Thursday, December 18, 2014

Late Additions: Teaching

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two Pictures (Bury the Lede)

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Final Countdown

I know that very little has appeared on the blog during 2014. That's largely due--at least in my case--to the fact that I've been writing Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière (here). At this point, the book is almost done. I'm currently writing up the conclusion, which summarizes the contents and then proceeds to compare my reading of Rancière to the politics of aesthetics elaborated in his book Aisthesis. These concluding remarks will in part respond to Peter Gratton's review of the book for Society and Space. He notes a vitalist undercurrent in this work. More specifically, Peter shows that the politics of the aesthetic regime of art, as it is framed in Aisthesis, aims to uncover the singular moments of life unburdened by reified representative structures:
In these pages, Rancière privileges the clown, the prisoner awaiting execution, the de-gendered dancer, and so on, all in the name of an inactivity that is but another name for the pure vital force of living, while calling for an indifference to differences that for the author would only be hierarchical and power driven. Indeed they are and have been, but isolating non-hierarchical moments in some sort of eidos of pure inactivity in these descriptions becomes a phenomenological epoché that has to bracket so much away from given contexts, and thus only reinforces what a pretense the “ignorance” and invisibility of the writer were in the first place.
Unlike Peter, however, I don't think this is the culmination of Rancière's work (I also have some qualms with Peter's characterization of Ranicière's account of mimetic norms in the representative regime of the arts, but that discussion has to wait for Chapter 3 of my book). While the book is doubtlessly important, I don't think its vitalist resonances are foregrounded by his other major works on aesthetics (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, The Emancipated Spectator, etc.), which focus on how new forms of social practices become visible and intelligible. I argue that there isn't one politics of aesthetics, but that it takes multiple forms. Thus Rancière's Aisthesis elaborates one possible account of the politics of aesthetics. In my book, I defend a different theoretical approach, emphasizing Rancière's account as a micropolitics of aesthetics that works in the interstices of egalitarian politics and policing. It's also an account of art that is non-teleological (à la Benjamin) and non-monumental (as in Badiou and Schelling).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Call for Papers: Public Ethics after Humanism

Public ethics after humanism



Call for papers


During the twentieth century, a number of thinkers positioned themselves against the humanist tendency which reigned in philosophy and the human sciences. Their “antihumanism” was not a return to traditional, pre-humanist values, nor did not pit them against the human per se – far from it. Rather, they took issue with the methodological elevation of “man” to the organizing, centring principle of science and ethics. It is precisely for the human good, they argued, that we must decentre “man” and concentrate on what enmeshes and sustains the human; that is to say, we must shift our methodological orientation to the environment, to our relationships with other living beings (nonhuman animals, for example), and to that through which and by which we live (the various “structures” supportive of human lifeworlds, such as languages, cultures and economies). The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Althusser, and the (post)structuralism of Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, Nancy and others attempted to effect this “antihumanist” decentring, underscoring that such a gesture is necessary for human survival in our (post)modern condition. When, at the end of his book Les mots et les choses, Foucault declared the death of “man”, he had in mind the human as privileged object of the social sciences, calling for a new science that would truly do justice to the human beings that we are.


In connection with ethics, this post-humanist current was above all critical of moralization, the ethical attitude which concentrates on the goodness of the moral agent as opposed to concrete struggles against evil. Taking up Hegel’s critique of the beautiful soul, the antihumanists defended the thesis according to which the good does not find its seat in the human itself, but rather in what human beings accomplish. Think here of Levinas, for whom a truly ethical action is “for the other” and, consequently, at the expense of the ego (or, as he puts it, the Economy of the Same). 


Does this antihumanist tradition of the twentieth century still claim an influence and an importance for contemporary ethical thinking? And if so, what are the implications of this tradition for concrete problems in the domain of public ethics?


The conference “Antihumanism and Public Ethics” will take place March 5, 2015 and is organized by the Research Centre in Public Ethics and Governance. The conference will be held at Saint Paul University (Ottawa, Canada) on Friday March 5th, 2015. The organizers invite papers on any topic connecting the themes of antihumanism and public ethics, including but not limited to: structuralism; post-structuralism; gender, sexual difference and humanism; race and humanism; psychoanalysis; Peter Singer, “personism” and the erosion of the sanctity of life ethic; biocentrism and deep ecology; critical animal studies; Alain Badiou and contemporary antihumanism; the future of human rights. 

