Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Out of My Hands

I got word today that Egalitarian Moments has gone to press. It's completely out of my hands now. But this post isn't so much about EM as it is about another book. One of the other long-time contributors to the blog also has a book coming out, and I don't think he's used this space for shameless self-promotion (yet). So, I'll tell you that Matt McLennan's first book, Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy: Badiou's Dispute with Lyotard will also be published by Bloomsbury this fall. Here is the blurb:
Alain Badiou's work in philosophy, though daunting, has gained a receptive and steadily growing Anglophone readership. What is not well known is the extent to which Badiou's positions, vis-à-vis ontology, ethics, politics and the very meaning of philosophy, were hammered out in dispute with the late Jean-François Lyotard. Matthew R. McLennan's Philosophy, Sophistry, Antiphilosophy is the first work to pose the question of the relation between Lyotard and Badiou, and in so doing constitutes a significant intervention in the field of contemporary European philosophy by revisiting one of its most influential and controversial forefathers.
Badiou himself has underscored the importance of Lyotard for his own project; might the recent resurgence of interest in Lyotard be tied in some way to Badiou's comments? Or deeper still: might not Badiou's philosophical Platonism beg an encounter with philosophy's other, the figure of the sophist that Lyotard played so often and so ably? Posing pertinent questions and opening new discursive channels in the literature on these two major figures this book is of interest to those studying philosophy, rhetoric, literary theory, cultural and media studies.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Voluntary Servitude (Continued)

As a follow up to the previous post: the course on the history of social and political philosophy also gives me a chance to catch up on some secondary literature that I've been meaning to read:
  • George Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, Abused Words, Civil Government: John Locke's Philosophy of Money (Autonomedia, 1989).
  • Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge, 2008).
  • Frédéric Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire (Verso, 2014).
  • David Munnich, L'art de l'amitié: Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la servitude volontaire (Sens et Tonka, 2012).
  • Bruce Campbell, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor (St. Martin's Press, 2002)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Teaching Voluntary Servitude

In Fall 2015, I'll be teaching PHIL 3330A: Topics in History of Social and Political Philosophy, at Carleton University. The purpose of the course is, loosely speaking, to familiarize students with political thought from the early modern period to the 19th century, while covering some of the big names in political theory, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Probably J.S. Mill, too, but he didn't make the cut for reasons that may or may not become clear below.

My first impulse was to arrange the readings as a debate about the valences and vagaries of consensus and dissensus, but I opted not to, since that distinction seemed to look backwards at a project I'd just completed. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer to teach without knowing the theoretical trajectory of the course in advance.

I chose, then, to use the course as a chance to investigate some of Miguel Abensour's work on what La Boétie calls voluntary servitude. It forms part of a larger project on Abensour's critico-utopian philosophy. If you happen to be familiar with Abensour's only book translated into English, and are somewhat surprised by this, he was involved in bringing a critical edition of Le discours de la servitude volontaire to press in 1976 (reissued by Payot & Rivages in 2002), which includes essays by Abensour and Marcel Gauchet (before they became enemies), Claude Lefort, and Pierre Clastres. He's revisited La Boétie's "contr'un" in more recent work, and that will, in part, guide the readings for the course.

Here's the course description:

According to prominent accounts of the topic, the goal of political philosophy is to elaborate the conditions that make it possible to protect individual liberties and distribute goods fairly. The history that tracks the development of this task of political philosophy leads from John Locke to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Without necessarily disputing the democratic ideal of this approach, we will study another persistent problem in social and political philosophy: the concern that social institutions emerge not from procedures of consensus and well-reasoned debate, but as forms of voluntary servitude. We will examine this other tradition of philosophical inquiry—which includes La Boétie, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx—in order to consider the following questions:
  • What is voluntary servitude?
  • Is it significant that democratic institutions might have arisen from institutions originally dedicated to policing society?
  • Are there forms of democracy that do not involve voluntary servitude?
And the readings:
  • John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980). ISBN: 978-0-915144-86-0. 
  • Etienne de la Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Trans. James B. Atkinson and David Sices (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-60384-839-8.
  • Miguel Abensour, “Is There a Proper Way To Use the Voluntary Servitude Hypothesis?” Journal of Political Ideologies, 16/3 (2011), 329–348.
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Revised Student Edition. Ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). ISBN: 9780521567978. 
  • Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Second Edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001). ISBN: 978-0-87220-607-6. 
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses. Ed. Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). ISBN: 9780300091410. 
  • G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Preface (pp. 20–23); §182–208; §230–249.
  • Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990). ISBN: 9780140445688.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What's Next?

