Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cartesian Egalitarianism Essay Published

As a reader of this blog, you've probably heard that I am working on a book about Jacques Rancière. In the first two chapters, I seek to trace the egalitarian precedents to his work. In doing so, I place Rancière in the Cartesian and existentialist lineages in French philosophy. 

In "Cartesian Egalitarianism: From Poullain de la Barre to Rancière," which is now available in Phaenex 7.1:
I present an overview of what I call “Cartesian egalitarianism,” a current of political thought that runs from François Poullain de la Barre, through Simone de Beauvoir, to Jacques Rancière. The impetus for this egalitarianism, I argue, is derived from Descartes’s supposition that “good sense” or “reason” is equally distributed among all people. Although Descartes himself limits the egalitarian import of this supposition [restricting the import to the evaluation of epistemological and metaphysical claims], I claim that we can nevertheless identify three features of this subsequent tradition. First, Cartesian egalitarians think political agency as a practice of subjectivity. Second, they share the supposition that there is an equality of intelligences and abilities shared by all human beings. Third, these thinkers conceptualize politics as a processing of a wrong, meaning that politics initiates new practices through which those who were previously oppressed assert themselves as self-determining political subjects.
For previous discussions on this blog, see here and here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Brief Entry on Schelling

I've spent the last month or so writing entries on Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling for The Jean-Luc Nancy Dictionary. This task has forced me to summarize the life and work of Schelling, for instance, in something like 500-600 words. That's no easy task. Here is my work in progress.

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) is a German philosopher who made important—though now often-neglected—contributions to the metaphysics of German idealism, philosophy of nature, philosophy of art, and theology. His work is typically divided into various periods (cf. Dunham et al). During the first, which culminates in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), Schelling undertakes a critique of post-Kantian transcendental idealism, in which he develops a nature-philosophy and a philosophy of art. Nature-philosophy aims to demonstrate: first, the natural basis of the subject’s activity, and second, an organic concept of nature that emphasizes the centrality of nature’s productivity (the Spinozist natura naturans) and the processes of chemistry, electricity, and magnetism, rather than reducing natural processes to a merely mechanistic physics. The philosophy of art, which Schelling called the “keystone” of this system, has three characteristics. Artistic production, or what he calls “aesthetic intuition,” demonstrates the unity of unconscious (natural) and conscious production; it realizes concretely (in the real) what philosophy demonstrates ideally (in contrast to practical reason, which can only approximate its object, the categorical imperative); and it opens the possibility of producing a new mythology which can unite a people in an organic community.

In 1801, Schelling announces “his” system of philosophy, a bold return to metaphysics in the aftermath of the Kantian critical project, that he calls identity-philosophy or absolute idealism.  While nature-philosophy and the philosophy of art play prominent roles in this period, Schelling advances (in collaboration with Hegel) a critique of the subjective idealism of Kant and Fichte. Rather than positing the practical subject or absolute I as the foundation of the system, he argues that philosophy must proceed from the identity of subject and object. This identity is necessary, he claims, to explain the correspondence of the knower and what is known—subject and object—rather than presupposing it.

The third period includes Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809) and the various drafts of the Weltalter (Ages of the World). During this period, Schelling turns against, and critiques, the presuppositions of identity-philosophy—in short, the idea that logical necessity qua reason is the basis of all intelligibility. His philosophy of freedom explores the natural and historical-theological conditions necessary for human freedom, which is conceptualized as an existential decision rather than modeled on the categorical imperative.

The final period of Schelling’s work, which is characterized as the philosophy of revelation, takes shape around 1830 and remains a central preoccupation until his death. Though this work was only published posthumously, he delivered parts of it at the University of Berlin when he assumed in 1841 what was once Hegel’s chair in philosophy. Schelling aims to integrate critical or negative philosophy with what he called positive philosophy. Negative philosophy (which is associated, in modern terms, with post-Kantian philosophy) serves to eliminate what is contingent from the “first concepts of being”—it is confined to the essence or whatness of beings (2007: 144). Positive philosophy thinks the thatness or the fact of existence of God using the historical-theological resources of Greek mythology and Christian revelation.

