Saturday, October 31, 2009

Paul Mason Reviews Vineland

Well, not really, but Mason hits the nail on the head. They may as well print this on the back cover of the next edition of Thomas Pynchon's Vineland:
If you sat down and free-associated the history of American popular culture, while simultaneously trying to explain the defeat of the 1968 generation and the fatal attraction of the Washington elite, smoking dope and watching a DVD box set of the early Star Trek, you would be in the place where Pynchon begins this book. I am haunted by his satire of idealism and betrayal, kung fu, postmodernism and grief.

I don't know if I could summarize it any better. It's also worth reading Mason's other seven 'desert island books.' The website is called Red Pepper, and just from this one page, it looks like it's worth checking out.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Zizek on Health Care and Ideology

Just having acquired First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, I found, via Verso UK's blog, an interview with Slavoj Zizek. I've found some of his latest work to be somewhat uneven. Read, for instance, his list of demands at the end of In Defense of Lost Causes, and try and figure out how these points are supposed to be implemented. Lately, however, Zizek has returned to analyzing ideology, which is always his strong point. For all the right reasons, he states (see also the comments of this co-star of The Examined Life):
This is was the point of my big fight with Simon Critchley. I think it's too easy to play this moralistic game - state power is corrupted, so let's withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power. Here, I'm an old Hegelian. I hate the position of "beautiful soul", which is: ""I remain outside, in a safe place; I don't want to dirty my hands." In this ironic sense, I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. That's what I miss in today's left. When you get power, if you can, grab it, even if it is a desperate situation. Do whatever is possible. This is why I supported - ok, my support doesn't mean anything, but as a public gesture- Obama. I think the battle that he is fighting now for healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The real core of the anti-Obama campaign is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is how freedom of choice is something beautiful, but works only against a very thick background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. This is the problem. As I like to emphasise here in the States, there are freedoms of choice which I am glad to renounce. I like to do a parallel between healthcare and water and electricity. Yes, you can say I don't have a choice in choosing my water provider. It's imposed by where I live. But, my god, I gladly renounce this choice. I prefer to have some basic choices made by society - water, electricity, and some elementary healthcare.
What Zizek doesn't mention is that the Democrats seem to be the only people who don't understand the debate over health care to be an ideological battle.(of course, some of them have been well paid off by the insurance industry). The Republicans know that, which is why they have spent so much time trying to defeat it. The very core of conservative ideology is that, with the exception of the military, the government is bad, and that it should (although they don't say it like this) force public property into private markets. The very basic step of fighting this position is to show why water, electricity and health care are public goods that need to be distributed in a regulated and more egalitarian manner. If there were disagreements between my friends and I on the left during the election season, it was about whether Obama being elected mattered. They said no. I still say that, with a few of his legislative plans, his administration can overturn the ideological coordinates that have dominated American political life for 40 years. This is a positive step. It is still capitalism with a human face, but it is also a failure on the left to not show how civil and cultural struggle is also connected to economic struggle. And on this point, I agree with Zizek: it's not only a practical failure but also a theoretical failure. Which is why I started reading up again on economics.

Which is also why we should question the expectation that the legislative process can accomplish this without popular support. Recall that Jim Clyburn called health care a civil right. The comparison is apt, because Clyburn is really saying that if people want change, it cannot be fully accomplished without popular demonstration. The precise point: history is made from below, not by politicians. We didn't have civil rights legislation in the 1960s because politicians felt like they should be more egalitarian, we had civil rights legislation because people were out in the streets showing that the system oppressing African Americans could no longer function without open and explicit violence. But Clyburn also noted the the backlash is going to be ugly, as it was in the town hall disruptions over the summer.

Now there is a limit to the comparison, but the point is that the public option rises or falls on people's involvement. The good part is that people have been getting out to convince others that the public option is the key component of making it health care reform and not insurance industry reform. Not only in practice, but in theory.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Schelling: Absolute Idealism and Art

The following is the second part of my reading of Schelling's System of Philosophy in General and Philosophy of Nature in Particular. The first part, in which I discuss the first principle of Schelling's absolute idealism, or identity-philosophy, can be found here. Unlike the first post, which is primarily the lecture notes that I give to students, I've expanded this post to include more information about Schelling's philosophy of art in general, and a footnote about the use of quantity and quality in his deduction of the finite world within the absolute. I will spare my class the discussion on the categories.

1. The "Double Life" of the Individual

In the last lecture, we left off with Schelling’s first principle as it is found in the System der gesamten Philosophie und der Naturphilosophie insbesondere (the Wurzburg Lectures of 1804). As we have seen, Schelling argues, through an indirect proof, that the only possible presupposition for philosophy is that knower and what is known are the same, or identical: God or Reason is only the self-recognition or affirmation of all things as One. All other presuppositions, he argues, lead to either an absurdity or contradiction.

However, by arguing that the first principle of all philosophy is the identity of the One, Schelling is left with the difficult task of showing how finite things, like plants, animals, and you and I come to be. The ‘bridge,’ as I have called it, from the infinite to the finite, is what Schelling calls life. Schelling, over the course of 1801-1806 gives various different answers to this problem, and this time, his solution is a kind of life-force in the universe that each particular being takes part in. Now, of course, this sounds like some kind of new age philosophy, but Schelling is not opposing some mystical ‘force’ to Reason; for him there is no difference between God and Reason. Like Spinoza, this leads people to read Schelling as both an idealist with mystical tendencies and as materialist (so on the one hand, he spiritualizes matter, or on the other, he reduces all ‘divine’ ideas to material explanations). I think Schelling is trying to show, however problematically, that there is no difference between the two. As a contemporary of Schelling’s states, “Schelling is reproached with almost always being in suspense between idealism, realism, and even materialism.” Suspense, which I have emphasized here, probably says it best.

To deduce life, Schelling argues that a particular being is the negation of its Idea or archetype. Life is the middle point between being and nonbeing. I will begin by summarizing his argument (which is primarily on p. 177/6: 190).* Schelling wants to show that “the universe, by virtue of containing all forms, is none of them in particular but also that, precisely in containing all of them, it is none of them” (p. 170/6: 181). The language already determines the direction of Schelling’s argument: the absolute is all, but it is not one of them. A particular being is not in-itself, it is only in-the-absolute. As Schelling argues, each particular is a concrete individual that exists between being and nonbeing. Here is his argument:

  1. The absolute is everything.
  2. Particular things are not the absolute.
  3. But nonbeing cannot be outside the absolute (or else it would exist outside), so nonbeing can only be relative.
  4. Thus relative nonbeing implies relative being.
  5. Therefore particular things are a mixture of reality and negation.
This argument attempts to show that particular things are a limitation of their universal idea or archetype. Then, the question is how do individuals exist between being and nonbeing? Schelling’s answer is life. Through the absolute, the particulars of the universe

are granted a double life, a life in the absolute– which is the life of the idea, and which accordingly was also characterized as the dissolution of the finite in the infinite and of the particular in the universal– and a life in itself– which, however, is only proper to the [particular] merely to the extent that it is simultaneously dissolved into the universe, [for] in its separation from the life in God the latter is a mere semblance of life […] the particular attains an absolute life […] though only to the extent that it is in the universe (pp. 174-175/6: 187).

