Powerpoint Philosophy

On the first night of the CRESC conference on objects here in Manchester, Chandra Mukerji gave an interesting talk on the move from personal rule to impersonal rule in the 17th century, highlighted by her own work on a canal built at the time. I won’t reply to that paper now, though I would suggest her work would have bolstered with references to similar accounts of that time period beyond Weber (Marx and Foucault’s long meditations on this period are notable, as well as all the writings of the anti-royalists of the period).  In any event what I wanted to write about quickly is Mukerji’s use of powerpoint. I’m not contesting her work, but actually the form.

It’s actually a great pedagogical example for structuralism. That is, no matter what one wants to say etc. the very structure or place in a given structure one inhabits determines one’s actions.  (Think of Lacan’s essay on Poe.)  So whereas in Lacan, you have the subject-supposed-to-know, with Powerpoint, you have the subject-who-comes-off-like-they-know-little. Points are put up on the screen that, by the very structure of how powerpoint works, end up sounding so banal that whatever critical point you want to make it lost. A few examples: Discussing the canal, I learn “water generally flows downhill,” that “forces of nature often frustrate man’s ambitions,” that the “ocean has destroyed numerous ships over the years.” By the end, you’re so frustrated by the banality of what you’re being told–which can be supplied by a promising 5 year old–that you might lose the point that this is actually an author who has just published a wonderful and tightly argued book on this topic. But powerpoint obliterates that and I have yet to see a complicated theoretical point that can make it through the powerpoint filter. It is a thought destroyer and I’ll resist using bullet points in presenting this issue. Use it for quotations and artworks. No for presenting ideas in your paper.  Though, you now know that water does tend to flow downhill.

On Sarcasm…

Rovati does mention this, which I take issue with:

When sarcasm becomes the systematic shortcut for analysis, I doubt that philosophy remains (as Negri writes in the opening of his pamphlet) ‘that critical activity that allows one to grasp one’s time and orientate oneself in it’

I wish I had a better, more sarcastic rejoinder to this. But bullshit. Sarcasm is wonderful–it often cuts to the core of something, devastates it, and leaves the scene before one has barely noticed. It’s the court joker to presumptions of philosophical sovereignty. There’s a lot written recently (Cindy Willet’s great book on this comes to mind) on politics and humor, and I think there’s a generation of people that think “snark” and “sarcasm” are inherently bad, rude even. Oh Onion and Daily Show–what would the Bush years have been like without you? This is often turned against various bloggers by mainstream editorialists in the states.  As if we have a philosophical or political of code of conduct that we all agreed to … and as if Nietzsche never picked up a pen and said, “truth is a woman.” Ok, not the best example. But if truth is a woman (and I, of course, dear reader, mean this in the fully post-Derrida’s Spurs sense), then sarcasm is the wonderful transvestite who reminds you that truth doesn’t always come in the mode of normalized codes of conduct… and then doesn’t just do the “critique” (since it’s not just Butlerian parody) but also has a living, breathing life beyond that…

And why no shortcuts? For me, one of Zizek’s best analyses is in the Parallax View. I don’t have it in front of me, but he has this great paragraph on Heidegger’s reading of Fug, which he spends forever on in the Introduction to Metaphysics, as a translation for the Greek dikê. He spends forever on the etymology, on how it means both way and harmony and so on… But as Zizek points out, it’s also the root of the word “fuck.” And so he concludes—and here’s a great shortcut to Zizek’s whole reading of Heidegger as wanting to cut out any notion of desire from ontology—why didn’t Heidegger just write about the “great fuck of being”? (I’m ruining the line.) Or better, the “poetic harmonizing engaged by the thinker in the face of the great fuck of being?”

Now that’s a great fuckin’ shortcut.

Response to Negri on Italian philosophy

Pier Rovati has a response to Negri’s pamphlet on Italian philosophy…

In spite of appearances, Antonio Negri’s obscure pamphlet ‘The Italian Difference’ does not really lend itself to a polemical discussion. It must be taken for what it is, a coup de théâtre dictated—as the author himself confesses—by a rather ingenuous moment of hubris. At the end of the day, it is a sparata, as we say in Italian. Such a blast would intend to strike at the entirety of Italian contemporary thought (and with particular violence against so-called ‘weak thought’) in its capacity as a philosophy of the master; at the same time, it positively exempts from this treatment three names—the old Gramsci, and the new Mario Tronti, the workerist, and Luisa Muraro, the feminist—in their capacity as, it would seem, philosophies that creatively resists the master by means of difference. Everything else is a desert.

True. But the next part (in itals) is best. One often seems a similar rhetoric in Agamben, which might explain why he and Negri are often writing at each other:

If there are no doubts about Gramsci, the two other names are—even for an Italian—quite unexpected. I wonder what those concerned by this bizarre ordering think about it (and then I ask myself: What status does he who arranges them arrogate to himself? Is he like the fourth man officiating at a football match?). …

This is a good point for anyone writing: the presumption to name the first, best, etc., of philosophy often comes with the notion (implicit or explicit) about how wonderful you are for being the first to recognize the first or the best. Not that one should always avoid this kind of rhetoric or can (obviously, we all have thoughts on various “firsts” and “bests”), but when it comes to infect one’s writing, then in the end you’re only writing your self-glorification as philosophy’s sovereign, always passing final judgement on the first and best, even though that presumption carries with it the idea that somehow you’ve read all of the archive of philosophy to say without a doubt that you haven’t missed some other writing that indeed would have been first or better on a particular topic. But I digress….

