Reading Ervin D. Krause’s ‘You Will Never See Any God: Stories’

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Krause (Left) with brother, Gerald (Right)

The boy felt a shudder—it was not the air and the wisps of drizzle. He knew what it was—there was evil here. He had a swift recognition of the evil of something warped, the terror of darkness and the strange; he had felt it before, on cold lightning-fired nights, in the chill of the church on Sunday mornings, on entering an unlighted barn. This had always held a secret terror for him, for he went much to Sunday school and church, and he had heard much of evil, had known it to be rampant and secret, and it had always been hidden secretly from him, behind bannisters on stairs, in the darkness of doorways at church, behind corners cringing in barns, in the dank, tree-overhung lagoons that were nursed with bad water and a stench down along the river. It had always been a secret terror for him before, but now it was here, very near to him; he could look up and see the heavy, mudded shoetops of the neighbor with that face strange, carved as if from red and rotted wood with the purple, bloodless leer and the red-rimmed, gouged eye.

—Ervin D. Krause, You Will Never See Any God: Stories (“The Right Hand”)

Once all but forgotten, writer Ervin D. Krause, the son of a Midwestern tenant farmer, ranked among the best short story writers in the country in the early 1960s. Championed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro, then editor of Prairie Schooner, Krause’s work was reprinted in both the O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies, sharing space with luminaries like Flannery O’Connor, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. At a time when American literature was still heavily preoccupied with the beatniks — the breathless bebop of Kerouac, Burroughs’ cut-ups and more — Krause wrote hopeless stories in gimmick-less prose, stories that open doors only to slam them shut, stories as dusty as a November cornfield and populated with the characters of his childhood.

As Carson Vaughn says it Krause’s stories evoke a grim determinism more in line with the naturalists of decades prior, a cold reality mimicked by a “frigid sun” or a farmstead “abandoned and gray.” “None of his characters finds peace, none finds a sanctuary of comfort, all find failure and defeat,” Krause wrote in the introduction to his 1957 master’s thesis, “The Three Views of John Dos Passos.” The same could have been written about Krause’s stories themselves, their tone pessimistic, skewing always toward a harsh and unrelenting realism.

I’ve barely begun reading these stories, but already their dipping me in that ancient loam of darkness surrounding us, an abyss of primal worlds that seep into ours every night in the realms of nightmare. And, yet, his stories also touch base with an older world of humanity in the early Agricultural realms of the Icelandic Sagas, a realism that pits humans within a mythology of the elemental earth and its organic cycles. A place we have tried to forget in our urban worlds of artificiality. Krause would remind us that beyond the glitter of the night skies of the great skyscrapers lies another world, the realm of stars and evil energy arising not from some transcendent realm of gods, but rather closer to home in the very soil of our climatic earth where all civilizations have always found their fatal outcomes from womb to tomb.

One perceives this in stark terms as the boy from the short story I quoted in the beginning, ‘The Right Hand’ watches the neighbor farmer as he tries to nurse a young calf back to health whose front forelegs to the nib were gnawed off by his hogs:

After two days the calf would not eat anymore and even then somehow it managed to stand, its sides transparent against the toothpick, tiny-slat ribs, and it wandered thus, falling and rising and floundering in the dust of the yard, like some mad tormented creature, driven by something inexplicable and terrible, seeking to hide in the shade of the plum brush, but always falling and being drawn in the wrong direction, wandering, mad and awful, disfigured and torn, yet somehow, madly, relentlessly living, driven like its master to live, in spite of the want for death, until at last it did die, with even the last death motion feeble, and the calf bellow only a gurgle in the quivering throat, and in the evening when the dust had cooled and Stark came back in from the fields, he took the calf and carried it up the pasture hill and buried it.

This sense of the life force at work in the calf, the blind need to exist, to move, to live. Schopenhauer would see in this physical enactment the power of the will. He’d teach us that through both first and third person perspectives we can by way of self-awareness, by peeling away its layers of meaning, we will inevitably come to the conclusion that the inner essence of things is nothing less than the will. Schopenhauer’s first step toward that conclusion is a simple distinction between two forms of self-knowledge. I know myself as an individual, he explains, through my body, which makes me just this individual and no other. But I know this body in two ways or from two perspectives (I. 157; P 100). I can view it from an external or third-person perspective, where it appears as one object among others; but I can also view it from an internal or first-person perspective, where it is the single, unique object of my self-consciousness. Schopenhauer stresses that these two modes of knowing ourselves are utterly distinct from one another. They are two incommensurable perspectives upon one and the same thing: namely, my body (I. 161; P 103).1

Krause in his vision of evil would see this will to live, this Schopenhauerian energy and drive to exist as a part of the fatal evil of existence, not some metaphysical evil of external devils, etc., but rather the inherent drive of life in its will to exist, to remain, to blindly keep on struggling. In the story the boy learns the difference between actual and metaphysical evil in life and the physical world, and that the two are twain, divided, different.

As Krause relates of the boy, in his mind the farmer was evil for wanting to help the young calf survive. Because of his Christian belief system, taught by his Mama and the Sunday school he is mixed in his views of the natural and metaphysical. Here is his reception of Stark:

After that the boy had even a deeper terror of and hatred for Stark. It was not because of the calf; he had no sympathy for it, for he had seen suffering, he had witnessed agony and seen the dumb struggling eyes of animals in pain, and he had grown used to it, had felt nothing at seeing death—no, that was not it—it was that Stark could want something so misshapen, so awful around, and would want to make it live.

The boy’s sense of evil, taught by his Old Testament knowledge of Cain and the Mark, etc., makes him see evil in this metaphysical light: “The boy wanted to destroy the calf the first time he saw it because it was so badly disfigured, just as he had calmly destroyed ducklings with misshapen beaks and pigs that were born with their guts outside themselves. That which was misshapen and marked was evil, was not natural, and needed to be destroyed, and he felt a shudder run through him, remembering how Stark wanted to keep the animal alive.”

So that the boy imposes an evil on things and animals that are not part of the farmer’s life and being, a metaphysical imposition that rakes across the world a fear and trepidation of all things scarred and misshapen. At the heart of the story is the birth mark on the old farmer Stark himself, whose face is seen in the early description:

The birthmark pulled the lips crooked, made them seem open, even if they were not, made them look dead with that deep-purple, bloodless, blooded color. It was the purple of something dead—the purple on dead horses’ heads before the rendering truck or hogs come to them. The boy stared at this face, the face reflecting the sorrow and the sufferings of lifetimes, a face with the mark of Cain perhaps, or just of the man’s parents; it was a face with that naked hurting look of a burn or a brand healing and yet never quite healed, always inflamed and sensitive and sore; it was a face of terror and of bad dreams, giving to anyone who saw it a weird and evilfearing anxiety.

The boy raised up on Old Testament horrors and tales sees pain and suffering everywhere, as if these were signs of evil and punishment. While Krause himself portrays the farmer as just a man living in the elements of his world of earth and soil, a man who does what such men do, not bothered by such metaphysical fictions but rather existing in a world without gods or such mind bending tales that warp the psyche beyond repair. I want spoil the tale for you with the ending, just to say that in the end we discover that the evil has all along resided not in the Old Farmer, Stark, but in the boy who has impose upon the world what lies only deep in his own Bible bound metaphysical mind, an evil that has shaped his psychopathic psyche and being, twisting it beyond all telling…

Yet, if there is an epiphany in this short story, it comes not by some sublime enlightenment, rather it comes in the very moment of the common, of the dull, of the truth of our shared lives. The boy who has been working his way up to sneak into the old farmer’s house while he is out and about, thinking in his devious boy’s heart that there must be some hideous evil lying in wait within those four walls, enters the farmer’s domain only to find no real evil other than loss. The boy comes into the old man’s bedroom and finds nothing more in it than a few pictures with memories:

 In the picture, too, were a boy and a girl, the boy younger, both plain, vacant-faced children, like any other boy and girl. And on the picture, written very faintly, but carefully, too, as if it had been written a long time before, above the man’s head were the words “Ezra Stark, Sr., died 1938,” and above the woman’s “Mathilda Stark, died 1943,” and “Carl” beside the boy, and “Harriet” beside the girl. He did not know why the picture was there, and he did not really care.

This moment of the realization: “The boy surveyed the room again. He was genuinely disappointed. He had expected something of a purpose perhaps, overwhelming and evil, a mad old woman, an opium den, a room full of glowering icons, but instead there was only the single dull picture.” And, yet, it is this singular object, this ‘dull picture’ that holds the key to the story, the memories and history of a man, alone, a man who has seen his father, his mother, his wife and children all die before him; a man who will seek to keep alive the things of the earth and soil that are his charge for as long as it takes, a man whose memories and keepsakes are all he is and has…

And, a boy, who is beyond that ability to see just this and, instead, sees nothing there at all but a dull old picture that means nothing. The boy not even adult has already entered into that nihilistic world through the very power of a darkened Biblical vision that has hooked his psychopathic heart, lured him into a world where memories and feelings no longer exist. Only his mission to discover and wipe out evil like some inquisitorial ambassador from an earthly hell…

I’ll not say another word on that story… you will need to read it. Krause’s stories may not be for everyone. His dark vision of life and our ruinous ways is part of what quickens me to write of him. Like Flannery O’Conner there is a deep-seated vision and moral power there in these works, but not one that is pervaded by ancient religious consciousness but rather by something older, darker, and more powerful springing up from the very core of the inhuman earth. His is a violent and twisted world full of weird and at last ghastly figures, at once macabre and horrific, and yet within that is still this sense of a code of being that knows the ways of earth and the elements, the patterns of the stars and fate; and, as well the freedom of decisions and retroactive thought that challenges the deterministic threads that would weave us into some death bound universe of lifelessness. For him evil is not in the world so much as it is the terror filled power of our own mind’s to hide from the truth of the world.

Krause’s posthumous work is out finally in book form: You Will Never See Any God.

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  1. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (Kindle Locations 1061-1066). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

The Grand Illusionist: The Non-Existent Self

Sometimes in those insomniac nights of sleeplessness and ennui  I ponder the reams of paper or the interminable light-bits of datatrash – those computing algorithms that have gone into the veritable destruction of the Great Illusionist: the Subject as Self-Identity and Substance. Everything from the current philosophical speculators to the vanguard research of neurosciences tells us the Self is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist… and, yet, the illusion persists, we get up every morning, we wander into the bathroom, we wash our face, and then look at the sack of shit staring back at us out of the mirror and, say: “You’re just a figment of my imagination, an illusion and linguistic trick, an evolutionary display of memes, ideas, notions, errors all wrapped up in bullshit.” We blink, we laugh, we cry… it’s still there, whatever ‘it‘ is or is not; it want go away, disappear, fall off a cliff.. the illusion of Self persists; it endures your vituperative invective, your satirical jibes, your slow witted verbiage… it blinks back at you, defies you, challenges you to disbelieve in its existence. But it does not go away… this illusion of Self. No matter how many intelligent people show you in report after report, thesis after thesis, image after image that it is an empty thing, a dead concept, a parlor trick… nothing more. We cling to our ‘I’ – our sense of identity, our uniqueness, our eccentric and marginal belief that we are different, that we are singular, unique, and one-of-a-kind beings; that all those who would reduce us to a cipher, an automated process in a vast and complex system of algorithms shifting in the substratum of the brain’s own biochemical vat must be wrong. So that in the end we hang onto this illusion of Self – this self-reflecting nothingness, a mirror world of illusive memetic monstrosities we keep referring to as our intentions, our intentional self; both intelligent and willful. Illusion, as Freud once believed, is not so easily gotten rid of, even the illusion of self and identity.

Most of the great religious systems of the world were built around deprogramming this sense of Self. Buddhism is a veritable registry of this hollowing out of the illusion of Self and Things or Mindedness… One turns to the Gnostics, remembering Basiledes who said: “Show me your face before you were born.” Or, Monoïmus the Gnostic who would tell his followers: “Cease to seek the Self as Self, and sayeth: ‘My god, my mind, my reason, my soul, my body.’ And learn whence is sorrow and joy, and love and hate, and waking though one would not, and sleeping though one would not, and getting angry though one would not, and falling in love though one would not. And if thou shouldst closely investigate these things, thou wilt find the Void in thyself, one and many, just as the atom; thus finding from thyself a way out of thyself.”

One could recite a Thousand and One Nights of such quotes from both religious, philosophical, scientific and other literature. Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities would say of Self and self-reflection: “This non-plussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition, whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think that they must see something suprapersonal in it; but it is only something nonpersonal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one’s head.”