Schelling goes on from here to argue that particularity implies multiplicity. While the absolute is one, all limitation involves a plurality of beings.** While absolute life is One, particular life is one of the many. So individuals can only be as a multiplicity. But, each individual expresses part of the whole:
The individual human being, for example, is such an individual not by virtue of the idea but, rather, because he is not the idea but its negation. Being can only be One, whereas the Nonbeing is indeterminably multiple. The infinite reality whereby the idea of man is linked with God always achieves but a partial expression in each individual human being, i.e., it [involves] negation” (p. 178/6: 191).
So, to summarize, through philosophy, that is, ideally, Schelling has shown (however problematically) how the identity of the knower and what is known is the first principle of all philosophy, and how it is possible to demonstrate how the finite world comes to be; that is, finite beings live between being and relative nonbeing. Yet, Schelling is also interested in showing how the absolute can account for life in its totality; or, in other words, how the individual human being lives in relation to the absolute.

2. The Philosophy of Art

After dealing with philosophy in general and his nature-philosophy, Schelling turns to humanity as it lives theoretically, practically, and creatively. In other words, how people have knowledge (theoretical philosophy or science), how they act (in history and in religion) and how they create (the philosophy of art).

As I have mentioned, I wrote my dissertation on the topic of Schelling’s philosophy of art. There are three conditions for his philosophy of art, and they are all present in the Wurzburg Lectures:
  1. What philosophy constructs in the ideal, art produces in the real. Thus artistic activity is the highest human vocation (Bestimmung) because practical philosophy can only approximate its object, which is the moral law.
  2. While both the natural organism and the artwork embody the same identity of real and ideal, necessity and freedom, the work of art overcomes these oppositions through the identity of conscious and unconscious production, whereas the organism’s activity is unconscious.
  3. Artistic production has a socio-political task: it aims to overcome the fragmentary condition of modernity through a new mythology and artistic renewal.
A majority of the literature on Schelling’s philosophy of art overlooks the fact that there is a philosophy of art in this text despite the fact that it completes the system of the Wurzburg Lectures. By completion, I mean that artistic creation is the realization of the ideas of philosophy in the real world. Art expresses the highest stage of freedom and the highest stage of social life. First, artistic production is the synthesis of freedom and necessity in the work of art, but second, and more importantly, art aims to create a new mythology to unify a people under a common set of ideas. Finally, art is the intuition of beauty, which completes the system because the “highest bliss of humanity lies in the intellectual intuition of beauty” (§324). Beauty in art is the realization of the divine idea of the absolute.

In the Würzburg Lectures, Schelling presents the state as the ultimate realization of science, religion and art. His remarks on art are brief, and are oriented toward his conception of a public sphere. As Schelling states, the modern world lacks a proper Symbolik (6: 571), which, in German usage, is “not only a system of symbolism but also a coherent doctrine of faith.”*** As mentioned in the Philosophy of Art, the modern condition has only created partial and fragmentary mythologies, such as in the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Goethe (6: 572). The diagnosis, according to Schelling, is that a truly public sphere can bring about a truly organic state:
Where all public life collapses into the particulars and dullness of private life, poetry more or less sinks into this same sphere…But even mythology is not possible in the particular; it can only be born in the totality of a nation that as such acts as identity [or] an individual. In dramatic poetry, tragedy grounds itself in the public law, in virtue, religion, heroism– in a word– in the holiness of the nation. A nation that is not holy, or which was robbed of its holy places, cannot have true tragedy…the question of the possibility of a universal content of poesie, just as the question of the objective existence of science and religion, impels us to the highest itself. Only in the spiritual unity of a people, in a truly public life, can the true and generally valid poesie arise– as only in the spiritual and political unity of a people can science and religion find its objectivity (6: 572-573).
The political unity of a people arises organically in the nation-state, not in the private pursuit of individual right within a state. Instead, the state develops organically, through the development of religion, science and art, into their highest expression. As Schelling recognizes, this state has never existed, but he is here giving a prescriptive account of a future state. Although he gives very little indication of how this state is to come about, he claims that the relationship of reason to the universe is analogous to that of philosophy to the state: just as reason realizes itself in the universe, philosophy realizes itself through the public life of the state. As Schelling concludes, “Philosophy, which is no longer science, but rather becomes life, is that which Plato called the politeia, life with and in an ethical totality.”

As we will see, later philosophers will directly challenge the idea that the state is like an organic totality. As Marx will argue, a position like Schelling’s obscures, or mystifies, relationships of domination and inequality by normalizing or de-politicizing human relationships by thinking them like natural relationships (so the state is like an organism). While I think it is correct to dismiss the idea of the 'organic state' or community, I don’t think it is a reason to dismiss artistic production as an important aspect of human life or politics.


*All page references are to the English translation, and then the pagination of Schelling’s Sämmtliche Werke. Where only the latter appear, the translations are my own. In the tradition of German idealism, I had to use my notes for preparing the text, so a few quotes run the risk of paraphrase.

**On the categories: Schelling denies, during the period of absolute idealism, that there can be any transition from infinite to finite in terms of quality, because a difference in quality implies a difference in respect to essence or substance (p. 169/6: 179). Hence he argues that there is a quantitative difference between the infinite and finite, between the unity of the One and plurality (which form a totality). However his quick reference to the difference between the One and multiplicity cannot obscure the fact that his argument relies on the categories of quality: individuals, as limited, are a mixture of reality and negation. The problem? The absolute, for Schelling, does not admit negation. This is his significant difference with Hegel.

The reference to the role of the Symbolik comes from George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 336, n. 35.

Further Reading:

For the importance of the aspect of the public sphere, aside from its less salient political features, see Manfred Frank’s Der kommende Gott: Vorlesungen über die Neue Mythologie. Vol. 1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), 188-216.

For the metaphysics, see Manfred Frank, Eine Einführung in Schellings Philosophie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), 118-132.

For a stronger reading of Schelling as a naturalist, see Frederick C. Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard: 2002).

Finally, I cannot recommend too highly Jean-François Marquet’s excellent Liberté et existence. Second Edition (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2006).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Andrea Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum

I'm delivering a lecture on pornography to my intro ethics class this week. Though I intend to be as "devil's advocate" as possible with regard to competing positions on the topic, I'm currently brushing up on my abolitionist, anti-porn feminism. Scoping Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) in particular. The arguments are well-worn, but not for all that irrelevant or necessarily "extremist" in our always intensifying climate of pornographic "tube" websites, sexism/infantilization in advertising, etc.

Dworkin, "the Malcolm X of feminism", died in 2005, after a difficult life and an intellectual career as a radical in the second wave of American feminism. She is often derided for being a shrill, man-hating, sex-hating harpy; certain critics, moreover, can't resist making snide remarks about her weight, her appearance, the fact that she was Jewish. More sober responses to Dworkin's controversial theses - notable among which is the idea that consensual vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman counts as rape or at least some form of coercion to the extent that it occurs in a culture of patriarchy - usually suggest that she had a difficult time tempering the understandably extreme emotional aspect of her subject matter with a more desirable cool, rational approach. Those who continue to hold Dworkin in high regard are generally radical abolitionist feminists and, paradoxically on first glance, anti-porn crusaders on the religious/patriarchal Right.

I think that Dworkin shouldn't be ignored; she should continue to be read and discussed, and the arguments she advanced should be respected as worthy contenders in a controversial field. That having been said, her analysis of pornography closes itself off to some radical alternative models of feminist organizing which, while recognizing the harmful state of the current porn industry, fight for female and worker control of porn, rather than its legal abolition. A critique of porn divorced from a critique of capitalism (and to be fair, Dworkin does proffer an embryonic anti-capitalist critique) risks largely ignoring some of the most directly feasible ways of protecting pornographic workers - namely, unionization with a view to collective worker control.

