October 2017


Astronaut has now spent more continuous time in outer space than any other person in history.  Clocking in at 520 days, I can scarcely imagine what this must have been like.  The mission was conducted to gather data on the impact of long-term space dwelling on the human body to determine the feasibility of a mission to Mars, and the verdict, I think, is not good.  The passages I’ve read from his memoir of the experience are riveting and, I think, of great philosophical interest as raw material for thinking the being of beings.  The significance of Kelly’s experience goes well beyond insight into what happens to us when we are in space for prolonged periods of time, giving us a sense of both what it is to be a body and a thing.  In a certain respect, we can say that Kelly’s mission is the greatest of ontological experiments, for what it does is detach the body from the field in which it ordinarily dwells (the earth), raising the question of just what a body is.  From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find this experiment incredibly interesting, because it both confirms, after a fashion, the thesis of withdrawal insofar as we discover startling features of the body in a zero-g environment, while also refuting it.  If the latter, then this is because we discover just how dependent bodies and things are on the fields in which they dwell or exist.

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On this point, Lacan is emphatic:  repression only bears on representations.  The consequence of this is that affects and drives cannot be repressed.  It belongs to the essence of an affect to affect us or to be felt.  It belongs the essence of drive to, well, drive us.  However, it would be a mistake to take affect as a reliable guide to truth or what the affect is about, for affect is itself a composite structure.  Let us take the Saussurean sign as a model of affect.  On the one hand, we have the signifier.  On the other hand, we have the signified.  In the domain of affect, we can say that the signifier is the felt component of the affect:  it is the way that anger, frustration, joy, excitement, hatred, and all the rest feel.

Stone Marten or Beech Marten (Martes foina), Normandy, France

However, every affect has a representational component as well, which would be the signified dimension of the affect.  While the felt component of the affect cannot be repressed– it will be experienced, as we say, one way or another –the representational component can be repressed.  A feeling and the representation that animates it can be divided or separated from one another, such that the feeling is felt without its “representational animator” being present to thought.  An in being split from its content or signified, from its representational cause, the affect can drift from its true psychic cause to other things.  The affect can displace the feeling from one representation to another.  We see this, above all, in the case of phobias.  In galeophobia, the person experiences intense panic and fear when encountering weasels, even if only in the form a picture of a weasel, or even when hearing the word “weasel”.  “Weasel” is a representational content that accompanies the felt or experienced component of panic and anxiety.

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Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?

~Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 6

Perhaps it could be said that a central motivation behind the rise of the new materialism and object-oriented ontology was a discontent with a focus on the discursive or semiotic in cultural theory and the more critically minded social sciences.  To be sure, there were exceptions to this– there always are! –and both of these traditions have learned and drawn deeply from these exceptions, but it is no exaggeration to suggest that a focus on the semiotic was hegemonic in continentally inflected theory up through the 90s.  In the world of philosophy, phenomenology, with its focus on lived experience, was the dominant theoretical framework.  We also had the much less dominant thought of the critical theorists, post-structuralists, and postmoderns, with their talk about talk about the world.  I’ve always felt that Lacan summed this style of thinking up best when, in his late seminar Encore, he declared that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”  It is not just the unconscious that is structured like language, but reality is also structured like a language.  We throw the web of signs and signifiers over the earth, categorizing and sorting things in innumerable ways that are deeply consequential to all life on the planet.

This point is dramatically driven home in “The Instance of the Letter”, when Lacan points out that it is nothing about the doors, nor the rooms behind them, that makes one a lady’s room and the other the men’s room, but rather it is the agency of the semiotic or the intervention of the signifier that creates this partition that then becomes normative in the lives of people.  While the structuration of gendered restrooms is rather minor– though we can see how heated this issue has become in American debates over which restrooms trans people can use –it becomes far more consequential when we are speaking of identities and what makes a person the sort of person they are.  What makes a man a man, a woman a woman, someone a person of color, or the very distinction between the human and the animal?  The greatness of the social constructivist and linguistic turn was to both diagnose a sort of illusion whereby we see the properties of the thing as itself dictating its identity in a signifying assemblage, and to show how these were effects of language and society.  In this respect, the linguistic turn and social constructivist critique very closely resembled Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism.  In the naive position, value seems to be something that resides in the commodity itself.  What Marx so brilliantly showed was how value is not a property of the object itself– say the chunk of gold –but instead arises from social relations that, in their turn, veil relations of domination and exploitation.  When we pierce the illusion of the commodity, the possibility of emancipation opens as we can then discern these social relations.  Likewise in the case of the signifying apparatus and the way it structures identities, the world, and social relations.  We can see, for example, how very different the phenomenon of addiction might look when we no longer understand it as being merely a condition a person suffers from, but a performative discourse by which people name themselves as addicts and doctors, experts, a legal apparatus, and institutions classify people as such.  All sorts of new questions emerge.