The notion that the sense of Self is a mere congeries of things floating in and out of the voidic hollow of one’s brain is an apt metaphor for out times – a time when we still believe in the notion of Self – of the hollow men and women we call Leaders who presume to represent other selves in a Government based on the illusion of Selves in Nations built on an outmoded liberal model of subject and subjectivity, representation and presence, an illusion of the stable and continuous Liberal Subject-as-Substance and Substance-as-Subject. Amazing, quite amazing…

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

In their book The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity  Raymond Martin and John Barresi would trace this sordid history into all its nooks and crannies (at least into its Western Heritage and lineage). Yet, it was in Hume that the defining moment came to turn the mind’s scalpel onto that strange entity. In book 1 of the Treatise , the heart of his account is his argument that belief in a substantial, persisting self is an illusion.1 Hume addressed the task of explaining why people are so susceptible to the illusion of self. And in book 2 he explained how certain dynamic mentalistic systems in which we represent ourselves to ourselves, as well as to others, actually work, such as those systems in us that generate sympathetic responses to others. This was Hume the empirical psychologist at his constructive best. In these more psychological projects, Hume often seems to have taken for granted things that in book 1 he had subjected to withering skeptical criticism.(163)

Next we come to the work of Thomas Cooper (1759–1839). Cooper’s most important philosophical contribution was his Tracts, Ethical, Theological, and Political (1789). 53 In a chapter, “On Identity,” he first surveys the important eighteenth-century literature on personal identity, including Locke, Leibniz, Isaac Watts, Clarke, Collins, Butler, Priestley, Price, and Charles Bonnet. Cooper’s own view, which he expresses all too briefly after his leisurely survey of the views of others, is, in the language of our own times, that personal identity is not what matters primarily in survival. He argued that there is no evidence that people have immaterial souls and ample evidence that all of the matter out of which they are composed is constantly in the process of being replaced, with nothing remaining constant. (172)

Cooper would destroy (or so he hoped) the last metaphysical bastion of the afterlife – the notion of a Soul. In Cooper’s view, no one lasts even from moment to moment, let alone year to year. Rather, there is a succession of similar people, each of whom is causally dependent for its existence on its predecessors in the series. This similarity misleads people into supposing that identity is preserved, that is, that someone who will exist in the future is the very same person as someone who exists now. He concluded that personal identity is an illusion—at best a pragmatically useful notion with no adequate support in the nature of things. In response to the objection that “the man at the resurrection will, upon this system, be not the same with, but merely similar to the former,” he replied that similarity, rather than identity, is the most that can be got even in this life, which no one regards of any consequence. He concluded that maintaining identity should then be of no consequence in connection with the afterlife. (173)

Next we come to Schopenhauer whose notion of Will would replace this thing we call the ‘I’:

When you say I, I, I want to exist, it is not you alone that says this. Everything says it, absolutely everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness. It follows, then, that this desire of yours is just the part of you that is not individual—the part that is common to all things without distinction. It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself; it is the intrinsic element in everything that exists, nay, it is the cause of anything existing at all. This desire craves for, and so is satisfied with, nothing less than existence in general—not any definite individual existence. No! that is not its aim. It seems to be so only because this desire—this Will—attains consciousness only in the individual, and therefore looks as though it were concerned with nothing but the individual. There lies the illusion—an illusion, it is true, in which the individual is held fast: but, if he reflects, he can break the fetters and set himself free. It is only indirectly I say, that the individual has this violent craving for existence. It is the Will to Live which is the real and direct aspirant—alike and identical in all things. (203)

Yet as Schopenhauer declared if our individual selves are at bottom an illusion, how can people overcome their egoistic concerns? Up to a point, he says, by developing the human capacity for sympathy and thereby becoming more virtuous. But what is really needed to overcome our self-centeredness is not mere sympathy but a “transition from virtue to asceticism,” in which the individual ceases to feel any concern for earthly things. In this “state of voluntary renunciation,” individuals experience “resignation, true indifference, and perfect will-lessness,” which lead to a “denial of the will to live.” Only then, when humans have become “saints,” are they released from insatiable Will. (204)

Of course as we know Schopenhauer was steeped in the new influx of translated works from both Hindu and Buddhist literature of that era in German scholarship so that his notions would meld the old Christian apophatic traditions with those of India to create a new deprogramming model for self-abnegation. Nietzsche would catch the drift of this and keep a wary eye on the old pessimist.

Yet, we need to turn back to those old Eighteenth century mechanists of the spirit, too. Among those whom influenced by such notions was Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723–1789), who in System of Nature (1770) defended secular materialism. In it, d’Holbach argued, at the time sensationally, that humans are a product entirely of nature, that their moral and intellectual abilities are simply machinelike operations, that the soul and free will are illusions, that religion and priestcraft are the source of most manmade evil, and that atheism promotes good morality. (213)

The work of Nietzsche is well known so I want add examples here. A few—Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for instance—had claimed that there is an irrational, unconscious part of the mind that dominates the rational. But Freud had a much more elaborate theory of how this happens, for which he claimed support from his psychotherapeutic and historical case studies, as well from his analyses of dreams and mental slips.

Freud claimed that most human behavior is explicable in terms of unconscious causes in the person’s mind, a view which he supported by appeal to ingenious interpretations of such things as slips of the tongue, obsessive behavior, and dreams. In short, the mind is like an iceberg, the bulk of which—the unconscious—lies below the surface and exerts a dynamic and controlling influence upon the part which is above the surface—that is, consciousness. It follows from this, together with a general commitment to universal determinism, that whenever humans make a choice, they are governed by mental processes of which they are unaware and over which they have no control. Free will is an illusion. Nevertheless, one can empower the ego by making the unconscious conscious. (256)

Freud had been interested in the process by which children become civilized, productive adults. He hoped that by bringing the contents of the unconscious into consciousness, repression and neurosis would be minimized, thereby strengthening the ego or self. His goal was the development of an ego that is more autonomous. In Lacan’s view, Freud’s goal is an impossible dream. Since the ego is an illusion, it can never replace or control anything, let alone the unconscious. Lacan’s theoretical interest was not in how children become civilized, productive adults but in how they acquire the illusion of self. (267)

Lacan in his notions of the mirror image would see in the child a sense of misrecognition as a category mistake that creates what Lacan called the “armor” of the subject, an illusion of wholeness, integration, and totality that surrounds and protects the child’s fragmented sense of its own body. This illusion of wholeness gives birth to the ego . That, in essence, is Lacan’s famous mirror theory . The idea that one is an ego or self, he said, is always a fantasy, based on an identification with an external image. (268)

Whereas the real is a realm of objects, the imaginary, which is prelinguistic and based in visual perception, is a realm of conscious and unconscious images. In this realm, the mirror image, an “ideal ego,” becomes internalized as the child builds its sense of self and identity. The fiction of a stable, whole, unified self that the child saw in the mirror becomes compensation for its having lost its original sense of oneness with the mother’s body. The child protects itself from the knowledge of this loss by misperceiving itself as not lacking anything. For the rest of its life, the child will misrecognize its self as an illusory other—an “image in a mirror.” This misrecognition provides an illusion of self and of mastery. (269)

In his recent work Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, has, on the basis of reports from his patients who have suffered brain damage, proposed the existence of a neural self . 45 He claims that these patients, deprived of current information about parts of their bodies, have sustained damage to the neural substrate of the self. By contrast, healthy people use their senses of self to access information about the slowly evolving details of their autobiographies, including their likes, dislikes, and plans for the future. They also use them to access representations of their bodies and their states. Damasio calls a person’s representations, collectively, his or her concept of self , which, he says, is continually reconstructed from the ground up. This concept is an evanescent medium of self-reference. It is reconstructed so often that the person whose self-concept it is never knows it is being remade unless problems arise. (291)

In a more recent book, Damasio, proposed that consciousness represents a relationship between the self and the external world. The self model that actually shows up phenomenologically as a more or less constant feature of our consciousness is not the robust self of our narrative reveries but what he calls the core self . It is a representation of a regulatory system in the brain and brain stem, the function of which is to monitor and maintain certain of the body’s internal systems, such as respiration, body temperature, and the sympathetic nervous system. He calls the system being represented, the protoself . In his view, all states of consciousness are bipolar in that they include a representation of the core self in relation to the external world. In this representation, he says, the core self remains relatively stable, while sensory input from the external world changes dramatically and often. Thus, in almost every conscious state, there is something relatively stable, namely the core self, and something changeable, the external world. This fact about consciousness, he claims, generates the “illusion” that there is a relatively constant self that perceives and reacts to the external world. (292)

Ultimately in the conclusion to their survey – dated in 2006 so lacking in current research, they suggest that our notion of a unified self-identity is not only an illusion, but that the disturbing realization that what we are characterized as a unified self is not something that we once had and then lost sight of but, rather, something that we never had to begin with. To whatever extent it may have seemed like we had it, this was an illusion. In this view of things, a better way of characterizing what happened as a consequence of the development of theory is not that we lost something valuable that we once had but that we became better positioned to shed an illusion and finally see what we had—and have—for what it truly is. Shedding an illusion, even the comforting one that there is a unified subject matter of self and personal-identity theory and we can grasp it whole, is a kind of progress. It is not progress of a sort that is internal to any theory but, rather, progress in gaining a better synoptic understanding of the development and current state of theory—metaprogress, if you will. Arguably, it is a sign of the importance of the shedding of the illusions of a unified self and of theoretical closure that it may be psychologically impossible to embrace wholeheartedly that there may be no knowable comprehensive truth about who and what we are and about what lies at the root of our egoistic concerns. (313)

Nevertheless, they argue, each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point. This feeling of special access is what fueled Descartes’s contention that one’s own self is first in the order of knowing. The truth, however, seems to be that nothing is first in the order of knowing, that is, that there is no single privileged place to begin the development of theory, no single privileged methodology with which to pursue it, and no practical way to unify the theories that result from starting at different places using different techniques. This was not so apparent until recently, but it seems abundantly clear now. In sum, as “we have already suggested, if there is unity in sight, it is the unity of the organism, not of the self or of theories about the self”. (314)

Such are the quandaries of this strange history, a world built out of words and thoughts, lies and misrecognition, illusory at best; yet, a world that continues to build on such illusions as Self; its secret histories, battles, disjunctive sense of loss, even though we know it to be the Great Illusionist at the core of the human project. But, then again, are we even human anymore? We let the machines answer that, our future progeny may look back on our quandaries and laughingly click metal to metal as if to say, “Those fools who once shared our world and spent so much effort in creating us as the perfection of their dreams of Reason. Little did they know what it was they were doing…” or why?


  1. Raymond Martin and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.  Columbia University Press (July 22, 2006) (Page 163).

(Note: I could have brought it up to current speed with both neuroscientific, philosophical and other literature after 2006, but thought it would make this post far too long …)

Balzac’s Master Criminal: The Great Vitalist – Vautrin

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Who will ever forget the moment in Pere Goriot when that great criminal vitalist and a central character in three novels and a play by that indefatigable author of The Human Comedy Honoré de Balzac, Vautrin is caught out:

“Mlle. Michonneau was talking the day before yesterday about a gentleman called Trompe-la-Mort [Death-Dodger],” said Bianchon; “and, upon my word, that name would do very well for you.”

Vautrin seemed thunderstruck. He turned pale, and staggered back. He turned his magnetic glance, like a ray of vivid light, on Mlle. Michonneau; the old maid shrank and trembled under the influence of that strong will, and collapsed into a chair. The mask of good nature had dropped from the convict’s face; from the unmistakable ferocity of that sinister look, Poiret felt that the old maid was in danger, and hastily stepped between them. None of the lodgers understood this scene in the least; they looked on in mute amazement. There was a pause. Just then there was a sound of tramping feet outside; there were soldiers there, it seemed, for there was a ring of several rifles on the cobble-stones stones of the street. Collin was mechanically looking round the walls for away of escape, when four men entered by way of the sitting-room.

“In the name of the king and the law!” said an officer, but the words were almost lost in a murmur of astonishment.

Silence fell on the room. The lodgers made way for three of the men, who had each a hand on a cocked pistol in a side pocket. Two policemen, who followed the detectives, kept the entrance to the sitting-room, and two more appeared in the doorway that gave access to the staircase. A sound of footsteps came from the garden, and again the rifles of several soldiers rang on the cobble-stones under the window. All hope of flight was cut off from Death-Dodger, on whom every eye instinctively turned. The chief walked straight up to him, and commenced  operations by giving him a sharp blow on the head, so that the wig fell off, and Collin’s face was revealed in all its ugliness. There was a terrible suggestion of strength mingled with cunning in the short, brick-red crop of hair, the whole head was in harmony with his powerful frame, and at that moment the fires of hell seemed to gleam from his eyes. In that flash the real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all; they understood his past, his present, and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested hint, the physical strength of an organization proof against all trials. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wild cat. He started back with savage energy and a fierce growl that drew exclamations of alarm from the lodgers. At that leonine start the police caught at their pistols under cover of the general clamor. Collin saw the gleaming muzzles of the weapons, saw his danger, and instantly gave proof of a power of the highest order. There was something horrible and majestic in the spectacle of the sudden transformation in his face; he could only be compared to a cauldron full of dense steam that can upheave mountains, a terrific force dispelled in a moment by a drop of cold water. The drop of water that cooled his wrathful fury was a reflection that flashed across his brain like lightning. He began to smile, and looked down at his wig.

In this almost Byronic grotesquerie of sovereign will and intellect, the singular force of the Parisian underworld and its leader, this great outlaw and outcast of society, at once a vitalist of absolute will and a creature in full control of his intellect and cunning practicality, forms that magnificent epiphany of almost occult power and unnatural daemonism we see above. W.B. Yeats would admire Louis Lambert for its occult and visionary energetics, yet it is in the novels (Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, and A Harlot High and Low) and the play by that name (Vautrin) that we see Balzac’s vitalism incarnated in this titanic creature who ironically he would in his final novel place at the very center of authority and make Vautrin the head of Paris Sûreté (Police).

Balzac would always play the anarchist, yet would ultimately see the benefit of protecting his life’s work so that his alter ego and criminal mastermind would absolve himself of his dark natural proclivities and renter the symbolic order of society and become one of its prodigal sons and benefactors. Just like Dickens’s world of misfits, mountebanks, madmen, criminals, scoundrels, and socialites, politicians, bankers, prelates, etc., Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine gives us the depths and heights of life lived. Something always pulled him into that realm where the opposites seem forever at war, and yet he would step back from time to time to encircle this dark terrain with the humane wisdom of a man who’d seen every gambit in life thrown at him. Always on the edge of poverty he wrote to the point of exhaustion and hallucination, his mind fevered by the characters that inhabit his world, their lives the shape of his own uncanny mind. One imagines the “savage energy and a fierce growl” of Vautrin as Balzac’s own as he felt the force of his own uncanny power and daemon urging him onward through those trying years till the voyage was completed and the world he built could be inhabited by that great and terrible vitalist, the daemon Vautrin who as Chief of the police would oversee that world and keep its integrity safe through the ages. This was the genius of Balzac: he constructed a vessel within which he could place his own energetic spirit, his daemonic self – the Comedie Humaine.

