A challenging book, and not by virtue of its difficulty.


Carl of Dead Voles has kindly (irritatingly) tagged me with a meme. I didn’t participate in the last one, so I suppose I’m obligated to give it a go this time around.

The meme is this:

“Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt.”

Link back to this blog entry.

Include links to 5 (or more) educators.”

The picture I have chosen is this:

I suppose, despite Delacroix’s own wishes, I will call it “Liberty and Revolution”. In the tradition of thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, and Marx, I would like to produce students who are free, who are not simply props of ideology, cliches, and superstitition (or who have the tools to question these things), and who are capable of imagining a world other than the one we live in and who act to produce such a world. This does not entail using the classroom as a platform or pulpit for indoctrinating students with a specific set of claims, but rather of giving them tools and concepts that might allow them to no longer see the world as self-evident, natural, or obvious. I can’t say whether or not I’ve had much success in achieving these aims, but certainly something like this is simultaneously why I so often find myself depressed when teaching (as I discover just how pervasive these things are), and what I ardently hope education is capable of achieving.

I tag

I Cite

Infinite Thought

Perverse Egalitarianism

Joseph Kugelmass

An und sur sich

I am always startled when semiotic codes surrounding style stand in stark contrast to the ideology a person espouses. For example, recently we have seen how certain movements in the Christian right have embraced counter-cultural forms of style found among skaters, punks, goth, and hard rock for very conservative ends. Where many of these movements are implicitly forms of critique of cultural hypocrisy and capitalist consummerism, these semiotic codes instead get redirected to the most normalizing, conformist, reactionary ends. Along these lines I was today depressed to read one of my goth students argue that Michael Savage and Glenn Beck are Socratic figures, speaking truth to power, and undermining the injustices of the powerful elite. How can it not be immediately evident that such figures are apologists for social and economic injustices, distorting the true nature of things through their rhetoric and constant appeal to arguments from outrage? I suppose this is one meaning of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. We would like there to be stable codes, for the signifier to be intrinsically attached to a particular signified, but the signifier can come to be attached to any signifier (functioning as a signified), such that we can never infer from the manifestation of a signifier what signified it is attached to. Nonetheless, I find the way in which codes are reterritorialized, the way in which deterritorializations are snatched up by various forms of capture that redirect them towards exploitation and normalization, to be deeply depressing. Or perhaps, in a more optimistic vein, it could be said that insofar as the signifier enjoys a life of its own– isn’t this the meaning of the agency of the letter? –that perhaps these mismatched codes are traces of an unconscious desire to draw a line of flight and escape such sad passions. In that case I wish such a desire could coincide with a conscious will, rather than being contrasted with the dark forces of ressentiment.


At present, in my critical thinking class, we’ve been discussing rhetoric and what the book refers to as psychological fallacies. After discussing a number of the informal fallacies a student queried “so, are these fallacies simply automatic psychological distortions that are somehow caused by the brain, or are people intentionally trying to deceive their audience when these fallacies are committed?” Given that I generally find that my students are solipsists, or at least atomistic individualists, I was pleased by this question as it indicated the student was thinking about audience or others. I responded that there is no black and white answer to this question, and, as I have argued here, often these distortions are more the result of our passionate attachments than the result of a malicious desire to achieve. I did, however, try to come up with some examples, pointing to the outrage machines on the news (Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Al Franken, Kieth Olbermann) who perhaps intentionally employ certain fallacies to the advantage of their ideology (particularly the ever favorite argument from outrage, where the outrage has little or nothing to do with the claim). Casting about for another example I also brought up the “Creation Evidence Museum” here in Texas (google it, I won’t link to it), where there is a dinosaur footprint with a human footprint inside of it. “Certainly this”, I mused, “was an example of an intentional deception on the part of the proprietors of the museum. And what would motivate such people to fabricate evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time? Perhaps the belief that their creation story must be literally true regardless.” Immediately two students piped up: “But the Bible mentions ‘behemoths’!!!” (Google “are dinosaurs in the Bible” and hit the second link, it has some marvelous cartoon drawings). I asked how they knew that “behemoth” refers to dinosaurs rather than elephants, whales, or giant squid. They seemed nonplussed. Such, I suppose, is the power of some ignorant, yet “well meaning”, priests who would foster a sense of misology among their lay and strive to keep them in a state of ignorant denial. The worst part is that I actually feel guilty, as if there is something wrong in actively advocating evolutionary theory in biology… As if there is actually a legitimate controversy here. It is the same sort of guilt I sometimes feel when anthropomorphic global warming issues come up… As if you’re supposed to give credence to those who treat it merely as a natural cycle.

STUDENT: Professor Sinthome, when you were discussing rhetoric and the distinction between expression, content, and structure in language today you made me think about my shirt.

ME: Oh? (Confused)

STUDENT: (student turns around) Well if you read what it says– Peace, Love, and Happiness –it expresses one thing. Yet where did it come from? Where was it made? This shirt was made in x, not exactly the nicest place in the world. It’s like, it’s like, the packaging says one thing and that’s what you endorse, yet when you look into what’s behind the packaging, the message all falls apart. Like with all those organic foods I buy.

ME: So what is it you’re really consuming when you consume these things?

Students shuffling out of the classroom after a discussion of Platonic realism and the possibility of transcendent, objective values independent of culture, history, and individual determination.

STUDENT: “This class is impossible.”

ME (Alarmed): “Why?”

STUDENT: “We come in here thinking we understand the world and now we discover that everything we think might be mistaken.”


The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.


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