October 2009


POLITICS, RELIGION, AND VIOLENCE: A Seminar with Simon Critchley
Tilburg Summer Philosophy School | July 15-24, 2010

Tilburg Summer Philosophy School | The Netherlands

A Seminar with Simon Critchley | July 15-24, 2010

The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliché of contemporary theory. Of course, theory often offers nothing more than an exaggerated echo of what is happening in reality, a political reality dominated by the fact of religious war. Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was
post-metaphysical, to a new situation where political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict. This situation can be triangulated around the often-fatal entanglement of politics and religion, where the third vertex of the triangle is violence. Politics, religion and violence appear to define the present through
which we are all too precipitously moving, where religiously justified violence is the means to a political end.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Must one either defend a version of secularism or quietly accept the slide into some form of theism? The First Tilburg Philosophy Summer School invites responses to this dilemma, which is arguably the defining political issue of our time. This is especially the case in The Netherlands, known for its particular tradition of tolerance, which currently finds itself in a situation of political and societal conflict defined along the axes of politics, religion and violence.

For further information and applications info please visit:
http://www.tilburgphilosophysummerschool.com/

Why is it that all the interesting and fun things happen when I’m drowning in grading? In response to Nina’s recent post raising questions about the recent realist turn and focus on ontology in continental thought there have been a flurry of responses. Nick was quick to throw in his two cents with three posts on the relationship between politics and ontology over at Speculative Heresy (here, here, and here), arguing that ontology is completely independent of politics such that it is precisely for this reason that ontology forces us to do politics. Over at Planomenology, Reid chimes in, arguing against Nick’s thesis, attempting to show how politics and ontology cannot be separated. Over at Naught Thought, Ben analyzes the political uses and misuses of references to the natural and the unnatural. Meanwhile, on her facebook page, Nina writes with some amusement that,

…at just how many responses a cryptic, no-names-involved paragraph can generate. But now feels she has to respond to everyone. This could take some time.

To which I respond writing that,

I didn’t take it personally or see it as an attack. I do, however, wonder if you aren’t running together object-oriented versions of SR with Brassier’s eliminative materialist versions of SR. As far as my own positions go, I’m pretty much on board with some synthesis of Marx, Sartre, and Badiou where politics is concerned. My gripe with much … Read MoreContinental political theory is that it’s far too focused on the discursive and semiotic as the sole site of the political (Zizek’s critiques of ideology, for example), ignoring the economic, technological, and material. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in objects.

I have to get back to grading, but I wanted to make a couple of points about Nick’s line of argument, separating the political from the ontological. In his first post responding to Nina Nick writes:

I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.

As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:

1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
2. politics is a human-centered realm
3. therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics

Since (1) is true by definition, and (3) is the conclusion from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics.

Here I find that my position is much closer to Reid’s over at Planomenology than to Nick’s. Where Reid argues that ontology can’t be evacuated of politics, Nick sees a sharp division between the political and the ontological. While I do not agree with Reid’s thesis, presented in comments over at Speculative Heresy, that everything is political, I also find it difficult to understand how politics can be outside of being. In other words, I think that Nick’s position is implausible on simple mereological grounds.

read on!
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This seemed apropos given recent discussions surrounding ontology:

And because I can’t resist with Halloween on the way, one of the all time best, darkest, songs:

I’ll never forget the first time I heard it.

Seventy more essays to grade and a mind that has been reduced to mush as a result of reading student writing. At least I’m finally making some progress in the face of the pile of grading that’s been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

As I reflect on a number of debates surrounding Speculative Realism and, in particular, its object-oriented variant, it seems to me that a few distinctions haunt all of these discussions, rendering them very difficult. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of me venting frustration at the tendency for any evocation of realism to be understood in terms of representational and epistemological realism, Melanie– who always sees what I need to see but am not yet ready to see –asked if this is a battle that I really want to fight again and again, a point that I endlessly want to reiterate with each new audience I encounter. She has a point. And as Graham suggested a while back– I can’t find the original post now –perhaps the term “realism” has outworn its usefulness. Given the historical resonances this term has, the question arises as to whether this term doesn’t obscure more than it illuminates. The problem is that I’m not really sure what to replace it with.

read on!
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Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a massive post outlining his position on normative theory and deontological moral theory and responding to some of what he takes to be my position on these issues. Given the length of the post and the fact that I am currently drowning in grading, it is unlikely that I will be able to address it for some time. In our last discussion Pete criticized me for not addressing all of his posts. With posts this lengthy, however, it is difficult to respond completely in a reasonable fashion. Perhaps it would be better to divide such posts into series so specific points can be more readily responded to. This aside, I will make a couple of points.