A Short Note on Zizek

Been rereading The Ticklish Subject by Slavoj Zizek of late and realize I like the early works better than the later. Later Zizek is bloated, untidy, full of long repetitions, along with copy and paste jokes and assays from his earlier works. He’s sloppy and needs an editor. His arguments with himself have become habit rather than a staging for some new concept. Why do philosophers think they need to repeat what they’ve done better in earlier works? Why repeat yourself over and over and over again?

One of the great differences between Zizek and his friend Badiou is this sense of total command on the part of the Frenchman, a fastidiousness; even a certain fussiness over each sentence: structure, word, meaning. Badiou’s works never overstep or overreach, every word has its place in the systematic format of his books. It’s as if he’d read and reread certain passages, honing them down to perfection; to the point that one could not replace, excise, or change the wording without losing the conceptual thought altogether. With Zizek it’s just the opposite, one is given page after page of repetitious monologue, as if the philosopher we’re happily engaged in argument with himself at the total expense of any future reader.  As if it would be too much bother to go back and revise, edit, or change anything…. anything at all.

Does he ever allow someone to read his works early on? Are his editors disciples afraid to say the truth: ah, Zizek maybe you could tidy up this or that passage; your locutions seem to go on and on without really giving us clarity, but rather confusion. To read later Zizek is to know in advanced that one is condemned to reread certain passages over and over because his affectation for dialectical materialism is in the scale of rhetoric lacking that polish and precision one expects from such a touted pop icon. No if one wants a philosopher’s philosopher, one reads Deleuze and Badiou, not Zizek. Zizek is a street philosopher, a speaker who can reach the mass mind but rarely reaches the pitch one expects from such a giant intellect.

But one says just the opposite of his early works. Here the mind of the philosopher is sharp, witty, controlled; he speaks what he measures, nothing more, nothing less; he offers apt examples, and displays an acumen and reserve that one expects and demands of such writing. His style is still verbose, but it seems compact and to the point, rather than obtuse and sprawling like his Less Than Nothing is. The several works of The Essential Zizek Series I would recommend without reserve. Here one listens in on a mind inquisitive, challenging, probing; tracing a concept into its dialectical interplays among various philosophers without getting bogged down in details. Maybe he had better editors in the early days? Either way these works and essays – and, above all, Zizek is an essayist of the first order – have that refined eloquence of the obvious, yet reach into an abyss that few have traveled to develop and explicate concepts that instruct and delight those who know.

Slavoj Zizek: Thought of the Day

At first approach, an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes . Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible?

[…]

Our first tentative definition of event as an effect which exceeds its causes thus brings us back to an inconsistent multiplicity: is an event a change in the way reality appears to us, or is it a shattering transformation of reality itself? Does philosophy reduce the autonomy of an event or can it account for this very autonomy? So again: is there a way to introduce some order into this conundrum? The obvious procedure would have been to classify events into species and sub-species – to distinguish between material and immaterial events, between artistic, scientific, political and intimate events, etc. However, such an approach ignores the basic feature of an event: the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme. The only appropriate solution is thus to approach events in an evental way – to pass from one to another notion of event by way of bringing out the pervading deadlocks of each, so that our journey is one through the transformations of universality itself, coming close – so I hope – to what Hegel called ‘concrete universality,’ a universality ‘which is not just the empty container of its particular content, but which engenders this content through the deployment of its immanent antagonisms, deadlocks and inconsistencies’.

– Slavoj Zizek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept

Slavoj Zizek: On Hegel’s Identity of Opposites

The same goes for crime and the law, for the passage from crime as the distortion (negation) of the law to crime as sustaining the law itself, that is, to the idea of the law itself as universalized crime. One should note that, in this notion of the negation of negation, the encompassing unity of the two opposed terms is the “lowest,” “transgressive,” one: it is not crime which is a moment of law’s self-mediation (or theft which is a moment of property’s self-mediation); the opposition of crime and law is inherent to crime, law is a subspecies of crime, crime’s self-relating negation (in the same way that property is theft’s self-relating negation).

A Habermasian “normative” approach imposes itself here immediately: how can we talk about crime if we do not have a prior notion of a legal order violated by the criminal transgression? In other words, is not the notion of law as universalized/ self-negated crime ultimately self-destructive ? But this is precisely what a properly dialectical approach rejects: what is before transgression is just a neutral state of things, neither good nor bad (neither property nor theft, neither law nor crime); the balance of this state is then violated, and the positive norm (law, property) arises as a secondary move, an attempt to counteract and contain the transgression. In Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Havana Bay, set in Cuba , a visiting American gets caught up in a high nomenklatura plot against Fidel Castro, but then discovers that the plot was organized by Castro himself. 30 Castro is well aware of the growing discontent with his rule even in the top circle of functionaries around him, so every couple of years his most trusted agent starts to organize a plot to overthrow him in order to entrap the discontented functionaries; just before the plot is supposed to be enacted, they are all arrested and liquidated. Why does Castro do this? He knows that the discontent will eventually culminate in a plot to depose him, so he organizes the plot himself to flush out potential plotters and eliminate them. What if we imagine God doing something similar? In order to prevent a rebellion against His rule by His creatures, He Himself— masked as the Devil— sets a rebellion in motion so that He can control it and crush it. But is this mode of the “coincidence of the opposites” radical enough? No, for a very precise reason: because Castro-God functions as the unity of himself (his regime) and his opposite (his political opponents), basically playing a game with himself. One has to imagine the same process under the domination of the opposite pole, as in the kind of paranoiac scenario often used in popular literature and films. For example: when the internet becomes infected by a series of dangerous viruses, a big digital company saves the day by creating the ultimate anti-virus program. The twist, however, is that this same company had manufactured the dangerous viruses in the first place— and the program designed to fight them is itself the virus that enables the company to control the entire network. Here we have a more accurate narrative version of the Hegelian identity of opposites.

V for Vendetta deploys a political version of this same identity. The film takes place in the near future when Britain is ruled by a totalitarian party called Norsefire; the film’s main protagonists are a masked vigilante known as “V” and Adam Sutler, the country’s leader. Although V for Vendetta was praised (by none other than Toni Negri, among others) and, even more so, criticized for its “radical”— pro-terrorist, even— stance, it does not have the courage of its convictions: in particular, it shrinks from drawing the consequences of the parallels between V and Sutler. 31 The Norsefire party , we learn, is the instigator of the terrorism it is fighting against—but what about the further identity of Sutler and V? We never see either of their faces in the flesh (except the scared Sutler at the very end, when he is about to die): we see Sutler only on TV screens, and V is a specialist in manipulating the screen. Furthermore , V’s dead body is placed on a train with explosives, in a kind of Viking funeral strangely evoking the name of the ruling party: Norsefire. So when Evey— the young girl (played by Natalie Portman) who joins V— is imprisoned and tortured by V in order to learn to overcome her fear and be free, does this not parallel what Sutler does to the entire British population, terrorizing them so that they rebel? Since the model for V is Guy Fawkes (he wears a Guy mask), it is all the more strange that the film refuses to draw the obvious Chestertonian lesson of its own plot: that of the ultimate identity of V and Sutler. (There is a brief hint in this direction in the middle of the film, but it remains unexploited.) In other words, the missing scene in the film is the one in which, when Evey removes the mask from the dying V, we see Sutler’s face. How would we have to read this identity? Not in the sense of a totalitarian power manipulating its own opposition, playing a game with itself by creating its enemy and then destroying it, but in the opposite sense: in the unity of Sutler and V, V is the universal encompassing moment that contains both itself and Sutler as its two moments. Applying this logic to God himself, we are compelled to endorse the most radical reading of the Book of Job proposed in the 1930s by the Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zapffe, who accentuated Job’s “boundless perplexity” when God himself finally appears to him.

Expecting a sacred and pure God whose intellect is infinitely superior to ours, Job finds himself confronted with a world ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave-dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture …

What is new for Job is not God’s greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance … what is new is the qualitative baseness. In other words, God— the God of the Real— is like the Lady in courtly love, He is das Ding, a capricious cruel master who simply has no sense of universal justice . God-the-Father thus quite literally does not know what He is doing, and Christ is the one who does know, but is reduced to an impotent compassionate observer, addressing his father with “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?”— burning together with all the victims of the father’s rage. Only by falling into His own creation and wandering around in it as an impassive observer can God perceive the horror of His creation and the fact that He, the highest Law-giver, is Himself the supreme Criminal. Since God-the-Demiurge is not so much evil as a stupid brute lacking all moral sensitivity, we should forgive Him because He does not know what He is doing. In the standard onto-theological vision, only the demiurge elevated above reality sees the entire picture, while the particular agents caught up in their struggles have only partial misleading insights. At the core of Christianity, we find a different vision— the demiurge is a brute, unaware of the horror he has created, and only when he enters his own creation and experiences it from within, as its inhabitant, can he see the nightmare he has fathered.

Slavoj  Zizek, (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 269-271).

Thomas Ligotti: Metaphysics Morum a Quote

Those who contest demoralization as the inexorable way of universal deliverance have failed to see what is before them. They have lagged behind in the evolutionary ideal of our species. That ideal is a beneficial mutation. … Such has been the stance of all mutant liberators by demoralization who have ever lived. As one, their voices have spoken of an end-point to the organic horror. None has ever been fully heard or impeccably followed. They have merely shown the way. This way has always been implicit in their ideal. Closer it draws with the appearance of the demoralized greater in number and more clear-eyed in purpose. This is the way has always been implicit in their ideal. Closer it draws with the appearance of the demoralized greater in number and more clear-eyed in purpose. This is the way of the future. All who do not know the way, or who refuse it, will be denied the faintest glimpse of the absolute of an anesthetized future. They are reprobate losers waiting only to be declared as such by tomorrow’s demoralized mutants. So it will be. We are each either among the demoralized showing the way to a future of eternal nightmare, or we are losers celebrating our moment in hell.

     –  Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link – Metaphysics Morum

Adorno on Kant and Enlightenment (in 1959)

James Schmidt, Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science
Boston University, in this essay clears up some of the confusions and doubts that have for too long been cast on both Horkheimer, and especially Adorno’s work and their relations to Kant and the Enlightenment. Well worth the read… it may surprise you!
Schmidt brings clarity and insight in a way that sends you back to those originals to reread and rethink and re- see (not a revisioning, but rather an envisioning) just what they were up too. I’m glad to see Adorno’s work being investigated again. He’s had a great influence on my own thinking over the years (although I admit until recently I’d not reread his works ). I read him heavily for music theory and aesthetics in my younger years, but have of late been spending more time on the political, sociological, and philosophical tracts – along with many of the others of the Frankfurt Institute. Either way… read Schmidt, he has a keen eye and is a closer reader of this tradition he terms the Persistent Enlightenment!

Persistent Enlightenment

Over the last decade or so, the publication and translation of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France have led to a broader reconsideration of how his work ought to be understood. But, unless I’ve missed something, the publication and translation of Theodor Adorno’s lectures at the University for Frankfurt have generated considerably less interest.0804744262 In part, the difference is not entirely surprising. Foucault’s influence has, if anything, grown since his death, while Adorno’s work tends to be regarded with an ambivalence tempered by incomprehension. But the neglect of Adorno’s Frankfurt lecture is unfortunate, if only because (as is also the case with Foucault’s lectures) they sometimes help us to avoid misunderstanding what he was trying to accomplish in his published work. For example, consider his 1959 lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and, in particular, the discussion of Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment.1 What we find…

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Pablo Neruda: The Poetry of Earth, Bells and Desolation

The century of émigrés 
the book of homelessness –
grey century, black book.

– Pablo Neruda, World’s End

Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto on 12 July 1904, in Parral, in central Chile’s wine country, ‘where the vines curled their green heads of hair’, Pablo Neruda became the great poet of the oppressed peoples of the earth.1 Yet, as one lives with his poetry, its rhythms, the pulsating beat of its music one hears not Neruda but the earth that produced him, its desires and the cold stark somberness of its desolation. Yet, it was not all desolation, there was above the din the surface glitter that foamed from jungles and seas, of fantastic lands and exotic women, a roaming spirit of exploration that sought only its own transformation and metamorphosis.

from The Song of Despair

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!

Neruda himself would live outside time, far from home in distant and exotic lands. At the age of 27 out of financial desperation, he took an honorary consulship in Rangoon, then a part of colonial Burma and a place he had never heard of. Later, mired in isolation and loneliness, he worked in Colomobo (Ceylon, Batavia (Java), and Singapore. It would be in such lands that he would remember his own country, his songs would rise up from those memories like subtle music from dark soundings of the ocean lapping over the lonely beaches:

from Residence

Like ashes, like oceans swarming,
in the sunken slowness, formlessness,
or like high on the road hearing
bellstrokes cross by crosswise,
holding that sound just free of the metal,
blurred bearing down, reducing to dust
in the selfsame mill of forms far out of reach
whether remembered or never seen,
and the aroma of plums rolling to earth
that rot in time, endlessly green.

