September 26, 2007
This week we began Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my intro philosophy courses. I am extremely excited to teach this text. Not only is it beautifully written, but Lucretius’ brilliance glows on every page in both the ethical concerns that animate the text and his precise and careful observations of various natural phenomena to support his arguments. In my view, a good philosophical thesis problematizes the world and creates research projects. Where before certain things seemed to be obvious features of the world, these hitherto familiar things now become bathed in the light of problems, demanding explanation in terms of the overarching thesis. Thus, for example, Lucretius’ atomism now turns the growth of a tree or water oozing from cave walls into problems or questions to be explained in terms of atoms. Stunning philosophical claims suddenly burst forth like lightening, such as the the claim that “all things are porous”.
Increasingly it looks like Lucretius was mistaken in his conception of atoms as the smallest units of indestructable matter– quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there are no smallest units of matter, only various rhythms and intensities of energy defined more as relations or fields that perpetually reconstitute themselves as dynamic processes in relation to other point-fields, than individual points –but nonetheless Lucretius’ thesis remains one that bathed the world in clarity, making possible questions and explanations that were not otherwise possible. This, too, is a virtue of a good thesis: It becomes lively towards its own material, such that the conditions are created where it can encounter the limits of what it is able to explain, allowing new theses to emerge. When thought is a patchwork quilt with no convictions, such liveliness does not occur as the most heterogeneous elements sit side by side in the patchwork making no claim on the matter.
September 25, 2007
Posted by larvalsubjects under Politics
This story was reported a couple days back in the Des Moines Register:
A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.
Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.
Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College, said he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.
Bitterman’s Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was “denigrating their religion.”
“I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. “I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”
Read the rest here.
It is difficult to imagine any college firing a professor– adjunct, tenured, or full-time –over such a thing, so I’m inclined to withhold judgments when encountering stories such as these. On the other hand, as a full time philosophy professor that works in a very religious part of the country under a contract that can be terminated any time, without tenure, it’s difficult not to experience a cold shudder when hearing such things. How had this professor wronged his students? Simply by articulating a different position? After class he allegedly referred to these stories as “fairy tales” to one student. Not a smart move, and his original claim was far more absolute than I would have put it. Yet is this really an offense requiring a lawsuit? How are such people, people who are so easily offended, able to function in a multi-cultural world where everyone doesn’t share their beliefs? Then again, it’s Iowa, so perhaps the world isn’t like that there.
This semester, in a rather ill-conceived plan to change my intro courses a bit, I elected to teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Hume’s Enquiry, and Deleuze’s Nietzsche & Philosophy (the theme is critique). The Euthyphro, of course, is a dialogue about whether or not Euthyphro genuinely has knowledge of piety. De Rerum Natura seeks to free humans of their terror caused by superstition through an understanding of true causes (“superstition” is unfortunately translated in this translation as “religion”, despite the fact that Lucretius isn’t an atheist). Hume devotes a lengthy chapter to the critique of miracles in the Enquiry. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Nietzsche & Philosophy, so I can’t recall whether religion is a central focus or whether the focus is primarily on moral psychology. I should emphasize that this is a new syllabus and that usually I have a component on Augustine, Descartes’ Meditations, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or Sickness Unto Death.
At any rate, when I teach philosophers critical of superstition such as Socrates in the Euthyphro, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, etc., I’m careful to apply the arguments to a wide range of religious beliefs such as the Aztecs, Christianity, the Kaluli, etc., etc. I find that students often distance themselves from arguments, claiming they only apply to ignorant pagans or those wicked “others”, rather than applying them to their own familiar belief systems as well. For instance, Lucretius begins Book I of De Rerum Natura arguing against the claim that it is a crime to think in these materialistic terms by arguing that tremendous crimes have been propagated by priests in the name of superstition. He evokes Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to make this point. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s analysis of the tragic hero versus the knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, I then make reference to the story of Jeptha and his sacrifice of his daughter in the Old Testament to show that this point isn’t restricted to the Greek world. Does that cross the line? I don’t know. Do I cross the line when teaching Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ claim that superstition produces dread when encountering unusual phenomena (such as comets, eclipses, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, etc), which people who don’t have knowledge of natural causes explain in terms of the wraith of the gods by pointing out that some religious leaders in the United States explained Hurricane Katrina and the recent Tsunami as resulting from God’s wraith? I don’t know.