On the basis of the differences between these periods, many commentators have concluded that Schelling was a protean thinker who never brought a system to conclusion. This conclusion overlooks his continued attention to the relationship—despite the changing significances of the terms—between “freedom” and “system.” For Schelling, free activity precludes and prevents the possibility of a completed system. In his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795-1796), for instance, he argues that a complete system cannot be lived by a philosopher: at that “moment [its creator] would cease to be creator and would be degraded to an instrument” of his or her system (1980: 172).

Works Cited

Dunham, Jeremy, Iain Hamilton Grant and Sean Watson. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (Durham: Acumen, 2011).
Schelling, F.W.J. (1980). “Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism,” in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge. Trans. Fritz Marti (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 156–218.
–––– (2007). The Grounding of Positive Philosophy. Trans. Bruce Matthews (Albany: SUNY Press).

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dave Zirin's "A People's History of Sports in the United States"

I know that things have been quiet here at The Notes Taken. The easiest way to summarize this state of affairs is to say: I have several pieces with deadlines that converge around June 1st, and I've been spending most of the time I dedicate to writing getting them in order. 

Not that I've been entirely absent from the blog-world. If you click on the link to the right, under "Friends, Comrades, Allies" for The Left Field Line, you'll discover there that I've been scribbling various thoughts about the San Francisco Giants and baseball. If I had to choose one worthwhile piece of writing from that blog, it would have to be "On the Van Halens and Spinal Taps of Baseball" (here)--probably because there's some snarky music-snobbery going on too.

Though many who would count themselves on the left in the humanities have acclimated to using all sorts of subversive and not-so-subversive-enjoy-your-symptom type cultural resources in academic settings, sports are still a marginal point of reference. I loved baseball as a kid, but by the time I started reading beat poetry and smoking cigarettes in my teenage years, I had largely come to associate sports--especially football--with conformism, patriotism, sexism, and homophobia. And those who live, breathe, and/or bloviate about sports still spew this garbage in some of the most ridiculous circumstances (since I'll be discussing Dave Zirin below, here's a link to an article he wrote on Tony Bruno's racist slur aimed at then SF Giants pitcher Ramon Ramirez).

But as I've come to appreciate in the last few years, sports have also been a vehicle for anti-war (think Vietnam), anti-racist (various types of integration, and anti-sexist (think Title IX) politics that stem from athletes themselves, especially those from marginalized and dis-empowered groups in society. Dave Zirin's A People's History of Sports in the United States (New Press, 2008) is a testament to the many athletes who have spoken out against injustices in the world of sports and the world at large (It might be less surprising that such a book is included in the "People's History" series if I mention that Howard Zinn was a long-time fan of the Boston Red Sox).

Zirin is to be commended for taking on such a broad project that is ultimately aimed at a general audience. Sport includes all kinds of activities, from professional baseball, basketball, or football, to college athletics to recreational games. To narrow the scope, Zirin orients A People's History around two themes. First, he discusses key episodes in the ways that athletes intervene in political culture. He includes, for instance, how Muhammad Ali's stance against the Vietnam war contributed to anti-war sentiment in general. Or, how the Gay Olympics (beginning in 1982) challenged stereotypes and prejudices about homophobia, competition, athleticism, and machismo. Zirin's own expertise is the converging history of race and its relation to sports (although he does not extensively discuss, after the first chapter, the place or exclusion of indigenous Americans, although I'm sure he does elsewhere...), he makes sure to highlight, in most chapters, the struggles of women and often African-American women. This diversity is reflective of the variety of activities, for many people, included under the term sports (I might also note that he does not spend much time on sports and ableism; the list of omissions could probably be extended--such are the pitfalls of such a wide-ranging and evolving topic). 

Zirin has published numerous books on such episodes. In A People's History, Zirin organizes the material around a second theme, which we could say is the professionalization and commodification of sports, the ways in which sports activities have become a multi-billion dollar industry. Even if one does not associate sports with cultural backlash, the big three--baseball, basketball, and football--often present a spectacle of overpaid and spoiled athletes with little concern for the ways that the owners fleece the fans. In other works, Zirin advances a convincing case that this viewpoint implicitly accepts the standpoint of sports' management, as an ideological leverage against players, and more importantly, players' unions (see here, and this piece doesn't even touch the way that the owners so often fleece the public by demanding publicly funded sports complexes). 

