only that it's not an interesting topic for art (this position is certainly debatable, but not at all unusual for what I'd [awkwardly] call aesthetic neoplatonism). In other words, his point was about art, not 9/11.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sodomy & Seduction

I've always thought of Foucault as philosophy beach reading. As long as you keep your distance from the methodological and epistemological difficulties (Foucault claims to unearth different modes of thought in which "knowledge" is produced, but he is no less a prisoner of his own era [or episteme] than the objects of his study, so isn't his claim to objectivity blahblahblah), then it's pretty fun, light reading. Since I do keep my distance from those meta problems, any Deep Thoughts I have about his thought is usually of the Jack Handey variety. Better still, it's of the college stoner variety ("See, if I were an 18th century botanist, here's what I'd do....." I thought that this very morning, in fact).

One of the fun things about The Order of Things (TOoT) is his willingness to get swept up in other logics. This text traces the history of how knowledge is produced, and there's a pretty large section devoted to methods of classification among, as you may have guessed, 18th century botanists. Baudrillard once hypothesized that the terms of a discourse seduce the speaker; ya get so wrapped up in what you're saying that that which is said drives the speaker, rather than th'other way around. And this is what happens throughout TOoT - Foucault drops the academic-y passive voice, and seems to write as if he were advocating or teaching these old-timey modes of analysis. It's really pretty cool, and one doesn't even notice until Foucault is pages and pages into this voice.

Another way of taking another's voice is prominent in Zizek's Organs without Bodies. Here, Zizek takes a one-off mention by Deleuze that his philosophy could be characterized as "buggery" of other philosophers, and expands it into a running theme (hence the chapter titled "Taking Deleuze from Behind"). The idea of this strange sodomy is that the author transforms another into his/her marionette, forcing the other to say what the author would otherwise say. More simply, it's twisting the words of the other into the shape of the author's own thought.

The curiuos thing about TOoT is the oscillation between sodomy and seduction. One moment, Foucault will be speaking in the old-timey voice, and the next will be twisting the old-timey thought into new-timey boxes. So, for example, the old-timey voice slowly transforms into the voice of Levi-Strauss, a 20th century structuralist. I'm sure there's a lot more cool stuff that could be wrung out of that progression from seduction to sodomy, but I'm lazy like that.

That's as deep as I go when I'm beach reading.

Monday, June 20, 2005

A Seat at the Cool Kids' Table; or, The Event

Cool kid Gaunilo has invited me to the blog meme table. My intermittent posting and half-baked didacticism has finally paid off.

1. How many books have I ever owned?

Yikes. If "lots" qualifies, I'll go with that. Otherwise, I'd put a conservative estimate at around 500. My travel library (those books that go with me from apartment to apartment) is around 200. A pretty stupid amount of books, given that my average stay at an apartment is just under a year, but, like a lot of people doing this particular "4 questions," the following type of thought pops into my head when packing: "What if I wake up at 5 one morning and need to find out what Adorno thinks about hermeneutics? Gosh, I don't think I can afford not to take Negative Dialectics." Of course, I have no idea what Adorno thinks about hermeunitics because that impulse has never struck me. But it might.

2. Last book I bought:

If by "bought" we substitute "swiped from a friend," then it would be the Bible. Funny, it was never part of my travel library.

3. Last book I read:

I'm almost done with three (like Gaunilo, I read books together): Zizek's Organs without Bodies; Foucault's Order of Things; and Ricouer's Oneself as Another. There's quite a bit of cool resonance between them, as all of them deal pretty heavily with the ontology of the Event. Inasmuch as an action exists, it has some strange existence, cuz you can't just reach out and touch an Event in the same way one can touch a table. This problematic is interesting to me for two reasons: when I was younger, I used to wonder how it was that people developed the language of verbs. With "table," it seems pretty easy: here's the "table", there's the table, and voila: you got yerself a stable sign. With verbs, though, it's as if the action exhausts itself in its own self-positing; the touching of the table is over as soon as it occurs. Finding the referent, then, seems like catching light in a bottle (metaphors? not my strong suit).