Regardless of the material I’m teaching, I’m always careful to emphasize that the students aren’t required to accept any of these arguments or endorse any of the philosopher’s positions, only to understand the arguments. The value of this, I claim, is that through an encounter with these different positions we become more aware of our own positions and hone our own arguments in arguing against the premises on which these positions with which we disagree are based. I never penalize students when they evoke their political or religious beliefs in an essay or on a quiz, though I do insist that students not evoke sacred texts to make an argument in a philosophy paper as this violates the “rules of the game” (such arguments inevitably being circular and not addressed to the stranger that doesn’t acknowledge the sacredness of those texts), and that students understand the arguments of the philosopher they’re writing about. Perhaps this crosses the line. Most importantly, how can any philosophy class avoid crossing the line on some point or other?
I sincerely hope this professor was selling heroine to students or eating young children, and that the time of his firing was just an unfortunate coincidence. How would a professor teach geology, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc., at this college without violating the literality of Scripture?
September 23, 2007
Posted by larvalsubjects under Deleuze
Outlining his “transcendental empiricism”, Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition writes,
The object must therefore be in no way identical, but torn asunder in a difference in which the identity of the object as seen by a seeing subject vanishes. Difference must become the element, the ultimate unity; it must therefore refer to other differences which never identify but rather differenciate it. Each term of a series, being already a difference, must be put into a variable relation with other terms, thereby constituting other series devoid of centre and convergence. Divergence and decentering must be affirmed in the series itself. Every object, every thing, must see its own identity swallowed up in difference, each being no more than a difference between differences. Difference must be shown differing. We know that modern art tends to realise these conditions: in this sense it becomes a veritable theatre of metamorphoses and permutations. A theatre where nothing is fixed, a labyrinth without a thread (Ariadne has hung herself). The work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become ‘experience’, transcendental empiricism or science of the sensible.
It is strange that aesthetics (as the science of the sensible) could be founded on what can be represented in the sensible. True, the inverse procedure is not much better, consisting of the attempt to withdraw the pure sensible from representation and to determine it as that which remains once representation is removed (a contradictory flux, for example, or a rhapsody of sensation). Empiricism truly becomes transcendental, and aesthetics an apodictic discipline, only when we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible: difference, potential difference and difference in intensity as the reason behind qualitative diversity. It is in difference that movement is produced as an ‘effect’, that phenomena flash their meaning like signs. The intense world of differences, in which we find the reason behind qualities and the being of the sensible, is precisely the object of a superior empiricism. This empiricism teaches us a strange ‘reason’, that of the multiple, chaos and difference (nomadic distributions, crowned anarchies). It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. (56-57)
What Deleuze here proposes is a new transcendental aesthetic. For Kant, the transcendental aesthetic made up a part of the critical philosophy, answering the question “what are the conditions under which experience is possible?” Kant argued that time and space must function as a priori forms of sensibility or receptivity imposed on the matter of experience by the mind. As a result, Kantian sensibility or receptivity is passive. Deleuze diverges from Kant in arguing for a creativity sensibility, a sensibility in which forms of experience are created rather than simply received. Thus, in Deleuze, “aesthetic” does not merely refer to what is felt or senses (as in the Greek sense of “aisthesis“, but also refers to an artistic production or creation within sensibility.
Even the most casual glance at Deleuze’s work reveals a profound engagement with art. Within the space of this engagement, Deleuze is not interested in evaluating whether the artwork is beautiful or not as in the case of traditional aesthetics (aesthetic judgment), nor in interpreting the artwork, but rather in the artistic process of production, it’s creation, its genesis. Deleuze devotes four books to literature alone (Sacher-Masoch, Proust, Carroll, Kafka), two volumes to cinema, another volume to painting (Francis Bacon), a plateau to music in A Thousand Plateaus, and a third of What is Philosophy? to an account of art. In addition to this, Deleuze’s devoted a variety of essays to various artists, as diverse as Jarry, Klossowski, and Tournier. In all these works, the question is never one of representing the artist or in engaging in the critical analysis of the artist. Rather, for Deleuze, art is a form of thought and thought is always the creation of new forms, new potentials, new ways of living. This, perhaps, is seen most clearly in his analysis of Sacher-Masoch, where Sacher-Masoch’s literature does not merely represent a pre-existing form of desire known as “masochism”, but brings it into being as an entirely new way of living. Just as the bat and bat-sonar must come into being, the artist, philosopher, and scientist, for Deleuze bring new forms of life into being. In this regard, it is clear that Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism must be radically distinguished from classical empiricism. The task of the latter is epistemological, and is concerned with how we might invent the world. For Deleuze it is a question of how worlds are produced, where there is no assumption of a world in itself pre-existing that production. Moreover, Deleuze always approaches the artist as a thinker, treating the artist on the same level as the philosopher. Thus Francis Bacon provides a logic of sensation, Proust an account of signs, cinema an ontology of images, etc. The question is not one of representing the artist or saying what the artist “meant”, but of developing the concepts proper to the affects and percepts the artist has invented.