Yet, in these distant lands he would hear the bells, the cries, the metal clanking,  the noises coming from death, destruction, and the desolation of war and murderous machines, not only encompassing his own country but the earth itself in a grey tomb of silence amid the great din:

 from The Cantos General

                    Have you seen
in the night your brother’s
somber cave?
    Have you fathomed
his sinister life?

                      The scattered heart
of the people, abandoned and submerged!
Someone who received the hero’s peace
stored it away in his wine cellar, someone
stole the fruits of the bloody harvest
and divided the geography,
establishing hostile shores,
zones of desolate blind shadows.

Yet, one wonders if perhaps poets after all are human, all too human, and that their fame might be best served in the solitudes from which they emerged. Neruda wrote in his memoirs after his indefensible support of Stalin and others of the communist regime of which he never gave up hope: “I had contributed my share to the personality cult,” explaining that “in those days, Stalin seemed to us the conqueror who had crushed Hitler’s armies”. Of a subsequent visit to China in 1957, Neruda would write: “What has estranged me from the Chinese revolutionary process has not been Mao Tse-tung but Mao Tse-tungism.” He dubbed this Mao Tse-Stalinism: “the repetition of a cult of a Socialist deity”. Despite his disillusionment with Stalin, Neruda never lost his essential faith in communist theory and remained loyal to “the Party”. Anxious not to give ammunition to his ideological enemies, he would later refuse publicly to condemn the Soviet repression of dissident writers like Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky, an attitude with which even some of his staunchest admirers disagreed.2

In the end he would return to his precious land and leave well enough alone, returning to his good black earth, to his oceans and his bells, his silences and his love:

Pardon me, if when I want
to tell the story of my life
it’s the land I talk about.

– from Still Another Day

One poem in his late life has always exemplified for me the epiphanic relation of Neruda to a spectral materialism, an immanence of the haunting earth and ocean, a rising of the silent music of the land itself speaking rather out of than to its human interlocutor:

The lichen on the stone, mesh
of green elastic, enmeshes
the primal hieroglyph,
stretches the scripture
of the sea
around the round rock.
The sun reads it, barnacles fade it,
from stone to stone
the fish slither by like shivers.
Silently the alphabet goes on
spelling out its sunken syllables
along the immaculate hip of coast.

 On his loom the moss weaver
goes back and forth, higher and higher
carpeting the caverns of air and water
so that no one dances but the wave
and nothing follows but the wind.

In such a song, a poetry of earth without us, an inhuman tonal sounding of a secret language that is only for the dark life of earth and sea, a language in which things call to each other, and haunt each other with the touch of their voices, a distillation of the desolation that surrounds them but that also brings them into the warmth of sun and air. Neruda’s poetry was the personal immanence not of the human in the land, but of the land in the human; a song that brought out of the throat of things a meaning that no human could decipher but only register. As he would proffer and relate these songs from the earth, from his residence with its inhuman desires he would tell us what it wanted:

From the dithyramb to the root of the sea
stretches a new kind of emptiness:
I don’t want much, the wave says,
only for them to stop their chatter,
for the city’s cement beard
to stop growing:
we are alone,
we want the last scream,
to pee facing the ocean,
to see seven birds of the same color,
three thousand gulls,
to seek out love on the sand,
to break in our shoes, to dirty
our books, our hat, our mind
until we find you, nothing,
until we kiss you, nothing,
until we sing you, nothing,
nothing without nothing, without being,
nothing, without putting an end to truth.

In the end maybe that is all we can expect, the nothing that is and the nothing that is not, the truth between them standing in the Void. And yet, like that broken bell that keeps calling to us from these wet leaves, we too want to walk along the black shores seeking those things that want to sing, even if their song is not for us:

The broken bell
still wants to sing:
the metal now is green
the color of woods, this bell,
color of water in stone pools in the forest,
color of day in the leaves.

——————————————————

1. Feinstein, Adam (2008-12-08). Pablo Neruda. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.
2. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. (Firrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

Mckenzie Wark: The Spectacle of Disintegration

Mckenzie Wark in his latest addition to the history of the Situationist Movement The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century casts a wry eye on our accelerating and voidic world of late capitalism. Yet, history is a misnomer, for it is actually a critical appraisal of our on disintegration rather than some long view on the past. In ’78 Debord gave us that incalculable text The Society of the Spectacle which focused the rage of a generation against the system. In it he would develop the notion of a concentrated and diffuse spectacle, the one fascist and built around the singular presence of the dictator; the other a spectacle of the mirror worlds of our vast consumerist machine in all its PR infestation. Debord would revisit this realm of metamorphosis and hypervalent capitalism in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle where he’d see the merger of his former concepts in a third, the integral spectacle where Hollywood icons and Sports stars would take the place of Stalinist era dictaors, and the grinding passivity of television would be replaced by the glitz and glamor scenes of a rapid postmodern nihilism full of gleeful inanity rather than the Sartrean dread of post-war society. But now Wark tells us things are even worse, we’ve entered the age of the disintegrating spectacle, in which the “spectator gets to watch the withering away of the old order, ground down to near nothingness by its own steady divergence from any apprehension of itself”.1

As Wark remarks “the spectacle remains, circling itself, bewildering itself. Everything is impregnated with tiny bits of its issue, yet the new world remains stillborn. The spectacle atomizes and diffuses itself throughout not only the social body but its sustaining landscape as well.” (KL 77-78). It’s a realm in which capital is dispersed rather than accumulated and as T.J. Clark quoted by Wark tells it our world is no longer the vast sea of accumulated images of capital but rather the dispersion and acceleration of them until “they become the true and sufficient commodities” (KL 80)

The old spectacle spoke of command and control, of technologies that infiltrated not our physical selves but like externalized eyes and ears followed us under our own gaze in a mirror inverted to reflect the appearance of freedom rather than freedom itself. But all that is gone and been replaced by “a disowned country of furniture, fridges, cigarette lighters, televisions, bobbing in the sea and slowly falling apart, but refusing to go away” (KL 48). Call this the wasteland if you like, but its more like trashcan megapolis where most humans are disposable and untouchable by their slumlords, artifacts and property of impersonal corporations and socialist enclaves of capital that have become the new sovereign dictators of our global era.

Against the deafening noise of this inhuman society of the spectacle Wark reminds us:

This then is our task: a critique of the spectacle as a whole, a task that critical thought has for the most part abandoned. Stupefied by its own powerlessness, critical thought turned into that drunk who, having lost the car keys, searches for them under the street lamp. The drunk knows that the keys disappeared in that murky puddle, where it is dark, but finds it is easier to search for them under the lamp, where there is light— if not enlightenment. (KL 98)

We live in the age of slick advertising merchants, of apocalyptic naysayers, and business as usual yea-sayers, of ideologues spotting the latest craze or academic shibboleths in some new arcane language that falls dead the moment a commoner opens the book. An age of elite pretenders, of hyper thinkers who talk the talk but only to themselves and their fanboys. As Wark remarks: “To talk the talk of critical thought, of biopolitics and biopower, of the state of exception, bare life, precarity, of whatever being, or object oriented ontology without reference to class conflict is to speak, if not with a corpse in one’s mouth, then at least a sleeper” (KL 112).

Problem is that we are beyond that point, we are the generation of the living dead, zombies who have forgotten our selves, have emptied our minds out and filled it up with the latest pomo codes, meme imprints that guide our actions and our speech patterns in an endless groove of never-ending spatterpunk gibberish that no one understands not even the academics themselves. Wark asks: “Must we speak the hideous language of our century?”

With the advent of Reality tv the passive spectator has become a guest at his own funeral. We live in a doubled world of images now, unlike the older forms of command and control, we have learned to control ourselves not as victims of the spectacle but as its inner emigres. We are now the creators and inventors of spectacles undreamed of by even the capitalists themselves. One would be hard put to resurrect Goebbels and his progenitor Bernays in our time, public relations in war and peace are a thing of the past – one does not need public relations when the public relates to its on inauthenticity without the need of a mediator. No the commercial realm is now so internalized that we are the creators of our own Reality shows, guardians of our own intrinsic control systems, bounded by the notions of freedom and justice we plunder the consumer lanes of each others vacuity like demons on an mission. As Wark rebukes:

The critique of everyday life— or something like it— happens all the time in the disintegrating spectacle, but this critique falls short of any project of transforming it. The spectacle points constantly to the more extreme examples of the ills of this world— its longest commutes, its most absurd disparities of wealth between slum dwellers and the helicopter class, as if these curios legitimated what remains as some kind of norm. (KL 191)

In the maddening advent of Information Age, the internet, the wired society of a new spectacle allures its guest like parasitical agents of an alien earth. No longer able to remember what a desire once felt like we invent false desires in the objects around us and try to fill the lack at the heart of our void as if it were a Las Vegas roulette machine whose payday had come round at last. As he reminds us:

Once upon a time, there was a small band of ingrates— the Situationist International— who aspired to something more than this. Their project was to advance beyond the fulfillment of needs to the creation of new desires. But in these chastened times the project is different. Having failed our desires, this world merely renames the necessities it imposes as if they were desires. (KL 197)

Maybe it’s time to revisit these ingrates and subversive escape artists of another era, maybe they might teach us how to remember what it once felt like to be if not human then at least the simulation of its dark life. Either way Mckenzie Wark is a great guide to have along the way. I recommend his book unanimously.

1. Wark, Mckenzie (2013-03-12). The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 74-75). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Žižek: On Spectral Materialism

©Chen Man

One should thus get rid of the fear that, once we ascertain that reality is the infinitely divisible, substanceless void within a void, “matter will disappear.” What the digital informational revolution, the biogenetic revolution, and the quantum revolution in physics all share is that they mark the reemergence of what, for want of a better term, one is tempted to call a post-metaphysical idealism. It is as if Chesterton’s insight into how the materialist struggle for the full assertion of reality, against its subordination to any “higher” metaphysical order, culminates in the loss of reality itself: what began as the assertion of material reality ended up as the realm of pure formulas of quantum physics. Is, however, this really a form of idealism? Since the radical materialist stance asserts that there is no World, that the World in its Whole is Nothing, materialism has nothing to do with the presence of damp, dense matter – its proper figures are, rather, constellations in which matter seems to “disappear,” like the pure oscillations of the superstrings or quantum- vibrations. On the contrary, if we see in raw, inert matter more than an imaginary screen, we always secretly endorse some kind of spiritualism, as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which the dense plastic matter of the planet directly embodies Mind. This “spectral materialism” has three different forms: in the informational revolution, matter is reduced to the medium of purely digitalized information; in biogenetics, the biological body is reduced to the medium of the reproduction of the genetic code; in quantum physics, reality itself, the density of matter, is reduced to the collapse of the virtuality of wave oscillations (or, in the general theory of relativity, matter is reduced to an effect of space’s curvature). Here we encounter ANOTHER crucial aspect of the opposition idealism/materialism: materialism is not the assertion of inert material density in its humid heaviness – SUCH a “materialism” can always serve as a support for gnostic spiritualist obscurantism. In contrast to it, a true materialism joyously assummes the “disappearance of matter,” the fact that there is only void.

Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies

 

Herbert Marcuse: Radical Revolution and Our Future

The only utopia left to us at this late stage in the game is history itself: the history of the future. Recently I set Mondays aside as my day to begin reading through the six volumes of Hebert Marcuse’s collected papers edited by Douglas Kellner.

  • Technology, War and Fascism: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 1
  • Towards a Critical Theory of Society: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 2
  • The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 3
  • Art and Liberation: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 4
  • Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation: Herbert Marcuse Collected Papers, Volume 5
  • Marxism, Revolution and Utopia: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume Six

Of course the mainstays of his work were One-Dimensional Man, Eros and Civilization, and Reason and Revolution which are still available in trade paperbacks and e-books. One wishes the six volume work was a little less pricey and available for more of us to afford. I’m actually just buying them as needed each month out of my stipend that I put away for such extravagances. Either way Marcuse is little read these days, and yet in his time he was truly one of those activists like Zizek that traveled, lectured, hit the streets in protest and generally lived what he wrote rather than sitting back in some theoretical haven in academia. I watch a lot of the youtube and vimeo lectures of Leftists these days and think: “This is why we’re getting no where on the Left, everyone is talking to the choir rather than to the people that need an awakening to the power of radical ideas and practices. As Angela Davis says in her own contribution and introduction to one of the volumes tells us: “It seems to me that the overarching themes of Marcuse’s thought are as relevant today on the cusp of the twenty-first century as they were when his scholarship and political interventions were most widely celebrated.”

 

 

 

The Inhuman Turn: Poetry, Philosophy and Time

‘It is based on a recognition of the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness, and on a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness. […]  Turn outward from each other, so far as need and kindness permit, to the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity. This is not a slight matter, but an essential condition of freedom, and of moral and vital sanity.’

– Robinson Jeffers, from ‘Preface to The Double Ax and Other Poems’

One could say that it was Jeffers himself that inaugurated the ‘inhuman turn’ in poetry, philosophy, and naturalism in our time. From him proceed the first stirrings of a new thought, the notion that humans are no longer the pinnacle of creation, that they are animals within the animal kingdom, and that as far as the universe is concerned they are neither important nor the center of existence. In fact this notion that the universe is indifferent to our wants and needs, that it is indifferent to either our joys or our hates leaves that other unsuspected thought: that all those other inhuman others, the non-human creatures both material and immaterial that surround us and press on us from an inhuman environment are on equal par with us and have their own right to existence. The things beyond us are no longer for us.

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Death of the Novel?