The best engagement with Dworkin that I have read to date is by Martha Nussbaum in her stellar collection Sex and Social Justice. What makes Nussbaum's engagement with Dworkin so compelling is that, first of all, she takes her seriously where scores of others do not. Secondly, Nussbaum reads Dworkin as a philosopher rather than a propagandist, which is both fair and refreshing. She reconstructs Dworkin's ethical philosophy as an extreme (if sometimes inconsistent) moral Kantianism, especially as regards the means/end distinction. As regards Dworkin's thoroughgoing critique of the objectification of women in pornography, Nussbaum argues that Dworkin fails to provide a sufficiently nuanced account of objectification; she doesn't, for instance, take into account legitimate cases of objectification that occur on a daily basis between equals (if I rest my head in my partner's lap, I am objectifying her, but not in the sense that I would objectify a throw pillow). Nussbaum suggests, moreover, that Dworkin's concept of sexual/social justice needs to be tempered by mercy, and that her abolitionism risks narrowing the already narrow scope of employment options open to poor women. In short, Nussbaum takes a more careful approach to a field she admits is problematic for many of the reasons cited by Dworkin.

Ultimately, Dworkin conflates "pornography", which she defines as intrinsically violent, with any graphic depiction of sexuality under patriarchy. This rules out the possibility of feminist pornography and erotica; in our climate, they are all violent. The fact that half-measures can often do some good where full measures are not yet possible is lost here; so is the possibility that porn, which currently trains young men to view women as disposable sex objects, could perhaps be used to teach them sexual equality and openness.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sunday Blog Edition

It has been a good week here, beginning on Sunday, when Matt McLennan reviewed, from Verso's Revolutions series, Simon Bolivar and the Bolivarian Revolution, and Jason Smith discussed the origins of sustained growth. On Monday, Jose Saramago called the Bible a manual of bad morals. Tuesday I posted a reading list, and on Thursday I reviewed Roberto Bolano's The Skating Rink. It's actually the first review I've ever written about a work of fiction. Then, later that afternoon Matt shockingly revealed that his mom is reading Alain Badiou's The Century. Which is a worthy read in my humble opinion.

Finally, on Friday, I posted my first lecture on Schelling. I can't say how the class felt about it, but they now know what speculative philosophy is like. The second part will be up on Tuesday.

Until then, it's time for the Sunday review. This week is a special edition, dedicated to the blogs I read. To tell you the truth, it's not that many, and they don't usually talk about book reviews. One is the Tao of Stieb (written by a friend of mine), which is dedicated to all things Toronto Blue Jays, (and I'm no Jays fan...) and the other is Doc Nagel's All-new Life and Times. Doc is currently a prof at CSU Stanislaus, and he directed an independent study for a few of us, many years ago, about Hegel. I don't know what happened to the other two students, but something tells me that they didn't write their dissertations on German idealism. I also read Verso's blog to keep up on the news about their books. Here's a link to each:
  • Doc Nagel talks the politics of CSU Stanislaus, and that public universities are a good thing.
  • Tao of Stieb, from a few months ago, talking about the depressing state of baseball journalism. It includes a damn cool photo.
  • And Verso discussing how their sales have increased 33% in the first half of 2009. Part of their success is attributable to books like this one.
  • Occasionally, I also look at the Ottawa Film Review.
  • And, one review: David Hadju reviews R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis in the New York Times, even if the last paragraph reveals how Hadju misunderstands Crumb.
And, what is more important, is I want to know what other people are reading. Let me know in the comments.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Schelling and Absolute Idealism, Part One

When I wrote the course outline for my Great Philosophers course, I was near the completion of my dissertation on Schelling's philosophy of art. At the time, I got it in my head that I would teach about 8 pages of one of his works over one week of class, which seemed like a good idea until I went to reread the System of Philosophy in General and of the Philosophy of Nature in particular that he delivered in 1804 in Wurzburg. Because some of you have asked me what Schelling was all about, and why I spent several years figuring out just how his system and his philosophy of art fit together, I will be posting my notes about Schelling on the blog over the next week or so. Get your copy of Idealism and the Endgame of Theory, down from the shelf, turn to pages 141-194 and judge for yourself!

(Update: the sequel is here)

1. Schelling: A Biographical Introduction

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) is an important German philosopher who, until the last few decades, has been largely ignored in the English speaking world. Schelling excelled in his education: at 11 years old he had mastered Greek and Latin, and was admitted, despite being only 15, to the Tubingen Seminary. There he became friends with Friedrich Hölderlin (the poet) and G.W.F. Hegel (who, after 1807, became the best-known philosopher of his time). In 1798, at age 23, Schelling was appointed to professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he taught until 1803, when he accepted a post in Wurzburg. A list of Schelling’s acquaintances, whether they are friends or enemies, reads like a who’s who of German letters; it includes Goethe, Fichte, Schiller, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Friedrich Jacobi. After 1807, Schelling’s published output declined to a few obscure publications, a preface or two, and a few polemics, although in 1841, he took up Hegel’s chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, in order to refute the system of his erstwhile friend. During the few years he spent in Berlin, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacob Burkhardt, Friedrich Engels and Mikhail Bakunin attended his lectures, although they had fairly negative things to say about Schelling.

Before all this, back in Tubingen, Schelling discovered the works of Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, which, no matter how critical Schelling became of them, remained a lasting influence on this philosophy. Schelling’s early works (the first few on Kant and Fichte date from 1794 and 1795) develop both an idealist philosophy with some similarity to Descartes’ concept of the self and then, starting in 1797, what Schelling called nature-philosophy, which argued that nature, far from being mechanistic (like Newton thought), was a dynamic and organic totality; it was a philosophical version of a romantic conception of nature. Schelling sought to show how the self emerged within nature, which eventually required rejecting the dualism underlying Descartes’ dualism of the self and world.

Schelling’s philosophical development is much more complex than this, but for our purposes, it’s enough to grasp the point of his System of Philosophy delivered in Wurzburg in 1804. He argues that there is only one infinite substance (that he calls God, although this God is not like a personal god that intervenes with miracles, listens to prayers, and the like) that is the world, and that everything else, selves and things, subjects and objects, exist within this absolute totality in some way. The central difficulty with this system (called either ‘absolute idealism’ or ‘identity-philosophy’) is showing how the deduction of the infinite and its qualities can lead to the existence of finite beings, like you and I. In this text, he tries to show how life is the bridge, as it were, from the infinite to the finite (p. 175).

2. Schelling’s Critique of Modern Philosophy

Let us begin with what Schelling argues is the first presupposition of all knowledge: “The first presupposition of all knowledge is that the knower and than which is known are the same” (p. 141). Previous philosophers have separated the subject (the known) from the object (what is known), and then attempted to put the two back together through reflection. As we have seen, this is true of both Descartes and Hume, regardless of one being a rationalist and the other an empiricist. For Schelling this is the “fundamental error in all knowledge,” because it reduces truth to the correspondence between subject and object, between knower and known.

Schelling maintains the opposite: that knower and what is known are fundamentally the same. He calls the intuition that All is One (more to the point, ‘the All-One’) intellectual intuition. In the Wurzburg System, he also gives an indirect proof of his first principle by showing how other alternatives are untenable. If knower and what is known are not the same, but are different, there are only two alternatives (p. 141). Either:
A1) the knower is absolutely separated from the known; there is no relation between them; or:
A2) they are separate, but some relationship between them takes place.

