September 2017


Perhaps my favorite moment in reading philosophy occurs when you encounter that element of their thought that appears both random and batshit, crazy insane.  Instances of such moments would be when I read Plato denouncing certain instruments and meters in poetry, or Leibniz claiming that the monads contain everything that will ever happen to them, past, present, and future, or when Epictetus compares lost family members to broken vases, or when Deleuze speaks about his hatred of domesticated animals like cats and dogs, or when Aristotle claims that political science is the highest of the sciences.  These are moments that appear completely idiosyncratic and bizarre, without any reason.  The moment that I love in these encounters, however, is when suddenly you understand the “logic” of that thought and the necessity behind it.  The joy that comes from these encounters is when you understand the ineluctability of those conclusions given the axioms of the thinker’s philosophy.  I love that moment when these strange claims no longer appear to be individual idiosyncrasies, but rather follow from their most fundamental commitments ethically, politically and metaphysically.  This suggests reading after the manner of Sherlock Holmes.  Rather than dismissing these things as mere oddities of a personality, they should instead be seen as symptoms of both a logos and an alterity that provides a clue to the fundamental commitments of the thought.  These moments of fundamental alterity are opportunities to be drawn out of our own ethical, political, and ontological commitments, to encounter the true difference of the text, and to read in a way that doesn’t simply project our own hermeneutic prejudices on to what it is that we’re reading.  They are the places where our own larvae or becomings become possible when reading.

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After years of doing it, I finally feel that I’m getting somewhat good at teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  That might sound like a rather strange thing to say.  I’ve never struggled, of course, to articulate Aristotle’s thesis that the good life, happiness, is the life of virtue, or that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency, nor that we form our character through habit or repeating virtuous actions.  I’ve never struggled to link Aristotle’s ethical conception of the subject to his account of the four causes, so as to explain why he would say something as odd as the claim that the virtuous life is the happiest life (why not the life of pleasure or wealth or fame or intense experiences or something else besides).

I’ve never had difficulty teaching these things.  Aristotle is quite organized and has the virtue of clearly stating his arguments.  No, I think teaching these things well is something quite different.  Good teaching of a philosophy, I think, entails bringing out what is unspoken and unsaid in a text; what is so self-evident, so taken for granted, that the thinker felt no need to even articulate it (and perhaps could not have even articulated it).  But that’s the least of it.  I think we teach a philosophy well when we animate or dramatize it, bringing it to life as something we might live and as a set of problems we might encounter in our own life.  In the case of Aristotle, this above all means making sense of his mysterious open pages where he matter of factly, without blinking an eye, claims that political science is the highest of the sciences.  Good teaching here entails bringing out the essential strangeness of this claim, how odd it sounds to our contemporary ears, how foreign it sounds, and then to show how this is not a madness of Aristotle’s part, but rather that the term has a very different meaning than the worn coin so many people use today when they evoke the word “politics”.  It then consists in using this claim is the master key for interpreting the ethical problem (for Aristotle) par excellence, using it to decipher the virtues (especially the surprising ones pertaining to conversation, humor, and righteous anger or indignation), and that Aristotle is above all talking about the relationship of the person to her or his fellows in the city.  It then consists of a sort of phenomenological archeology of the vices of excess and deficiency in each case, tracing them back to our affective responses to excess and deficiency when we encounter people who suffer from these excesses and deficiencies.  That requires dramatization and performance.

Today I laughed maniacally in class out of the blue.  I could be heard all the way out in the foyer.  My students jumped in their seats and said “what the hell, man?!?  Why did you do that?”  And I said, that is excess.  Look at how unsettled you all are!  That is his point!  Now apply it to the junky or the person in the grips of an addiction, or the child having a tantrum, or the glutton, or the humorless person who turns every joke made by another into a moral outrage or the pedant or the person without love or desire, or the person that who has no indignation when faced with an injustice or the person who is always “on” like Robin Williams in interview who dominates all the discussion with his jokes and impressions or the person who is a workaholic or who does nothing at all or the madman.  Think of all of these people and how you relate to them and react to them.  They responded, “how long were you planning that laughter, how long were you building up to it?”  A professor of philosophy, I think, is a special sort of chameleon that becomes each philosopher she is teaching, embodying it and making it a form of life for the time that it is teaching, rendering its problems and concepts present in the flesh of speech and the body.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable endeavors of Plato’s thought is the endeavor to ground ethics in immanence.  To be sure, Plato posits a “good that is both otherwise than and beyond being”, which is indeed a sort of transcendent supplement.  However, this is a very different sort of supplement than a theistic God that watches and judges our action.  What Plato seeks– perhaps –is a justification for justice, for the ethical, that finds a value in these things themselves.  This, in its turn, becomes a task of philosophical thought to present.  Can we only defend justice in terms of a transcendent supplement like a personalistic or theistic God, or can we evoke a justification for justice that finds value in justice itself?  To put it crassly, do we need a God(s) to provide us with a motive to be good, or is there a value in the good itself?