This self-exhaustion dovetails with my mild OCD: after I lock my door, I usually have to unlock it and relock it several times, because the locking exhausts itself and now is gone. The only way to be absolutely positive the door is locked is to unlock it and lock it again. And so this elaborate ritual goes in the morning.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me:

Baudrillard's Cool Memories. It's short, eminently readable, and is suffused with an ethic of resignation. It's very epigrammatic, so there's no narrative per se, but one gets the impression that his wife or a girlfriend has just left him (or vice versa), and this book, nominally a travel memoir, is the working-through of that gap or interstice as he flies from place to place. Because of the almost-aphoristic style, the text hints at a rich emotional terrain, so that the experience of the book is, as it were, interstitial. Like the narrator, the experience of the book exists as an in-between space, and is in transit between the text and an imaginary toward which the text points. Accordingly, much of the book is written in the present progressive, with the Events exhausting themselves at their moments of self-positing. As bombastic and pretentious as Baudrillard's academic texts are, this is a truly subtle and beautiful work. For better or worse, the way Baudrillard writes this book is the way I think (yeah, my love letters have theses.....and footnotes).

Heidegger's Being and Time. It's jam-packed with everything (I shoulda been a blurb writer, clearly), and was the fount of every major (continental) school of philosophy. This is one of those books that I do wake up at 5 am to peruse.

Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Why? Because it's right. About everything. Philosophy proper can stop after Sartre.

Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's a great novel, and, more autobiographically, it showed me that philosophy isn't just a series of dry propositions whose truth value is tested: philosophy means something, and is uniquely capable of teasing out the significance of things. I've found that philosophy provides the best vocabularies and methods for articulating the weirdness and beauty of the world (I know, my Constructivist Club Card is at risk, what with the positing of a language-independent emotional world and all, but a reconciliation of the two is outside the scope of this post - to redeem myself, perhaps the above should be amended to say that philosophy provides the best way of worldmaking).

Y'all it: Bill Wallo; Nick; Sara Jane; bls.

Friday, June 17, 2005


I think we might see a category mistake at Anti-Climacus:

a human rights problem is first a problem for that particular country. Arbitrary though it's boundaries might be, unchosen by the people in it[....]: it's still first the problem of the people in the country. They are, in a Sartrean sense, condemned to be free; to resist or accept their country's internal situation, and they must choose one or the other[....]But of course--of course--we cannot sit idly by as outside observers; we owe a duty of support[....]
This is, by and large, a comment I can agree with. However, one word juts out and suggests an unfortunate subtext: "first." In what sense is it "first" the troubled citizenry's problem? Nick seems to suggest that the existence of boundary isn't a fact that is to be ethically naturalized, a fact that negates our ethical responsibility to assist the people that lie outside our boundary ("we cannot sit by idly by as outside observers"). As I read Sartre, his position would be that to suggest that boundaries are some in-itself fact of nature would be to live in bad faith. Just as it is bad faith for Pierre to conceive of himself as a waiter (in the same way a rock is hard), it is bad faith to think that our ethical duties stop at national boundaries.

"You see, Mr. X, as a citizen of the other country (in the same way a rock is hard) should really try to help himself first before our ethical duty to assist is triggered." This would be similar to the passage in Being and Nothingness in which the woman on a date feels her suitor's hand on her leg; not knowing what to do, she imagines the hand as a non-human thing that just happens to be on her leg. In this way, she is able to defer her decision and to evade her freedom. That evasion through perceiving the other as other-than-free (an en-soi rather than its own por-soi) is the moment of faith.

So Nick is correct that the other-citizen is bound by the transcendental conditions of freedom; but his/her responsibility to him/herself in no way mitigates our ethical responsibility, our freedom to help. This is noted by Nick, but the placement of that "first" seems to cut against the plain meaning of this admission.

Politically or pragmatically speaking, this "help 'em iff [if and only if] they can't help themselves" may be correct, and is one I endorse, but if it's being used to transform Sartre's ontological notion of freedom into a political philosophy of rugged individualism, then I don't think it's tenable.