The next important point, though, turns to Vattimo’s so-called “weak thinking.” Now, I am not at all a Vattimo apologist and his work never had much influence on me. But every once in a while you’ll read an article from someone like Negri who thinks they’re making a brilliant suggestion that “weak thought” is just weakness or something. Why, that’s brilliant! As if Vattimo didn’t purposely take up the term with a certain irony, to oppose it to various philosophies that were too masterful, too hubristic. In fact, he wrote a lot on just this topic. Why, it’s even in the archive….

As for Negri’s intended targets, they revolve around the old motif, often used in reactionary terms, of the ‘poverty’ of Italian philosophy. I just want to say something about weak thought (‘the vilest point’ of the twentieth-century decline, as Negri delicately describes it), considering the fact that, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was its promoter together with Gianni Vattimo. Weak thought was an episode in the Italian philosophical debate that aroused considerable alarm in academia and whose effects (which also had significant international echoes) have yet to die out. These effects, which in part intersected with those of deconstruction, should induce some caution even in the worst-disposed of critics. I mean that, were he to exercise such caution, Negri would realize that what is at stake here is an issue of power [potere] that concerns the so-called metaphysical violence of philosophy, its administration of truth, and the elements of micro-government that follow from it, beginning with the real privileges that exist in the institutional circles of research.

I think Negri is well aware that there is a front of struggle within philosophy, related to the very way in which the scientificity of concepts is understood and knowledge as power [potere] is used. Negri’s sharp mind cannot overlook this Foucauldian inspiration of weak thought, unless he does so deliberately. As a matter of fact, his very strong thought could obviously fall into the critical horizon of weak thought itself.

I’m sorry to say this to a friend like Negri, but his pamphlet on the Italian difference is full of superficialities, that is, hurried verdicts which, as if wielding a machete, take the place of the reflection required by critical discourse. 

Decomposition of Philosophy

I always watch in amazement at Graham’s Composition of Philosophy updates. First, he’s far more organized than I am, if only for the simple fact that he knows what he is working on in a given time period, let alone being able to time it. Plus, he’s got that focus to keep tabs on it since he starts up his Itunes and then times it by the amount of music played, which for me, would measure both my composition and my time for various distractions.

More importantly, though, of course, is the service it really does for up and coming philosophers who often told to degrade production as some form of selling-out.

But, second, that put me in a mind for listing my advice on how not to compose philosophy, which I’ll make an ongoing series investigating the modes, technologies, practices—in short, what Foucault called dispositifs—for the de-composition of philosophy. Feel free to add your own… First entry:

1.  I was going to be snarky and begin with “Have a family.” I had a son throughout my grad years and that certainly took a lot of time from studying and writing. And this would suggest that successful composers of philosophy (henceforward COPs, because, you know, these are the dominant order coming down on us de-composers. Or for short, “posers.”) do not have families, loved ones—in short, a life. Alas, COPs are sometimes known to have lives, though of course we know to put “lives” in quotation marks.

But there’s a lesson here for posers even if we can’t say “have a family”: have your excuses ready. The New York Times ran an article ran an article in May on successful posers of all sorts; these people make excuses ahead of time. So, step one: before entering grad school or taking that tenure track job, have a son or daughter. Or adopt one. The point is, this will be an ongoing excuse. Try it (I have!). You not only can have a ready-made excuse for any and all deadlines, but more importantly, you will actually produce sympathy in those to whom you give the excuse. In fact, they will remark, “I don’t know how you get anything done.” And for the poser sympathy is the ultimate goal, not diligent work. With a child—they’re available everywhere!—people will even suggest that any work you get done is somehow miraculous. This, of course, doubles, triples, and so on, with additional children. Though studies show the sympathy effect lessens after five. The seventh doesn’t even count.

Except if you’re a woman in the profession. Then none of them do.

Rules of Engagement: Different Heroes, Please

If I’ve been reading my Continental political philosophy right over the past few years, I really must have gone wrong somewhere in my political upbringing. Because I really don’t want to read another article or another major writer that tells me the radical politics of two particular people (and I’m sure I’ll think of more later on):

1. Bartleby: Deleuze, Agamben, Zizek, and I’m sure I’m missing a few people who have held up Melville’s Scrivener as the go-to for emancipatory politics. First, I don’t think “I prefer not” really disrupts the traditional binary of actuality and possibility, but let’s leave that aside. He prefers not … to do work. With you on that one. He prefers not … to be bossed around. Still there. He prefers not to …turn on the heat. Well, I’ve been through a NY winter, but sure, if it’s also getting him out of work…

But finally the man brings him down and forces him out. And he still prefers not. Some time later, he finally dies, preferring not … to eat. And this, Zizek notes, could be the greatest violence of all. And I love that work by Zizek, but, um, no. This is, in fact, a great story about the self-abdication of a certain part of the left, which Zizek is often so good at taking down (for example, in critiquing Critchley’s infinite demands for finite demands). We are so cynical about the whole of politics, and for good reason, that we take our distance from the state, we practice a micro-politics of the local, and then we just circle up and prefer not…to engage. 

2. Paul: I’ll pop this one in to spike my blog numbers. Now Paul preferred a lot: the kairos, the universalism of humanity, and, right, the conversion of the heathens. Paul is great for thinking of the universal, if that means all others have to agree with you in order to be part of that universal. He also tells a lovely story of our saving at the hands of a messiah. Great story. But while I’m waiting, preferring not along the way, can I still be deconstructing ontotheology?

Ah this sounds cranky but I’ll post it anyway….