First, in glancing over Pete’s posts and reflecting on other comments Pete’s made, I get these sense that we’re using the term “deontology” differently. Pete seems to use the term generically to refer to any discourse having to do with norms. I get the sense that this is what allows Pete to characterize my rejections of deontological norm based systems as a rejection of norms tout court. I, however, use the term “deontology” in a highly specific fashion. In my view– and hopefully I’ll be forgiven for putting it crudely as I’m currently on the fly –a deontological ethical system is any ethical system that 1) carefully distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, 2) holds that norms must be a priori and universally binding for all times and places, and 3) holds that we must ignore any considerations pertaining to the pathological or being when engaging in normative deliberation. By the “pathological”, I am not referring to mental illness, but to the Greek sense of “pathos“, or anything pertaining to bodily passions, inclinations, preferences, or affects. For example, from a deontological perspective I take it that considerations of whether or not someone is your brother are irrelevant to questions of whether or not this person should be reported to the police for committing a crime. Any affection or family bonds (pathological considerations) I might have towards my brother are, from a deontological perspective, irrelevant to the course of action that ought to be taken in this situation. Nor am I necessarily in disagreement here. I only give this example to illustrate the idea of pathological motivations.

read on!
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Over at the always interesting and entertaining Philosophy in a Time of Error (which reminds me, I owe him an email! the answer is “yes!” Peter) I came across this interesting link regarding politics and testosterone. As the article remarks,

As polls closed on election night, researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan had 183 men and women chew gum and spit into test tubes and analyzed their hormones.

A few hours later, as Barack Obama supporters began celebrating, they tested hormone levels again, and then later, at two more intervals.

Men who voted for Obama maintained stable testosterone levels, while men who voted for McCain saw those levels drop more than 25 percent.

I watched a documentary related to this last year or the year before. Truly fascinating stuff with disturbing implications. Similar tests were conducted with men engaged in competitive sports with one another. Over the course of the game testosterone continues to rise. When the game is over the testosterone of the losing team falls precipitously, while the testosterone of the winning team remains constant. Presumably all of this has to do with our biological history. Given that competitive activity is basically a form of inter-tribal warfare over who gets to mate it makes sense that testosterone would decline if you lose. Since testosterone is related to both sexual desire and aggressivity, the decline of testosterone after losing would function somewhat like a thermostat, allowing the members of the losing team to withdraw from battle so that they might live to spread their seed another day.

I wonder whether somewhere, deep in the bonobo monkey or reptile portion of the male brain there isn’t some tacit awareness (biological or thinly conscious) of these stakes, i.e., that losing means losing testosterone and therefore reproductive opportunity. When I think of some of the truly idiotic blog and email fights I’ve gotten in here I’m completely baffled as to why, in certain instances, I continue the debate despite the fact that it’s clear that it’s not going anywhere and, additionally, it’s over something completely trivial, unimportant, and of no significance. Perhaps my hooting and howling bonobo brain region is telling me that if I lose the argument then I lose my testosterone and then I lose reproductive opportunities. This is, of course, absurd as clearly being a philosopher ruins all your mating opportunities anyway! I wonder, however, how big a role these sorts of things play in stupid investment behaviors among stock brokers, gambling addiction, international affairs, military policy, road rage, etc., etc., etc..

Returning to the theme of transcendental arguments once again, why is it that these arguments have taken the form of a transcendental idealism rather than a transcendental realism. Recall the basic form of transcendental arguments as nicely articulated in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Transcendental arguments…

…characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P.

Thus, for example, we indisputably make causal judgments (proposition Q). Judgments of necessity or causal judgments cannot be derived from sensation. Therefore, there must be a category of causation in our mind that functions as the condition for the possibility of making these judgments. I develop this line of argument in more detail here.

Now, the question I am asking is why mental life, consciousness, mind, language, society, or communication is being granted a special privilege in these arguments? I suspect that the answer lies in some thesis about the immanence of mind to itself. In other words, we locate these transcendental conditions in mind (or language, or communication, or perception, or the social) because we implicitly hold that we have direct access to these domains whereas we do not have direct access to objects transcendent to us.

However, if the last 300 years of philosophy have shown us anything, it has shown us that we do not have any direct or immanent or immediate access to our own minds. As Lacan liked to say, following Freud, the subject is split. This is true even in Kant, as can be seen in both the paralogisms and the the deduction where Kant distinguishes between the subject as phenomena to itself, the transcendental unity of apperception, and the subject in-itself. Similarly, phenomenology increasingly discovered just how elusive givenness is in intuition, or how there is no immediacy in consciousness.

Yet if we follow through the implications of these points, then it would seem that there’s no reason to privilege mind (or some variant thereof) in our transcendental arguments. In other words, all things being equal, why is it less plausible to argue for a transcendental realism? Rather than inferring a category of causality in the mind when noting the indisputable fact that we make causal judgments. Why not instead point to the indisputable fact that things change and therefore this change must have a cause? Inquiring minds want to know.

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