A1 is easily refuted, because if there is an absolute separation between the knower and what is known, then there is no way to explain the correspondence between subject and object, or the self and the world. I can sit here looking at my stack of books, and (if I believe A1) I cannot explain how I could know anything about these books, without assuming some thing or power outside of the knower or known, which is itself unknown. This is impossible: A1 requires having (or assuming) a kind of knowledge that is outside of knowledge.

So A2 must be the case, and there is some relationship between the knower and what is known. Again, there are two possibilities (p. 142):
A2.1) the unilateral option: the object determines the subject, or the subject determines the object.
A2.2) the bilateral option: there is a reciprocal reaction between subject and object.

Let’s look at A2.1 first. There are two unilateral accounts. By unilateral, Schelling means that one term completely determines the other. So, in the first case, what is known would completely determine the knowledge of the knower. The problem is that the knower, the subject, would only know the effects of the object that determine knowledge, and not the object itself. Thus if the stack of books determine everything I know about them, but acting on my knowledge, I really only know their effects, and not them in themselves. In the second case, the knower completely determines the object. This account is a criticism of Kant. In a nutshell, Kant held that our knowledge of objects is determined by the laws of thought, including time and space and what he called the categories. Our empirical experience is only possible because the faculty of understanding applies the laws of thought to sensibility. This is how Kant got around Hume’s skepticism. However, it left the problem of the status of things in themselves, because in Kant’s system we cannot know things in themselves, only as they appear to us. In this account, I would only experience the stack of books through the way the laws of thought determine my sensible impressions (to uses Hume’s terms) of the books. Schelling dismisses Kant because Schelling wants to know how things are in themselves, and Kantian philosophy leaves them unknown, that cannot be known, but can be thought as possible.

This leaves A2.2, that subject and object has a reciprocal relationship. The problem with this account is that the reciprocal effects between the knower and what is known cannot explain experience because the idea of reciprocality itself requires explanation. Because both A2.1 and A2.2 both are impossible, A2 is also untenable (p. 143). Therefore, with A1 and A2 refuted, the only possible presupposition is that the knower and what is known are the same. The faculty of reflection cannot be the basis of the system, because it still needs to be explained.

3. Schelling’s Solution

This leaves us with the question of what it means to say that knower and what is known are the same. Schelling states that it means that the knower and what is known are one substance: the One. The One, he argues, is Reason, or, God, which are both knower and known (so God is not a personal God of religion who makes miracles happen or listens to prayers; it is much more like Spinoza’s idea of a God who is identical with nature, which is why Spinoza was considered a heretic, or by some, an atheist). All knowledge is the self affirmation of reason or God. The One is infinite: immutable and eternal, and the philosopher is the one through which divine reason recognizes itself:
In reason, that eternal identity itself is at once the knower and the known– it is not me who recognizes this identity, but it recognizes itself, and I am merely the organ. Reason is Reason precisely because its knowledge is not subjective; instead, an identity in it comes to recognize itself as self-same, thereby reconciling the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity in its highest power (p. 144).
Reason works through the self; the self does not determine reason. Were reason limited to the self, it would only be valid for the self and nothing else. The self would only be caught up in the mirroring of the faculty of reflection (such as in Descartes, Hume, Kant and Fichte), which knows things only “for itself.” Reason, however, aims for the “in itself” (p. 145).

By claiming to discover Reason itself (which is the same as the world), Schelling’s system can be considered as a form of absolute idealism (the most famous version of absolute idealism is Hegel’s system). His system claims to discover the truth of the One-All through reason alone: ‘absolute’ because the whole universe is rational’ and ‘idealism’ because it is through thought– philosophy– that this truth can be discovered. The central problem remains, as I have mentioned, of how Schelling can start with the infinite One-All and then deduce the finite world that exists within the One. In the next class, we will see that 1) Schelling’s solution to this problem is the idea of life; and 2) that the proof of absolute idealism in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of philosophy) is found in art.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My mom is reading Badiou's "The Century"

So I went to Paris with my mother back in June to celebrate her 50th. Had a great time, naturally. While there I picked up some titles by Alain Badiou, French philosopher of math/ontology and (Ultra-gauche) communist stalwart.
Having acquired there and quickly read Badiou's scathing recent book on Sarko, I passed it off to my mom, who has been slowly educating herself in philosophy ever since I started talking about it at the dinner table. She got a huge kick out of it, and went off to a local independent book seller to see what other titles this Badiou guy has on offer. She decided on "The Century", which I can tell you nothing about other than the fact that Badiou is talking about the epoch lasting from WW1 to the fall of actually existing socialism in the East. She is reading through it and occasionally gives me updates. She also plans to tackle his book on the idea/hypothesis of communism.
The point of this post is to flag the uncomfortable fact that my mom is slowly catching up to me in reading Badiou; perhaps one day she'll surpass me. Soon I'll be home for Christmas and I'll say something like "Mom, can you pass the salt?" and she'll say something like "The logic of the situation may only be interrupted by your fidelity to the event opening onto salt-having". And that won't necessarily be a bad thing, but I expect it will make my trips home less about r and r, and more about mathematically grounded communist militancy.

Roberto Bolano's Skating Rink

Roberto Bolano (1953-2003), due to the circumstances surrounding translations, has been introduced to the English speaking world largely through the publication of The Savage Detectives and 2666. Although they weren't the first to be translated (several shorter books had already been published by New Directions), they are his most in depth and labyrinthine novels. While in Spanish, their original publication dates were 1998 and 2004, allowing for some time to assimilate their contents, The Savage Detectives (at almost 600 pages) and 2666 (nearly 900) appeared in English in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Add to this the fact that they keep discovering more of his work, including a previously unknown sixth section to 2666, and we have a literary myth in the making, (the posthumous genius) along with the necessary backlash ('he's only popular because...he's only the latest fad...').

Certainly, the all-encompassing character of the two larger novels lend themselves to this situation. Both are ambitious works. The Savage Detectives follows Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (who are only themselves recounted by other people) as they travel around North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, sometimes searching for an obscure poet named Cesarea Tinajero, and other times drifting and writing; 2666 revolves around a mysterious German author named Benno von Archimboldi, and his whereabouts in Europe and possibly Mexico, with some connection to a city named Santa Teresa, which is a fictional representation of Ciudad Juarez, the border town where hundreds of women have disappeared with very little police interference.

Those who are familiar with these two novels may be surprised by The Skating Rink. It is marketed as a crime novel, but I doubt that it comfortably fits in that genre. True, the first page mentions the murder that orients the narrative, but instead of creating suspense through plot twists and tricks, Bolano tells a tale of small town intrigue, surrounding Remo Moran, Gaspar Heredia, and Enric Rosquelles. The story takes place in a town near Barcelona called Z, whose rhythm corresponds to the tourist season, and is told, alternately by these three, the first a businessman, the second a writer and drifter (whose story is modeled somewhat on Bolano's life) and the third a civil servant. The story converges on their interest in a young woman named Nuria Marti, who is an ice skater.

Both Remo and Enric develop affections for Nuria, who aspires to regain her place on the Spanish Olympic team, and these affections, and the rivalry that they create, drive the story. Gaspar is, in this regard, the odd man out, but the chapters he narrates are no less important. While Remo and Enric go about their respective business and interests, Gaspar whiles away time working the night shift at a campground owned by Remo. It is through Gaspar's wanderings that the story converges on its central location, the Palace Bengivut, a 'heritage building' as Canadians might call it, now owned by the town of Z. In the Palace, Enric has built, illegally with city money, a skating rink for Nuria so that she can practice for her qualifications.

