August 2010


So far I am deeply impressed by Peter Singer’s Ethics. It is the best Introduction to Ethics anthology I’ve come across in years of teaching ethics. In particular, I’m very pleased by the first section of the book. Singer’s first section is organized not around the question “what is ethics?”, presenting the students with a collection of readings from the tradition presenting a variety of different ethical theories, but rather begins the text with the question “what are the origins of ethics?” “Where does ethics come from?” What follows are selections from Plato, Aristotle, Mencius, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Gilligan, and others.

Why is this so important? It’s important because how we answer this question is going to have an important impact of how we conceive the project of ethics. If Mencius and Rouessea are right, and we are naturally good and only subsequently become bad, then we will focus on producing environments that allow natural goodness to express themselves (Mencius) or reforming and abolishing those social institutions that undermine our natural goodness (Rousseau). If Thrasymachus is right and “morality is the advantage of the more powerful”, then we will either be suspicious of all moral claims, seeing them as tools deployed by the powerful to exploit the week, or finding ways to create “moral” tools to better exploit the powerful. The question of the origin of ethics makes a tremendous difference as to what ethics is about.

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Stanley Fish usually annoys the he’ll out of me, but this editorial is pretty good.

In the brief period between the bombing and the emergence of McVeigh, speculation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam.

But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few of his friends) had done it, talk of “culture” suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called “culture” was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit; in America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable. McVeigh may have looked like a whole lot of other guys who dressed up in camouflage and carried guns and marched in the woods, but, we were told by the same people who had been mouthing off about Islam earlier, he was just a lone nut, a kook, and generalizations about some “militia” culture alive and flourishing in the heartland were entirely unwarranted.

I wonder why this is.

A few days back, Ian posted a short diary relating an amazing video game conference that he helped to organize (a short description of the conference can be found here). I confess that when I first encountered Ian online I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his research. “Video games? What could possibly be of interest in video games? Isn’t this a sort of scam that academics pull over on administrations so they can sit around and play?” This, I suspect, is a response that those in digital humanities and cultural studies often receive when talking about their work to those outside of their discipline.

Unit Operations and Persuasive Games thoroughly disabused me of this notion. Not only did Unit Operations convince me that video games are a new form of art filled with all sorts of necessary questions worthy of investigation, Unit Operations and Persuasive Games got me thinking about rhetoric in a very different way. For a long time I’ve wondered why persuasion is so difficult. An argument can be well constructed, it can be beautifully rendered, and all the rest. Yet unless the audience is already sympathetic to the claim the rhetor is trying to persuade you of, or unless one already identifies with the rhetor or what the rhetor stands for, persuasion often fails to take place. I fully confess, for example, that I’m far more likely to be persuaded by someone who has a background in French theory or phenomenology, than someone who has a background in Anglo-American analytic philosophy even if the two rhetors are arguing for very similar things. This is unconscious. It is not as if I sit there and say to myself “this person is a Quinean, therefore I won’t listen to them.” It’s a sort of brute reaction. Yet the position from which a rhetor speaks makes a difference to the persuasive power of that speech. Freud already noted this with respect to the position of the physician. The physicians words were capable of evoking greater persuasion in the patient than those of another person, even if both were saying largely the same thing. And as an aside, I think philosophers tend to ignore and underplay this dimension of transference as a condition for persuasion. In an ideal world this wouldn’t make a difference, but it does in our world.

