October 2007


“No, it’s not Zygote that made me,” he said to Art, looking behind them to make sure that Coyote was really sleeping. “You can’t shoose your childhood, it’s just what happens to you. But after that you choose. I chose Sabishii. And that’s what really made me.”

“Maybe,” Art said, rubbing his jaw. “But childhood isn’t just those years. It’s also the opinions you form about them afterward. That’s why our childhoods are so long.”

~Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars

American television really says it all. Last night there was a two hour documentary on the lost books of Nostradamus. The “experts” speaking on the show were various psychics, “metaphysicians”, and members of the Nostradamus society. There was also another show on the Shroud of Turin. The night before there was a two hour documentary on the apocalypse as described by Revelations, where various Christian fundamentalists carefully explained how we are living in the End Times(tm), ignoring any historiographic readings of this text. Lodged in there was Psychic Detectives, Animal Psychics, haunted houses, and Ghost Hunters. Then there was a show on UFO’s. Then, of course, there is the endless parade of shows on crime and new weapons. Don’t forget the obligatory show on the Bimini Road and the lost city of Atlantis. For those of us who don’t like “educational television”, there is a whole host of “reality television” shows. I can’t express how depressing I find this.

I can’t go on. I must go on.

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My frustrations from earlier today have led me to think once again of Serres’ discussion of noise in his lyrical work of philosophy, Genesis. There Serres writes:

There, precisely, is the origin. Noise and nausea, noise and the nautical, noise and the navy belong to the same family. We musn’t be surprised. We never hear what we call background noise so well as we do at the seaside. That placid or vehement uproar seems established there for all eternity. In the strict horizontal of it all, stable, unstable cascades are endlessly trading. Space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring. This restlessness is within hearing, just shy of definite signals, just shy of silence. The silence of the sea is mere appearance. Background noise may well be the ground of our being. It may be that our being is not at rest, it may be that it is not in motion, it may be that our being is disturbed. The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory. How much noise must be made to silence noise? And what terrible fury puts fury in order? Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. (13)

Noise cannot be a phenomenon. Rather, noise is inimical to all phenomenon, an anteriority out of which phenomenality itself emerges like a ghostly ship suddenly manifesting itself out of a dense fog on a dark night. Some of us will remember the haunting image of Carol-Anne before the television in Poltergeist, intoning “they’re here!” in response to voices that only she can hear. The white noise of the television that lulled so many of us to sleep in bygone ages prior to the onset of twenty-four hour television, produces an experience of the uncanny, causes the hair to raise on the back of our neck, by confronting us with the thought of an order impacting our life from within a flat chaos. Bateson will say that “information is the difference that makes a difference.” Noise is the great white indifference. Thus Deleuze will write,

Indifference has two aspects: the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved– but also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members: a head without a neck, an arm without a shoulder, eyes without a brows. The indeterminate is completely indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent to each other… Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be the ground… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, 28)

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Some will recall the puerile film Contact, where hidden within the extraterrestrial radio transmission there is a secret code filled with thousands of pages of blueprints for the design of some device. The question is that of how a difference is made. Or rather, it is a question of how something ceases to be noise, chaos, and suddenly becomes salient. For those who remember the film, Contact is particularly nice in this regard; for when the sound signatures are projected onto a visual space, we get a multi-dimension picture where certain differences rise forth from the ground as distinct.

In many respects, this is the core of education. Andrew Cutrofello expresses this point nicely when speaking of Bachelard’s theory of science in Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction:

Just as Bachelard is more amenable than Heidegger to the reconcilability of the claims of science and poetry, so he denies that there is as great a gap between intuition and intellect as Bergson supposed there to be. Intuitions have to be educated by the intellect, that is, by the very specific accomplicments whose philosophical significance Bergson thought had to be assessed from the perspective of a naive or ‘pure’ intuition. For Bachelard, the very capacity to inuit has a history, one that is dialectically informed by developments in science… (58)

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Perception is not simply a given or a gestalt, but something that must be developed and cultivated. My friend Carl tells me of his visit to Egypt, and how people drive and walk in the city of Cairo. For him there seems to be no order. Cars zoom about willy-nilly. People walk into oncoming traffic. Yet strangely it all seems to work out well. There is an order amidst this noise of which he is unaware. I have had a similar experience in the Indian-Pakistani part of Chicago, on Devon Avenue. Everything there presents itself as a buzzing confusion for the agent that does not have a “know-how” of this place. In developing a knowledge of psychoanalysis, we do not simply gain new facts, but we cultivate perceptions. Certain items in a person’s speech become salient where before they were merely noise that we filtered out. So too in the case of the physicist, the chemist, the engineer. There is a process of phenomenalization, a breaching of a realm of being, where before there was only noise.