Enric might have gotten away with it, except that the Palace has drawn a few itinerant residents, who used to live on the campground where Gaspar worked. With so much spare time at the camp, Gaspar has struck up friendships with the two women, Carmen and Caridad, who are eventually forced to leave the camp, and when they go, he begins to wander the town of Z to find them. Which leads, eventually, everybody to the rink. But in the meanwhile, Bolano develops suspenseful and humorous web of intrigue as the reader discovers the relationships and petty quarrels between the characters. At one such point, he has some fun at the expense of his other passion, poetry. Searching for Gaspar, Remo goes to the campground and discovers through the secretary that the guard has been mostly absent:
She had only seen him about three times since he started work, and that wasn't normal. I tried to reassure her by explaining that he was a poet; she replied that her boyfriend, the Peruvian, was a poet too, but he didn't behave like that. Like a zombie. I didn't feel like arguing with her. Especially when, examining her fingernails, she remarked that poetry was a waste of time. She was right; on the planet of happy eunuchs and zombies, poetry is a waste of time.
Of course, Bolano knows better; in our times, poetry and fiction, when done right, are all the more important. Bolano's work is no exception.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reading List Endurance Test

There is something about finishing a thesis that makes you just want to grab all those books you've been putting aside for just after you finish that last chapter, paragraph, or abstract, and start catching up on reading. And then you end up with this:
  • Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. I've been reading this in the morning. I don't know what possessed me to make that arrangement, but it has stuck. I'm only on the second Excursus, but I can say that I now remember how strident Adorno's work can be.
  • Annie Cohen-Solal, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life. Sartre writes that "my life and my philosophy are one and the same." He also writes that "I have always considered quantity a virtue," so it's nice to have a good biography to put his thousands and thousands of pages of work into perspective.
  • I just finished Roberto Bolano's, The Skating Rink. Bolano's first novel, although in English, it's his most recent. It's funny how the order of translations can alter the reception of an author's work. I should have a review up by the end of this week.
  • Ronald Aronson, Living without God. Another read for the Sartre and New Atheism paper at the Sartre Society conference. Aronson will be there, so I suppose if I have questions for him...
  • For my course, I will be reading parts of Rousseau's The Social Contract. I haven't read it in over eight years, (or more?) but lately he seems to keep coming up in conversation. I also noticed a section on 'Civil Religion,' which might tie in with some of the work I did on what Schelling called 'new mythology.' We will see, and by 'we' I mean myself and 120 members of the captive audience called PHI 1104.
  • From the previous reading list: I mentioned Ulysses, but I didn't even manage to start it. (see above) Regarding the rest, I did. Still working slowly on the Benjamin, and I liked Pynchon's latest.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saramago calls the Bible "a manual of bad morals."

Jose Saramago, who is one of my favorite authors, weighs in on the Bible:
"The Bible is a manual of bad morals (which) has a powerful influence on our culture and even our way of life. Without the Bible, we would be different, and probably better people," he was quoted as saying by the news agency Lusa.
He adds (from a different article, same subject) that the Bible is "a catalog of cruelty and of what's worst in human nature."

These comments accompanied the release of his latest book, Cain, which retells the biblical story of Cain, who killed his brother Abel. Saramago is no stranger to biblically oriented controversy; in 1982 he published the Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which, as I have read, treats Jesus as conscripted into God's work.

All these comments aside, I highly recommend his novels Blindness, and its loose sequel, Seeing. (In fact, reading Blindness actually convinced me not to see the movie, although I don't know what that comment is worth).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Origins of Sustained Growth

Did the scientific revolution, the British or French enlightenment, or the introduction of new forms of proto-capitalism create the conditions for sustained development? Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, published in 2000 by Princeton University Press, argues that none of these theses are supported by anything other than blind speculation. The evidence for all of them is weak, contradictory, and tentative. This book juxtaposes regions from various places throughout the world demonstrating these theses' flaws. While a confluence of technologies coupled with new forms of economic behavior became available to Europeans, New World resources, stolen from native Americans, abolished the land constraints experienced in Europe.

Pomeranz equates development in Western Europe with various areas of East Asia. Using this framework he investigates themes commonly argued regarding what made Europe unique in its early growth. He illustrates that cultures all over the world experimented with systems of proto-capitalism, had access to similar technologies, and used and demanded luxury items. Various theorists argue that these sets of features caused the divergence in economic and social prosperity experienced in the West. A gross misrepresentation develops at this loci: that if ‘western’ patterns of economic engagement and scientific progress preceded it’s take off then the west’s philosophical thinking was more ‘advanced.” Pomeranz exhaustively shows that these features did not arise uniquely in Europe and that something else must have paved the way towards the initial jump to sustained growth. Chapter by chapter he demolishes these theories which claim an account of the divergence in prosperity experienced at the onset of modernity. Access to New World land and resources are the only clear differences that careful investigation reveal.

Additional resources and land in the New World gave its newcomers the ability to develop more rapidly and ultimately culminated in the Industrial Revolution in his assessment. The New World took pressure off of the land in Europe facilitating a rise in economic growth. Pomeranz attributes some development to newly acquired New World food stuffs like the potato and guano, both of which allowed Western European farmers to grow more calories with the same amount of land at home, further easing pressure. This coupled with the ability of Europeans to move to the New World, relieving Europe of excess population eased the press of consumption. Thus, for Pomeranz, Europe’s position in accessing colossal new land and resources, at great cost to its inhabitants, differentiated it from other segments of the world.

Hugo Chávez presents Simón Bolívar: The Bolívarian Revolution

I have a soft spot for Verso's "Revolutions" series. I imagine myself as a ten year old who has subscribed to a junior encycopedia set. Every few months I get a new volume; this month is aardvarks, next month bratwurst, etc. Only now I'm a 28 year old who excitedly opens his mail every few months to find a classic revolutionary text edited and introduced by a contemporary radical writer. So far the series has not failed to educate me about political history and the finer points of revolutions, though I should mention it has also spectacularly failed to include any titles by women (this winter will see the addition of Mary Wollestonecraft's Vindication, but I can't help but hope that more radical women such as Emma Goldman and Louise Michel will be the subject of future volumes).
As for "Chavez presents Bolivar", this should be required reading for anyone with a remote interest in American politics. I have to say I was shamefully unaware of "what Bolivar's deal was" besides the fact that he was an anti-colonial hero and Bolivia was named after him. There's a lot more going on, particularly some fascinating reflections on centralization vs federation, Republicanism, virtue, and mestizo identity. After reading, I was sure to visit the Bolivar statue on the way to school. Yep, we have a statue of him in Ottawa, in front of a hotel. You know, right near the big mall downtown. Huh.
I was a bit disappointed to learn that the introduction by Chavez was not a new one specially commission for the volume. Rather, it's a distillation of previous comments regarding Bolivar from speeches, other writings, etc. Nonetheless, it's great to see that Chavez's invocation of Bolivar is not an empty jesture. It is a bit hard to swallow the claim that had Boliar lived longer, he would have naturally become a socialist. But then, you have to make bygone heroes your own.