The deadline for submissions is December 15, 2014. Please provide a one-page abstract of your proposed talk.



Prof. Dr. Marc De Kesel –

Prof. Dr. Matthew R. McLennan –



Après l’humanisme : l’enjeu de l’éthique publique



appel à contributions


Au cours du vingtième siècle, plusieurs penseurs ont pris position contre la tendance ‘humaniste’ qui à l’époque régnait dans la philosophie et les sciences de l’homme. Cette réserve critique vis-à-vis de l’humanisme n’implique nullement une position contre l’homme en tant que tel, loin de là, mais ces penseurs critiquaient, dans l’approche de la réalité humaine, l’accent méthodique trop étroit sur l’homme même. C’est pour le bien de l’humain, ils argumentaient, qu’il faut centrer cet accent humaniste et se concentrer sur ce qui est autour de l’homme : sur son environnement, sur les autres vivants avec qui il vit (les animaux par exemple) et sur ce par quoi il vit (sa condition linguistique, les ‘structures’ qui le supportent, ses économies).  Le structuralisme  de Lévi-Strauss et d’Althusser, le (post)structuralisme de Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, Nancy et d’autres ont essayé de réaliser cette décentration ‘anti-humaniste’, tout en accentuant qu’elle est un geste nécessaire pour sauver l’humain dans le contexte de notre condition (post)moderne. Lorsqu’à la fin de son livre Les mots et les choses, Foucault déclare ‘l’homme’ mort, il vise l’homme comme objet des sciences humaines, appelant ainsi à une nouvelle science qui approche les humains que nous sommes avec plus de véracité et de justesse.


Sur le plan éthique, ce courant critique envers l’humanisme prend surtout position contre la moralisation, c’est-à-dire contre l’attitude éthique qui se concentre sur la bonté de l’agent moral à l’instar d’une attention sur le mal réel contre lequel il faut lutter. Tout en répétant la critique hégélienne de la belle âme, ils défendent la thèse que le bien n’a pas son siège dans l’homme lui-même, mais dans ce qu’il réalise de bien dans les faits. Pensez à Lévinas selon qui une action vraiment éthique est ‘pour l’autre’ et par conséquent, fait l’économie du moi ou, comme il le dit, l’économie du Même.


Cette tradition antihumaniste du vingtième siècle, a-t-elle encore une influence et une importance dans la pensée éthique contemporaine. Et si oui, quel est l’impact sur les questions et les problèmes qui s’imposent dans le domaine de l’éthique publique ?


Voilà le thème de la  conférence « Après l’humanisme : l’enjeu de l’éthique publique » organisée par le Centre de recherche en éthique publique et gouvernance. La conférence se tiendra à l’Université Saint-Paul (Ottawa, Canada) le vendredi 5 mars 2015. Les organisateurs invitent les contributions sur des sujets abordant la problématique de l’éthique publique après l’humanisme, incluant des thèmes comme : le structuralisme; le poststructuralisme; le genre, la différence sexuelle et l’humanisme; race et humanisme; la psychanalyse; Peter Singer, le « personism » et l’érosion de l’éthique de la sainteté de la vie humaine; le biocentrisme et l’écologie profonde; « critical animal studies »; Alain Badiou et l’antihumanisme contemporain; l’avenir des droits humains.

La date limite pour le résumé de communication d’une page est le 15 décembre 2014.



Prof. dr. Marc De Kesel –

Prof. dr. Matthew R. McLennan –


Monday, February 24, 2014

Ranciere, Greenberg, Whitman

I’m currently working on the third chapter of my book on Rancière and philosophy, part of which was recently delivered at the Aesthetic Experience conference here in Ottawa. As often happens, the final paper didn’t sound too much like the abstract. While I promised a reconsideration of Schiller, I ended up spending much more time on a reconsideration of Greenberg’s modernism—contrasted, at different points, with Baudelaire, Benjamin, Rancière, and Schiller (I also spend more time on Greenberg because, as it turns out, I'll be developing a reading of Schiller that responds to Kant, Fichte, and finally Schelling's concerns as I've outlined them in F&NSPA). The space I’ve dedicated to Greenberg in the third chapter (it’s about 2000 words or so) is warranted because Rancière claims, in a recent interview in Ranciere Now, that ‘the dominant modernist paradigm (the Greenbergian theorization of the avant-garde) is in fact a liquidation of the dominant tendency of the aesthetic regime, which is to abolish the boundaries between “mediums,” between high art and popular art, and ultimately between art and life.’