American novelist John Barth’s essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” offered a version of the death of the novel cliché telling us it was not so much about the death of the novel itself, but about its form, the sense of “used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities…”. For him this was not a sign of despair, but of optimism, of a challenge and one that opened up new avenues toward experimentation. Of course after a lifetime of experimental writing we’ve seen the postmodern experiment go through all its own forms to the point that they too have become redundant and seem finally to be ending in exhaustion. I mean self-referentiality carried too far can only turn into its opposite, a sort of liquid objectivity in which mind, world, and concept suddenly fall apart in a zone that even Humpty-Dumpty could not put back together again much less an aspiring author or literary critic.

It seems every generation goes through this process so its not surprising to hear Will Self tell us in The novel is dead (this time it’s for real) (Guardian) that “the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavor.” But, now, in the aftermath of the 90’s and the rise of digital man, the riverrun past kafka and borges, calvino and barth and into the  infoplosion of glut, the infinite sea of infocommodity as byte capital – that lasts not in the Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame, but rather in the nano-blip of a microsecond – we have entered the age of infopocalypse.

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Lee Smolin: Time, Physics and Climate Change

The most radical suggestion arising from this direction of thought is the insistence on the reality of the present moment and, beyond that, the principle that all that is real is so in a present moment . To the extent that this is a fruitful idea, physics can no longer be understood as the search for a precisely identical mathematical double of the universe. That dream must be seen now as a metaphysical fantasy that may have inspired generations of theorists but is now blocking the path to further progress. Mathematics will continue to be a handmaiden to science, but she can no longer be the Queen.

– Lee Smolin,  Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

What if everything we’ve been taught about time, space, and the universe is not just wrongheaded, but couched in a mathematics of conceptual statements (theorems) that presumed it could map the totality of reality in a one-to-one ratio of identity?  This notion that mathematics can ultimately describe reality, that there is a one to one identity between the conceptual framework of mathematics and the universe – the Cartesian physicist – or, you may know him under the epithet of String theorist – will maintain that those statements about the accretion of the universe which can be mathematically formulated designate actual properties of the event in question (such as its date, its duration, its extension), even when there is no observer present to experience it directly. In doing so, our physicist is defending a Cartesian thesis about matter, but not, it is important to note, a Pythagorean one: the claim is not that the being of accretion is inherently mathematical – that the numbers or equations deployed in the statements (mathematical theorems) exist in themselves. What if all those scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who have pursued this path had in fact taken a wrong turn along the way. This is the notion that Lee Smolin an American theoretical physicist, a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo and a member of the graduate faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto puts forward in his new book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.

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Nick Land: Libidinal Materialism vs. Physicalism

Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is  nothing but a scorch mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.

– Nick Land, A Thirst For Annihilation

At the heart of the physicalist’s prejudice is an implicit theological core, says Nick Land. Devoid of the trappings of theology Physicalism, none the less, returns us to its hidden center: a regression to the first cause (38). The basic motto of the physicalist is –  “There is nothing over and above the physical.” Donald Davidson in his formulation of anomalous monism coined this phrase, which holds that, although there is nothing over and above the physical, our mental states cannot neatly be identified with our brain states, or subsumed under physical laws. The problem of Physicalism is the problem of meaning: What do we mean by the physical? Philosophers are spread to varying extremes as to how to define this concept. We have many and various approaches to this from theory based to token based to object based conceptions, as well as reductive and non-reductive approaches.

Land provides a critique against a form of Physicalism based in externalist theoretic which is both reductive and intrinsic in its approach to matter as a passive substance which is “exhausted by the dual characteristics of transmitting alien forces and decaying according to the universally legislated exigencies of composition” (38). Land offers against such a reductionist ploy an alternative non-reductionist account based on non-linear dynamics and complexity theory which follow Boltzmann’s thermodynamics toward an “absolutely improbable negentropy” (38). Using Boltzmann’s non-reductive theoretic Land tells us it offers the only “conceivable physicalistic atheism, at least if the second law of thermodynamics is to be maintained” (39). The point being that it posits that the probabilistic nature of our universe supports the notion of a far-from-equilibrium state theory as we see around us in the universe, which suggests the reality of negentropy rather than theological assumptions regarding first causes best explains the probabilistic manifestation of our universe today.

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Rene Descartes: The Diversity of the Sciences as Human Wisdom

Distinguishing the sciences by the differences in their objects, they think that each science should be studied separately, without regard to any of the others. But here they are surely mistaken. For the sciences as a whole are nothing other than human wisdom, which always remains one and the same, however different the subjects to which it is applied, it being no more altered by them than sunlight is by the variety of the things it shines on. Hence there is no need to impose any restrictions on our mental powers; for the knowledge of one truth does not, like skill in one art, hinder us from discovering another; on the contrary it helps us.

– René Descartes,  The Philosophical Writings of Descartes

This notion that the common thread that unites all the diverse sciences is the acquisition of human wisdom must be tempered by that further statement about the freeing of the mind from any intemperate restriction or regulation that would force it to down the path of specialization and expertise. What I mean by this is the fact that for Descartes like many in that era were discovering the sciences in all their diversity during a time when the tendency toward almost guild like enclosure and secrecy was taking effect rather than an open and interdependent,  pluralistic investigation; and, in that way they were becoming more and more isolated and closed off from one another in such a way that the truths of one field of study were no longer crossing the demarcated lines as knowledge in a universal sense of shared wisdom. Instead learning in one field of the sciences was becoming restrictive, segmented, and closed off from other fields in such a way that knowledge as a source of wisdom was becoming divided as well as divisive.

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A New Individuation: Deleuze’s Simondon Connection

Looks like Andrew Iliadis’s from Philosophy of Information & Communcation blog has a new paper out showing the connections and influence of Gilbert Simondon’s work on Gilles Deleuze. He mentions the work of Alberto Toscana The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze and its tracing of the lines of flight of the concept of individuation within several philosophers. An excellent read in itself. For what is at stake in both Simondon and Deleuze Iliadis following Toscana, says, “is a critique of the Aristotelian notion of hylomorphism”. What interests Iliadis in Simondon is that his resuscitation of the conceptual framework of the philosophy of individuation allows for a contribution to what is “really a new type of philosophy of information that found similarities with but remained opposed to the mathematical theory of communication”. It also “made our understanding of information more dynamic and in so doing also our understanding of ourselves as individuals… and the world around us from an epistemic-ontological point of view”. Finally, he sees Simondan’s legacy as offering “us a political perspective from which to engage the neoliberal world around us”. I’ll leave it to the reader to investigate the rest of Iliadis’s excellent investigation into Simondon’s concepts. It centers on Simondon’s critique of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, as well as the continuing relevance of three key concepts that Simondan introduced and Deleuze made the bedrock of his own philosophy: information, individuation, and disparation.

Gilbert Simondon: The Conditions of Technical Evolution

What are the reasons for the convergence manifest in the evolution of technical structures?

– Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

In my last post on Simondon’s early dissertation we saw the impetus in his thought toward defining an evolutionary sequence for technics, the technical object, and technical culture. One was tempted to see his critique in both negative and positive light. On the he saw a certain manifestation of regulatory processes guiding both the genesis and telos of the technological object and its culture, and on the other he saw another tendency toward negentropy and resistance to these very processes within the evolutionary sequences that brought about the genesis and evolution of this very technics: “the machine is something which fights against the death of the universe; it slows down, as life does, the degradation of energy, and becomes a stabilizer of the world”.

In describing the process of standardization and replacement of parts within the mode of existence of a technical object Simondon tells us it is neither the extrinsic causes (although they, too apply pressure), but is the necessary conditions of the intrinsic nature of the technical object itself that produce the very concretion of what is in fact contingent: “its being based on an analytical organization which always leaves the way clear for new possibilities, possibilities which are the exterior manifestation of an interior contingency”. 1

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Deleuze: Concepts in the Wild

This is the genius of empiricism, which is so poorly understood: the creation of concepts in the wild, speaking in the name of a coherence which is not their own, nor that of God, not that of the Self, but a coherence always on the way, always in disequilibrium with itself. What philosophy lacks is empiricism.

– Giles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts

In this interview Deleuze reminds us that sense is an “effect,” an effect produced, whose laws of production must be uncovered (137).1 He saw this as central in the structuralism of his time, in the work of such thinkers as Levi-Straus, Lacan, Foucault, and Althusser. For each of them sense as an effect produced by a specific machinery of thought (137). And, for him the new philosophers must become machinists, or operators of these “effects” (137).

In this early essay Deleuze was already moving ahead of all his contemporaries, and I might say, even my own contemporaries, in his mode of thinking. Already his conceptions eliminated the human, the subject, the I, not in some atheistic paeon against religious sensibilities. No, as he says: “We can’t let ourselves be satisfied with that…” Instead what he saw on the horizon was a new conception emerging, the notion of “impersonal individuations, or even pre-individual singularities”: we are entering the age of the liquid singularity with no name, no identity, no law. For Deleuze this was a political act, a way to liberation:

You see, the forces of repression always need a Self that can be assigned, they need determinate individuals on which to exercise their power. When we become the least bit fluid, when we slip away from the assignable Self, when there is no longer any person on who Power can exercise its authority or by whom it can be replaced, the police lose (138).

Philosophy too has a task toward this liberation. Only there are two ways of doing this: 1) on the one hand there is critique of false applications: false morality, false knowledge, false religions, etc.; and, 2) on the other hand there is another kind of critique in which a new image of thought is developed out of a criticism of earlier modes of existence. (138) In the first type of critique nothing happens, we discover the pitfalls of past mistakes, yet it does nothing to awaken or bring about a fundamental change in people’s basic thinking; while the other form of critique does just the opposite: following those like Lucretius, Spinoza, and Nietzsche – this new form of critique explodes on the scene, totally volcanic. This form of critique is no longer purely negative but is fully positive, a creative act. (138)

Asked by the interviewer about his historical endeavors in Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and others he describes the difference between the two critiques. In his work on Kant he outlined the “false critique”. He tells us he couldn’t very well just point out the fact that you disagreed with him, no what you do instead is discover the problems he poses and the machinery he uses to expose and resolve these problems. Others like Hume, Bergson, and Proust he found more congenial and in them he discovered elements of a new image of thought (139). As he states it:

There’s something extraordinary in the way they tell us: thinking means something else than what you believe (139).

As he tells us most of us go along perfectly satisfied with our worlds, our little corner of the universe, never questioning that we live in fictional worlds provided to us ready-made by our cultures. Then all of a sudden we come across certain thinkers: artists, philosophers, etc. that describe for us another way of thinking, sensing, feeling, etc. Take Proust for instance he tells us:

Proust … has the idea that every thought is an aggression, appearing under the constraint of a sign, and that we think only when we are forced and constrained to think. From then on, thought is no longer carried on by a voluntary self, but by involuntary forces, the “effects” of machines… (139)

In this sense the artist, philosopher, social critic, etc. have all become symptomologists: they search the world for signs of disease, signs of life, signs of a cure, signs of health (140). He reminds us that Nietzsche’s conception of the philosopher as physician of civilization, or Henry Miller who Deleuze considered an “extraordinary diagnostician” (140). As he sees it:

The artist in general must treat the world as a symptom, and build his work not like a therapeutic, but in every case like a clinic. The artist is not outside the symptoms, but makes a work of art from them which sometimes serves to precipitate them, and sometimes to transform them. (140)

Just like the novelist uses characters and persons to write novels, so the philosopher uses concepts. For Deleuze what we needed was both a new stylistics, and new concepts: “What’s important here is this: where do concepts come from? What is the creation of concepts?” A concept exists no less than a character in a novel does. “In my opinion, what we need is a massive expenditure of concepts, an excess of concepts. You have to present concepts in philosophy as though you were writing a good detective novel: they must have a zone of presence, resolve the local situation, be in contact with the “dramas,” and bring a certain cruelty with them” (141).

1. Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (Semiotext(s), 2004)

What is the task of philosophy today?

Foucault indeed undertakes to provide the human sciences with a foundation, but it is a poisonous foundation, an archeology that smashes its idols, a malicious gift.

– Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands

D asked a simple question: “What were the conditions of possibility of the human sciences, or what is humanity’s true date of birth?”

In answering this he tells us there is a precise answer: “the Human can exist in the space of knowledge only once the “classical” world of representation itself has collapsed under the pressure of non-representable and non-representative forces” (91).1 Nothing unusual in this except the truth that the concept of the Human did not come about until as he reminds us biology, political economy, and philology emerged in the 19th Century. Quoting Foucault’s text on the history of Representation, The Order of Things, he tells us that it is in the historical depths that the “living organism” once it has left the theatre of representation becomes an object within the purview of the biological, economic, and linguistic sciences.

It was during this era that humanity through a sort of reduplication discovered both the foundations of life (Darwin), labor (Ricardo, Marx), and language (Grimm, Bopp); as well as those “transcendental” structures of its own finitude (Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Fichte, etc.). The only thing that collapsed was “the sovereignty of the identity of representations” (91). As he puts it:

Humanity thus comes to have a double being. … The Human is traversed by an essential disparity, almost an alienation by rights, separated from itself by its words,  by its works, and by its desires. And in this revolution that explodes representation, it is no longer difference that must be subordinated to the same, but the same that must be said of the Different: the Nietzschean revolution.(91)

What Foucault discovered Deleuze tells us is a sort of Great Reversal. The human sciences came about not when humanity discovered itself as the object of representations, not even as a historical object. No. Instead these human sciences emerged out of a “dehistoricized” process that involved the distanciation or distancing of the non-human from the human: “when things received their own history that liberated them from humanity and its representation” (92). At this point in the text Deleuze makes a specifically harsh judgment on what we now term anthropology or the human sciences:

The false equilibrium already shows that human sciences are not sciences. They aspired to occupy the empty place in representation, but this place of the king cannot and must not be occupied: anthropology is mystification. (92)

Nothing remains of the human, the “analytic of finitude” has been replaced with a new image of thought: “a thinking that no longer opposes itself as from the outside to the unthinkable or the unthought, but which would lodge the unthinkable, the unthought within itself as thought, and which would be in essential relationship to it; a thinking that would of itself be in relation to the obscure, and which by rights would be traversed by a sort of fissure, without which thought could no longer operate (92)”.