There is thus an anxiety that accompanies all education. In learning– rather than knowing –one confronts the undifferentiated void, where saliencies do not reside. In teaching we bring our students before this noise, confronting them with a field of phenomenality where, as of yet, there are no phenomena for them. Some of us recoil from the passions this anxiety releases, celebrating rote memorization as a way of relieving the anxiety. Here no new field of phenomenality appears. Everything remains at the level of the familiar, doxa. All of us, regardless, must handle this anxiety, administering it in doses, guiding our students through the indeterminate so that the phenomenon might appear, by grace, on the other side. It is a dance that can easily go astray, leading the student to recoil in horror in much the same way that Plato describes in the allegory of the cave, where the escaped prisoner is painfully blinded with each subsequent step he takes. Somehow it is necessary to manage that blinding so that it doesn’t lead to flight. Yet holographically, a phenomenon gradually comes to stand forth from this buzzing confusion… Something becomes distinct and a grammar begins to appear. It might be a grammar of wood (in carving), of sound (in music), of the unconscious, of chemical relations. Where before there was indifference, now there is difference. Yet how is it that something begins to stand out from the white noise on the television screen? Where does the difference that makes a difference come from? Is it possible to think that which precedes the given, that gives the given, and that is anterior to phenomenality? Or must that which is anterior to the phenomenality of the phenomenon– the es gibt –be doomed to be an unthinkable abyss? More to the point, what would a pedagogy that takes this abyss into account and which guides the student to the discovery of singularities within the undifferentiated look like?

Throughout his diaries in 1984, Winston raises the question of how it is possible to awaken the Proles. Around these parts, we engage in nuanced analyses of ideology and raise questions of how it might be possible for subjects to depart from dominant forms of social organization. However, grading my students quizzes and critical thinking assignments, I wonder if these forms of ideological critique are not already too optimistic. In my introductory philosophy courses, I give my students very simple quizzes, designed to foster their reading skills and their ability to identify arguments. Thus, for example, I might quote a passage from their text and ask them to answer a series of questions:

In The Way Things Are, Lucretius writes:

Do listen– I don’t want you to suppose
White atoms form those white things that you see
Before your eyes, or that black objects come
From particles of black. Never believe
That any visible color is derived
From motes of that color. Basic elements
Simply do not have color, none at all,
In that respect being neither like nor unlike
The larger forms they fashion. You’d be wrong
To think imagination can’t be conceived
Of objects lacking color. Those born blind,
Who never have seen the sunlight, learn by touch
The sense of bodies, though ideas of color
Mean nothing to them, and color-concept
Is by no means absolute…

All right, then: first-beginnings have no color,
But they do differ in shape, and from this cause
Arise effects of color variation.
It makes a world of difference in what order
They form their combinations, how they are held,
How give, take, interact. For example,
Things black a little while ago turn white,
All shining white, as dark sea can change
From sullen black to the shine of dancing marble
When the great winds go sweeping over the waves. (pgs. 72 – 73)

1. What claim is Lucretius attempting to disprove or refute in this passage?

2. What observational evidence does Lucretius give to support his thesis that this claim is false?

3. According to Lucretius, if color (and other qualities) does not emerge from colored atoms, then what does produce these qualities? (You will find his theory in the passage).

Nothing could be more simple than such an assignment. I give the passage. I have chosen a text that minimizes Lucretius’ poetry. And I ask very simple, straightforward questions. Yet the results are astonishing and truly depressing. Many students claim that Lucretius is trying to prove that qualities like color are a product of the imagination or mind, despite the fact that the passage says nothing of the sort. In response to the second question, a number of students refer to the blind man to support the thesis that atoms do not have color– saying the blind man can “imagine” colors –despite the fact that the blind man is evoked to make a very different point. Few point to the discussion of waves, or use their knowledge of atomism developed over weeks as observational evidence. Finally, a number of students respond to question three by appealing, once again, to imagination rather than combinations.

Matters are even more depressing in my critical thinking course. When confronted with an argument like “Of course Chines green tea is good for your health. If it weren’t, how could it be so beneficial”, a large number of students claim that the writer is misplacing the burden of proof rather than making a circular argument or begging the question… This after spending weeks studying all sorts of fallacies and numerous examples of these fallacies. Admittedly, circular arguments can be extremely difficult to identify (and are disturbingly common). However, matters go further than this. When confronted with an argument such as “Perhaps Julia has a ‘university’ degree, but she just isn’t qualified for the job”, many students claim that the speaker or writer is saying something positive about Julia, failing to recognize that the square quotes denote sarcasm. When confronted with the statement “Socialized Health Care– All the compassion of the IRS with the efficiency of the U.S. Post Office”, a number of students thought the writer was speaking positively about Socialized Health Care, rather than engaging in sarcasm and ridicule… That is, there is a fundamental inability to read tone. Admittedly, the issue here might be a lack of background knowledge regarding the IRS. Yet still, the use of “efficiency” in relation to the Post Office should clue the student off.

