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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.

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In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume, outlining the aim of his investigation, writes:

The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these abstruse questions [of philosophy], is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this fatigue, in order to live at ease ever after: And must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which, being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom. (6)

I do not, of course, advocate Hume’s specific epistemology, though I do agree with the spirit of his remarks with regard to “abstruse philosophy” that dresses superstition up in fine sounding jargon. A pig with lipstick is still lipstick. The first step towards recovery consists in admitting you have a problem. I would like to confess that I am a recovering Heideggerian. Yes, I know this is scandalous and it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Upon my bookshelves I have dozens of his lectures and enough secondary sources to kill a man in an avalanch. I’ve spent hours pouring over his various works, taking intricate notes, and writing detailed commentaries. As an undergrad I wrote a hundred page thesis on his theory of truth as aletheia or the play of revealing and concealing, prior to any referential propositions. I worked through the nuances and maze of his analyses of Aristotle’s account of the proposition, the apophantic, and logos. I chose to go to Loyola University of Chicago for graduate school so that I might study under the good Tom Sheehen and took more seminars on Heidegger than I took on any other philosopher. Yes, I am a recovering Heideggerian. And like anyone who has once intensely loved something and then given it up, I confess that I can hardly stand to read a paragraph of Heidegger before I am filled with irritation.

After Sheehen left to become a bigwig at Berkeley, I took up courses with Adrian Peperzak, the Levinasian, and Patricia Huntington, a feminist, Heideggerian, Kierkegaardian. And one of the things I began to notice is that the very structure of Heidegger’s questions is theological in character… Or more precisely, his thought has the structure of negative theology. Who could miss this resonance in the distinction between Being and beings, where “being is always the being of a being but is not itself a being” and where being withdraws and hides itself while nonetheless “giving”.

According to the story, and I’m being horribly reductive here, Western metaphysics forgets Being, the giving through which the given is produced, the play of revealing and concealing that is prior to any actuality. Heidegger thus calls for a return to the Greeks, the pre-Socratics in particular, who were still in communion with this poetic revealing and concealing of Being and beings, prior to the onset of the fall into ontotheology and the primacy of presence. But what if Heidegger’s thought (note my Zizekian flourish here!) has nothing to do with a sort of philogical excavation of pre-Socratic thought, but is itself simply a consequence of the emergence of late industrial capitalism? What if it is precisely the objectifying tendencies of capitalism that render the play of revealing and concealing accessible to thought. In volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes:

It was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their character as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of labor, and the social relations between individual producers. (75-6, my bold).

Like Feuerbach’s polemical claim that God is just a fetishized version of man, could it not be said that Heidegger’s teutonic rumblings about Being, Sending, Giving, revealing, concealing etc., are just fetishized descriptions of processes undergone in the formation and exchange of commodities and that the play of revealing and concealing is not a Greek contribution, but rather something that becomes possible at a very specific historical moment under the conditions of capitalism? Indeed, when we pause to look at theoretical formations around this time, we find dialectics of revealing and concealing everywhere: Freud’s analysis of the formations of the unconscious and the dreamwork, anthropological discoveries of the symbolic underly various social practices, relational forms of thought that discover networks behind the atomistic actualities of the world. If this were the case, then all sorts of questions would be raised about the nolstagic narrative of the fall that underlies so much of Heidegger’s thought.

Some of you might recall the enthusiasm I expressed over the victory of the democratic party in November. Indeed, for me these days the entire goal is to find a way to be a bit optimistic and affirmative in a world of critical and political theory that strikes me as having become fashionably pessimistic and self-indulgent. As in all things, optimism is quickly diminished when confronting the corruption of party politics. Nancy Pelosi has decided to bar labor representatives from meeting with freshman representatives to discuss the economic direction of the country, thereby giving the middle finger to labor in the United States. I think this is a lethal error, and that moves such as this account for the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the United States. It is not by mistake that the same demographic that once made up the labor movements of the past is today aligned with the religious right. The rise of Christian fundamentalism can be plotted against the attack on labor movements in the United States, starting in the early seventies. In the face of globalization and perpetual layoffs, and a lack of political representation, the only option seems to be one of becoming Stoic and turning towards God. No wonder we are inhabited by such apocalyptic visions. It’s as if the United States has become Heideggerian, believing that “only a god can save us now”.

For years I have heard the same argument over and over again: “The democratic party may not be the best, but there’s no alternative. If you vote otherwise, then they will lose and things will be even worse than they are now.” This line of reasoning is an example of a forced vel of alienation– “your money or your life!” –and insures that nothing changes or is ever done. Concerted efforts need to be made to organize and create genuine alternatives to this status quo, and the spectre of this argument or line of reasoning needs to be demolished.