The gap or fissure left in the black hole where representation vanished has remained, unable to fill it with the Human the only disciplines left moved beyond its boundaries, circling the abyss left by the hold of the human sciences: ethnology, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. And in our time the molecular and neurosciences… What Deleuze finds in Foucault’s project is no longer the study of human opinion (doxa), but rather a “synchronic study of knowledge and its conditions: not conditions that make knowledge possible in general, but those that make it real and determine it a any one moment (93). Foucault’s displacement of concepts and the importance of authors allowed him to uncover the conditions that made possible both “mathesis and mechanics” (93). The point being as Deleuze emphasizes that different opinions in our historical understanding are less important than the “space of knowledge that makes them possible” (93). As he sums up:

A new image of thought – a new conception of what thinking means is the task of philosophy today. This is where philosophy, no less than the sciences and the arts, can demonstrate its capacity for mutations and new “spaces.” (93)

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notes: Thoughts on Philosophy and Science
Thoughts on What Philosophy Is by Levi R. Bryant

One of my current projects involves Deleuze’s “Spaces of Knowledge” this study of the conditions that made possible both mathesis (in D’s sense) and mechanics.

1. Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (Semiotext(s), 2004)

Wilfred Sellars: Roots of Eliminativsm and Sensory Consciousness

To reject the Myth  of the Given is to reject the idea that the categorial structure of the world — if it has a categorial structure  — imposes itself on the mind as a seal imposes an image on melted wax.

– Wilfred Sellars, Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process

To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals.

– Ray Brassier, Ray Brassier interview with After Nature blog

As I’ve been slowly tracing down some of the ancestry of this eliminativist naturalism I’ve seen in R. Scott Bakker recently I’ve begun rereading Sellars among others, W.V. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty.  It is in this essay quoted above in the second section of article 95 that Wilfred Sellars offers what we have now come to know as the eliminative thesis: “It is rather to say that the one framework is, with appropriate adjustments in the larger context, replaceable by the by other — eliminable in favor of the other. The replacement would be  justified by the greater explanatory power of the new framework.” 1 This is the central insight of the eliminativist argument that then in many ways has taken on its own subtractive life and been used to other effects within a myriad of philosophers, scientists, etc.

As we begin to move toward a post-intentional framework within philosophy we still need to be reminded of the roots within which it was first cast. Sellars was still very much a part of the Kantian tradition, and locked into his own form of intentional philosophical perspectives. I will not go into this in this short post, which is readily available to anyone willing to work through his books and essays. Instead this is specifically trying to understand the elminiativist argument itself.

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William James: Empiricist and Naturalist

‘Thoughts’ and ‘things’ are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other. Philosophy, reflecting on the contrast, has varied in the past in her explanations of it, and may be expected to vary in the future. At first, ‘spirit and matter,’ ‘soul and body,’ stood for a pair of equipollent substances quite on a par in weight and interest. But one day Kant undermined the soul and brought in the transcendental ego, and ever since then the bipolar relation has been very much off its balance. The transcendental ego seems nowadays in rationalist quarters to stand for everything, in empiricist quarters for almost nothing.

– William James,  Essays in Radical Empiricism

I love reading William James. His ability to cut through the hogwash and strip the hornets nest of any metaphysical argument to its baseline still astounds me. Sometimes this supposed father – if I might say so, of Pragmatism (Pierce being one of the other, alternative ancestral thinkers) is stripped of his actual inheritance in both empiricism and naturalism, and even – dare we add, skepticism. Let’s remember that it is here in his work that we here the battle cry of elminiativists everywhere: “I believe that ‘consciousness,’ when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy” (Kindle Locations 134-136). Now some will see this as James’s reversion to the age old nominalism that denies the existence of universal entities or objects, but accepts that particular objects or entities exist. Now I’ll not take us down the road of the issue of ‘universals’; that’s another tale.

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R. Scott Bakker: The Question of Eliminativism?

How times have changed. The walls of the brain have been overrun. The intentional bastions of the soul are falling. Taken together, the sciences of the mind and brain are developing a picture that in many cases out-and-out contradicts many of the folk-psychological intuitions that underwrite so much speculation within the humanities. Unless one believes the humanities magically constitute a ‘special case,’ there is no reason to think that its voluminous, armchair speculations will have a place in the ‘post-scientific’ humanities to come.

– R. Scott Bakker, blog post

There are those who have over the years like Wilfred Sellars separated out what might be termed the “folk psychology/ manifest image” from the supposed grand edifice of the “scientific image” of knowledge and reference. The idea is that if folk psychology is like a theory, then, like any theory, it could be superceded and replaced by a better theory as scientific psychology and neuroscience progress.  Sellars himself, however, was unmoved by this idea, because the concepts of folk psychology (of the manifest image) are not focused solely (or maybe even principally) on the description and explanation of phenomena.  In the course of science, better descriptions of what is going on in our heads when we think and sense will be developed, but such descriptions are only a part of the function of mentalistic language.  (see Wilfred Sellars)

The roots of eliminativism go back to the writings of Wilfred Sellars, W.V. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty. In our own time eliminativists have for the most part held to a clearly expressed view that mental phenomena simply do not exist and will eventually be eliminated from people’s thinking about the brain in the same way that demons have been eliminated from people’s thinking about mental illness and psychopathology. In our time others such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, who deny the existence of propositional attitudes (a subclass of intentional states), and with Daniel Dennett, who is generally considered to be an eliminativist about qualia and phenomenal aspects of consciousness.(see Understanding Eliminativism)

For a while it took me time to work my way through much of Bakker’s backlog of posts, but during this course I discovered aspects of where he was coming from and exactly what it was he thought he’d found in his pet theory of Blind Brain Theory. He starts with the notion that consciousness is like a pin drop in a vast sea of information of which it is almost totally unaware (i.e., we are all “informatically encapsulated” blind to our own brain processes). Because of this not “only are we ‘in the dark’ with reference to ourselves, we are, in a very real sense, congenitally and catastrophically misinformed” (see Spinoza’s Sin and Leibniz’s Mill).

He tells us that BBT seeks to demote ‘traditional epistemology’–treating it as a signature example of the way informatic neglect leads us to universalize heuristics, informatic processes that selectively ignore information to better solve specific problem sets. It pretty much asks the simple question: What if we were never what we thought we were? What if what we’ve considered human was in itself both misinformed and flatly untrue? What if the truth were as simple as subtracting what we’ve so dearly held as being human from our actual humanity? What would be left after we subtracted all the illusory notions, concepts, folk-psychology?

For Bakker the whole gamut of philosophy based as it is on the hidden assumptions of ‘intentionality’ is a dupe, a broken vessel from the age of folk-psychology that will sooner or later be replaced by those stone cold engineers of our future sciences:

Intentionality is a theoretical construct, the way it looks whenever we ‘descriptively encounter’ or theoretically metacognize our linguistic activity—when we take a particular, information starved perspective on ourselves. As intentionally understood, norms, reasons, symbols, and so on are the descriptions of blind anosognosiacs, individuals convinced they can see for the simple lack of any intuition otherwise.

To say cognition is heuristic and fractionate is to say that cognition cannot be understood independent of environments, no more than a screw-driver can be understood independent of screws. It’s also worth noting how this simply follows from mechanistic paradigm of the natural sciences. (here)

Mechanistic and elminiativist Bakker reduces what was once termed intentional consciousness to a small heuristic device, a machine that works to solve only a minor set of problems never knowing the vast sea of information surrounding it of which it is totally blind and unaware. ” The human brain necessarily suffers what might be called proximal or medial neglect. It constitutes its own blind spot, insofar as it cannot cognize its own functions in the same manner that it cognizes environmental functions.”(ibid.) Which leads to “a thoroughgoing natural enactive view—which is to say, a mechanical view—brains can be seen as devices that transform environmental risk into onboard mechanical complexity, a complexity that, given medial neglect, metacognition flattens into heuristics such as aboutness.”

On the Blind Brain Theory, or as I’ve been calling it here, Just Plain Crazy Enactive Cognition, we are natural all the way down. On this account, intentionality is simply what mechanism looks like from a particular, radically blinkered angle. There is no original intentionality, and neither is there any derived intentionality. If our brains do not ‘take as meaningful,’ then neither do we. If environmental speech cues the application of various, radically heuristic cognitive systems in our brain, then this is what we are actually doing whenever we understand any speaker.

Intentionality is a theoretical construct, the way it looks whenever we ‘descriptively encounter’ or theoretically metacognize our linguistic activity—when we take a particular, information starved perspective on ourselves. As intentionally understood, norms, reasons, symbols, and so on are the descriptions of blind anosognosiacs, individuals convinced they can see for the simple lack of any intuition otherwise. The intuition, almost universal in philosophy, that ‘rule following’ or ‘playing the game of giving and asking for reasons’ is what we implicitly do is simply a cognitive conceit. On the contrary, what we implicitly do is mechanically participate in our environments as a component of our environments.

I’ll grant that Scott may or may not be right about the replacement of “folk-psychology” at some point in the future. Fair enough. But his conclusions and reliance on the mechanistic ontology and its supporting framework is another matter altogether. He thinks it has explanatory power and begs for someone to come along an poke holes in his arguments. But it is not as easy as that. One first needs to understand the premises upon which his anti-philosophical framework of this scientistic eliminativism resides before one can tackle the ontological questions that he rests his case on in his conclusions. For a long while I’ve been baited, hooked, trying to understand where he was coming from and to where he was going. For a while I almost gave up the chase, thinking that he had backed himself into such a corner using a blanket of well-trod eliminativist arguments that seem almost unassailable that I might never find in chinks in his anti-philosophical armor. I wonder now even if I have.

Reading through the hundreds of blog posts that have brought him to this point of refinement in his self-proclaimed Blind Brain Theory and its bastion of counter-intuitive scientific labyrinth of ever-changing arguments is a difficult task for anyone who might assail this mercurial intellect. Where to begin? Well first we need to understand just why these scientists, these eliminativists believe what they believe. To do this I’ll need to understand some of the thinkers that led up to this mechanistic/eliminativist naturalism in science to begin with.

So maybe a little break from Continental thought and a dip into those precursors of eliminativism will be in order: Wilfred Sellars, W.V. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty. Been a while since I read any of their works, yet one must keep an open mind. If Scott is to convince me of the truth of his claims then it seems one has to have a thorough understanding of just what his brand of eliminativism enacts, what variation it purports to support, its conceptual tools and framed premises.

So this post is more for me: a challenge to understand the roots of eliminativist world-view and why such as Scott Bakker have chosen to defend it so doggedly.

Of late I’ve been reading a work by a scientist who was once a member of the eliminativist tribe (see his now classic From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief(1985)), a believer in it base set of arguments and program, but has now left the camp become an apostate and has written a work to understand just how this all came about: Stephen P. Stich’s Deconstructing the Mind:

For some years now, deconstructionism has been a pretentious and obfuscatory blight on the intellectual landscape. But buried in the heaps of badly written blather produced by people who call themselves “deconstructionists,” there is at least one idea-not original with them-that is worth noting. This is the thesis that in many domains both intellectual activity and everyday practice presuppose a significant body of largely tacit theory. Since the tacit theories are typically all but invisible, it is easy to proceed without examining them critically. Yet once these tacit theories are subject to scrutiny, they are often seen to be very tenuous indeed; there is nothing obvious or inevitable about them. And when the weaknesses of the underlying theories have been exposed, the doctrines and practices that rely on them can be seen to be equally tenuous. If, as I would suggest, this process of uncovering and criticizing tacit assumptions is at the core of deconstructionism, then eliminativism is pursuing a paradigmatically deconstructionist program. However, if I am right, the eliminativist deconstruction of commonsense psychological discourse has itself tacitly assumed a dubious package of presuppositions about the ways language and ontology are related. 1 (intro)

If Stich is on to something then it is the set of dubious “presuppositions about the ways language and ontology are related” that must first be diagnosed before we can begin to assail the bastion of R. Scott Bakker’s great edifice of the BBT. More on that in the future….

1. Stephen P. Stich. Deconstructing the Mind (Philosophy of Mind).

Adrian Johnston: The Tracery of a Pattern

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless , formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.1

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Calvino’s fabulations have always stirred in me a sense of levity that comes with long years of reading through thousands of books over a life time seeking just that – “the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” In a time of ruins and decay when our planetary civilization is slowly unraveling before our very eyes and the great cultures that have sustained us for several thousands of years are beginning to realize that their unsustainable visions of the future are collapsing around them we begin to seek answers not in those dark worlds but in our own dark hearts.

More and more as I study philosophy in its contemporary form I wonder if these philosophers are truly concerned with the crumbling worlds around them or if it is all an academic one-upmanship on the road toward a continuing career. Do we really believe in our ideas anymore? Are we willing to stake our lives on these ideas and center them on problems of our planetary civilization? Or shall we continue to dance with our scholastic blinders vying for our day in the philosophical sun? All rhetorical carpology to be sure. But it is more than just a jest I wonder if we’ve lost sight of one of the enduring legacies of philosophy: the search for Wisdom. I seem to harp back on that from time to time because I find so little of it in the works I read. Oh yes there is a great deal of fine tuning of differing frameworks within which we couch our thoughts, but in the end it all seems so overdone, so embellished and decadently hyperaware of its place in the philosophical tradition that one wonders where the actual truth resides?