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I have an interview out with the Dutch design magazine, MONU.  This issue devoted to small urbanism.  Unfortunately the entire interview is not available online, but a portion of it can be found here.  Consider picking up a copy!

 

 

France. Paris et Banlieue. Graffiti, bombages, inscription et affiche dans les fac et les rue autour de mai 1968

In Freedom Evolves, Dennett suggests– if I understand him correctly –that while everything is causally determined, our belief that we are free is nonetheless crucial because beliefs are themselves causal forces.  It’s been a long time since I read the text, but if my recollection is accurate, he gives the example of learning how to play the guitar.  If I believe I will never be able to learn the guitar, then I will never learn the guitar.  I will not make the effort, and, indeed, as Fink somewhere suggests, my unconscious might even lead my thought to become clouded when trying to learn these things.  The belief is itself a causal influence in what I am capable of doing.  Where the belief is lacking, my doubt will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is not, of course, to suggest that should I believe I can learn how to play the guitar I will become Jimmy Hendrix, only that without the belief that I can learn, I will never learn.

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Today I learned that my high school English teacher, Miriam Rapport, died back in June of 2015.  My heart aches with the knowledge that she has passed from the world, but I am also filled with fond memories.  She was a Jewish woman of Russian descent, and spoke often of what her family had been through both in Russia and during the war.  She was uncompromising in what she expected from us, who was charmingly cantankerous, and who had a quick, sarcastic wit and a profound love of teaching and her students.  In many respects, Mrs. Rapport taught me how to read.  Our class would sit in a large circle, reading Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Beowulf, and so many other things line by line.  She shared my love of the existentialists and directed me to a variety of things to read.  She introduced me to Dostoevsky and Kafka.  I would describe Mrs. Rapport’s theory of reading as “paranoid”.  “Everything, down to the most insignificant detail”, she would say, “is there for a reason and the task of a reading is to uncover why it is there.”  She would then add, “the author might not have known that reason nor intended that thing, but nonetheless, that purple umbrella somehow contributes to the text.”  Clearly she had read the French literary theorists.  That was her theory of reading, and it is one that I have carried with me ever since whether it comes to critiquing novels, films, or television shows.  There is a reason Bruce Willis’s character is hitting golf balls from an oil rig at a Greenpeace at the beginning of Armageddon.  It is part of the key to understanding the entire film.  It is not merely an amusing plot point.

The opening paragraphs of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics always leave me speechless due to their strangeness.  Aristotle famously writes,

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly ever action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.  But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.  Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.  Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth [sic? in other translations, I’ve seen this passage discuss household management, not wealth; this seems to be an anachronistic reading of ancient understandings of economics, coming as it does from oikos, which refers to the home].  But where such arts fall under a single capacity– as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others– in all of these the ends of the master art are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued.  It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

So far so good.  Everything Aristotle here says is clear enough and I marvel at the clarity and systematicity of his thought process.  It is the next paragraph that gets strange.  He continues,

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.  Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?  If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.  It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art.

Now comes the startling sentence that brings everything to a grinding halt.

And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.  For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete both to attain and to preserve; for though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.  These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry, being concerned with politics, aims.  (The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume II, 1729 – 30)

I distinctly recall the shock I experienced decades ago upon reading the second paragraph of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Such a reaction, I think, calls for an interpretation both of the text and my assumptions at the time.  Why was this claim so startling to me.  Part of the issue, of course, has to do with the title of the Nicomachean Ethics.  “Ethics”, the title says.  I opened the text expecting a treatise on right moral or ethical conduct; yet now, suddenly, the great Aristotle was telling me that this was a treatise on politics.  At the time I must have thought that ethics and politics were two separate realms, that they were distinct issues and domains of inquiry, yet here I was being told that they are interrelated; or, to put the matter more forcibly, that ethics is the domain of the political.  I have more to say about this “mysterious” claim in a moment.

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