In the last two weeks, I've completed two major writing projects. The first task was copy-editing Egalitarian Moments. Rereading the text reminded me that I should get more efficient at following up on suggestions that I make in the footnotes, but that I don't pursue in the text itself--those claims preceded by the caveat that pursuing such a claim is beyond the scope of the present study.

Which takes me to the second project, that I haven't really discussed on the blog (though I haven't really discussed much at all this calendar year): a chapter for a forthcoming volume on Rethinking German Idealism, edited by Joseph Carew and Sean McGrath. In Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art, I suggest, on page 54, that in the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, Schelling denies that humans have any moral obligation to animals. My contribution to Carew's and McGrath's volume focuses on Schelling's anthropocentrism as an impediment to the recent renaissance in studies concerning his nature-philosophy.

It's an important article to me, not just because it bridges my work on Schelling with some of the material on animal rights that I teach, but also because it's the first time I've completed an extensive essay on Schelling that either (1) concerns a topic beyond the scope of his philosophy of art or work on mythology*, and (2) that tackles, with some detail, the Human Freedom essay, which has always been (for me) a difficult text to work with. More specifically, a difficult text to write about from a standpoint that traverses the text instead of becoming absorbed in it. Elaborating a critique of Schelling's anthropocentrism allowed me to extricate a critical standpoint from Schelling's dense (and rigorous) argument.

Finally, from a different angle, completing these projects means that I don't have any outstanding deadlines to meet. I've got some ideas for the next book, but for now, I'll be looking at different avenues for bringing them to fruition.

*There are a few that I've started but I've left for whatever might be the 21st century equivalent of the gnawing criticism of mice.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Anti-Humanism and Public Ethics Program

Something that Matt and I will be participating in next week:

Thursday, March 12th

09:30 – 10:00            Registration / Coffee
10:00 – 10:05            Welcome, by Chantal Beauvais, Rector of Saint Paul University
10:05 – 11:05            Marc De Kesel (Saint Paul University):
Between Sade and Labre: Modernity’s Impossible Humanism
                                    Respondent: Andrew Pump (University of Ottawa)
11:05 – 11:15            Coffee Break
11:15 – 12:15            Hélène Tessier (Saint Paul University):
Humanisme et Démocratie: le rationalisme esthétique de Thomas Mann 
Respondent: Anna Djintcharadze (Dominican University College)
12:15 – 13:30             Lunch


13:30 – 14:30             Jean-Pierre Couture (University of Ottawa):
Le posthumanisme de Peter Sloterdijk: du berger génétique à l’athlète anthropotechnique
                                    Respondent: Marc De Kesel (Saint Paul University)
14:30 – 15:30            Mark Salter (University of Ottawa):
Global Ethics: Sovereignty and New Materialism
                                    Respondent: Michael Hijazi (Saint Paul University)
15:30 – 15:45            Coffee Break  
15:45 – 16:45            Devin Z. Shaw, (University of Ottawa and Carleton University):
Curmudgeonly Humanism: From Sartre to Vonnegut
                                    Respondent: Matthew R. McLennan (Saint Paul University)

18.00                           Conference Dinner       

Friday, March 13th


10:00 – 11:00            Christopher Sauder (Dominican University College):
De l’existence à la logique : le système hégélien et les origines de l’antihumanisme français
                                    Respondent: Joshua Lalonde (University of Ottawa)
11:00 – 11:15            Coffee Break
11:15 – 12:15            Deniz Guvenc (Carleton University):
Locating Anti-Humanism within Contemporary Anarchism
                                    Respondent: Martin Samson (Saint Paul University)
12:15 – 13:15            Erica Harris (McGill University):
Ethics of Transgression: The Perverse Human Condition and Anti-pornography Legislation
                                    Respondent: Iva Apostolova (Dominican University College)
13:15 – 14:00            Lunch


