Monday, June 7, 2010

The So-Called Report on the Conference...

For somebody who defended his dissertation last November and who successfully landed a contract to turn it into a book, I probably over-scheduled the last academic year. In November, I presented a paper on Sartre at the North American Sartre Society, and just recently participated in a panel on Marx, Heidegger, and Benjamin at the CPA and gave a paper on Badiou and Heidegger at the EPTC. For the next academic year, I've already got an abstract under review for the Radical Philosophy Association's meeting, which, if accepted, would make it the fourth time I will have gone to one of their meetings.

Now, I don't have a very extensive report to give on the conference(s). I was in Montreal for two full days, Tuesday and Wednesday, and spent three hours each day participating; Tuesday at our panel, and at  the  EPTC for three papers the next day, each related to my participation or a friend's: Wes Furlotte commented on a paper, I went to see what Chris Nagel, professor at CSU Stanislaus, was up to lately, and then I gave my paper. So, in total, six hours at the Humanities conference. Which isn't very much. At the last NASS meeting, I think I spent a majority of my time watching papers, commenting, arguing, schoozing, etc. 

From whence the question: why?

I've been thinking about this for a few days. There are a few answers I could possibly give, but I think it's related to the professional politics of large conferences. Nevertheless, I have two very different impressions of the CPA and the EPTC. Let's start with the CPA. I get the general impression that it's an analytic philosopher's  game. It's difficult not to get that impression when reading the schedule; and it's even harder not to get that impression when you start your panel on Tuesday morning at 9am and nobody's there. Yes, you read that correctly: Matt, David and I had no audience until perhaps 9:30am (and only 3 people passed in or out). Now, it was raining on a Tuesday morning, which is a strong motivator for somebody not to jump up and rush to a conference, and other panels didn't seem to runneth over in attendance. 
But let's put it this way: at some point you've got to make decisions about where to present your work, because these events cost money, and require a significant time commitment. So it's probably best to present work where you will get helpful commentary, suggestions, polemics, and contacts from people who have some familiarity with the subject matter (and you might learn a thing or two at other talks). Now, if the CPA is an analytic philosopher's game (and this might not be true in all cases), then it might not be the place for continental papers. However, even if it's not an analytic philosopher's game, the non-thematic orientation means that any response that you may get will be fairly broad. I didn't used to think like this because I was writing on Schelling, and almost anywhere you go, few people have any familiarity with his work.

However, I've started working on more contemporary figures, so my expectations have changed. Next year, at least, I will only be sending a paper to the EPTC. Not just on the response my paper received, but because I've had two good experiences with them. And rather than my rushed schedule this year, I can spend a few days at a few panels, participate a bit more. I know that this might not be the strongest reasoning, but it's the impression I've been trying to work out for the past few days.

So on to the Badiou paper: it was about the differences between Badiou and Heidegger on mathematics and technology. It's been a cursed paper. I wrote it about 3 and a half years ago, and the EPTC is the only group to take it; it was full of set theory formulas, and then it was intentionally polemical, talking about how Badiou's work disproves Heidegger's 'oracular proferring' on technology (the phrase is from J-L. Nancy). The commentator, Jonathan Blair, caught the rhetorical gambit behind the paper (the insistence on the opposition of Badiou and Heidegger), and pointed out how in some ways Badiou does not get beyond some possible Heideggerian objections, and that at some point, a decision is behind their differences. Which is the set up I expected. But this kind of objection leads us to a different set of problems (which we didn't actually get to because chaos broke out during the Q & A that had very little to do with my paper). 
The most important problem, I think, is that if a decision is the basis of ontological procedure, then ontology itself is a strategic discourse, and is not 'first philosophy.' I think the very problem is the idea of first philosophy itself; that rather than fetishizing the 'proper' beginning as securing philosophical discourse, we need to return a method of thinking totality in media res (which is why I'm not doing something like Derrida; in addition, this is going to have something to say about political economy...), without collapsing the distinction between philosophy and politics. One of the strong points of Badiou's philosophy is how he organizes a way of thinking that seeks to avoid the "passion of the real," which distinguishes his work from the 'oracular proferring' of Heidegger.


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David Tkach said...

I think the critique of 'first philosophy' is well-founded, but it turns on exactly what 'first philosophy' means, either a particular philosophical endeavour as 'highest,' which is what Heidegger conceives ontology to be, or a particular philosophical endeavour as examining with what philosophical activity must begin, which Heidegger also believes ontology to be (conceived as hermeneutic phenomenology in BT; I have no idea what to do with the later writings, as I think they constitute, or at least attempt to constitute, suggestions for an abandonment of philosophy tout court). I absolutely agree with the idea of philosophy as trying to think "totality in media res," but this seems to indicate, at least to me, that philosophy must begin with political life as the field to examine, as we are as human beings in the middle of political life from the first. Additionally, as political life always changes according to the vicissitudes of history, the idea of 'securing' a proper beginning to philosophy is disallowed. I have a paper, based on my third thesis chapter, which discusses exactly this problem in Heidegger and Strauss.

Do you think you could explain a bit more what you mean by ontology as "strategic discourse"? Are you intimating that Heidegger had a background task which the constant return to the Seinsfrage was meant to disguise?

I wish I had witnessed the chaos at your presentation. It's good to hear of people coming to a conference who actually wish to engage with the issues presented.

Read/laugh/destroy my blog if you wish!

Devin Zane Shaw said...

I think I mean that ontology is not separate from a political context. Nothing to original, on this score, unless we're talking about Heidegger's later work. There seems to be an assumption by Heidegger people that if he is retreating from obvious politics than it is not a correct orientation of thinking (note the circumlocution here) to treat his later work as quietist or obstinately disengaged and elitist.

On the other hand, I think Badiou is pretty straight up about his commitments; the difficulty is reconciling a critique of political economy with his ontology (which is pertinent since he engages with the Marxist tradition).

I think my problem with 'ontology' as 'first philosophy' is the impression that someone like Heidegger gives: if we could just orient our thinking toward truth, we could solve important problems.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

p.s. what's the address of your blog David?

David Tkach said...

It seems to me that strict 'late-Heideggerians' would think that concrete political action as it is ordinarily conceived to be is unnecessary, as 'only a god can save us now.' I think the main problem with Heidegger is his relative prioritizing of the political, claiming that it is essentially the site in which Sein sends itself, so it is from the first understood ontologically. Also, my reading of Heidegger is that he believes the problems of philosophy to be insoluble; the proper comportment of human beings is dwelling in the question, or 'thinking without a bannister' to quote Arendt. Concrete political action seems problematic to justify in relation to such a conception (here you probably disagree with me). However, for me the issue then becomes: what if Heidegger is correct?

I think that Gelassenheit can serve as the basis for a relatively rigourous ethical/political position, but one removed from and in contradistinction to concrete politics (note: this is not to say that I uphold it). One example is the relation between Heidegger and certain strains of deep ecology. On the other hand, I often think that adherence to Gelassenheit would ultimately result in everyone in bathrobes all the time. 'Just let beings' Did I just quote The Dude? I don't even like the film.