Although his studies have been around since 2003, it does not seem that Ronald Bogue’s magnificent three volume analysis of Deleuze’s relationship to art has received much attention. Bogue had already written an outstanding introduction to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, released in 1989. To this day, Bogue’s introduction remains among the best available, distinguished by its careful attentiveness to the various texts it explores and the clarity of its exposition. Deleuze on Cinema, Deleuze on Literature, and Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts, are no different in this regard. As I reread these works now, years later, I remember just how much I’ve learned from Bogue and what an illuminating reader of Deleuze he is. Bogue’s style is free of the irritating trendiness that blemishes so much work on Deleuze, distracting from the force and vitality of his concepts, and is instead animated by a rigor that sheds light on the most obscure elements of Deleuze’s thought. Not only does Bogue exemplify a careful attention to Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s texts, but he is a model of clarity. Additionally, Bogue carefully follows Deleuze’s references to various other philosophers such as Ruyer and Simondon, shedding a tremendous amount of light on Deleuze’s often allusive references. For anyone interested in understanding Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism and Deleuze’s metaphysics, one could do worse than Bogue and Deleuze’s writings on art.
September 21, 2007
Posted by larvalsubjects under Politics
I realize this has already been all over the web, but nonetheless…
This video condenses everything wrong with American establishment politics in the last six years. John Kerry stands there and “politely” tries to answer the young man’s questions as the police carry him away and brutally shock him with tazers, all in full view of the Senator. Similarly, the Democrats have stood there and responded politely as the administration has torn apart civil liberties, engaged in torture, started an unjust war, reduced environmental restrictions, and done everything they can to favor the wealthy-elite.
Jodi Dean has written a post responding to Frank Rich’s article describing Americans as apathetic.
Someone in the NYT today, I think Frank Rich, describes Americans as apathetic. The hopeless situation of the war, the recalcitrant lies of the White House and the cynical shallowness of the Democrats, has made Americans turn against even fictional accounts of war.
People might be turning away, not watching the President continue to lie to our faces, trying to tune out the falseness of Petreus (I kept thinking of Doctor Zaius). But it isn’t out of apathy. It’s something else, something that it not quite trauma, but close. Perhaps it’s a kind of profound depression, a depression that shopping and you tube and Britney can neither cure nor cover.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think even conservatives and most Republicans are depressed. It’s not just a left thing anymore. The manic obscenity of Fox News doesn’t have its characteristic triumphal air of self-satisfied mockery. It’s mean and tired, and tries to hide its own awareness of the pointless incredible losses we’ve inflicted under a manic ADD, moving around from false issue to lurid story and hoping people we think it’s news. They won’t. And that’s likely part of the appeal. Any real news adds to the depression.
Is it even depression, or is it sheer numbness? We see events like this take place, and figures like John Kerry do not even raise their voice to intervene and later issue press releases hoping no one was seriously hurt (get some spine you asshole). We watch figures like General Petraeus give testimony before the Senate, presenting a report filled with lies and omissions, yet all the administrations claims are reported exactly as the administration would like, without question. The administration even gets to say that we’re having a troop withdrawal, when in fact this was planned from the beginning and simply returning us to pre-surge levels. To add insult to injury, MoveOn’s ad attempting to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the Petraeus report becomes the topic of discussion, rather than the war itself, and 22 Democrats vote in support of a resolution denouncing the ad. We witness events such as the gross injustices in the Jena Six story, which seem as if they come from some archaic past. Today men were pulled over on Louisiana driving a pick-up truck with nooses tied to the back. Everywhere there are images of gross stupidity, ugliness, injustice, hatred, but also experience a profound sense of powerlessness to do anything about it.