I think this is why I sometimes use Zizek in my posts because he is well-read and yet doesn’t fit the pattern of any academic professional – even though he is unceasing in his unwavering devotion to promote a younger generation of philosophers and is a force of energy that continues to problematize and question everything. Do I agree with everything he says? Of course not… as many of his critics – and, to be sure, he has many enemies both ideological and envious – continually point out he is convoluted, repetitive, leads into false logical conundrums, etc. Yes, one can find fault in any philosopher. But is that the important thing? There is no stable identity to tie down a philosopher into some system that can be totalized and then extrapolated into logical form. But enough on Zizek, I use him as one example.

My problem is that I keep seeking a philosopher who will rise up in our midst and shake the foundations of our thought-worlds like Kant did two hundred years ago, but as of yet none has succeeded in doing just that. We seem to be bound to his long shadow:

It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.

And there we sit to this day in a circle of endless repetition both Analytic and Continental under the power of ‘intentional consciousness’.  Kant argued that our experiences are structured by necessary features of our minds. The mind shapes and structures experience so that, on an abstract level, all human experience shares certain essential structural features.

Was Kant right in his surmise? This is the question that has haunted philosophers from the German Idealists to our latest tribe of contemporary philosophers. And the verdict is still out. And, what of this new world of the sciences? What of neuroscience? What of all those thousands of images that seem to provide a myriad of interpretive datasets for the brain scientists? Will neuroscience replace philosophy? Are will philosophy fine tune the workings of scientists?

1

In the postscript to his new trilogy Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism Adrian Johnston throws out the tracery of a pattern, a sort of ongoing revisable definition of his program:

…I am tempted to characterize my transcendental materialism as an emergent dual-aspect monism, albeit with the significant qualification that these “aspects” and their ineradicable divisions (such as mind and matter, the asubjective and subjective, and the natural and the more-than-natural) enjoy the heft of actual existence (rather than being, as they are in Spinoza’s dual-aspect monism, epiphenomena deprived of true ontological substantiality). One of the questions animating my philosophical program is: What sort of ontology of “first nature” (i.e., the one-and-only original real[ity] of material substances) allows for the genesis of a “second nature” (i.e., minded and like-minded autonomous subjects as epistemologically inexplicable and ontologically irreducible with reference to natural material substances alone) – a second nature immanently transcending first nature and requiring theorization in a manner that avoids the mirror-image dual traps of reductive/eliminative monisms and idealist/spiritualist dualisms? (180)2

There is so much packed into this short quote that one could spend a book in unpacking all the threads that lead to this statement. Johnston, if nothing else, is a careful reader of the traditions, and is working ahead of the curve (i.e., measuring the critics that will come like vultures at a feast). Funny that he begins with a surmise, a “temptation to characterize,” rather than a full blown authoritative gesture. I sometimes wonder if this is a sort of staging practice philosophers play with other philosophers so that they can upon receipt let others know tongue and cheek that none of this is set in stone, it is all part of something I’m working on and toward, but not the finished product by any means.

Then he pulls the hat out of the bag telling us that this is a “transcendental materialism as an emergent dual-aspect monism” then proceeds to double qualify this. But before we go on to the qualification we need to ponder what he means first by “transcendental materialism”, and then as a variant of an “emergent dual-aspect monism”. One must first take him at his word that this present work is part of a continuing confrontation with certain contemporary philosophers. He dealt heavily with Slavoj Žižek in two previous works (i.e., Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendetal Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, and Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations: The Cadences of Change). So his confrontation in this present work is what we can only perceive as a young philosopher beginning to step out from under the tutelage and shadows of his comrades in arms and begin to carefully map his own territory in the vast agglomeration of philosophical theory and practice. Who are these other thinkers? Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux all contemporary French thinker, one the famed anti-philosopher and revisionist and progenitor of French Psychoanalysis (Lacan), and, the others both mentors (Badiou) and rival/comrade (Meillassoux). As he states it “… this book contains Hegelian-style immanent critiques of these three thinkers” (xiv). Out of this confrontation he hopes to forge a “new materialism both profoundly influenced by these brilliant comrades of a shared cause as making up for the alleged shortcomings of their own attempts creatively to bring to realization the Lacanian vision of an Other-less ontology”(xv).

Just there is where we must begin. Lacan. If Adrian Johnston starts with Lacan we must first appraise what it is he sees in this master that needed ‘correction’, an oddly derivative term that implies an almost Lucretian clinamen (i.e., a rhetorical term denoting that a thinker went just so far but no farther, and needs a swerve or correction at just this point to complete the work that was originally intended).

Inevitably Johnston returns to that fateful moment in Lacan’s nineteenth seminar in which he arrogantly prophesied the notion that a “novel brand of philosophy” based on his work would one day arise.(3) Johnston sees this prediction being fulfilled in the work of three of his contemporaries: Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux.  But why Lacan? Why was he such a force to be reckoned with that these philosophers have hung their hats in his shadow? Was it that he made ‘dialectics, atheism, and materialism’ a cornerstone of his psychoanalytic practice?

…the true formula of atheism is not God is dead—even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father— the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious.3

It is just here that we find the kernel of a difference, a slight swerve from Freud’s stance to Lacan’s stance in just what is central to atheism. Lacan takes away the Judgement, the murder, and the victimology that have strewn the traditions of thought for two thousand years in at least western literature. This formula that ‘God is unconscious’ brings with it a sort of ironic stance, one that acknowledges that God exists, but that he is blinded to his own powers (i.e., unconscious). Strange idea that this would be a formula for atheism. Slavoj  Žižek in his usual perspicuity reminds us that to read this passage correctly one should to read it together with another thesis of Lacan. These two dispersed statements should be treated as the pieces of a puzzle to be combined into one coherent proposition. It is only their interconnection (plus the reference to the Freudian dream of the father who doesn’t know that he is dead) that enables us to deploy Lacan’s basic thesis in its entirety:

As you know, the father Karamazov’s son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn’t exist… – If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day. (see: Chapter Seven: How to Read Lacan)

Žižek continues: “The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited” means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions which sabotage your enjoyment.”(ibid)

One can see just how religious the new atheists have become in such works as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. They defend atheism almost as dogmatic as early Christian Fathers defended the faith. Instead of a life of pure enjoyment we see a world of prohibitions governed by dogmas of a wrong headed atheism. (Being an atheist myself I often wonder how these writers suddenly took on the vanguard of defending a faith that wasn’t a faith.) But as Žižek in his quirkiness reminds us: “Today, however, we are bombarded from all sides by different versions of the injunction “Enjoy!”, from direct enjoyment in sexual performance to enjoyment in professional achievement or in spiritual awakening. Jouissance today effectively functions as a strange ethical duty: individuals feel guilty not for violating moral inhibitions by way of engaging in illicit pleasures, but for not being able to enjoy. In this situation, psychoanalysis is the only discourse in which you are allowed not to enjoy – not prohibited to enjoy, but just relieved of the pressure to enjoy.” (ibid)

This secularized vision is the first movement in Johnston’s new materialist discourse. Yet, all is not so bright and shiny in Lacanism. Within it’s intricate weave are certain threads that still hark back to older more religious terms which control its thought forms. And, it is to this, that Johnston spends two chapters on Lacan, delineating the features within Lacanism that might provide the salvagable gems to inform any future materialism stripped of its religious detritus.

I will take up this in my next post….

*************************

1. Calvino, Italo (2013-08-12). Invisible Cities (Kindle Locations 53-63). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
2. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)
3. Lacan, Jacques (2010-06-08). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (Kindle Locations 1049-1050). Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.

Happy Holidays… and my continued readings!

Happy Holidays all!

I’ve been playing hookie of late enjoying family and friends, but have been doing some reading as well. Along with rereading from the beginning the works of Gilles Deleuze – having started Empiricism and Subjectivity of late (his treatment of David Hume). I am also reading a fascinating new work that may just be the next great preamble to a way forward in philosophy. I speak of Adrian Johnston’s new Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism. This is the open salvo in what appears to be a trilogy that will open a new path for those who have struggled of late with Contemporary French Philosophy.

Adrian Johnston is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and a faculty member of the Emory Psychoanalytic Institute in Atlanta.  He is the author of Time Driven:  Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (2005), Žižek’s Ontology:  A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008), Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations:  The Cadence of Change (2009), and Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, Volume One:  The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy (2013), all published by Northwestern University Press.  He is the co-author, with Catherine Malabou, of Self and Emotional Life:  Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (Columbia University Press, 2013).  His next book, Adventures in Transcendental Materialism:  Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, will be released by Edinburgh University Press in early 2014.  With Todd McGowan and Slavoj Žižek, he is a co-editor of the book series Diaeresis at Northwestern University Press.

There is a good review of his opening book on Philosophical Reviews for those interested:

http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/44866-prolegomena-to-any-future-materialism-volume-one-the-outcome-of-contemporary-french-philosophy/

I’ll add my thoughts at some future time, but for now am enjoying what is being presented so far.

The Task of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Pluralist Tradition

“The philosopher-comets knew how to make pluralism an art of thinking, a critical art.”
— Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

There seems to be in our present generation a need to overthrow the recent dead in philosophy, to clear a space and move forward into the ‘great outdoors’ as certain speculators would have it. Yet, one wonders why? Why is renouncing the recent work of such philosophical originals as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, to name just two of the recent great philosophers of our previous generation, done with such dismissive gestures. We love labels for some reason, we love to peg certain labels on the proverbial donkeys tail; or, should I say, philosopher’s hind. One wonders if such dismissal misleads our present generation? “Stupidity and baseness are always those of our own time, of our contemporaries, our stupidity and baseness.”1

Deleuze, like his progenitor, Nietzsche, always considered philosophy as both critical and untimely: “This is why philosophy has an essential relation to time: it is always against its time, critique of the present world (107)”. Philosophy is the great dymystifier: its task is the rooting out of stupidity and baseness in the present age. There are moments when I need to remind myself of that. Sometimes I forget that philosophy has a task:

Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. (106)

Have we lost the art of thinking in our time? Have we all become stupid and base, forgetting the task of philosophy? One doesn’t have to go far to hear certain – so called, new philosophers, decrying critique as if the task of philosophy is no longer critical but is something else altogether. Why is that? What are these so called philosophers up too, anyway? These new philosophers put me to sleep, their thought is dead, it does not quicken me into active thought, but instead hands me a noose and kindly says: “Go hang thy self.” These – so called, philosophers are the great mystifiers, the bringers of grand illusions, utopianists of reality. They offer only to guide the unthinking into a deeper labyrinth of mindless dribble. Instead of such strange speculators who would lead us astray we should all return to such philosophers as Nietzsche and Deleuze not because they offer some great wisdom or knowledge, but because they exasperate, they confound, they awaken us from our slumbers and give us the one thing we need most: thought that is alive and resilient – the figure of the philosopher, thinking. Their thought goes against the grain, against time, it makes one restless and full of life, it disturbs us in our sleep and makes us uncomfortable with the status quo. It expounds on the stupidity and baseness of its age and teaches us to do the same.

This kind of philosophy makes us all travelers of thought, frequenters of tropical zones “frequented by the tropical man, not temperate zones or the moral, methodical or moderate man (110).”

1. Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche and Philosophy. trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Columbia University Press: 1962)

A Goat Man’s Philosophy

“Could it be that wisdom appears on earth as a raven, attracted by a little whiff of carrion?” – Nietzsche

As I grow older  I realize just how little I know or will ever know now that time grows short in the cycle of days remaining. With all my vast learning I am still a beginner, a questioner, a creature who realizes that time alone does not give us answers or wisdom. When we are young we feel the world is ours to grasp, to hold onto, to make into our image; but, as we grow older we realize the foolishness of such things and begin each day with more questions than answers.

What is the one thing that I have learned in all my years of struggle? I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times. Oh sure I’ve made friendships, loved, and been loved, raised children, inhabited the world of life with gusto and resilience, but in the end I come back to the one thing that keeps me going: I want understand why, why all this magnificence? Why does this particular universe exists? Was it chance? Was it design? Science explicates it’s reasonable facts in a pattern of math and commentary for laymen. Are we accidents of time, just particles of matter spilled into the lucky mold of a planetary evolutionary niche that, too, will go the way of all things into oblivion. Or is there something else? Honestly we have no real answers to that question unless one subscribes to the atheist faith that this is all randomness, a happy accident with nothing more to say; or, if one is a religionist then it is the God, the Maker, who has formed and shaped us according to his own mysterious designs; or, if one follows the new feminist mythographers, we’re all children of the Great Goddess’s dance of particles, members of a magical dance of light and shadow that will never end but is the dance of life itself. Or, maybe one follows the Vedanta, Taoist, Shinto, Buddhist, etc. paths and has other answers… maybe religion is for those who need some final answer, some absolute answer and justification for all things. Maybe science is for those who realize there is no ultimate answer or justification for this universe. Is the war between religion and science to be forever?

But what of us who abide in the unknown, who seek neither some ultimate answer, nor subscribe to either atheism or religion in their recorded extremes? What of us? What of the questions, the endless abiding spirit of enquiry that realizes the human animal may have limits to its mental and physical abilities to know even the smallest or greatest details of the universe or itself? Why do we need some ultimate answer to things, why can’t we just abide in our pure ignorance and wonder? We tinker, we build, we battle each other over ideas and religious and political ideologies… we seem to be unable to enjoy each other, but continuously war with each other over territory, mental or real. With every child born the process starts anew with no end in site. Even our illusions that books and historical knowledge will help us remember the great defeats of humanity become deaf tones to those in a younger generation. The great culture of learning has become the dance of a minority, an elite that debates endlessly over the minutiae of details of our philosophical blight. Where is the wisdom in that?