Sunday with Monk

In the last week, I commented on the politics of student debt, discussed Cornel West discussing Obama and discovered, without feeling much surprise, that Chomsky's books won't be read inside Guantanamo Bay any time soon. Now it's time for the Sunday review:
  • Superfreakonomics will misinform readers on climate change, according to Melanie Fitzpatrick. I read most of Freakonomics a few years ago, and back then I noticed that they have a thing for being contrarian, but this attitude has its consequences. And this time it apparently includes misinterpreting one of their primary sources on climate change.
  • For anybody who remembers having to reference The Elements of Style, Mark Garvey has written a book on Strunk and White, although this review was enough for me.
  • A new biography of Thelonious Monk. Biographies of musicians, even in jazz, can be a mixed bag (the NYT pubilshed an excerpt here). Reviewing for the New York Times, August Kleinzahler writes that Robin D.G. Kelley,
the author of “Race Rebels” and other books, makes use of the “carpet bombing” method in this biography. It is not pretty, or terribly selective, but it is thorough and hugely effective. He knows music, especially Monk’s music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are handled expertly. The familiar episodes of Monk’s career are all well covered.
  • 365 books in 365 days? Not with my reading list, which will be up next week, along with a review of Roberto Bolano's The Skating Rink.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chomsky's Books Banned at Guantanamo

The Miami Herald reports that Noam Chomsky's works are banned from the library at Guantanamo Bay. The library has over 16,000 volumes in multiple languages, and is probably better funded than most public libraries, mostly so that officials at the base can demonstrate to reporters, members of congress and "other invited guests" that "the much-maligned detention center is 'safe, humane and transparent.'"

The book in question is an Arabic translation of Chomsky's Interventions, an anthology of op-ed pieces written for the New York Times Syndicate (as the home page for the book points out, while "New York Times Syndicate writings are widely published around the world, they have rarely been printed in major U.S. media; none have been published in the New York Times.").

The reasons for the ban? The article continues:
Prison camp officials would not say specifically why the book was rejected but Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, a Guantánamo spokesman, said staff reviews "every proposed or recommended library item to assess force protection issues associated with camp dynamics -- such as impact on good order and discipline.''


A rejection slip accompanying the Chomsky book did not explain the reason but listed categories of restricted literature to include those espousing "Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western'' ideology, literature on "military topics,'' and works that portray "excessive graphic violence'' and "sexual dysfunctions.''

I can't say that I find it surprising: U.S. foreign policy includes lots of graphic violence, and if not literally sexual dysfunctions, at least institutionalized perversion. I guess that means that the prisoners at the 'supposed to soon be closing camp' will have to stick to Harry Potter and Richard Nixon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Politics of Student Debt

Let me get something out of the way before directly addressing the topic of student debt. I have spent 13 consecutive years at some combination of universities, and, at the beginning, a community college, working through various degrees toward a PhD in philosophy. At the completion of this degree, barring any serious financial difficulties, I will personally have, due to scholarships and a significant amount of help from my grandparents, no student debt (although through marriage, I am apparently responsible for some of my wife's accumulated debt).

I have, however, over the years, encountered many students who have struggled to balance some amount of debt (through student loans), scholarships and work, along with their education, and know that this combination often puts less financially able students at a disadvantage in time management in terms of study, due to the fact that having to work introduces a perverse set of incentives regarding use of time.

But above all, student debt is political. Which is why two pieces by Jeffrey J. Williams, in Dissent Magazine, are a must read (the first is from Summer 2006, the second from Fall 2008). Student debt is a political question because it limits the later choices of students through financial burden. The numbers cited by Williams tell the story:
The reason that debt has increased so much and so quickly is that tuition and fees have increased, at roughly three times the rate of inflation. Tuition and fees have gone up from an average of $924 in 1976, when I first went to college, to $6,067 in 2002. The average encompasses all institutions, from community colleges to Ivies. At private universities, the average jumped from $3,051 to $22,686. In 1976, the tuition and fees at Ivies were about $4,000; now they are near $33,000. The more salient figure of tuition, fees, room, and board (though not including other expenses, such as books or travel to and from home) has gone up from an average of $2,275 in 1976, $3,101 in 1980, and $6,562 in 1990, to $12,111 in 2002. At the same rate, gasoline would now be about $6 a gallon and movies $30 [for updated numbers see his 2008 piece].
As I discuss in my courses (usually the one called Reasoning and Critical Thinking), there are two primary problems with the accumulation of debt:
  1. it shifts the burden of one's education from a social cost to a private cost
  2. it constrains student career choice. This means that future political activists are more than likely forced to choose careers because of money rather than interest (think of the tight budgets of non-profits). Unless, of course, you want to go work for the bad guys: business and finance work, or right-wing think tanks that provide the ideological justification for the exploitation of the lower classes and the subversion of democracy, are usually quite well-funded. I have a hard time believing that Right Wingers don't explicitly recognize this. They know that the sides are not equal and that money and its resources are tilting the scales to their side.
So first, about the shift in the social burden. The organization of post-war education sought to transform the university system into a social good, training future members of a complex industrial society. While this education certainly possessed a strong ideological component, it aimed toward the inculcation of values compatible with combination of democratic and meritocratic ideas. While there are worthwhile questions to ask about the role of the university in propagating a particular ideology, it had strong benefits in terms of social mobility. However, higher education has not been excepted from the neo-liberal program of de-funding government programs under the logic of 'fiscal restraint' and balanced budgets and the concomitant privatization (or partial privatization) of public goods (or, in stronger terms, public property). When fiscal austerity is implemented, one target is often public education. This is currently happening in California; and UC Berkeley's plight is a well publicized example of a larger trend. A friend's blog often discusses the relationship between Californian politics and his life as a contract professor at CSU Stanislaus, where I did my BA in philosophy (let me also add that he is a fine person and educator).

Ideologically, society has also shifted in its approach to higher education. Like many other issues, it is no longer seen in terms of its societal benefit, but as a private benefit. Each individual now receives an education, and its public benefits are down-played or ignored. Education is less about developing one's interests or interaction with others than it is about job potential. Throw a business school into a university, and you get a well-funded propaganda arm for the privatization of education and the ideology of atomistic education, rather than education as a form of social solidarity. So, while the humanist and meritocratic (and, more egalitarian) view of education
aimed to create a strong civic culture [, the] new funding paradigm, by contrast, views the young not as a special group to be exempted or protected from the market but as fair game in the market. It extracts more work—like workfare instead of welfare—from students, both in the hours they clock while in school as well as in the deferred work entailed by their loans. Debt puts a sizable tariff on social hope.
Not only that, but debt, as Williams so eloquently points out, is a mode of pedagogy. I can't quote all his points without violating fair use, but I can summarize in point form. Again. READ the ORIGINAL. In sum, debt teaches a worldview. For our purposes:
  1. Debt teaches that higher education is a consumer service. I can't tell how wide-spread this conception of education has become. The number of students who approach me as if their mark is a business transaction is unbelievable, and it justifies (in their minds) a fairly disrespectful approach to their peers and to their professors.
  2. "debt teaches career choices. It teaches that it would be a poor choice to wait on tables while writing a novel or become an elementary school teacher at $24,000 or join the Peace Corps. It rules out culture industries such as publishing or theater or art galleries that pay notoriously little or nonprofits like community radio or a women’s shelter."
This was my second point, stated in a less partisan manner. Debt also teaches that activism is a poor venture compared to contributing to greasing the wheels of capitalism, whether in business or in the right-wing lobby and ideology industry (which is very well funded). But the important point is that not just future activists and artists are bought out, everybody with debt is. Williams also proposes various measures to end the problem of debt, and it is more surprising that progressives/radicals don't make it a much more important part of their platform. Let us not forget that The Communist Manifesto included the demand, which today, is rarely considered 'communist,' for "Free education for all children in public schools [and the] Abolition of child's factory labor in its present form." To most, unless one is an advocate of school vouchers, this demand is obviously beneficial for society.