Of course, it could be that I've misread the entire post, given that it all hinges on one word.

[ht: Wallo World]

Thursday, June 16, 2005

In which your humble author lays out the conditions of batshit-ness

I take the following to be a reasonably complete list of the factors involved when determining whether one is batshit-crazy Religious Right:

a) Substantive political beliefs and substantive religious beliefs are perfectly co-extensive.
b) Political inquiry and religious inquiry are methodologically intertwined (ie, “Should shellfish be banned from grocery stores? Let’s see what the Bible has to say!”)
c) Bad perm/hair
d) Proclivity for pastels and floral patterns/tacky suits
e) Southern accent
f) Conservative politics

(a) creates a rebuttable presumption of being batshit crazy. To whit, many has been the occasion after which a friend of mine has met my family and then noted that, despite their religious and political beliefs, they are not batshit crazy. “See, I told you so,” I say.

(b) is a world unto itself, so it’ll be useful to delineate some of the more common varieties. In its strong version (b'), political belief is wholly and uncritically determined by religious belief, and isn’t even supplemented by political reasoning as such. This is properly Dominionism or Christian Reconstructionism. A slightly weaker version (b''), which is probably only distinguished by its use of political rhetoric, finds the Dominionist conclusion and then ornaments that argument with political arguments (this is the batshit corollary to a genus of the Public Reason principle, in which respect for democracy is located in the type of rhetoric deployed: so long as a political stance is supported by some secular reasoning, the determination doesn’t run afoul of the requirements of Public Reason, and is legitimate). The weakest (b''') takes religious reasoning as a starting point, and then weighs that against properly political reasoning (ie: “Blasphemy is bad, so it should be probably be banned. On the other hand, the principle of free speech is a valuable contributor to our civic culture. I’ll weigh the two and make a decision”).

(b') is clearly a sufficient condition for being batshit-crazy. I’m inclined to say (b'') is, also, a reliable indicator of being batshit-crazy, although there are some reasonable people that will disagree with me. Against those people, I would argue for the (b'')-batshit thesis by noting its explanatory power: including (b'') as a sufficient condition has the virtue of marking virtually everyone at Townhall as totally insane. (b''') is not a characteristic of the batshit crazy; rather, it simply describes how Christians think through political issues (or how people generally think politics, if we substitute ethical inquiry for religious reasoning [the latter being a subset of the former])

Taken together, (c), (d), and (f) are usually enough to create a rebuttable presumption of being batshit.

Of course, add (e) to the above, and you arrive at this:

I rest my case.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Excuses, excuses

Three reasons I haven't been blogging:

- My laptop is busted

- Work is busy; it's non-prof audit season

- Y'know how a lot of lefties got the post-election political blues/rage? It hit me late. On the theory that it's better to keep quiet than spew "I hate X," I decided to take some time and chilllll.

Secondary rights & resistance

The always-worth-reading Bill Wallo o'er at Wallo World cites Daniel at Duck of Minerva:
Daniel also points out that saying the “right” to bear arms prevents genocide is no different than saying due process, equal protection, or other civil liberties prevent genocide: “If we could guarantee those rights everywhere in the world, there wouldn’t be any genocide. If we can’t guarantee them - which we can’t - then we also can’t guarantee a right to bear arms either.”
This is a pretty smart comment, but I'm not sure that it's solid as it appears at first glance. This is an astute observation: the right to guns is, on reflection, something of a secondary right. Like due process and the separation of powers, the right to guns is a safeguard of our primary rights (speech, religion, equality, etal.).

Briefly, I take it as a first principle that secondary rights, such as the right to bear arms and due process, are logically subsequent to primary rights. Say we lived in a dictatorship in which there was an enlightened despot that guaranteed our rights to speech, to fair trials, etal. (and that s/he would be followed by an endless series of enlightened despots). If that were the case, I'd be fine. Other rights (due process, the right to vote) would be superfluous. In other words, secondary rights are only important because we can't be sure primary rights will be guaranteed.