14:00 – 15:00             Geraldine Finn (Carleton University):
Of all Things Man is the Measure: It is no longer, but it is still a Science of Man
            Respondent: Naomi Goldenberg (University of Ottawa)
15:00 – 15:15              Coffee Break
15:15 – 16:15             Matthew R. McLennan (Saint Paul University):
Medical Humanism: Putting the Ghost into Language
            Respondent: Monique Lanoix (Saint Paul University)
16:15 –16:30               Closing Remarks by Sophie Cloutier (Director of Public Ethics, Saint Paul University)
16:30 – 17:00              Closing Discussion

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2014: Writing in Review

A bulk of my writing on the blog in 2014 was dedicated to recounting or posting matters related to my next book, Egalitarian Moments. This reflected that most of time that involved writing in general--especially once we subtract writing slides and notes for the two courses that I had to prepare last fall ("Ethics and Social Issues" and "Topics in European Philosophy")--was dedicated to the book as well. I wrote almost all of Part II and the conclusion to the book last year. As a consequence, I rarely found the time to jot down other stray or incomplete thoughts on the blog. I also neglected to mention a few things that I wrote in 2013 that were published in 2014:
  • Two entries for The Meillassoux Dictionary, edited by Peter Gratton and Paul J. Ennis. Those entries are for Descartes and Fichte.
  • A chapter for The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism, edited by Matthew C. Altman. To be more specific, the chapter, "The 'Keystone' of the System: Schelling's Philosophy of Art," is a concise account of what I've argued are the three fundamental features of Schelling's philosophy of art, as elaborated in Freedom and Nature in Schelling's Philosophy of Art.
I also began two projects that will occupy parts of 2015:
  • A talk at Saint Paul University here in Ottawa where I will be defending something called "curmudgeonly humanism." That term seems to be the only way I could figure out to describe the work of Kurt Vonnegut, so it shouldn't then be a surprise that the talk is about Vonnegut and Sartre. Concerning the latter, I've adopted the term humanism to oppose to a set of assumptions about political agency made by the New Atheists and the field of 'political theology.' (A belated Google search reveals that the term "curmudgeonly humanism" has been kicking around the internet--13 hits--but no one claims it as a developed philosophical position). It looks like this discussion might form the basis of my next book.
  • A paper about Schelling, anthropocentrism, and speciesism, for a book on German idealism edited by Joseph Carew. More details on this project will be forthcoming.
  • This isn't exactly a project, but I've also decided to write at least one scholarly book review in 2015 as well.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Late Additions: Teaching

More often than not, I receive courses for the Winter semester in December--it's happened enough times that I feel like I've written this post several times before. An early Xmas gift (the course, not the post), if you will. This year one of the professors at the University of Ottawa decided to retire for the new year, and that decision made his section of Great Philosophers available, and I ended up with it.

I tend to teach the course through contrasting the canon of Western philosophy with less traditional figures/critics of the canon. When I run the list past friends and colleagues, there always seems to be at least one name that produces the unconscious that's-not-a-great-philosopher facial tic. My reasoning is that the students don't know that. By including non-traditional figures, I'm staving off the eventual inculcation of biases about what makes a philosopher great or not. I'll admit that, given that I try to spend at least a week on each figure, the list isn't as diverse as it could be--but that's always balanced by the worry that if the student finds the non-traditional figures compelling, that he/she might not read them again in his/her philosophical training.

This year, the picks: 
  • The canon includes Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
  • Each year, I don't know if Marx belongs in the canon or critics.
  • The non-canon includes Schiller, Du Bois, Bergson, and Beauvoir.
I've been emboldened regarding Schiller, having just written an extensive amount about him for Egalitarian Moments. Du Bois has become a fixture when I teach this course, as has Beauvoir. Sartre didn't make the cut this time around because I taught him in a third year course (Topics in European Philosophy) at Carleton this fall, and I've chosen Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity over The Second Sex for the same reason.