In The Reality of the Mass Media Niklas Luhmann claims that media technology has the capacity to make certain events seem more frequent and omnipresent than in fact they are, by perpetually drawing attention to instances of these events. Thus, when an idiotic public school teacher prevents a student from reading the Bible because he doesn’t understand the first amendment and that it prevent him from leading students in prayer, religious affairs, etc., not students, this story is picked up in the news and creates the impression that such things are going on everywhere. Similarly, when a child is kidnapped or molested, the omnipresence of reporting on this event creates the impression that there is an epidemic of such occurrences. According to Luhmann, this phenomenon serves a moralizing function for the social system, by steering the system to create legislation and other acts that prevent these occurrences. Luhmann’s reasoning is similar to Nietzsche’s in Beyond Good and Evil (or is it The Gay Science) where he argues that the criminal actually serves the morally useful function of reproducing morality.
Is this what is really going on? Is the world really this ugly, stupid, unjust? Or is this a sort of illusion produced by the magnifying effect of media technologies. At this point, tending to my garden looks like a fairly good option.
September 21, 2007
Posted by larvalsubjects under Religion
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Courtesy of my friend Melanie, who also informs me that my Deleuzian Square in Three Dimensions is actually a four dimensional Deleuzian hypercube inclusive of time.
LINCOLN, Nebraska (AP) — A legislator who filed a lawsuit against God has gotten something he might not have expected: a response.
Read the rest here.
September 21, 2007
One of Heidegger’s central contributions to philosophy was his concept of truth as aletheia. Ordinarily truth is understood as a correspondence between a proposition and a state-of-affairs. For instance, the proposition “the sun is shining” is true if, in fact, the sun is shining. A key feature of this conception of truth is that the state-of-affairs to which the proposition refers is transcendent to the proposition, independent of the proposition, and exists in its own right regardless of whether or not the proposition is enunciated. The proposition in no way effects the thing itself. Another theory of truth treats truth as coherence. A proposition here is true if it coheres with a body or web of propositions as in the case, perhaps, of Hegel’s system.
For Heidegger, by contrast, truth is aletheia or the disclosedness or revealing of being. Lest I earn the condemnation of the Heideggarians, I will say upfront that I will not here do Heidegger’s conception of truth as aletheia justice, nor is it my intention to give a careful analysis of his claims. Rather, I wish to indicate how it might be of use in thinking certain rhetorical phenomena.
To claim that truth is aletheia or disclosedness is to claim that an entity must first disclose or reveal itself as a particular sort of entity prior any statements we might make about it. Perhaps this idea can best be elucidated by way of the human body. In encountering the body as a seat of action, an object of medical intervention, a sexual object, and so on, is the body disclosed or revealed in the same way? In living my body, there’s a way in which its physicality, its nature as a volume, flesh, a surface, disappears. Far from being an object like other objects in the world, there’s an invisibility about my lived body, a specific bodily intentionality, such that it is not my body that is the focus of engagement, but rather the destinations towards which I move and the objects with which I am engaged. My hand is not this geometry of flesh, bone, and sinew, but rather is a grasping that is entirely exhausted in this act of typing or this grasping of my coffee cup. To say that my lived body is “exhausted” in this act of typing or in taking hold of the coffee cup and drinking is not to say that it is fatigued, but rather that it disappears in these acts by virtue of the very activity of revealing the world that it is engaged in. It is the coffee cup that is disclosed, the words on the screen, the destination towards which I am moving, not the lived body itself. As such, the lived body is more a collection of vectors, trajectories, directions, illuminating the world independent of it, rather than a geometrical shape and configuration of flesh, bone, and sinew.
September 20, 2007
This semester I had a Logic course thrown at me at the very last minute. Having taught Logic a number of times in the past, I’ve come to feel that focusing on categorical and symbolic logic is of very limited value to the students. Unless the student is going to go into computer science, Anglo-American philosophy, or focus on Badiou, will they really benefit from Venn diagrams (okay, I occasionally find these useful philosophically), Aristotlean syllogisms, and the intricacies of existential quantifiers? Probably not.