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So said Glenn Beck at his rally this weekend. And as I reflect on this rally, treating it as a symptom of our current historical circumstances, I wonder if there isn’t a way in which he is right. This thesis, that it isn’t about politics, but rather about God, sounds remarkably like Hegel’s description of Stoicism and Unhappy Consciousness in The Phenomenology of Spirit. As Hegel writes,

Its [Stoicism's] principle is that consciousness is a being that thinks, and that consciousness holds something to be essentially important, or true and good only in so far as it thinks it to be such. (para. 198)

As a consequence,

Self-will is the freedom which entrenches itself in some particularity and is still in bondage, while Stoicism is the freedom which always comes directly out of bondage and returns into the pure universality of thought. (para. 198)

Epictetus articulates this point aptly in the very first paragraph of the Enchiridion.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Epictetus’s point is that the domain of our thought, judgment, and desire is completely in our control, while our bodies, property, social status, and so on are always dependent on things beyond our control. So long as we carefully attend to our thought, desire, and judgments, directing these powers at what is in our control, Epictetus argues, we are completely free. I may not have control over my body, property, prosperity, and reputation– these things are all beset by arrows of fate beyond my control –but I am in control of how I judge these things. Change my judgments, change what I desire, and these arrows of fate and these things no longer have the power to trouble me. Here, in the domain of thought and judgment, in the domain of desire, I am absolutely free.

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This is one of my favorite sides and is very easy to make. Heat some extra virgin olive oil in a small pot. Once the oil is hot, add chopped garlic, onion, and jalapeno, along with one tblspn of of chili powder (I usually use a combo of Mexican chili powder and ancho chili powder). Once the veggies are tender, add a can of drained pinto beans, along with 1 tsp of cumin, 1 tsp of smoked paprika, and 2 tblsp of chicken broth (or alternatively, some nice beer). Simmer on low for a while and eat.

The DeLanda reading group is just about ready to take off. Right now, Gratton, Michael, Alex Reid, and Circling Squares are participating. My proposal is for each of us to write a post on each chapter (there are five chapters). If no one objects, I’d like to write on the first chapter. The chapters are as follows:

1. Assemblages against Totalities
2. Assemblages against Essences
3. Persons and Networks
4. Organizations and Governments
5. Cities and Nations

There is nothing that prevents two or more people from writing posts on each chapters (and hopefully we’ll get some fractal growth along these lines). In particular I’d be really delighted to see Scu and Ivakhiv, do some posts as I think DeLanda’s assemblage theory is particularly valuable for the first half of Scu’s dissertation (I also think he should put something together at some point on that work for Speculations), and because I think Ivakhiv is proposing an assemblage theory of his own. Anyway, now that things are coming together we should set up a schedule where posts take place every two weeks.

Over at Mormon Metaphysics, Clark has an interesting post up arguing that Peirce already said all that OOP argues (Harman responds here). As Clark writes,

Which brings me to my biggest point. I just don’t see anything new in OOO. This isn’t an issue over “who got there first.” Nor is it to ignore the very real metaphysical differences between the various parties. It’s just that by and large this concern with objects especially as so broadly defined is part and parcel of pragmatism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Relations in particular I think are handled a little better than OOO in pragmatism, if only because it pays closer attention to the kinds of relations there are. (Those in a 3rd person observer versus those which are “real” in a sense)

In response to Harman’s point that OOP begins from the ontological thesis that objects are independent of their relations, Clark, in comments, remarks that,

Objects are irreducible to any relations to other objects. Now let me temporarily lay aside the issue of whether a relation can be an object. (i.e. is “brother” in abstract an object) I think that both Derrida (as I read him, which I recognize isn’t the anti-realist way many read him in lit departments) and Peirce wouldn’t object to this. As Michael put it once, Deconstruction can’t be taken as a reduction. For Peirce this definitely is the case since Firstness can be an object for a sign. But firstness is inherently a matter just of itself. So by definition it is irreducible.