One key difference between, say, due process and the right to bear arms, though, is that the former is susceptible to suspension by executive privilege. The latter could be suspended as well, though I would expect that it would be more difficult to take the guns of an armed citizenry than it would be to suspend procedural rights. Rather, it may or may not be more difficult, but I'd think that an attempt to round up the guns of yahoos would give government more pause. Due process is a concept, and pretty easy to eliminate, as President Bush has demonstrated. A gun, however, is a real-world entity, and can only be seized by physical force. Accordingly, I'd expect it to be more resistant to erasure.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Morons on the move!

The quasi-kerfuffle over the WTC museum o' freedom has found its own website. They must have some serious substantive concerns, right? Uh, no. They do have stupid questions, however:
[a] Why is a memorial alone not sufficient?
[b] How would a “narrative
of hope” be told?
[c] Why should visitors be greeted with a “we must
understand how we brought this on ourselves” exhibit?
a: If you recall, conservatives endlessly bloviated about how 9/11 was an "attack on freedom." If anyone dared to suggest there may have been a political motivation, rather than just a blind hatred of freedom, they were asked things like "why are you blaming America?" and "why do hate freedom?" Now that there's going to be a museum dedicated to conservatives' favorite pet theory (ie, their bluff has been called), what do you think they do? They whine and bitch, of course. At any rate, here's the explanation for the stupid: 9/11 was an attack on freedom. Accordingly, we ought to commemorate that which was under attack.

b: Through an historical narrative of the path of freedom. D'uh.

c: I don't see any solid evidence on the above site about a "blame America first" exhibit, but I do see lots of baseless accusations and hearsay. As Lionel Hutz would say, those are kinds of evidence. Sure, it's fun to make a fuss and protest and act like a grown-up, but they probably should've waited until they had, y'know, reason to fuss and protest.

Factory work has always been middle class, right?

On yesterday's edition of the knee-jerk protectionist Lou Dobbs Tonight, Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, dropped the following piece of idiocy [paraphrased]: If we stay with the WTO, we're going to start seeing nothing but low-paying jobs you only need a high school diploma for. We're losing all of our manufacturing jobs, our middle class.

What a dipshit. But, it must be noted, his idiocy evinces a peculiarly American type of idiocy; Americans are ridiculously prone to conceptual naturalization. In other words, instead of asking "Why are things this way," we say "things have always been this way. It must be a law of nature." One example: those that don't have health care treat our current system as a fact of nature. In polls, they routinely communicate their concern over health care (and lack thereof), but in those same polls signal that nothing can be done.

Similarly, Sanders treats the middle class-ness of manufacturing as a natural fact. In his fucking stupid universe (and our American universe, unfortunately), manufacturing jobs are middle class jobs in the same way that bears are mammals. This is, of course, either ridiculously stupid or tragically forgetful of the long struggle by unions to win those favorable contractual terms. Rather than fight the WTO (a fight which both Quixotic and ill-informed), he should be working with the Service Workers' Union to secure a future for the American middle class.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Ohio: Heart of Darkness It All

This letter from the Cleveland PD pretty clearly lays out why I'm so ambivalent about moving back to Ohio:

A member of my church gave to me a copy of the Ohio Restoration Project....The
project will target 2,000 pastors throughout the state to become "patriot
pastors." These patriot pastors will be briefed on a specific political agenda
and asked to submit names of their parishioners in order to increase a database
to 300,000 names. These pastors will be asked to place voter guides in their
church pews....At the end of the document are the words, "America has a mission
to share a living savior with a dying world."
Ick. I was raised in close proximity to the batshit Religious Right, and I've always retained a fascination with crappy evangelical culture. Having been on the east coast for the last decade, I've been able to explore that fascination at a certain remove. Now that I'm heading back into the land of bad perms and Jesus & Nascar muscle-Ts, though, I'm not sure how I'll cope. Whatever happens, it probably won't be pretty. (the light-to-non-existent blogging has been a direct result of said ambivalence)

(HT: Kos)