Here I hasten to add that I am approaching terms like the “good”, the “just”, the “ethical” and so on as “master-signifiers” or S1’s; that is to say, I am approaching them as empty terms.  We know our inquiry is seeking these things, that we might even have intuitions or hunches as to what they might be, and that we would like to know what these terms mean, but as of yet we don’t know.  As old Plato might say, we only have doxa or opinions about these matters:  and perhaps that is all we will ever have.  A knowledge of these things would be the outcome of inquiry, not something we begin with.  And as Plato’s student Aristotle would say, these “origins” or arche something we are working towards and aiming at, not something we begin with.  Here, then, we might find a major difference between religious thought– if any valid generalizations can be made about the signifier “religion”; and I have my doubts –and philosophical thought.  Religion, at least in its monotheistic variants, begins with the premise that it knows the ethical good and proceeds from a law handed down through revelation, whereas philosophy would like to know the good and works towards such a knowledge.

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Last week I spoke of an uncanny encounter with a thing that suddenly appeared in my world out of nowhere.  I walked to my mailbox and had received a package (right), addressed to me, from Amazon.  I had not ordered this package, nor did it anywhere appear in my list of recent orders.  Moreover, there was no money subtracted from my bank account.  Above all, I had no idea what this thing was.  Clearly it displayed some human use, some “equipmentality”, but what its function might be was entirely mysterious to me.  This thing appeared out of nowhere, yet here it was…  A hole in my world.

I compared this experience to Heidegger’s discussion of the broken tool in Division I of Being and Time.  However, the flavor of this encounter was markedly different than that of having one of your pieces of equipment break.  Where the broken tool has the effect of bringing the entire network of equipmentality into relief, thereby disclosing the world of significance or meaning that is ordinarily invisible, this encounter didn’t so much bring the world of signifying relations into relief, but rather opened a sort of void or gap in the world of meaning, the symbolic, disclosing the operation of something else that is not of this world.

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I’m about a third of the way through Badiou’s “hypertranslation” of Plato’s Republic.  It is difficult to describe the experience of reading this book, beyond saying that the “translation” is both marvelous and startling.  What is a “hypertranslation”?  That is difficult to say.  On the one hand, Badiou’s translation, in many respects, follows Plato’s original Republic quite closely.  On the other hand, it turns the text into something entirely different.  It would be a mistake to think that Badiou’s hypertranslation attempts to re-present Plato’s original work.  While it follows the text closely, it becomes something other in this process.  It speaks differently than the original.  As Susan Spitzer, the translator of the translation(!), writes in the preface,

“Hypertranslation” is the word that Alain Badiou has used, in The Communist Hypothesis and elsewhere, to describe his treatment of Plato’s Republic.  Not a “simple” translation into French of the Greek original, then, and still less a scholarly critique of it, Badou’s text transforms the Republic into something startlingly new by expanding, reducing, updating and dramatizing it, leavening it with humor and revitalizing its language with his own philosophical lexicon.  Yet, for all the plasticity of the hyper translation, its freewheeling appropriation of the source text, it still remains an adaptation based firmly on his painstaking translation of Plato’s language into modern French– as he remind us in the Preface to the second edition.  (xxiv)

It would be a mistake to suppose that Badiou merely “updates” Plato’s text.  All sorts of transformations occur.  The vision of the republic is replaced by that of communism.  The famous “Good” is replaced by “Truth” (one must be familiar with Badiou’s concept of “Truth” to understand the significance of this move).  The “soul” is replaced by “subject” (again, one must be familiar with Badiou’s theory of the subject to understand the significance of this).  Adeimantus is replaced by a female character, Amantha, and the characters do not merely say “yes, Socrates”, “No, Socrates”, but are fully realized characters that give their own speeches, that participate in the discussion in a fully dialogical sense, and that criticize Socrates in a variety of places.  There are references to Rousseau, Deleuze, Lacan, and a host of other thinkers throughout the text as if they were contemporaries of Socrates, and Socrates even criticizes Plato at various points.  But above all, there are references to all sorts of “post-Greek” historical events ranging from Lance Armstrong, to the Viet Nam war, to Nazis, contemporary consumer capitalism, and all the rest.