Untitled, 1957

In developing an interpretation of Greenberg, I found a passage that lends support to Rancière’s opposition between Whitman and Greenberg. (Not to mention that Greenberg is criticizing Clyfford Still, who was one of the first abstract artists I really appreciated--for reasons that might be entirely contingent, because several of Still's works are exhibited in the SFMOMA). In Aisthesis, Rancière argues that Greenberg’s modernism repudiates the ‘cultural democracy [of art] stemming from Whitman,’ and while the case is strong, he does not cite an explicit case where Greenberg castigates Whitman for being, at least in part, kitsch (though note that in ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ Greenberg singles out John Steinbeck’s work as a hybrid of modern art and kitsch). However, later, in ‘“American-Type” Painting,’ Greenberg praises Still’s work, with the caveat that
Still’s uncompromising art has its own affinity with popular or bad taste. It is the first body of painting I know of that asks to be called Whitmanesque in the worst as well as the best sense, indulging as it does in loose and sweeping gestures, and defying certain conventions…in the same gauche way that Whitman defied meter. And just as Whitman’s verse assimilated to itself qualities of stale journalistic and oratorical prose, Still’s painting assimilates to itself some of the stalest and most prosaic painting of our time…the kind of open-air painting in autumnal colors…which has spread among half-trained painters only since Impressionism became popular.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Aesthetic Experience Conference

UPDATED 10 February, schedule changes in italics, including the time of my presentation

I will be participating in the Aesthetic Experience Conference at the University of Ottawa this month. My talk will be a rough draft of the first half of Chapter 3 of my book on Rancière. The abstract:
The modernist concept of art, as explicitly formulated by Clement Greenberg, is modeled on an analogy with Kantian critique: just as critical philosophy engages in the self-interrogation of the capacities and limits of reason, modern art engages in the interrogation of the particular medium of each art. I will argue that Rancière’s claim that we can better understand the history of the last two centuries of art by reference to what he calls the “aesthetic regime of art” entails an important reconsideration of Schiller, whose work is often seen as derivatively Kantian. Schiller, Rancière argues, is the first major figure to articulate what is at stake in the aesthetic regime of art: a persistent tension between free play and free appearance, between art becoming life and life becoming art.
The full conference schedule (Location is Simard Room 129): 

February 19 février: The Status of Aesthetic Experience/ Le status de l’expérience esthétique

9h00-9h30: Breakfast/déjeuner
9h30-9h45: Introduction

9h45-11h15: Allen Carlson – The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetic Experience

11h15-11h30: Coffee break/pause café

11h30-12h15: Veronika Huta and Keith Pearce – Findings From Psychology Research on Aesthetic Experience

12h15-13h45: Lunch/diner

13h45-14h30: Susan Douglas -– AestheSis and/as Aesthetics

14h30-15h15: Bertrand Labasse – L’art ou le mouchoir ? Sur l’interaction des facteurs cognitifs et sociaux dans l’appréciation esthétique

15h15-16h00 Jason Saunders – An integral theory of aesthetics

16h00-16h15 Coffee break/pause café

16h15-17h00 Devin Zane Shaw – Aesthetics and Emancipation: Rancière’s Reconsideration of Schiller

17h00-17h45 Christopher McGrath - Aesthetic Experience as the Meansfor Becoming Human: Romantic Aesthetics in Schleiermacher and Dilthey

18h00-20h00 : Reception/Réception

February 20 février Art and Aeshetic Experience/Art et expérience esthétique
9h00-9h30 : Breakfast/déjeuner
9h30-9h45: Introduction

9h45-11h15: Daniel Dumouchel – L’esthétique introuvable. Considérations historiques sur la genèse de l’expérience ‘esthétique’ de l’art

11h15-11h30: Coffee break/pause café

11h30-12h15: Mélissa Thériault – Ces expériences que nous ne « vivons pas »: l'expérience de la fiction

12h15-13h45: Lunch/diner

13h45-15h15 Noel Carroll - Defending the Content Theory of Aesthetic Experience

15h15-15h30 Coffee break/pause café

15h30-16h15 Louise Boisclair – Particularités de l’expérience perceptuelle interactive

16h15-17h00 Jakub Zdebik – The Line as Aesthetic Experience: Orientation in Thinking in Kant, Deleuze and Kuitca

17h00-17h45 Dave Kemp - An Uncertain Experience: the Production and Viewing of Photographic Documentation from Performance Art Events