In A People's History, Zirin seeks to explain how we got here by showing that sports are imbricated in society at large; hence when society enters into a phase of intensifying social struggle, athletes will also (although it is interesting to note how often the sports-writing establishment consistently sides with the backlash). To summarize, from Zirin:
Driven by twenty-four-hour cable television and an expanding global audience, the 1980s saw a deluge of dollars flow into sports. But it's hard not to see sports in the 1980s following a pattern we have already seen in the 1920s and 1950s. In those decades, the sports explosion occurred against a backdrop of a nation weary from war, well heeled from economic recovery, and enjoying the spread of new leisure technologies: radio in the twenties and television in the fifties. The eighties held similar dynamics, with cable television being the techno-bauble of the decade. But while all three eras share similar terrains, the stronger thread is an environment feeding on political backlash (211).
In many ways, sports has not yet recovered from this political backlash, what I would say is the backlash of neoliberalism. New media technologies have made sports even more attractive for capital. Today, for instance, the same thing that makes, for instance, watching baseball fun--the suspense concerning the outcome, the wild and remarkable plays (good and bad)--makes it attractive for television advertising, since a game is best watched as it unfolds, unlike so much television which can be downloaded later. In the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for $2.15 billion (more than twice the price of the previous sale, that of the Chicago Cubs), the price is still dwarfed by the estimated value of television rights alone (this article puts the rights at $4 billion).

Nevertheless, beyond A People's History, Zirin has continued to chronicle the intersections of sports and politics; that athletes have drawn connections between their labor struggles (the NBA lockout, for instance, turned on the treatment and remuneration of role players) and the Occupy movement, or taken on issues of race and violence (here and here), may yet prove that sports could again be, as Zirin writes, a "motor for inclusion" and resistance.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Peter Gratton Reviews "Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization"

Peter Gratton reviews Hasana Sharp's Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization (University of Chicago Press, 2011) for Society and Space (here). If I've understood Peter correctly, this review will be of interest if: 1) you've dabbled in post-Althusserian or Deleuzian interpretations of Spinoza; 2) you think that politics is mischaracterized when it is conceptualized around the transcendence of the Other; and/or 3) you have an interest in contemporary debates over materialism/realism and discussions of immanence. It's more than likely that a large majority of visitors to The Notes Taken fall into one or more of these categories.

I've been meaning to read Sharp's book for my not-so-urgent research into a paper I'd like to write, echoing a title of Pierre Macherey's, entitled "Schelling or Spinoza."

In Peter's words:
I have my own quibbles about the states of immanentism today, but nevertheless Sharp is convincing that one must first traverse Spinoza’s immanentist and naturalistic philosophy in a way that to my mind has never been done widely, whether we think ourselves post-Nietzschean or not. The element of the transcendent, if not the transcendental, conceived in terms of rights, the Other, the duties of practical reason, etc., still marks how we think the space of the political, and Sharp’s task is to have us think wholly otherwise, if not of the wholly Other.
What Sharp argues for is a “politics of renaturalization”. This surely is her most controversial claim, given the ways in which, throughout the era of the regimes of the biopolitical, nature has been used as the nom de guerre of the pernicious splits in society along racial, nationalistic, and patriarchal lines. But in true Spinozistic fashion, Sharp makes her points in ways that do less to anger her discursive partners than to build alliances by showing how the “denaturalizing” claims of feminists and critical race theorists are anything but anathema to her own project, though they need to be attenuated in terms of their “social constructivism.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Happy International Workers' Day!

From Wikipedia
Richard Seymour, writing in the Guardian, traces a brief history of May Day and its continued importance for militants and the working classes:
May Day is international workers day. As such, it is – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – "the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar". 
And while we're celebrating May Day, by taking the day off (whether we're on the clock or not), the ruling elite in the United States seems to think they're celebrating, as John Protevi points out, "Loyalty Day" or "Law Day." As he writes in a comment to that piece:
This discrepancy is not coincidental.