For this reason I chose to instead teach the course as a critical thinking course, focusing on informal reasoning and rhetorical analysis. As we’ve begun entering the chapters on rhetoric and psychological fallacies, I’ve been horrified by the reading abilities of my students. To be sure, my students can all read; yet reading does not simply consist in being able to read the words on the page. Rather, it requires a sort of gap, distance, reflection. The idea that words act on us, that words do something, that they don’t simply represent something or refer to something, seems entirely foreign to them. Thus, for example, when asked to 1) identify a particular rhetorical turn being used in a sentence, and 2) to explain what impression the speaker or writer is attempting to produce in the reader or listener, the students are incapable of articulating a response to the second question. They seem to be constitutively incapable of recognizing the way in which connotations of the expression act on us to produce sentiments and beliefs. For instance, they are unable to explain why a politician might talk about a “war on drugs” (or terror, for that matter), rather than simply saying “we must pursue and prosecute those that sell drugs”.
I suppose this is why rhetoric is so effective. We can think of the analysis of rhetoric as being a bit like analyzing a window frame. Most of the time we simply look through the window towards whatever is outside. In this respect, the frame itself becomes invisible, falling into the background. As a result of the way in which the frame covers and veils itself, we thus miss the way in which it selects images for us by creating a distinction between what can be seen and what can’t be seen. Similarly, we look through language to the object spoken about, missing the way in which language frames our apprehension of what is apprehended. There is an entire Heideggerian, alethetic theory of rhetoric and language to be written here. To analyze language and rhetoric requires a step back or a sort of transcendental methodology similar to how Hume and Kant investigated not the objects of knowledge, but the faculties through which the object is apprehended. The analyst of language must renounce the depths (the referents) and instead remain at the surface, forgetting the object and instead attending to the speech and its connotations alone.
Yet the question is, how is this shift in perspective, this shift from focusing on what appears in the window to investigating the frame effected? How is it possible for us to become aware of the frames that enact a morphogenesis of our thoughts and sentiments. The discoveries I am making about cognition in my Logic course terrify me. Politicians and corporations globally spend billions of dollars each year for the formation of frames alone. Due to educational reforms in the United States, we now have an educational system that focuses on rote memorization and schematic rule following (mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc). As a result of this sort of educational strategy, we get entirely passive, docile subjects that are merely stimulus-response machines, reacting to whatever images and words come their way in an entirely unreflective fashion, rather than actively engaging these words and images, determining how those words and images work us over like passive clay in the hands of a potter. Can it be said that such subjects, myself included, are even human? To what degree do we possess autonomy and to what degree are we simple coded stimulus-response machines.
Aren’t we rather highly sophisticated mechanisms that can be easily directed through a few well chosen, potent images and words? The other night I watched a documentary on the story of Carol Smith and Cameron Hooker. The story of Carol Smith underlines this point beautifully. Carol Smith was kidnapped and kept as a sex slave by the sadistic Cameron Hooker for seven years. For much of this time she enjoyed a high degree of freedom, moving freely about the house and yard, doing a variety of things around the house. At one point he let her call her family and even took her to visit. She even wrote him love letters. At no time during these seven years did she try to escape. He had convinced her that there was a ring of people throughout the United States called “The Company” that kept sex slaves. We’re she to escape, he said, The Company would come after her and kill her and her family. That’s all it took to create a perfectly docile subject, a subject that perhaps even grew to see aspects of her captivity as normal. The story of Carol Smith is really just a microcosm of all socialization or subjectification. Power need not function through bars and guns. It can do its job simply through words and images. Why else would people, again and again, submit to forms of social organization that are profoundly against their own interests and flourishing?
But again, this is precisely why rhetoric works. The question is, what form of engagement, what kind of pedagogy, can produce active subjects. Deleuze often argued that thought is not a natural disposition, but requires a disruptive encounter that engenders thinking within thought. The rest of the time, according to him, we’re simply stimulus-response machines governed by the model of recognition or the familiar (his polemics against phenomenology largely issue from the way in which it valorizes recognition or the everyday lifeworld). Lacan argued that thought requires a trauma, an encounter with something missing from its place, the failure for something to be where one expects it. Russell said that he was lucky to think for a single minute of a day each year. Badiou argues that thought requires an event, the emergence of something that nothing in the Encyclopedia allows for. For Heidegger, the present-at-hand only becomes illuminated as present-at-hand when the ready-to-hand fails or breaks down. When my hammer breaks, I suddenly discover the world in its brute facticity, divested of my various concernful engagements, alien and over against me. I can see why Logic professors focus on categorical and symbolic logic. Everyone is happy. There are simple rules to follow such that the automatons can come to the right answer in much the same way a calculator calculates a solution. But what would be a pedagogy of the encounter that departed from the production of the endless stimulus-response machine?
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