Which is why a free university is my preferred solution to the problem of debt. While many would balk and say it's impossible, it is just one more social program demolished by inflated and unjustified military-industrial spending. As Williams notes,
Adolph Reed, as part of a campaign of the Labor Party for “Free Higher Ed,” has made the seemingly utopian but actually practical proposal of free tuition for all qualified college students. If education is a social good, he reasons, then we should support it; it produced great benefits, financial as well as civic, under the GI Bill (see his “A GI Bill for Everyone,” Dissent, Fall 2001); and, given current spending on loan programs, it is not out of reach. He estimates that free tuition at public institutions would cost $30 billion to $50 billion a year, only a small portion of the military budget. In fact, it would save money by cutting out the middle stratum of banking. The brilliance of this proposal is that it applies to anyone, rich or poor, so that it realizes the principle of equal opportunity but avoids “class warfare.”
Free education is not an impossibility.But it will only happen with significant pressure and within a culture where professors and students see a common solidarity in the social benefit of education. Professors and students share a common struggle in fighting against the commodification of higher education. It should be part of the package that free university, in order to function correctly, insured proper funding and a return to the emphasis on tenure and professorial investment by the university, instead of the reduction of university teaching to part-time and contract work, especially in the humanities. As I have already stated, this situation is political: the transformation of the university to a semi-private and pro-business institution, insofar as it emaciates the schools and faculties that encourage the cultivation of critical thinking skills, has a definite bias toward the neo-liberal status quo. In a world where the ideals of neo-liberalism are practically discredited, there is no reason to let them uncritically dominate the world of education.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cornel West on Obama's Peace Prize

Cornel West, who truly is the star of The Examined Life, on Obama's Nobel Peace Prize (worth a listen, but the transcript is here):
I think it's very difficult for any head of an empire to be under the pressure of peace. 'Cause you're head of the largest military in the world, you got over a thousand military installments on the globe, you got ships in every sea. It's very difficult. And I think following brother Martin King, we know that peace is not the absence of conflict, peace is the presence of justice.

As usual, West is cramming reference upon reference into a few short paragraphs. But the last point, that I highlighted above is the most important. The 'presence of justice' can imply a lot of things, and explains why MLK Jr. turned to economic justice and anti-colonialism in his final years. Peace isn't just about ending war, it's about eliminating the conditions that bring about conflict, whether it is in impoverished neighborhoods in the USA or the Global South. So when people ask why I have been, since the start, against the War in Afghanistan or Iraq, is that the war on terror is not a condition that eliminates conflict, it continues and institutionalizes inequalities through war profiteering and the pursuit of narrow geo-political interests. Inequality is perpetuated both home and abroad. And this is obvious during the Bush II years, so much that it is one of the only consistent ways to explain his approach to 'governance' (it's almost impossible to write that without inverted commas). 'Governance' meant, to Bush and his cronies, as massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich as possible.

So trying to correct all that creates high expectations, but sometimes the prize doesn't always maintain such standards. West again:
You think of Nelson Mandela and Martin King, Ralph Bunch [sic: should be Bunche]. What a standard! Whew! But then I also recall Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger won the peace prize too. De Klerk won the peace prize too, so we gotta pray for our brothers and sisters in Sweden sometimes. But for the moment, we all ought to celebrate and help our dear president.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday on Thanksgiving Weekend

This week was a bit slower here at the Notes Taken. I dug up a review of Guy Debord's Panegyric, we talked Nobel Prizes, and went book shopping. Next week, I will have a new reading list, and hopefully a few new contributions from a few new writers.

If you can only read one piece today (it is, up north, Canadian Thanksgiving), read James Bamford's piece on the National Security Agency. You might want to know just why:
Based on the NSA's history of often being on the wrong end of a surprise and a tendency to mistakenly get the country into, rather than out of, wars, it seems to have a rather disastrous cost-benefit ratio.
If you liked my piece on brains, belief and religion, you might want to read Nicholas Wade's review of Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. However, I must admit that the NYT reviews have been leaving me indifferent lately. Wade does a bit of quarreling with Dawkins' about the meaning of theory, and concludes that Dawkins is dogmatic in tone if not substance, but I can't exactly say that's news.

Finally, and I'm testing who is reading these days, we are one step closer to one of my friend's desire to see a Dodgers/Angels World Series. I almost thought I would see some more recent schadenfreude-posts, but I guess things are professional over there.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel Prizes in Literature

Despite the news of the day, let's not forget that Herta Mueller, a Romanian-born German poet and novelist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Haven't read her work? Me neither. However, Martin Chalmers argues that
the Swedish Academy is, I think, doing two things. It is once again challenging the self-satisfied Anglo-centrism of the English-language publishing business, with its rather narrow definitions of what constitutes good writing, and it is widening our ideas of Europe.
In the last two days, her book The Land of Green Plums has moved up to the number 9 spot in's best-sellers list, so some people are paying attention to the news. I might just have to pick it up. I've been trying to do better at reading the people that they award, but I haven't done so well. The list reads like a who's who of literature, so it's hard to argue that obscurity is a prerequisite of the prize, unless you've never heard of Samuel Beckett, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass or Elfriede Jelinek (this list says something about my own taste; there are a lot of noteworthy authors on it). I am currently working on a paper about that guy who, 45 years ago, turned the prize down.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Brains, Beliefs and Religion

I am currently working on a paper in which I argue that the tradition of French atheism, starting with Sartre, presents a much stronger ethical and political commitment than that of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Sam Harris), who typically hold highly questionable political positions, ranging from a kind of status quo liberalism to being downright reactionary. The latter would be Harris, who argues that we should be not be afraid to torture people or install 'benign dictatorships' in order to further our 'democratic' ideals.

However, I often find the science that they utilize interesting. A study by Sam Harris (the same person I just criticized above), et al., is no different in this regard (for a summary, go here, for the study, here). It found that religious beliefs, such as whether God exists, are processed in the brain in the same manner as nonreligious statements such as, Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader.
While religious and nonreligious thinking differentially engage broad regions of the frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobes, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent.
Content independence means that all beliefs are believed by the brain in the same way, even if we have a tendency to divide them by content. This indicates, Harris argues, that there is no distinction between beliefs that are commonly distinguished as facts or values (or faith). From this, Lisa Miller, writing in Newsweek, draws a questionable conclusion:
If a believer's brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem—to the committed believer, at least—to be rather pointless.
Now, remove that caveat between those em dashes, and from Miller you get the same old canard that it's pointless to debate religious beliefs. However, if they are processed like other beliefs, this lends credence to the argument that there is no reason to treat them as a special category (under the rubric of faith). Perhaps then, we can jettison the typical metaphor that faith is somehow deeper than other beliefs. Which is another way into the paper I was working on because the French philosophers I am working on all supply ways to think about truth, belief or ethics, without the appeal to 'deep faith' (i.e. blind faith).