Day by day I throw off the old illusions that I will ever come to a conclusion to the matter. I realize now that there is one thing that abides: my ignorance, my unknowing. Socrates! You old goat, you knew it all along, you told us the truth but we would not accept it. I hate you, you old frog! Yet, I cannot escape you! It was Nietzsche in a memorable moment of clarity said of this Goat Man from Athens:

“Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, reminds us of the kindred nature of the Euripidean hero who must defend his actions with arguments and counterarguments and in the process often risks the loss of our tragic pity; for who could mistake the optimistic element in the nature of the dialectic, which celebrates a triumph with every conclusion and can breathe only in cool clarity and consciousness.”

―     Friedrich Nietzsche,  The Birth of Tragedy/The Case of Wagner

Was Socrates just a little too optimistic? Have we lost the insight into the ancient view of the tragic world… have we all become a little too optimistic for our own good? One always remembers that on the great shield of the ancient Athenian warriors was the dark face of the Medusa, that dark queen of the earth cults with her serpentine hair and flaming eyes gazing into the stone eyes of all those who would presume to uncover her deep secrets. Is the universe in the end our Medusan Queen? Do not stare into the abyss too long, my friends, or it will stare back at you!

Meditations and Reflections

Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations once described Leopardi as the perfect model of the modern philologist and the greatest prose writer of the century. But who in our age even knows of this 19th Century Italian Master anymore? His works which in English come few and far between in spurious translations at best do him no justice. If I meditate on his newly published English translation of the notebooks, Zibaldone (editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino), it is not because I any longer agree with this monstrous poet of the solitudes. No. It is because I so mercilessly despise him yet know him for that monstrous part of my own self, a model of the destructive pessimism and melancholy, that has to be slayed over and over again. This man wracked by pessimism and melancholia all his life, this hunchback creature of solitary ways, who lived an endless ennui staving off the effects of that dark disease with and endless series of words, a slayer of that darkness within.

As a young man I was too busy getting my palms greased under the hood of old Chevys and Fords to worry about such matters, spending my time down at the race tracks running dirt rallies in old beaters, oblivious to both the world of culture and its formidable conclaves of learning. The truth be told I never cracked a book unless I was forced too, and even then most of what I read was neither comprehended nor worth the effort. I read to pass tests and that was about all. I wonder sometimes just what brought my life to the point of awakening, what finally lit the match and sparked my mind to begin seeking knowledge and wisdom in books to begin with? All that would come later after Viet Nam and my own deep disillusionment with life, country, and religion.

I came upon Leopardi’s works in High School (not even sure what translation) and for the first time felt that odd  sensation of someone who understood me, who held the key to some strange inner knowledge of life that I did not know existed. At the time this disturbed me and rather than pursuing it I ran from it, tried to hide in my grease monkey suit laughing and joking with the gang knowing full well that something had happened, something strange had entered my being and left its mark and that I would never again be quite the same. It was during these years of mindlessness that I would begin questioning things around me, wondering about life and art, philosophy and religion. But this would all come later, much later.

Why do I read Leopardi? What does he offer us that a thousand and one other writers, poets, philosophers, etc. could not do better? Why do we even read such authors to begin with? Reading is a guilty pleasure, its the most solitary act you’ll do in life. Reading is not some group activity even if one is sitting with others reading out loud in a park, or listening to someone else reading: this is not reading, this is listening to the otherness of voicing rather than the inner voice of one’s own incessant chattering mind. There is a subtle difference, and this is something that the aficionados of deconstructive theory have iterated to the nth degree. If there is a difference that makes a difference it is the one between the reader and the otherness of literature. Coming on something that is not one’s self, encountering the strangeness of an other is both frightening and exhilarating. Most never experience this strangeness. When your professors speak of the greatness of Shakespeare it is in those strange moments in his plays when an interlocutor suddenly for the first time awakens to the strangeness of their own otherness, when in moments of clarity they overhear their own thoughts coming back to them as other, as difference itself – an encounter that changes one forever.

Leopardi is a monster. Shocking, but true. All true solitaires are monstrous for they have taken the way from humanity to find their inner strangeness and difference. One does not need to rehearse the litanies of his bare life to know that this melancholic sought the way from man not to him, and that society – if such a world still exists – had nothing to offer him. No. He agreed with Rousseau that there may have been a pristine almost pure society in the past, but that today such a return was impossible, an ideal that was both spurious and an illusion to repeal rather than exalt. What was needed was more breaking of the vessels, the illusions that held humans in their ill-fated prisons. Humanity was enslaved by their human systems of social myth making and would not be free till they could shake off and de-naturalize the time honored worlds they’d build over eons of tradition.

One enters the Zibaldone as into a giant omnibus, a series of notes of an ongoing project, a mind endlessly pursuing something both tangible and intangible. “In literature, one passes from nothing to the middle and to truth, then to refinement. There is no example of a return from refinement to truth. The Greeks. Italians writing in Latin. Fine taste among the generality of men of letters can exist only while it is still uncorrupted.”1 Yet, we are all corrupted now. Therefore literature no longer exists. We instead have something else, something of the bitter excess of our age. If we choose the apocalyptic and chaotic over the refinements of the uncorrupted it is because this is all that is left to us.

We are all monsters now, we seek to strengthen the self rather than to slay it, we forage the arsenal of ancient books seeking weapons to help us survive in this time of madness and mayhem. Yet, we no longer have the luxury of a Leopardi, there is no solace in a private world of solitude. We belong to each other now, we roam the zombie lands of the post-apocalyptic age of conspiracy mongers and carnival barkers who would gainsay at our expense and lead us down the path of destruction in a Hall of Mirrors without outlet. “To avoid the vices and corruption of writing, we now need endless study and intense imitation of the Classics to a much much greater extent than the ancient writers needed . If one does not have these things, one cannot be an eminent writer, and if one does, it is not possible to become as great as the great models (Kindle Locations 2177-2179).” We have all become corrupted by writing, the Classics hold nothing for us any longer, and eminence is the last thing we would seek for ourselves at this point in time: no more great models, we have destroyed the models and the makers. What is left to us?

Can we build something out of the ruins of this pile of corruption? Is there still strength in these filthy hands to build a life? Maybe the only way out of corruption is the way in, to dig deeper into this pit of hellishness, seek the nugget in the dark depths, rather than spin airy nothings out of the dead past? “Two truths that men will generally never believe: one, that we know nothing, the other, that we are nothing. Add the third, which depends a lot on the second: that there is nothing to hope for after death  (Kindle Locations 58153-58154).”  Maybe this knowledge is our only salvation. But who of us really believes in salvation anymore?

1. Leopardi, Giacomo (2013-07-16). Zibaldone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Fredric Jameson on Realism

“History… if it is anything at all, is at one with the dialectic, and can only be the problem of which it claims to be the solution.”

———– Fredric Jameson,  The Antinomies Of Realism

In Fredric Jameson’s version of the dialectical interplay of forces we call ‘Realism’ there is always a return to form and content and the antinomy between. If anything the master trope throughout Jameson’s career has been the ‘dialectic’ itself in all its antinomic power. Overhearing Jameson think is like a return to the great literary critics or close readers who have all entered that ancient mind-set to expound on the intricacies of literature and of the realist tradition in particular. The subtleties of his discourse could be off-putting to those who have not the formidable learning that comes so easily to one such as he. One sees Jameson as a composer, a man who has tempered his symphonic ear to the point of excess; yet, who also knows how to play each and every instrument within the delimited architecture that makes up the philosophical and literary cosmos that he so skillfully scores.

In exemplification of this fact he carefully distinguishes between the tale (récit) and the novel proper in his discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre:

The time of the récit is then a time of the preterite, of events completed, over and done with, events that have entered history once and for all. It will be clear enough what a philosophy of freedom must object to in such an inauthentic and reified temporality: it necessarily blocks out the freshness of the event happening, along with the agony of decision of its protagonists. It omits, in other words, the present of time and turns the future into a “dead future” (what this or that character anticipated in 1651 or in 1943). Clearly enough, then, what Sartre calls upon the novel to reestablish is the open present of freedom, the present of an open, undecided future, where the die has not yet been cast, to use one of his favorite expressions. The aesthetic of the existential novel will then bend its narrative instruments to the recreation of this open present, in which not even the past is set in stone, insofar as our acts in the present rewrite and modify it.1

And, of course, the key to his text is in that term ‘temporality’, for that is the underlying leitmotif that runs through his text. Maybe I return to Jameson not because I agree with everything he says, but because he teaches me subtle things about the craft I purport to engage in as a central form: about the novel, about writing as a form or mode and of the content that fills it chambers and ante-chambers. His new work covers a lot of territory and I’m still in process of reading it so offer only this small tidbit. “What we call realism will thus come into being in the symbiosis of this pure form of storytelling with impulses of scenic elaboration, description and above all affective investment, which allow it to develop towards a scenic present which in reality, but secretly, abhors the other temporalities which constitute the force of the tale or récit in the first place.”(p. 12)

1. Jameson, Fredric (2013-10-08). The Antinomies Of Realism (p. 18). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Zizek and Sloterdijk

” I believe that only through Christianity one can truly be an atheist.”
———— Slavoj Zizek

There’s a hidden tension between these two philosophers, as if there was a sort of comradeship below the surface, a friendship that tempers their differing views and struggles. We discover in Culture Magazine a dialogue between these two indefatigable troubadours of the contemporary scene. There comes a point when the interlocutor says: “To overcome the crisis, you, Sloterdijk, opt for the revival of individual spiritual exercises, while you, Zizek insists collective political mobilization and the reactivation of the emancipatory power of Christianity. Why such differences?”

Peter Sloterdijk:

I propose to introduce the study of pragmatism in the alleged religions: the pragmatic nature forces us to look more closely at what the religious do, to meet internal and external practices, which can be described as exercises that form a structure of personality. What I call the main subject of philosophy and psychology is the bearer of the series of exercises that make up personality. And some of the series of exercises that constitute the personality can be described as religious.

But what does this mean? Mental exercises are made to communicate with a partner invisible, are absolutely concrete things that can be described, there is nothing mysterious about that. I believe that until further notice, the term “financial system” is operating a thousand times that the term “religion” refers to the righteousness of the Roman state. We must not forget that the use of the terms “religion” “mercy” or “fidelity” was reserved in Roman times to the epithets that had the Roman legions stationed in the Rhine Valley and elsewhere. The highest privilege of a legion was carrying fedelis pia epithets, because it expressed a particular loyalty to the emperor in Rome. I think the Europeans simply forgot religious meaning. The word literally means “diligence.” Cicero gave the correct etymology: reading, legere, religere, that is, carefully consider organizing protocol for communication with higher beings. It is therefore a kind of diligence or in my terminology, a code of training. For that reason I think the “return of religion” would only be effective if it could lead to financial practices intensified. By contrast, our “new religious” are not, most times, more than lazy dreamers. But in the twentieth century, sport was imposed on Western civilization. He did not religion, sport reappeared, having been forgotten for nearly 1,500 years. It was fideism athletics but who came to the fore. Pierre de Coubertin wanted to create a religion of muscle in the early twentieth century. Failed as a founder of a religion, but succeeded as a creator of a new system of exercises.

Slavoj Zizek:

Consider religion as a set of embodied practices already existed in the Russian avant-garde. Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) wrote a very beautiful text on the Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) as someone who systematized some spiritual exercises. My thesis about the return to Christianity is paradoxical: I believe that only through Christianity one can truly be an atheist.

Considering the great twentieth-century atheism, it is actually a completely different logic, that of a “credit” theological. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) one of the founders of quantum physics, received a visit from a friend at his dacha. This, however, refused to pass the gate of his house for a horseshoe was nailed-a superstition to keep out evil spirits. And the friend said to Bohr: “You’re a first-rate scientist, how can you believe in such superstitions?” “Do not believe it!” Said Niels Bohr. “But then why let that mule?” Insisted the friend. And Niels Bohr had this excellent response: “Someone told me that it works even if you do not believe.” It would be a pretty good picture of our current ideology. I think the death of Christ on the cross is the death of God and that is no longer the Big Other who pulls the strings. The only way to be a believer after the death of Christ is to participate in egalitarian collective ties. Christianity can be understood as a religion accompanying the order of the existing or a religion that says “no” and helps to resist. I think that Christianity and Marxism should fight together the new wave of spirituality and the capitalist gregariousness. I defend a religion without God, without love communism.

I must admit to identifying with Zizek’s statement: “I believe that only through Christianity one can truly be an atheist.” I came to my own form of atheism through Christianity after having truly begun as a convert and actual believer in the American sense of that term. So a religious view of life without a ‘God’, or Big Other, for me is appropriate. I agree with Sloterdijk in the need not to reject religious practice but to study it, understand the deep heritage and reason for its existence in the human world. Is there something of value there? Are there disciplines and unique exercises that can attune us to something of value and unique in our own lives and bring us toward a greater communal awakening that does not mean worship of some Big Other (God, Country, etc.)? Can we build political movements that will last beyond the current crisis and resolve many of out eras struggles?

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Not sure if that last sentence by Zizek is translated aright. Seems she translated it using google… lol. Either way interesting discussion. From a recent interview, reprinted and translated by Nicolas Truong (and found on Amy M Denes site: click here and here in the original).