In his admirable Introduction to the text, the great Ken Reinhard remarks that Badiou used four techniques in his hypertranslation:  formal restructuration, universalization, conceptual displacement, and contemporaneity.  The effect of these techniques– and you’ll have to read the introduction to understand what they are –produces a startling effect.  It is indeed Plato’s Republic, but it is something else besides.  It is perhaps– as Reinhard doesn’t fail to note –something in Plato more than Plato.

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Today I received the following thing from Amazon in the mail.  It was addressed to me, yet I didn’t order it.  It didn’t appear in my order history, nor was I charged for it.  When I opened it I had no idea what it was.  I had to look it up by it’s ISBN number.  Apparently it has something to do with synthetic rope.  Perhaps mountain climbing?

It is strange, even uncanny, when such things happen.  They create a minor rupture in your world.  My thoughts were led to Heidegger.  Heidegger challenged a very long-running tradition of conceiving our relationship to the world in terms of representational knowledge.  That tradition assumed the position of the passive observer or the scientist who wishes to know the truth; to know reality.  In division one of Being and Time, Heidegger said “no, we are not passive observers of the world, but rather engaged, concerned agents!”  We are people that engage in tasks for the sake of this or that.  We live in a world of “meaning”, structured by projects.  And in engaging with that world, we do so through equipment.  There is not an equipment, said Heidegger, because equipment always belongs to relations, to a network, with other bits of equipment for the sake of some task.  The stove refers to the pan which refers to the food to be cooked, which ultimately refers to sustenance.  When equipment is functioning correctly, when it’s doing its task, it’s invisible.  However, when something breaks or doesn’t work, the network suddenly becomes visible and we notice how all of these things relate to one another and rely on one another in our concernful dealings.

Well the appearance of this thing in my world is an experience like that broken tool.  Yet phenomenologically it’s different.  It’s the appearance of something uncanny.  Like the broken tool, it has the effect of mildly decomposing a world and bringing that network into relief or visibility.  Yet unlike the broken tool, it seems to speak to alterity as something that perpetually haunts worldhood.  Something can always strike from without.  This strange thing appeared in my world from nowhere, challenging the meaningfulness of that world.  Was it sent by a friend as a gift, meant to express some sort of message?  What would that message be?  Perhaps that I should climb mountains?  Was it merely a mistake on the part of Amazon?  How does that happen?  Has a mountain climber stolen my identity and made a mistake when ordering things under my name?  This thing that has appeared in my world is something without a place, something that doesn’t belong, something that isn’t of the regime of appearance that governs my world, yet here it is.  It arrived nonetheless.  And in appearing in my world– in the fullness of its senselessness or mysteryit performs the difference between the world and the earth, bringing the earth as that which is other than the world into relief, causing the ground to rise to the surface, revealing that the systems of meaning that constitute the worldhood of the world is not all…  That there is this fundamental alterity at the heart of the meaning of being that might be called existence.  What I encountered in this strange little bit of postage– and I can’t help but think of Derrida’s Glas here –was a little bit of the real in its subtle uncanniness.  I encountered something that called my own identity and world into question.

I apologize to my readers about this post as I realize no one wants to talk about it anymore.  However, the only way to navigate a trauma is to talk about it.  That’s the only way you bleed off the real.  You do so through the agency of the symbolic.  There’s a lot of the real that I still need to bleed off.  I wish I were done with it.

It is hard to fully express and put into words my grief over the last election.  For me, above all, the last election meant game over for the planet earth.  I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s the thought I can’t escape.  I think the single greatest threat facing us is climate change.  I believe that we have a very narrow window for having any hope of addressing this issue.  With the election of Trump, a Republican senate and congress, and a right-leaning supreme court, I believe that we have lost that window of action– America is among the highest for carbon emissions –and that our daughter can look forward to a future akin to the world of Mad Max.  I really don’t think people appreciate the gravity of the effects of climate change at the level of the atmosphere, its economic effect, and the very possibility of having anything like a society.  It’s not one issue among others.  The others matter, but it is the foundation of all the rest.  I can’t shake this thought and I am despondent over it.

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