Where I am going to differ with Harris, again, is science's role in all this. In the Newsweek piece, he argues that his results show that science can tell us important things about issues we often call 'values.' And while I agree that science may help us hone our perspective on 'values' it certainly is not the ultimate arbiter as the New Atheists sometimes imply. First, because science is often conducted through research governed by the profit motive (see Dan Hind's Threat to Reason, a must read really), or that science has gotten these issues so absolutely wrong (for example, with eugenics. See Robert Whitaker's Mad in America, and Stefan Kuhl's The Nazi Connection). Nor do I think that science authorizes the view that we should install "benign dictatorships" around the world to further Harris' 'democratic' ideals. That is, Enlightenment does not come at the end of a gun. We ought to treat religious movements in their political context, because they cannot be separated from them. As Marx says, and as the New Atheists ignore, religious suffering is a expression of real suffering, and the abolition of religion suffering demands the abolition of the conditions that create real suffering.

Of course, there is already a tradition of thought that recognizes this, leading from Sartre to Deleuze and Badiou.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Guy Debord's Panegyric

(Since Verso has recently reissued Guy Debord's Panegyric in their Radical Thinkers series, I have dug up a review I wrote for the book in 2005, which was originally published in De Philosophia Volume 19, n. 1, 50-51.)


The two volume Panegyric presents both a literary and pictorial representation of Guy Debord’s life, the first providing a brief literary account, while the second is comprised of “iconographical evidence,” which, according to Debord, was to “illustrate and comment on the essential” already found in the first volume. Despite the fact that a panegyric gives neither praise nor blame, Debord was more than aware that some people took to a certain intrigue concerning his life and activity, and it would be hard to deny that he enjoyed this to some extent. He knew how to cultivate this intrigue: in a chapter dedicated to drunkenness he claims that of all his passions, drinking occupied most of his time. Yet, this is (partially) a ruse, as he provides this material only to draw the careless reader away from the substance of the book. Often, these stories can be quite comical: when describing the “sad ordeal” of signing his police statements, he writes, “I here declare that my answers to the police should not be published later in my collected works, because of the scruples about the form, and even though I had no hesitation in signing my name to their veracious content.”

To expect his autobiography to be extensively revealing is to misunderstand Debord. He considered the essentials to be taken care of in The Society of the Spectacle, where he derides a society in which the dividing line between capitalism (and its culture) and ‘the world’ is gradually erased, eliminating all alternatives. With the essentials taken care of, all that remains are details. Alternating between irony, polemic and seriousness, the first volume recounts some of these details from various angles, such as “the passions of love through criminality” or the “fondness for subversion through the police backlash that it continually incurs.” The second volume, of images (published here in English for the first time), demonstrates his restraint. For example, instead of a long soliloquy on May 1968, we are given images of police, propaganda and graffiti. Additionally, we see various photos of Debord, his comrades, and comic strips (my favorite portrays Hegel as a bartender).

Throughout the book, he seems to provide an account of a sort of principled nihilism, or how one survives the society of the spectacle. As he points out, “Nihilism is quick to moralize,” and it seems he is no exception. In the preface to the third edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord reminds us that it was “written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society.” This also seems to be the case with the way he lived. His response the society that surrounded him, as he tells it in Panegyric, was debauchery: drunkenness, criminality and women. But this debauchery is not the ‘moral’ of the story (nor is it anything special); instead, while recounting these events, Debord engages in contorting the language into a polemical and political text. He repeatedly insists on the importance on the literary form of Panegyric against the planned obsolescence of contemporary society, because the literary form is connected to the political form. Like The Society of the Spectacle, it is intended to do harm. There are reasons to find fault with Debord, like the often self-aggrandizing tone, but in many ways, reading Debord remains a breath of fresh air in an era enraptured with constant change, which would push aside his Marxist-Hegelian Society of the Spectacle for postmodernity. We find, in this brief autobiography, Debord recounting his obstinate refusal to give in to the economic tastes of his time and his contributions to avant-garde art, the final being this panegyric.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Big Score at the Book Sale

The Graduate History Student Association at the University of Ottawa is having a book sale this week (that is, from October 5-9 at145 Séraphin-Marion, 3rd floor) and all their books are 2-3$. Which is why, contrary to habit, I woke up at 8:15am to get there early. Most student association book sales rely on donations, meaning that their stock requires patience and a keen eye. And, as I have learned, you need to get their early to find the good deals. So, without further ado, a few of the highlights, all priced 3$ or less:
  • Zone 6: Incorporations, edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (Zone Books, 1992), which, while this copy's binding is cracked, is out of print and a good find. While you aren't supposed to judge books by their covers, Zone books are often well-designed by Bruce Mau, and this one, with 200 illustrations, is no different. To tell the truth, I didn't even look at the subject matter of this book, buying purely on the strength of Zone's titles.
  • Faire de l'histoire, edited by Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora (Gallimard, 1974). This three volume set has reappeared in the Tel series, but I found two of its volumes of the fancy Bibliothèque des histoires editions, with very little marking in it. Includes contributions from Michel de Certeau, Paul Veyne, Jean Starobinski, Michel Serres, Jacques Le Goff, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Many of the contributions appear to have been translated in Histories: French Constructions of the Past, edited by Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt (Revel also contributes to Faire de l'histoire). You can find the TOC on
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Gallimard). Truth be told, I am no expert in Merleau-Ponty's work (I've read a bit of the English translation of this work and some of his work on art) but the Bibliothèque des idées edition is hard to pass up for 3$.
  • Some interesting titles focusing on American politics: Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Vintage, 1967), David Milton's The Politics of U.S. Labor: From the Great Depression to the New Deal (Monthly Review, 1982), and Marshall Frady's Wallace (Meridian, 1975).
  • For Caroline, I picked up a few titles on Québec politics, and women and right wing politics. I'm sure the latter subject is going to be fun.
In total we bought 13 books for 27$. Not a bad haul.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday in Books, Blogs, and Andy Warhols

Last week many of our writers made their debuts. Sean Moreland reviewed Anna Powell's Deleuze and Horror Film, Matt McLennan reviewed The Coming Insurrection, and Jason Smith reviewed Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space.

There will be more in the coming week. Until then, there are plenty of things to read:
  • Richard Dorment's "What is an Andy Warhol?," which, aside from being a must read for those interested in art, has almost convinced me to add Arthur C. Danto's book on the topic to my reading list:
Everything that passed before Warhol's basilisk gaze—celebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashion—he imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. As Danto explains in his brilliant short study of Warhol, the question Warhol asked is not "What is art?" but "What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?"
Which leads to the twist:
That is very like the question at the heart of a class-action lawsuit brought by the film producer Joe Simon-Whelan and other yet-to-be-named plaintiffs against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., which is the committee that was set up eight years after the artist's death in 1987 to pronounce on the authenticity of his work. The case revolves around a series of ten identical silk-screened self-portraits from 1965 (Red Self Portraits), one of which is owned by the plaintiff and all of which the authentication board has declared are not by Warhol.
  • Steven Heller reviews several illustrated volumes dealing with early Soviet art, (slide show here) Alphonse Mucha, Reynold Brown, Cult Magazines, "The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster," and some Greenwich Village bohemians. By the end of the piece you will know who painted the Attack of the 50 ft Woman poster.
  • My friend Josh has started a website dedicated to contemporary artists: Artistopedia is
dedicated to art and the process of creating as well as promoting your artwork. This site is completely user driven, so all of the content that you will find here has been submitted by artists with the goal of teaching other up and coming artists, as well as those that just love learning new things.
  • And, if you are so inclined, there is something for baseball fans.
  • Finally, two things that Caroline found:
1) Librarians fighting back against censorship.
2) drunk monkeys. You deserve a good laugh. Have some water and nurse that hangover.