Where Peirce might object to Graham is that he allows a sign to be an object. A sign can have as its object either a matter of firstness (pure feeling or pure potential) or secondness (pure force or a pure relation) or an other sign. Now to answer Graham’s statement is a bit complex precisely because signs end up being complex in that way. I think Graham wants to say any object has an irreducible “part” that isn’t relations. But the question then might be whether this irreducible “part” can be identical with some other object’s irreducible “part.” My sense from Prince of Networks is that it can’t. But I’m not prepared to argue that just yet. (See 2)

A few points here. First, I think Clark somewhat misses the point in his suggestion that objects can be signs. Let’s recall a few things about Peirce’s semiotics. In defining signs, Peirce says that a sign is something that stands for something in some respect or capacity. Peirce further distinguishes three components of signs: 1) Sign-vehicles or that which conveys the sign (for example, smoke or the signifier “tree”), 2) the semiotic object or that which the sign stands for (for example, fire in the case of smoke, and an actual tree in the case of the signifier “tree”), and 3) the interpretant or that which links the two to one another.

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Via Dailykos.

LA GOPer: November A Choice Between An Atheist Society And A Christian Nation

Appearing before the Republican Women of Bossier with Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) cast the November elections as a choice between godlessness and Christianity. He also called bipartisanship impossible.

“We have two competing world views here and there is no way that we can reach across the aisle — one is going to have to win,” Fleming said.

We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we’re going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation. So we’re going to have to win that battle, we’re going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things.

I confess the idea of going the way of western Europe is terrifying to me. Just imagine the horror: Healthcare for everyone, shorter work weeks, six weeks of vacation, strong worker protections and rights, inexpensive education and child care, no debate over whether or not evolution is true, and so on. These are abominations that simply can’t be allowed to happen.

Scu has another post up clarifying what he’s getting at in his discussion of immunity and autoimmunity. I largely agree with him.

The T.H.E. has posted a rather unflattering review of The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton (hat tip to Gratton). Some of the review, I think, is somewhat justified. As Laurence Coupe, the reviewer writes:

It might be said that post-structuralist thinking attempts something similar to the Buddhist exposure of illusion, but it falls far short of it when it merely results in a high-handed denial of the more-than-human world (here I use David Abrams’ phrasing). I am afraid to say that this is what seems to happen in the course of Timothy Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought. Let me say that I do appreciate what Morton is attempting to do: that is, correct our unthinking attitudes to nature – or Nature, as he calls it – to make us think more carefully about the way we reify, consume or idealise it. But alas, the effect is far more deconstructive than reconstructive: “In the name of ecology, we must scrutinize Nature with all the suspicion a modern person can muster. Let the buyer beware.”

Morton’s case for a natureless ecology is not aided by the fact that he has such difficulty in defining it. “Ecology has to do with love, loss, despair and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis … It has to do with reading and writing … It has to do with sexuality.” That is from the introduction, but after nearly 80 pages we are none the wiser: “The ecological thought is about people – it is people.” Nor does it get much clearer by the final page, I’m afraid.

To be sure, Morton’s book is littered with these sorts of remarks and he doesn’t follow through in showing just how these things are about ecology (that’s not the purpose of the book), but if I say that this criticism is only somewhat justified, then this is because Morton tells us what the ecological thought is quite early in the book. It is thus surprising that a senior lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University (you know, folks that are supposed to be skilled at close reading) misses what Morton says on page seven:

Ecology shows us that all beings are connected. The ecological thought [Morton's emphasis] is the thinking of interconnectedness. The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it’s also a thinking that is ecological… It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings– animal, vegetable, or mineral.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty clear articulation of what the ecological thought is! Are we really none the wiser by the time we finish Morton’s book? Given my background in psychoanalysis, let’s take the example of depression and psychosis that Morton evokes and that the author not-so-implicitly mocks. What would it mean to think about depression and psychosis ecologically? What would it mean to think about depression and psychosis non-ecological? Well, if we follow Morton’s prescription on page 7, a non-ecological analysis of depression and psychosis would treat it as an isolated and intrinsic feature of the human brain independent of anything in the person’s environment. By contrast, an ecological analysis of depression and psychosis would treat these as real states of human brains, but would analyze the relational network in which these states occur. It would look at the genetics of the person and the upbringing of the person and the social environment of the person and the diet of the person and the regimes of production characterizing the social world of the person and etc., etc., etc.

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