The big change for the next semester, then, is the addition of Bergson, who I've never taught and of whom I've admittedly read very little. Given that I've been critical of post-Bergsonian vitalism (via Senghor and Deleuze) I've figured that it's time to catch up on Bergson himself. The impetus, however, was finding his Introduction to Metaphysics in an affordable edition while browsing through Hackett's website. It will be just my luck that, after Descartes, Spinoza, and Schiller, the whole class will end up Bergsonian despite my efforts...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Study

We moved into our current apartment last May. One of its appealing features was a spare room that has become the study. Most of my books on philosophy and theory are stashed in here. Fiction, baseball, art history, and, until two days ago, animal rights—all of these subjects are filed in the living room. To the center-right of my desk, I can reach the Rancière shelf. Below it is the shelf of various secondary sources. Below that: Jean-Luc Nancy, Derrida, Bataille, Blanchot. The top shelf: Vonnegut. To my immediate right, the top two shelves hold existentialism, the middle two the Frankfurt School (including Benjamin and his Gesammelte Schriften) and select titles by Badiou, below that, Nietzsche and, as of last week, the Oxford King James Version of the Bible. The Nietzsche section seemed like the right place for the KJV. Some day, a publisher will bundle the Bible with Beyond Good and Evil/On the Genealogy of Morality.

I wrote almost all of what became Part II of Egalitarian Moments in the study. The placement of Rancière, Benjamin, or Badiou to my right isn’t some kind of ironic political statement, but rather done out of necessity. The shelves to my left are out of arm’s reach when I sit at the desk. My primary sources needed to be closer than that. Near the end, I had the last few titles I needed stacked on the desk. More Deleuze than I’d like to admit. Books by Oliver Davis and Samuel Chambers, Aisthesis in English and French, The Emancipated Spectator. While writing the conclusion, I’d repeatedly pull down Disagreement/La mésentente (it’s important to check both when citing passages from the English translation for reasons that Chambers elaborates at 91ff), although each time I’d return them to the shelf on the basis of the obstinate belief that I had covered that text in the Introduction and Part I.

At some point, sundry items and all types of paperwork began to pile into the study. There aren’t only books to my right. There’s a pile of (in this case, more than two) guitars in cases, as well as several boxes of music equipment and electronics that I’ve basically ignored since we moved. When it got cooler during the fall, I added to my left the fan we no longer needed in the living room and piled every single last piece of paper on top of my filing bins. That pile included a few bills (since paid) and a variety of drafts of the book stacked in increasing disarray. When it got tenuous, the paperwork commandeered the left side of the desk. Books claimed the right. When I typed, my elbows touched both borders. But the book is due soon, I’d think, and I could ignore what amounted to a highly organized disorder. Did I mention that the desk also had the printer, a cactus, a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal and a Dan-Echo? What exactly were those doing there? Thankfully there’s a booze cart for the whiskey, because it would be tempting to drink to make space. Which means that there would be space to write without the necessary focus to do so. Few of us mere mortals could do with philosophy what Hunter S. Thompson did with journalism.

This is the point in the narrative where everything teetering is supposed to topple. I’m faced with the thankless task of reporting otherwise. I submitted the manuscript and, after a week of procrastinating, I finally filed or recycled almost all the paperwork.

I did try out a few alternate endings. In one scenario, I fell into what 19th century authors called dissipation, and used politically expedient broadsides to finance my debts from debauchery and gambling. However, Balzac wrote that one, unless it involved a portrait of rake that remained hidden through most of the narrative. That story is by Oscar Wilde.

In a different scenario, I will have been found four decades later, mummified beneath hundreds of drafts of my magnum opus. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened to Wittgenstein.

In the current scenario, the moment during which I’m typing this piece, the same cat who obstructed my review of Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy and who napped on Descartes’s Philosophical Writings and Sartre’s Critiques littéraires is laying on my left arm, pinning my wrist against keyboard. That means that there must be more room on the desk.

At the moment, the quandary revolves around reorganizing the books to my right. I’ve read numerous authors describe their writing techniques: how many words to write per day, strategies for note-taking and revisions, daily schedules, and reflections on organizing material (Stuart Elden, for instance, is assiduous in his reports on his Foucault project). When I write, these techniques and strategies change. I hand write most of my material before typing, or at least I used to. That meant that everything I type is a second draft. At points, during Part II, this became counter-productive, so I had to type the first draft and revise later. At one point I was cutting and pasting drafts. With scissors and tape. While all these aspects were open to change, the shelving of primary sources remained the same. Now that the book is done, this shelving isn’t as convenient. For example, it might be a while before I revisit Walter Benjamin’s work, so it probably shouldn’t occupy the shelf to my direct right—though it was useful for an important part of Chapter 3. Nor do I really need the rest of the Frankfurt School or Badiou on the shelf below.