Perhaps I am a horrible teacher, though I’m not so sure. The fact that these reading difficulties occur in both the critical thinking course and my various philosophy courses suggests something else is going on. It seems that we have a fundamentally passive relationship to language, such that language works on us rather than us reflecting on how language is seeking to affect us and mold our thought in a particular way. Reading words on a page, sounding them out, is not yet reading. Rather, to read one must pause, distance himself from what is read, and reflect on what the text is doing to ones thought. Yet this, apparently, is an incredibly difficult skill to develop. When people have very poor reading and listening skills, it is difficult to have much faith in the efficacy of nuanced ideological analyses. The most rudimentary critical thinking, reading, and listening skills aren’t even there. It terrifies me to think that we are so passive with respect to language. We become marionettes of words and speakers, without any skills to resist. Prior to being a critical thinker one must first develop critical consciousness. Such a consciousness requires a minimal distance from language. Yet how is such a distance produced? I do not know. Such things do, however, fill me with despair.

I have been unable to post much in the last couple of weeks because things have been extremely busy. This last weekend UTA hosted the Religion and Psychoanalysis conference, which, I believe, was a tremendous success. Ken Reinhard gave an outstanding paper on Lacan, sexuation, and political theology, outlining the logic of a feminine politics. I had a terrific time cavorting with Reinhard and discussing the various intricacies of Lacan and Badiou. We took to each other like two old friends, and immediately launched into discussions of the ontological and political implications of Lacanian psychoanalysis, mixed with lots of academic gossip. Based on what I’ve read by him so far, I suspect his book will be a screamer when he finally finishes it. Ellie Ragland gave a daunting yet provocative paper on sexuation and the Islamic veil that had a number of implications beyond this cultural practice itself. It would seem that my paper, “The Other Face of God: Lacan, Theological Structure, and the Accursed Remainder” was very well received though this isn’t for me to say. By the time the two-day conference was over I was bone weary, having spent too much time playing with the other participants. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there will be any rest for the weary. Tomorrow I get the final proofs for Difference and Givenness, and will have two weeks to read them over and put together an index. As luck would have it, the new Jobs for Philosophers is out, so I will be busy applying for various positions during this time as well. Finally, I have to pull together my paper for Newcastle in December. Perhaps someone would be kind enough to shoot me now. Hopefully I’ll be able to post some thoughts that emerged in response to Ken’s paper in the days to come.

I came across this priceless comment on a rightwing blog. It was rewarded with a cascade of “hear hear’s!” Initially I thought it must be satire, but nope.

There are two different kinds of persecution for Christians. The first one is physical persecution. It is commonly practiced in some developing countries and where tyrannical governments or oppressive cultures exist like India, China, Afganistan, and other countries.

The second one is mental persecution, and that is what Christians in the West are experiencing for most part. For example, I as a born-again Christian have to avert my eyes when a beautiful woman in immodest clothes walks by or downright immoral commerical ads on TV. In a number of places, sharing Gospel is not permitted or frowned upon, simply because tolerance is now the mantra and acts as a double standard against Christians. Some laws are immoral that we as Christians are forced to tolerate, because the Bible commands us to obey law. Placing children in public schools is fast becoming a very dangerous practice as it introduces all wrong kinds of teachings. Christians are mocked when they proclaim their belief in literal creation as told in Genesis, evolution and humanistic beliefs are taking root everywhere in America and other countries.

Christians who suffer both forms of persecution will be rewarded by God, He is just to all and will reward accordingly in proportion to a Christian’s work on the Earth. God’s ways are equal in His eyes, but unequal in our eyes, which is all I can say about us mere mortal beings.

Sadly, one thing I do know for sure is that America someday will turn into a pagan nation, because we as Christians have failed to obey God’s commandments just as Israel failed in that area and was punished by God…severely. Thankfully, I believe for now, Americans have a chance to put America back on the right track, and I’m not talking about Election 2008.

In any case, I pray that each and every Christian make right decision in electing the next President of the United States, because once we make that decision, it’s completely irreversible.

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Daniel 2:20 And he [God] changeth the times and seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding.

Because of course it is the immodestly dressed woman who is responsible for his desire. Someone seems to have missed the point of what persecution is. How is it possible for such people to be functional in the world? At any rate, after we amend the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage I suppose we’ll have to set about writing a Constitutional amendment with a dress code. Burkas everyone?

Telos: The aim of theory or philosophy should be freedom.

Problem: Echoing and paraphrasing Purloinedcoin’s excellent question, how can one aim at freedom if one doesn’t know what freedom is?

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