There’s no moral to this story. That’s where this was supposed to be heading. However, aside from an essay on the anthropocentricism of Schelling’s nature-philosophy, I don’t have any writing commitments for 2015. Yet. That means I don't have a clear idea about how to reorganize the shelves. Perhaps that is part of the writing process. That is, not writing is part of the writing process. I have a few rudimentary ideas about an essay on Rancière and Jean-Luc Nancy, and a more unconventional essay on humanism, but it’s probably more important, given that I’m less than two weeks removed from submitting the manuscript for Egalitarian Moments, to spend some time wasting time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two Pictures (Bury the Lede)

I try to recycle paper. It comes with printing papers repeatedly, given that I feel like I edit more efficiently and with more focus when faced with the printed page. This page turned up when I was printing answer keys, but it never made it back into the stack. It's from a talk I gave on Rancière, Sartre, and seriality at the EPTC in 2013. The red ink was jotted before combining this talk and my article, 'The Nothingness of Equality' (published with Sartre Studies International) for the book. It turns out that those two sentences in red weren't added to what I had considered to be the final draft of Chapter 2. I suppose I had thought that they were redundant, given that the paragraph they're crowding was a quick synopsis of what I had already written for SSI--but they've been added to the final version. If my handwriting is cryptic, the passage underlines how Rancière opposes his egalitarian politics to the particular interests of sociological groups.

These are--were--the last two blank pages of a notebook I started on Rancière in November 2011. A large part of the book was handwritten in first draft in this notebook, though it did take three years to finally complete it. It being the notebook.

And the manuscript for Egalitarian Moments; it's done as well, and due to be published in July 2015.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ranciere, the History of Philosophy, and Contemporary Continental Philosophy,

Something I've been working on. Comments welcome before it goes to press in two weeks.

I consider equality, in its political and aesthetic forms, as a significant problem within the history of philosophy from Descartes to Rancière. The purpose of Egalitarian Moments is to outline an egalitarian frame of reference for rethinking modern philosophy after Descartes. The analyses of a number of egalitarian moments in philosophy are meant to engage Rancière’s terse and sometimes polemical historical shorthand. For example, he insists that political subjectivation is modeled on Descartes’s ‘ego sum, ego existo,’ and in Chapter 1, I aim to make historical and conceptual sense of this claim. But what follows is not an exegesis of Rancière’s—or anybody else’s—work. Instead, I place Rancière’s work in a historical context of considering equality as a political, philosophical, and aesthetic problem, while reading the history of modern philosophy from an egalitarian standpoint. Using Rancière’s concepts and arguments to reconsider the history of philosophy while using this counter-history of egalitarian moments to situate Rancière’s work amounts, perhaps, to a hermeneutic circle or, as he would say, a historical fiction. But it is no more of a historical fiction than the way that the predominant frameworks of continental philosophy—such as post-Heideggerian phenomenology and deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and post-Marxism—formulate historical or genealogical accounts of thinking their present problematics. What counts is whether or not Rancière’s work and this history of egalitarian moments offer new and compelling ways to think our present engagements with politics and art. 

The Egalitarian Moments is motivated by the fact that evaluating Rancière’s work using the assumptions and methods of these established frameworks in some way occludes important aspects of his thought. If one supposes that politics—or the political (which is something other than politics)—must be grounded in political ontology or the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, Rancière’s work might seem disappointing or even incoherent. Likewise if one expects his politics to decipher in the surfaces of political discontent the true demands of radical struggle. However, I do not attempt to adjudicate the differences between Rancière’s egalitarian method and these established theoretical frameworks and problematics. Instead, by tracing a provisional—and let me stress that it is provisional and non-exhaustive—account of a history of egalitarian moments in philosophy, I hope to show, first, how Rancière, in ways unforeseen by other approaches in contemporary continental philosophy, asks compelling questions and makes compelling claims about equality. More importantly, though, I hope to draw attention to previously overlooked concepts and claims that could still be taken up by new forms of dissensus.